One day in the future I will remember the evening
Walking the river path when I could smell the winter ending
Me and your dogs; we could hear the birds
Starting to sing their evening songs again
The way they do when Spring first comes.
We saw the lights in the houses go on
From where we were, quiet on the edge of the wood,
Me and your dogs. We were late.
We’d found a secret river meadow so remote
That no footprints marked the mud smoothed by the floods
Then you texted: How long will you be?
Ten minutes. Five if we hurry. Is everything ok?
Everything was fine, you messaged me.
And all of us knew it was then, me and your dogs.
How long will we be now? A lifetime or so.
Then I can remember you again,
One day in the future.
What is there to say, Django Reinhardt?
You take forever now to smoke
That cigarette on the album cover.
A perfect swirl of smoke
Rises past your svelte lapel.
It all went pretty well that evening,
Even from here I can tell.
You did the gypsy thing
The jazz thing, the war thing
And now I’m older than you then
I still can’t do the guitar thing
The way you did with just two fingers.
Your wife made trinkets out of celluloid
Shirt collars, the same stuff they used to use
For film and like old pictures always could
It can burn. And then it did.
The caravan you lived in,
You two crazy kids in your teens,
The whole thing caught light
And as you saved your wife
You lost your hand; or at least some fingers.
You thought it would change your life
And it did but not the way
Anyone might have thought.
You were a gypsy jazz musician.
You looked like a Jew;
That’s what people said in those days.
Some places they still do but you,
When the Nazis came you got lucky.
Hitler might have detested jazz;
And Heydrich, the Reich Gaulieter of Bohemia
And Moravia wrote the rules but the guys
With the boots and the guns, the farm boys
And the doctors, the fliers and the sailors
Listening to Lili Marlene and Bing
And Miller and Dorsey, all of that swing thing
They liked that stuff. They were hep to that jive,
Man. Betty Grable! What a dish!
That music swung too, so Django, you didn’t
When nobody would have taken bets on you
Coming out the other side of that war.
Nobody at all. But someone looked after you.
You hid in plain view, playing at the Hot Club de Paris,
Not down some alley off a half-forgotten street
In an unfashionable arrondisement.
Not you. You were still up there with your name
In lights same as it was with you and Grapelli,
Back before; Someone else
With a pressing reason to leave Paris fast.
But it worked out somehow.
Nobody knocked on your door
In the small hours or if they did,
Only for friendly reasons
And with some pressing urgency,
The way it is sometimes.
Someone was looking after you.
And then June ’44
And America and electric guitars
That you never really liked
Listening to you, it’s plain that’s true.
The fluency still there but the sound flat.
Maybe nobody knew what electric guitars
Were for back then. Maybe even you.
Transatlantic meant a week on a ship before
You came home again to Soissons-sur-Seine.
Thirty seconds of pain before
You put down your guitar for good.
You played better with two fingers
Than most people learn to play in two lifetimes,
That sound that people danced to, crooned to,
Swooned to, the forever sound of golden years.
In an imaginary past full of promises
That no-one meant to break, but still.
You know how it goes. You do now, anyway.
You played Limehouse Blues for a place
Where now you need a million,
To even think about it. That’s blue.
Nagasaki for a somewhere else
We don’t like to talk about too much.
You told us, back in Nagasaki
Where the fellers chew tobaccy
The women wiggy waggy woo. And maybe they do.
So I’ll see you in my dreams, and in nuages,
In a Sentimental Moon, Beyond The Sea,
In Echoes Of France with those Swing Guitars,
Swinging In Springtime. It had to be you.
Django. Didn’t it? That and Stephan’s Blues,
Double Whisky, Christmas Swing. Just for Fun.
Oubli. Parfum. Swing 39, 41 and 42.
All of these your tunes. It just had to be you.
There is a green hill far away. We sang about it in Sunday school, but it’s more true now then when I first sang it, back where all the hills were green and not far away at all, just a cycle ride away.
I wrote this today about something over a year ago. I don’t know if it works or not. I thought it did when I wrote it.
High On a Green Hill
I met her in a pub when we were younger
Half our lives away; I met her on Facebook when she was ill.
I gave her a book of mine to read, while she lay
Under a blanket in the chill of an Andalucian winter,
Thick patterned wool around her thin shoulders,
Cold tiles under her long feet. She had a plan
To start a marmalade factory but something happened
To the farmers collective or the orange crop,
I didn’t really know.
And then there was the husband
And then there was the son and it was complicated,
You know how it goes sometimes.
I thought of her all that winter, pale and cold
Her light burning lower.
You can die when you’re our age.
Or anytime, it’s just we know that now.
She had pneumonia, she had blood tests,
She thought she had something else and
We shared the great day when she could walk in the sun
Three clicks to the village and rest and back again
On her own, by email, the way people do now.
After the marmalada corporation somehow didn’t happen
We met face-to-face the second time in our lives;
A university reunion.
She was the only reason I wanted to go.
She didn’t drink any more.
I was about ten years too late for that plan
But I didn’t know that when I offered her a glass of wine
And as she said “if I drink I have no limits,”
As I tried so hard to catch the waiter’s eye
For a whole bottle her friend kicked my leg under the table,
Hard and then harder until she said
“And this time I’ll probably die, so no,
I won’t have a drink. Thanks.”
She drank fizzy water.
Apparently there are different tastes,
Just not the ones I thought she meant.
We ate while I tried to hide the tinted sin of my glass
And talked and went quite early to our separate rooms.
When someone doesn’t drink, what else do you do?
But in the morning, fresh, we walked through sacred damp Bath
To the café I’d found that I thought she might like.
And she did. And I did, when the waitress assumed
She was my wife. It felt like it could have gone that way,
In a different life. After breakfast we walked along the canal,
Early Spring and suddenly it’s May and maybe,
Just maybe everything would turn out ok and
After she told me where she’d been and I didn’t need
I used to drive around a lot, just for fun. There wasn’t much else to do where I grew up; everywhere was somewhere else. As I got older I kept on driving for fun, or if not fun then more often to be somewhere I wasn’t.
I bought a house in the Cotswolds one winter, a place I’d driven through when I was eighteen and not that far from where I was born, but we left there when I was two. The real town I bought the old posting barn, four hundred years old, where footsteps often carried on from the old pub next door straight through where the wall was, six feet thick, and walked through the barn, and still the house I was happy walking around at three in the morning, can’t sleep, leaving the lights off to see the sleeping town was in Not Your Heart Away, the place where Ben and Claire, Peter and Liz stopped after the car crash they’d just escaped having.
But none of that ever happened. Things like it did, but that didn’t, because they were imaginary people. Almost. Just like that place.
That place we saw once
Driving that bright January day;
I can’t remember the name of the town
Just bigger than a village
I don’t often drive that way now.
But somewhere on a hill,
Stark trees against the sharp blue sky
Up on the ridge, a red phone box
Against the snowy hedge,
The morning almost silent
Now the car’s calmed down.
Our eyes nearly back to normal
Once the motorway’s long behind us.
Cold with the window open.
Definitely not a day you want
To come out without a coat.
That feeling in your throat this time of year
Making you wonder if it’s the weather
Or whether you’re getting a cold
And how long it’s been since you were here before.
The shop’s become someone’s house now
And other new houses built on fields
To let you know you’re getting older,
But still alive. Still alive
As a cat walks across the frosty road
This crisp morning and you’d swear
You caught the Boxing Day fox-hunting
Smell of cigars as you turned the corner
That wasn’t quite where you remembered it was.
Wrong turn; And you drive the length
Of this Cotswold street.
A man on his phone, smiling, carrying the newspaper
For a day job I work for a mental health hospital. Today I read one of the descriptions of the services the hospital offers and wondered about the way the fear and stigma of mental illness has affected treatment, to the extent that it’s not the done thing to even talk about it. We can and do happily discuss mental health but it’s not really on to talk about mental illness. It’s frightening. It’s a total loss of control.
Out on the primal veldt if you break your leg the lions might get you sooner, but at least you can make a plan. Light a fire, sharpen a stick, do something to put it off. And maybe, maybe you’ll get through. But when your mind isn’t very well you’re the most vulnerable you can possibly be and still be alive. Your plan is going to be about as good as the lions’s and they’ve got much bigger teeth than you.
Watch a cat with another cat that just came back from the vet and acts woozy from the anaesthetic. That would be my fear of what would happen, that frightened people would lash out, as frightened people do. Unless you’re lucky. Unless you can get help.
The service description got me thinking of how sanitised the language of therapy has become. Maybe it’s a good thing. I honestly don’t know. In one way it helps by reminding people, maybe unintentionally, the thinness of the tightrope we all walk. I see people who’ve missed their footing every day. It’s a terrifyingly long way down.
Treatment for psychotic symptoms, including hearing voices and seeing things others do not, feeling paranoid or mistrustful, believing in an ability to read other people’s minds, feeling confused, irritable and depressed, not thinking clearly, feeling that bad things may happen to self or others, believing in one’s special powers or fame are classic symptoms of a psychotic episode.
The factsheet told me the symptoms are common
And extensively varied including hearing voices,
Or seeing things that other people don’t see and hear.
And it’s true. I hear voices that other people don’t.
Other people don’t share my memories
And I hear your voice still telling me it’ll be ok.
Feeling paranoid or mistrustful.
I used to think paranoid meant thinking
Everyone was out to get you
But in the end, one person’s quite enough
Especially when they don’t want to get you at all
But the opposite. They want to un-get you.
For good. And mistrust.
Where would I be without a healthy dose of that?
Signed up to share my bank account with a Nigerian prince
Who suddenly needs to get the money belonging to his uncle
Who sadly died in a plane crash out of the country.
If I’d only share my details half of it can be mine.
And I can tick another box now. I could read his mind
This prince with a distinctly un-royal address.
But maybe things are different there.
Where nobody is confused or irritable or depressed
Where everyone thinks clearly all the time,
Where the words psychosis and mental health
Or service user are hardly ever used,
Unlike American Express or bank account details.
It’s my attitude, isn’t it?
It’s all in my head, as if I could think anywhere else
And shift this feeling that bad things might happen to me
And they will without any question at all
Because nobody gets out of this alive.
Do I believe in my special powers? It depends.
Right now only my special power to survive
Unlike the tens of billions who went before me
Dying and being born, a flash and dust
Under an eternal flame
So yes. Hands up. Me sir! Me sir! Sir! Sir!
That’s my special fame.
This is not the thing I wanted to write about mental health treatment. It just came out that way. As some people seem to have problems, oops, sorry, I meant issues reading this and thinking ‘Is he?’ You know, is he like that?’ the answer is no. Not diagnosed, anyway.