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ROCK Part 2

This is longer than my usual ‘short’ story.  If you haven’t read the earlier part, I really suggest you go to ROCK Part 1.  Otherwise, this one may be a little harder to follow than you’d like!

The scene is the Gibraltar fortress in WW2.  The two Abwehr saboteurs – Ulises Lope Guiomar and Gonzalo Olegario, having killed a US soldier, have just avoided being discovered by the Black Watch corporal ‘Braw Wullie’ McEwen and his simian companion ‘Hairy Wullie’ – a most unusual Barbary macaque.

Renoir and Hairy Wullie
Renoir (left) and a Barbary macaque

Ulises jumped down from the back of the truck. “Thanks, buddy,” he said, already taking on the accent he’d learned in southern California.

With the brisk step he’d adopted, he stepped smartly across the parade ground, carefully not following the Scottish corporal and the monkey. He was startled when a sergeant major from one of the engineering companies shouted at him.

“You there! Soldier! Get your hair cut!” the pompous RSM ordered.

Guiomar stopped in his tracks and saluted perfectly. “Yes sir! Right you are, sir! As soon as I get off duty, sir!”

“See that you do!” The officer gave a curt nod and continued on his way.

Gonzalo Olegario realised he’d been holding his breath as he watched the little exchange. The soldier who’d just come over to buy some oranges looked at him in concern. “Are you okay, mate?” he asked in a voice that might have just left the East End of London.

“Eh? Oh, si. Sorry, senor. I was distracted by one of the apes – no, monkeys they are, si?”Hairy Wullie close

The Londoner laughed. “You’ve been talking to that mad coot McEwen, haven’t you? Don’t worry about the monkeys mate – you get used to ‘em around here. They’re harmless, if you keep an eye on ‘em.”

Ulises had been much less concerned than Gonzalo. He moved and worked with absolute confidence, an air that gave nobody any cause to doubt that he was the GI he presented himself to be.

There were a number of entrances to the tunnel complex in the section of the Rock that he was approaching. He selected one that had a numeral 5 on a small sign mounted on the rock face. A British soldier was guarding the tunnel entrance – a man that Guiomar was confident had not been among his customers and thus would have no chance of recognizing him.

He saluted the guard and said, “Been ordered to HQ”.

The rifleman gave him a wry smile and replied, “You’ve picked the long way, matey. You oughta use Tunnel Number 7. More direct. Take you a good three quarters of a mile or more, this one.”

Guiomar squared his shoulders and offered a practiced smile. “Reckon I need the exercise,” he said.

“Suit yourself, matey,” said the guard and waved him on his way.

As soon as he was well inside past the guard the Spaniard broke into a run. He was remarkably quiet for a man in heavy boots inside a tunnel. He’d spent a lot of time practicing a running style that saw him seemingly glide, rather than slamming his feet to the ground.

Once clear of the daylight streaming in at the entrances, Gibraltar’s tunnel system was a gloomy place. Long stretches of tunnel were only sparsely lit by small bulbs, feebly penetrating the darkness. The holes punched in the limestone had not created high ceilings or wide corridors. In some places groundwater seeped through the stone above and dripped slowly onto the floor.

Guiomar stopped outside a closed door, poorly illuminated by a flickering light. Evidently the wiring to this socket was faulty and the charge wasn’t getting through properly. The Brandenburg smiled, rather like a shark. This was clearly a storeroom of some sort. With luck it would contain something volatile behind the locked door. He reached into his blouse and extracted one of the packages from the special vest. He squeezed and felt a small piece of copper buckle under the pressure of his thumb. He felt more than heard thin glass crack.

It had begun. He had about two hours to finish the job and get well clear. He wedged the first package into a cleft in the rock wall near the door, and then took off along the corridor at a steady pace.

Continue reading ROCK Part 2

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ROCK Part 1

A longer-than-usual “short” story, so I’ve broken it into two parts.  

The great course of history can turn upon small and unexpected things, never more so than in wartime. Significant events can happen, or not happen, pivoting on mere moments in time. Luck? Chance? Coincidence? Dubious magic?

The Brandenburg Regiment of the Abwehr Second Division was not the most popular element within the German army.

The SS and the Abwehr maintained a deep-seated and bitter rivalry. Military intelligence was the Abwehr’s provenance, and there were many in the SS who resented their lack of ready access to secrets they felt entitled to.

Some of the die-hard traditionalist old soldiers in the High Command still felt that the Abwehr’s techniques of subterfuge and espionage weren’t a “proper” way to conduct a war, and regarded the whole organization as intrinsically dishonourable.

And there were some, even within the Abwehr itself, who felt that the whole idea of the Brandenburgs was an affront to their treasured ideal of Aryan supremacy.

The men of the Brandenburg Regiment were the equivalent of the British Commandos. Highly trained both physically and mentally, in disciplines from swimming and hand-to-hand combat to map reading, secret messaging, forgery, demolition and camouflage, they were an elite group designed to operate behind enemy lines. By the time of their dissolution in the autumn of 1944 they’d earned more decorations and commendations than any comparably sized unit in the German army.

The problem for the Aryan supremacists was that, in order to function effectively in foreign countries, it was necessary for the Regiment to be largely composed of foreigners. This was a further affront to the SS, who sought out recruits with exemplary Nordic features. The Brandenburgs, in contrast, specifically wanted men who looked like they belonged in their chosen fields of operation.

To join the Regiment it was essential to speak at least one language other than German, preferably more. They recruited expatriate Germans from across Europe and Africa, but also the likes of Slavs, Poles, Ukrainians – even Spaniards.

Spain was a vexation to Hitler. The leader, General Franco, stubbornly refused to enter the war on the side of the Axis, although he was just as intransigent about joining the Allies. It seemed to the Fuhrer that the man would not commit to anyone until the war was over and a clear winner could be identified.

One tiny corner of southwestern Spain was of particular concern. Out on the edge of Andalucía, Gibraltar had been held by Britain since the Treaty of Utrecht in1713.

The British fortress on the Rock of Gibraltar was a key strategic position, giving the Allied navies a significant tactical advantage. It also provided a well-sited airstrip for combat operations. If it could be taken, or at least incapacitated, it would be a powerful blow. The difficulty was that it was a very, very tough nut to crack.

By the middle of 1942 the Rock was actually rather less solid than it appeared. Five companies of British engineers and two companies of their Canadian allies, equipped with diamond tipped drills, had riddled the Gibraltar limestone with an impressive subterranean network.

Gibraltar cavesThe size of a small town, it had more than thirty miles of tunnels and chambers – more tunnels than there were roads on Gibraltar. The tunnels linked up storage rooms, office space, signaling stations, even a power station, water supply and a well-equipped hospital. At the very heart of it all was the recently established Headquarters of Operation Torch – coordinating the Allies’ planned invasion of French North Africa. General Eisenhower had only just arrived to take command of the Operation.

The General didn’t especially like his new environment. He found it damp and dank, but he readily acknowledged how secure and safe it was as a base. It certainly seemed as near as possible to impenetrable.

In large part that was due to the construction of his HQ, but he was also pleased to acknowledge the caliber of the British troops who formed the majority of Gibraltar’s defence force.

Among those troops were members of the 4th Battalion of the Royal Highland Regiment, better known as the Black Watch. Among them was a soldier named William John McEwen.

Corporal McEwen had been an orphan, shipped to the Hebrides island of Islay in his youth and raised in the little village of Sron Dubh. His hair, which he could never make tidy enough for the satisfaction of some officers, lacked the fiery redness so often associated with Scots. He was middling tall, with broad shoulders. He’d competed with some success in the hammer throw event at Highland games, routinely launching the 22 pound metal ball and its four foot wooden shaft over a hundred and fifty feet.

The 4th Battalion had been among the last troops to be evacuated from Dunkirk. McEwen had earned his promotion during those desperate days in France, together with a reputation for having a cool head in a crisis. It was also noticed by alert eyes that he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time – where and when he was needed.

Not an ambitious man, Braw Wullie as he’d been known in Sron Dubh (many of the village men were named William, and each of the ‘Wullies’ had his own nickname to distinguish him) tried to keep a low profile on the Rock. There was only one wee little problem with that.

That wee little problem was a Barbary ape. One of the many macaques that inhabited Gibraltar had attached himself to the Corporal. It was peculiar behaviour. The beasts were normally scavengers, not people-shy but not at all tame, either. This one on the other hand had wandered up to the Scot when he’d first arrived at the fortress, tilted his small furry head to one side as if studying the man, then proceeded to accompany him all around the place.

McEwen had done nothing at first to encourage the attentions, but eventually would talk to the monkey as an intelligent companion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“He’s smarter than some o’ you bampots,” he’d said with a smile when a few of his comrades made disparaging remarks. He even gave the creature a name, hearkening back to the habits of his old village. ‘Hairy Wullie’ – who immediately learned to respond to the moniker (although mostly only when called by McEwen).

Continue reading ROCK Part 1

BEWARE OF THE CAT

Here’s a story from John B. Stewart’s early days as a wielder of Dubious Magic.  He still has to learn to think before he speaks.

It was a crisp clear Sunday morning in the Canberra suburb of Waramanga. Minor public servant and unacknowledged wizard John B. Stewart strolled out into the back yard of his cottage. Holding a cup of coffee, he was simply basking in the sunlight.

He knew his recently-arrived housemate Darren had gone out into the yard a few minutes earlier, but was surprised to see the young man sitting on an upturned bin, busily trying to hose something odious from the sole of his gym boot.

After they’d exchanged genial “Good morning” greetings John B. gestured towards his friend’s foot.

“That doesn’t look like something Kat’s responsible for,” he observed.

Kat was a large white Persian – the other member of the little household.

Darren grinned ruefully. “You’d worry if it was. No, this was left by some big dog.”

Stewart wrinkled a lip in annoyance and said, “It’ll be that damned Alsation from two doors up. It wanders up and down the street looking for any yard it can use for a toilet except its own.”

“Well trained, then,” said Darren, rubbing his sole on the grass.

“I wish the bloody dog would learn to stay out of our place,” was John B.’s irritated response.

Darren looked at him quizzically for a moment. Before he could construct the cautious question he had in mind, the final member of the household sauntered out of the open back door.

Kat walked past both men, giving a little mmreh of apparent greeting as he went by. The Persian went off along the path at the side of the house in the general direction of the driveway where Stewart parked his battered old Hillman.

“Where’s he off to, I wonder?” mused the youth.

“Routine inspection of his domain?” suggested the man who’d been best friends with the cat for years.

Both men grinned.

Suddenly there was a loud, violent outburst of caterwauling and deep-throated barking and growling from the front of the cottage. Kat came bolting down the path at high speed. (That in itself was a shock – the big feline was rarely observed to move at anything above an amble.) Shortly behind lumbered a large German Shepherd, literally snapping at the cat’s tail.

Kat looked almost to run vertically up the trunk of a pine tree in the back corner of the yard and disappear into the thick foliage several feet up. The dog stood on its hind legs, front paws up scrabbling on the bark of the tree, barking loudly.

John B. was just about to run down toward the tree with a view to getting the dog away, possibly through the agency of a swift kick to its rear. He’d risk being bitten to save Kat.

But Kat didn’t need saving. The big cat suddenly plummeted from a substantial height, claws extended, dropping full weight onto the dog’s muzzle. Two razor sharp claws carved deep slices in the soft black nose

The sound the Alsation made was more like a scream than a yelp. It turned and ran full pelt back up the driveway, never to venture into this yard again!

Immediately after impact Kat had jumped from the dog’s face and now ambled back up the yard as his usual sedate pace, the only sign of emotion being his tail whipping from side to side a few times.

Both men stood looking more or less thunderstruck. Darren looked especially awed. John B. had told him about his ‘wishes-come-true’ magic, but this was the first time he’d seen it in unpredictable action. He was impressed – by both of his new housemates.

John B., for his part, knelt to pat the broad white head of the Persian who sat beside him, meticulously cleaning his claws.

“I’m very glad you’re on my side, old friend,” he said, and meant it.

Cancer has limits.

Cancer is so limited.

All it can do is damage cells.DSCF1746

 

There is so much it can’t do.

 

It cannot cripple love.

It cannot shatter hope.

It cannot dissolve faith.

It cannot destroy peace.

It cannot kill friendship.

It cannot suppress memories.

It cannot silence courage.

It cannot invade the soul.

It cannot steal eternal life.

It cannot conquer the spirit.

 

It can take away the ones we love,

But it cannot take away the love.

Behind Macbeth Part 3

I’ve played the role of King Duncan, the noble patriarch foully murdered in his sleep with poison in his ear and a dagger across his throat. His brave and resourceful young son Malcolm vows revenge and leads a conveniently agreeable English army into battle to regain his rightful throne.

In my previous post I examined the true Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who were transformed into the ‘evil monsters’ of the Scottish play.

Now I’d like to shine the light of history on Macbeth’s predecessor and successor on the Scottish throne of the 11th century. They’re not quite the men Will told us about.

King Duncan. The son of Bethoc, who was the daughter of King Malcolm II of Scotland, Duncan was actually cousin to Macbeth. Macbeth’s mother was Malcolm II’s younger daughter Donada.

Duncan was a far less competent ruler than his grandfather. He ascended the throne in 1034 when he was probably no more than thirty years old. While he had military ambitions, he dithered while England was in turmoil after the death of King Canute. Thus he missed whatever chance he had of taking advantage of the argument over succession there.

He bungled attempts to invade Northumbria to the south and Caithness to the north before turning his attentions even further north. He set out to battle another of his cousins – Thorfinn, the Earl of Orkney.

It didn’t go well. Back on the Scottish mainland in retreat from Orkney, Duncan and his army literally ran into that of Thorfinn’s ally Macbeth. Duncan was killed in battle at Pitgaveny on 15 August 1040.

The story of his being murdered in his sleep is a total fiction. He was a ruthless but incapable king whose death was not widely mourned, despite his self-appointed title of ‘Duncan the Gracious’.

Malcolm. When his father Duncan was killed in battle in 1040, eight- or nine-year-old Malcolm was whisked away to be raised in the court of the English king Edward the Confessor (‘pious Edward’).

In 1054 Siward, Earl of Northumbria, was ordered by King Edward to invade Scotland in support of young Malcolm. The following year Siward’s and Macbeth’s armies battled at Dunsinane in Perthshire. Macbeth was defeated but escaped the battlefield to return north to Ross.

Malcolm sat on a throne that was recognised by the English but not the Scots. That recognition didn’t come until after the deaths of Macbeth in 1057 and Lulach in 1058, at which point his legitimate place in the line of succession was recognised by the council of thanes and he became Malcolm III of Scotland.

He’s described as “a swaggering bully who rapidly earned himself the nickname of Malcolm Canmore, or Malcolm the Bighead”.

Malcolm Canmore proved to be a treacherous ingrate. No sooner was he recognised as king, than he began making raids into Northumbria and pillaging Siward’s lands. He even violated the long-standing and revered Peace of St. Cuthbert in Holy Island.

By 1066 Malcolm had allied himself with the Norwegians who were supporting a revolt against the English (Saxon) king Harold, who had succeeded Edward. The revolt was led by Harold’s brother. The third warring faction of 1066 were the Normans under William. Both Harold and William had actively supported Malcolm at different times, and neither was pleased to find him now allied with their common enemy.

William was the ultimate victor in 1066, earning the title of The Conqueror. In 1072 he forced Malcolm to sign the Treaty of Abernathy, regarded by later English kings as signifying the ‘conquest’ of Scotland. (That claim wasn’t accepted north of the border.)

Malcolm III remained a persistent irritant to William, making and breaking alliances and mounting small fleeting raids south. Both Malcolm and his eldest son Edward were slain in a battle on the Alne on 13 November 1093, after an ignoble reign of thirty-six years.

Shakespeare’s depiction of who were the heroes and who were the villains in the Scottish court is warped, whether by design or convenience or insufficient knowledge.

It’s said that history is written by the survivors, or by the victors. What’s been written by a playwright half a millennium after the fact isn’t history at all. It’s still a bloody good story, mind you.

Behind Macbeth Part 2

In the early 1600’s Shakespeare won the favour of his new King James I by recasting Scottish history to give his monarch the stamp of divine authority as the latest in a glorious line of prophesied rulers.

(He stroked the royal ego in other ways too – check out my previous post if you missed it.)

But in doing so the Bard rewrote the record books, drastically changing the natures and histories of his key characters.

It’s impossible for us to know now what research Shakespeare did. What sources were available to him, writing in London about events in the north of Scotland nearly six hundred years earlier? How much attention did he pay to those sources anyway, given his primary objective of pleasing the former James VI of Scotland, descendant of the 14th century Banquo?

Whether by design or genuine ignorance, he left us with literary figures massively different to their historical counterparts. Here are the true stories of two. Next post, I’ll introduce you to more.

Macbeth. Born in 1005, Macbeth was by birth the Thane of Ross. As Malcolm II’s grandson he had a legitimate claim to the throne, a claim strengthened by his marriage to the grand-daughter of the previous king, Kenneth IV.

With that marriage he also became Thane of Moray until his stepson Lulach would come of age to take on that title.

When Duncan died in battle in 1040, Macbeth was correctly next in line for the throne. He was formally elected to the kingship by Scotland’s council of thanes “without contest or opposition”.

Macbeth was described as “a tall man with ruddy complexion and fair hair.” He ruled strongly and wisely for fourteen years without major mishap.

He was regarded as a generous and pious ruler, undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 and “giving kindly” to the poor both at home and along the way. He was the first king of Scotland whose name appears in the ecclesiastical records as a benefactor of the church.

In 1055 he was defeated in battle at Dunsinane by the army of Siward, Earl of Northumbria. He managed to escape the battlefield after what official records of the time called “many displays of courage”. Unfortunately we’ve got no details beyond the estimate that three thousand Scots and fifteen hundred Englishmen died during the battle!

Siward returned to Northumbria, while Macbeth went north to his ancestral lands. Despite the defeat, Macbeth remained king of Scotland, albeit harried by Duncan’s son the pretender Malcolm, who was ‘recognised’ as king by the English court but not his own people.

Macbeth was killed in August 1057 at Lumphanen, either by Malcolm or one of his personal guards. Macbeth’s stepson Lulach, by then 25 and Thane of Moray, ascended the throne.

Lulach in turn was killed in battle at Essie in March 1058. His body was interred along with that of Macbeth at Iona on the island of Mull. This was for many centuries the common sepulcher of the Scottish kings.

Lady Macbeth. Lady Gruoch (to give her correct name) was the daughter of Boedhe, son of King Kenneth IV of Scotland. First married to Gilcomgain, the Thane of Moray, she bore his son Lulach.

Gilcomgain died shortly after Lulach’s birth. Some time later Lady Gruoch remarried, this time to Macbeth, Thane of Ross. Thus the Moray title passed to her new husband until her son achieved his adulthood.

It seems very likely that Macbeth’s description as “the friend of the poor and benefactor of the monks” owes more than a bit to Lady Gruoch’s influence. She was quite a wealthy woman in her own right, especially after Gilcomgain’s death. It’s known that she donated part of her own lands at Moray to the Church for the construction of an abbey and other shelter and facilities for the monks.

I find myself wondering if the well-known ‘curse of the Scottish play’ actually has anything to do with the outraged shade or shades of the real Macbeth and/or his wife being rightfully upset at the besmirching of their good names and reputations.

Perhaps the wrath of a woman scorned really can extend over the centuries!

Next time – Shakespeare’s other Scottish kings.

Behind Macbeth

I’ve had quite a bit to do with Shakespeare’s Scottish Play over the years.

I’ve played various roles in various incarnations of the play: conventional, broad comedy, film and even a rock opera version.  What intrigues me most, though, is the real history behind the play.

It was, in effect, the political cartoon of its day. The crowd watching at The Globe, especially the mob we’d now call the Great Unwashed, could barely read, if at all. The theatre was the chance for common folk to laugh at posh people, and for the writer and performers maybe the chance to inform and even influence.

When Macbeth was written, James I had just taken the throne of England. The former James VI of Scotland was a largely unknown quantity in his new realm, but his patronage was vitally important to the running of the theatre.

The real Macbeth lived and died in the first half of the 11th century. That’s six hundred-odd years before the bard wrote the play, which was four hundred-odd years before I was treading the boards. So Shakespeare’s distance from the historical figures was considerably greater than ours is from him.

We know a lot less fact about Shakespeare, James and the early 1600’s than we think, although rumour, legend and theory fill in a lot of gaps. It’s hard to know just what research the playwright could or did do about the events of the 1040’s and 1050’s.

But William’s main aim wasn’t historical accuracy. The main aim was endorsing the rule of the new king (and flattering him at the same time was a diplomatic idea).

The very first scene of the play – the three witches on the blasted heath – had dialogue drawn from a book written by James himself on the history and practice of witchcraft. There’s a good way to stroke the new boss’s ego – the first words he hears on stage are ones he wrote himself!

There’s a story that I love but have never been able to confirm. Do you remember the scene where the murdering monarch is confronted by a succession of ghostly crowned figures: the descendants of Banquo? According to obscure legend, when Macbeth was first performed the last of those apparitions was played by James himself, wearing his own crown.

For the audience, here was their new ruler getting the Big Tick that he was the Rightful King, with generations of history behind him.

The depiction of Banquo is an excellent example of the playwright turning history on its head (or inside out) to suit his own ends.

Banquo really existed, but hundreds of years after Macbeth and a similar period before Shakespeare.

He held the hereditary position of Thane of Lochaber around 1350. The Stuart bloodline begins as a Royal Family in Scotland some generations later when a childless king bequeathed his throne to his eminently capable (and thus widely acceptable) steward, the Thane of Lochaber. So Banquo was never king, but he begat them – just like in the prophecy.

Not enough is known of the original 14th century Banquo to be sure if the playwright was being accurate, generous or terribly misleading in his construction of the character.

Unfortunately we do know that, in playing fast and loose with history in order to make his new king happy Shakespeare left us with some very distorted views of Scottish royalty of the 11th century. There are some records of the time, and with the technology we have it’s probably easier for me to unearth the real stories than it would have been for Stratford-on-Avon’s most famous son.

Next post, I’ll try to set the record straight for you and talk about the historical figures behind the characters!

 

The ones we notice

I used to drive around Australia a lot. Various routes and journeys connecting Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Beechworth, there and back again. A short trip might be three or four hours, a longer one twelve or fourteen or more. Much more of the driving was done at night than during daylight hours.

Many of the trips were made on my own, with only the cassette deck for company (provided it was working). Regional radio was a matter of chance, with reception fading in and out and the actual content of the airwaves often being a choice of earnest chat or country music, neither a preferred choice for me.

Melbourne by night
Melbourne by night
Brisbane by night
Brisbane by night

One of my regular strategies for staying awake was to count trucks as they approached or overtook me. I seldom seemed to overtake them. If I was ‘stuck’ on any number for a while because the road was quiet I’d turn my memory to what I connect with that year. So trucks #79, or 179, or 279 might prompt memories of a show I worked on, or a new romance, or a band I sang with.

In the early hours of one dark morning I was a little way outside of Yass approaching Canberra. So far I’d counted 491 trucks on an uneventful drive. I was on my way up a winding hillside road when my rear view mirror went white.

It was the glare of the high beam headlights of an eighteen wheeler semi-trailer, thundering onto my tail at high speed. Have you ever seen the movie Duel? Dennis Weaver is a motorist pursued on a winding mountain road by the unseen homicidal driver of a monster truck.

I was having flashbacks to the movie as I put my foot down and threw my sedan around bends trying to stay ahead of the semi that seemed to be a split second away from driving right over the top of me. To my enormous it didn’t take long to find a space at the side of the road wide enough to pull into and let the truck roar by.

As I sat there waiting for my heartbeat to come back down to normal I cursed and swore at “bloody maniac truck drivers that think they own the bloody road – something should be done about them!”

Remembering to breath I gradually calmed down. As I pulled back out onto the road a thought occurred to me.

“There have been 491 quite unremarkable, well-behaved truckies on the road with me tonight. Number 492 is the dangerous lunatic I’ll remember and complain to people about. That’s not fair on all the others, is it?”

There are thousands of priests and elders of various religions across the globe. I’m sure many of them took their vows out of genuine devotion to their faith. I seriously doubt that one in five hundred of them world-wide is a child molester.

There are millions of Moslems on Earth, some in pretty much every country on the planet. I honestly don’t think that one in five hundred of them truly believe they have a responsibility to kill anyone who disagrees with them, or that such an act means a reward of however many virgins in the afterlife.

It’s the exceptions to the rule that we notice. The outstanding ones, or the ones that are made outstanding by the publicity they get.

When you see footage of a shamed Father Whatsisname being led into a courtroom please think of all the humble and decent parish priests who’ve spent their lives earnestly serving their flock as best they could to little recognition and little earthly reward.

When your TV screen is full of images of men in black balaclavas waving guns and celebrating a successful suicide bombing, please think of the millions of followers of Allah who live in peace with their neighbours and who believe that their scripture preaches tolerance.

The 492nd truckie didn’t mean all the others on the road were dangerous. Whatever dreadful stories make the news, please remember the ones we don’t notice. The safe and the sane ones. The ones like you.

Sharing love at Christmas

Christmas looks like this somewhere, I'm sure!
Christmas looks like this somewhere, I’m sure!

Christmas is a time to share with those we love, and who love us.

They may be near and dear – that’s a fine thing.  To hold and be held.  To look someone in the eye, smile and say, “Thank you for caring.”

They may be far away.  A phone call or an email or a postcard away.  Maybe as far as the realisation of a shared thought about each other.  A smile and a nod and a wink of the mind’s eye.

They may live now only in our memory.  Passed on or simply passed out of our life.  Take some time to remember the good things shared and be glad of them.  Acknowledge but try not to dwell on the moments missed.

Take time to honour and thank the person most loyal and faithful to you.  The one who’s put up with your faults and failings, and shared your joys and triumphs every single day since last Christmas.  Look in the mirror, even if the view isn’t all you’d like it to be.  Look that person in the eye, smile, raise a glass even, and say, “Thanks – I appreciate your being here.”

It’d be nice to do this more than once per year.  The messy business of Life gets in the way too often.  But Christmas is a time to make that time – to share and acknowledge that love.

Merry Christmas, my friends.  Thank you for being here.

Renoir

A Long Dying

I don’t normally post other people’s writing on this site.  But this is different.  Special. It’s written by my mother-in-law Maggie, about her mother.  And what it says has particular resonance for me.  There are people I’ve cared about who’ve died too long, and without the dignity they wanted.  Like Maggie, I don’t want to be among that number.  And especially not because someone else – politician or any other ‘authority’ – denies me my choice.

My mother was 84 when she had a stroke, 88 when she died.

A woman who loved to talk, she became aphasic. Her greatest fear – that she wouldn’t be able to communicate verbally – became reality. She could speak, but what she said made no sense. And she knew it, knew that the words coming out of her mouth were gibberish. She used to beat the arms of her chair in frustration.

I watched when she refused food and drink in a rehabilitation hospital, trying to kill herself, trying to control the end of her life. That wasn’t allowed, and so a naso-gastric tube was forced into her trachea; a second attempt, under xray, managed to get the tube down her oesophagus.

Then I was told I should allow her to have ECT, somewhere between eight and twelve sessions,  “Because her kind of depression responds well to ECT.” When I refused, I was told ‘the case’ would be put before the Guardianship Board which might grant the permission I was denying.

My mother decided to eat and drink again and I never knew just what it was that made her change her mind.

I watched her in the nursing home as she shrank, physically as well as mentally. After four years she was bedridden, curled up like a foetus, her hands like claws. Following multiple admissions to a hospital for treatment for pneumonia I was told I could write to her doctor asking for ‘no more active treatment’. I wrote that letter, feeling both relief and horror. And resentment.

My mother had a long dying.

I don’t want to face a death like my mother’s. I want to be able to choose the time and place of my dying. Surely that’s not too much to ask?