A Measure of Living

It’s 6:00 am on a February morning.  The air is chill as I slip out from beneath warm blankets.  Ice has formed inside the window pane of my bedroom and I scrape it away to peer into the darkness at the frosted world beyond.  It is 1960.  I am fourteen years old.  

Outside our front door lies a bundle of newspapers, dropped by the newsagent’s van.   I will take them in, sort them on the kitchen table into an order to fit into my canvas bag, then I will take the bicycle from the back shed and set off on my ‘round’ of the country lanes that I cover every morning.

I don’t remember how many customers I had.  They were farmers for the most part, and villagers whose working hub was the nearby town.  Few travelled far, in those days.  As a rule they were tolerant, kind people who suffered their news in wet and dilapidated condition on rainy days with little complaint.  The canvas bag did its best, but it rarely succeeded in keeping the Daily Mails and The Times, the Mirrors or the Manchester Guardians completely dry.   I hated wet Sundays.  Sunday ‘papers were so heavy with supplements and extras I sometimes had to make two runs to spread the weight.

Dogs persist in my memories of those days – more, perhaps, than people.  Ralph was a Border Collie who helped drive his master’s cow herd to milking about the time I came past.  His method for asserting his authority was to leap up and swing on the tail of the rearmost cow.  Heavy with milk, the matron would half-heartedly flail a backward foot, but she never really seemed to mind.   When he wasn’t working he sat on the wall next to the road.  Ralph expected to be petted.

The architect at the end of the road owned a Great Dane:  the dog knew I regarded him with sufficient terror (he stood nearly as tall as I) to employ avoidance tactics whenever possible –  there was a long path to negotiate before his owner’s letter-box, and he looked forward to my daily visits with enthusiasm.  I was his favourite game.  Picture my young self, if you will, anxiously peering over the front gate to make sure the coast, as it were, was clear.  Picture the Great Dane hiding behind a rose bush of generous dimensions, watching as I stole stealthily up the path, slipped his master’s newspaper through the letterbox, and turned to beat my fast retreat, at which point he would stroll almost casually out onto the path, cutting off my route to safety.  Our eyes would meet.  I swear by the curl of his lip he was laughing. That dog had the deepest, most spine-chilling bark I have heard before or since.  I called him Baskerville; I don’t recall his real name.

Puttie was a Highland Terrier, a ‘Westie’.  Puttie’s owner, a nice comfortable lady, taught him to come to the front gate and collect his mistress’s ‘paper.  She accompanied him the first time to reassure me that Puttie knew what to do and it was all right to lean over and give him the rolled-up ‘paper.

“Are you sure?”  I asked her.

“Yes, certain, dear.  He’s very clever, you know.”

So I did.  I leaned over and delivered the newspaper into his jaws.  Puttie received it with enthusiasm, thereafter proving he was also very fast on his feet.   Seconds later, after he had disappeared behind the house, there came the first sounds of shredding.

“I expect he’s just taken it inside,” his owner explained, although she didn’t sound convinced.

That was an exercise never to be repeated.  I was told subsequently by nice lady’s son that Puttie not only took the newspaper indoors, but scattered bits of it around every room in the house.  He also defended it with vigour, while it still had entity, resisting any attempt to take it from him.

My ‘paper round paid me, as I recall, fourteen shillings a week.  It filled the two hours before our school bus came to take us over the hills to the local seat of learning.  It kept my own personal wolf from the door in the winter months, became a chore in summer when there was farm work to be done – potato raising, fruit picking, harvesting, in the evenings.  By and large they were good days, when a ‘child’ of twelve, thirteen or fourteen could ride the hay wain home, pitch straw with forks or (my favourite) ride the sled behind the bailer.  Farmers were mean paymasters, but we learned to work for our living.  We were respectful, a little fearful, and we were strong.

Then, in Britain, some might say the downward spiral began.  One day in a town called Minehead a beat bobby sought to discipline a miscreant teen by giving him a clip behind the ear.  In those days that kind of correction was common enough, I had been on the receiving end of a stout policeman’s severity once or twice myself.   It was simple, it was effective, and nobody died.  It nipped a thousand potential lives of crime in the bud.  The parents of that boy sued the police and won.  The beat bobby was a beat bobby no more, the constabulary paid up, thereby setting a precedent from which have sprung countless opportunist law suits, ranks of ambulance-chasing lawyers and a Health and Safety culture with which every former bastion of authority must ingratiate itself for fear of damage claims and destroyed careers.  

No more the hay wain rides, the thrusting of bales from the sled.  Even paper rounds are suspect now, and besides, those who might have earned from them are too busy throwing bricks at policemen, intimidating their teachers, or roving the streets in gangs.    You might disagree with me, in fact I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bloggers will, when I suggest that whenever we try to subvert the natural order of things by law we make them worse.   In the cocoon of my modern life I do occasionally reflect in this fashion.  Today I decided to share.

Featured Image by Sergey Mikeev from Unsplash

Image of Great Dane by Keenan Barber from Unsplash

West Highland Terrier by Sharon Tay from Unsplash

The Swami on the Hill

This morning, as I prepared for a day filled with nothing in particular, I watched a nubile young person on the television demonstrating some torturous poses which she dubbed as ‘Yoga’.  Later, in the shower, I started thinking back – always a mistake when you’ve so many years to think back upon.  Bathrooms do that – it must be all the steam.  But I digress…

Do you recall those youthful ‘phases’ we all went through, when we sought ‘The True Path’?  I tried a lot of ‘paths’, I remember, including quite a few that required pharmaceutical help.     I also tried Yoga, mainly because at the time I was with a girlfriend who practised it.  And I learned the thing about Yoga is, yes, you’re always practising it.  You never get it absolutely right.  

My unimpeachable source impressed upon me that to qualify as a true Yogi and to draw the benefits that entails requires a life of dedication, that the poses are there to help you achieve complete breathing and the Elysium of meditation that lie beyond.  ‘The true Yogi drinks when he is thirsty, eats when he is hungry, sleeps when he is tired’  Incredible as it seems, I’m sure many of us can remember a time when we actually believed we could live life that way? I certainly did:  I was in love, I suppose.

Of course, the truth soon dawns.  Achieving a full lotus pose becomes impossible if your wife is impatient to be driven to the supermarket, or if your dog recognises that peculiar sitting position as a kind of game.  The next thing you learn about the lotus pose, as with a number of other yogic distortions, is just how long it takes to un-achieve it, as well as the surgical procedures that may follow.

In such a direction Elysium does not lie.  The attending physician in Accident and Emergency explains:  “If God had intended your hip to go that way he would have put it on the other way up.”  Doctors can be very cynical, at times.  And very unsympathetic.

Then there are the daily penalties of ‘working life’; the pints of beer quaffed for social gain, the ten-minute lunchtime visits to McDonalds, the protracted sessions on an acutely uncomfortable, orthopaedically unpardonable office chair, the sleepless nights slaving over a hot infant, the arguments, the rows, the assault charges…     ‘Sleep when you are tired’?  Alas, no more:  ‘Sleep no more, Macbeth (curious name for a child, you say? You haven’t met her) doth murder sleep’.  ‘Eat when you are hungry’ – a slogan KFC would no doubt adopt with enthusiasm, but terrible for your waistline if practised as freely as the doctrine would recommend.

Plunging at last into retirement I may have wished my days of limitless freedom would return, that I might grab one of those vile bedroom curtains, fashion it into a dhoti, and take my true place as the Swami on the Hill.  My years at the beck and call of the daily grind were behind me.  I would be able to drink, eat and sleep to my heart’s content.  The ‘True Path’ stretched out before me; Nirvana beckoned.

How wrong was I?

No sooner had the dust settled than I was apprised of my duties as ‘Parent in Residence’,  I learned how a day filled with nothing in particular requires organisation, time management, responsibilities.   Further, I discovered my vulnerabilities ‘in old age’ not only rendered the lotus pose physically impossible, but even to attempt it would earn a look from the attending physician in Accident and Emergency that could best be described as ‘withering pity’.  Nor was settling for the ‘downward dog’ any sort of solution.  Different dog, same game.  Same supermarket, too.

The schedules, the plans and the commitments have not gone away.  I am merely that much slower in fulfilling them.   So, not only am I as busy in retirement as I was when I got paid, but I am also physically less equipped to keep up.  Nowadays, to maintain the pace means resorting to ‘uppers’ of a very different kind to those I imbibed in my youth.  All legal,if that is any consolation, but all essential, or so I’m told.

Takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?

Well, at least I must finally concede that the Complete Yogi, as well as the ‘complete breath’ that is the gateway to perfect contemplation, lies somewhere beyond my reach.  It will never be.   It never was, truth be told, because the life of the true Yogi does not translate from that hilltop – does not fit into the modern world.  Our posturing is just another form of exercise to be fitted into an appointed slot in our day.  The elastic woman on the silver screen who demonstrates her ‘Yoga’ is guilty of a misnomer, because those extravagant poses are merely a form of exercise that might as well be aerobics, or weight training, or any number of alternatives far removed from the true prize sought in the Astika of a Hindu philosophy many thousands of years old.

I shall roll up my mat, restore the bedroom curtain, and let each incident-free negotiation of the staircase serve as my small victory.   A Dhoti and a turban are rather too draughty for an English winter, as it goes.

Namaste.

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Featured Image: Oxana Taran on Unsplash

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