From the pen of Turlough Ó Maoláin ...

The Chronicles of Bulgaria

When One Is One

As our wee woman reaches one

I wonder where the time has gone

Those first twelve months so quickly passed

As a list of skills you soon amassed

Growing teeth and growing hair

And filling up your underwear

Spreading yogurt on the walls

And sharing breakfast as it falls

To the floor from sticky fingers

A mouth wide open as you sing us

The bestest songs from Hey Duggee

Enduring parks in the baby buggy

Growling like a bear on your activity mat

Wiping sticky bogies on a passing cat

Yearning for a match at Stockport County

While Mummy stuffs her face with cake and Bounties

And Daddy's upstairs working hard from home

At Star Wars games on his mobile phone

But your greatest talent's how you mesmerise

With the cheekiest grin and the bluest eyes

Every second spent with you so far

Has made me proud to be your Granda

And as your little life's unfurled

I love you more than all the world

So I hope you've enjoyed your very first year

And I wish a happy birthday to you dear Freya

 

 

The Wee Woman.

 The Wee Woman.

502 Kilometres

Just up the road from my wife and me

A fire’s burning constantly

Folks just like us are in the street

No food to eat

Nowhere to sleep

Afraid to stay

Afraid to go

Nothing of their lives to show

But the clothes on their backs

And the shoes on their feet

And countless bloodstains

In the snow

And the glow

From the flames

And the charred remains

Of their homes

And the broken bones

The bullet holes

And frightened souls

The bodies lying in the street

Tears of desperation and defeat

We take them in as neighbours do

We know that this could be us too

From here to Ukraine the kilometres

Add up to a mere five hundred and two

 

Peace.

Peace in four languages …

Мир (Bulgarian), Mír (Czech), Peace (English) and Síocháin (Irish).

On a World War One memorial in Ypres, Belgium.

 

Her Troubles

Tuesday’s fish supper grease still lingers

On grubby stubby stiff little fingers

Cracked by cold and each one bleeds

From overuse of rosary beads

The prayers that failed to meet her needs

Shaking as she does her speed

And always stained by nicotine

Hopes to be a beauty queen

Dissolved before she turned thirteen

A twenty-two-year-old has-been

Ashamed, afraid, must not be seen

With giro day’s amphetamine

And never let old Father Quinn

See her world is caving in

Keeping up her awful lie

Folk must never see her cry

Craving for the next great high

Screaming from a mouth too dry

To make a noise or even sigh

She wonders why

So many people point and stare

Does any mortal sinner care?

Hands shake in pockets with nothing there

But holes just like the soles

Of her shoes

That the cash from the dole's

Not enough to mend

The fear and desperation send

Her in flip flops frozen to her feet

She’s hard and cold like the wet concrete

Where she slips and slops in driving sleet

Nonstop to the shop

At the top of the street

In icy rain

In physical and in mental pain

For twenty Benson's

With no intention

Of paying back

A tenner stole from Granda's pension

Not to mention a few wee coins

For a drop of something sweet and strong

To help the morning move along

To drown the sounds

Of crying weans that pound and pound

Inside her head and all around

Her life's in tatters, so it is

Yer man at home says so is his

He once could fill her life with craic

Until he filled his own with crack

A body tortured on a rack

Small hope of ever turning back

A page in a Falls Road almanac

 

Belfast ...

Elisabeth and The Bonbon Girls

Alone, I walked along the dusty path that led away from the termite-ravaged back gate of the small French colonial-style hotel. It was a clean and friendly place but still eagerly awaiting its first star so there was nothing there to lessen my desire to escape. As I surveyed my surroundings, trying to decide which way I should wander, an undernourished girl who I guessed was about six years old saw me from the point where the track forked and approached me without any sign of trepidation. She wore a brightly coloured dress roughly hand stitched together from a variety of materials, a large proportion of which appeared to be the remains of a red and yellow striped beach towel. As she got nearer she looked up at me with a face partly encrusted with the residue of a cold. Kids in Madagascar didn’t seem to carry freshly laundered monogrammed handkerchiefs, or even tissues for that matter. A pair of shoes would have been of even more use to her but she didn’t possess those either. Big bright eyes enhanced the warmth of a smile that did nothing to suggest that she was anything less than happy in her world. 

Of all the things she lacked in her life and might have asked me for, she came out with ‘Bonbon, monsieur. Bonbon s'il vous plait.’ She giggled a little nervously to suggest that she didn’t make a habit of requesting sweets from strangers, though I suspected that she did.

I had been prepared for this. On my trips to poorer countries I had always taken with me bags of sweets from my local corner shop. I carried them in a small rucksack along with my camera, water bottle, a tool for removing stones from the hooves of indigenous species and a collection of other giveaway items that might be called upon. Two of the principal rules for travelling in the tropics is to be nice to the local people and to never carry sweets in your pocket as conditions are already sticky enough without your last Mackintosh's Rolo in its liquid form running down your leg.

Some members of our group had pooh-poohed my strategy of giving confectionery to the children we met as it would rot their teeth. I couldn’t help but wonder how few sweets a youngster living in a ramshackle hut with a diet consisting predominantly of rice and things that fell out of trees or jumped out of rivers was likely to enjoy during the course of its childhood. I was sure that it wouldn’t be many. And sure doesn’t a bit of luxury cheer anybody up even if such luxury amounts only to a solitary sherbet lemon? However, I didn’t completely ignore their point and since then I’ve refrained from offering sweets to children in places like Chippenham where sugar-based treats are more plentiful. There it reduces the risk of them suffering dental cavities and me suffering prosecution.

Despite the teachings of the amateur dentists in my circle of friends, I chose to stick to the toffee eclairs (though not literally) and my new acquaintance was utterly thrilled to have been offered one. She gazed at it incredulously, held it up to the sun, removed the wrapper, sniffed it, enjoyed the crinkling of the wrapper between her fingers, sniffed it again, put it in her mouth and shrieked with delight as an English child might if given the entire contents of Hamleys toy shop or a Ferrari or a Leeds United replica shirt on Christmas Day.

‘Merci Monsieur! Merci beaucoup!´ she sang as she danced around me. It seemed that not only had I made her day but been present at a moment she would treasure for a long time to come.

Like hitchhikers on a slip road of an English motorway, as soon as one had got what they had been looking for, a couple more appeared from behind the bushes. Two girls, one older and one younger than the first and clad in matching patchwork dresses, so I assumed they’d be sisters, joined in the celebration. They didn’t ask directly for ‘bonbons’ but by showing their happiness at their sibling’s success I detected that they knew what they were doing.

My bag was unzipped again, out came a couple more sweets as two more big smiles and four more big eyes appeared on the new girls’ faces. Ten minutes of silence interrupted only by a little slurping was brought to an end with a barrage of chattering. I don’t know much French but I do know that ‘une autre’ means another and the accompanying embarrassed should-we-or-shouldn’t-we laughter quickly confirmed my suspicion that they were still a bit peckish.

Fearful of further infringing the Chippenham Tooth Cavity Law I spurned their request, bringing a hint of sulkiness to those little faces. But I had another trick up my sleeve (or in my rucksack, as sleeves were too much to bear in the oppressive heat of the day) to salvage the situation. Forgive me for sounding a little conceited but I feel that I am a grandmaster of donating old T-shirts to poor children in Third World countries. I have even given lectures on it at Chippenham College of Adult Education, a seat of learning that I discovered by accident in the expectation that adult education would include adult games and adult movies but the best they had to offer was a coffee machine that was only able to dispense Bovril with extra sugar and the town’s first revolving door (it now has three).

On my big trips abroad I have always packed my bag with old clothes and then gradually given them away as I have worn them, saving me the trouble of washing them or taking them home dirty. This is probably not the most hygienic method of updating a child’s wardrobe but I’ve always felt that my dirty clothes were significantly cleaner than what they were wearing at the time and what probably hadn’t been washed since the previous band of European travellers wandered into town months or even years before. On this occasion I was more concerned about the motifs on the fronts of the shirts being acceptable to these poor, unsuspecting kids. But I unfolded my wares in front of them and they seemed to have no problem with the references to Siouxsie and the Banshees 2002 Tour, Kelly’s Bar Belfast or Saying NO! To Tory Cuts emblazoned across their hungry little bodies. Delighted as they were with their new garments, they didn’t put them on over their existing clothes to model them. This I put down to at least one of the following: (i) the new clothes were far too big for them to wear even as a long dress, (ii) the weight of the fabric was too much to bear in the oppressive heat of the day, or (iii) they wanted to take them home for their mum to put in the wash.

I asked them a few questions about their lives. The usual things like where did they live, what work did their parents do and which school did they go to. I didn’t get any answers and hoped that this was because of the language barrier that existed between us and not because there simply were no answers. I did manage to coax their names from them which, in order of increasing height of little girl, were Hanitra, Sarobidy and Tanita. I asked if their family name was Tikaram but again got no answer.

Then there was a five-minute vocal barrage comprising entirely of ‘merci beaucoup’ and ‘au revoir’ before they disappeared down a path into the long grass, singing as they went (probably about a fat white man who had more bonbons and T-shirts than sense).

Alone again, I continued my walk, passing a number of huts, each a complex and unique jigsaw puzzle of bits of wood held together by rusty nails, string, mud and things that might have fallen out of animals. They resembled the pigeon lofts that you might see on allotments in Northern England but I suspected they were people’s homes. Strangely there were no people or pigeons about. I assumed they must have all gone away somewhere, maybe to take part in a race.

Eventually I heard voices and barking dogs in the near distance as the track widened, opening out to reveal a broad river and a throng of activity both on its lush green banks and in the crystal clear water between. Not having gardens that they could call their own, probably because of the density of the vegetation around their huts, it seemed the inhabitants had gone down to the river to do just about everything that they couldn’t do at home. Trying to catch fish in your living room never goes without problems so I wasn’t surprised to see a few people in the river with nets and on the banks with rods. One of the more professional looking anglers wore a tweed hat with a couple of flies hooked into its brim. I was sure that he imagined himself as having gone up to the Tay for the salmon. His only other attire was a pair of shorts which looked to have been made from remnants of the same red and yellow striped beach towel that I had seen earlier. Nearby, kids played and swam to entertain themselves, keep cool, keep clean and scare away the fish that their parents probably saw as their only source of food for that day. I was tempted to donate what remained of the bag of toffee eclairs in a sort of single-handed famine relief operation.

Other people in the water included a washerwoman doing what you would expect washerwomen in poor countries to do. What made her stand out from the crowd was that she was attractively made up and wore quite chic looking European-style clothes. Her handbag and shoes were in a neat pile on the ground, just as you might have seen in a British night club in the 1970s. There was obviously a lot of money to be made in washerwomaning. I wondered when she would get round to laundering the village’s newly acquired T-shirts and why the contents of her heavily laden baskets didn’t include anything made from the remnants of a red and yellow striped beach towel.

A family waded through a stretch where the water was only thigh deep to carry what appeared to be a roughly made wooden coffin from one bank to the other. They seemed to be struggling with its weight so I imagined that it must have been occupied. There wasn’t enough coffin to keep all of the adult members of the family busy so some carried small children, huge plastic bottles of water, baskets of flatbread, long clusters of bananas, an electric fan and a bicycle. All the accoutrements you’d need for a half-decent funeral.    

A man on a raft sold mangoes to passers-by near to where cattle and pigs basked in the mud.  Chickens that looked a long way off being oven-ready cooled their feet in shallow water after the morning’s long hot dusty walk from the wooden huts. Only a few metres away a snake making plans for lunch kept a beady eye on them.

On the banks above the river there were more kids playing; their intermittently miskicked football making a not insignificant contribution to the scaring away of the fish. Women cooked food in cast iron pots over fires as more children, flanked by dogs that could only be described as half Pavlovian and half rabid, gathered around their feet. Men sat under trees, talking or sleeping or both, as the combined aroma of animal droppings, cigarette smoke and fried fish swirled around them in the most laid back tornado the world had ever witnessed. A man clutching a Bible in one hand and a large bottle of the local Three Horses beer in the other shouted at the half dozen or so people who cared to listen, though because his words were in the Malagasy tongue it was hard to tell whether it was his preaching or his alcohol that had caught their attention.

I don’t know if Ranomafana should be described as a large village or a small town but it’s what I found as a bend in the river forced my route up towards the road. It was certainly a bustling sort of place with brick-built houses, shops, a church, both kinds of sleeping policeman (i.e. a traffic calming system near the school and a constable who might have overdone it a bit with the Madagascar rum), and a market that stayed open only until the sun’s rays began to sting.

Tentatively, I looked inside the most upmarket of the few small shops. It had a sign above the door bearing the words Epicerie Mahavonjy which, using my amazing powers of deduction, I deduced was French for ‘purveyors of bananas, bread and beer’. So I bought myself a bottle of beer which, to my surprise and delight, was the coldest thing that I had encountered since my conversation with the man at the Air France check-in desk at Heathrow Airport a week earlier.

Outside, I sat on a bench beneath one of the many traveller’s palms (ravenala madagascariensis – an intriguingly beautiful fan-shaped fruit-bearing plant indigenous to Madagascar that isn’t really a palm but looks a bit like one) that lined the road. Here I watched women walking in every direction with heavy baskets of goodness knows what on their heads while a group of men stood around a 1950s sky blue Peugeot 205; three of them kicking its tyres as a fourth tried to get the engine to start. A mix of boys and girls, probably a bit older and more skilful than the kids I had seen by the river, were playing football. Without fish to scare I supposed they were more likely to be concentrating on the game.

As I had noticed on the length of my morning walk, nobody appeared to have much of a care about what was going on in the world. They had almost nothing by way of possessions but also almost nothing by way of worries. As long as they had something to eat, games to play and something to talk about they seemed to be happy. To me their lives couldn’t have been more straightforward. I suspect they encountered difficulties that I was unaware of. What they would do in the event of a big storm or a crop failure, and how to survive with a total lack of medical care were the ones that came to mind, but during the time that I spent there they seemed to be all just ambling along in a contented, uncomplicated way.

 

Vanilla pod Elisabeth.

Vanilla Pod Elisabeth.

 

I was woken from my daydream by a woman who appeared to be middle-aged but was probably much younger; working in the hot sun no doubt having accelerated the way that time had taken its toll on her.

‘Vanilla pods! Will you buy some?’ she began the conversation in broken English.

Not really having any need for vanilla pods but not wanting to turn away the poor woman who was doing her best to earn a living, I selected a bunch and gave her a couple of thousand Ariary (about twenty pence).

‘What do I do with them?’ I asked, genuinely not having a clue.

She told me I should store them in a large bag of sugar to keep them dry and then I could use them for cooking or to sweeten my coffee. Accepting that it had been a bit remiss of me to travel all that way without a large bag of sugar, and even in Epicerie Mahavonjy it was an item that I hadn’t seen on the shelves, I put the pods in my bag and changed the subject.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked her.

The most beautiful smile illuminated her face as she responded ‘Elisabeth. What’s yours?’

I didn’t understand everything that she said but I got the impression that she was happy that I was taking the time to talk to her as many people travelling through took absolutely no interest in what she had to say or sell. Foreigners, to her, were all crazy.

‘What? Even me?’ I pretended to be offended.

Putting a hand on my shoulder she laughed raucously and said, ‘Maybe you are crazy in a different way, Monsieur Turlough!’

I explained that the ‘monsieur’ bit wasn’t necessary, emphasising my point by suggesting that she would need to be Madame Elisabeth, and she reluctantly agreed. She struck me as the happiest, loveliest, friendliest person I had ever met on my journeys. I really wanted a photograph of her but often I’d found that people, especially in less developed countries, were reluctant to pose for the camera. I asked her anyway and what I had expected turned out not to be the case.

To my delight she answered, ‘yes!’ putting on her official serious face, which wasn’t really what I wanted. Despite all the laughter from minutes earlier she was finding it difficult to even smile. After some cajoling from me she did, but only a little. Then I showed her the image on my camera’s display screen and the riotous laughter started again.

‘Will you send me a copy?’ she asked during a pause between laughing fits.

‘Of course, but you’ll have to tell me your address,’ I replied.

‘I’ll write it down. You have paper and a pen?’

‘No’ I had to say. ‘Haven’t you?’

She shook her head. For around thirty seconds we looked at each other, our faces blank with disappointment. Then she said, ‘Never mind. Just bring it the next time you come to Ranomafana, when you need more vanilla pods.’

Her laughter resumed as she walked away to talk to some Europeans on the other side of the road, leaving me to think how easy it had been for two complete strangers from different continents to enjoy each other’s company for fifteen minutes. My life was filled with the extravagant trappings of a European culture. Hers was filled with vanilla pods and hilarity. I supposed that I envied her more than she envied me. Her life was simple while mine was a complicated mess. A love for vanilla pods and laughter were all we had in common but on that occasion it was all we needed.

Maglic Moments

In November 1993 I sat at home and watched on the BBC evening news the Old Bridge in Mostar crumble into the Neretva River that it had spanned majestically for over 400 years. Already in ruins from months of bombardment, one last shell finally ended the life of the Stari Most and a wave of sadness washed over me. This one depressing moment seemed to symbolise the horror of the civil war in the Western Balkans.

Less than two decades later I sat on a restaurant terrace on the steep Neretva valley side and stared in awe at the reconstruction only 300 metres away. The joyful sounds of music and laughter in the distance, the aroma of neighbourhood trout grilling to tantalise tourists’ taste buds and the fairy tale view of the floodlit bridge and its reflection on the water seemed to symbolise the rebirth of a country and exorcise the ghosts of the 1990s.

In the limestone wilderness of the Sutjeska National Park, Maglic is the tallest of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s many white shards that soar from the flower filled butterfly meadows and primeval deciduous forests to glow in the Balkan sunshine. Standing beside Marshal Tito’s memorial at its 2,386 metre summit to admire deep valleys and a dozen or more distant summits was certainly a high point on my trip but so was crossing an international border to go splashing about in Montenegro’s heart-shaped Trnovačko Lake during our long descent. Clear cool water on weary feet a few miles from home was invigorating but cool dark local pivo (beer) washing down steaming plates of chorbanac stew was the perfect end to our hardest day’s walking. My Maglic moments had been magic.

Was it disrespectful of me to stand and eat an ice cream at the spot near Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in 1914 to spark off World War One? Well nearly a century had passed, I was on my holidays and the local ice cream vendors were masters at their craft. This East-meets-West city had so much to offer in terms of cuisine, architecture and history I felt quite justified as I was merely immersing myself into its culture.

I wandered through the narrow alleys of the old Turkish Quarter around Pigeon Square to the broad streets of Austro-Hungarian design, gazing up at magnificent old mosques, synagogues and churches; tasting spicy ćevapčići kebab fingers, sirnica cheese pie and hurmastica lemon and cream pastries; and visiting museums, galleries, bakeries, bars and bazaars whilst toasting the whole experience with Sarajevsko pivo, rakija and traditional Bosnian coffee brewed up in small copper pans.

The more recent history was evident too as bullet holes in walls, and scorch marks on apartment blocks told tales of dark times when the city was almost annihilated. The metre wide tunnel that ran under the airport runway as a lifeline during the siege of the 1990s is now a museum and a stark reminder of the horrors that Sarajevans had to endure.

High in the mountains to the west of Sarajevo we walked to Lukomir, a village that retains its almost Alpine features, including its tall pointed cherry wood roofs, as well as a unique, very small but very tall, wooden mosque. Here Saliha, a shepherd’s daughter, took us in from the snow and sat us by the fire in her old family home, served us hot burek potato and cheese filled dough and sold us socks she had knitted with wool she had spun from sheep she had raised and sheared herself. She laughed and smiled throughout our visit. Such a warm welcome from this lovely woman making the most of her harsh surroundings epitomised for me the whole of my stay in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 

The rebuilt Ottoman bridge in the town of Mostar. 

The rebuilt Ottoman bridge in the town of Mostar.

 

Note:

This is a piece of writing I did a good while back for the travel company, Exodus Travels. Neither the trip nor I were very glossy but they were very happy to include it in their glossy promotional literature. The Green Visions Travel Agency in Sarajevo used it too.

And no, there isn’t a typo in the title.

 

 

 

Lady Danube

From your deep bed’s lavish side

Transfixed I watch your body glide

Its power and its beauty grow

Your curves and your exquisite flow

Carve your name across great lands

As they have done since time began

How you entrance and twist and dance

East towards an azure Black Sea

Inciting and inviting me

To caress you with my fingertips

Taste your salt upon my lips

To dip my toes but nothing more

Enchantingly you draw and claw

Me blindly in towards your shore

Tempt me to your watery depths

Steal my last and final breath

A love to lead me to my death

 

You mesmerise, I’m mystified

You tantalise, I fantasise

I close my eyes, avert my gaze

Not fooled by your seductive waves

Today I am your chosen one

But I shall turn and soon be gone

Not joining all the countless slaves

You led spellbound into their graves

  

Tranquil, soothing and deep blue

Your waters whisper and subdue

Changing hue without warning

Currents swirling and transforming

Suddenly violent, wild and cruel

Steal from so many ships of fools

Lives dashed into your deadly pools

Handing out in equal measure

Great destruction, extremes of pleasure

A murderess with a heart of stone

No body you can call your own

So from mortals you take flesh and bone

From fishermen, sailors and from traders

Pirates, assassins and invaders

Of the shores that you have kissed

Those perished souls doomed to exist

With wisp, with worm and basilisk

Til spewed from your gut obscenely engorged

Into dark and ancient channels forged

By Sulina, Kilia and St George

Lugged then plunged to the briny’s floor

To lie near Achilles from the Trojan War

By his Isle of Serpents forevermore

 

 Lady Danube's Hut

 

A photograph of a green wooden hut beside a river. But the river is none other than the River Danube (known locally as the Dunav / Дунав) taken on my phone a few days ago from near the town of Svishtov in Bulgaria, approximately 80 kms from where I live. I love watching rivers flow by but the might of the Danube (the second longest in Europe, after the Don) is extraordinary. Its beauty and the folklore and mythology that accompany it compelled me to write this poem.

Poking James MacGuigan’s Pig

On a farm up the mountain they had a barn

With an old tin roof and built of stone

Where something evil lurked inside

That chilled young children to the bone

 

What do you think's behind yon door?

The wee boy Brendan asked with dread

Our stomachs churned as we described

Terrific beasts inside our heads

 

No words of warning written there

But in our minds so deadly clear

The gruesome movements from within

Spelt out F E A R (that’s fear)

 

No one could tell just what it was

That rattled and roared inside the shed

If he got out he’d bite us all

Break every bone and make us dead

 

Long feared by folk in Cushendun

Was the Bodach, Pooka and Banshee

But would they choose to torment us

With their faerie friends from mythology?

 

I hope it’s not yer man Godzilla

Or Frankenstein or a zombie guy

Margaret’s shaky voice remarked

Or my Auntie Nessa from Athenry

 

The way it grunts and bangs around

It sounds angry, mad, disturbed and crazy

Bernie shook as she exclaimed

I suspect it’s the Reverend Ian Paisley

 

On a ship my Uncle Dan sailed twice round the world

He’d met Greeks, Japanese and Armenians

And one evening in Duffy’s Lounge Bar there in Larne

He drank stout and poitín with Presbyterians

 

Once a dog in Portrush was born with two heads

Four noses and sharp teeth where its eyes should be

But it couldn’t have come on the bus to Glendun

As how could it travel if it couldn’t see?

 

All night he’d tell tales of the queerest of things

To his incredible yarns there was no limit

So with a bit of a notion of how our monster looked

He could tell what it was and then kill it

 

He’d seen whales and great sharks and porpoises too

Giraffes, giant snakes and wild sheep

With a need to describe to him the fiend at the door

One of us had to go and take a quick peep

 

To proceed with the plan a volunteer was picked

Someone big and quite bold and not sickly

Liam’s daddy had bought a new Ford motor car

So he could get Liam to the hospital quickly

 

We sent fearless young Liam to go up rather close

To peer into the abyss through a crack

I’ve a terrible feeling I’ve just wet my pants

He cried out very loud running back

 

He'd seen a fearsome creature ugly and fat

A face filthy, coarse, rough and hairy

And from the gut-churning stink you'd just about think

It was the teacher from school, Master Clary

 

We wanted to show it who was the boss

That huge awful thing needed poking

We'd get a long stick and prod it real hard

I thought the girl who said that was joking

 

For a few anxious minutes we searched all around

Then Caitlín found a long length of wood

She chose the right hole and carefully took aim

We stood there, bodies trembling, fearing blood

 

She pushed the sharp pole right into the dark

Then came a loud crash, howl and roar

Followed by banging, some grunts and some groans

The brute trying to smash down the door

 

I've wet my pants once again, and also my socks

Sobbed Liam in a voice damp, wretched and flat

Soon our mood changed from fear to utter distress

Spotting a man watching us with a gun and big hat

 

He shouted words we’d never heard

We sensed he meant tremendous harm

He said he’d go tell Sergeant Brennan

If we didn’t eff off from his effing farm

 

He said he’d kick us up the arse

Tell our mammies and the priest

We’d no business nosing round his barn

We should leave his poor old sow in peace

 

We ran faster than Liam’s daddy’s car

At least faster than the man could run

The man was farmer James MacGuigan

Out shooting rabbits just for fun

 

But at last we knew, the word was out

It was nothing like what we had guessed

Neither devil nor demon, just a pig

We’d survived and accomplished our wee quest

 

If ever a mystery you want to solve  

Even if you’re brave and big

Don’t ever try to see or poke

James MacGuigan or his pig

 

My friends and I whilst only weans

Learned to leave alone and not explore

To stay away from things that growl

And scare you stiff from behind a door

 

Except for the bits that I’ve made up

Every single word of this is true

And to keep James MacGuigan from my door

I’ve changed some names and forgotten a few

 

James MacGuigan’s Pig

 

I Fought the Law

Apart from having a wee behind a bin down a back alley in Middlesbrough when I was eight years old and a tiny bit of embezzlement around six years later when I worked as a newspaper delivery boy in Leeds, I have never deliberately broken the law. Well not until recently, that is.

My disregard for the law that I am going on to describe to you is a terrible thing so I will change some of the names of the people and places involved to protect the innocent and, more importantly, myself.

To help me explain how the rules have been broken I must first lay out what they actually are. I had never broken them previously as until about eighteen months ago they didn’t even exist. I think you probably know which rules I mean.

The first rule of the current emergency provisions for dealing with the global pandemonium in the country in which Priyatelka and I live (let’s call it East European Republic X) provide that we are permitted to go out in public places as long as we wear a facemask under our chin or dangling from our back pocket, though having one somewhere near our mouth may also be acceptable. If we are approached by a member of the security services who is not wearing a facemask to reprimand us for not wearing a facemask, it is forbidden for us to say ‘Well you’re not wearing one either!’ or ‘Pot, kettle, black, nah, nah, nah!’, the penalty for this being a menacing scowl and an expletive in Slavic Language Y.

The second rule is that we must not touch our mouth, or anybody else’s mouth. Touching someone else’s mouth with our own mouth is the most flagrant breach of the rule. Having a drink from someone else’s pint while they’ve gone out to the toilet carries an even greater punishment as it can be construed as theft as well as breaking a contamination prevention regulation. Touching other bits of a person in public doesn’t seem to matter these days. Have the authorities forgotten that other diseases are available?

The third rule is that any journeys we make must be absolutely essential and certainly not for tourism purposes. Claiming to have a doctor’s certificate which states that a person has an incurable obsession with collecting fridge magnets, snow globes, novelty tea towels, plastic replicas of the Venus de Milo, inflatable crocodiles or any other form of tacky tourist souvenir will not be acceptable.

There’s a fourth rule too, only recently introduced, that states that we can do absolutely anything we like as long as we present a vaccination certificate, even if it isn’t our own vaccination certificate. It seems that as long as somebody that we know has been fully vaccinated then we’re all going to be alright.

Usually, these rules are taken very seriously. A few months ago we were spotted wearing our facemasks over our mouths AND noses at the same time which was a scenario that just isn’t covered by the emergency legislation. Where we live, this had never happened before so, luckily for us, the desk sergeant at our local gulag had to let us off with a caution because he didn’t know what else to do. Pointing out that our over-adhering to Rule 1 deemed the breaking of Rule 2 virtually impossible didn’t impress him at all and, as expected, he punished our apparent attempt to tell him how to do his job with the standard menacing scowl and expletive in Slavic Language Y. Come to think of it, it may have been Slavic Language Z as they all sound very similar to me.

So I beg you, please, please, please don’t grass us up to the police virus squad if I spill the beans and tell you that last Friday, Priyatelka and I had a ride out into the countryside which was a bit touristy, which was a bit naughty.

In legal terms, our journey wasn’t at all essential but we didn’t book it through a recognised travel agent or pay for it by redeeming vouchers that we’d torn off the backs of boxes of soap powder in supermarkets while no one was looking, so it would have been very harsh to classify it as an organised trip. As Priyatelka and I aren’t very organised at all, even organised trips turn out to be not very organised for us. But to be on the safe side we needed a back-up plan, so we decided that if we were stopped by the police we would either claim that we had got lost on our way to put the bins out or we would plead insanity; though the latter of these excuses is wearing a bit thin as we’ve successfully used it four times already this year.

In trying not to lose the will to live terms, our journey was absolutely essential. Nine days of snow preceded by four or five days of rain had meant that for a long time we hadn’t ventured any further than our bathroom, and then only as a desperate measure whilst clutching our vaccination certificates. On Friday the sun was shining but there was still a lot of snow around so we thought it would be nice to treat the bits of our brains that deal with claustrophobia, darkness, abject misery and over-indulgence in coffee with a wee whizz around our stunning rural environment in our little blue racy but rusty car. Resisting the urge to purchase tee-shirts with I Heart East European Republic X emblazoned across the front (which would have completely blown our cover as non-tourists) from our local petrol station at the start of the journey was a bit difficult but with that major hurdle out of the way the rest was relatively easy and we think we managed to avoid suspicion and prosecution.

We chose our route carefully, going only where there would be no people, no police, no germs, no tourists and no purveyors of tourist tat but where there would be beautiful snow covered hills, wintery forests and frozen waterfalls. We headed south and east. I’m not saying exactly where because members of the constabulary might still be waiting there with their picnic detector vans to catch us the next time we visit and punish us with deportation to a Siberian labour camp or Guildford. We found everything that we were looking for in great sweeping mountainsides, wooded valleys, ice covered lakes, cosy hamlets and the pokey little convenience shop in Town X (which I have so labelled partly to protect the innocent and partly because the real name of the town is difficult to spell in our chosen Slavic language). It was an absolutely lovely day out during which the fresh air and sunny vistas did us the power of good, especially on our walk around Lake Y to Picturesque Village Z.

The only minor blip in our enjoyment could be put down to the unavoidable total lack of places where we could sit and take refreshment. In order to slip under the radar, we had taken with us only a packet of mints rather than a proper day out style packed lunch. We’ve been described in the past as being two sandwiches short of a full picnic but on this occasion you could say that we were a full picnic short of a full picnic. But man cannot live by mints alone and by midday we were feeling a little bit starving to death so in the pokey little convenience shop in Town X we bought shrink-wrapped bright pink high-fat salami sandwiches which were legal because they had been made a couple of weeks before the start of the Covid crisis. We sat in the little blue racy but rusty car to eat them quickly before any of the local semi-facemasked people hurrying about the place to avoid infection could report the sighting of this improvised undercover feast to the authorities.  We were tempted to buy locally made ice cream to complete our repast but that seemed like the sort of thing that real tourists might do and in the eyes of the law we were already somewhere on the cusp between sightseers and fugitives.   

Leaving Town X, with our bellies filled and brains stimulated by fine bright pink victuals and resplendent rural surroundings, we stopped in Layby B to take some photographs of colourfully painted beehives that had caught our eye as they glimmered on a hillside in the late afternoon sun.

 

The Bee Quarter of Town X.

The Bee Quarter of Town X.

 

I had never really considered before what bees got up to in the winter but it seemed that they sort of hibernate, almost. There were none flying around when we arrived but as we got closer to the hives we could hear them frantically buzzing away inside. Did they really hibernate? Doesn’t hibernation normally require going to sleep completely and not just sitting around at home with your mates and buzzing all day? Were they perhaps just doing the self-isolation thing in their isolation bubbles of 50,000, or maybe even hiding from the local virus squad because they’d been out earlier without a facemask?

As I walked back to the little blue racy but rusty car I felt something touch the back of my head and when I turned around I saw a bee flying away in a dazed zigzag fashion. Poor little bee! I thought at first that in the absence of a swarm to follow he’d got a bit lost and just bumped into me but, as the afternoon and evening progressed, the emergence of a slight tenderness told me that I had been stung. Looking on the internet I discovered that in East European Republic X there are approximately 8.5 billion professional bees (there may be many more but the ones that don’t live with official bee keepers are not registered and therefore don’t count … oh, how I hate elitism!). I already knew that the human population of East European Republic X was around 6.9 million. It astounds me therefore to think that out of all those bees who were mostly staying at home because of the winter related hibernation thing and all those human beings who were mostly staying at home because of the virus related isolation thing, this brave solitary bee should pick this unsuspecting solitary human being to sting. What were the chances of that?

Maybe the other bees were worried about people coming along and introducing viruses to their hives so they sent out the brave solitary bee to chase us off. Maybe the brave solitary bee had been pushed out of the hive because he didn’t get on with the other bees and decided to vent his anger and frustration on me, an innocent solitary bystander. Maybe the brave solitary bee was working for the police but without a black notebook and pencil he was unable to arrest me for contravening our national global pandemic laws so he stung me instead. Maybe the brave solitary bee was a member of the thankfully now defunct Ulster Special Constabulary, the armed police corps in the North of Ireland that was organised on military lines and called out in times of emergency, better known back in the day as the Bee Specials, and he was merely trying to maintain the standard of heavy-handedness for which they were notorious.

But whatever the case, he was the only bee that I saw that day and to preserve his anonymity I will call him Bee A.

 

A Hot Little Model from France

The kitchen took on the appearance of an overfilled Greetings from Murmansk snow globe as the door flew open and in gushed a torrent of winter’s whitest weather. Following close behind the icy maelstrom was Priyatelka, her arms laden with logs that she had gathered in the forest. Her burden covered with crisp and sparkling snow, and missing only a robin in a Santa hat to complete a typical Christmas card scene.

‘Put the kettle on would you please, my love?’ I heard her request in her French accent from somewhere inside a glacial feature.

‘I’m afraid I can’t,’ I replied.

‘Oh what a jolly shame,’ she said as she scrambled on the floor to retrieve, before the cats got them, the frostbitten toes that had fallen from her feet as she pulled off her socks.

I could tell that she was itching to use a torrent of strong words to express her feelings of discomfort but, as she had spent the whole of July and August complaining about the ferocity of our summers (which I happen to love), she knew she daren’t use a single word of criticism towards the ‘cooler’ weather that she had been longing for since the day of the anniversary of Hristo Botev’s death.  

She did manage to slip a couple of her special strong words into a sentence to emphasise what might happen to me if I didn’t put the kettle on. It was the least I could do after she had spent such a big chunk of the morning foraging in the woods for winter fuel, à la the poor man in the Good King Wenceslas tale.

As I replied ‘the power’s gone off,’ she turned her fury upon the Bulgarian electricity suppliers. Priyatelka took the Bulgarian word nyama (няма, meaning there is no) and tock (ток, which means electricity supply) and repeated them for five or ten minutes but with a Gallic expletive or two tucked in between them. Oh, she’s so international!

To tell the truth she had been grocery shopping at Lidl but I don’t like to admit that I let her go there alone in case people think of me as a cruel person. Clambering around in a snowstorm in search of firewood is a much less traumatic experience. In the forest it is unlikely that she would have had to use a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel or mingle with hordes of shoppers unable to control their shopping trollies with wonky wheels as they cough their germs all over the place, especially the cheese. Also, I think a wood gathering scenario provides a better introduction to my story.

It was round about mid-morning coffee time that the electric people took our tock. They took it at the most crucial time of the day and, like the winter sun, it took a long time to dawn on us that its prompt return was unlikely. The answer to our power outage was obviously to fire up our petchka (печка, the Bulgarian for wood stove). Ours is a beautiful contraption that sits majestically in our kitchen waiting to be called into action when all other forms of heating have let us down. It’s a Godin you know, from the Godin cast iron foundry, situated in Guise, north west of Paris, which has been manufacturing cast iron stoves, cookers, ranges, etc., since 1840. So, just like Priyatelka, it’s a hot little model from France. But, unlike my dear partner, it’s round about a hundred years old with an enamel finish and an external flue, and I picked it up in an antique shop in town rather than in a wine bar.

After only twenty minutes of faffing around with firelighters and burning my fingers and singeing at least one cat and leaving the outside door open to optimise the through draught needed to really get the fire going and to maximise our hypothermia and to recite another batch of multi-lingual profanities, our lives were reignited. Bulgarian people are able to perform this seemingly simple task in seconds using only a birch twig and something that may once have been part of a goat that’s been kept for years in a jar on a shelf at the back of the larder. Then they celebrate the fire with one of their lovely folklore dances. Between us, Priyatelka and I have two left feet and two right feet but unfortunately we don’t have one of each each, so dancing was out of the question.

A nice hot brew was quite enough for us and soon our djezve (джезве, the Bulgarian for small copper coffee pan) was simmering away nicely atop the petchka and a state of relative normality was restored.

The unavailability of morning coffee is less of a problem in the Balkans than it is in the West because here they tend not to sell digestive biscuits in the shops. Not having something to dunk them in becomes much less of a problem when you don’t have the biscuits in the first place. I suspect that a team of sales executives at the McVitie’s factory near my oldest daughter’s house in Manchester was taking the threat of interruptions to Bulgarian power supplies into consideration when they decided that such confectionery would not be marketed any further east than Hull. We had hoped that things might change when Cold War austerity came to an end but no, still no digestives! Instead we have confectionery made using only a birch twig and something that may once have been part of a goat that’s been kept for years in a jar on a shelf at the back of the larder.

Our adopted country may have the best natural yoghurt, the best traditional dance and the best alphabet in the world but, as long term residents of Bulgaria, Priyatelka and I have had to accustom ourselves to dealing with unavoidable inconveniences such as electricity outages, heavy snowfall, summer droughts, flesh-eating ladybirds, flesh-eating tourists from Western Europe, venomous reptiles, venomous squat toilets, an economy heavily reliant on watermelons and fridge magnets, and what I suppose could be described as food shortages, but only as far as digestive biscuits are concerned. We can overcome most of these problems by using either our imagination or a big pointy stick, but in a house where we rely on electricity for heating, cooking and hot water, our petchka is our lifesaver.

 

A hot little model from France.

A hot little model from France.

 

A lifesaver it may be but I’ll never forget the day we bought it and the battle we had to drag it down the twenty-five irregular stone steps from the road to our door; an ordeal which nearly killed me and my good, but not exactly muscular, friend Dimitar. I remember it being a very hot day in August and as the good people who have worked in Jean-Baptiste Godin’s Parisian factory down the years had never taken the manufacturing of these things lightly, the appliance also turned out not to be light. We really struggled and we were amazed that something designed to keep people warm was already making us sweat like Jacques Brel before we’d even got it into the house. Chopping up the logs is another energy sapping job that makes you want to strip down to your vest and pants, even on a chilly day. So strange it is that if you’ve got a cast iron petchka, you don’t necessarily need to light it to keep the cold out. Just move it a few metres or split a bit of wood to load it up and you’ll be grand.

On the day of our power interruption, once the gravity of the situation had sunk in, we started to consider things that were of greater concern than going without our elevenses. Priyatelka asked me, ‘What are the Bulgarian words for severe cold, funeral arrangements and light buffet back at the house?’

Smurt (смърт, meaning death) was the only relevant word I could think of. I had seen it used in graffiti daubed on walls and bridges around our town in conjunction with the names of unpopular politicians, rival football teams and the bosses of inefficient electricity generating companies. And I reassured her, ‘it won’t come to that, but even if it does, it won’t be our responsibility to provide the customary cups of tea and ham sandwiches that follow a burial.’

‘I don’t want to be buried. I want to be cremated. It’ll warm me up a bit,’ she retorted.

I expect you’ll be pleased to know that, as I write this, we are both still alive. Our heavy metal friend, loaded with logs from our barn and old snotty tissues and empty egg boxes and cardboard tubes from toilet rolls that we’d been saving up outside in a tightly sealed bag since the previous spring to use as kindling, gradually thawed our kitchen and our bones as we relished several coffees. We even used its hot surface to warm up some delicious comestibles from our freezer, which didn’t take long because the power was off and the freezer wasn’t quite as freezing as you might expect a freezer to be, even on a freezing day.

The temperature outside was only just below zero, rather than the minus ten or twenty degrees that January sometimes throws at us, so we soon got to the stage where it was uncomfortably warm in our kitchen. Due to the holes in the knees and elbows of our underwear we were able to cool ourselves with a bit of ventilation but there is no temperature setting or thermostat on a petchka so my plan to prepare a spinach and Gruyère soufflé had to be abandoned, giving way to boiled eggs. Basic, I know, but we tend not to appreciate the special little things in life until we go back to the old, rustic ways and discover that an egg boiled on an antique cast iron petchka tastes so much nicer than an egg boiled on something black and ceramic with Samsung written on it. Maybe it was something to do with how we prepared our kindling.

A problem that we had failed to cater for in our winter survival plan was doing the washing up in the absence of a mains power supply. Archaeological finds have revealed that there has been sophisticated civilization in Bulgaria since around 5,000 BC, but I have to wonder how they managed until relatively recently without dishwasher machines. Surely that must have been a greater priority than inventing the wheel or making arrowheads out of gravel. Had this particular cold day turned out to be the start of a new Ice Age and we had all perished for the want of a bit of tock, then I think any socio-cultural anthropologists excavating our house hundreds of years from now might conclude from the mountain of dirty pots and pans piled up in our kitchen sink that we were neither sophisticated nor civilised and therefore must have lived and died before 5,000 BC. The lack of stone arrowheads in our stone arrowhead drawer would be another tell-tale sign.

Late in the afternoon we heard the entire population of our village simultaneously shout ‘hurroo!’ as the electricity supply was restored. This came at round about the time that the people employed by Bulgaria’s favourite energy supplier would have been finishing work for the day and wanting a nice warm house to go home to and something better than old, rustic boiled eggs for their tea.

In the evening, despite not having added wood to our stove for a couple of hours, there was no sign of the warmth that it emitted subsiding, thanks to the heat-retaining properties of the fire bricks contained within. We continued to take advantage of it until it was time for bed as it provided us with heating and hot water free of charge, unlike the big electric monster heating machine (or heat pump, as the more technically minded would call it) hidden away in our big dark cupboard that looks like a garden shed in the corner of our living room. To further improve our lifestyle, we’re going to invest in a tin bath before next winter because I can’t say that following a personal hygiene routine with only a casserole dish of hot water was without its problems. There was nowhere to put the soap and I’d never before considered how much discomfort could be caused by a stray bay leaf in an intimate place.

On the whole, our day turned out to be a quite enjoyable one. I was so busy keeping the fire going and bringing more logs into the house that I hardly noticed the weather conditions sent to us by our friends from the plains of Central Asia and it never crossed my mind for even a minute that the need to build a snowman might arise.

As we enjoyed the cosiness and warmth, and the old, rustic boiled eggs that it enabled us to prepare, we reminded ourselves that a petchka isn’t just for Christmas or even for a single cold, dark day in January. For starters we needed it the very next day when the power went off again. We also use it in the spring and autumn when we find that the warmth of the days often mean that we’re not required to switch on our big electric dream machine but the temperature might need topping up just a little when the evenings become chilly. 

And whenever Priyatelka demands, as she often does, ‘I want an old, rustic boiled egg,’ I know that I can deliver within three minutes, plus the half hour it takes to split a few logs and the twenty minutes to faff about firing up our trusty Godin.

 

For Yer Women, the Women

All the year they scrub the homes

From Skibbereen to Portglenone.

They work their fingers to the bone,

Afraid to pause to moan or groan.

 

They milk the cows and plough the earth,

Make the butter, cut the turf,

Without complaint of a greater dearth

Of respite each time they give birth.

 

The food’s prepared while you've been out

Having the craic, drinking the stout

And winking at girls. They've no doubt

Ye're a dirty lazy drunken lout.

 

It's Women's Christmas and the day

That things are done a different way.

Yer man the Pope would even say

It's time the girls went out to play.

 

So now’s the time, the sixth of Jan

To get off your arse if you're a man

And rattle out the pots and pans

For the women have their own wee plan.

 

You can’t argue. You’ve no excuse.

(Tradition says you roast a goose)

So just for once you must deduce

It’s her time to be out on the loose.

 

You’ve got no choice so do your best.

It’s just one day so don’t protest.

With a hundred more she should be blessed.

Nollaig na mBan … Give her a rest!

 

 A jar o’ stout for Nollaig na mBan.

A jar o’ stout for Nollaig na mBan.

 

Explanatory note:

In Ireland, the sixth of January is called Nollaig na mBan (pronounced Null-egg na mawn and meaning Women's Christmas). The tradition, still strong in Cork and Kerry, is so called because Irish men take on household duties for the day. Goose was the traditional meat served on Women's Christmas. Some women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers and aunts. As a result, groups of women and girls are common in bars and restaurants on this night. I, in the true spirit of the tradition, was working my fingers to the bone all day even though I’m three thousand kilometres away from Ireland.

Priyatelka, Turlough and the House of Cats

She was sleeping in a gas station, south from here on route E85.

I asked the pump attendant, ‘You think that little feline’s still alive?’

He said ‘Came in a week ago. Sharenka is her name.

It’s the local word for colourful. She’s thin but very tame.’

So I put her on the back seat and she became the first of all our cats.

 

The Gypsy standing at our door had something small and moving in a sack.

A tiny ginger kitten. I held him up, said ‘cute’ and tried to give him back.

He said he needed money to take home to feed his wife

So I gave him twenty levs and took the cat to save its life

And that’s when Borislav chose to be the second of our cats.

 

The girl that lives across the road asked us if we’d do her a good deed.

She had a kotka two months old that needed shelter, love and a good feed.

Such a gorgeous creature, we just couldn't have said no.

He looked a little crazy so we named the cat Ludo

And turned to take him in our house to meet both of the other cats.

 

Before we’d gone a single step she said ‘I’ve got his little brother too.

If you could give them both a home, then that would be the decent thing to do.’

We ummed and ahhed a little bit before we both agreed.

We named him Mitso like the Tsar from the thirteenth century

And then we wondered what we’d done, surrounded in our house by cats.

 

The sunny days behind us, replaced by icy rain and wind and sleet.

Three scrawny cats were playing and a lookin' all bedraggled in the street.

We said that we had quite enough, we couldn't take no more.

Priyatelka put food in a box and left it on the floor

So they could fill their bellies on the path behind the house of cats.

 

A week passed by with the cats looking no better than they'd been.

A blizzard saw the gauge hit minus ten or even lower at fifteen.

The black and white one cried to us 'Won't you kindly let me in?'

The door unlocked, he stepped inside and his brother followed him.

Curled up by the fire. Welcome to the house of cats.

 

The next thing that we had to do was give these tiny animals some names.

The ringleader was Jimmy. On Sundays he would probably get James.

Sharkey suits the other one with the ginger patterned fur.

He didn't seem to care too much. He just sat and gently purred,

As we tramped up and down our lane, searching for the other little cat.

 

Enough to freeze the coffee pot, whiteness came and covered all the ground.

We shivered as we called out 'Puss!’ but the poor little bugger wasn’t found.

We fretted for the missing cat 'til it was time for bed

And then we lay awake all night thinking it must be dead.

A frozen lifeless body, not huddled up with all our other cats.

 

Five days later I was scraping last night’s snow off of the car.

In the wintry silence I heard a little cry come from afar.

I turned around, looked up the hill, saw a miraculous sight.

The shivering and soaking wet pathetic little mite

Ran and jumped into my arms, aching for the house of cats.

 

Priyatelka gave a shriek of joy to see our friend come in out of the cold.

Despite the state that he was in she took him warmly in her hands to hold.

We called him Sam cos that's the word they say here for alone.

We dried him, fed him, hugged him and said 'Hi Sam, welcome home'.

A precious new addition to our ever growing pride of cats.

 

As time went by we thought all our cat rescue days were in the past.

Then in the town in freezing rain a street of cars all driving far too fast.

We met a little ball of fur outside the burger bar.

We picked him up and cancelled lunch and put him in the car.

The latest new addition. Not much room left for any other cats.

 

When you've got as many cats as us it gets quite hard to find them all a name.

It’s quite a possibility that two or three will all end up the same.

So we called the new boy Osem cos in our country that means eight.

And before we get another one it's going to have to wait

Until we've got a vacancy here at the house of cats.

 

We love our feline family, even though they often seem to drive us mental.

We've also got two street dogs who wish the cats were only here on rental.

But the cats and dogs and people in our house get on quite well

We all have our own jobs to do and the cats they do repel

Our rural vermin problem by killing all the mice and rats.

 

Won’t you kindly let me in?

Won’t you kindly let me in?

 

Explanatory note:

A friend, noticing that our house contains more than the average number of cats, challenged me to write a poem about them all. I find challenges as difficult to resist as abandoned cats so I thought I’d have a go. Priyatelka and I have eight of these feline fiends in our home so I realised straight away that the poem would need to be a lengthy one. To make the job a little easier, I borrowed the rhythm and style (but not the lyrics) from Bob Dylan’s epic ballad, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. If you know the song you could sing along, if you don’t you could just read the poem and either way maybe it’s just too long for you to be bothered with. I hope the result has met the challenge.

Keeping Teeth and Kidneys for Beginners

According to my team of researchers, Bulgaria has the cheapest beer in the world. At least one bottle of rakia, that well known cure-all, affectionately known as the Spirit of Bulgaria, can be found in most houses here and many people distil their own using ferment from the great abundance of fruit that grows all around us in our sun-kissed and richly fertile country. Bulgaria's 2019 grape harvest amounted to 195,000 tonnes, of which about 182,000 tonnes were processed into 120 million litres of wine, which made for quite a knees-up!

I’m not particularly fond of the beer here which, although refreshing in the scorching heat of our summer months, is predominantly yellow, fizzy and without flavour, as beer tends to be in most countries in southern Europe. It costs very little and it tastes much nicer than Coca Cola (as well as being less damaging to your health) but it’s still not my cup of tea. The rakia, often labelled as firewater by foreigners who have never taken the time to really sample and savour the many different kinds and grades of the distillation, can be an extremely pleasant and worryingly moreish tipple. Some of our wine, largely underrated in the snobbish world of the sommelier, is spectacularly good and very reasonably priced; that produced from the red Mavrud and Melnik grapes being my personal favourites.

Bearing these facts of affordability and accessibility in mind, I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it is for us poor folks in Eastern Europe to follow the Dry January routine that many in the consumerist Western World pursue to detoxify their ravaged internal organs after the orgy of overindulgence during the celebrations that mark the darkest days of winter.

To be honest, for the vast majority of the many Januarys that I’ve lived through, the thought of attempting to abstain from alcohol for the whole month never even occurred to me. I’ve always been rather fond of a drop of the pure and on occasions in the past have been known to have transferred not insignificant volumes of whiskey from bottle to digestive tract during the first twenty minutes of New Year’s Day, so any plans to be pure myself for the entire month were already in tatters before Andy Stewart had even got round to singing the final verse of that old favourite, Donald Where’s Your Troosers?; the perennial mainstay of Hogmanay parties with the BBC television people and at our house (or hoose).

I’ve never smoked cigarettes and trying to stop drinking was a non-starter so, determined to not stand out from the crowd, I have always dabbled in some other sort of resolution at this time of year. For decades I made bold January promises that I would give up abstinence and celibacy for a whole year and at the end of most of those years I can boast that, unlike many people, I hadn’t broken my resolutions. In January 1958, when I was only eight weeks old, I vowed never to vote for a political party that only looked after the interests of people who had so much money that they couldn’t fit it all inside their houses so they had to keep some of it on an island in the Caribbean, and to this day my resolve in this respect remains completely intact. Other things I’ve blocked from my life on a long term basis include badger baiting, television programmes presented by Ant and Dec, Brussels sprouts and Luton; none of which required much willpower.

Down the years there has been many a first of January morning when I have sworn never to touch a drop of alcohol again in my life but, as I eventually peeled back the bed covers to be hit by the ice cold light of day, I realised what a foolish notion this was and toddled off to the pub for a livener as soon as the packet of paracetamol had stopped screaming at me. Consequently, having had a pint or two, irreparable damage had already been done and all the pain and strain associated with attempting to give up the drink then had to be repeated on the second of January by which time the scale of the problem had subsided a little but not completely, and so on, showing gradual improvement on each successive day. Usually by the beginning of Lent I was stone cold sober and ready for a party.

My character has never been such that I have been unable to go without a drink but I have always been the sort of person who is easily cajoled into something that’s probably best avoided. My dear old Nan, who was from Sunderland in the north east of England, was never what you would call a drinker but she liked her whiskey and, with a twinkle in her eye, encouraged others to join her on special occasions and at New Year in particular. Apparently, when I was only a few weeks old I had a terrible ear infection and I wouldn’t stop crying. The whole family was sick of the awful noise I was making, especially in the middle of the night. Had they thought to keep the receipt in a safe place they would have returned me to where they had got me and asked for a refund. So my Nan decided that seeing me in tremendous pain could be considered a special occasion and therefore it would be a grand idea to put a teaspoon of whiskey in my milk to make me sleep and shut me up. Apparently, I showed no objection to her suggestion. My Nan’s remedy worked a treat. No one heard a peep out of me until the middle of the next morning and friends and family have been giving me alcohol for the same reason ever since.

My ear infection cleared up after a few days but for many years I managed very well to disguise my exceptionally good health, enabling me to partake in a wee drop of something every time I suffered from any class of an ailment, be it large or small, real or imaginary. Over the course of time I developed an intricate menu of spirits to raise my spirits depending upon the circumstances. For a painful knee it was always vodka. A splash of gin for earache and brandy for toothache. Rum would sort out sunburn and ouzo took the heat out of a dose of flu. Irish whiskey for my panic attacks when I thought the world might stop revolving on its axis or run out of Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky when I’d run out of Irish whiskey, American whiskey when I’d lost my sense of taste and it really didn’t matter what I drank. Sometimes I’d have a quarter gill of crème de menthe to ease the sting of a paper cut, absinthe for housemaid’s knee or a Babycham to get over those awful days when I’d been run over by a bus. Had the amount of stuff that I knocked back for medicinal purposes been available on prescription then the National Health Service in Britain would have been its knees round about the same time that I was.

My fondness for the tipple peaked in the late 1970s when I was wandering around the world working on ships. The fine array of alcohol made available by the shipping company was sold to us in the ship’s bar on a duty-free and non-profit basis. It was ridiculously cheap with a double measure of single malt usually costing less than a can of the effervescent soft drink waste of time stuff. And I'm not very big and I'm awful shy so Dutch, but more often Scottish, courage helped me get by in the tough environment in which I was living and working.

Wherever our ship happened to be, we spent long hours hard at work with either a sextant, a paint brush or a spanner in our hands. But while we were away from land there was very little for us to do to unwind. Our once-a-week games of I-Spy became monotonous as everything that we spied began with ‘S’ … ship, sea, sky, sun, stars, sharks, storms, sailors, scurvy, seductive mermaids, sad old men, etc. We read books, played games of darts and cards and introduced each other to our individual tastes in music, courtesy of the hundreds of pirate cassette tapes we picked up for as little as the price of a dram of single malt in Singapore. But all of these pastimes included a bit of distilled lubrication to smoothly move the time along. For centuries it had been a traditional skill of salty old seadogs to while away the hours at night on the vast rolling oceans by putting ships in bottles. My shipmates and I were quite adept at phase one of this process (i.e. emptying the bottles) but not one of us ever managed to progress beyond that.

Eventually I grew tired of not knowing which country I was in when I woke up in the morning and I worried about my teeth and kidneys falling out. I had run out of interest in nautical things so I shivered my last timber, had my ultimate poop on the poop deck and said goodbye to the seagoing life. A week or so after being discharged from my final ship in the much less exotic than it sounds port of Tampa in Florida, I had found myself a quarter-past-nine-to-bang-on-the-stroke-of-five job and given up the strong drink which was something that I could no longer afford in great quantities as I attempted to survive permanently marooned in Leeds with a band of bilge-sucking landlubbers. But the seed had been sown of always wanting just a smidgeon more once a cork had been popped and ever since then the days after party days have always begun with me feeling a little weary and dry mouthed.

 

The Morning After the Night Before.

The Morning After the Night Before.

 

One morning in March 2020, my dear Priyatelka and I woke up to find our house a complete mess and the kitchen strewn with all manner of litter and empty bottles. We phoned the police to report the crime but it soon came to light that we had done all the damage ourselves after one too many medium sherries. Another after effect of our raucous night was that we had a taste in the mouth that makes you wonder if a rat had crawled in and died. I was sure that if even a healthy rat had crawled into my mouth the alcohol fumes would have killed it. We both vowed there and then that we would never touch another drop of drink again. In fact, we were so serious about it that we both vowed that we would never again need to vow that we would never touch another drop of drink again.

Our party nights and mornings after were over. So from that day forth we have been as dry as the waste pipe in a Saudi Arabian dehumidifier and the rate at which share prices in the Bulgarian drinks industry have plummeted has been inversely proportional to the rate of regeneration of our livers. The money that we have saved from not buying alcohol has been enough for us to buy a whole Cayman Island of our own.

This year Priyatelka and I will definitely be having a dry January and, having already completed a successful dry all of last year and most of the previous one, I’m sure we will find it easy. All that needs to be done now is for us to find the Bulgarian words for smug and sanctimonious.

 

Before The Year Is Gone

Veiled in darkness

We feel you, smell you

Do not see your demonic form

Not knowing

Are you serpent, hound or fish?

Such evil there

In your malevolent glare

Pilfering bread, salt meat and oats

Our larders left bare

Our lives sucked away like

The milk you filch in nocturnal stealth

From the paps of our goats

Take your fire, your floods and storms

Your rabid jackals, unearthly forms

Wrap the dread you brought

In your eerie shawl and crawl

Back to your cave, your underworld

Leave our cradles to swing

Our women to sing

Our village to ring with the sound

Of childhood joy, of animal bells

Of ancient Thracian verse

And the roaring curse of the Kuker

As he casts you down

To the foulest pit where you belong

Be gone before the year is gone

To Hades’ infernal realm

 

The Kukeri are coming!

 

Note of explanation: Around New Year and before Lent, the Kukeri walk and dance through villages to scare away evil spirits with their elaborate costumes and the sound of multiple large bells attached to their belts. They are also believed to provide a good harvest, health, and happiness to the village during the year. The Kukeri tradition has been practiced since Thracian times, predominantly in Bulgaria but also in other Balkan countries.

The Chips at Twerton Park

When Raleigh’s ship came into port the gentry gathered round

To see the cargo in its hold of veggies small and brown.

But little did the people know as Walter disembarked

That what he’d found would one day make the chips at Twerton Park.

 

Once on a trip to Liverpool I had a sausage roll.

At Middlesbrough I bought a pie from the hut behind the goal.

And Leicester’s chips, although not bad, just lacked that vital spark

No football club has food to match the chips at Twerton Park.

 

I’ve eaten curry in Madras, pastrami in New York

And from our local takeaway some sweet and sour pork.

By a sandy beach in the Cyclades I’ve even sampled shark,

But nothing ever tastes as good as the chips at Twerton Park.

 

My dear old Mum would greet us home, her peeler in her hand.

So proud she was to serve us up fresh from her old chip pan.

The fat red hot and a pinch of salt, her years old trade mark!

Although she tried, they weren’t the same as the chips at Twerton Park.

 

Whenever I can, I take my kids down to see Bath City.

Sometimes the football’s very good and sometimes a bit poor.

But as every Saturday comes around the children do remark.

‘Come on Dad, we want some chips. Let’s go to Twerton Park!’

 

My kids at Twerton Park in 1997, looking excited in anticipation of their half-time plate of chips.

My kids at Twerton Park in 1997, looking excited in anticipation of their half-time plate of chips.  

 

Time (Clock of The Heart)

‘That one’s five hundred quid mate, but I could probably let you have it for four eighty,’ said the very gaunt looking man pointing to the clock that looked a lot like the one you’d see on a box of Rowntree’s After Eight Mints.

In such circumstances I wonder why market traders so often offer a reduced price without there having been even a faint suggestion of haggling. Why don’t they just mark their acceptable price on the item for sale in the first place? And even if I had been going to haggle with him, I would have been expecting to settle at something way below what he had already considered to be a bargain. This never happens in Lidl; well not without a yellow sticker on a tub of yoghurt the day before it turns to penicillin.

Wouldn’t it be grand if lovely Desislava who works on the checkout at our local supermarket were to say, ‘That comes to eighty-two leva and sixteen stotinki, sir, but the shopping’s yours for seventy leva and that’s my final price.’? My dear Priyatelka, who is French but has contracted a bit of my Yorkshire-ness since we met, would then offer fifty.

‘I wasn’t looking to buy one. I just wondered if you knew anybody who can repair old clocks,’ I replied to the purveyor of second-hand clocks, several specimens of which included second-hand second hands. I already had one at home that was in bad shape but it had been known to majestically command a place on the old oak sideboard in my Nan and Grandad’s house since what seemed like the beginning of time; but it must have been later than that because surely only the very astute would have had a need for a clock on the very day that the concept of time was introduced to the world.

He told me that he could fix them himself but obviously not on a trestle table in the draughty corridors of the Shambles antique market in Devizes. The name on his business card (not cards … he only had one to give away) was Joseph Antram but he told me to call him Joe and said he would need to come to my house to see the clock and give me his verdict. He wrote down my mobile phone number and promised that he would ring me soon to arrange a date for a visit.

 

The Shambles antique market in Devizes.

The Shambles antique market in Devizes.

 

Several days passed and I heard nothing from him. Having reached a point that was way past the anticipated ‘soon’, I thought that perhaps his clock wasn’t working and he had lost all track of time. I thought that perhaps he’d sold one of his antique timepieces and gone on holiday with the proceeds but, given the astronomical retail prices he was recommending, that was unlikely.

The next Sunday, before it was even light, my phone rang and it was him. His clock really must have been broken because no one in their right mind would want to talk business at such an uncivilised hour. He must have realised his mistake and, eager to return to his bed, we quickly agreed that we would meet at my front door at eleven o’clock that very morning.

Just after twelve the doorbell rang. He apologised for being late, explaining that he had run out of petrol because the fuel gauge on his car was a bit dodgy. While he was talking he looked at the clock that I had taken down from its dusty home on top of my bookshelf and placed on the kitchen table.

After a minute or two he sighed and said, ‘Poor old thing has certainly seen better days.’ Words which, I felt, could have been used to describe adequately both himself and his car.

I explained that I could remember the clock working when I was a kid but years of abuse and neglect had left it in this sorry state.

‘How can you abuse a clock?’ Joe asked.

‘Well, me and my friend Gavin used to open the back and give the pendulum a bit of a shove to make it swing faster so that it would chime the hour a bit sooner but our theory didn’t seem to work and, shortly afterwards, neither did the clock. And then there was my Grandad,’ I told him.

‘Your Grandad?’

‘Yes. He had been very ill for a long time before he died but tried to continue in his role as chief clock winder-upper even though he was no longer sure what to do. So there would have been quite a lot of over-winding of the spring and twisting of the hands in all directions but clockwise,’ I added.

‘That’s a shame,’ he said, scratching his chin. ‘It’s a lovely clock.’

‘How much do you think it’s worth?’ I asked in my best Antiques Roadshow voice.

His reply was, ‘Well if it was working, about fifty quid.’

‘And how much would it cost to repair?’

‘About fifty quid,’ he said, as I made a mental profit and loss assessment of the situation.

The clock, although nice to look at and a bit old, can’t really be described as either beautiful or antique. It doesn’t even have a cuckoo. It dates back to the 1930s when German manufacturers flooded the British market for wooden, wind-up, striking clocks. He told me that back then just about every respectable council house occupying family owned one as a symbol of having moved up in status from the squalor of life in the inner city slums. This is why such a clock was never seen in any of the Dick Van Dyke scenes in the film Mary Poppins. Sadly, their popularity tailed off at a rate conversely proportionate to that of air-raid shelters round about September 1939.

Weighing up the circumstances, I decided that I would give Joe the job of fixing the old ticker. Fifty pounds wasn’t a vast amount of money and I was sure it would cost me more than that to buy a decent new clock in a shop in the High Street. It could have been so much more. In fact, it was round about what I would normally have spent in a month on phone calls to the speaking clock telephone service. I must confess that I was more prone to dial that number during my hours of loneliness just to hear the soothing voice of the lovely lady who always knew what the time would be at the third stroke than I was to merely discover the time.

‘I’ll give you a call in a few days when I’ve got it working,’ Joe remarked cheerfully as he carried the tired old timepiece out to his car.

At that stage I was pleased with the progress but a few days later he hadn’t rung me. A couple of weeks later there was still no news. So I called him but there was no answer. I called him another four or five times over the course of the next couple of days, but still no answer. I dialled up the speaking clock lady who made my heart skip a beat as she advised me that after the third stroke it would be six fifty-two and thirty seconds, but she had no news about Joe and my clock. She may have been the original good time girl but she was hopeless when it came to providing any other sort of information.

 

My dear old clock at five past ten this morning.

My dear old clock at five past ten this morning.

 

I decided that I would sit tight and wait patiently for Joe to contact me. It had been almost fifty years since I had last seen the clock working so I was in no rush. But the weeks went by and I completely forgot about it. I couldn’t even say roughly how many weeks it had been because in those days I was a high-flying self-employed businessman so I didn’t have the time to sit around looking at clocks.

And then one day, out of the blue, my phone rang.

‘I’m really sorry. I’ve had your clock for nearly four months,’ said the voice at the other end of the line, which was obviously Joe’s. ‘I’m just recovering from my second major heart operation and I’ve been trying to sort out the broken clocks of the crowd of foul-mouthed irate people who have been ringing me up every day to ask where their broken clocks are.’

‘So where is my clock?’ I asked politely, not wanting to be part of the crowd.

‘It’s here, in front of me,’ Joe responded without hesitation.

‘Is it working?’

‘No!’ Again no hesitation.

‘When might it be working?’ I further enquired.

‘Well provided that there’s no leaking from the valves I should be able to let you have it back at the weekend,’ said Joe.

‘I didn’t know clocks had valves,’ I remarked, thinking that he was winding me up.

‘They don’t,’ he replied. ‘I mean the valves in my heart that have just been operated on. The stitches might still be a bit fragile.’

I told him that it would be nice to be reunited with my chronometer but not to put himself under any pressure on my behalf. I could just imagine the headline on the front page of the local paper KILLER CLOCK STRIKES AGAIN and the remorse that would torment my mind forever.

True to his word, Joe the clock repairer, looking very much on the alive side, arrived at my house to demonstrate the tick-tocking and dong-donging that I hadn’t heard for such a long, long time. Proudly, he accepted his fee of fifty pounds plus another fiver that I gave him out of guilt at not having taken him flowers, grapes and Lucozade while he was in hospital.

Ten years later the clock is still going strong. It has reclaimed its place on top of the same bookshelf on which it sat back in the days when I lived in England though now, three thousand kilometres away at the other side of Europe, it has a completely new layer of dust. It looks great and the lovely sound of its mechanism adds such a lot to the homely atmosphere of our relatively new Bulgarian abode. It can’t be relied upon if I have a specific deadline for catching a bus or even if I am trying to boil an egg but despite this I love it, and the memories it conjures, to bits. The catch on the glass door that covers the clock face is a bit worn so sometimes it springs open of its own accord. If this happens while I’m sitting alone with a book at night, the shock is almost enough to give me a heart attack.

After a busy introduction to the world, the dear old clock had a long period of being inoperative, followed by the trauma of undergoing major repairs but now enjoys a sedate life just ticking away at its leisure. It is my heartfelt wish that these same words can be used to describe the way that things have panned out for Joe in Devizes.

 

 

They Think I’ve Gone Berserk

This is a poem I wrote about forty years ago. I was working as a waiter in a cocktail bar at the time. My dear friend Anthony Healey found the faded manuscript in a dusty old trunk in an attic. He picked it out, he shook it up and turned it around. Turned it into something new with his music.

 


 

Their third hit and probably their most melodic so far. Poetic licence was pushed to the limit but they had to do that to maintain the dynamic flow of the rhythm and rhyme. – Melody Maker

 

Not very good. – The Dagenham Advertiser

 

Words by Turlough Ó Maoláin

Music by Anthony Healey

Choreography by the Ed Miller Band

 


 

They Think I’ve Gone Berserk – A Football Anthem

 

I’ve had a letter in the Evening Post.

I’ve asked my mates at work.

They think I’m daft. An imbecile!

They think I’ve gone berserk.

That’s what they think,

That I’ve gone berserk.

 

I’ve asked my wife. She’s leaving

If I don’t give it up.

She’ll change her mind, I’m sure she will,

When we win the FA Cup.

‘Cause we’re gonna win,

We’re gonna win the FA Cup.

 

I’ve told my kids I’ll buy them

A great big sticky bun

And a year’s supply of Crunchies

But they just still won’t come.

Oh, no they won’t,

No they will not come.

 

I’ve asked my Ma and Sister.

I’ve even asked the cat.

But they’re too busy and in a rush,

To be bothered with all that.

Yeah, I’m telling you man

They’re real busy cats.

 

I’ve asked my Cousin Kevin,

Uncle James and Auntie Joyce.

They’d rather move to Stoke, they said,

If they had to make a choice.

In Stoke they’re saying

‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’

 

I’ve asked the postman and the milkman,

The paperboy as well,

If they’d go there with me.

They just said, ‘Now go to Hell’.

That’s what they said.

They said ‘Going to Hell’.

 

The only person tempted

Was my beloved Nan.

But then she went and changed her mind

Because she’s a Boro fan.

And I’m telling you man

She’s a Boro fan.

 

Its such an awful shame.

A wrong that should be righted.

That no one will accompany me

When I watch Leeds United.

That’s what I said,

When I watch Leeds United.

 

 

Link to music video

 

The old Lowfields Road stand at the Elland Road stadium in Leeds in 1985.

The old Lowfields Road stand at the Elland Road stadium in Leeds in 1985.

 

The Merry Moth of December

I think that in a previous life I may have been a moth. Although I’ve never eaten a woolly jumper or bashed my brains out on a car windscreen, I can’t help but wonder about my past. I’m confident in saying that I’m not prone to spending days or weeks curled up in a pupa waiting for my body to undergo an incredible cellular transformation, but still I wonder. Something similar to this has occasionally happened to me when I have been away on holiday and my succumbing to temptation has dashed any hope of continuing my normally healthy eating, drinking and exercise regime, but not to such an extent that I have become unrecognisable. I haven’t got six legs and, as far as I can remember, I’ve never had the sixteen which I would have had back in the days when I was a caterpillar … which I wasn’t.

What has aroused my suspicion in this respect is that I seem to have an obsession with light. Despite my intense dislike of televisions (the devil’s own route to brainwashing) and gambling machines (rich men’s piggy banks), I find it difficult to avert my gaze from them should I find them in my proximity. It doesn’t matter if I’m unable to hear any sound coming from them (in fact I prefer it that way) but I find the light that these things emit to be quite mesmerising. Similarly, I can watch a lit candle or the dancing flames of a log fire until they die out and I can browse for hours in the lamps and light fittings department of any half decent DIY shop. I love light and I love flickering things.

It may seem strange then that one of my favourite days of the year is the one on which we have the least amount of daylight. On this day it is very dark. Horrendously dark! As dark as a badger’s dark bits! In fact, it’s so dark that I can’t get through it without wearing a coalminer’s helmet with the big lamp attached and a series of mirrors strategically placed about my person to keep me illuminated. As a backup to that, I put on my sexy glow-in-the-dark underwear and on my limbs I smear puree of slug and snail bought fresh from the delicatessen counter in our local supermarket. According to the work of scientists involved in major studies of bioluminescence and the sales patter of lovely Desislava who works on the checkout at Lidl, this is the favoured food of glow worms and consequently they just can’t resist clinging on to me. I’m sure that any readers who are familiar with the habits of glow worms will back me up in this respect. So when I don this attire, no glitter ball worth its salt is safe, moles find the need to wear sunglasses and lighthouse keepers across the land have expressed a fear that I may be putting them out of work. It’s a lot of trouble to go to but this, I find, is better than being kept in the dark.

This black day is scientifically known as the winter solstice, in folklore terms as Yule and locally wherever I have lived as if-that-peculiar-man-comes-near-me-I’ll-set-the-dog-on-him day.

So lock up your sprigs of mistletoe because that day is today! You probably shouldn’t need to worry too much about my odd behaviour because I live in Bulgaria which is probably a long way from where you live and as you read this you’re probably thinking that I’ve already been taken into police custody as a consequence of my own unique way of surviving the blackness / rejoicing the end of the year’s crone phase. I pity those men in black (the Bulgarian term for boys in blue) who have such difficulty putting the handcuffs on me when they have all that slippery extract of gastropod to contend with but, give them their due, they seem to manage every year. It has become a bit of a Balkan tradition.

 

The merry moth of December ... in August.

The merry moth of December ... in August.

 

At this stage of my tale I suspect you have calculated that I am making most of this up. It should be obvious really as Wi-Fi, like a laundry service and a morning newspaper, is not generally available in police station cells in former Soviet Bloc countries. I wouldn’t be able to post this on a website if I was chained to a wall in a dismal dungeon or in an interrogation room with electrodes attached to my glittering baubles and the music of the CD Now That’s What Galls Me At Christmas torturing my troubled mind.

One of the few real facts contained in my text is that, in my part of the world, this year’s winter solstice takes place today at 5:59 pm. But how do they know that? How can they be so accurate? Do they have some sort of astral timetable? Could it be early or late or even, heaven help us, cancelled because of leaves on the sun’s path across the southern sky? Could it be that we wait six months for a solstice and then, like Leeds buses, two solstices come along together but they’re just not telling us? Have I created a new conspiracy theory or can we believe the scholars and the mathematicians? I think I’ll take their word for it because I love a winter solstice almost as much as I love a Leeds bus and I’ve no way of proving them wrong.

Freed from the shackles that one would normally associate with the celebration of the bleak midwinter (Marks and Spencer have yet to set foot in Bulgaria and George Michael could never master our language), to entertain ourselves this afternoon, Priyatelka and I burnt a Yule log. I last burnt one about thirty years ago, in the oven when I was trying to make one of those Swiss roll cake sort of Yule logs with a plastic robin on top but got distracted by the Postman Pat Christmas Special that my kids were watching on telly and I left it too long in the oven. That Mrs Goggins who ran the village post office in Greendale was always such a tease, but even more so around this time of year when, despite the skills of the animators, she appeared to have had the bottle of Bailey’s to her animated lips and become quite flirty, which made it essential viewing for middle aged fathers such as myself. The charred remains of my cake went in the bin and I never did get to use that plastic robin which I had bought in Leeds market. On reflection I’m glad of that because, in my opinion, a plastic robin is the epitome of crass consumerism thrust upon us at a time when we should all be concentrating on bringing joy and peace to the world and remembering that the use of any plastic at all usually ends up with a turtle or a dolphin being harmed which really spoils the magic of Christmas.

Today the Yule log that Priyatelka and I burnt in our wild garden was a real wooden Yule log that we’d cut down ourselves from an already dead tree with our festive chainsaw. In Bulgaria this specially selected piece of wood is called a budnik (бъдник) and the burning of it is supposed to take place inside the house, but we had recently hoovered and didn’t want to make a mess. It has become a Bulgarian tradition to hoover the house every December whether it needs it or not. Also, it is an even more traditional Bulgarian tradition that the eldest son of the family goes into the forest in his best clothes to cut the log, but my son was unable to do this due to global pandemic-based restrictions on travel between the city of Manchester and the village of Malki Chiflik, his reluctance to get his best clothes dirty and his total lack of experience in the practice of lumber jacking. Despite this, we stuck to the ritual as closely as possible by sitting by the fire until the embers had lost their glow, eating delicious homemade blackcurrant cheesecake as worshippers of the sun and planets had done on this day for thousands of years before us, and remarking upon the fact that this would be the last time for a long time that we’d be able to complain that the nights were really drawing in.

A year ago we found this day of celebration edging towards stressful; the joy impaired slightly by the fact that an American Evangelical Christian pastor and the worldly wise worldwide web / tabloid press had been citing forecasts made by ancient Mayan astronomers, suggesting that a series of cataclysmic events would bring about the end of the world. To be on the safe side we got up extra early that morning to put the bins out and to go and do our shopping. By the time our chores were done and we had sat down for an afternoon cup of tea and scone (a mince pie would have been nice but they have yet to be introduced to Bulgaria … come back Walter Raleigh, you were always good at that sort of thing) nothing apocalyptic had happened. Perhaps it had only been a small apocalypse and we had missed it while we were queueing at Desislava’s till to pay for our seasonal delicacies and extract of gastropod. Another possibility is that we missed it because after the fireside cheesecake we fell asleep like all good lardy people do when their bellies are full. The weather had been a bit grey here during the days leading up to the calamitous event so, because of a combination of that and us not really caring, we certainly missed the alignment of the planets Jupiter and Saturn which apparently would signal the total obliteration of the world and its entire contents that evening. Apparently those planets came closer together than they had done since the Middle Ages, which must have been a bit scary for anybody living on Jupiter or Saturn. I expect they too were victims of the anticipated doom and the disruption that it would bring to their Christmas arrangements. Here on Earth, we gave out little disappointed sighs and hoped that we would get a nicer day for it the next time it happened.

I absolutely love the winter solstice. Priyatelka loves it too because there are fewer hours in which she has to tolerate me in my state of deep winter gloom. But it also means that we have reached the shortest day of the year. It won’t get any darker than this and slowly but surely, and without the need for an app on our mobile phones or fear of it falling victim to Covid restrictions, the light and warmth will return to the earth and to our lives.

Soon we will see many encouraging signs that the infant year is upon us. The first fragile snowdrops will begin to poke their tiny heads out into the world as furry little creatures in forest and field, wood and glade, will start to make babies, keeping us awake at night with all those screechy noises they make whilst in the throes of passion. People who have their birthdays in January will start telling us what they want as presents in the hope that they get something better than what we gave them for Christmas. In most major retail outlets advent calendars stuffed with stale chocolate will be on sale for less than half of their original price side by side with expensive Easter eggs. Leeds United will get knocked out of the FA Cup and there might still be a crack of light in the western sky as the classified football results are read out late on a Saturday afternoon. All such heart-warming occurrences to signify that we’re gradually emerging from what always seems like a long, dark tunnel. We’re waxing down our surfboards. We can’t wait for June.

Apart from our long hot Balkan summers, for me, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. In this connection I raise my glass of something fiery and Bulgarian and say Nazdrave! (Наздраве!) to wish warmth, health and happiness to all who read this … and also to those who don’t read this, but they will never know.

Christmas With Monsieur Bublé

A portfolio of lively tunes

A carousel and gay balloons

To start, the handsome Gaul festoons

Season’s greetings most profound

To all of those who’ve gathered round

 

Astonishing performance feats

A monkey juggles to earn treats

He tries to sing as he competes

To be the pride of the Monsieur

A furry creature turned jongleur

 

To titillate excited guests

A Turkish woman on request

Reveals the tattoos on her chest

A serpent, panther, pipes of Pan

An amulet from Uzbekistan

 

The strongman lifts above his head

A canon filled with balls of lead

A Gypsy chants to reach the dead

Magicians cast their magic spells

And wee folk dance in shoes with bells

 

For nourishment at quarter past

Each hour is served a great repast

Into gaping festive mouths are cast

Rich delicacies from eastern lands

Brought here by camels across the sands

 

Fruit and flesh of every kind

Persian spices all combined

To tempt the pallet and the mind

Sassafras, cloves and fenugreek

Morsels lure both strong and weak

 

On table tops huge kegs of wine

From lush green slopes along the Rhine

Dry or sweet all taste divine

In sparkling crystal held to toast

Their benefactor and noble host

 

Dancing goes on ‘til it’s light

Faces shining with delight

Hoping they can dance all night

But with pinching toes some sit and sigh

With cup of tea and a hot mince pie

 

 

Fantasies of Enya

I'd like to be the owner of a butcher's shop in Newry.

I'd like to shake my hips about and sing like Billy Fury.

I'd like to be a cosmonaut like Pavel, Lev and Yuri.

But it's my dream to write some songs as good as Ian Dury.

 

I'd like to ride a bike like Lance in the Tour de France in France.

I'd like to be a brain surgeon just given half a chance.

I'd like to join a ballet school to pirouette and prance.

I long to hypnotise Ed Sheeran, put him in a trance.

 

I'd like to have a well-paid job and big house like Joe Biden.

I'd like to have a three pronged fork and go fishing with Poseidon.

I'd like a shiny sideboard with a fruit bowl and a vase on.

Or own the M6 toll road with all those buses, trucks and cars on.

 

I'd love to be the goalkeeper for Ireland or for Leeds.

I'd love to help a Third World country out with all their needs.

I'd love to stop the politicians with their dirty deeds.

I'd shove a stick up Boris Johnson's arse until it bleeds.

 

How great to cook an omelette just like Delia or Jamie.

And ban the Christmas Brussels sprout. I'm sure no one would blame me.

Or play the lead part in a film of Ayatollah Khomeini.

I'd gladly do it just for fun. They wouldn't need to pay me.

 

I wish that I'd met Gandhi, Lennon or Josephine Baker.

I wish they'd bring back fish and chips all wrapped up in newspaper.

I hope that I'm completely dead when I meet my undertaker.

And if my missus is asleep my snoring doesn't wake her.

 

I think I'll have a party and invite just Debbie Harry.

But it's Siouxsie, Scary or Kate Bush I'd really like to marry.

Though I’ve fantasies of Enya wearing hobnail boots and sari.

I hope she enjoys winkles, whelks and a bit of calamari.

 

I've wished for many things but in my life I can't complain.

I've nothing much to moan about but some minor aches and pains.

I've had a ball, three kids and all the joys that they contain.

And should I ever get the chance I'd do it all again.

 

 


 

 

Once again my long-time friend Anthony Healey has put my words to music. So just click on the link if you want to shake your head to the rhythm or shake your head in dismay.

 

Video Link

 

 

It Being December

Dulled

A mind follows a rainbow

Seven shades of jet

In hope to find

A faerie shoemaker

In wee black jacket and cap

Tap-tapping at the soles

Of blackened boots

As he guards

His crock of coal

Before the setting of a sun

That didn't rise

Didn't even try

Entrapped by anthracite nights

At either end

Of another charcoal day

  

A dark day in Connemara.