Oliver Postgate

Very sad to hear about the passing of Oliver Postgate; Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, the Clangers, Bagpuss, all wonderful pieces of hand-made animation put together in an old cowshed in the finest tradition of the great British eccentric. And all lovely parts of that half imagined, half remembered childhood memory, part of the good childhood memories along with other rose tinted nostalgic memories which tell you that when you were young summers were always long and sunny, winters always came with deep snow to sledge on. Basic animation to be sure, but in the long ago time before multi channeled TV, the web or digital animation these were as essential to generations of British kids as their copy of the Beano. Another little piece of my childhood tumbles away…

What happened?

I know I haven’t posted for a while, folks, but I’m afraid my world has been turned upside down and pulled inside out and I feel like my heart has been too. I went to bed on Sunday 30th of March content after a pleasant late afternoon chatting to friends over drinks in my favoured haunt of the Caley Sample Room. And in the small, dark hours of the following morning a phone call, a sinking feeling because no-one phones at 3am for good news. Stagger out of bed, grab phone, it’s my dad. It’s my dad more disraught than I’ve ever known him and through tears he’s telling me we just lost my mum. I don’t understand what’s going on – I’m half asleep, mum wasn’t in the pink but nothing serious that we knew of, what’s going on, what does he mean. I’m still in shock shortly after as my cousin and uncle arrive to take me home to Glasgow, driving through the dark and I’m praying please let this be a bad dream, please let me wake up, please let me wake up, please let me wake up. It wasn’t. We just buried my beautiful, warm, loving mother a couple of days ago and I feel like someone’s ripped a chunk of my soul out.

I came home to Edinburgh today for the first time in over a week and when I checked my emails there was one from my mum, sent on that Sunday, which I hadn’t seen because I had been out all day and because I never checked the following day because I was sitting back in Glasgow in shock with my dad wondering how this had happened to us so shockingly suddenly and why was it happening to us. She just got online a few weeks ago and was so proud about emailing the relatives in Canada and elsewhere. It was just one, short line, asking how I was and telling me her and dad had just booked their summer holidays – in fact there are two new cases they bought on Saturday lying unused in my room back home. It finishes ‘see you Wednesday’ – they were coming through to visit their wee boy and drop off his Easter egg. I didn’t get to see her. Instead I saw her in the hospital and the spark that made her my mum was gone from her. And its not bloody fair, she was 61, her and dad retired only a year and I want to scream at the world for taking her from us. I wanted her to get up so badly, I touched her beautiful red hair and kissed her and she didn’t get up and we had to leave her in that cold place. It feels like we’ve lived a year in the last nine or ten days, so damned hard and more than anything I need a cuddle from my mum and I can’t have it and that’s breaking my heart. I can’t write anymore just now, its too raw and everytime I think I’m getting a grip something else will set me off again, I feel like my heart’s made of glass. I wanted to write, to let some of it out but its just too hard right now.

Arthur C Clarke laid to rest

While I was off the air last week we lost Sir Arthur C Clarke, one of the few authors to cross out of his genre to become a cultural icon recognised by millions, including those who never picked up a science fiction book in their life. Sadly he passed away at the age of 90 just weeks before the annual Arthur C Clarke awards are due to be announced. I’ve been reading Arthur’s books and short tales since before my voice broke; basically I have been picking up books of his for over thirty of my forty years on Planet Earth and apart from some wonderfully imaginative fiction (which still usually remained grounded in some real science) I think the quality I most loved in his work over the decades was the optimism. Here was a man born as the slaughter of the War to End All Wars was being fought and who played his part working in radar in the war that came after that, who saw the many atrocities that marked the last century and yet still his stories had this optimism, this belief not that the future would turn out alright but that we could make it better if we tried, if we really wanted to make it that way, to evolve our minds and our morality both. While darker edged fiction often satisfies me more dramatically I need that does of hope and optimism sometimes.

And like many best writers his books made me want to go and read more books; I’d read the story then need to investigate some of the actual science which was used in the tale (my favourite reading is always the book which makes me want to read more, learn more; good books are like brain cells, they work best when creating more links). Reading his collection of non fiction essays a few years back, Greetings, Carbon-based Lifeforms, was also fascinating – because of the reputation he earned worldwide Arthur met just about everyone, from hanging out with Ginsberg at the Hotel Chelsea to presidents and kings, working with Kubrick of course and even during the animosity of the Cold War he was so respected by both superpowers he was one of the few men who shook hands with both Soviet cosmonauts and NASA astronauts. Its not been the best of recent weeks for book people – we just lost Arthur, Terry Pratchett is facing the spectre of Alzheimer’s, Steve Gerber left us… At least we always have the books. Sadly we’re all mortal, but the printed word, that magical, alchemical fusion of human imagination, paper, ink and technology is immortal.

Arthur’s final interview, recorded for IEEE Spectrum in January from his hospital bed, can be found online here. I leave you with Clarke’s Laws:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

You know, of the three I think I am most fond of the second; I like to think the impossible rarely remains impossible forever. Perhaps some of his optimism has rubbed off on my cynical mind over the years… The people of Sri Lanka, where this Somerset-born lad had made his home for decades, showed their respect for their adopted son with a national moment’s silence to coincide with the funeral service. His gravestone will read “Here lies Arthur C Clarke. He never grew up and did not stop growing,” in line with his own wishes. I’ve met a lot of brilliant science fiction writers over my career in books (including two of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Awards nominees), but I never met Arthur. And yet I feel as if I have known him most of my life and I’m going to miss him, especially that wonderful human quality of hope he always seemed to summon forth.

Mailer

New today that one of the best known novelist of the last half century, Norman Mailer, has died. In truth I’ve never been quite sure what to think of Norman – the Naked and the Dead is a powerful read worthy of space on any reader’s shelves, but a lot of his other work I find uncomfortable. He belongs to the mid-20th century class where writers were almost the rock stars of their day – long before spoiled musicians would get drunk, stoned and into fights Mailer and his ilk were there, living it all. He even head-butted Gore Vidal once (I’m sure there are others who have wanted to). Thinking about it, it is surprising he lived so long, you’d half expect him to self destruct like Brendan Behan. Most modern writers aren’t quite the same – sure many of them enjoy a decent drink (and I’ve been lucky enough to share a few drinks with a handful of them) – but the excesses of the Mailer type writers is something more confined to musicians these days.

I suppose in a way his behaviour wouldn’t have been out of place at one of Byron’s parties a century and a half earlier. As I said, I’ve never been quite sure what to make of Mailer the man – I’m not sure I’d like to have been around him personally and yet at the same time we need colourful characters in literature as elsewhere, acting out what we can’t or won’t do, almost like a catharsis, and we like reading about it, whether it was Byron and Shelley’s antic, Mailer, Werner Herzog or Pete Doherty. Part of us looks on disgusted at their selfish indlulgence and bad behaviour and another envies that they seem to be able to get away with it.

It reminds me a bit of a story I once read of a hotel manager making up the bill for – I could be wrong, my memory is hazy – I think it was the Who or a similar 60s/70s rock band after they did their usual and trashed their rooms. Their tour manager asks why the hotel manager looks so pissed off – after all they will more than pay for the damage. It isn’t that, he answers, do you think when I was at school this is what I dreamt I’d be doing for my life, running a hotel? You guys are living the lifestyle the teenage me wanted to do and will never get, I just get to pick up and tidy after you. Tour manager smiles understandingly, tells the hotel manager, go pick a room and smash the living crap out of it to your heart’s content and stick it on our bill, mate. Rock’n’roll. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. It has a certain allure and you’re often left wondering if they act that way because they are spoiled or if that reckless self-indulgence and belief normal rules don’t apply to them is what made them write great poetry, novels or songs? The medium and artists change with the decades but the song remains the same…

Necrophiliacs, please be gentle…

And I like the idea of graveyards. I don’t want to be cremated, I want to be buried. Though it’s in my will that they’re not allowed to have an open coffin. But, I always say if you’re really famous someone steals your body and then you get two burials and more publicity. I always fear that in America, if you are a necrophiliac, where else are you gonna meet a body? In a funeral home! When you’re dead I think the word goes out: ‘You’ve got 36 hours, Anna Nicole’s here. The bidding starts at $150,000.’ I actually believe that does happen. I am afraid of that. If anyone bids for me, I hope they’re gentle. I hope I go for a high price if they bid on me and if my fear is true.”

The great John Waters, the ‘Pope of Trash’, speaking in the Scotsman today. I love John Waters, if he’s one of those counter culture figures in movies that if he hadn’t existed he’d have to have been invented. And he also starred in one of the best Simpsons episodes ever (back when the show was still great and not watered down like today), the Homer Phobia episode.

Dead Director’s Society

Michelangelo Antonioni has died has died aged 94, right after another famous director, Ingmar Bergman lost his final game of chess on the beach with Death. Since famous folks like this normally go in threes, anyone care to bet on the next respected but aged director to vacate the Editing Room? I almost put Michael Winner on my Director’s Dead Pool, but since it is for respected elder directors he clearly isn’t eligible…

Sad news

One of my friends passed on some bad news this week, one of the publisher’s reps I dealt with for many years has been ill recently and sadly tests have shown cancer spreading. It’s inoperable and the only care that can be given is to try and make him comfortable as the inevitable bears down. It’s a horrid thought and I hate to imagine what his family are going through, because basically they are in pretty much the same situation my family was in this time last year, facing the Christmas period knowing someone we loved was slipping away from us and there was nothing anyone could do. He was offered a very good early retirment package just the other year (one other rep I’ve known for years observed yesterday how jealous he was of his good fortune at the time, it just makes it all the more bitter because he should be kicking back and relaxing).

For those who don’t know, the publisher’s reps are the primary contact between booksellers in the stores and the publishers. I’ve dealt with all sorts in my years in the book trade; a few were annoying or simply just doing a job of work, but most, like many booksellers, do it because they care about books and because they enjoy interacting with people. This particular rep (I won’t name him, it wouldn’t be fair) is one we all enjoyed seeing – nice guy, good booklist, heplful and always cheerful. Even when things descended into the soulless mediocrity of the Dilbert-style corporate mentality he was a bright spot when he came in; you’d do business, sure, but you’d enjoy it, have a chat, share jokes. He’s a guy people looked forward to seeing. This comes quite soon after hearing a former colleague, only a few years older than me, passed away after a serious illness. I hate, hate, hate bad things happening to good people. I know, it’s life and life and death are rarely fair, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it or accept it, even if we do, sadly, have to deal with it.

Saying goodbye

Our family and friends had the sad task of saying goodbye to my Uncle Ted this weekend. On Friday evening his body was moved to the chapel where he worshipped for years and worked in a variety of groups and movement to help other parishioners out. A great many of them turned out to pray for him at the requiem mass and on the following morning for the actual funeral service. In fact there were so many people there taking communion or a blessing after the service we were late getting to the cemetery; he was a well-loved man and it was uplifting to see how many people outside of our family came along.

In a bitter twist the requiem on Friday the 13th (of all days) fell on the day which would have been the Comrade’s 74th birthday. It was pretty emotional as you can imagine; for a moment I was going to have to step in as one of the bearers as another bearer was held up, but thankfully he arrived just in time. Naturally I agreed right away when my aunt asked me if I would step in, but I was also relieved not to have to do it as it was emotional enough already.

I was, however, one of the cord holders at the actual burial, the first time I’ve ever had that sad, final duty. I couldn’t say no, but it was one of the hardest duties I’ve ever had to perform. Obviously the professionals there have the large straps to properly lower the casket, the role of the cord holders is ceremonial. But if means that I was standing there right over the plot and I helped to lower my dear uncle down into that deep, damp hole. That really hammered home the finality of it all as I let the black rope slip through my fingers and watched his casket sink deeper and deeper. I know that what’s in there isn’t really him – the thing which made him the person we love has gone from that vessel – but its still damned hard to do.

It breaks me up even a few days later just thinking about it, the image of the wooden casket with his name on brass retreating into the earth. It was onerous but I felt I had to do it for him; many years ago my uncle asked me to do this when we buried my papa, his father. That was the first time I had been old enough to go the graveside part of the service and I was too young to handle it and had to say no. This time I carried it out for him, but I was so relieved to get back to stand with my mum and dad as soon as it was done. Still, hard as it was to do, it did give me a sense of closure.

The awful weather of the last week lifted for us on the day of the funeral and we had a crisp, cold, clear sunrise coming in through the stained glass of the chapel early in the morning; a huge full moon still hung over the Campsie Hills when I woke up at my parents. Naturally more than a few of us joked that with all the work he did for the parish the Comrade’s connections upstairs had arranged a decent bit of weather for the day. He never lost his faith even to the end; we never argued over this sort of thing, he knew I didn’t believe and he did but we both knew everyone has to take their own path and left it at that. I almost envy him the strength of his belief and, much as I personally dislike religion, I know it was a huge strength to him. There were three priests carrying out the services, including a rosary at the grave, which I’m told is unusual. One priest was his brother-in-law while the senior priest was also a good friend of his and as such he made the eulogy far more personal than these things sometimes are – he was, after all, mourning a friend as well as giving a parishioner his last services.

But he’s out of it all now – regardless of which spiritual belief system (if any) that anyone follows he is now free of the pain he was in. And the doctors and the support of his family – not to mention his own strength (and that damned stubborness, which I think I get from him) – he had more years than we thought; four years ago or so when it was first diagnosed he was so ill we thought we’d lose him within a few months at the most. Instead he enjoyed four more years and for most of that was fit enough to make the most of them, including making his golden wedding anniversary and to see his brother become a grandfather for the first time only a few weeks ago.

And I got to see more of some of my family members than I have in ages (sad, as you get older that sometimes you only see some folk at funerals and weddings), including my uncle who made the trip over from Canada to bury his brother and stayed over for a couple of nights with my mum and dad back home. I’m not five anymore and know that a hug from your mum can’t make everything better anymore, but it certainly still helps. Okay, maybe that’s a little slushy, but I don’t give a damn, we’re a touchy-feely family for the most part and even the most cynical of us knows deep down that a good hug from your folks is one of the best things in the world, whatever age you reach.

The phone call comes

The phone call I’ve been dreading but expecting for the last couple of weeks finally came late on Thursday night when my mum called me to let me know the Comrade had only just slipped away from us. I think hearing the tears in my mother’s voice was hurt almost as much as losing this wonderful uncle. When Mel and I lost our little furry Zag last summer it was a sudden shock; this was expected any day, bearing down with a grim inevitability on our family. Being expected rather than a sudden shock didn’t make a damned bit of difference though, as any of you who have been in similar circumstances will know.

I did go to work on the Friday; I felt gutted but to be honest I needed to keep myself occupied rather than dwelling on something I couldn’t change and if I went home I’d only be in the way as preparations are being made, so instead I got my head down and kept busy. My colleagues were very sympathetic and kind, with my boss telling me to go home if I needed to and just to let him know what days I needed off and so on, which I greatly appreciated. Mostly I got through the day alright, although a call from my mum to see how I was doing almost set me off. I had a very nice surprise though in the shape of a gift arriving from the States from Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, a delicious batch of Ann’s Bourbon Balls – it was a lovely gesture from a fabulous writer and they way the timing worked out was perfect because it gave me a little much-needed lift when I really needed it, as I tried to face the world that morning.

Towards the end of the day though I started to feel it overwhelming me. There’s a line in my favourite film, Cyrano de Bergerac, towards the end, where he feels as if he is shod in marble, gloved in lead. I felt that way by late afternoon, as if someone were draping cloaks of lead around my shoulders; I felt slower and slower, heavier and heavier and everything seemed more remote. When I got home I just curled up with my little portly pussycats and let it out while they snuggled up next to me and soothed me with their purrs. I’d like to think they were looking after me, but know full well that cats are mercenary and were more than likely taking advantage of a chance to curl up against me for tummy tickles and attention in a warm spot.

Mel had just returned from a business trip to London and offered to come right round, but at the time I needed a few hours just to let it out when I felt like it. Once I’d indulged myself this way I felt a lot lighter, so round she came and we settled down for the evening to talk and watch some movies. I went to open some wine and found the bottle my uncle and aunt had given me for Christmas, a lovely 1996 Rioja (where did my aunt get the time to buy presents with all that was happening???) – it seemed like a very appropriate time to uncork this bottle and enjoy it. I opened it just before Mel arrived and toasted the Comrade with the first sip.

Mel has been great at keeping my spirits up – not dragging me out to do things, but making sure she knew she was there to sit with me or take me out for some distraction and so we did go out on Saturday to my old second home of the Filmhouse to enjoy some distraction in the shape of the beautiful Japanese film Hidden Blade (from the maker of Twilight Samurai), a slow but gorgeously crafted work which made me feel much better and certainly beat the hell out of sitting at home and feeling miserable. Mel also volunteered to come through with me to the funeral, which is just one of the reasons that I think she is such a wonderful person.

Today I feel not too bad – relatively speaking of course – but the coming week will be quite emotional because we have the service and funeral to get through. Being a Catholic ceremony the Comrade’s body will lie in the chapel which he spent so much time in for the evening before the burial. Next Saturday was the earliest we were able to arrange. Its not going to be easy to say goodbye to someone who was such a big presence in my life, for the whole of my life; he’s been there for as long as I can remember, tall, strong, intelligent and caring and despite knowing what was coming it is still hard to come to terms with the fact that he isn’t there anymore; the finality of it.

And it’s not just losing him; events like this raise that spectre of mortality that we all are aware of but leave in the back of our minds for most of the time. It makes you wonder how long you have with the different people you love and the awful knowledge that such time is finite. We all know that is the case, but we don’t think about it too much and, let’s be honest, we shouldn’t. What will happen will happen and dwelling on such thoughts all the time only means that we fail to live that time and enjoy those people who matter as best we can while we have one another.

In many ways that is what funeral service are for – not just to honour the beloved dead but for those who remain; it is a way of saying goodbye and coming to an emotional understanding that they are gone and we go on, like cauterising a wound. It doesn’t mean you never think about them again – they will always be a part of you after all – but it does mark an emotional turning point. Like Neil has Morpheus say to his son Orpheus in the Sandman when he loses his wife, you’re mortal – you need to grieve, you need to say goodbye and then you need to go on with living. Not easy to do, but good advice nonetheless. Perhaps it is also the last thing you can do for those you loved and lost – you go on and live your life, the thing they would most want you to do.

2005 was the tenth anniversary of my graduation and in the last few days I kept thinking on the Comrade when he came to the ceremony. We were allowed to bring three people, so I had my mum and dad of course and the other person I wanted most in the world to be there was the Comrade, who was delighted to come along and I loved the pride in his face when I received my honours degree. He never made it to college himself, although he was a very intelligent man – he and I enjoyed many good debates and conversations over the years and I have his stubborn streak which means I stick to my guns when I know I am right; naturally I am almost always right J. He beamed when I refused to stand for God Save the Queen at the graduation ceremony (I don’t acknowledge anyone to be mine or anyone else’s superior, besides the second verse is anti-Scottish) and he was a great strength to me this time last year when I faced down my former employers. As a good left winger he was delighted to see my union supporting me so well and the support I had from so many folk warmed his heart as much as it did mine.

University wasn’t really an option for most working class men of his generation, but he made sure it was for his children. Today with so many people going to college it may not sound such a huge deal, but believe me for the working class son of mining stock to get several of his children to university was an enormous deal and I know he was proud to see me go as well. I held off going to college until my mid twenties; when I did the Comrade started giving my mum ‘pocket money’ for me again, like he did when I was a boy, so whenever I came home there would be a little bit of dosh there for me to enjoy a few beers in the Union with – that was the sort of little kindnesses he would do. It doesn’t feel right to know that he’s just not there anymore and that I’ve had my final conversation with him.

But at least I got to see him several times in the last few weeks and we talked and, more importantly, we laughed. My aunt could hear us guffawing from the upstairs bedroom as my dad, the Comrade and I shared some jokes and reminiscences. I still believe laughter is right up there with love as our defence against the world’s worst aspects. And in our family we balance this awful loss with a recent arrival as my wee cousin in Canada had her first child, while my other wee cousin and his new wife are eating for two as we speak, another new entry to the family due in the spring. And with the treatment he got and the support of his family the Comrade survived several years more than we first thought likely; he got to see grandchildren turn into great grandchildren and was still fit enough to not only reach but to enjoy his Golden Wedding anniversary last summer.

I’m normally not bad with words, but I am going to miss him more than I can express, I just can‘t shape the words to articulate it. Everyone in your life is like part of the jigsaw of your existence; some are background characters, some are major parts in the centre while others somehow manage to be major jigsaw piece in the middle while also being edge pieces, the parts that define the shape and parameters of the jigsaw or mosaic of your life. The Comrade was one of those special people who fulfilled both roles for me. It’s very hard to write this right now, I can feel the emotions bubbling up as I do, but it is even harder not to write about it, so I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence.

Ups and downs

I’m keeping myself distracted with my usual sources of inspiration and escape, movies and my books to stop myself from dwelling on things right now; really I’m waiting on a call from home that I don’t want to take. But I can’t stand the lingering limbo my uncle is in now either. My mum told me last night on the phone how poorly he now was; I think she’s trying her best to prepare me for it. I know its coming and she doesn’t really need to, but the fact that she tries, even when she is nursing her terminally ill big brother (who now looks so like his and my mother’s father, my papa, it must make it even harder since she nursed him too) makes me love her so much more.

If I dwell on it I can feel myself ready to buckle, the emotions running so close to the surface, like a river in winter, flowing fast under a seemingly still, frozen surface. So once more my books come to my rescue, a literary landscape composed soley of letters sculpted into every shape, but in little quiet moments you can feel the ice cracking and splintering, the frozen river pushing its way out. I felt it the other morning sitting on the bus on the way to work, not really taking in the book in my hand. It was a very cold morning with freezing fog swirling around Edinburgh; the slowly rising sun wasn’t visible directly, but the fog around the great mass of the Castle was glowing with a diffuse amber light.

Then the bus turned over North Bridge, giving me a view west over the Gardens towards the Castle, the mist lying in the valley of the Gardens and east, out to the Forth and the magnificent view of Arthur’s Seat, a huge extinct volcano right here in our city and the spot where Hutton examined the rocks and started to lay down the rules of the science we now know as geology centuries past. Arthur’s Seat looks magnificent in all weathers, but this morning it looked remarkable. The pale, low, midwinter sunrise struck the crags, turning the cold stone a warm copper, while between the heights the mist had sunk, curling around lower rocks and outcrops and pouring out into the small loch at the base by the Palace like a living creature. It was as if the rocks were breathing and this twisting, low-lying mist was its exhalation, showing sharp in the cold air just as my own breath did. For a little moment I saw magic and beauty in the cold, winter dawn. No one else seemed to lift their heads to look out from the bus and it felt as if the spirit of the rocks had put on a beautiful show just for me.