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Archive for May 2008

slaughterhouse bob and the mysterious mr ferret

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Yesterday I went to another meeting in Morpeth. Well, actually, it was the same meeting that I’d gone to the day before, but on that day I had the wrong day in my diary. One of the people at yesterday’s meeting was my old boss Gilmour. He and I have had some serious disagreements in the past, but generally we get on well with one another. Gilmour’s a very affable man, if on occasions a little fastidious or tetchy and at all times immensely vain. But handsome men are often cursed with such narcissisism. Maybe they think that if they aren’t loved for how they look they won’t be loved at all. Such men are never going to see themselves as ugly.

Gilmour sits well with senior management and looks every inch the part. He comes from a very different background to me. His father, Robert Gilmour, is a wealthy landowner and farmer in the south of England. He breeds Lincoln Red cattle. Gilmour is very sensitive to any perceived attack on his father, almost unnaturally so. For this reason if for no other whenever he’d been down to see his family I’d have to ask him about Slaughterhouse Bob, a moniker which instantaneously turned Gilmour Junior into a teeth grinding, fist clenching madman. This behaviour became a good deal more frequent when his father became involved in a TV programme, providing me with the pretext to unleash my childish abuse on a more or less daily basis. I regret such behaviour now, of course, but the habit of winding up Gilmour is a hard one to give up.

‘God, you’re lovely today!’ I said as I walked into the meeting.  His companions – Head of Department Harry Gillan, two men from personnel and Petra from legal – raised an eyebrow or two. Gilmour glowered at me and laughed.

‘You too,’ he said, adding ‘you lanky bastard’ under his breath as I took the seat next to him.

The meeting, rather ironically, concerned a disciplinary investigation I am undertaking into a worker suspended from work for allegedly gratuitously insulting colleagues and clients alike. The worker is Hermann Evans, who works in the north of the county. He’s been around for years and has a reputation as a maverick, a man who doesn’t give a hoot for the shallow niceties of organisational etiquette. He is suspended from work pending the outcome of my investigation, but has complicated matters by getting himself diagnosed with a work-induced stress-related psychological illness, and by taking out a grievance on the grounds of racial discrimination. Hermann is three parts Bavarian, one part Welsh, and is claiming that any offence he caused was accidental and arose from his failure to recognise the nuances of the English language. He claims this is because he still thinks in German.

Hermann has a long history of using apparently gratuitously insulting expressions and I discovered that he has been spoken to about this by managers many times over the years. One of the earliest examples occurred some years ago and involved Hermann habitually calling an unruly, unkempt group of siblings “the ferret children”. He did this, it seemed, not only because of their appearance and manners, but as a pun on their surname, which was Merritt. When talking to their mother Hermann would repeatedly refer to her children as “the lesser-spotted ferrets”. In his assessment report he twice referred to the boys’ absent father in writing as “the mysterious Mr Ferret”. Mrs Merritt complained about this behaviour and he was spoken to. He was unapologetic, and responded by saying that it is characteristic of the ferret to live in a state of denial. He was taken off the case.

More recently Hermann has persistently referred to a certain formidable broad-hipped female headteacher as Brunhilda, doing this both with parents and their children and in formal meetings involving school staff and other professionals. One person said to me that he had never heard Hermann refer to this headteacher by any other name and that he seemed unable to bring himself to use her real name. When referring to her as Brunhilda he spoke in a plain matter of fact tone, as if in fact this was her real name.

Other recent examples involve Hermann calling a child he was working with who suffers from enuresis the peapod, a local doctor whose eyebrows meet in the middle Freddie Faust, and two of his fellow team members Lardarse and Lulabelle.  It’s remarkable how tolerant the organisation has been with Hermann. My theory is that there are two main factors here: first, no-one wants to become the butt of his abuse, and second, everyone secretly enjoys his outrageousness and thus covertly encourages it. It livens up the day to see what he might come up with next.

Hermann finally came a cropper when he came up with a new label for the Director: The Gay Goldilocks. Hermann being Hermann, and riding on the back of his I don’t really know what I’m saying, I still think in German, you know excuse, he soon ceased to use the Director’s real name at all and simultaneously appeared to begin to go out of his way to find a reason to bring him into the conversation, something that would be a rarity in usual circumstances, given that the Director is little more than a mythical being to most people in the organisation. It was only a matter of time before he was suspended, and it happened in dramatic style at an Adoption Panel. The Gay Goldilocks was in the chair. Hermann grandstanded with a bravura performance of vintage Bavarian deadpan slapstick – porridge, the three bears, crumpled bedsheets, the lot. That was Hermann’s last morning at work.

From the interviews I’ve carried out I’ve come to believe that his colleagues also became increasingly inclined to mention the Director to Hermann, throwing up balls for him to whack over the fence. There were also a significant number of interviewees who smirked as they recounted Hermann’s exploits, and a number who said they sometimes couldn’t help laughing at his comments because he seemed to have a knack of spotting something true about his victims. No-one of course expressed the view that there was an ounce of truth in his characterisation of the Director.

Gilmour asked me what I made of Hermann’s excuse that he didn’t mean to offend and that the inappropriateness of his remarks arose from his poor English.

‘It’s a preposterous excuse,’ I said. ‘If he didn’t know what he was saying there’d be no truth in his characterisations. Sometimes his observations are frighteningly exact. No-one would hit the bull’s eye so often if he wasn’t a darts player’

Gilmour, Harry and the men from personnel looked at me quizzically.

‘Except in the case of the Director, of course,’ I added.  ‘Even Hermann sometimes throws a bad arrow.’ The personnel guys nodded sagely. I’m pretty sure Petra sniggered.

When the meeting ended I asked Gilmour how his wife and seven children were. He said they were all doing great. His eldest daughter has a dappled grey horse and his son drives the quad bike now.

‘And how’s your dad?’ I asked. ‘Still growing cows?’

‘Yep,’ Gilmour replied, now with the unflappable poise of a man with ambition. ‘How’s yours?’

‘Oh, he’s just the same, you know. Still working at the pit.’

When I got home I discovered Margaret on the phone talking to Brenda. Brenda and Tristan were back from Florence and had obviously had a wonderful time. I decided to go out on my bike before I had tea. It was a dull evening but dry. I rode out to Blagdon Hall and back through Annitsford and Shankhouse. When I got back Hugo was on his castle drive with a hammer in his hand. I cruised past his spiked railings and up the path.  I heard him beginning to beat the Alligator as I closed the front door.

Margaret had gone to see the snaps of Brenda and the Troskyist at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and to hear of the marvels of the Uffizi. The house smelled of onions. I fed De Kooning some fresh prawns and made myself a Quorn and cheese sandwich.  I put on the Decemberists again and looked at Haldane’s book on the drove roads of Scotland. 

Tomorrow I’m off to Galloway for a week. I go there every year at the beginning of June. The days are long and the world is green and I will walk from morning till night.


Written by yammering

May 30, 2008 at 9:25 pm

the scaffold in the field

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It rained this morning for the first time in a while. The world was soft and grey.

Mandy, Mr Zee and the kids were in reception when I arrived. Mr Zee was in his full brown as peat regalia – mask too – and standing in his characteristic legs astride, taller than a tree posture. He was holding Sparky’s hand. You have to admire any man who finds the time to take this much care over his appearance in the morning.

‘Debs is on holiday,’ I said. They knew. The duty worker was seeing to them. They were still having benefits problems. Sparky was wafting a new plastic sword around and looked happier than he has for a while.

Michelle was on duty and she was on the telephone to the benefits agency when I went through. They were being their usual helpful selves. Michelle was getting nowhere fast and they weren’t offering any suggestions as to how Apple and Sparky might be fed today. It wasn’t their fault, they said. It’s the system. They can’t do anything about it. The tax credits needed sorting. Mandy was up to her limit on social fund loans. They couldn’t give her a crisis loan. They’d try to get it sorted by the end of the week. The usual script.

‘So should we suggest they become beggars instead – or buskers maybe?!’  Michelle put the phone down and looked at me as if she was gobsmacked.  ‘Or should I say Mr Zee should just go and do a bit burglary – he’s got the mask for it?!’

She shook her head in dismay. It’s always like this, she was saying. I laughed.

‘Oh, it’d be beneath the dignity of a man of Mr Zee’s standing to be involved in the felonious acquisition of someone else’s property,’ I said. ‘And besides, he’d stand out a mile at the identity parade.  Give them twenty quid and tell them to come back at the end of the week if their benefits still aren’t sorted.’

Income support benefits are meagre and inadequate, and the whole system seems designed to be as difficult as it can be. The poor are still out there, even if they’ve have been rendered largely invisible by governments who want to pretend they don’t exist and who turn the visible few into miscreants and fiends, the kind of people who mug old ladies, drag tiny toddlers into the bushes in the park, spray paint obscenities across the walls of public toilets, set pit bull terriers on meter readers. The kind of people who would steal a broken blue swing. Yobs, junkies, psychos, perverts, scroungers and paedophiles . . . The tabloids remind us of the cast every day. The fairy tale tells us that the poor are basically a bad lot because if they weren’t they’d have money in the first place. Or possibly because Gordon has turned them that way. Which ever way you throw it though, the undeserving poor are now the only poor there can possibly be, and Mandy, Apple, Sparky and Mr Zee must therefore be numbered among them.

Michelle gave Mandy the cash and she, Mr Zee and the two children set off in the direction of Netto’s. Shortly afterwards Lily came in chuckling, having just encountered Mr Zee for the first time as he was leaving the office.

‘He’s not for real, is he?’ she asked, rhetorically.

‘I’m afraid he is,’ Michelle replied, ‘which is more than you can say for the benefits agency. Put the kettle on, Lily.  Let me make you a brew.’

I had to go to Morpeth this afternoon. The rain had stopped and a warm haze floated among the hedgerows and trees as I drove back by Plessey Woods and over Hartford Bridge. When I got home Margaret was standing on the pavement outside of Geraldine’s house. She and Geraldine were having an animated discussion about the Citadel. I pulled into the drive and looked up at the red girders glaring down at me through the mist. Hugo was in his castle bolting spiked black railings to the top of his garden wall.

‘Here, you all right, mate?’ he shouted over.

‘Yeah, not so bad, Fletch. You’ve got yourself a few fortifications, I see.’

He laughed. ‘Yeah, not bad, are they?’

For tea I had carrot and coriander soup and a few thick slices of olive bread. Margaret was still talking to Geraldine. I sat in the conservatory drinking a capuccino. I asked De Kooning if he’d like me to read something by Larkin to him. He jumped up and sat down beside me. We didn’t bother with the Larkin. We just gazed together at the scaffold in the field beyond the house.


Written by yammering

May 28, 2008 at 9:26 pm

an attempt to do without a sky

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Yesterday was Whit Monday. Or at least it used to be. The Day of the Holy Spirit, the day after Whitsun, now best known to some of us because it reminds us of a poem by Philip Larkin. It’s the spring holiday, a big day in the Retail Park calendar. I’m not sure that many people choose to marry at this time of the year now.

It was sunny and dry, although there was quite a strong north easterly wind. It felt cold. I went out walking, down along the harbour and up the river to Kitty Brewster and through Bebside. I made my way back by the Plessey wagonway track. The usual shirt-sleeved gaggle of chirpy locals was standing outside smoking at door of the Willow Tree.

When I got home I went out into the back garden and cut back the laurel. Big fat flower buds have suddenly appeared on the flag irises, one of my very favourite flowers. The French lavender is beginning to flower too and the lilies are stretching a little higher each day.  Golden yellow buds are swelling all over the climbing rose and the tight little reddened nodules of the honeysuckle tell me the garden will soon be full of its swooning scent.  Summer is all but here now.

I went back into the conservatory. Margaret was reading. A pair of fluffy maroon mules sat on the coffee table beside her. I should have bought the chicken wire when I had the chance.  I went through to the living room and put on the Decemberists and stared for a while at the painting of Rowhope I’ve been working on since I was sick a couple of months ago. I’ve slowly taken a lot of the yellow out of it, yellow being in my mind the most sickly colour. The painting is unusual for me in that it has no sky. My paintings depend upon their skies most of the time. The painting of Rowhope is an attempt to do without a sky. I also want it to look as much like a map as a representation of the scene, although not more so. That’s tricky, I found. The painting has some good angles and pleasing lines and it’s certainly a lot less nauseating than it was. Perhaps it’s time I let it go.

In the early evening Hugo and Mrs Hugo came home. He unloaded some spiked railings from his van. A little while later I heard him drilling the walls outside. He was installing CCTV. The loss of the swing has obviously made him more insecure than I’d first imagined. Hugo’s world is being fortified. Sometimes you can’t help thinking that even a little affluence is dangerous in a world where needs are constructed by spending. When money is burning a hole in your pocket it’s easy to imagine there are dragons in the world that only shopping will slay. Before too long I imagine Hugo will have battlements and a drawbridge – just as soon as Argos get their stocks in. And why not? He can afford them, the Daily Mail says he needs them, and they will make his property thoroughly modern and highly desirable even in a difficult housing market. This is the future. Electric fences, gun turrets, guard dogs, searchlights and sirens, laser trip wires, beartraps among the lupins, landmines among the gladioli. This will be the ordinary life of the ordinary aspirational man.

When I came in tonight I glanced up at Hugo’s cameras. He has two and they seem to be positioned to ensure they cover not only his whole front garden but the footpath in the street too. In fact I would guess that he has wide angle lenses and that our garden path also appears on his monitors. I wanted to give him a nervous little wave. I wondered if under the Data Protection legislation I had the right to ask him for copies of any video recordings of me. It’s a little disconcerting to think that Hugo will know all my comings and goings. He’ll know if I’m on foot. He’ll know if I’m carrying my old umbrella. He’ll know if I’m wearing a red woolly hat. But I guess this is a price worth paying if it ensures that never again is a broken blue swing purloined by a kid in a polyester suitlet.

The Crane Wife is a fine album, at times quite overwhelming.


Written by yammering

May 27, 2008 at 6:01 pm

the numpty and the plague

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The disease seems to have originated in the Far East and to have made its way west along the trade routes. It seems to have arrived in the Mediterranean and from there to have spread throughout the rest of Europe. In time it is said it killed half the population. At first explanations tended to rest on superior causes – God and the stars, for example. There was a general assumption that sin had brought the disease upon the world. And yet the church was patently powerless against it. Flagellants began going from town to town. Some people blamed others – gypsies, beggars, pilgrims, Jews – even though those people were all dying too. Some blamed the air, some the water, some blamed strange caterpillars. Death was rapid, people turned black. Miracles were reported and the end was nigh. No-one blamed the flea or the rat.

As I drove into work yesterday I listened to this week’s edition of In Our Time. As usual it concerned itself with events that were in another time. Boz was sitting on the low wall of the office car park, smoking. He looked calm. However, one of the office windows was broken and some men in a white van were busy boarding it up.

‘Morning, Boz,’ I said. ‘That’s nothing to do with you, is it?’

He shook his head. ‘Nah,’ he said, ‘that’s not my style. Probably some numpties from Newbiggin.’

I laughed and went inside. Boz was always calling someone a numpty, a category of being from which he always confidently excluded himself. The actions of a numpty are characterised by an obvious lack of proportionality or quite arbitrary stupidity. Boz’s world is full of numpties. When he arrived this morning he appeared to be the very antithesis of numptiness, a model of rationality and good sense. For some odd reason the presence of Voltaire entered my mind. But of course Boz’s meekness didn’t last.

Shortly before ten I heard a ruckus outside. Boz was raging at Lily, his children’s worker. It should be said that Lily is the epitome of patience, fairness, common sense and compassion. But those things in themselves will never quell a man like Boz. He is a man with a blind sense of entitlement, and he’s entitled to do what he wants, when he wants to and no matter what anyone else says or thinks about it. After a minute or two trying to calm him Lily left him to it. As usual he ranted and cursed at the building for a while and called us all numpties. He then stepped on to the narrow border around the car park and began pulling up the bedding plants one by one and flinging them fiercely down on to the concrete of the car park, just as he had done with his mobile phone. I was guessing by now that this technique was something he’d been taught in his anger management classes and that its point was that it allowed him to express his anger without actually assaulting anyone. At that level we obviously have to regard this new behaviour as a step forward, but it is beginning to make a mess of the car park. He must have pulled up eight or nine plants before, as with the phone incident, he quite suddenly just stopped, took a cigarette out and lit up.  He looked at the soil and the uprooted young pansies then walked around them, and went on his way, blowing smoke into the air.

When I got home Geraldine came over to tell me she had taken in some boxes for Margaret. I collected them from her garage and put them into our spare bedroom. I guessed they were boxes of slippers, but wondered why they were delivered here. Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to go to Brenda’s? She works from home and is usually in.

‘Well, yes,’ Margaret said, ‘except she’s going to Florence tomorrow, isn’t she, and we weren’t sure when they’d come, were we?’

Margaret opened a couple of boxes and examined the product. She seemed thrilled and rang Brenda to tell her. As they were talking I peeked into the bedroom. It was as I feared it might be: a dozen or more pairs of assorted slippers had already made their home on the carpet, like a plague of garish rabbits. Red ones, blue ones, white ones. Faux fur ones – ocelot, leopard and zebra – and fluffy ones. Fake leather ones. Mules and open-toes.

De Kooning was sitting in one of the empty cardboard boxes, surveying the new landscape, quietly bemused. It looked to me more like a re-homing project. I wondered if I should pen them in now before they took over the whole house. I wondered who’d be feeding them every day at ten to two.

The Slipper Sisters talked for a very long time on the telephone. At half nine I went into the conservatory and listened to the repeat of In Our Time. I hadn’t heard it all in the morning.  It seems it took us six hundred years to discover that rats and fleas spread the disease, but that this explanation is by no means universally accepted nowadays, even among scientists and epidemiologists. No doubt there are also still those who put it all down to sin and are predicting its return any day now.

This evening was disappointingly grey. Margaret was cooking onions. The onion is said by some to have almost magical protective and curative powers. I’m sceptical about these claims, but I suspect Brenda may not be, because Margaret appears to be eating a lot more onions since she and Brenda  revived their association. The house seems to have an almost permanent odour of them these days.  I took De Kooning out into the garden. The girders of the Citadel loom higher every day, gigantic and red, a truly dark and dreadful matrix. We looked over into Hugo’s world. I was wondering what he’d been sawing the other night, but I could see no new structures.

‘What’s different?’ I asked De Kooning. ‘Is it the same? It isn’t, is it?’

It did seem to me that perhaps the moose had migrated a little closer to our fence, that perhaps he wasn’t facing us as squarely as he had been. And the attitude of the heron had definitely changed. He’s now facing slightly away from the pond, as if perhaps he’s in the huff with it, as if he’s fed up with being made to gaze into the gurgling water and wants no more of it. Alternatively he may be trying to lull the carp into a false sense of security. He may still be watching them from the corner of his enamelled eye. The overall effect is a subtle loss of focus in Hugo’s tableau, as if the centre has gone. The dynamics are different. It’s as if someone had shifted one of the hands on one or two of Margaret’s clocks to a random position, upsetting the old balance. But change is like that. Come tomorrow we’ll have got used to the new world and hardly remember the one we liked so much more.

We waited for the bats. Gordon got a kicking at Crewe yesterday. He blames the economy, and no doubt we’ll see him now in dour desperation trying to make his lethal ticking toy work overtime and forge some shiny new pennies for our pockets. It won’t work this time. Gordon’s a numpty. The People have just become tired of his face.


Written by yammering

May 24, 2008 at 11:25 am

your shoes are older than the moon

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I was late in from work tonight. There was a beautiful clear blue sky and very little wind. The trees in their new leaves were luminous and green, fidgeting casually in the quiet of the spring evening. I had pasta and garlic bread for tea.

About seven thirty I heard Hugo beginning to saw. He sawed for about twenty minutes. I haven’t looked to see what he’s constructing – it might be an annex or extension to his henge, a new shelter, or perhaps a fine pavilion of some kind – but I did notice on my way in earlier that some old flagstones have already appeared in the newly tidied bare expanse of his front garden. Primal disorder is reasserting itself or, perhaps, the old order is simply returning.

As I waited for the Time Team special on Iron Age hillforts I watched a programme about the influence of Christian fundamentalists in British society. The programme included film taken in a so-called Faith School. The children there are taught that the moon is only six thousand years old, and that this is about the same age as the Earth itself.

The Time Team programme took us back to ways of life that must have come into existence long before the moon ever shone. It seems clear now that human beings were walking the Earth long before the Earth was even here to walk. There’s no reason therefore why we shouldn’t keep walking it long after it’s gone. The  market for footwear appears to be futureproof, a prospect which should encourage Margaret and Brenda.

Gordon has posted himself on YouTube. He’ll answer all our questions at the end of June. 


Written by yammering

May 19, 2008 at 11:38 pm

the citadel

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They’re building a Citadel in the fields behind our house. Actually it isn’t really a citadel, it’s a new school. Margaret is part of a group known as Citizens Against the Citadel, CAC, or The Citizens, as they call themselves. They are loosely knit alliance of the disgruntled and discounted whose motivations are probably complex and varied but who are united in their feeling that the Citadel is an abomination and that building must stop now. They are right that the building will be gruesome and that it is already ruinous to the quality of life around here, and that it is an imposition and something about which ordinary people were never given any real say. It’s true that the consultation was a sham. It’s true that the Citadel Construction and Development Company – led by the Tyneside businessman Sir Toby Griffiths (‘Griff’, to the Citizens) – misled local residents about the scale and impact of the project.  But the Citizens are almost certainly wrong in believing there’s anything very much they can do about it now. They won’t even get an apology from Griff on this one.

The phone rang about eight thirty. It was Geraldine. She lives across the road. She doesn’t work now, but her husband, Mick, is a council officer of some sort. Geraldine, who has been a leading light in CAC and for whom Margaret really doesn’t care very much, was ringing to tell her that Griff’s men were working and they shouldn’t be, because it was Saturday. Griff had said that Saturday working would not happen. This is the latest in a string of broken promises. Margaret’s response was predictable and instantaneous.

‘They’re bloody kidding!’ she said. ‘Let’s get everyone together and get around there and stop it. Let’s get Griff over here NOW!’ And so on.

The general strategy of the Citizens is to rant among themselves by telephone or over coffee and chocolate digestives in one another’s front rooms and then, one after another, by telephone, to bombard Griff, his minions, local politicians and council staff with unbridled disgust and indignation and, if the moment calls for it, a serving of personal abuse. Needless to say construction of the Citadel hasn’t been delayed one rivet as a consequence of this strategy. Water and ducks’ backs come to mind.  Nevertheless the fight must go on.

Margaret rang a couple more Citizens and began to make ready for the incursion into the Citadel building site. Her battle dress was a pair on Marks and Spencers jeans, her old but little worn Timberland boots, a grey sweater, her old red fleece and black gloves. It was a cool morning and it was drizzling; hypothermia on the Citadel battlefield was a real danger. I lay in bed, De Kooning at my side, pretending to take no notice of all this activity.

‘Have you heard that bloody racket?’ she said.

‘Er, yes,’ I mumbled, as if still slumbering. ‘I thought I’d heard something. Is it Fletch?’

‘No, it isn’t bloody Fletch – it’s the Citadel men. They’re now working on a Saturday!  Can you believe that?! They’ve got a bloody nerve. Well, they’re not bloody well getting away with it this time, I can tell you!’ And so on, again.

I ignored her and pretended I might be unconscious again. She left to meet Geraldine and the other Citizens to go into battle. The Citizens, curiously enough, are more or less all women, an Amazon legion. With the exception of Big Trevor, of course, who doesn’t work and likes to insinuate his booming and bellowing into any context where it might make what is essentially always only a textural contribution. But almost everyone agrees completely with the Citizens’ complaints, even if they never join the battle. Hugo might be the exception here: so far as I can tell he hasn’t even have noticed that the Citadel is being built. If he has he must regard it as just another extraneous object that’s fallen from heaven. The right attitude will be to accept it with equanimity and to leave it exactly where it is. Haphazardist politics tend to be marked by a passive acceptance which at times can look very like complicity or collusion.

I didn’t expect Griff’s men to stop working before lunchtime. I did think however that it might be a good idea to get up and go out for a while. De Kooning looked at me: he agreed.

It’s not that I too don’t agree with the Citizens and think their cause isn’t a good one. It’s just that the battles are futile if the war is already lost. They are no more than quixotic gestures, and while I know this sort of comic-tragic futility is what makes us human, sometimes you can have just a little too much futility in your life. It’s not always good to bang your head against every brick wall you find. Modernity is a steamroller and it will flatten us all. We will all become one dimensional people, as Marcuse said long ago. The future is a Citadel: massive, inhuman, noisy, computer generated, absurdly geometrical, obsessively orderly, built by robots to accommodate the robots we will all become.  It will be lifeless and it will not belong to us. Gordon, Griff and their like are at the wheel and the whole planet is their building site. Start saying goodbye to the things you love, Maureen, because this is the way the world really ends.

I left Margaret a note stuck to the top of her laptop.

Dear Margaret, modernity is a steamroller and it will flatten us all. The Citadel Men are unstoppable. I’ve gone shopping as there are some things I need. Please feed the cat when he comes in.

I went to see my dad this afternoon. He was watching an old film version of The Importance of Being Earnest on TV when I got there. I told him that they were knocking down bits of Park Farm in Newsham. He was born and grew up there so I thought he’d be interested.

‘Where is it?’ he asked.

I described its whereabouts and he told me this place was always called Thompson’s Farm when he was a kid. He used to play around there sometimes. I told him I’d taken some photographs of it just in case it was demolished. He went on to tell me about all the other buildings there used to be at South Newsham – the pit, the winding house, the rows of houses, the school and the Star Foundry. They’re all gone now, of course.

I asked him what pubs there were near where the shipyard used to be. He said they included The Sun, The Ship, the Fox and Hounds, and the Blagdon. They’re all demolished now too. He told me that a boxer called Seaman Tommy Watson had been the manager of the Blagdon for a long time. It seems Seaman was a good fighter and had fought Kid Chocolate for his world title at Madison Square Garden. He lost on points but some say he would have got the decision had the fight taken place over here.

When I got home I asked Margaret how the visit to the Citadel site this morning had gone.

‘I was a complete and utter waste of time,’ she said. ‘Geraldine just took over.’

De Kooning was in the conservatory. He sat with me as I read the newspaper. In an interview Cherie Blair says Tony is a socialist. I laughed out loud and, for a moment, De Kooning stopped cleaning his jet black face.

Margaret had gone in the bath. She was going to a poetry evening at Brenda’s house this evening. In two days time it will be exactly seventy five years since Seaman Tommy Watson lost to the little Cuban in New York.


Written by yammering

May 17, 2008 at 11:55 pm

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minimalism and the black death

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‘Thank the Lord!’ Margaret exclaimed this morning. ‘Miracles do happen. Next door have cleared the rubbish out of their front garden.’

‘Someone stole Fletcher’s blue swing,’ I explained.

‘Why would anyone steal something like that?’ Margaret said, as if astonished. ‘It wouldn’t be worth anything.’

I shrugged. It was far too early in the day to get into the sources of value in our lives and I knew in any case that Margaret wasn’t going to agree with whatever I had to say on this question. I could already hear myself becoming an apologist for the whole suburban junkyard movement, for Hugo and Haphazardist cosmology.

When I arrived at work Mandy Potts and Apple were in the reception area.

‘Morning, Mandy,’ I said. ‘Does Debs know you’re here?’

‘Yes, they’ve told her.’

‘And how are you?’ I enquired. ‘How’s Mr Zee?’

‘Oh, he’s still in bed,’ Mandy said, rolling her eyes. ‘He’s not one for getting up early.’

I smiled and I imagined Mr Zorro snoozing peacefully in his little brown pyjamas. In my imagination he keeps his mask on while he sleeps, although I suspect that this may not be true. I didn’t check it out with Mandy.

Debs told me that she thought Mandy was having benefit problems as she was now claiming jointly with Mr Zorro and this had caused some delay with the claim, as it inevitably would. It’s not every day the benefits agency gets a Zorr through their door.

‘Who’s Mandy with?’ Debs asked.

‘Just Apple,’ I replied. ‘Mr Zee’s still getting some zeds.’

Yes, I know; Debs groaned too.

Most of the morning I sat up in my office checking reports and replying to emails. Around lunchtime I heard some sort of commotion in the office car park. It was Billy Charlton – Boz, as he’s known – screaming profanities at the building. It seems he’d just been told that his children wouldn’t be allowed to spend the weekend with him and his new partner in their caravan at Sandy Bay. Boz seemed to blame his mobile phone for this turn of events and suddenly, mid rage, took it out of his jeans pocket and began waving it at the downstairs windows, as if it was a ju ju charm or some other fetish object. He then flung it down at the concrete with all his might and, because it didn’t instantaneously explode, began stamping on it furiously. This action seemed to almost magically satisfy or exhaust his anger. He stood for a second staring at the ruins of his Nokia, and then seemed suddenly released.  He lit a cigarette, took a drag, and walked off as if nothing had happened. I’ve known Boz for quite a long time. His anger management course is currently paid for out of my budget.

Tonight Margaret told me that she and Brenda had finally ordered some slippers and would be opening their new eBay shop as soon as they arrived. They have also decided to hold slipper parties, the first of which she informed me will take place here on a date in June yet to be agreed. The slipper party is an event aimed primarily at women. In any case Margaret did not think it was the kind of thing I was likely to enjoy.  She suggested I could go for one of my little walks that night.

‘So what are you calling your slipper shop?’ I asked.

‘The Slipper Shop,’ she replied.

‘That’s clever.’ I said. ‘Modern, minimal, vaguely ironic. Whose idea was it, yours or Brenda’s?’

‘It was a sort of joint effort. Actually Tristan chipped in too.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I thought I detected a Marxian element in there somewhere.’

Margaret rolled her eyes and gave me the slipper supplier’s catalogue to peruse. I meandered through to the conservatory, put the catalogue on the table and turned on the radio. In Our Time. Melvyn Bragg was talking to his guests about the library at Ninevah. It was a repeat of this morning’s programme. Next week it’s the Black Death. I’m looking forward to that.


Written by yammering

May 16, 2008 at 7:14 am

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the blue swing and the pipistrelles

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When I left the house for work this morning I saw Hugo on his garden path, motionless as a plastic replica, arms at his side, legs set apart, gazing fiercely towards the gate.

‘Morning, Fletch,’ I shouted.

This brought him back to reality.

‘Here, you,’ he said, in his usual slightly rough-edged way, ‘someone’s nicked the swing I had there.’  He pointed to the spot near the gate where since time began the blue child’s swing with a broken rope had lingered.

‘Oh, yeah,’ I said. ‘Who would do a thing like that?’

‘I don’t know what this bloody country’s coming to,’ he said. ‘The sooner we get rid of this government the better, if you ask me.’

It sounded as if Hugo was blaming Gordon for the felony. Gordon has children, it’s true, but stealing tatt from Hugo’s landfill, while perhaps not beneath his dignity, is unlikely to be necessary on his salary.

‘So who do you think it was?’ I asked.

 ‘It’ll be bloody kids, that’s who,’ he replied. ‘Little bastards. They’d steal your granny if she wasn’t screwed down.’  Hugo’s ideas of normal family relations are clearly a little different to those of most other people.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Hey, but kids will be kids, eh?’

Hugo resumed his fixed gazing into the site of his lost swing. Loss can often take a little time to work itself out. Hugo was a figure of abject impotence, like Thor without his hammer. And yet how much, I wondered, could depend upon this blue swing standing at his gate (and not even a white chicken in sight)?  Surely it hadn’t been the centre piece or linchpin of some grand design that he was just about to embark upon. How desperately unfortunate it would be if the swing that had rested there since time began had been stolen at the very moment at which its destiny and purpose were about to be realised. Hugo looked bereft, crestfallen, downtrodden, defeated. The swing had clearly been more important than it looked.

As I drove off to work it struck me that Hugo might be a man who knows the whereabouts of every object in the randomly cluttered universe of his property, and that perhaps he monitors the status of each object with perfect diligence. The truth is I would never have noticed the absence of the swing for days if he hadn’t drawn my attention to it. I also sensed that for him the order of things had been almost catastrophically disturbed by the thoughtless mischief of some passing kid.  It needs to be said that in all probability the swing now lies on its side on some piece of wasteland in Newsham, its seat finally released and jacked up on some bricks as a jump for BMXers. The lesson here seems to be that no matter how accidental the order is it can come to make sense to someone and be an order to which any one of us might become attached. If such an order is disturbed a sense of anomie or existential dislocation may inevitably follow.

As I went through Newsham I looked around for traces of the stolen blue swing, but without success. I did notice however that the old picture house is no longer Kingdom Hall, but is now the New Hope Community Church. I thought at first that perhaps this was a re-branding exercise, but later discovered that this is a different Pentecostal organisation. They are very active in the Third World, it seems, a territory that in their minds may well encompass Newsham too. New hope is a curious concept. Hope is the expectation or wish that something is going to happen, the return of Christ, for example, or the apocalypse. I guess hope that grows old becomes no hope at all, or lost hope, or even hopelessness. To that extent hope is perhaps always new and the adjective redundant.  Hope is always evanescent, which is why it needs to spring eternal, I suppose. For a moment I imagined Hugo sitting by his gurgling pond hoping for the return of his stolen blue swing, gazing with his heron at the pale carp gliding by. I fear their hope is in vain.

When I was driving back into the town tonight I noticed that there was a digger at Park Farm. Some of the out-buildings have already been demolished.  When I see a building disappearing I always feel a deep sense of regret if I’ve never photographed it.  Some old buildings on the quayside have recently been knocked down and I wish I’d photographed them. I wish I’d photographed the Traveller’s Rest, the Wellesley School and Mermaid Cafe.  Photographs don’t stop time, of course. In fact they remind us that time cannot be stopped, that the world has already moved on. This is why they are so poignant. And a photograph is not the truth.  You cannot, except in your memory, walk around a photograph, touch the substances in it, smell the air there. You cannot feel the breeze in a photograph as it blows into your coat. Photographs remind you that there is so much more to the world than the visible, and that those things too have gone.

When I got home I discovered that Hugo had removed every extraneous object from his front garden – the pink table, the wheel barrow, the pile of bricks, the rusty toolbox, everything except the green Mercedes, the Alligator with the broken tail. This new austerity is the concrete embodiment of the pain of Hugo’s loss. Rather than risk suffering again the profound trauma of dispossession he is prepared to foresake the kaleidoscopic diversity of the junkyard in favour of barren beds of graded pebbles and a couple of dwarf conifers in terracotta pots.  It may be that this garden centre minimalism has more kerbside appeal, as Phil and Kirsty might say, but it is a look without depth, bland and superficial at every level.

After tea I went for a walk through South Beach estate, along Wensleydale Terrace and down Ridley Avenue. I walked back up Waterloo Road and along Renwick Road. When I got home Margaret was on her way out. She was wearing a new green jacket. It’s more leaf green than emerald, fashionably faded. As I drank my cappucinno I heard Hugo banging away at the Alligator’s tail for a while. He didn’t do it for long though. Maybe it was the greyness of the evening.  Maybe his heart wasn’t in it.

At nightfall I walked out into the garden. I picked up De Kooning and together we peeked over into Hugo’s world at twilight gleaming on the moose and the henge. At about nine thirty two bats appeared over his pond, flying without rest in apparently erratic trajectories. 

‘What sort do you think they are?’ I said. ‘Pipistrelles?  And what do you think of the thesis that modernity and existential alienation are inseparable? Do you think we’ve lost forever a world we could call home?’

We watched the bats and the solar lights shone in the gloom.


Written by yammering

May 14, 2008 at 8:52 pm

while the blacksmiths were making butterflies

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Yesterday, it being Sunday again, Margaret went over to Brenda’s to plan the great internet slipper caper and perhaps also to discuss new age mullarkey and the permanent revolution. It was cooler and misty in the morning. I biked up the coast to Lynemouth. There was a surprisingly brisk northerly wind. At QE II park in Ashington I stopped to look at all the swans and the windsurfers. A passing man from Bristol began telling me that his wife had two horses and one had an incurable hoof complaint and was now only going to be kept by her as a companion. He was flying back down this afternoon. He told me he had a mountain bike at home and took his two chocolate labradors out for a walk with him in the fields where he lived.

When I got home the sun was out. I made myself a cappucinno and went out into the back garden with the newspapers. I sat in the sun on a green plastic chair, listening to the gurgling trickle of Hugo’s waterfall. A red admiral came over the fence and clipped its way across the lawn. The wind occasionally swished and whispered through the whitebeam and the climbing rose. Pigeons cooed while starlings and other small birds chirrupped and cheeped incessantly, their music now and again punctuated by a squawk or the shriek of a passing gull. In the distance a motorbike rasped as it accelerated away, and soon afterwards I could hear the faint bleating of a lorry’s reversing warning. De Kooning wandered out like a surly delinquent and wrapped his tail briefly around the leg on my chair before wandering over to the shadow of the box bush and flopping down.  Behind him the big flowery hearts of the pale rhododendron blooms swayed and teetered in the breeze.

Hugo was out and the station was peaceful and deserted. It was probably at its best this way, and maybe this was the way Hugo conceived it should be. But I knew that later he would return and as if possessed by some hyperactive industrial poltergeist find himself with a hammer or a saw or a cordless drill in his hand. Perhaps this is the paradox of Hugo’s garden, that at the moment he enters its accidental ramshackle perfection it is ruined by the very presence it was meant to accommodate, that of Hugo, its creator. But for now at least all was quiet.

Yesterday the newspapers all agreed that things are looking bleak for Gordon and that now is the fag end of New Labour.


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May 13, 2008 at 7:13 am

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the masked man at the gate

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About mid morning one of Debs’ favourite clients, Mandy Potts, called at the office. She had in tow her two young children, Apple, who’s almost three, and her half-sibling Sparky. He’s six or so. Debs went out to see her, assuming she’d be seeking financial help, as usual.

‘Can I have a word?’ Debs said, when she came back along a few minutes later.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘How much does she want?’

‘It’s not money she wants,’ Debs replied. ‘She’s got a new partner and wants to know if it’s okay with us if he moves in – which means he has already, of course.’

I expressed some surprise at this as it is not three weeks since Mandy told the review meeting of her enduring love for Tommy Flintoff – Flinty, as he’s called – and asked us to give them the chance to play happy families together again as soon as he is released from Durham Prison in July. Flinty is currently serving five years for drug dealing and for offences of violence, one of these being a serious assault on Mandy during which he tried to cut off her ears with secateurs. Fortunately he was so off his face on crack cocaine at the time that his coordination rather let him down and he amputated one of his own fingers instead, an error which brought the assault to a rather abrupt end and led to his arrest later at Wansbeck A & E.  Sparky, who had been present throughout most of Flinty’s onslaught, had the presence of mind to pick up the severed digit and put it in a Kinder Egg shell. Mandy took it to the hospital. The surgeons were able to re-attach it, although full functionality will probably never return. At the review Mandy said Flinty had grown up while he was in prison (he was sentenced on what was only  his thirty-eighth birthday), and that the kids really loved him and he had really changed. The review felt her analysis was perhaps a little optimistic. 

‘So who’s the new man?’ I enquired.

‘He calls himself Mr Zorro,’ Debs said.

‘Mr Zorro?’

‘Yes. And he doesn’t see any reason why he should tell us his previous name.’

‘His previous name being his real name, I suppose?’

Debs nodded. ‘He knows about Mandy’s circumstances,’ she said, ‘and he accepts that we should know he’s become part of the children’s lives. I said we would need to do police checks, but he says that in his case it shouldn’t be necessary as he doesn’t have any criminal record.’

‘No, and I’m sure that’s exactly what the police will say too if they run “Mr Zorro” through their computer. You need to tell him and Mandy that without his real name we’re going to have a big problem with this arrangement.’

‘There’s something else,’ Debs said. ‘He’s a wee bit of an oddball.’

‘Odder than Flinty?’

‘Maybe not. But he’s not really Mandy’s usual type.’  Debs looked a little perplexed. She was like De Kooning: her muteness was eloquent.

‘You want me to have a word with him?’

‘Yes, I think so.’

Mandy was in the interview room, biting down the nails on her right hand.  Apple and Sparky were behind her playing with the toys, and beside her stood Mr Zorro. He extended his hand and I shook it.

‘Mr Zorro, I presume,’ I said.

‘The very same,’ he replied.

‘I see now why you changed your name,’ I said.

Mr Zorro was as tall as me – about 6’2″ – and dressed in a dark brown Zorro outfit: dark brown tight trousers and knee-high Cuban-heeled cowboy boots, dark brown shirt fastened at the collar, dark brown waistcoat, dark brown flat-brimmed Spanish hat, broad brown leather belt with a silver buckle. And a dark brown cape.  The only real interruption to his brown as cocoa theme was his black as soot mask.

‘So have you actually moved in with Mandy?’ I asked him, looking to Mandy for the correct answer.

‘Yes, I have,’ he replied, after a short pause. ‘Mandy and I hope to marry one day.’

Mandy nodded her assent to Mr Zorro’s proposal.

‘And I assume Mr Zorro knows about your past, Mandy, and why we are involved with you?’

‘Yes, I’ve told him everything.’

‘Including Flinty?’

‘Yes, I know all about him too,’ Mr Zorro interjected. ‘I think we can safely say now that so far as Mandy is concerned Flinty is well and truly history.’

Mandy smiled a little nervously but again nodded her assent to Mr Zorro’s assertion.

‘How long have you known one another?’ I asked ‘Where did you meet?’

‘We met about a month ago at The Gate in Newcastle,’ Mandy explained. ‘I was there with the girls on a night out.’ She and Zorro glanced at one another in a way that lovers the world over do.

‘Where are you from, Mr Zorro?’ I asked, hardly believing that these were sentences I would ever have occasion to utter.

‘Does it matter?’ he asked.

‘I’m afraid it does,’ I said. ‘We have a statutory responsibility to ensure the safety of Apple and Sparky, a duty we can only fulfil properly if we know what we need to about the people who are involved in their lives. You are now one of those people, and we need to know about you if we are to give permission for your cohabitation to continue.’

He looked at Mandy. Her eyes seemed to say: ‘I told you so; we don’t have any choice; do it for our love.’

‘All right,’ he said, ‘I’ll let you in on my past.  But only if you assure me that my personal details will remain strictly confidential and that I will be referred to by my current name in all face to face transactions with you, your staff and other professionals.’

I glanced at Debs. She shrugged and nodded to tell me this was okay by her.

‘We are bound by the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act and the common law regarding confidentiality,’ I said. ‘We need your name and date of birth, and we’ll need to run a police check on you. Are you okay with that?’

‘My name is Malcolm Ross. My date of birth is 23rd March 1980. I was born Scremerston, near Berwick, but for the past 4 years I have been living in High Heaton. You’ll find I have no criminal record.’

Debs wrote his details down as he gave them.

‘Thanks, Malcolm – sorry, I mean, Mr Zorro. That’s very helpful. We’ll get you checked out by the police. Debs will need to do a visit within the next couple of days to see how things are and she’ll need to do an updated assessment to see how things are now that you’re part of the family.’

‘That’s fine,’ Mr Zorro said. Mandy smiled.

‘Mammy, does that mean Mr Zee is going to be our new daddy,’ Sparky asked, excitedly.

‘It might, Sparky,’ Mandy said. ‘You’ll just have to wait and see.’ Sparky was briefly seized by a rigid tremble of delight and then gave Apple a big hug. For children like these waiting to find out who your new daddy is going to be must be a bit like waiting for your Christmas present, I thought: all you know is that you get a different one every year.

‘Thanks, Zee,’ Mandy said, touching him on one of his folded arms. Mr Zorro, browner than peat, legs astride and black velvet mask across his nose, nodded silently, in the way that heroes often do.

‘It’s nice to meet you,’ I said. ‘Debs will need to sort out her visit with you. I’ll leave you to it. Just one last thing: why do you dress like Zorro?’

‘Mr Zee’s a Zorr,’ Sparky chipped in. ‘Zorrs are cool!’

Mr Zorro smiled.

‘Oh, you’re a Zorr,’ I said, as if this was a lifestyle choice I was familiar already with. ‘Now I understand. Like a Goth or an EMO or a chav, eh? Like a New Romantic or a punk? Oh, I see.’

Debs glanced at me for a nanosecond and then began talking to Apple about her lovely new brown dress with the little white daisies all down the bib.

‘Zorr’s are new around these parts,’ I said. ‘We’re not as cutting edge as the folks in High Heaton. Any way, thanks again. I hope things work out for you both.’

I went back to my office and left Debs to it. Mr Zorro seemed like a decent enough guy. He’ll certainly need all the heroic qualities he can muster to deal with Mandy and her meanderings. I wondered what the philosophy of the Zorrs was. Judging by the one example I’d met, I’d say their core values – the crucial elements in the Zorr self-construct – were perhaps a sense of duty, earnestness and the noble defence of the needy, although I accept that there is not as yet a robust evidence base for this assessment.

Debs came back into the office, laughing out loud.

‘So what do you make of Mr Zorro?!’ she said. ‘Is he a nutter?  Is he a risk to the kids? What should we do about him?!’

‘If someone wants to be a Zorr, I guess he has every right to do so. To discriminate against him for doing so would be a breach of his human rights under Article 8 of the Act, I suspect.  Zorrs might be new to us, Debs, but is being one any more evidence of mental health problems than being a Goth or a Jehovah’s Witness? And there are lots of both of those around these days.’

I suggested we had no evidence to justify an intervention at this stage. ‘But I’m really looking forward to reading your assessment, of course,’ I added. ‘And God knows what we’re going to do when Flinty gets out.’

When I got home Margaret told me Brenda had just received a late birthday present from a man who lives in America with whom she corresponds by email, a man she has never met. He sent her a pair of leather cowgirl western boots.

‘They’re exactly what she wanted,’ Margaret said, from which I assumed that the American must be a clairvoyant.

‘What does Tristan think about her getting a present from a strange man she’s met on the internet?’ I asked.

‘He won’t know. She’s just going to tell him she bought them for herself.’

Sometimes I think, despite the evidence of Mr Zee, that people never change.

I ate my tea in sun in the conservatory and listened to the Radio 4 news.  In the evening it became grey and cooler. I went out for a walk down Plessey Road, along Coomassie Road, through the town centre and along Regent Street to Cowpen Quay. I saw no Zorrs, although it wasn’t for the want of looking. However, I did see innumerable clumps of chavs, straggled and strewn around corners and bus shelters and backstreets, a hundred and more shiny polyester suitlets.  A couple of years ago I had a dream that the world came to an end and that the only survivors were me and a tribe of faceless chavs in polyester suitlets, stripes down every arm and leg. I woke up in sweat. Perhaps tonight I’ll dream an apocalypse of brown Zorros.

When I got home De Kooning was in the front garden rummaging around in the catmint. I scooped him up and took him inside.  Hugo was staring at the alligator’s tail, preparing himself to do whatever it is he is doing. I laid a blank two foot square canvas on the table. I squeezed a glob of acrylic vermillion out on to a paper palette.  I stared at the white canvas for a while and then loaded my number 14 filbert. I made the mark with three swift strokes as De Kooning cleaned his face.


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May 10, 2008 at 8:35 am

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