Sunday, 25 January 2015

How To Build A Bomb

Tom McCall as Hans Bethe, John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer and Ben Allen as Edward Teller in Oppenheimer. Photo by Keith Pattison
From The RSC Production

Seeing the same play many times is like re-reading a favourite book: there is always something you missed before;  with Shakespeare’s plays I would go so far as to say you must see them as often as they come back to a stage near you. It will take several productions before you can stop concentrating on every word - and so miss the performance. Only when you know what comes next will you appreciate the depth, colour, drama, the layers of humour and tragedy, the sheer genius of the works, whether written by one man or several.

But sometimes the first performance of a play is all you need to get goosebumps. It happened to me yesterday with a brand new play by a relatively unknown dramatist called Tom Morton-Smith, namely, “Oppenheimer.”  

1939: fascism spreads across Europe, Franco marches on Barcelona and two German chemists discover the processes of atomic fission. In Berkeley, California, theoretical physicists recognise the horrendous potential of this new science: a weapon that draws its power from the very building blocks of the universe. The ambitious and charismatic J Robert Oppenheimer finds himself uniquely placed to spearhead the largest scientific undertaking in all of human history.

Struggling to cast off his radical past and thrust into a position of power and authority, Oppenheimer races to win the 'battle of the laboratories' and create a weapon so devastating that, with the detonation of a single device, it would bring about an end not just to the Second World War but to all war.

As the political situation darkens, Tom Morton-Smith's new play takes us into the heart of the Manhattan Project and explores the tension between the scientific advances that will shape our understanding of the fabric of the universe, and the justification of their use during wartime, revealing the personal cost of making history.

The play left the four of us rather subdued and in need of a fortifying cup of tea before tackling the long   journey home from Stratford-upon-Avon back to Shropshire. To break the spell I decided to pop into the theatre shop for some cards. The merchandise at the RSC gift shop is undoubtedly overpriced but tasteful rather than tacky, as in so many other gift shops where a bit of additional cash is raised for an attraction.

As I took my purchases to the cash till I overheard one of the assistants say to the other :  “Is Oppenheimer out yet?”  Being a helpful sort of person I butted in and said “ O yes, quite a while ago.”  Whereupon the second assistant said, deadpan and with no discernible trace of irony in her voice or facial expression: “Good, they’ll have had time to build another bomb then.”

Reader, I fell for it. Blame the play and my continued preoccupation with it or blame my natural slow wittedness. All excited and breathless I said : O, do they build a new bomb for each performance?” (a large bomb-shaped object is suspended from girders and slowly appears above the stage in the final part of the play, culminating in darkness and the noise of an almighty explosion)

“O yes,” the assistant said, “of course they do.” She kept her eyes firmly lowered, it doesn’t do to make fun of the paying customer too obviously.

I felt a 'proper Charlie’ but when I stopped being embarrassed the spell the play had cast over me was broken. Which was not a bad thing. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Drinks Party

Saturday morning between eleven and one.
Neighbours, friends, acquaintances,
people like us,
people one knows.
There is wine. 'French only, I’m afraid', says the host.
'Chardonnay or claret'.
I opt for Chardonnay and set my glass down on a handy table.
Soft drinks for those who don’t want alcohol.
Especially in the morning.

The hostess offers nibbles.
Mini sausage rolls, vol-au-vents, cheesy bits, tiny squares of ham sandwiches,
crusts carefully removed.
'How have you been', we ask.
‘Haven’t seen you for ages’.
‘You’re looking well.’ Obligatory.
'Did you have a nice Christmas?’
We talk about computers and IT,
to show that we are by no means past it.

We are all of retirement age,
although some still work at their chosen profession.
Mostly part-time. ‘To keep my hand in’.
'A little extra cash for holidays and treats'.
One says ‘You know how I love 18th century walnut furniture.
I have my eye on a long-case clock. Very expensive, as you’d expect.’
‘Yes,’ I say.
My knowledge of the value of long-case clocks of any century
is limited.

Looking across the room you see someone you don’t recognise.
Could it be? It can’t be! Yes, it is. Michael.
Goodness, hasn’t he aged since last we met.
He felt my stare, we make eye contact.
He smiles. Ah, yes, a smile makes all the difference.

‘Are you planning a holiday’,
once a favourite opening gambit
as you make your way around the room, mingling.
A year or two ago the answer was ‘yes’;
details followed, a warm feeling of anticipation in the air.
There are fewer now who will undertake the rigours of travelling.
There is much rueful commiseration.
‘The furthest we get is the hour’s drive to the hospital for check-ups’.
‘What with appointments at surgeries, dentists, clinics there’s hardly time left
to get away for a few days.
One just about manages to see family’.
But we are computer-literate, we said so.
The world comes to us now, just a click away.

Legs aching, feeling faint from standing,
I make my way to Andrew, who’s been ill; he's sitting down.
Gratefully, I sink down next to him.
Andrew has no time for small talk.
‘How’s the writing going’, he asks.
I tell him I’ve given up.
He rouses himself, is concerned.
‘That’s bad’, he says, ‘you must continue’.
I make a plan to ask him to lunch.

Time’s up. The morning is over and we kiss our hosts good-bye.
Both cheeks.
On the way out I see Colin. A quick word, must have a quick word.

‘How are you,’ he says. ‘Are you well?’
I look back at the room.
‘Sometimes I could weep’, I say.

Saturday, 17 January 2015


It’s done. It broke my heart, but it’s done.
I’ve stopped dithering in the middle of the bridge and crossed over.

Do you know what it feels like to face a dilemma which you must resolve, one way or another, both ways being equally painful? When a person you love dearly holds all the cards but refuses to let you play. When, in your heart of hearts, you truly feel no guilt, but are blamed nonetheless. And there is nothing you can do. Absolutely nothing.

Yes, you could swallow your dignity, accept the blame for an imagined offence, beg forgiveness for something you don’t believe you have done. But then what ? What do you gain? Can you still love that person as dearly? There will always be falsehood, resentment and, in the end, the bitter taste of failure. Your sacrifice will turn to ashes in your mouth. Even Beloved, the kindest and most conciliatory person in the world knows it would take a miracle to make it better.

There’s no one I can tell, except a stranger whom I pay to sort it out.  And you.

Monday, 12 January 2015

SHORTS - Loneliness

You know that Kelly, who comes and cleans the spaces in my house which can be seen without moving furniture, also works as a peripatetic carer; she is the kind who gets a shift which allows her about 20 minutes max with each of her elderly and some very old patients. She is paid a pittance, barely above the minimum wage, whereas her employer takes a fair dollop of cash off both private and state employers.

Although this state of affairs makes me extremely cross it’s the not the point of this post.

With many of her co-workers succumbing to the flu, Kelly was swamped with calls over the Christmas period. One of her chaps, a man of 84 whom she described as a very sweet and friendly old gentleman, felt unwell when she visited him the day before Christmas Eve. Kelly decided to do something, she rang his doctor and the old man’s daughter too, to let her know that dad was poorly. Kelly stayed with him until the daughter arrived, who lived just half an hour away. The old man was still on Kelly’s roster the next day; she heard that the doctor had been and prescribed some medication. She did what she had to do and left for her next patient.

On Christmas Day a colleague of Kelly’s was on duty. When she arrived at the house she found the old man lying on the floor in front of his bed, stone cold. She immediately phoned for an ambulance and was told by the switchboard operator to attempt resuscitation. Kelly’s colleague said that rigor mortis had already set in and the man must have died sometime during the night, alone and helpless. In spite of her conviction that she could do nothing she performed CPR.

I don’t know whether the old man could have survived if somebody had actually taken care of him, but I’m thinking that death in the embrace of his family would have been infinitely preferable to such a miserable and lonely end to his life.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Good Riddance and Welcome New Beginnings

Christmas 2013 I said “not everything went wrong”. This festive season was no different. The relief that it’s all over is great. If ‘festive’ is companionably sitting and moaning, feeling ill, picking at dried flakes of snot and flicking them off to join dog hair and dust bunnies in the corners of the room and generally stewing in your own phlegm, watching bad TV and reading arse-clenchingly dull books, I can do without it. If ‘festive' means feeling obliged to cook ’special’ meals, all of them elaborate and large, all of them costing the earth and requiring hours of labour and then nobody eats them and the whole lot bar a few forkfuls wanders into the freezers, then I beg to be excused from joining in.

Give me humdrum any day. For a good two weeks we stayed under self-imposed quarantine, neither going out nor letting anyone in. Whenever one of our wonderful neighbours called to walk the dog for us we took Millie to the back door, handed her and her lead over and retreated to a sofa. Actually, once we felt and sounded not completely at death’s door it wasn’t so bad. When others were obliged to attend parties, entertain families and generally pretend to joyously embrace the festive spirit and knacker themselves in the process, we put our feet up. It’s true to say that we lacked the energy to do otherwise but being allowed to recover in peace was wonderful.

Christmas and New Year were wash-outs, which surely means it can only get better from now on? Just look at those snowdrops.

Kelly came to clean up dust bunnies and snot flakes and kind friends came to eat left-overs with us. I’ve started to make inroads into festive letters and emails - why do people who never write at any other time insist on telling you about their whole boring year at Christmas? I’ve made arrangements to bring our Wills up to date, sort through tax receipts, cleared my desk of clutter, reconciled bank statements and may even get round to renewing my passport. Millie is taking me out again although I’m not nearly as keen to walk for miles as her temporary minders were.

Let the good times roll!

Wednesday, 31 December 2014


We’re all decided,
the year has become
so last year, dear,
it simply has to go.
We are nothing if not
up-to-the minute, and
we plainly can’t be seen in
last year’s thoughts.

Lists of best and worst,
funniest or most deplorable,
you cannot get away from them.
Editorials on the ins and outs
of futile wars,
natural disasters,
the whys and wherefores of
catastrophes and
galloping epidemics,
there’s no let-up.
Tales of
greed and corruption
make headlines throughout the year.

But we have plans,
we will make
Yes sir,
we have learned our lesson.
We must do better.
We will do better.

We have Tabula Rasa.
A fresh start,
renewed hope.
Let the journey begin.


Tonight pretty pink clouds trundled across the sky at Valley’s End.
I wonder, could they have been pigs flying?

A Very Happy New Year
One And All.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Merry - Atishoo - Christmas

I’d much rather publish a photo of a pretty Christmas motif than a picture of a cold virus. But I’d be telling lies. I am not saying that Christmas will be cancelled altogether at our house - still two days to go with a chance of recovery -  but anybody walking past our house might conceivably imagine that we keep seals or sea lions. Or geese. There’s honking, coughing, barking and an awful lot of wheezing going on. We are struggling.

All you lovely blogging people who have sent Christmas greetings, thank you very much. Sorry, but I can’t reciprocate. This is all you get.

A Very Merry Christmas
And Goodwill To All Humankind