Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Friday, November 26, 2010
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
In north-west Syria, about halfway between the Turkish city of Hatay (Ancient Antioch), where the Christian religion was founded, and Aleppo, home of the Great Mosque, where you can see the head of Zachariah, King of Israel and father of St. John the Baptist, you will come across a large stone boulder surrounded by the ruins of a vast cathedral. This rock on a pedestal is all that remains of an eighteen-metre high stone pillar that a man, who at the end of the fourth century was one of the most famous in the world, lived on top of for thirty-seven years. This still stands as the longest endurance record in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Simon Stylites, or Saint Simeon, was, like so many men at that time, the son of a shepherd, who gazed skywards looking for answers. At first he entered a monastery, where he subjected himself to increasingly extreme fasting and ever more masochistic self-abasement. When it was discovered that he had bound his waist so tightly with palm fronds that it took days of soaking to remove the fibres from the festering wound, he was asked to leave the monastery.
At first he imprisoned himself for one and a half years in a tiny hut on a rocky ledge, where he passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking, a feat hailed as a miracle. When he emerged, he stood upright as long as his limbs could sustain him. One day he discovered a stone column left by the Romans and decided to stand on top of it. This first pillar was only four metres high, but Simeon sought out ever higher columns until eventually he discovered the eighteen-metre high one on top of which he was to spend the rest of his life. His fame spread throughout the western world and thousands of pilgrims from as far away as England and Ethiopia started trekking towards this stone pillar to stare up in wonder at Simon Stylites. Simeon eventually died on September 2, 459 AD, and the great cities of the Byzantine world, including Constantinople and Antioch, fought for the privelege of being his final resting place. Antioch prevailed.
A great basilica was built around Simeon's pillar which fanatical pilgrims chipped away at until it was reduced to the two-metre stump you see today. Simon Stylites spawned imitators and soon there were hundreds of stylites standing on pillars across the Middle East and Europe. In the early twentieth century the practice of pole-sitting was revived in America by poor people and showmen, desperate for a little fame and the money that went with it. In Baltimore, in 1929, twenty children sat on top of eighteen-foot hickory poles, cheered on by their families, while in Atlantic City, in the same year, Alvin 'Shipwreck' Kelly, a showground boxer brought up in an orphanage in Hell's Kitchen, who'd been sitting on poles, on and off, since 1924, set a modern record by sitting on top of a flagpole for 49 days.
The Roman Catholic Feast Day of St Simeon Stylites is celebrated on January 5th each year. In 1965 a film based on his life, Simón del Desierto, was made by Luis Buñuel, and as recently as 1971 a statue of Saint Simeon was erected in the centre of the town of Grimsby in England.
The way you react to this will, in all probability, reflect your views on life, death and the hereafter. Personally, I think you are more likely to find a camel passing through the eye of a needle than a rich man living at the top of a pole.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
The watch on her breast pocket moved.
I hadn't expected her to say yes.
Neither of us smiled. It was, if anything, a moment of extreme gravity. My head, until then empty of everything other than memories of school and family, suddenly flooded with future possibilties.
Some of the patients stopped to watch us; two continued walking towards the trees at the edge of the lawn.
"How about going to the pictures?" My voice seemed to have found a higher pitch.
"All right." Hers was so calm.
"What time do you finish work?"
"Six, but I'd like to go home to change first."
That first encounter was so matter of fact and innocent. In the light of what has just happened, that seems almost shocking.
To be contd.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
There are several celebrity vehicles in the museum, including some that were used in James Bond films. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Del Boy's Reliant Robin from Only Fools and Horses, and Mr Bean's Mini. In truth, this was just one of several vehicles used by Mr Bean, as they tended to get badly damaged in the making of the programmes. The particular 1979 998cc Mini at the museum was the one used in the third series in 1991.
The museum also has some of the oldest, fastest and most expensive vehicles ever made, but the one that took my eye was the world's smallest car, and the the only car ever manufactured on the Isle of Man, the Peel P50, which when new in 1964, cost just 149 pounds.
Some of the most interesting vehicles come from France, where the first ever car was made by Nicholas Cugnot way back in 1769. You can see that at the museum too. But, the one that stood out for me was the 1922 propeller-driven Leyat, only thirty of which were ever made. You'd better hang on to your hat when driving that.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Amidst the aimlessness, Elaine appeared so definitely: jet black hair and deep blue eyes. Already an assured woman, her walk was confident and purposeful. I approached, unsure of myself, still anything but definite, somewhere between a boy and a man; hair neither dark nor fair, eyes somewhere between green and brown. Some Grade Ones were watching us now. Unlike the Grade Twos, they had some awareness of the real world.
"Will you go out with me?"
I noticed something move fast to my right: the blackbird had just caught a worm.
Elaine's beautiful lips started to part.
To be contd.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Elaine was half-French, half-Irish, and I met her in a mental hospital. I'd always been attracted to foreign girls, even though I'd been brought up in a small village where there weren't any. I was a ten-year-old boy in short trousers, standing in a school playground when I saw my first foreign girl. Her clothes were different, her hair, her skin, and she brought with her the exotic beauty of the world beyond my village. But, she wasn't Elaine. Elaine came into my life much later. It was my eighteenth summer and her nineteenth. I remember the pale August sunlight, a slight breeze that rustled the leaves of the oak trees, and the clouds that hinted at the cold and rain, waiting in the wings, as it always is in green England. I remember lush lawns, darting squirrels and a blackbird, head tilted to one side, waiting for a worm to pop its head up, and I remember the mad people wandering, rudderless, in all directions.
To be contd.
To say I've had writer's block would be misnomer as it would suggest that I am, or ever have been, a real writer. Instead, all I can say is that the words have been falling out of my head and I have been failing to catch them. Why even try to fish when your net has a gaping hole at the bottom of it? I am sure that you all, at some time or another, have woken up with a start, having dreamed the most incredible story and thought, if only I could get this down on paper, it would be a bestseller, but then, by the time you have got out of bed, it has all fallen into that great void into which unwritten words disappear forever. Then I think you'll understand.
My strengths and, even more so, my weaknesses, are as clear to me now as my right and left hands. My greatest strength is my creativity, but my even greater weakness is my almost total lack of self-discipline. Dilettante, dabbler, butterfly, Jack of all trades, master of none; dare I say, Renaissance man? No, I dare not, for that would merely be giving in to my own weaknesses. More oft than not, there are so many things that I want to do, that I do nothing.
In Mexico, they say, a todo le tiras, y a nada le pegas: you aim for everything, but you hit nothing. That's me, and I have to change. I really have to hit something: the keyboard. Or I will be that would-be fisherman standing in a bleak seaside bar one winter's day, holding out his arms and saying, 'It was that big, but I let it get away.'