Oboe: the untold story 2005


A self-published leaflet came out in Christmas 2006 extolling the wonders of The Bahamas and getting married there. Its audience is limited to those who went on the holiday, or anyone who cares to read it, should they see a copy. Given the declining numbers who care to read anything these days I cannot see the leaflet reaching more than the nine travellers.

There were some unwritten rules about what could be said, laid down by my wife who spends her life pleasing as many other people as she can, often pleasing no one, particularly herself. As long as her sense of propriety is alright. An example of this was the end-of-holiday dinner.

There were two dining rooms in the all-inclusive hotel. A self-service cafeteria and a posh waitress restaurant put on local dishes. Both were on the ground floor, next to the pool. A third option was the poolside bar serving snacks you could get anywhere. The all-inclusive was impressive in that the drinks were not the ones off the substitutes bench – they were the real mcoy: quality champagne, Jack Daniels or any other whisky, vermouth and more than acceptable wine. The local dishes became a little monotonous after two weeks, as did the decor and atmosphere. The cheese was poor, but the puddings were marvellous.

Holiday parties do not live out of each other’s pockets and small groups had developed their own dining habits. Leon didn’t eat dinner. Chris and Simon ate copiously whenever they could, usually afternoon, evening and the small hours of the morning after. Hazel and Steve had breakfast alone, choosing tables with two settings only. Lunch was variable, and we tended to come together for the evening meal after aperitifs. Most of the other guests went early into the cafeteria, so it was quiet when we finally dined.

We had lunch out on two occasions. Once in Froggies, a place to get drunk fast should you wish. It also sold food. Steve and Hazel shared and ate off the same plate. The other time was part of a tour we took around New Providence. The menu was brief and included a choice of two dishes for each course, one local, the other a burger or some such, washed down with cold tea.

‘I’m having the grouper,’ said Steve at a sound level that could easily be heard down the table, ‘I can have a burger at home.’

Nearly everyone else on the tour was having a burger or its equivalent. Steve kept his eyes firmly on the menu and didn’t look round for acknowledgement or applause. But you could tell from his facial expression he was making a point and he was pleased with himself.  Not for him the safe fast food. Oh no, he was going native and everyone else should too.

We were not sure, but we think Steve and Hazel belong to the ‘we’ve paid for the all-inclusive, so we’re not paying out again for something else’ philosophy. Fine if food came with the tour, otherwise it was back to the hotel for the freebies. So the idea of eating out for the last meal, maybe taking a risk and trying a restaurant advertised in the local newspaper, whilst top of most of the group’s list of ideas for the end-of-holiday dinner may not have been the favourite for Hazel and Steve. It was never tested out because Sheila, for the sake of keeping everyone happy, decided we would eat in the cafeteria. By this time I was weary of Bahamian grub and the event was a non-event anyway. Chris and Simon actually ate elswhere and Louise and Mark soon made their excuses. Hazel said afterwards they would have gone out if that’s what everyone wanted to do. Too late, Sheila had already decided, but who had eaten where they’d wanted to?

The need to keep with the all-inclusive may not have been the total answer. I suspect there is also the need for comfort and familiarity which the hotel may have represented. We were jerked off the possibility of going to a junkanoo party by someone saying yes to a premature taxi offer. I suspect it would have been Hazel. We put our names down for a charity dinner cruise which Hazel turned down for reasons which were not entirely clear, but the implication was she didn’t do charity. As it happened charity didn’t come into it.

Why do people always have to be right or have done the right thing and then have to tell everybody about it? Oh, we’ve been so and so and its great, you must go etc. It seems more complex than simply scoring. It’s unlikely to be an attempt at being helpful, though it might be. Is it also about if you do what we’ve done, we will feel safe and in control?

So some examples of how a small group may not meet the needs of it’s individual members, especially if there is a strong identity holding values around things like money and safety and the happiness of others. The rest of us keep quiet as it is easier. And the strong identities within families tend to be the mothers and grandmas, who, when combined with a professional background like teaching, do not expect any answering back. Yet within the comfort zone there is a tolerance which is under their control. I asked Sheila one night if it would be alright to leave the poolside and go into the bar for a chat with Chris, Simon and Leon. ‘Yes,’ said Hazel, ‘you don’t have to ask, just go and do it.’

Many things went smoothly – the wedding, the Exuma adventure, Stuart Cove, the island taxi tour.

All these differences are normal, but it’s interesting who really gets what they want. There is a particular reason why it interests me because it impacts on my identity. I resent control and I feel like shit when it happens. The key is to ignore it and wait to take a stance on something that really matters. That’s usually when I move on, or simply do what I want on my own.

This has moved away from the end-of-holiday dinner to an amateur analysis of behaviour. Is there a point to this other than confirming my prejudices? It could be a short story. Could it be turned into something humerous? It certainly is not the sort of thing to go into a fluffy leaflet. A story with interesting consequences arising from the behaviours.


The other untold story is my internal reaction to my brother. Something that Sheila witnessed, not something to be discussed for it is purely my personal internal issue if not a problem.

This is an old story – as old as civilisation itself – and I think I’ve told it in different ways in many previous pieces. It resurfaced big time for me in The Bahamas. Because I am where I am in my life (a cynical outsider who deals with pain by walking away – standing toe to toe and being honest usually makes things worse) and because we were much closer together than during the normal chaotic family bash.

Two brothers separated by 5 years and a war. Steve and mum an item for 3-4 years before dad was demobbed and a year later, another distraction (me in 1947). Dad must have felt like shit. Much loved by parents who were typical of the time – born just after WW2 in urban Yorkshire into working class families presumably with working class culture (little or no qualifications, rented property aspiring to home ownership, some disposable income). I guess they really wanted to be middle class and have a vac and a fridge and a cooker and an inside toilet and everything else. This had been the pattern since the 1890’s. Labour solid and yet . . . .   Echoes of 2007 (I’m not going to harp on about it, but you’d think some of these hypocrites from the Labour party were still down the pit the way they cannot think about the benefits of a mixed repertoire, particularly in response to the current pressures on health and education).

As per Maslow, mum and dad were safe and well fed, belonged to the working class culture of the thirties forties and fifties, and were set on improvements. And they did really well with a lot of thrift and common sense. But what they wanted most was improved life chances for their two ‘boys’. (Again there are comparisons with today where material goods are available to most at some level. Debt is common at any income – whatever people have on their plate they still have an appetite. Beckham is a millionnaire several times over and yet he is going to America to earn a million a week. He’s a well groomed well managed talented footballer from the east end of London, nothing more – but the super rich have less chance of being in debt). Another bridge between then and now – from the fifties onward dad was obese, how come, he didn’t drink? Porky child, porky parents, porky sister who became very obese as an adult. Dad was as thin as a lat in the thirties when he got married. In my work at the fire service, 9 out of 10 men between 40 and 50 have one or a combination of high BP, high BMI, high cholesterol, IHD or stroke in a first degree relative and low exercise levels. Diabetes is rare for obvious reasons. Smoking is also rare, but some of them drink for England. Did you know that until quite recent there were bars in every fire station – being pissed or on the way was common apparently. Now it’s a nannie state like everything else around here.

So did mum and dad turn two boys into something they weren’t because they thought they were doing the right thing? I’ve no idea. We were treated the same as well. Same clothes, same everything, no favouritism and there wasn’t. Maybe we thought there was. At least the sibling rivalry was normal. Pretty soon I think they realised we could not be treated the same, especially with the 5 years difference in age. And when Steve started going on holiday with school or with friends from say 12/13 onwards, I sensed he was on his own trajectory. A gap opened up between us – more than simple resentment of older brother or belittling of younger brother. To this day I don’t know the reason. He’s bright, but not as bright as he thinks he is, and bright people can go to a different place. He’s a loner, even in company (I am too). He’s anxious and an addict (I am too). There are glimpses of a collapsed world, usually in quick phrases that don’t go anywhere, ‘I don’t read the papers.’ ‘ Oh, why?’ ‘They’re rubbish.’ End of conversation. For a bright person, his analysis of situations is a tad brief, on the outside anyway.

Was the gap one of the reasons for me doing what I did? Did I follow in older brother’s footsteps to gain his recognition, approval, love even. Not though you’d have noticed brotherly love. Same with dad, particularly around the mid teenage years.

Passing my 11+ was a miracle. Mum cried. I never understood that. She opened the brown envelope at the gate of our semi-detached house with a £4 mortgage, out there in the street, and cried for all to see. I had a half idea it was good news, because the head mistress handed out the envelopes. Miss Pattinson, skull on legs. Those not in the ‘a’ stream got her deputy. Maybe I know why she cried. She was happy for me, and happy and relieved for her – the long term purpose was still on target. What would have happened had I gone to secondary modern and older brother already taking ‘O’ levels a year early and due off to college within 2 years or so – from 2007 it looks like shit. It was such a big step to get up, and if you did, there were several more if you got the drug. Still it was the biggest step for many at that time. Lots of secondary modern guys talk of it as a turning point, particularly in their self-esteem. They have felt second class citizens ever since and I can see where the non-selection for higher education is coming from. And if you go with that then there is a good chance you will be wedded to a lot of labour dogma – still fighting the class war and paying for gongs, it beggars belief. Yet our parents weren’t wrong, simply part of the way the wind was blowing at the time. But you get hooked into acquiring more and more stuff because you can afford and everyone else is. How do you develop a culture where success is measured differently? A labour movement with Mrs Blair in it is a joke. There are glimpses in writing, painting, music where personal development just is, and maybe in the third world, though that won’t last for much longer.

So somewhere between 12 and 15 or maybe a bit later a decision was made, I think it was by me, but sometimes I’m not sure, that doing well at school would be a good thing. Sometimes I wonder whether it was to get mum and dad off my back. Was there something in there about the only way I was going to get approval and recognition was if my reports and levels were OK? Sixth form was a happy time – I was somebody for a change, going somewhere. I haven’t seen History Boys and I was never, in my eyes anyway, Oxbridge, but I’d love to. Bennet is enviable in so many ways, and not because of his money. We struggle to get to the pictures. I went to Liverpool, where Steve was, and thoroughly enjoyed it the life and the city. We saw Steve quite a lot, as we have most times since, but connections and conversations have become increasingly superficial. He’s in his own place. He’s always around, so he must care, particularly for his own family who remain living within two streets of him or Hazel but you wouldn’t know by talking to him. ‘I’ve done these old photos from the fifties,’ I said once, ‘I’m not bothered for them,’ he said, ‘but I’ll have them for the kids.’ Is he embarrassed about having an emotional life? Somewhere anyway life has done him a disservice. He is full of anxiety and insecurity and can’t get rid of them (neither can I but I enjoy writing about them). That’s why I invite him to the cricket I suppose.

So there’s a whole world of stuff happened before we go to The Bahamas. Interesting that you tell your story repeatedly and it changes with what’s happening to you now.

It started benignly enough. A reference to Darwin and the voyage of The Beagle and a book by Harry Thompson on Fitzroy who was the captain of that ship (Harry Thompson also wrote cricket books, the latest before he died called Penguins stopped play). Fitzroy had a tragic life, but that’s another story as they say. We were in the hotel lobby with Leon when I mention this. Steve had bought me a limited edition of a book on the voyage and I’d bought him Penguins. Darwin happened to suffer from a severe form of somatisation – physical symptoms with no pathology (not discovered as yet, but as Hawkings says, everything will be explained one day – where will we get our mystery from then?). The symptoms are genuine enough but there is little rational for effective treatment. Life turns into a constant medical queue or attendance at various professions allied to medicine (a euphemism in certain cases for quacks). The extreme form is not uncommon, but milder forms are two a penny depending on the speciality (headaches and dizziness for a neurologist, pelvic pain for a gynaecologist – hysterectomies get done and symptoms persist, body pain for the rheumatologist and so on). It’s interesting to me because management centres on rapport with the physician/keyworker and empowerment of the patient/client or whatever language is in vogue at the time. People need information with which to make informed decisions and make plans (my thesis for dip counselling was on this very topic – in 20 minutes how can you be an effective helper? Simple really – take the person and their problem seriously and give them their required expert information, given that you are an expert. Doctors are moving away from giving the answer, I think, to engaging in a process and handing that process over for people to use for themselves. Difficult in 5 minute interviews but not impossible in 20). Anyway I never got close to any of this with Steve as he’d swept away the medical agenda with a few words of generalisation. We’d got as far as scientists and hard information – observable data etc or in other words the answer. These are some of his statements.

‘I can’t answer an O level question. I know too much.’

‘That’s how medics operate. They don’t want to know. Scientists can’t cope unless they do.’

Then move onto general topics.

‘I’ve done Disney. The full 2 weeks.’

‘I don’t need a phone – I do everything on the internet.’

He’s always been a bighead, but some of the things he says are outrageous. Clearly he knows bugger all about medics. That first morning I let it waft over my head. To get into it requires questions like ‘I can see that, can you explain or clarify?’ and I can’t be bothered. The best opportunity came later in the holiday.

It begins to wear you down as the days pass. And they are a double act and probably unaware of it. I said I didn’t like tuna steak. ‘Nick does them beautifully,’ or some such, implying I don’t like them because I’ve never had them done properly. So by this time in the holiday I’m beginning to take it a tad personally – that’s how it goes for me eventually, given enough exposure. There were plenty of other examples. One was about Atlantis and how you needed an arm band to go on the beach. Didn’t apply to them of course, the first time anyway. ‘Oh there’s no one there. We just walked in.’

One night after dinner sat out poolside with drinks or whatever, we were talking about the submarine trip and how Sheila was conscious of pressure changes as she gradually came to the surface. I said it sounded like quite a problem, did you swallow a few time or some such. Steve then got to a place where he was talking about training for sailors and deep sea diving and how there was a line at regular intervals on the wall somewhere telling them to swallow. Now this sounded on the cusp of bollocks and being true, it was testable, it was late in the holiday and I’d nearly had it, and I’d had a few beers. ‘Where did you see that?’ ‘Which programme?’ ‘Which book?’ ‘Which boatyard?’ All very polite in a quiet voice but not giving up. Eventually ‘I can’t remember.’ I said, ‘How far are you going to go with this before you begin to make it up?’ ‘I would’ve made it up eventually,’ he finally admitted. Not a brilliant thing for a scientist to say, but honest and I’d got that warm feeling from getting somewhere without feeling shit or like one. It opens up that wonderfully open-ended and infinite discussion on what is truth. Even scientists and medics in learned journals make stuff up, as do eminent paediatricians. The biblical ‘p’ value, a measure of probability I think – my brain never could do maths and statistics (there was a statistician once at region hq in Harrogate who could not speak English so there was never any hope that we could communicate) is an arbitrary number when you read the bloke’s paper or for me reading someone who’s written a book on the subject.

I am broadly sympathetic then to making stuff up, though my preferred style is to say I don’t know. The problem I have with it is the closure. To have the answer is to curtail exploration. Some of it is about power and it can be seen as weak to say ‘I don’t know’ and to give the answer is to stay in control. OK in short interactions where their is no time for power sharing, but unacceptable, to me anyway, if there is enough time. However there is a need to have a repertoire and not just pass the buck as per a protocol. Some people don’t want to know. Some people want to know but don’t want a discussion, just the facts. Some people are self starters and will go away and deal with things once they’ve got some sort of permission. Others have a lot of knowledge, check you out on it and if you pass will talk forever and go away and sort their lives out. I’m going on. Sounds as though I have it all covered, but I don’t.

One little reason – emotion. I have struggled with power, other people’s, all my life. Children really are defenceless and vulnerable to abuse. Particularly a dad and an older brother who make stuff up. The lies my dad told me are the stuff of legend (you can’t have cold water with fish and chips because the fat congeals in your stomach – what? I knew it was bollocks when he said it, but a 7 yr old has nowhere to go with it). So wherever and however I went they always had an answer and I gradually realised they were often wrong, but I couldn’t do owt about it. But I could be quiet and resentful and all locked up and in pain. ‘Oh he’s hungry,’ was mum’s explanation. Sometimes I was, and I bucked up after food – I suspect more because she cared and I’d got a stroke.

And then you leave home and meet others with different sorts of power. But my core is still the same, reinforced by all the crap you learn in counselling, though its not all crap. There are those with power and those without. Those with can get away with murder. The most iniquitous source of power is a closed system of belief that cannot be challenged. In other words those not inside are powerless, if it matters. Just occasionally it does in the real sense, but more often for me it does because of emotional irrationality – just occasionally it connects and I get angry and then I’m into the shit cycle. Pete, and I can understand why, does not challenge the labour principle of funding out of tax. One big pot and there is control and equality and fairness. No need to go into other models and there are many, but its my reaction that is the problem. With Pete it’s the lack of looking for alternatives. With my brother its the rubbish or quasi rubbish he comes out with. Jacob Bronowski if that is how you spell it, stood in a puddle at Auschwitz and quoted John Donne and I misquote, ‘Think you in the bowels of Christ, you might be wrong?’

For God’s sake, getting angry, for fuck’s sake, seething. Shutting down and feeling like shit. And it’s all hopeless and where are we going for our holidays? Dave’s on one.

Women and power – don’t start.

Silence and power – I’ve done that.

And just maybe I’m as guilty as anyone – not having firm belief and so believing strongly in not believing. Amazing I just went to this web site by Philip M Ward – never heared of him – www.pemward.co.uk/page_1158331496750.html

I’ve selected a clip from the series (made in 1973). This is the last four minutes or so of a programme called ‘Knowledge or Certainty’. He’s talked about the irony that just at the moment Heisenberg was enunciating his ‘Uncertainty Principle’ in physics, Europe saw the rise of dictators who arrogated to themselves a ‘principle of monstrous certainty’:

[voice over]

There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

[at Auschwitz; to camera]

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. […] And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’. I owe it as a scientist […], I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.[21]

Oliver Cromwell, not John Donne.


So that just leaves Leon.

There’s not a lot to say as we didn’t know him really other than one meal and a lot of biased gen from Mark (father and son are at opposite ends of the political spectrum).

He has recently been ill with heart trouble, said to be due to drinking too much. AF is part of it which is a complication of drinking, but I suspect he is on quite a lot of medication and I think anticoagulants are part of the cocktail. He is quite open about it and I even filled in his submarine questionnaire for him. There were occasions on holiday when he’d had a drink or two, but there were others who did so as well. When does having a good time turn into problem drinking. When health becomes involved in this case.

He’s an action man, an interventionist and probably a nuisance. Again when do you need to put your spoke in or nothing will happen, powerlessness rules and no one gets what they want. Or leave alone, someone is doing it, it’s none of your business, things get worse as a result of poking your nose in. Botham was a case in point. Always in the thick of things. Not aware of those moments when nature must be allowed to take it’s course.

He’d been in bother with the committee at The British Legion which seems to sum up that side of his identity.

He has a big family who on the surface are a bit spiky, and have a cross-section of misfits and neerdowells. That’s compared to us. I imagine the area where they live (Salford) and the role models around, combined with an interventionist parent like Leon, might just throw up the odd character.

Conclusions about the holiday (January 2007 – 4 months on)

It is a tourist resort – maybe if you go island hopping you might see something different. The bus ride round New Providence and the cricket were the genuine Bahamas. Boat trips, dinners, submarine rides etc were not.

People are people. The Bahamas may be one of the most religious communities on earth, but they show many behaviours of western materialism.

It’s hot.

The sea is achingly clear blue.

Luxury is the key word for Paradise Island –  yet Atlantis is tatty as well.

Music was everywhere. I don’t think it’s even Reggae these days. When it wasn’t on you missed it.

Getting married is still a happy rite of passage. The formal components (dressing up, having an invigilator, signing on the dotted line, few beers) are universal. Though marriage is a lottery – you marry as kids and only realise later whether you can stomach the other adult in your life – Louise and Mark had given it a go for five years, so maybe they have a better than even chance of success. My happiness came from seeing others happy. I was also aware of the rite of passage that was occurring to me. For a fleeting moment walking out onto the boardwalk mortality loomed, but otherwise it just was.

When you go away with friends and family you cannot reinvent yourself. You take with you and live within your UK bubble. Except for Leon who could be anyone he liked when he wasn’t with Louise and Mark.


There’s more from a weekend in Scarborough

Wetherspoon’s is rubbish or similar

You’ve never been

Balls up over the restaurant booking

I’ll have a burger, I don’t want Chinese

No, you must. Try this and that.            It was crap