Into The Light

‘They’re angry because they’re frightened. They don’t know what else to do.’

The silver-haired man in the patched and faded jeans is speaking up close to Sarah’s ear. He is careful not to look at her face but instead stares over her shoulder so that his gaze skims over the frail old lady who is restlessly waving stick. It comes to rest, finally, on the face of her companion, slightly younger and vaguely androgynous. Every so often, she bends over her friend, smoothing the confusion of her hair.

There are no young people here. The mean age is probably seventy. But most of those who appear to be younger bear the outward signs of illness or handicap. Some people are confined to wheelchairs, others are partially-sighted; there are those who can barely breathe and some who are crippled and wasted. The effects of osteoporosis and vitamin deficiency are also much in evidence. People do not eat like they used to now the cost of foodstuffs has soared.
Fuel, too, has gone up and up so people have to make choices. It is better to be hungry than to perish from the cold.

The unvarnished truth is that, like it or not, there are just too many people. All of them are uncomfortable and some of them are utterly bemused. Probably, they would be mill about if they only had the space to do so. One can tell from their faces that they are both frightened and confused. As it is, they are pressed back to back and fragile shoulder to shoulder, crammed together in this tiny space for hours at a time.

It is impossible to guess whose turn will come next. There is no discernible system. There is nothing for it but to watch and wait and hope for the best.
First thing every morning, the noise is oppressive. Everyone is talking very loudly. There is pushing and shoving; sometimes screaming. People fall over in the crush. Eventually, however, the hubbub subsides and settles down to a kind of hum. Occasionally, someone coughs or farts or, worse, somebody weeps.

The air is thick with the stink of fear, rank BO, and urine. Sarah tries not to think about this. She knows she will need to go soon. How long, she wonders, can she cross her legs before the strain of it is just too much for her? The last time she wet herself she was eleven years old. It was half-way through evensong in the church of St Michael and St Andrew. It was winter time and the unheated church was unbelievably cold. She should have gone before she left home. Her mother was always reminding her. Such was her anguish and humiliation she hid behind a grave stone. Later, she sat in a shallow bath and sobbed till she thought her chest would burst.

Sarah doesn’t know the man at her side but his voice is reassuring. Once or twice, he has reached out his hand on her arm and laid it down lightly on her arm. It is an odd feeling, a man’s hand, those pale, slender fingers. Connor’s hands were big and strong. It seems to her a long time ago.

‘I know,’ she whispers, ‘and they’re all so young. Part of me wants to feel sorry for them.’

She does not turn towards the man but stares steadily ahead. ‘Look at that one over there by the fence. She can’t be more than twenty. What makes a pretty girl like that get involved in something like this?’

The man smiles a quick, tight smile and raises one overgrown eyebrow. Why does the fact that the girl is so pretty somehow make it worse? Sarah doesn’t know but it does make it worse – and then she is suddenly exhausted. She wants nothing so much as to rest her cheek against this stranger’s chest.

‘What is your name? ’ she asks him softly.

She turns her face towards him. His grey eyes seem to glow with kindness and the smallest hint of a smile. This, she thinks, may be the last time, the very last time she does this. But, just as she thinks it, the barricade lifts and she hears the tell-tale click.

‘You, you, you and you.’

The words come spitting like bullets. The speaker is blond with the kind of beard a young man grows because he can. Sarah feels the bolt-t nuzzle her ribs, persuading her nearer her comforter. It seems that, after all, the time has passed for the giving and receiving of names.

Too late, she thinks. It is always too late.But she takes the trembling hand he offers. The years fall away like flesh from the bone as she follows him into the light.

(First published by Word Gumbo in October, 2011

‘The Repo Man’ and Other Horror Stories

On TV today, ‘The Repo Man’,
a look at life lived on the edge
that comforts and scares in equal measure,
we who have so much still to lose.
Though we are not there yet,
on the grim edge of the abyss
we may, at any moment, miss our footing;
and to think of this man, like a broad side of beef,
with his hand as big as shovels on a digger,
reminds us of the way we may go
and causes us to tremble in our boots.

Our schedulers are kind, though: they offer us shows
that help us to see our silver linings:
our prime-time viewing is composed
of the lives of those who must struggle to eat;
then there are those who, by disease or misfortune,
have been robbed of their chance for simple happiness:
freaks and midgets and paraplegics,
those who are marooned by their own appetites,
those who are paraded to cavort like grotesques
and caper like hunch-backs and fools.

It is we who are the fools, though, for we are taken in,
dumb in the face of so much outrage:
by our dull consent, we bring to our own homes
the stink and clamour of the booth;
and, by its execution, this ‘entertainment’,
makes a fairground and a circus of humanity.
Who profits by it? Who oils the wheels?
What is the hand that cracks the whip?

Song of the Labouring Poor

(written after the burial of Margaret Thatcher)

We’re all as rich as Croesus now
and the labouring poor is no more.
Class war went of the window;
and, instead, we have social rapport.

Since Marx was proved wrong, the militant left –
and it never did know what was what –
has found itself bruised and divided,
bereft of all hope and sans plot.

Today we have ‘strivers’ and those who ‘aspire’
and consumers hell-bent to consume;
but, try to disguise it however you may,
the truth is it’s all bust and boom.

Joe Public won’t even get angry
at the way the big banks carry on:
he’s stupid and slow and appears not to know
how the great money swindle was done.

No one believes in the family of man;
it’s every man jack for himself.
It’s less about truth and conviction than
power and status and personal wealth.

At the top it’s all champagne and roses
and, while those in the middle get squeezed,
they still get to look down their noses
at the class this last century deceived.

But it may be the time is for turning:
this circus may prove the last straw.
The bonfire she lit is still burning:
may its torches not light us to war?


A Ceremonial Occasion

I planned it, of course I did, and the devil was always in the detail. Doing such things on the spur of the moment must is the province of the young. Not that that the elderly can’t be impulsive but, let’s face it, the odds are against it.  Most of us, hidebound by caution, grow old before our time.  Not that there are many that would make it a choice to be staid and predictable: the sad truth is that, little by little, we lose the strength to resist.  


Anyway, speaking for myself, I do like to do things properly. And something like this, well, I’d mapped it all out – let me see – oh, a long time ago.


A state funeral, in case you’ve never seen one, is ever so much more than a spectacle.  Though, of course, it is spectacular, there’s no getting away from that. How could it not be with so much history behind it, all that pomp and ceremony, all the trappings of wealth and power?  There are your bright-eyed sailor boys, smart as new paint and proud to be doing their duty. I do like to see their well-scrubbed faces shining in the sun.  Then there are the horses, sleek and strong, but always so patient and so gentle; and the stern faced policemen who loiter on corners, keeping an eye on the crowds.


But a state funeral is also a very solemn occasion.  The whole nation seems to march to the beat of a single muffled drum.  You might argue, I suppose, that it isn’t about grief, especially if you’re watching on television.  Believe me, though, if you’re there in the flesh, it’s a very different thing.  Standing by the roadside as part of the crowd, you can’t help but feel the atmosphere. Oh, you can feel it alright, right down in your boots.


I was in the crowd in 1965, on the morning of 30th January.  Everything about that day is sharp and crystal clear.  I was eighteen years old and, the evening before, we went up on a Green-line bus.  We got off at Aldgate East and walked the rest of the way.  I remember I went with Ma, her sister, and a friend of mine from the factory. We all slept on the floor that night downstairs at Grandpa Clive’s.   But, before it was light, we were up and dressed and sitting down to our breakfast.  There was ice on the inside of the windows, it was that bloody cold.   


Anyway, we filled a flask and Ma made a whole loaf of sandwiches.  Cheese and pickle, egg and tomato, and corned beef with sauce. I remember those sandwiches.  We waited for hours so, without them, we wouldn’t have made it.   We laced our flask with a good nip of brandy and that was all the food we had.


Ma had been worried we’d get there too late to be able to see what was happening.  Somehow, though, we were lucky enough to find ourselves right at the front.  We found a place outside the Tower, a stone’s throw from the entrance.  If we’d been been camped on the pavement all night we couldn’t have got a better view.  


Everywhere you looked, on both sides, there were hundreds of people just waiting, huddled together in patient rows that mostly went four or five deep. Despite the weather, there were more than a few children and one daft cow had brought her poodle.  It sat in her shopping bag wrapped in a shawl and I remember it made Ma laugh.


I remember the soldiers that lined the whole route, very smart and handsome.  They stood stock still, like statues, with their rifles turned upside down. They kept their heads bowed down so low, and no one moved even a muscle, except that one boy seemed about to faint and had to be helped back to his feet. Then there was a silver band whose drums were draped in black fabric.  It gave the beat a muffled note that sounded very solemn and sad.  I remember how, when the coffin passed by, there was suddenly no more music.  The cortege went on its way to the rhythm of a single slow drum. 


It was eerie then how the silence grew.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Where the guns had been booming all the way from St Paul’s, now there was the silence of the grave.  Then they dipped all the cranes right along Hayes Wharf, and the sight of that just hammered it home.  It was as if, when those monsters bowed their long necks, they somehow spoke for all of us.  Ma turned to me and her eyes were rimmed red and her cheeks were wet with her tears.


The Havengore was just setting off on its voyage up the Thames. Ma squared her shoulders and bowed her head and hissed to us to do the same.


‘That man saved our hides.’ she said. ‘He was the saviour of this country.  When the rest of them would have given up, it’s because of him we’re free.’


I’m sorry.  I’m rambling on.  That’s not what you’re here for, is it? You want me to tell you what’s going on today. But memory is a funny thing and it’s odd how these details come back to you.  How can the world be so much the same and yet so very much changed? Mr Churchill now, say what you like, he was a proper national hero. Someone who deserved a bit of a send-off. You don’t begrudge it for a man like him.


            A cup of tea?  That’s kind of you, dear. I am a bit shaky.  No, no, honestly, I’ll be alright. I just need to catch my breath.  Do you know, duckie, when I come to think of it, you have a look of our Ryan about you.  He’s going to be a fireman, you know.  We’re all very proud.


I like a man in uniform.  I expect your wife does too.


Of course, I’m not sorry, not in the least.   I meant all those nasty things I shouted.   I would have said a good deal more but I’m afraid your young policemen shut me up.  The balloons were a good idea, though, all those beautiful colours.  It took me all night but I wrote on every one:

                                        Remember the Belgrano Dead?

The Chorus Speaks


The Chorus Speaks

Nothing worth having comes easy;
competition’s the spur to success;
it’s all about effort and purpose and will –
and the need to save more and spend less.
But some of us now have grown lazy and soft
and the truth is they don’t want a job.
We’ve created a culture where welfare’s the way
to sit back and relax and live high off the hog.

So it’s three rousing cheers for the great and the good,
and the ‘strivers’ who toil nine to five;
to the idle, though, go a curse and a blow:
why should those who graft support those who skive?
The case, after all, is transparent;
it’s logic can’t fail to impress:
if it wasn’t for them and their scrounging,
we wouldn’t be in this mess.
And it makes my blood boil, if I’m honest.
You see it emblazoned all over the press:
the work-shy and shiftless who won’t pull their weight:
well, aren’t they a drain on the rest?
If it wasn’t for them we’d be laughing,
There’d be jam every day of the week.
We have to work so why shouldn’t they? I say:
Let’s CRACK DOWN on the benefit cheats.
It’s high time they got up off their arses:
all this something for nothing won’t wash.
The country needs strivers, not skivers
who live on their wits – and our dosh.

That said – and it’s hard to admit this –
it’s troubled me lately to see
how the bankers get bail-outs and beanos
and the rest of us – AUSTERITY –
and we’re told that we’re in this together;
but it doesn’t seem like that to me.

It’s cuts in this, and taxes on that;
and the old and the dying are told they must ‘strive’
while the young and the hale and the hearty
have no other choice but to ‘skive’.
They are jobless and hopeless, and full of despair,
and we offer them not much they need.
Is it possible we are mere pawns in a game
dictated and mastered by corporate greed?
And might it not be that we’re all being conned
into thinking that ‘they’ are to blame:
the shiftless, the work-shy, the chronically sick,
the old and the weak, the mad and the lame?

And the men in grey suits, what’s in it for them?
They say that the cost of compassion’s too great
but is it the logic of profit that drives
this shameful undoing of the Welfare State?
There’s no heart in a culture that grows smug and fat
on the backs of the weak and the poor;
how can it be true that we can’t afford love
when, always, there’s money for war?

‘Murder of Krows’ Anthology Launch with Dr Alan Kent and Redruth’s Own Les Merton

‘Murder of Krows’ is an anthology of work by poets living and working in Cornwall, many of them closely connected with the Camborne, Pool and Redruth areas. The anthology is a not-for-profit venture and is the first major project of the Red River Poetry Collective. The collection has been edited and produced by fellow Red River Poet, Duncan Yeates, in conjunction with myself and it will shortly be available for just £1 per copy.

The launch evening for ‘Murder of Krows’ has been arranged for Wednesday, 20th March at The Melting Pot Cafe, Krowji. Our special guests will be Dr Alan Kent and Les Merton, both of whom have been gracious enough to show their support for this project by agreeing to read from their own works. In addition, there will be readings from some of the contributors to the pamphlet, Duncan and I included, a display of work from CMR artist, Janet McEwan who is among the contributors, and music from local singer/songwriters, David Rowland and Aston Drees.

The aim of this anthology – and of the Red River Poetry Collective generally – is, firstly, to encourage and support local poets and, secondly, to raise the profile of poetry in the Redruth and Camborne areas. We hope that lots of people will support us in this and there are a number of ways in which you can do this. The most obvious way is by coming along to the launch evening and buying a copy of the anthology. (The Melting Pot Cafe serves excellent coffee and a range of beers, wine and spirits.) There is no entry fee for this event and there will also be a free raffle. Alternatively, however, and if you can’t come along, you could do one of the following: order a copy of the anthology through me (which can be posted if necessary for an additional charge of 50p); contribute a prize for the free raffle (literary or artistic prizes are welcome);put up a poster in your place of work or study (contact me if you are able to do this); or simply share the link for this post and encourage your friends to do the same.

If this event is a BIG success we will be able to produce another anthology later in the year. Many thanks for reading and in anticipation of your support.

On the Perils of Speaking Out and an Encounter with Mr Angry

I am not always very good at keeping my mouth shut. Once, a very, very long time ago, I was briefly and most unjustly, detained in what was then called a ‘remand home’. On the first morning, after a dismal and meagre breakfast, all us ‘girls’ were marched off to ‘lessons’ which took place in a vast and chilly hall.

One of the instructors – I hesitate to use the word ‘teacher’ – began castigating a girl, somewhat older and tougher than I was, for her stubborn refusal to read aloud. She was a poor reader and, after a stilted and obviously painful beginning, she had dried up completely.

The instructor was a thin, hard-faced looking woman with a neat, pleated, plaid skirt and a nice line in sarcasm. For a time, I watched her torment her victim whose faces burned an angry red. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I stood up and spoke out.

‘You can’t talk to her like that,’ I said, and I really believed it. There was a terrible hush as all the other girls looked a me. I saw quite plainly the horror in their eyes.

After the briefest of pauses, the outraged instructor turned her attention to me. I was left in no uncertainty as to the contempt in which I was held and soon I, too, was flushed in the face and very close to tears. I was given a book containing some simple comprehension exercises and sent to work alone in a corner. I was not to to speak or be spoken to for the remainder of the morning session.

I though about this incident the other day when I had occasion to ‘speak out’ again. The context was a very different one but, once again, I could very easily have found myself wondering whether it might not have been better just to bite my lip. The trouble is that I never really stop to consider the possible consequences and, one day, this might well be my undoing. This is what happened one Sunday morning on the way to a visit to Heartlands.

David and I were on our way to an open mic event at the Red River cafe. The day was chilly but bright and we were in a good mood as we strode across the car park. David, eager for his promised breakfast, was a step or two ahead. We were still carrying on a conversation as I followed behind.

As we approached one vehicle, a man opened the driver’s door and came round to the rear of the car intent on opening the boot. As he did so, David and I passed by and David’s arm very lightly brushed his elbow. The ‘collision’ had been so inconsequential that David himself was not aware of it and he did not see, as I did, the man’s features twist into an expression of angry indignation, as he turned round to confront, not David, but me since I was following behind.

The man, who was, I would guess, in his late twenties or early thirties, emitted some dark mutterings. These were clearly directed at me but the sense of them I could not understand. I stopped in my tracks, pulling up short, and turned round and looked him.

‘Sorry?’ I said. My tone was questioning. My demeanour expressed surprise and bewilderment.

‘Don’t mind me,’ he he snarled nastily. ‘I’m just getting to my car.’

‘It was nothing,’ I told him in disbelief at his manner, ‘and I’m sure that nothing was meant by it.’

‘Well,’ he said, downright surly now, ‘you could see I wanted to open my boot.’

‘We were merely following the path,’ I said. I was still struggling to understand why he was so angry. ‘You are, I am afraid, a very rude and aggressive young man.’

This was the point at which, I suppose, he might have produced a knife. David pointed this out to me a short while later. He might have had a knife and he might have used. Sadly, such things have happened. On this occasion, though, what happened was this: he bowed his head and looked suddenly ashamed.

Perhaps he had realised that, in front of his wife and his three young children, he was being very rude and unnecessarily aggressive to a couple of older people whose only ‘offence’ had been to pass too close to the boot of his car. I wondered whether they were about to go shopping. The car park was close by Tesco Extra. Tesco Extra is crowded at that time on a Sunday. Bloodshed could have been the result.

The Mystery of ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Liberty Leading the People’

David and I went to see ‘Les Miserables’ earlier this week, David more or less on sufferance because he doesn’t much care for musicals but I had decided I wanted to go so  he manfully agreed to come along.


We went to the Regal in Redruth for an afternoon performance where we enjoyed a very good light lunch before climbing the stairs to the Screen 7 auditorium. We had gone for the ‘lux’ option as a bit of a treat so, as we settled ourselves on our sofa, we each had a drink on the neat little table at our side. It was just as well. We found we really needed a shot of alcohol to survive the advertisements. Together we mourned the passing of the days when a trip to the cinema always included a ten minute ‘Look at Life’.


‘What about the film itself?’ I hear you ask.


Well, it isn’t altogether easy to say. David, somewhat grudgingly, pronounced it ‘better than expected’ and I emerged snivelling and emotionally exhausted. The fact is that, despite the sneering criticism of those who see it as ‘pop corn art’ fodder for the masses, it is quite spectacular and, in many ways, a triumph of cinematic art. It has a strong cast, some big production numbers and lots of stirring and heart-rending music – though some of the lyrics, if you really listen to them, teeter on the edge of being trite and predictable.


Being petty, one might suggest that some of the characters didn’t age sufficiently over the course of the movie and also that the squalor of the Paris mob was at times overdone. On the other hand, though, the ‘Master of the House’ was a triumph of caricature and the cinematography was excellent with many shots, especially those of the barricades, having the compositional qualities of a painting. (Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ is one that springs to mind.)


Having said all that, however, there is something unsettling about this movie. It seems to me that it raises questions for which there are no easy or obvious answers. How are we to account for the extreme popularity of a film about a failed revolution in an age marked by nothing more strongly than the political apathy of the people?  Is it the the ideal of equality and fraternity to which we respond when we are moved by this spectacle or is it, more cynically, the failure of that ideal?


There are those, I am sure, who will insist that the politics is incidental. They will argue, no doubt that it is the human story, and most importantly the love story, that so grips the imagination of the audience, an audience probably – and this is an assumption, I admit – dominated be women.


And such commentators may be right, up to a point, at least. The  story does come with lashings of sentiment. Not only is our hero young and dashing but he  is also stubborn and headstrong. He wants to lead the people to victory but he is blind to their human potential and, consequently, does not see what is under his nose. Moreover, to add to the theme of vengeance, there is unrequited love, rape and murder, forgiveness and heroic self-sacrifice, not to mention the cheekiest boy actor since Mark Lester in ‘Oliver’.


Still, though, there are questions and this one is foremost among them: what message is it that this film carries to the people who so take it to their hearts? Is it a) that ‘the people did not rise up’ and that therefore they cannot be relied upon or b) that, given the widespread notion that we now live in a ‘classless’ society, revolutionary fervour is a thing of the past?


Don’t get me wrong. I am not pretending to be in possession of the answers. I am merely flagging up the fact that there is something quite interesting here.  Perhaps what’s going on is akin to that process posited by the art critic, Anne Bermingham, when she suggested that that which is ‘lost’ in actuality may be experienced as ‘restored’ through the operation of the  imaginative faculty. She, of course, was talking about the lost English countryside rather than the spirit of revolution and it may be that the analogy is unsound. On the other hand, it may also be that the ‘common’ people respond to ‘Les Miserables’ because they see in it something they have lost, something they would like to recapture but do not quite see how.


Delacroix’s painting was made to commemorate the 1830 Revolution that toppled Charles X. The French government bought the painting in 1831 for 3,000 francs with the intention of displaying in the throne room of the Palais du Luxemborg as a reminder to the ‘Citizen KIng’, Louis-Philippe of the events of the July Revolution that brought him to power. This plan did come to fruition and the painting was hung for a few months in the palace’s museum gallery before being taken down for its inflammatory political message. After the June Rebellion of 1832, the one portrayed in Victor Hugo’s novel and the film ‘Les Miserables’, it was returned to the artist. It was later described by Champfleury as being ‘hidden in an attic for being too revolutionary’.  After the uprising at the funeral of Lamarque in June, 1832, it was never again openly displayed for fear of setting a bad example. Finally, however, it was exhibited very briefly in 1848 after the restoration of the Republic. It is now in the collection of the Louvre.

(See Wikipedia)

On Servants and Service

Right-wing veteran Tory, Christopher Chope, has become the object of scornful derision because, in an unguarded moment, he referred to to those waitresses and waiters employed in the House of Commons (heavily subsidised) restaurant not as ‘waiters and waitresses’, nor indeed as ‘catering staff’, but rather – most revealingly and against the ‘etiquette’ of the day – simply as ‘servants’. He was, it seems, applauding the fact that there were three employees available to attend to the needs and wants of each and every person who ‘sat down’. The opposition, we are told, hooting with laughter, pounced gleefully on this gift of a gaffe. They, of course, do not have ‘servants’: they know better; rather, they have ‘staff’, ‘hired help’, housekeepers and nannies, or, more prosaically, ‘a woman that does’.

What has struck me most about this incident and the way it has been reported is the way has been the awareness on both sides of the House that the language of servitude is embarrassing. After all, we are supposed to believe, aren’t we, that we are all middle class now? Do we believe it, though? I don’t. And I don’t think they do either.

The truth, I suspect, is that, whether Conservative or Li-Dem or, indeed, (shamefully) Labour, most of our illustrious parliamentarians would look down their noses at me quite as much as their forefathers would have done my grandmother, Matilda Jane Ottley, later Tallett, was was, in fact, a ‘servant’ and, by all accounts, a very fine one, too.

My grandmother began her life in service as a humble kitchen maid. When, eventually, she left it, many years later, she was a happily married woman, mother to her first child, Henry, my father, and a more than competent cook. Later in her life she would do many things – run a fruit and vegetable shop and work both as a cleaner and in munitions – but it was the dozen or so years spent in service in London of which she was most proud.

Yes, my grandmother was proud of her work and she talked to me often about it. She worked ‘below stairs’ in many fine and well-respected households including that of Lord Ellis who refused to use her proper name. (He called her not Matilda but ‘Pada’, though for what reason she never knew.) It was Lord Ellis, however, who tested her honesty by leaving two bright silver half-crowns in the hallway for her to find, afterwards casually mentioning that he had ‘lost’ a small sum of money. Had she happened to find any money or did she know where it might be found?

My grandmother, always respectful, dipped him a curtesy.

‘If you mean, my lord, the five shillings you meant to catch me out with, then the money is just where you left it.’

Lord Ellis, apparently, coloured a little but did not press the point. What my grandmother did not tell him, which he later discovered, was that the coins were now glued fast to the linoleum. The butler told her later that it was only with some difficulty that they prised free with the aid of a knife.

‘He never ever mentioned it,’ she said, smiling as she told me the story, but, in all the years i worked there, he never tried to catch me out again.’


Beginnings, Endings and the Mess in Between

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, a little mellow but by no means inebriated, I looked into my partner’s eyes and uttered these fateful words:

‘The last six months have been so difficult, 2013 really has to be a an improvement.’

What cavalier optimism and monstrous folly! I really should have known better. What madness possessed me to tempt fate by making such a statement?

Barely twelve hours had elapsed before I found myself slap bang in the middle of one of those domestic ‘situations’ that simply defy explanation, where, even if people are interested, even if they want to understand it, the whole crisis is beset by twists and turns so intricate and so numerous that any attempt to follow the logic of events is doomed from the start. In the end comes the consciousness your friends and relations are looking at you strangely. They begin to exchange sidelong glances and then to roll their eyes. Finally, they start looking for reasons not to talk to you in the first place. Happy New Year, they beam cheerfully but they turn away in confusion as they take in first your pallid cheeks and then your sunken and red-rimmed eyes.

The exact nature of the crisis I am not free to disclose but that in itself does not matter. The important point is that these recent upheavals, much against my will, have taken me back to a period of my life I had though consigned to the past. Now I have asked myself: Did I do all that I could have done? Did I behave selfishly or with the interests of others at heart?  Am I to blame at all and, if so, how far am I culpable? How much of this present misery should be laid at my door?

All these questions are far from easy to answer: memory is notoriously unreliable and there are few people remaining now whom I might turn for an opinion. Of the main players in the dismal little drama that unfolded two decades ago most are no longer emotionally or geographically available; indeed, unbelievably, as I would have thought then, two or three of them are dead. But what would they say if I were here and I was able to ask them? Would they offer comfort and reassurance, telling me I did everything I could? Or would they look me hard in the eye and tell me that I always had this coming, that I should consider myself luck for getting off so lightly for so long? I do not – perhaps I cannot – know and yet I feel nothing if not guilty. Forgive me, then, my friends and acquaintances. if when you see me this month, my New Year greeting sounds hollow and my smile doesn’t quite reach my eyes. x