To Leave the World A Little Better Than How You Found It


I turned fifty-seven yesterday. There was pizza and cake, and everybody was very kind, social media being no exception. 

Thank you all.

I could say this birthday stuff is a time for reflection but this whole year has been pretty much a time for reflection, as well as for everything else. Worry, fear trepidation, uncertainty. You know the score as well as I do. I won’t harp on.

On my birthday morning, I went out and returned some overdue books via the library letterbox. I also delivered a single bag of nice quality clothes to the charity shop. (“It’s good stuff, I promise.” “I believe you.”) On the way home, past the police station, there was a superficially-roguish-looking man whose car wouldn’t start. I offered to give him a push. In my blue zip up thing, I might have looked like a policeman, albeit the scruffiest one is history, so I mimed a car-push upon my approach so as to assure him that I wasn't coming to re-arrest him or anything. Another guy, who also offered to help, started complaining about his back as soon as the socially distanced pushing began so it was mostly down to me. The car lurched, puttered, and shuddered into life before driving off with a roguish wave out of the passenger window. Job well done.

My ambitions have tempered quite a lot as the years have passed. At nine I may have wanted to play James Bond and at many other ages I might have envisaged the Oscar-winning screenplay. Now, upon birthday and lock-down reflection, I find that I only really want one thing: to leave the world a little better than the way I found it.

Not in any lofty way. If there’s a solitary piece of litter on the town green, I may pick it up and bin it. If you need a hand with your bag because you bought too much stuff in the shop, I may give you a carry. I’m not pressuring myself to find the Covid Antidote or bring home Shergar. Some littler things will do. Just enough so that an account which might be totted up at the end of the day might end up in the black rather than in the red.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m nobody’s saint, nobody’s hero. I make just as many messes as anyone else and quite a few more than most. I’m curmudgeonly and miserable at times. I don’t project any angelic beams by which mortals might find their way.

I’m a bit of a git, to be honest.

But I don’t really understand people who don’t think like this. The person who dropped the scrap of litter that I picked up. By that action, the world is now just a little bit worse. Why bother? Stick it in a bin, move on. It ain’t hard. These tiny things might not redeem us. They might not save our world. It will take altogether bigger things to help to achieve that and my fifty-seven-year-old ambitions no longer stretch toward those things.

But, if I can’t make the world very much better, at least I can make it a little less worse for my having been here. 

It’s not the worst ambition to have, is it?

This small post is dedicated to Penelope O’Reilly, who left the world a far better place on account of her having been in it, here, with us.

x

Social Distance


When it comes time for such a thing to happen, I think I’m going to find it quite hard to get back within two metres of random people. I’ve observed the rules stringently all along. It’s going to take some doing to re-programme myself.

Over these past months, I’ve always tried to do my social distance thing with a smile, a merry jape. “Don’t mind me, I’m just trying to protect you whatever dreadful lurgy I might be harbouring. Here, have a grin. Now move on.”

The other evening was the one exception to this rule. A glitch. A one-off. What can I say? I lost it a bit. Sorry about that. It won’t happen again. Etc.

What happened? Okay. I was queuing outside Tesco, two metres from the person in front, two metres from the person behind, you know the drill. We were moving along at a nice pace. All good. A car pulled up at the kerb edge beside me and a middle-aged lady climbed out of the passenger seat. She was totally engrossed in her mobile phone call. She slammed the car door and it drove off. She turned and joined the queue. Not at the back, though. In the middle of the queue. Beside me. Right beside me.

She kept talking into her phone, “yes, yes, I know, I know, yes.” She didn’t seem to be aware that she had blithely jumped a socially distant queue and was now positioned something less than 6 inches away from my face.

“Excuse me,” I said, social distance grin fully employed.

“What?”

“Could you...? You know...”

“What? (Hold on, Mary, there’s some fella here.) What? What do you want?

“Would you mind stepping back a bit. You know, for_”

“The cheek of you! The bloody cheek of you. (The cheek of him, Mary) I have no disease. I have no Covid. What harm am I doing to you? (I don’t know, Mary, some fella. The cheek of him.)

“If you could just step back a lit_.”

“You cheeky sod. You little bastard. I have no Covid.”

It happens sometimes. Less and less, as I get older, but it still happens. It happened then. I lost my patience. I had a little rant.

“I guess this is exactly what you needed, you daft bint. What was it: were you a bit bored just sitting at home? “Drop me into town in the van, Martin, and I’ll queue up at Tesco and pick a fight with some poor bastard who’s been working hard all bloody day and just wants to get some dinner and go home. Oh, and I can ring up Mary while I’m at it. Kill two birds with the one stone."?”

The queuing people seemed to enjoy it.

The belligerent lady took two steps back from the now-belligerent gentleman. “There. I’m away from you now? Are you happy now? You arsehole, you skitter.”

“What about that poor woman right beside you? Are you away from her too?”

In fairness, the ‘poor woman’ behind me in the queue, who was now less than six inches away from the belligerent lady, seemed appalled to be dragged into the affair. She held her peace though.

The belligerent lady seemed to be casting around for a suitable response. She finally came up with one.

“Ah… fuck off.”

I turned away then and focused myself on some polite queuing. Behind me, the abuse kept coming although, strangely enough, ‘Mary-on-the-Phone’ might have been backing me up a bit because the lady interspersed her offensive remarks to me with consolatory words into the phone, “I know, Mary, I know a lot of people have died...”

We’ve all done pretty well with what’s been thrown at us, but it’s been a pressure cooker situation and I fear we are not done with it yet. Some of us may think it hasn’t touched us, but it has, in all kinds of ways. 

I’m not trying to be funny here nor tell a merry tale. I just wanted to set it down. Reading it back actually makes me feel a little sick in my stomach. I feel that I failed miserably in that situation and pretty-much let myself down.

Inside the store, I saw the woman who had been standing behind me in the queue. I apologised for my loss of patience and for involving her in my verbal melee. She assured me it was quite all right and that she took all that kind of thing with a pinch of salt. Two things struck me about that, when I thought about it afterward.

Firstly, I need to take more things with a pinch of salt. Like that lady does. 

And secondly, in that good lady’s eyes, I was as much the fool and the idiot as that belligerent woman was. I momentarily became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The belligerent lady needed to be told, to be set straight, but I didn't need to go off on one to do it. 

Social distance, I guess, isn't just about keeping away from people, it's also about forgetting how to behave.

I must try to do better.

A Long Song


I had a little solitary telly time the other day, so I put on the Coen Brother’s remake of True Grit on Netflix. I watched an hour or so of it and enjoyed it greatly. A day later, I came back and caught some more. 

I’m just at the ‘Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch’ scene so I’ll probably slide back and finish it sometime today. Sometime when it’s quiet in the living room.

Okay…

Hardly earth-shattering, Ken. Hardly the subject for a Sunday post, even on a blog like this, where navel-gazing has been the order of the day for years now.

Well, okay, there is one little twist to the tale I suppose. It’s not a massive one so don’t get your pants in a knot or anything.  Here it is…

This is third time I’ve watched the movie since lockdown began. I would also have watched it five or six other times when it appeared on telly or when I first saw it on DVD when it came out.

It’s true that I have a great affection for the movie. I’ve been a fan of the Coens since I first saw Blood Simple in one of the smaller screens in the (then) Warner West End in Leicester Square in 1984. I remember the buzz of seeing a first trailer for True Grit online about ten years ago. It seemed like a fine fit; the excellent source material, the creative team, and the inimitable Jeff Bridges. I didn’t see it in the movies for some reason. Okay, I know the reason. I had stopped going to movies for myself by that time and only really went when the boys wanted to see something.

I love most everything about it. If I wanted to try to give you a foothold into it, I would say the opening two minutes and thirty seconds are some of the most beautiful and eye-catching ones I can remember seeing. The juxtaposition of the opening lines from the novel with the dead father in the snow. Mattie’s arrival in the town, where the railway tracks run out. And, through it all, the elegiac score by Carter Burwell. Roger Deakin’s vision makes it the most extraordinary film to look at. Images and scenes burn into your brain.

There’s a moment in the courthouse scene where Rooster makes a smart reply to a question, “I always go backwards when I'm backin' up” and then, magically, he quietly applauds himself by tapping the arm of his chair with the palm of his hand. My Dad used to do that, a tiny gesture of appreciation whenever his own humour struck home with himself. It’s a personal connection to the film.

But if I were to single out one thing (and it would not be an easy task) I would point to the heightened language used in the film. The quirky, slightly formal language of the novel (and, presumably of the time), honed and perfected by the Coens, is lapped up by the actors who bring such grace and poise to their pronouncements, no matter how violent, no matter how cruel.

And when LeBeouf departs, saying to Mattie, “I misjudged you as well. I extend my hand”, it is as moving a movie-moment as I know.

And if you haven’t seen it and you go and see it now, possibly on the strength of this love-letter, you probably won’t have the same regard for it as I do. Over multiple re-watching, it has become more to me than a cinematic entertainment. It is, I suppose, a sort of ‘comfort blanket’, one that shows that, despite everything, there is still vision and wit and skill abroad in the world.

When I was re-watching the middle section this week, for the umpteenth time, I took to gently berating myself. “Here you sit, Ken Armstrong,” I said to myself, “with a hundred films at your disposal that you should see and that you have never seen and yet you watch this one again. Is your brain dead from lockdown? Is all initiative gone?”

But then, after I let up on myself a little, I came to a simple realisation that I soon decided could be the theme of this week’s post. I haven’t even said it yet although it is hinted-at in the title of this piece.

It is simply this. We can watch our movies over and over again and not need to feel remorseful or squandering of our precious time. A film can be like a long song. One that we listen to again and again and one that will brighten our day should we happen upon it out in the world. We may think we know every note and every key change, every breath the singer takes.  But each visit brings us something new, some small further small detail is revealed.

It’s great to see new things, to branch out. But it’s good to play the hits now and again too.

And good to sing along.