Picking up the threads

Andrew Goss

‘This is to certify that Temporary Surgeon Lieutenant Stephen E Bull M.B. RN will be demobilised from His Majesty’s Naval Service with effect from 25th March 1919. He will be entitled to wear uniform for one month from the above date and upon occasions authorised by the Regulations.’

Signed by a rubber stamp. A meagre receipt for his years spent on the hospital trains, keeping the wounded alive on the slow five hundred mile journey to Edinburgh.

Dr Stephen Edmund Bull’s steps rang strangely on the platform at Dover Marine as he walked along the length of the train towards the First Class carriages. For the first time in four years the place was still. The stretchers were gone, the crutches, the nightmare daisy-chains of the gas-blinded, orderlies shouting and waving. Screams, laughter, the rumbling grind of steel-shod wooden wheels, the solemn bellowing of steam engines, all silent now except in Edmund Bull’s head. Heaving his bag into a vacant compartment, he took a seat by the window, facing away from the engine and towards the sea.

The train began, at first imperceptibly, to move, lurching briefly over the points, the engine puffing vigorously as it built up speed, its pale grey smoke plume wafting down across the window. Edmund relaxed, let his head fall back against the seat. Now with the Armistice signed he could return to the Bethnal Green surgery, doing what he could to counter the ravages of tuberculosis in one of London’s most crowded slums. From the wounds of war to the lesions of minute bacilli, slow, silent, persistent, lethal. He reached absently for his hip flask.

The war had seemed endless. Trains of wounded seeping through the land like spilled blood, lists of today’s dead, the lies, the hopes. The dead were dead, but for many who lived it would have been better had they died. At least for their wives, and for the girls who could not now reject their damaged heroes.

There is an end to everything, Edmund assured himself. An end to waiting on wind-blown platforms for trains that never came, an end to dawn goodbyes in cold hotel rooms.

No more of that, Edmund promised himself. He was going home to Oona. To Oona’s pale blue eyes and tumbling auburn hair, her small light frame never still; a girl born to dance. He wondered who there was left now to dance with. The world had become populated by strangers on passage out of life and into the War. In her letters Oona had penned perceptive portraits of her friends and they had seemed a decent crowd. But she had complained that the men never stayed in town long enough to get to know. To the front, to the sea, she had never known where; dance today, gone tomorrow. Though Oona had told him that she worked for the Foreign Office, it was still unclear to Edmund as to just what it was she had been doing.

They had met when they could, although Edmund’s leaves were erratic. One grey morning the previous November, when his train was stopped at a station, he had seen Oona almost within reach in a carriage at the other platform. Scarcely had their eyes met than both trains began to move, his north, hers south. He had watched her, pressed against the window, the palms of her hands pale on the glass, her mouth open, sliding slowly away from him.

* * *

In the taxi Edmund imagined whisking Oona off her feet and into the bedroom the moment he came through the door. But it was practicality, not passion, that in the event framed their reunion. Edmund’s luggage, a surprising amount of it, had followed him from the station in a second taxi, and had to be carried up to Oona’s third floor flat, the men had to be made tea and tipped, the landlady placated. Then the ladies from the flats below came up to view Edmund and welcome him home. Propriety demanded more tea, and the exchange of pleasantries, so it was a full hour and a half before Edmund and Oona could collapse, first each into the other’s arms, and then onto the sofa.

‘I booked a table at the Gavroche, Edmund, rather than cook. Unless you are too tired?’

‘No, no, I’m recovering. When for?’

‘Eight.’

‘Then we have an hour.’ Edmund stood, and swung Oona giggling over his shoulder.

‘Once aboard the the lugger and you’re mine!’ He growled, carefully manoeuvring her through the doorway.

* * *

During the meal Edmund looked at Oona and Oona looked at Edmund. It was enough, almost.

‘We’ll need somewhere to live,’ he said.

‘I thought Kensington,’ said Oona. ‘There are some good flats there, with so many not coming home.’

Edmund had known them. He had been their ferryman.

‘Kensington? It’s too pricey, and too far from the clinic. I think somewhere like Ilford would be more suitable.’

‘But Edmund, surely you’re not going back to that clinic! You’re an officer, a Naval officer, with so much experience now. Surely you can find a smart practice in a decent neighbourhood?’

‘My dear, you know perfectly well why I’m going back there. It’s where I’m needed. Anyway, it makes no difference to you, you’ll be at home looking after all those children we’re going to have. We’ll need a decent sized house and we can’t afford Kensington.’

Children. Yes, thought Oona, children. While Edmund had been away a wondrous web had woven itself in her imagination, a deep and glowing panorama of their new life; dinner parties, conversation, theatre. And, of course, children. A tapestry rescued from the ruins, restored with love and hope. Though she would miss her work, and the people she worked with. Out of habit her eyes scanned the restaurant; waiters, couples, many of the men still in uniform, unlike Edmund.

‘I bumped into Harry the other day, Oona. He’s such a pudding, It’s hard to believe you’re his sister.’ She failed to respond. Edmund felt piqued, and following her gaze noted a tall greying man in a colonel’s uniform, who lifted his head, as if returning Oona’s look.

‘Oona!’

‘Sorry darling, miles away, Harry, you said?’

Edmund poured the last of the wine into his glass.

‘I’m having lunch with him at his club tomorrow. He wants to talk about something, seemed rather solemn.’

As their taxi rumbled through the cobbled streets they held each other close, the joggling of the cobbles merging each into the other, their hands intent on exploration. It had been a long time.

‘Not here, Edmund, we’ll be arrested, and we’re nearly home. Wait!’

Edmund groaned. ‘I’m so tired and so alive and God I love you so much!’

Their taxi turned the final corner and Oona recalled the times she had come home to this gas-lit street. Mostly alone. Now never to be alone again.

The taxi drew up, Oona waited in the chill air while Edmund paid. As they walked up the steps to the door there was a distance between them that only minutes earlier had not been there. There was time, she thought, we have been too much apart, too used to saying goodbye. The door closed, but there was more night within the house than in the street, with one dim gas jet to light the hall and stairs.

The flat was cold, so they went straight to bed with a hot cocoa.

Edmund topped his up with whisky.

‘Want some?’

Oona paused. ‘Just a drop.’

‘Edmund, are you sure about going back to the clinic?’

Edmund stared at the dark ceiling. ‘The slums are still there, and there will be thousands of widows on ridiculous tiny pensions trying to raise families. All this talk about homes fit for heroes is a damned lie, nothing will be done. I can’t just turn my back, Oona.’

‘Oh,’ she sighed. Her tapestry had seemed so colourful, so perfect, and now he was ripping it with his holy sword, his chill virtue, even when she held it out in both hands crying please this is ours don’t do this. Don’t do this to me.

‘Trust me, ‘ he whispered.

Edmund’s body was warm against hers under the sheets, the bedside lamp lit his face like a fire. Such a strong face, muscular, with kind eyes. Laughing eyes. He was looking at her with tenderness, and … oh, Oona realised, condescension. I’m just a woman. Even if he loves me, I’m still the weaker vessel.

Yet even the weakest vessel holds a little power, Oona mused as she turned off the light and reached out to him.

* * *

The next day Edmund was to visit the clinic to discuss his return to duty, and then take lunch at Harry’s club.

‘I hope he doesn’t jaw for too long. I’ll be back for dinner, anyway.’

Oona prepared a pie. However late Edmund might be, it would still be hot.

At five Oona made a pot of tea, thinking he might come and she could say ‘I’ve just made tea!’ but he did not come.

Night fell, and she thought of having a sherry but did not, they could have one together. She lit the gas fire.

When Edmund finally came up the stairs well after nine Oona was so relieved that she did not notice at once that he was unsteady on his feet. It was only when she came to kiss him that she realised he had been drinking. Edmund fumbled mutely at his pie.

‘What did Harry have to say?’ asked Oona.

‘Family stuff,’ Edmund muttered, his head lowered over the plate. ‘I think we should move out of town. Tomorrow we’ll look at a place we might live.’

No, thought Oona, this cannot be. But said nothing.

* * *

The day was cold and bright, ideal for viewing elegant suburban villas. Edmund became almost enthusiastic as he pointed out to a bemused Oona the advantages of living a modest train ride from the city, but with shops and services ready to hand.

‘And the air is clean, Oona, no yellow fogs, much better for the children, and there’s Epping Forest nearby. We’ll take a walk there after lunch’.

Resisting the lure of the inns on the High Road, Edmund took Oona to a sunny tea shop.

‘I’m sure we could be happy here Oona, don’t you? We should begin to behave like a proper married couple now I’m back. You must settle down to being a wife, and soon a mother, I hope. I know it will be quite different from your life in Town but you’ll get used to it.’

Oona looked into Edmund’s eyes, as if she could see past the sea grey into his thoughts. She had already resigned herself to this, and what she had seen today made it all so much easier to imagine. But it was Edmund who was strained, hiding his feelings. She would have to wait.

The forest. Leaf-mould muffled their footsteps as they wandered between the dappled trees. So quiet, Oona thought, so still. They were alone but she felt watched.

‘Why are we here, Edmund? Why now? It’s to do with Harry isn’t it? You’ve been terribly odd since you met him.’

Edmund kicked at the leaves, looked past her. ‘People are saying things.’

‘What things?’

‘You’ve been seen. Late at night. Getting into taxis. With men.’

She could hear the fury, compressed like steam.

‘No. Not men, just a friend. I need friends.’

‘Men?’ He looked up, moving closer to her, staring.

‘Just friends, Edmund, really. I can’t help it if some of my friends aren’t women.’

‘More than one, then.’

‘Only one I was ever in a taxi with. It was raining, and he offered.’

‘You were seen more than once.’

‘It rained a lot last winter.’

‘Oh come on!’ he yelled, grabbing her by the shoulders and throwing her against a tree. ‘Just friends?’ He pulled her forward and slammed her against the tree again, harder. Tiny points of light floated before Oona’s eyes. His strength both frightened and thrilled her. She wanted to run and she needed to surrender. She could feel tears coming. She lifted her hands to his face.

Edmund let go and turned away. Oona trembled. There was nowhere to run and her surrender was spurned. All the words she wanted to give him were stuck inside, jammed up together.

‘It didn’t …’ she managed. Mean anything. It had, but he would never understand.

Edmund had his hip flask out, and he too was shaking.

‘I will take a suitable house here,’ he said over his shoulder, his voice quavering. ‘Meanwhile you will stay with my mother in Kettering.’

He turned and looked her in the eyes. ‘I should never have left you alone. I should have known what you’d get up to. I was a fool. I won’t let it happen again.’

Edmund turned abruptly, hiding his face. ‘Come.’

Oona started towards him. Would he take her arm? Her hand? Understanding if not forgiveness? But he walked off, as if she could follow or not as she chose. There, she was behind him, in his shadow, under his hand, the contrite errant wife.

Oona followed him along the dusk-lit path. She would have drawn quietly alongside him but the path was too narrow. Later perhaps. He would need her, she would reach him, touch him again, gently pick up a few of the threads.

Standing on the edge,
O Wonder, O vertigo.

Fly shall I? Float?
Hollow boned, clear eyed,
Wind wreathed wild.

Fall do I, rise do I,
On the turn of tide
Turn of time, to ebb,
To flow, adrift, adream,
Cast all adream, O Wonder.

TAFE 4 All

The Victorian state government, and other state governments by the look of it, are starving the TAFE system of funds. They will doubtless spin it as reform and financial prudence, but what is the real agenda? Here’s a short piece I wrote for the TAFE 4 All website.

TAFE 4 All.

Back in 1897 when Henry James published his novel What Maisie Knew shared parenting was a hot topic, at least in New York. Today it may be a commonplace, but the impact it has on so many lives makes this new film from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel as contemporary as its modern setting.
The convoluted prose of the original has been replaced by clear modern dialogue and expressive acting to show just what happened when Julianne Moore’s fading rock singer Susanna and Steve Coogan’s inconstant art dealer Beale split up.
Caught up in a sequence of almost inevitable cause and effect are Maisie’s nanny Margo, played by Joanna Vanderham, and Alexander Skarsgård’s hapless Lincoln, Susanna’s new toy boy.
What is so fascinating about this drama is that the four principals act only according to their natures, nobody seems to stop to think about what they ought to do, the path of least resistance is always the one taken. Only Maisie, delightfully portrayed by Onata Aprile, is concerned about consequences, but there is little she can do to help.
Julianne Moore’s Susanna is the stand-out performance, utterly convincing as a talented musician, still vigorous if a bit frayed around the edges, keen to keep touring. The faded tattoos are a nice piece of observation. Lighting and low camera angles add to the impression of someone larger than life and not really on the same planet as anyone else. I can’t help feeling that the directors had a soft spot for her, when it would have been so easy to caricature her as egocentric and uncaring. Susanna means well, but is just not cut out for child rearing.
Beale is a slippery and plausible chameleon, with his eye on the main chance. Steve Coogan convinces in the role, ever optimistic, bluffing and smarming his way through life, careless or ignorant of the damage he leaves behind. It is curious how often Hollywood likes to make unsavoury characters English.
Joanna Vanderham uses her native Scots accent for cheerful, trusting, unsophisticated Margo. She is everything that Susanna is not, and very attached to Maisie. Lincoln is likewise quite unlike Beale, he distrusts ambition, and puts no value on wealth. He works in bar and seems to be a musician. Although Swedish by birth, Alexander Skarsgård has perfected his American accent and fits in perfectly here as a young man caught up in a whirlwind, and keeping his head.
The story is rather like a pinball machine, with Maisie the ball. Eventually things work out, everyone finds some kind of release as the conflicts fade, and Maisie, we hope, will grow up in happiness.

Geoffrey Rush adds another triumph to his list with a spell-binding performance as international art dealer Virgil Oldman in The Best Offer, a film about art and life, the true and the fake.
After a lifetime of buying and selling, Virgil Oldman has amassed, by underhand means and the assistance of Billy Whistler, played by Donald Sutherland with a big white beard, a huge collection of portraits of beautiful women. Such is Oldman’s love of beauty that he cannot bring himself touch it, wearing gloves most of the day, and remaining, at the age of around sixty, a virgin.
A potential client’s agent contacts Oldman’s company, insisting on dealing with him personally. The client is a woman who is reluctant to be seen, and keeps missing appointments. Oldman is at first irritated and then intrigued, and after he finds some antique clockwork that may be exceptionally rare, he becomes obsessed. Eventually he discovers her name, Claire, and gains her confidence.
Oldman is sailing in what are, for him, uncharted waters. The rest of the film is like the missing chart slowly being unfolded, giving hints as to what is around him, but it is only at the end that Oldman finally realises where he is.
Sylvia Hoeks, coming from a solid career in the Netherlands, is bewitching as Claire, and Jim Sturgess is perfect as Robert, Oldman’s universal repair man and advisor on matters romantic. Donald Sutherland’s role, Billy Whistler, does not take up much screen time, but he is a vital cog in the mechanism. A number of faces familiar from British TV play small but vital roles, this film has been made with the utmost care by director and writer Giuseppe Tornatore, best known for Cinema Paradiso. That this is not a mere mystery or romance is plainly flagged by the names of some of the characters; Virgil Oldman is a virginal old man, Claire is far from clear, and Billy (William) Whistler is the name of famous painter James McNeill Whistler’s brother. Is Robert a robber? See the film and make your own connections.
Music by Ennio Morricone blends beautifully with the visual, as with the best film music, after the opening credits it does not intrude, but becomes a part of the tapestry.
Critical reception to The Best Offer has been sharply divided. Several prominent critics consider it a failure, but it has won a number of awards, and most reviews range from the favourable to the ecstatic. It is the kind of film that you either relate to strongly, or simply can’t see the point of. If you like films that linger in the mind, you’ll like it. If you prefer cut and dried beginning, middle, end, problem solved dramas, don’t go.

Emma Ayres raised this on her morning ABC show. It’s a good question, but why do we call some music sad when we actually feel it is beautiful? The same effect can be found in art, how many of the most beautiful paintings are sad? Are we loading “sad” with too much meaning? Sad we can connect with, find beauty in, but when it gets to sorrow, and then anguish we are not there.

If you want to get from Oxford to the Uffington White Horse, don’t ask Bing, it will tell you it can’t find a road route. This is beacuse it thinks the White Horse is in Mexico, even though it admits the address is in Wiltshire.

Silly Bing!

Bing thinks that the Uffington White Horse in Wiltshire is at B, in Mexico, whereas it is a short drive from Eynsham, A, in Oxforshire.

Making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

My wife, inspired by childhood memories of seeing Liberace on the TV, insisted on our seeing this film. I wasn’t keen, I knew very little about Liberace, my lingering impression being of a kind of Benny Hill without the gags, an Edna Everage without the wit. Plus a bit of ivory tinkling.

The cinema was quite full, entirely of hetero couples like ourselves old enough to remember Liberace, or at least to recall his fame. I suspect that most of them were there out of nostalgia for long ago television shows and were hoping for more detail about Liberace’s music and career, and less about his private life. I don’t think anyone walked out, though my wife says she nearly did in the early part, when most of the sex happens.

I must commend the scriptwriter for drawing a coherent and mostly engaging story out of lives that were lived from moment to moment with little consideration for the future, dramatic adaptations or otherwise. Like many successful artists, Liberace seems to have lived mainly for his art, if you will pardon the expression, sex, and conspicuous consumption.

This is not promising material, and if it were not for the Scott Thorson story element the film would have been little more than a documentary. As it is, much use is made of anecdotal events to pad out the rather thin drama. Watching these short grabs from Liberace’s professional career, and the recreations of his performances, one has glimpses of the other film, the one that the audience came for. It might have made for a more interesting film, but it would not have been the creative imagining of Liberace’s world that director Steven Soderbergh has given us.

Michael Douglas brings depth to a character who tended to appear two dimensional in the actual filmed performances that I have seen. It is a performance to be proud of, and deserving of an Oscar. Matt Damon is impressively convincing as Scott Thorson, a young man utterly swept away in a tide of glitz, away from the life he had hoped for as a veterinarian. These two actors do manage to let us care what happens to their characters, when it would have been so easy to slide into cliché. Or perhaps I should say even further into cliché, as Liberace comes across as something of a parody of himself, and his glamorous lifestyle as essentially derivative and unoriginal.

The direction is good, unostentatious craftsmanship, the atmosphere becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the tensions rise, and the wonky plot lines are neatly traversed. To me the end feels tacked on, but I don’t think there was much option if the story was to remain within bow-shot of fact.

The constant close-ups of men you wouldn’t buy a used car from gets a bit wearing, especially in the latter half, but this, I presume, is what Mr Soderbergh intended. As the film drew on I began to thirst for a female face, and towards the end when some girl dancers appeared, out of focus, behind Liberace, I drank them in like a camel after a week in the desert.

The net impression this film makes is of lives and talents squandered. The audiences in the recreated nightclub performances are next to invisible, and only now and then audible. Liberace was, maybe, his own audience.

Not a film I would have chosen to see, but not time entirely wasted.

There has been a lot of fuss lately about government agencies in various countries tracking our every move online. While I have nothing much to hide, I don’t like it on principle, so I followed up a link on a post and found the Startpage search engine. Basically this routes your Google enquiries through a proxy. There’s more to it than that but from a user’s point of view it’s just like using Google but the spooks won’t know about it. Take a look.

Geodynamics Innamincka 1 MW Pilot Plant at Sunrise
Geodynamics has now commissioned its long awaited 1 megawatt Habanero pilot plant near Innamincka in South Australia.

Australia is fortunate in sitting on top of several vast masses of hot granite, enough to supply base load electricity for the foreseeable future.

I have been following the progress of this project for several years, it has not been an easy ride for them, but the successful commissioning of the pilot plant, and the recent Clean Energy Council (CEC) Innovation Award are pointers to the future.

Geodynamics is one of a number of companies pioneering geothermal energy, at home and in the Asian region, and is probably the furthest advanced at this stage.

Read up on it at the Geodynamics website or go straight to the Habanero video, which also serves as an excellent primer on geothermal power.

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