A Waiting Story: the post Lou Reed party.

Started off like the rest of them, with the best of intentions. A few of us would meet around our place, we’d crack open a few bottles, eye up a few lines, hunt out the vinyl, call a few mates and fritter away our hours reminiscing where we were when we first heard Satellite of Love (under the bed covers, Radio Luxembourg) or Waiting for My Man (the Pantiles, Royal Tunbridge Wells). We would trace his life against ours and try to remember what we were doing when Metal Machine Music assaulted our unsuspecting souls.

Soon of course it got out of hand. A row broke out about the real meaning of Perfect Day and insults started to fly. Someone made a series of gags about pop stars addictions to various types of wild sea bird and it wasn’t too long before the LPs were propping up the kitchen table and the liquid pouring out of the bottles became more viscous, along with the insults. It was only a matter of time before someone barged in to tell us to keep the noise down.

The rest of the night was rapidly forgotten, along with a lot of Lou Reed’s music, it has to said. The morning after the night before saw a few sprightly dancers move in and start some aerobic classes amongst the debris and an aspirant Andy Warhol tried daubing his name on the walls of the living room in protest.

But the moment was gone, and with it Lou Reed’s spirit of the anarchic and mundane. We won’t be having another party like that probably ever again.

Homage to the man who shut the car door behind him.

There was a documentary last night about the Japanese tsunami of 2011. Several people had filmed the event and the programme intercut their footage with interviews from still shocked bystanders and a narrators sober commentary.

There was plenty to sober about: how the power of the water just swept everything aside without any resistance whatsoever – and what it didn’t sweep aside it engulfed; how black the water looked – like oil or  the darkest colour of bile after the worse ever food poisoning; and the guy who got out of his car as the water  quickly rose around him – but who then turned back to shut the car door. In case of what? Theft from passers by? Out of Politeness? Just in case-ness?

It’s amazing how in times of our greatest stress we try to keep hold of sense of decorum and order. When all around us, riots can be breaking out, pestilence can be ravaging the entire population and locusts can be devouring our crops before our eyes – we will still find time to fill the dish washer, take the milk bottles out and shut the door behind us prior to the rest of our world caving in.

God bless you, man who shut your car door seconds before it was swept away in the tsunami of human debris. I hope you made it alive and can live to tell the tale. But just why did you shut the door behind you?

Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise Aitken Née Petri: Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Imagine the scene.  It’s 1930.  The German port of Stettin on the Baltic. The docks once heaving with international trade and traffic have an air of desolation.

You can see the idle grain silos, the cranes waiting in vain like herons for their next catch from the sea, a few tankers float un-easily on the water’s surface next to a dozing war frigate left over from 1918. Breath deeply and you can smell the rancid houses lining the dark damp TB infested streets.

A young German woman, Charlotte, is hurrying down the street, voluminous bag in hand, ill-fitting hat on head.  She has a determined look in her eyes.  She bangs fiercely on a few doors. There’s no answer.  She shouts up at the windows.  She demands someone answer her.

A few children look out from the house windows, a few slither out into the street, followed by a man – their father she presumes – who rushes out, shouting a few words in half Polish, half platt Deutsch at the errant children.

She pleads him but he ignores her, cuffs the children around the head and tries herding them back in doors.  She puts her foot in the door and  doesn’t allow him to shut her out or them back inside. She half hears a woman lustily  singing contralto from the top of the house the Martin Luther hymn, Ein Feste Burg:

A mighty Fortress is our God,
A trusty Shield and Weapon,
He helps us free from every need,
That hath us now o’ertaken.

A neighbour tries to advise her to leave well alone but she ignores him and offers a few choice caustic comments of her own to the neighbour who, distressed at her wilfulness makes his way back up the street, shaking his head. She continues to hammer at the shut door in front of her. Eventually the door opens and 15 children spill out into the street, clambering all over the young woman, looking eagerly up into her  eyes, searching her bag for signs of food, play and  inspiration, pulling her this way and that.

The bag is torn from her grasp and out spills jars of jam, jelly, salad cream and loaves of unappetising bread.  Brown paper bags  of carrots, leeks and lettuces are strewn across the road and trampled by the ravenous young children into the mud.  The children are still not satisfied and hunt deeper into the bag. They remove books, games, hand puppets,  candles, lebkuchen and a toy piano and wave them gleefully above their heads until the young woman loudly reprimands them. They meekly stuff everything back into her battered old bag as she chastises them for being so greedy.

She leads the straggly crowd of children down the street away from the docks to a room at the top of another Baltic hanseatic  house where they meet 50 other children who are packed like eels into a fish crate.

The only difference being these eels are alive and kicking and hungry. Hungry for food, education, god, a kitchen, a church and a family.

And that’s what Charlotte gave them, and that’s what she gave all of us, her family who have gathered here today to give thanks for a life which was marked by devotion,  sacrifice and sheer bloody mindedness.

A few years after this scene in the back streets of Stettin, Charlotte meets  a young gallivanting English architect, Francis Keith Aitken. No-one has recorded the first comment she made when she met him but the chances are it wasn’t too coherent.   She’d hated English at school and had been the worse pupil in the class.

Nevertheless, there’s more to language than just words.  Within two years the couple are married and her street kids give her and Keith a roaring send off at their wedding in Stettin.  They subsequently move to Crieigiau near Cardiff in Wales.

A few miles down the road in Swansea and four years younger than Charlotte Margarette a young Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas,  was growing up with his own brand of energy and indignation.  A good few years later he was to write:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

One thing you could say about Charlotte Margarette  was that she never went gently into anything: and her last few years bore witness to her energy and spirit which would kick and fight anybody that she felt was getting in her way.

We might have said to her,  you didn’t have to kick so hard.

But she never gets to swap notes with Dylan Thomas  before she and Keith move to London and the  South East where she gives birth to three children,  Veronica Mary in 1936, John Mark in 1938 and William Martin in 1947.

Living in England as a German woman at a time when this nation had declared war on your brothers, sisters and kith and kin could not have been an easy situation to tolerate.  That period of 1939 – 1945 has left its own scars across the continent and no doubt it left them on Charlotte Margarette Elizabeth  as well.  But if they did, they’re not immediately visible.

Her children’s memories are of her singing Schubert’s cradle songs when they wouldn’t go to sleep, walking in the woods in Petts Wood and going to the swings in the local parks: activities she would repeat with her own grandchildren 40 years later.

But she’d given up singing when we wouldn’t go to sleep; she’d be more inclined to stomp upstairs and fiercely instruct us to be quiet – and our walks with her in the fields around Heronsgate were accompanied with Chess the dog, Mickey the dog, Bonzo the dog and any unnamed number of others she’d collect on the way:  much like the Heinz 57 variety mongrel street kids of Stettin, rough and ready to snap at your heels if you got too close.

But back in the 1940s although there is a war going on there is also home-made Blackberry jelly, lettuce, carrots, salad cream, playing in the sandpit with all the children of the cul-de-sac and  Children’s Hour on the wireless. This is  a safe, secure childhood, which despite the war – or is it because of it? – is neither frightening nor threatening.

Ah, the wireless.  That old Bush contraption could only ever half heartedly receive the Home Service and the Light Programme.  A generation later would see it still broadcasting interminable episodes of The Archers at the prompt 1 o’clock lunchtime.  After that we would be ordered upstairs to take our afternoon rest so that she and Keith could retire to their bedroom: to listen to the Archers in peace and quiet, we presumed.

In 1956 Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise  and the family move to Lindens in Heronsgate.  Over the years her mother, brothers and sisters and their families all  visit. August, Eva,  Erika, Thomas, Nick, Friedrich Wilhelm, Monika, Patricia, Petra, Carlos, Peter Macher, Roseann, Tante Heidi,  school friends and far-flung cousins fly into Heronsgate trailing their glamorous clothes, strong perfumes, exotic triangular bars of chocolate for the children and arrive confident, continental and not at all English.

Shining through these visits was her pride for her homeland and conviction that her brothers and sisters were the best in the world and that she could never match up to them, that she was at the bottom of  the list when it came to looks and intelligence.

But for us you were never at the bottom of any list although you might not have believed us had we told you.

Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise’s devotion to home, children and church meant that growing up in Lindens provided many of our formative memories and moments.

But whilst her religion was about love, forgiveness and resurrection you wondered whether there was a sterner old testament prophet who’d be whispering in her ear, telling her not to be so soft and that the one God was a fearsome God indeed who would not flinch from punishing any transgression, real or imagined.  If she wanted to die and God would not let her, then he would punish her with ear ache to stop behaving against the word of the Lord.  Her faith was naive maybe: but none the worst for that.

But in 1993 the Lord summons her Keith for the last time.  She is so distressed she ends up in hospital, kicking and fussing like only she can do, getting out of bed, setting off the fire alarms, phoning the police or wandering half-dressed outside the hospital grounds.

These were sad days. She’d lost her one true partner in life and suddenly  she lost all her bearings.  It was like her past had come full circle and was now suddenly confronting her in the here and now, rather than the there and then.

She’d lost the one voice who could help her negotiate the world rather than barnstorm her way through it and she was never quite the same again.

Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise Aitken. You had a good marriage which lasted a good 60 years and brings us all here today.

The last five years saw you travel to Brazil, sell up Lindens and settle down in Dapplemere Nursing Home where on the 22 January  you finally gave up kicking and blew out like one of your Christmas tree candles.

You were born in Reichenbach in Pomerania in 1910, daughter of August Petri and Auguste Horn.  You grew up in Belgard with your five brothers and sisters – Friedrich Wilhelm, Erika, Lisi, August  and Albrecht.

You married Keith, bore 3 children and 7 grandchildren and at present 7 great-grandchildren, scattered across the globe in  America, Brazil, Wales and England, all in all not a bad haul for a young nurse who went fishing in the back streets of the Port of Stettin.

So perhaps in a world where we’re increasingly advised to stop kicking and to accept our lot,  your persistent energy of resistance is something we might rekindle, celebrate and aspire to when times get tough. As Dylan Thomas might have said…

And you, my Omi, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Testimonial for Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise Aitken Née Petri, February 2000.

The film above is a homage to the staff and residents of Dapplemere Nursing Home in Chorleywood, where Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise Aitken Née Petri spent her last few years.

Richard York Owen: Deal or No Deal?

The last time I saw you was at the retirement home in Stafford. We had gone up stairs to your room to prepare to go out for what you used to call ‘a swift pint’ – although the concepts of ‘swift’ and ‘pint’ were often awkward companions in your sentences and never sat happily together.dad - 18

You had the TV on and we sat and watched “Deal or No Deal” for a bit, the programme in which a hapless contestant is plucked out of obscurity from a group of hopeful contestants and is given 1 of 22 red boxes in which a sum of money is hidden.

He tries to guess what might be in his own box by opening the other contestants boxes, one by one, revealing the money they contain. By a process of elimination he starts to figure out what prize might be left in his box. As the game continues however, he is subjected to the temptations of an off screen ‘banker’ who offers him various ‘deals’ which may be less of more than his potential prize. The contestant’s dilemma is whether to cut his potential losses, accept the deal or reject it with a polite ‘thank you, Mr. Banker, but no deal…’ – and continue his progress in the game, with the hope that he is going to land a bigger prize and beat the banker into the bargain.

You and I sat and watched this for a few minutes and chuckled over the hapless contestant. He’d look at some-one else’s box and then look at his own and we could see him thinking…. Does he have some thing better in his box than I have in mine….? Is the grass greener over there or here in front of me….? On this occasion, he plumps for someone’s else box – and has his hopes dashed when the other player reveals the biggest treasure, a whopping £250,000. This steady drip drip drip of continual disappointment continues through the game until the potentially glorious destiny the contestant was confident about early on in the game is dashed into a thousand pieces. The only box left in the end is his own, complete with an apologetic 10p prize. The other contestants swarm around our 10p victor, all commiserating in what might have been.

What might have been is an epithet for many of this games contestants: what might have been, had this not happened, had that not happened… If only…. If only not…. hindsight, as the contestants on this show will readily tell you, is the ultimate prize in the game of Deal or No Deal.

The prize of hindsight lets us revisit the past and put all the wrongs right and the rights even better. The losses turn into gains and the gains metamorphose into triumphs. Hindsight gifts us 2020 vision, complete knowledge of the state of the turf, the weight of the jockeys and the mood of the horses. Hindsight instils in us the wisdom of knowing where the finishing line is and how far it is from the starting line: hindsight give us magical predictive powers to guarantee the name, colours and pedigree of the 3.45 at Aintree on a wet Saturday April afternoon.

Which is what we set out to do a few years ago at the Grand National, perhaps the time when I saw you at your happiest. Out in the Tattersall Stands, stamping in unison on the wooden floors with the massed ranks of the Irish, French and Scouse bookies who had met up for their annual pilgrimage. Your winnings of perhaps £100 for the day were spent by 10 that evening on Guinness and Chinese takeaways which replenished the predictive powers of your stock of hindsight and which led to the identification of some more dead certs for the following week out on the race courses across the country.

Watching your travels as we grew up meant that places like Aintree, Chepstow, New Market, Haydock and Uttoxeter became mysterious, hallowed lands – part of a cultural landscape through which money seemed to flow freely – albeit too frequently in the wrong direction. Elvis Presley was making a name for himself in that far off country and the land there offered you escape, freedom and the opportunities to open innumerable boxes, all of which were marked with the really big prizes, all of which were too alluring for you to turn down.

Your journeys through that landscape provided us with some puzzling and yet delightful memories: the trips to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – 15 times; skating around Brighton ice rink in circles for whole weekends at a stretch: your work as a chef in a Jersey hotel kitchen whilst fending off the mysterious interest in you by Frankie Howard. Treasure hunts on holiday in which prizes of multicolour biros, cross word puzzle books, wind up dogs and Barbie dolls delighted everyone. Your easy, generous desire to entertain all of us led you to organise shows and pantos for many people of all sizes, shapes and ages; your charm and tolerance of others helped bring the best out of them; and your willingness to assist in developing other people’s potential sometimes perhaps dampened your need to fulfil your own.

In recent years the cultural landscape you visited took more diverse and startling turns. Watching your journeys from Stafford to Redditch, Usk, Cheltenham, Bristol, Bath, Sutton Coldfield and Leeds forced us all to look at the places we thought we were familiar with, in new, harsh, uncomfortable lights. Your return to Stafford earlier this year however provided all of us with a sense of relief that you were coming close to something you would call home. We know these were not easy times for you too: but know too that your positive and optimistic outlook carried you through.

In the end, your optimism happily outshone your hindsight: and that was a deal worth winning. In your game of Deal or No Deal, you beat the banker with the best deal of the lot.

Testimonial for Richard York Owen, 30 July 2007


How do social networks deal with the death of their users?

It’s weird when you hear out of the blue about friends who have recently died but whose profiles are still on Facebook. Not quite believing your ears, you check out their latest postings and on their timeline they look as lively and as connected and engaged as the last time you saw them. But now their profile looks like a tombstone, albeit surrounded by adverts exhorting our deceased friend to buy a hair transplant.

For all their vitality and here-and-now-ness, Facebook and Twitter and their online cousins don’t deal with the reality of existence fully at all. You exist in the sense that you have a presence but once you exist, there is no undo button which allows you not to exist.

Of course, expecting any social network to step up to the existential plate of what it’s all about Alfie is unfair on the Zuckerberg enthusiasts who have transformed how we interact with friends, enemies and colleagues on line and in real time. The Big Z would be the first to throw his hands up to protest that the purpose of Facebook is nothing to do with questions of what it is to be alive and everything to do with answers of how we fill our time whilst waiting for the delete button to be pressed on our real time profile.

But one of the internal contradictions in Facebook is that the Big Z and his enthusiasts cannot delete you as the only person who can delete you is you – and if you’re not there, then clearly you can’t delete yourself. of course, if you indulge in some real time trolling they can cut you out of their biosphere at the flick of a wrist, but if you continue to live your life in an innocuous and uncontroversial manner, and then are unlucky enough to keel over in the middle of your Chinese takeaway, you end up, as far as Facebook is concerned, in a permanent state of living and not living: also known as purgatory.

Twitter offers even more extreme existential opportunities. You don’t even have to exist at all to have an account on Twitter: you can generate an identity just by following a few commonly available algorithms on applications such as Weavrs.com. And you can end that identity, just as easily, or let it survive ad nauseum, independent of any human agency. Twitter, in that sense, allows for immortality of things independent of you. A bit like God, I guess.

There should probably be a Facebook graveyard where profiles are ceremoniously laid to rest although how they were deal with different faith’s approaches to the funeral arrangements beggars the imagination. One thing we can be certain of is that even in life or death, Facebook will continue to ply us with adverts which try to sell us hair transplants, life insurance or holidays in the Cotswolds. The optimism of the sales force at Facebook never ceases to amaze.

Tips for Business Start Ups: immortality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be

We’re regularly reminded in the popular press failure rates of new businesses: 40% of start ups fail in the first year of trading; 70% fail within 10 years; and no doubt there are some figures somewhere which show that an unacceptable 99% of businesses don’t make it to their 100 years anniversary. Shame on them: yet another searing indictment of modern day capitalism, the waywardness of youth and the irresponsibility of the public sector or any other modern ill you care to remember.

The language of failure is however one which needs some early retirement itself. Businesses – human beings even – don’t have a God given right to last forever and there is nothing pathologically or morally wrong with the notion that businesses last for as long as they’re needed – after which they are likely to come to an end. This is not failure but recognising that everything – including businesses – have their time and their space and their role is to inhabit their time-space node, contribute to those around them and when the time and space is right – to gracefully withdraw from action.

Immortality in business life – often referred to as sustainability or legacy – is a seductive concept and, in human affairs, is frequently the cause of great art and music. It is not however the cause of great business: the conceit that your business will last for ever leads to sleepless nights, increasing bar bills and bedroom floors strewn with empty pill bottles. If you can accept that your new start up may peak early, deliver beyond its promise and then burn out as quickly as it started, then you stand a chance of surviving notions of failure long enough to do it all over again with the next love of your life: your next new start up.

Poetry on the Hoof: The Enemy Within. Rejoice!

From the daughter who whispered against her parents,
To the mother who refused to lie on her own unmade bed;
From the son who kicked against the traces,
To the father who artificially heightened his own sperm count;
Rejoice, for you are all the enemy within.

From the milkman who pissed in the orange juice,
To the grocer who dumped his spuds in a skip;
From the teacher who celebrated the kiss,
To the journalist who was reckless with the tippex;
Rejoice, for they are all the enemy within.

From the surgeon whose scalpels rust in peace,
To the soldier who turns his gun on his captain;
From the politician who blinks in the Sun,
To the chemist who splits the infinitive.
Rejoice, for we are all the enemy within.

Farewell then, the Matthew Street Festival: you will not be missed it seems…

So, Liverpool’s MSF has finally been axed in an torrent of righteous civic reasoning: its cost, its burden on the rate payer, the fact that it didn’t give Liverpool good marketing head, the dire quality of its lookalikee, soundalottee-like the Beatles bands and the staple rhetorical ingredient that has everyone nodding vigorously: the plethora of out of control drunken youth and elders who should know better who spitted and slavered and vomited their way through days of debauchery, inchoate vileness and early morning urban horror when you forgot where you parked your car and which hedge you left that stash of Special Brew under. Oh sorry, where they forgot to park their car and forgot the hedge that they left that stash of Special Brew under.

The inability to find anyone who will speak up for the MSF is curious. Is there no-one out there who admits to having affectionate memories of its tawdriness? I for one will remember it fondly; the afternoons of hanging out with the squash team and assorted wives, girl friends and partners, strolling through the deserted commercial district, bereft of business purpose for a few short hours, as we guzzled down can upon can, stuffed kebabs into our faces and generally appreciated the diabolical renderings of songs we knew, loved and now felt sorry for as they were being mutilated by bands of cough cough aged hairy blokes thrashing at their guitars in misguided attempts to recreate Woodstock in the back alleys off Duke Street.

For all the mess and spit and spew, many of us did have some good times during those August afternoons and whilst the booking of the RLPO in Sefton Park might be useful in civilising us all a tad more, and those family friendly days will bring out the tots with their previously scared mums and dads, nothing will quite beat the experience of listening, astonished, to those assorted ‘tribute’ bands with hackneyed names and shocking hair styles.

No doubt within a couple of years, though, the call will go out for a city centre music festival that can capture the mess, sound and incoherent fury that all good rock and pop encapsulates. Until then, we’ll sit around Sefton Park lake like the good modern citizens we are, and applaud the endeavours of our city fathers in helping make the city a reasonable, polite place to live in.

A Waiting Story: Stupid ways of dying

Waiting for the next big call can be a mundane experience with the minimum of drama, pathos or tragedy. It can include being hit by a firework which has been fired along your street; a piano falling on your head from a first floor flat; or your offices being blown up in a gas explosion.

Slipping in the shower and drowning in an inch of water might qualify too as would falling under a bus. Whilst there may not be any recorded incidents of people falling to their death by stepping off the pavement only to be struck down by a No 19 red London bus, our thoughts and sympathies are with the family of Matthew Wood who was struck down by a helicopter falling out of the skies in London yesterday.

Being hit by a cricket ball which smashes your car window whilst you’re watching a cricket match at a village green whilst sat in the safety of your car, parked on the perimeter boundary would be irritating in the extreme but could only be capped by falling out of the doors of a stationery train which is parked at a railway station.

Choking on your mobile phone when you use that app which pretends to convert your phone into a pint of beer too seriously would take the biscuit.

Death is clearly a serious business but has its ridiculous aspects too. I aim to die in circumstances which come close to being farcical.