A wild slim alien


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I dreamt I was a butterfly

 

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.

– Zhuangzi (c.369 BC – c.286 BC), as translated by Lin Yutang. Speckled wood butterfly, Porlock, Somerset, August 2016 by awildslimalien.

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come, butterfly
it’s late ―
we’ve miles to go together

– Matsuo Bashō, On Love and barley: haiku of Bashō. Painted lady butterfly, Hampshire, August 2016 by awildslimalien.


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A butterfly passes in front of me

peacock3

 

A butterfly passes in front of me
And for the first time in the universe I notice
That butterflies don’t have colour or movement,
Just like flowers don’t have perfume or colour.
Colour is what has colour in a butterfly’s wings.
In a butterfly’s movement the movement is what moves.
Perfume is what has perfume in a flower’s perfume.
A butterfly is only a butterfly
And a flower is only a flower.
(5/7/1914)

– Poem XL by Alberto Caeiro (heteronym of Fernando Pessoa), sourced from Fernando Pessoa: Alberto Caeiro: Complete Poems.

Peacock butterfly perching on buddleia, Norwich, August 2016 by awildslimalien.

Previous encounters with peacock butterflies are here and here.


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Cities and signs

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‘Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something — who knows what? — has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes — the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa — so that the worshipper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.’ ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


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Cities and memory

‘As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.’ ― Italo Calvino, Invisible CitiesIMG_1612 IMG_1621 IMG_1643 IMG_1664 IMG_1678 IMG_1690 IMG_1830 IMG_1844 IMG_1849 IMG_1850 IMG_1854 IMG_1925


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The Cemetery of Forgotten Books

Shakespeare & Co.

 

‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.’ – Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The shadow of the wind

For a time I worked in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Founded between the wars, it was housed in a skylit attic room of a central library in one of this country’s smaller cities.  From the outside, with its sheer cliffs of ashlar and aggressively jutting bow-oriels, the building was one which managed the trick of looking both ancient and modern.  Its interior was more a mix of the ancient and the institutional.

There were no books in this part of the library, this Cemetery of Forgotten Books, at least not in the traditional sense. Just shelves and shelves of ancient, fat, stubby folders containing reams of bibliographic detail, together with the numerically coded location (or ‘loc’ in the verbal shorthand used by the cemetery’s staff) of where the book recorded on each slip was held in the region. We put readers in touch with the rare or obscure or forgotten books of previous centuries, and the unsuccessful novels and esoteric researches of the 20th.  Like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The shadow of the wind, it was exactly the kind of repository which might have had – or at least have led you to – the single extant copy of each of Julián Carax’s lost novels.

The chief librarian was a tall, elegant woman who may secretly have felt that the attic in which she had ended up was a career cul-de-sac; both a metaphorical and a literal glass ceiling.  With her feather-cut hair and tailored jackets in light or pastel shades, she certainly seemed out of place, never quite right for the role.  The other librarians were more suited to the Cemetery, more in keeping with my notion that this clearing house for books ought actually to be presided over by some kind of patron saint of lost causes.  One was a giggly sort of stoic, always making a joke (if not the best) of what she felt was a perennially bad lot.  Another was bird-like, a wizened old raven with a pecking motion to her head and deep black rings around her eyes from a lack of sleep.  I was little more than a boy and she took me under her wing, guiding me through the bibliographic and procedural maze that was the Cemetery.  Perhaps she recognised something of herself in me; perhaps, undeclared, she was a writer too, dedicated to puncturing life’s absurdities, and the rings around her eyes came from late nights or early mornings trying to forge a work which would itself one day make its way into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

It seemed to me that a book had a life outside of itself, if it was recorded in one of those ancient folders, that it could be pulled back from shelved obscurity or even extinction, to be given into the hands of its next reader.  I was one of the mediums who brought the soul of the book and the psyche of the reader together.  I wish I could have just one of the old folders in my hands again, so that I could quote at random a few of the titles of those forgotten books, but I feel certain that filed under ‘Bo-’ would have been this work, printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell in the Strand, 1778: The Travels Of Hildebrand Bowman, Esquire, Into Carnovirria, Taupiniera, Olfactaria, And Audinante, In New-Zealand; And In The Powerful Kingdom Of Luxo-Voluptot. Written By Himself; Who Went On Shore In The Adventure’s Large Cutter; And Escaped Being Cut Off, And Devoured, With The Rest Of The Boat’s Crew, By Happening To Be A-Shooting In The Woods; Where He Was Afterwards, Unfortunately Left Behind By The Adventure.

Or perhaps a reader might have been after The life and adventures of Harvey Teasdale, the converted clown and man monkey. With his remarkable conversion in Wakefield prison published in Sheffield by the General Printing and Publishing Company, Limited, 1875.

Most likely it was more serious fare that was required, the encapsulation in book form of a lifetime’s study, the foundations of knowledge in a certain narrow corner of the Dewey Decimal classification, upon which all developments and adjustments in that field would subsequently be built.  A book wanted sufficiently by a reader that he or she was prepared to fill out a form and pay a small fee to request it.  And when we found the details of that very book printed upon one of the slithers of paper waiting for us in the folders, with a loc or locs pencilled at the foot of the slip, there was a small but not insignificant feeling of satisfaction that we were doing a good thing in bringing reader and book together.

By now the typewritten relics which together made up the index of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books will long since have been digitised. Rendered obsolete by new technology, the ancient folders will surely have been thrown away and the wafer-thin slips of paper they housed recycled.  I moved on well before the Cemetery got to the point that it was obliged to close its doors, but I like to think that the giggly stoic and the old raven – if not the chief librarian – will have smuggled out a folder each, which every now and again they take down in order to flick through its musty pages, the smell and the printed slips conjuring for a few moments the days of their working lives.

Perhaps I am guilty of judging a work by its cover, but no, the tall, elegant woman with the feather-cut hair was never quite right for the role of chief librarian in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Of late, thinking of Isaac Montfort, the aquiline custodian of the same in Zafón’s beautifully crafted novel, I’ve been imagining that it should have been someone rather like him; someone rather like the man I have since become.

Photograph of Shakespeare and Company – source unknown.


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How to get home on a Thursday night

Shake hands all round, collect the money.  Bemoan your own shooting, congratulate someone else on theirs. Walk to the car, assessing joints for aches beyond your usual level of tolerance, calves for the likely onset of cramp, and the whole of your body for bruises.  Put the balls in the boot.  Get in the car, take out your lenses and replace them with your glasses so you can better see where you’re going. Put on some music, most likely something softly introspective after all that hard running, Sandy Denny or Gene Clark, say; the Ramones were for psyching you up on the outward journey.  Turn right out of the car park onto the road into the centre of the village. Take a sharp left at the first of the double roundabouts, trying not to kerb the tyres as you usually do.  Pass the village hall and the social club on your right, the more unlikely pairing of the art supplies and fish and chip shops on your left, then further on, the castellated Catholic church with its white marble statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a crenellated platform.  All the while, review the game in your head – what you could have done better than you did (plenty), and how you could have avoided that haze of red mist (deep breaths, and count. To. Fucking. Ten next time). Settle for longer than perhaps is healthy on your one moment of glory, a sweetly-struck shot from distance that bent into the top right-hand corner of the goal.  Mentally opine that even Paul Scholes might have proud of that one.

Go over the bridge that crosses the dual carriageway, looking to the left and into the far distance for the progress of the setting sun, incidentally taking in how thick the traffic is on the road to which you have lost more hours of your life than you would like. Slow for the right turn which takes you into the narrow lanes of the cross-country way home – what your daughter used to call ‘the den-y way’.  Now you are into the thick of greenery which rises from each side of the road like a wall, until a grassy meadow opens out on the left-hand side.  It’s dotted with trees, and at times during the year, cows.  Through it runs a stream, swift and shallow and gurgling.  Stream and road meet at the bare minimum of a stone bridge, where once, before Tarmacadam, there would have been a ford.  Look to your left here, to take in that gurgling stream, and the way it leads the eye through the trees and into the meadow, suggesting summer picnics, or at least that you stop and lie in the bosom of its long grass and soft turf to daydream for a while.

Just after the bridge, pass a couple walking their two dogs – whippets, by the look of them.  The woman has auburn hair; the man’s sandy wisps inevitably seem somewhat nondescript in comparison.  Slow, so as to be ready for any sudden movement of the dogs.  Let the couple linger in your mind as you drive on, imagining the life they might lead together.  The road bends this way and that, following the course of the stream, so do not go above 30 mph in case you need to brake suddenly, either for cars coming the other way, or – unusually – for frogs, since on this stretch of road, there is the only red-bordered triangular caution sign for amphibians that you have ever come across. But you have never spotted nor knowingly squashed one.

Slow down again to pass the narrow house which sits alone on its own triangular island in the middle of a junction, and keep at the same speed  for the row of houses whose doors open out onto the narrow road.  Watch for the white cowls of a pair of oast houses over the top of the hedge on the right, before entering the first of the high-banked ancient holloways.  Notice again how the roots of the beech trees break out of the bank much as reanimated skeletons might out of the rotting wood of coffins, and how their ivy-covered limbs rise close together to create the sense of enclosure; shelter or captivity depending on your mood.

Emerge from the darkness to pass the beautiful farmhouse, the stream acting as its moat.  Where the way forks, keep high and right as the other alternative drops away to the left, the wending river visible between the two roads.  Feel the motion and blur of glinting water and sun-dappled greenery hit your retinas.  Imagine how many millions of individual leaves you are passing, and let the cow parsley which crowds the verges take you back to cycling the country roads of your childhood.

Pass the entrance to a larger working farm on your right.  A little further along, a bungalow stands on the left-hand side, with pasture for horses opposite.  Then once again it’s back into holloway darkness, the old way-turned-road running roughly straight, but veering and weaving as once the trees will have dictated that countless generations of walkers and riders should.  Walkers and riders who had a purpose to their walking and riding.

Sunset

 

And now here again the road emerges from the enclosing trees; over the top of a five bar gate, the sky opens out above the fields like a fanfare or a crescendo.  Slow to take in the colours of the sunset, and if they are at all out of the ordinary, stop to take a photo.  See the disturbed rabbits scamper away as you get out of the car.  Sheep are grazing in the field; all but the closest to you pay you no mind.  Climb a couple of rungs of the gate and brace yourself against it.  Depress the touch-screen button on your phone and hope that you’ve caught even half of the sky’s resplendence.

Drive on, continuing straight for a few hundred metres, then remember to slow for the hidden-from-view right turn; it’s easy to overshoot.  After the farm on the left, it’s time to enter the deepest, darkest, sleepiest sleepy hollow of holloway, where you hope not to encounter a car coming the other way, for after a moment of face-off, one of you will be forced to back up, often for some distance before being able to reverse-sidle into a passing place dug out of the banked earth. Startled birds break cover and dart from one side of the hollow to the other, too quick to distinguish their species, and always making the other side before the car passes. On the canopied tunnel goes, a ridge of hardened mud formed during the winter lining the centre of the road, until coming to a sharp left-hand bend, you must necessarily slow to nothing much at all; once around it, accelerate to compensate for the rising plane of the road.  At the top of the rise, a driveway opens out on the left; the entrance to the grounds of a nursing home.  The break in the trees allows you a quick glance at the view that the residents enjoy at their leisure, across the gentle slopes of the valley through which runs the little stream you were following earlier.  It’s an archetypally glorious green and pleasant view and invariably when you catch a glimpse of it, you remember the time you ignored the ‘PRIVATE’ signs, turned in and parked up to try and surreptitiously capture it, though in your hurry you did not manage to do the view justice.

Now it’s the downhill run, your car a bobsleigh through the ice of the close-pressing trees.  If the way is clear, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to take it a little faster than you ought, the ghost of Marc Bolan always a caution at your shoulder.  At other times of day, it has to be taken slowly, for invariably then you will meet and need to stop for horses, their stables marking the end of the bobsleigh run.  At which point, a left turn would take you past the stately pile where a classic rock song and its host album were recorded, but you swing slowly round the blind corner to the right and begin to make a slight ascent, taking care to avoid losing your front left-hand wheel to the worst pothole in the whole of the county, if not the country.  Now there’s another downhill run, but this time of two cars’ width, so you can take it at greater speed than the rest of the journey has allowed. Pass the wooden chalet-style house with its summer evening porch, and the driveways leading up the hillside to what you imagine may well be similar woodland-style lodges.  Slow for the junction by what in winter is a dank, murky, uninviting swamp of a pond, but which in the last of the light on a summer’s day is transformed into a haven of burnished reeds and a fitting home for a pair of swans.  Turn right onto the main road, and accelerate into another ascent, notable less for its housing and more for the beautiful copper beech which gives the road its name.  Try as you might not to set off the electronic speed limit reprimand, despite the incline, you will most likely fail.

Turn right at the mini-roundabout by which the garage stands and from which the one-stop shop is visible, and drive along the straight perimeter of the enclave of roads in which your house is set till you get to the pair of bus stops, one on either side of the road; signal right.  Turn the right-angle right, and head down the dip, at the bottom of which is another right-angle right into your short, narrow road.  No need to signal here at this time of night.  Drive slowly up its crest to the end, park up under the shade of the sweet chestnut and oak trees, and turn off the engine.  Wait for whichever song of Sandy’s or Gene’s is playing to end, and allow its associations to settle back into the sediment of your mind.  Gather yourself and your bag together.  Open and close the wrought-iron gate, taking the key to the front door from your bag.  The lights are on and you are home.


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Dynamite

Words are explosive.  Wear protective clothing at all times.  Consider the location and the timing of the detonation.  Plan your words in advance.  Do not approach words after they have been lit in an attempt to discover whether or not they are going to go off.   Boys are particularly cautioned not to experiment by opening sentences and mixing their constituent parts.  High winds will affect the quality of your words and may create a hazard.  Do not launch your words in excessively windy conditions.  Keep a pail of water handy and be sure to dispose of left-over words with care.  Do not smoke on the forecourt of your words.  Caution: do not mix your metaphors – the results can be extremely volatile.  Do not drink and write.  Keep your words in safe, dry, well-ventilated storage facilities with 24 hour CCTV monitoring.

Words are spiritual.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  But that was just the beginning.  The inquisitorial ferocity of Jesuitical words is unmatched, especially when combined with the rack.  Hellfire sermons are likely to leave the impressionable vulnerable to night-time fear and daytime paranoia.  Atheists will burn, before or after their deaths.  Or not, as the case may be.  Prayers are words, and words are prayers, but can you ever really be sure that anyone is listening?  Except in exceptional circumstances, resist the desire to self-immolate in the flare and burn of your own words.

Words are a legal minefield.  Do not confuse tort with torte; the results can be embarrassing, and you may be left with egg on your face.  Voicing words without forethought can bring out the litigious side in people.   Malice aforethought’s not much better.  Oaths can be sworn to whichever god anyone follows.  Or not, as the case may be.  Jurisprudence is no guarantee of prudent juries.  As we have seen, in some parts of the world, words are inquisitorial, while in others they are adversarial.  Defendants may find that they prefer the latter, though it is wise to try to avoid appearing before a hanging judge.

Words are seductive.  Beware those possessing silver tongues yet no gold in their heart.  Make sure your linguistic inoculations are up-to-date and mind your Ps, Qs and apostrophes.  Careless reading can leave your mind open to suggestion, your heart aflame, and may cost lives in times of war.  Always use a prophylactic.  Squeeze the tip, then unroll along the length of your sentence.  Withdraw before it goes flaccid.  Do not panic when you can no longer find the words.  There may be many reasons – the vast majority temporary – as to why you cannot achieve a successful sentence construction.  The condition usually responds well to a combination of lifestyle changes, drug treatment and erotic poetry.


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Super 8 stories – film 23 – Christmas 1971

We are sitting down to Christmas dinner, 1971, the now nuclear family of two parents and two children (my sister would not enter the scene for another three years) plus my maternal grandfather and the sweet, innocent soul he married in his early sixties.  For the duration of my early childhood, I had three grandmothers.

I am three and a half, my brother nearly two.  While I concentrate hard on the eating to be done, he is much more fascinated by the camera.  My grandfather seems to have got used to its presence, overcoming the discomfort you could see that he felt at my christening in film 10.  My parents have had the camera for about three years, and have gone some little way to mastering the art of interior lighting for Super 8 film, though even then, half of this reel seems to be illuminated merely by fairy- and candlelight.

The main course is on the table.  Chocolates, candied fruit, and Christmas crackers await our pleasure.  Glasses are raised in a toast, ‘Merry Christmas everyone!’  I too have a little cut-glass of something, I’m not quite sure what.  Lemon cordial, perhaps.  Surely not wine, though my reaction to its contents suggests that it might be.  (This was after the incident when aged two I drank whisky from a tumbler that my father had carelessly left on the bedroom floor, provoking a case of early onset delirium tremens, or at least a delirium in which I saw pink elephants dancing on my mother’s shoulders.)  I imagine the afternoon passed in something of a haze for me, after the wired buzz of the alcohol or lemon cordial wore off.

The tree is heartbreakingly spindly and ethereal compared to the thick, fat brushes of the fir we have this year.  Somehow it manages to seem both austere and gaudy at one and the same time, with its baubles and strands of silver, lantern lights, golden tinsel, concertina tinfoil, and a dimly shining star at its crown.

My father mugs silent-film-style at the camera, raises a belated glass.  The shades of his golfing jumpers have taken a turn for the worse, into garishly primary colours.  The smart, short back and sides of the sixties have turned into something more relaxed, more ineffably seventies.  He could take to the park with Peter Osgood of Chelsea, sporting that look.  See you in the bar after, Ossie.

And look what I got for Christmas and am modelling outdoors at the driving range – a cowboy outfit. And what an outfit!  I’m not sure even Gram Parsons would have dared go this much further past the embroidered, rhinestone-heavy suits that Nudie Cohn made for him.  Red chaps with blue batwings, a decorative blue and black waistcoat and a ten-gallon hat, and of course the obligatory holster and gun without which no suburban cowboy boy of the seventies would be seen dead.  Somewhat more colourful too than what I imagine Wyatt Earp wore for the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.  Watch me swagger down the mean streets of not Tombstone, but Cobham, laying waste to all the good-for-nothings I find there.  Curiously my brother is dressed not as a native American, but a twenties-era New York City cop, or possibly a turn of the century British bobby.  Note the giant golf balls on tees in the background.  Perfect cover for the sheriff looking to take down a few outlaws.

The reel cuts to another day, most likely Boxing Day, with the extended family gathered at my paternal grandmother’s house.  My cousins and I encircle the table, on which there is an as yet untouched Christmas cake and a big bowl of jelly.  The aunts and uncles look on as we eat our cold turkey, picking their food from an extensive spread set out on a side table.  The eldest cousin is wearing a tie.  We are still bound by a formality which the course of my life will slowly break.  If we could live through those early Christmases again, how much would we feel has changed, in comparison with now?  I guess in many respects, a lot.  The excessive materiality of Christmas, certainly.  The technology which surrounds us, obviously.  But in others, perhaps nothing much at all.  Families gather, a majority still eat turkey (though perhaps not the heavily iced fruitcake), the year turns and the endlessly magical Christmases of childhood are before you know it past and gone, except in memory and the frames of an old reel of Super 8 film.


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Super 8 stories – film 14 – 003 and a half

This reel is book-ended by me tottering about like a very young drunk, initially in a blue romper suit (‘you look like a Smurf,’ says my daughter, not unreasonably), but chiefly I’m posting this one for its golfing action.

My father was a golf professional, as was his younger brother. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they ran a driving range where the fringes of London meet Surrey.  In summer, Dad would teach six days a week.  He also played tournaments, with varying degrees of success, once getting written up in the Daily Mirror as ‘003 and a half’, owing to a passing resemblance to the James Bond of the time, Sean Connery – that,  and possibly some knowledge on the part of the reporter of other Bond-like behaviour, but let’s gloss over that here. I now live not a million miles from where I grew up, and if I pass a golf course round these parts, it’s a sure-fire bet that he has played it at least once, if not many times.

The film shows 003 and a half (and briefly his brother) resplendent in golfing browns hitting balls at the driving range, first with an iron, and then a wood. I hope he won’t mind me saying that rather like footage of football from the same era, the pace of his swing looks slower than that displayed on television by today’s top pros – less physically and technologically primed. But technically, I imagine you can tell a lot about his game from these recorded shots. He certainly keeps his head nice and still. No doubt he would have watched the film back, to assess his own technique, to see what could be worked on and improved. I recall him telling me that while he could hit the ball a long way, relative to his slender physique, his short game wasn’t sufficiently good to raise him higher up the professional ranks.

Again for reasons I won’t labour, it wasn’t until I was pushing forty and Dad was retired that I took my first golf lesson from him. He has always had the gift of the gab, and now here he was finally putting it to use to correct my many faults as a golfer, which he was quick to point out I couldn’t yet call myself. At prolonged times in my own professional life, I have myself acted as a teacher, so I know a little about what it takes to win people over, to get them to trust your word, and then to follow it. Enthusiasm, authority, patience, humour, demonstrable results. It’s not easy, especially if you are not naturally possessed of the gift of the gab. But as I also remember witnessing occasionally when I was a boy, Dad made it look effortless, couching his rudeness about my recalcitrant swing in a fostering bed of humour, optimism, and reconstructive surgery. Judging by the end result – a vast improvement in the course of just a couple of lessons – he still knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t imagine he was any different with me than with the thousands of people (including such light entertainment luminaries as Dick Emery and Leslie Crowther) that he taught in his working life. I couldn’t help comparing his style of teaching with that of the contemporary professional who gave me a series of lessons at around the same time; his demeanour was weary, his methods lacked conviction, and psychologically he never made me feel anywhere close to a million dollars over such progress as I was making.

Golf was never my sport, very possibly because I am a contrary type and it was my father’s, and so closed to me. But at a time in middle life when there weren’t many other sporting options open to me, I felt a compulsion to give it a go. And though I doubt I’ll ever make my way round all or even some of the courses he played on hereabouts, I’ll always be glad that I belatedly got to have a couple of lessons from an undeniably great teacher.