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THE FIRST day of September 2013 was the day Nelson Mandela was discharged from Hospital, the day David Frost died and the day John Slim was first diagnosed with cancer. An appointment on 20 September at the Queen Elizabeth hospital lin Birmingham gave the diagnosis the element of time, in John's words: "twelve months or thereabouts."
John's thoughts on anything and everything were a feature of The Birmingham Post and the Evening Mail for many years and his Small Thoughts have been a popular and ever present feature of Behind The Arras since its inception. In it John has looked at things that annoy, please or baffle him, he has recalled events, people he has met and journeys he has made. In short his small thoughts have been a celebration of life, a celebration that will continue to the end of time.
Small Thoughts

Dead reckoning

 

THERE'S a play – at least, there was, and I can't imagine that it has ceased to be since I saw it many years ago – called Why Me? 

It's about a chap who's poorly in bed with something unpleasant, and I've suddenly just thought about it for the first time in eons – because I have been asking myself that very question. 

September 20, 2013 – yesterday – was the day that a lovely, gentle doctor at Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital told me that cancer, of which I had been informed on September 1, was probably going to finish me off in the next 12 months. 

These were tidings that stopped me in my tracks – admittedly, not quite as decisively as my own personal Mr Big C, with whom there can be no useful argument, is going to do. Nevertheless, they gave rise to what is technically called Pause for Thought. 

So I paused – and I still, to veer into the vernacular, can't quite get my head round it. Much scratching of the occiput has yielded roughly as much light as a wartime blackout curtain. 

After all, here I am, as has always been my wont or will, striding about with an impressive tan and looking quite unreasonably healthy, but suddenly aware that I'm about to come to a halt. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a bit of a shock. 

Cancer of the gut and unwonted spots on the lungs. Mr Big C has caught up with me. It's taken him 82 years, but he's done it. Good on 'im! I'm sure he's extraordinarily pleased with himself. 

But I don't understand why 82 years of not a single cigarette have earned me his attention. My father chain-smoked for 60 years and got away with a heart attack.

That was an episode that found him suddenly sitting up in bed and shouting, “I'm dying!” – whereupon, my mother, so she later reported, replied, “Never! Nobody could die with a voice like that”, and returned to her disturbed sleep, only later to learn that her semi-detached and disturbed neighbour in bed beyond the wall had understandably wondered what was going on. 

Anyway, unlike my dear old Dad, I've perhaps got 12 months to contemplate my coming farewell. I've got as far as thinking that I don't want a Requiem Mass, just a quick convergence on the crem. I can't help feeling it would be a bit presumptuous to expect my four children, their four spouses and the nine grandchildren with whom they have furnished me so splendidly, to wave me goodbye not once but twice. 

Moderation in all things. 

I'm finding this easy to write, incidentally – far easier than I have found the business of telling people face-to-face that it's nearly goodbye time. That's because I'm not getting any reaction, whereas on the couple of times I have tried the face-to-face approach I have welled up on the instant. 

It's not that I am afraid to go. I'm 82 and I've had a good run, a lot of jolly, happy decades in which I have deployed my insistence on failing to understand any given situation in the knowledge that if everything is not quite hunky-dory it will eventually go away. 

No, it's just that the face-to-face business evokes shock, consternation and a sort of stuttering sympathy – which in turn renews in me the realisation that another dear friend is suddenly not much happier than I am, which hurts. 

Life goes on. Until eventually it doesn't. 

And that, I think, is all I wanted to say. It's goodbye from me. 

John Slim 

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Putting the cats among the legends

I LIKE black-and-white cats. They are usually pretty, they're clean, and in my experience, which admittedly is limited, they're characterful.

We had a black-and-white cat once. I've told you about his exploits as a goalkeeper in charge of a wicker wastepaper basket – Small Thoughts: Astrophe unforgotten. He was Astrophe, in three syllables, because he was our cat Astrophe, which was a bit unkind, really, because he never did anything catastrophic Nothing remotely approaching what we did to him when he was only a few weeks old.

That was when we created his bedroom in the coalhouse – this was more than half a century ago, when a coalhouse was the norm, not to say a sine qua non –because we had not got him potty-trained. We were awakened one autumnal night by a huge bang. That was because I had been misguided enough to give him, as a bedroom feature, a fish-box containing ashes, in readiness for storing dahlia tubers – and the ashes were far hotter than I had suspected.

So at about 2 am, there was this tremendous noise, prompting us to look alertly out of the window – and see flames leaping through the newly-exploded asbestos roof of the coalhouse.

Slippers a-swivel, I flicked the bedroom light switch – and discovered that we had got a power cut. Who on earth has power cuts at two in the morning? We do.

We also had rain, coming down sideways in the sort of Biblical proportions that would have caused the late Noah to feel that his Ark was not a waste of money. It was clearly Time To Be British.

So, braving the elements, I headed for the beacon that was blazing merrily at the bottom of the garden, while I called, “Astrophe! Astrophe!” as softly as I could. One tries not to excite the neighbours on these occasions.

I opened the coalhouse door, prompting a sheet of flame to shoot out and deprive me of considerable eyebrow material. With a fortitude to which mere words cannot hope to do justice, I pulled the blazing fishbox out, then resumed my gentle invocation of the cat's name, despite being reasonably confident that he must have been cooked to a crisp.

Almost at once, from the top of the garden, Astrophe spoke. He said, “Miaow”, which admittedly is pretty standard catspeak, and he said it from by the back door. Once I had opened the coalhouse door, he had clearly stayed not upon the order of his going.

So that was our black-and-white cat. And there's another one, name unknown, who likes our garden, not for its floral delights but because he regards it as toilet facilities that are more spacious than those afforded by his own garden, beyond our bottom fence.

He is characterful, too – clearly undeterred by the fact that, in an effort to keep cat Astrophe's name alive, I call this unwanted visitor Cat's Arse Trophy and have been hurling stones at him for three years, while paradoxically giving thanks for my failure ever to score a direct hit.

But now I read of a third one, alleged by my national newspaper to be called Denis. He may be Dennis, of course: I'm just not trusting a newspaper that tells me of his unusual exploits but somehow fails to indicate the town that is subjected to them, let alone the street where he lives.

Anyway, Denis/Dennis is now reported to be labelled Denis the Menace – on the grounds that he is alleged to have stolen hundreds of items from his neighbours in the course of a crime spree that has now lasted 18 months.

Socks, paint brushes, sponges, slippers, tea towels, a doll, a thong and even a dog chew whose owner was presumably not about at the time – they have all turned up at the home that the newspaper is – presumably accidentally and without Denis's immediate welfare in mind – keeping secret.

Clearly, black-and-white cats are liable to have differing talents: goalkeeping, cat-burgling and indiscriminate defecating. And these are presumably only the tip of the iceberg.

John Slim

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Motoring man

IT would possibly be pushing things a bit to suggest that life's problems began when man equipped himself with four wheels and an engine. Yet who is going to deny that confusion and consternation tend to follow the motor car like a pair of obligatory tail lights?

Take motorised man at random, seek a rapid run-down on his miseries, and you will be left in no doubt at all that his carburettor runneth over. It is not only the maladies which he is liable to discover he has acquired whenever he steels himself to peer beneath his bonnet.

 It is also the interplay of perplexities between himself and every other motorist. And it is the frustration and inconvenience which beset him in such diverse forms as hitch-hikers, helpful road signs, policemen, parking meters, one-man buses, the breathalyser, other people's caravans, the Government and rust.

No other mode of progression is so a-prickle with the paradoxical and the incomprehensible. Where other systems bid fair to be transports of delight, motoring stalls at the starting-gate.

Take hand signals. A hand which sticks limply out of the driver's window provides other drivers with a choice of interpretations. The driver behind could fall into the trap of assuming that here is a motor car which is about to turn right. But the driver who has learned to have faith in no man and who thinks on his seat will realise that there are other possibilities:

 

  1. That's where we stopped for the picnic that time when Johnny sat in the sandwiches

  2. I do believe it's beginning to rain

  3. I have got my window open

 

Take direction indicators. A winking light means:

  1. I am about to turn

  2. I  have no intention of turning, but I did turn a couple of miles back and my cancel switch does not work and anyway I'm talking

  3. I am a lorry and I have broken down

  4. I have just overtaken a chap who has been irritating me for miles and I am trying to tell him that his light is winking, but he hasn't seen/doesn't understand/doesn't care

 

The forgotten winker is also packed with possibilities for the pedestrian, who thus finds himself drawn irresistibly into the mysteries of motoring. The trusting citizen, who steps off the kerb because he thinks he can believe the car approaching him beyond the crossroads when it says it is about to turn, is appalled (if he's lucky) or pulverised (if he's not) when it comes straight on without a waver.

 

Take flashing headlights. They mean:

  1. Come on, I will wait for you

  2. Stay where you are, I'm not stopping

  3. You have forgotten to put your lights on

  4. Your lights are on and you have forgotten to dip them

  5. AND you are

  6. We are both lorries and you have just overtaken me

  7. We are both lorries and I thank you for pointing this out

  8. I trust you will pull over to your nearside almost immediately, as I am in imminent danger of disappearing up your exhaust pipe

 

When planners, seeking to speed the traffic, go out of their way to divide a carriageway into two distinct lanes, motorised man shows his gratitude by driving in both lanes at the same time.

When policemen, seeking to slow the traffic, set up a radar trap, he is not allowed to help them to achieve their object by erecting his own unofficial Radar Trap 300 yards ahead sign. If he does, he is taken to task and to court, where he finds that policemen with radar traps don't really want to slow the traffic at all; that, on the contrary, they are glad to see it going too fast, just as long as its number plate is not a blur.

On the general question of speed, the rule is that the better a road is illuminated, the slower a motorist must go. If there are no lamp posts, he can aspire to 70 mph. He has no rights at all on zebra crossings: a pedestrian is privileged to step off the pavement two feet in front of a car travelling at 30 mph, if it seems to him to be a good idea at the time. It is the driver's responsibility to miss him and his only defence after cleaning up his bonnet is to prove that the assorted remains had been intent on suicide anyway.

He peers through the diesel smog engulfing a lorry's tailboard and he broods profoundly on the awful warning which says Air Brakes. He shrinks from monsters which bear down on him with a word of perfectly reasonable advice on their radiators: Dodge.

Parking meters and yellow lines seek to drive him out of the towns. Rural protectionists seek to drive him out of the country. If he takes to a car park, it is only after he has read the small print on the back of his ticket that he discovers that the proprietors, like the attendant who has just taken his money, accept no responsibility for the safety of his vehicle.

Road works signs give him too little warning of the trench into which he is about to drive. Abandoned road works signs keep him agog for non-existent perils for the next five miles. He seeks consolation in stickers which obscure his rear window and in dangling toys which wobble on his windscreen. He cheers up if he finds a rude number plate whose implications have escaped the Department of Transport. (My favourite, which I have seen on two different cars, is 4 COF).

MANHOOD IN DOUBT

At traffic lights, he insists on being the first away because he realises that if he is not his manhood is in doubt. On red, he edges anxiously forward. On amber, he is off like a retiring typhoon, leaving lesser men to marvel at the unequivocal virility of his slipstream. He is probably wearing baby gloves.

He is aware of a riot of road signs. There is one which shows him a car overtaking another car and he is expected to understand that this means he must not overtake. There is the fascinating Beware of low-flying motor cycles, showing a sprightly two-wheeler clearing the roof of a car.

Whether he crawls neurotically to his city office or undertakes a journey he doesn't enjoy through countryside he doesn't see, he is always at the mercy of birth control campaigners. These are a well-meaning group of white-coated men and women who picket Britain's overcrowded schools with lollipop slogans that say, Stop Children.

Whether he is a keen, clean motorist whose car is always spotless, or the less zealous owner who washes his vehicle so infrequently that when he does so the neighbours naturally assume he is about to sell it, he is fair game for insurance companies who want his business until the sad moment when something has gone wrong and they find that it is he who now wants them.

Who can say that if man had had an inkling of the all-round bafflement which was to follow his entanglement with the internal combustion engine, he would ever have spurned the penny-farthing?

John Slim

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The great equaliser

IN the possibly unlikely event of society's being turned into a forgotten factory sandwich, the middle-class would be the part that is thickly spread to fill the gap between the upper crust and the hard cheese.

The middle class is the great amorphous admass; the cover-all container into which we pop both our new-rich top management and our never-rich nine-to-five man, inextricably linked by his white collar to a black future and a red bank balance.

The middle class comes upper and lower and – heaven, preserve us – middle as well. It is the district nurse on her bicycle and it is the chauffeur-driven tycoon. It is rub-along respectability with elbow patches, holding forth on the sins and omissions of Murray Minor to an uninterested audience in the senior common room. It is well-breeched no-respectability, making itself a nuisance by surging brashly inconsiderate and far too quickly along a canal in its outsize cabin cruiser.

It is most things. It is, in fact, so many things that everyone can stab a finger in its general direction and no one can put a finger on it. It is the most personal of uncertainties, held without conviction yet defended with devotion. Our judgments, as Swift was at pains to point out, are like our watches: none goes just alike, yet each believes his own.

Cash just confuses the issue. Marketing men chalk up the middle class, in an initial burst of inspiration, as A, B and C1 citizens, with a taxpayer's particular category depending on his salary – but they are the first to admit that the monetary way of labelling is alive with drawbacks.

The rule of thumb which puts the middle class at anything more than so many spondulicks a year takes no account of the well-breeched long-distance lorry driver, a contented king in a council house, with a wife and half the family loyally contributing to the coffers and the 40-inch television set. He would shrink palely into the depths of his Jaguar convertible and disappear with the urgency of a homesick angel if he thought he was about to be called middle class. He is working class and proud of it, as he will confide while stretching across his chips to uncork the claret.

IDENTIFICATION

Nor does any system of instant identification based on salary allow for the middle class's insistence on being middle class for a lot less than that upon which the long-distance lorry driver has to manage to manage.

It is all a question of retaining an air of gentility while trying to keep the head above water. The middle class comes buffer-like between the plush-upholstered car worker on the one hand and the impoverished peerage, eking a living out of pay-at-the-gate curiosity, on the other.

The middle class is something that keeps its chin up, clutches its cheque book and invests in its kids. It clings to its principles, conforms to its traditions and congregates at Marks and Spencer. On Sundays, it reads the heavies; on other days, it suspects the trade unions.

The middle class is not without its paradoxes. It flaunts close-fenced gardens to publicise its passion for privacy. It tows its own caravan everywhere while eschewing a week at Weymouth in someone else's. It avoids bingo in public and plays housey-housey at home. It clamps down on permissiveness and copulates by key party – that middle-class tribal rite which requires each lady present to make her selection from a pile of ignition keys owned by the gentlemen present. She takes her leave with the key-owner concerned, the idea being that he then forgets that he is a gentleman but remembers that she, after all, is no lady.

The other sports and pastimes of the middle class are readily correlated. At the card table, Lower Middle plays whist, while Middle Middle and Upper Middle take care never to cross their bridges: for Middle Middle, it is auction, for Upper Middle, it is contract.

Upper Middle tackles hunting and shooting, but fishing is for the upper class and the working class. Middle-class man tends to stick to the games he learned at school, plus golf, which he is not afraid to encounter as a novice at thirty-eight, and some form of boating, which everybody has by this time despaired of avoiding.

Often, his work chases him home and replaces his hobby, as any schoolteacher, nodding in the sitting-room over twenty-seven essays on The Relevance of Yesterday to Next Friday Fortnight, will tell you when you wake him up with his coffee.

PERCOLATOR

The coffee, by the way, may come in the percolator or on the instant.

By nature, middle-class man is loyal to his origins and alert to his responsibilities. He has three children, which keeps him a few fractions of an infant ahead of the national average, and it never occurs to him to shrink from sacrifices. He is resigned to being trodden on, and although he complains he contrives to put up with the discomforts involved.

He has heart and cliché troubles – the former caused by the need to maintain the efforts which prompt other people to call him the backbone of Britain and the salt of the earth. He is expected to smile in adversity, keeping his shoulder to the wheel while leaving no stone unturned in his search for the silver lining, despite the difficulties inherent in never being out of the wood.

He is beset by book clubs and the Government. Charities sell him overpriced cards, unrequested, every Christmas. Honeyed voices telephone to offer him unforeseen insurance. Coffee mornings run off with his wife. Pre-school playgroups steal his progeny.

It is all part of the privilege of being a member of the indefinable something we call the middle class.

Indefinable? Well, on second thoughts, perhaps you could say it is an ever-widening stratum of society caused by the soaking of the very rich and the disappearance of the very poor. You could call it the great equaliser. You could say it is the class which is recognisable by its aspirations rather than its achievements. You could say that its growth, in conjunction with the vanishing of the very poor, is Britain's bulwark against Communism.

As Alexander Pope could have told you between stanzas, a little earning is a dangerous thing if there's too much of it.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary is clear as well as concise on the point. It says: “Middle class: class of society between upper and lower.”

And, blast it, it could be right.

John Slim

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