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Archive for July 2008

the magical slaughterhouse of the sun

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The Angel Gabriel and Dr Who didn’t show. Nor did the Dalek. The Arab has continued to come and go, as have his accomplices – Batman and Bob Marley.  Cheryl saw Robin Hood again. But not one of the listed runners has yet turned up for the race.

But Captain Hook has. He appeared last Wednesday afternoon and at around seven on Thursday evening. He was wearing a large feathered hat, a red velvet coat, white frills and knee breeches. He had long black curls, a thin black moustache and a cutlass slung from his hip. He also wore a black eye patch, suggesting the imposter wasn’t that familiar with the book and perhaps prone to stereotyping. The pirate was driving a silver Renault, a rusty automatic.

Meg Bomberg manages a team in another part of the building. Meg is a woman of substantial mass. She’s not the kind of woman you’d ever want to tangle with. She has spiky blonde hair and wears lots of denim. She enters every room as if it is a saloon in the Old West. Her feet flick outwards with every step – she sort of waddles – as if she’s kicking stray dogs from her path. She entered our team room on Friday as if she was looking for a shot of redeye and a game of faro.

‘Where’s Michelle?’ she asked.

‘’Whose askin’?’ I replied.

She noticed a bag of chocolate cinder toffee pieces on Lily’s desk. She swaggered over and took one. She looked at it for a moment, as an ape might look at a snot. She then popped it in her mouth and began to munch, like a bulldog chewing a wasp, as they say around here (in a very particular accent).

‘One of her clients has scratched my car,’ Meg said. ‘Scunner Walker.’

‘Really?’ I replied.

‘I think so.’

‘So what do you want Michelle to do about that?’ I asked.

‘I want her to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

I nodded slowly. ‘Easier said than done,’ I pointed out. ‘Why don’t you report it to the police?’

‘How would I prove it was who I think it is?’

‘What evidence do you have?’

‘I saw him hanging around near my car yesterday, and – surprise, surprise – a lovely wiggly scratch has now appeared!’

‘So what makes you think it was him?’

‘Well, who the hell else would it be?!’

‘David Blaine?’ I was about to say. ‘Paul Daniels?’ The full list would be a long one, I suspected, and inevitably incomplete. I was about to begin proffering candidates of varying degrees of probability when we heard the sound of a scuffle in the street. It was none other than Scunner Walker himself, engaged in a fist fight with some other youth in black t-shirt and training pants. They momentarily fell together to the ground, heavily, like slaughtered animals. Scunner being first back to his feet began raining flailing blows down on his opponent. His opponent made it back to his feet and the two circled each other like prize fighters, flinging the occasional kick or wild hook at one another. There were three other young people there. None of them looked like intervening. A girl in a black Parka, high heels, footless tights and big silver hoop earrings was filming the event on her mobile phone and grinning inanely.

‘Call the police, Lily,’ I said. Just then Scunner took a clubbing blow to the left temple that dumped him back on to the tarmac.

‘Get in there!’ Meg said, gleefully.

Two or three people from the office were now outside and telling the youths that the police were on their way. The fight stopped and for a moment Scunner and his pale opponent stood bloody faced and panting, looking at each other like tigers in an alley. Then as quick as mist they melted away into the back lanes.

‘I’ll tell Michelle you want to see her,’ I said.

‘Forget it,’ Meg said. She took another piece of chocolate cinder toffee and sashayed off in the direction of Dry Gulch. Just as the door was closing a ball of tumbleweed blew into the room and I thought again of Hugo’s clock.

I went outside to see if all was well. Mr Zee was sitting in the waiting area with Apple and Sparky. Mandy was inside talking to Debs. When I came back inside I asked him how things were going.

‘They’re getting no better,’ he said. He went on to tell me that kids around the estate are now dressing themselves in white pillow cases with holes cut out for their arms and faces. They’re running around the estate in spooky little cliques carry plastic Kalashnikovs and pretending to be Flinty. Some of them like to make paper aeroplanes and fly them at people’s windows. Mr Zee says this has happened several times to them. One morning they found what seemed like a flock of them littered and fallen at the front of the house. Someone had put a red toy fire engine among them.

‘It’s scary,’ he said. ‘Apple thinks they’re butterflies. We can’t tell her what it’s really about. Did you hear about Hook?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He carries a sword too, I hear.’

Mr Zee nodded. I noticed that in his cloak pocket he had a book of poems by Charles Bukowski.

‘Do you like Bukowski?’ I asked.

He shrugged. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I think I’m supposed to, aren’t I?’

‘Why? Do all Zorrs have to like Bukowski?’

‘No. Lorca is the poet laureate of Zorrs. He’s the one we all read.’

‘Good choice,’ I said.

‘I used to think Bukowski was a pretty impoverished poet,’ I said. ‘Thin on ideas, thin on wisdom, thin on beauty. Now I’m not so sure.’

Mandy came out with Debs. Apple went over to her and held her hand. Mandy told me she was okay. What scared her most were the phone calls, she said, but she didn’t want to change her number because if she did Flinty might turn up her door.

‘Did Zee tell you that we’ve been getting phone calls playing the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly?‘ she said. ‘We got it again at four o’clock last night.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I heard about Captain Hook, though, and the kids in pillow cases. But not the new tune. Sounds like Flinty’s becoming a bit of a DJ, eh?’

On Saturday I went walking through the town. I walked through Ridley Park and then out along Wensleydale Terrace. I was wondering about social justice. I lay among the sand dunes near Gloucester Lodge Farm and listened to the sea. It was a beautiful day. The rampant yellow stars of the ragwort, the demure ivory heads of yarrow, the blinking violets . . . . all the dune flowers dazzled by the sun.

‘So, Twistan,’ I said, ‘Glasgow East gave Gunner Gordon a real bloody nose, eh? Do you think his days are numbered now?’

‘Yep, I weckon they are. Ah, but the woad is long and the stwuggle must go, my fwiend, the stwuggle must go on.’

‘You’re a such hoot, Twistan,’ I said. ‘You always say that.’  I whistled him a few bars of Ennio Morricone’s famous theme and we watched the gulls sliding across the blue sky high above us.


Written by yammering

July 28, 2008 at 11:15 pm

and now the wheels of heaven stop

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It’s been a relatively uneventful week at work, other than the two day strike, which wasn’t that well supported. People live in relative affluence these days and are neck deep in lifestyle instalments. Globalisation is the only game in town. There’s no longer a vital sustaining vision of an alternative society. The working class doesn’t seem to know it exists. The masses have been unmassed. Work is fragmented. Nowadays most people work for firms rather than in industries; they have a different identity. The cultural context of unionism has radically changed, the political dimension is attenuated. Even the low paid explain that they don’t believe in strikes and turn up for work. What they really mean is that striking is an expensive luxury that they don’t see the point in buying.

There have continued to be regular sightings of the Arab in the white Mercedes, along with a smattering of Batmen, Rastafarians and Michael Jacksons. There was a further isolated sighting of Robin Hood, by Cheryl Armstrong again. But intriguingly a new, previously unseen visitor was spotted independently on a couple of occasions by two fairly reliable witnesses: The Man With No Name, complete with poncho, spurs and a stetson. On both occasions he was driving a yellow Fiat with steel wheels, and on both occasions he parked near Mandy’s and got out to roll and smoke a spindly cigarette. As always, caution must be exercised when jumping to conclusions about these things, but it may be of significance here that Flinty’s favourite film is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

By the end of the week Lily and Debs had drawn up a book of the most likely new characters to be spotted during the next seven days. They’ve put it on flip chart paper and pinned it on the notice board in the team room.  Odds are currently being offered on the following:

          Shrek                                           5-1
          Spiderman                               11-4
          Biggles                                       10-1
          Godzilla                                   Evens
          Nelson Mandela                     6-1
          Dr Who                                      25-1
          A Dalek                                      9-2
          Elvis Presley                            2-1
          Moses                                         4-1
          Lord Lucan                              33-1
          Winnie the Pooh                    10-1
          The Angel Gabriel                  5-4

Betting has been brisk. If Dr Who appears one of the admin workers, Jesse Upton, stands to win over £100. For that sum she might dress up like him herself. Lily says Debs has already ordered a gorilla suit, just in case. Shrewdly, Jesse has made an each way bet.

On Wednesday I went to Edinburgh for the Leonard Cohen concert at the castle. Edinburgh and I go back a long way and it holds many memories for me. I drove up during the day, stopping off at North Berwick for a coffee at the Westgate Gallery and a walk down to the seabird centre. It was very windy and the light over the choppy waters of the Forth and Bass Rock was dramatic and – dare I say it? – sublime.

In Edinburgh I left my things at the hotel and walked down through Princes Street Park and across to the National Gallery, where I mused over Raeburn’s portraits for a while before making my way up into the crowds on the street. There was the usual rich mix of nationalities there, among them a lot of young Italians. As I was walking east near BHS a young guy in skinny black jeans, white training shoes and a black jerkin bounced up beside me and asked me a question I didn’t catch. I looked at him over my sunglasses and asked him if he was street entertainer.

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’m a monk.’ He had an English accent from somewhere south of Lincoln.

‘Ah,’ I said.

‘We have a monastery here in Scotland,’ he said, with an enthusiasm that suggested the news had just come to him in a vision.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So what’s your pitch?’

He told me he was with the Hare Krishna movement. I wondered when they decided to give up the saffron robes, but I didn’t ask. He asked me where I was from and I told him. He told me his group had a place in Newcastle and I said I knew and that I’d often bantered with his lot around there. He asked me if I was interested in meditation. I told him I’d tried it, yes. He acted a little surprised, but I felt he wasn’t really that interested. He then appeared to veer off dramatically.

‘We’ve got a band,’ he said, again as if he was channelling someone and this statement was as much news to him as it was to me. ‘We play monk rock!’

‘Monk rock?’ I said, nodding and pulling a daft face. ‘That’s very clever.’

‘No, no, we do,’ the enthusiastic monk boy said, and putting his hand into his bag pulled out a CD. He gave it to me to inspect.  It had a rather amateurish looking deep blue and yellow cover. It was by The Gouranga Powered Band and appeared to have the title Mosher 6.

‘Do you know what a mantra is?’ he said. I told him I did.

‘And do you know Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath?’

Again I answered in the affirmative.

‘Well, our band does mantras sort of in the style of those groups. Lots of people think meditation is about relaxation – and it is – but it’s also about something else!’

‘So this is a hard rock meditation record?’ I said. ‘Isn’t that a paradoxical sort of thing?’

‘It is, yes!’ he replied. I wondered why he was so excited. I was beginning to feel I must be selling him something and he liked my product. I looked down the track listing. The opening track is Gouranga Hey! The other five appear to have a common element:

            Dance & Mosh

            Sing & Mosh

            Hear & Mosh

            Krishna Mosh

            See Ya Mosh

‘They don’t do Bangers & Mosh, do they?’ I asked. He didn’t hear me and I didn’t repeat myself. I know Hare Krishnas are vegetarians in any case.

‘So what language do they sing in?’ I asked. ‘English?’

‘Sanskrit,’ he replied. ‘They’re traditional mantras.’

‘Sanskrit, eh? These are hard rock Sanskrit mantras?’ I nodded and read the song titles again. ‘Okay, so how much do you want for it?’ I asked.

‘We are asking for nothing,’ he said. ‘You can give whatever you wish to from the goodness of your heart.’

I put my hand in my pocket and found some change. I pulled it out and told him he could have it all. There was about £1.83. I poured in into his bag.

‘We usually get a little more than that,’ he said. I wondered whether he’d lost his script for a moment or if his earpiece had fallen out.

‘Oh,’ I said. I found two pound coins in another pocket and gave him them too. He must then have remembered his anti-materialist principles and offered to throw in a free book. I declined the offer. I said I’d read some of their stuff before.

I wove my way east through the tourists, passed the pipers and the Big Issue sellers and the occasional homeless person in a doorway with his sleeping bag, woolly hat and black and white mongrel dog on a piece of string. I crossed the street at some traffic lights and sat on a park bench under the trees near the Scott monument for a while. I was thinking it was going to rain. I made my way up Cockburn Street, stopping off at the Stills Gallery on the way to look at some photographs by Nicky Bird. I decided to eat and went into Bella Italia on the corner of the Royal Mile and North Bridge. I had garlic bread, a Caprese pizza and a cappuccino.

When she brought me the bill the waitress asked me where I was from and how long I was staying in Edinburgh. I said I was only here for one night, to see Leonard Cohen.

‘He was in here earlier in the week,’ she said. ‘He was with his wife and daughter.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Leonard Cohen? Did you speak to him?’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I said “Hey, you’re Leonard Cohen!”‘ She told me he was wearing a suit and hat and he looked kind of frail. She said he gave some free tickets to the guys who worked there.

‘What did he eat?’ I asked.

‘I can’t remember,’ she replied. ‘But he kept asking for more cheese, I remember that!’

It was a nice enough evening as I strolled up the Royal Mile with the crowd, past the cafes and the bars and the shops of tartan and fluttering Saltires and shortbread packed along the sandstone ravine of blackened old buildings. I made my way to the castle and to my seat way up in the North Stand, high above the stage. I could see out beyond the castle and across city and out to the Lammermuirs. It was cool and breezy, but dry. Cohen came on stage to a great cheer. He was small and frail looking, wearing a well cut suit, a shirt and tie and a black trilby. From the moment he started singing the audience was in his thrall.

Cohen is a serious artist; he’s no mere pop singer. It’s claimed he’s touring because he lost five million dollars to a dodgy business partner and needs to recoup some of this. I’m not convinced. How interested can a man be in money when he’s spent much of the last ten years of his life in a Zen monastery?  Cohen is in his seventies now. He is gracious with his audience, genuinely solicitous in a sardonic sort of way. At some point he thanks us not only for turning up tonight but for showing “an interest” in his songs over the years. An artist’s work is his bid to transcend mortality, and the coming silence for him (as for us all) is one of the dominant motifs tonight. Late on in the show he speaks the first verse of If It Be Thy Will, explaining before he does so that the Webb Twins (two of his backing singers) will then unfold the song for us. In other words the song will go on when the singer has gone. And the song itself is about ceasing to speak, and the context tonight makes the cause of that looming muteness all too clear: death itself. The set list was laced through with newly contextualised valedictions. Hey, this is one way to say goodbye. If this is a swan song, Cohen is singing for posterity. He wants his work to be remembered when he is gone.

Cohen’s work – like his life, perhaps – is marked by the tension between retreat to the inner world of the self and activism, concern about and engagement with the outer world. Tonight’s performance is heavily weighted with the late political songs from albums like “I’m Your Man” and “The Future”. To my mind these songs have a maturity, depth and scope that history may value more highly than the narrower “love songs” he is perhaps still best known for – Suzanne, Bird on the Wire, Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, So Long Marianne, etc –  all of which he also sang in the show. The most powerful moments for me were tied up with those mature songs.

Cohen reminds his audience that in the “chaos and darkness” of most of the world it is a “privilege” to share these moments of “luxury”.  Cohen is a social pessimist. I have seen the future/and it is murder, he says. Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich . . . And everybody knows that the plague is coming/Everybody knows that its moving fast. However, he sees a space for joy and hope. Joy arises in a broken world where not that many bells now ring. Indeed joy can arise almost because things are broken, Anthem seems to suggest: There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in. He sings of “the holy or the broken hallelujah”. The space for hope is an inner space, a solution which is private and individual, but there is a sense that for him this may not be really enough. One particular realm he compulsively explores is love. Love – like its sister, beauty – holds a crucial but difficult place in Cohen’s cosmology. Every heart to love will come, he says, but like a refugee.  And, in another song, love’s the only engine of survival. Chaos and darkness are the necessary conditions of Cohen’s poetry; love is a necessary but somehow not quite adequate refuge. The heart for Cohen is prone to being a cold and lonely place. Cohen’s universe is somewhat Manichean. The sacred arises amid the profane. Love is among the sacred things, but such things are less resilient than things profane, less solid. Sacred things are always fragile and fleeting.

Perhaps inevitably given that Cohen is a Jew born in the 1930’s, the model for the catastrophe humanity faces is the holocaust. The failure is humankind is a failure of the heart, a failure to see humanity wherever it is and to always be fully human. Cohen sees the heart as a source of hope and survival, as a refuge from the world’s darkness. He seems less confident about the heart’s capacity to overcome or dispel that darkness. He sees real hope in social and political change – in Democracy. He sings that democracy is coming to the USA (implying that it isn’t there yet) and says that the reason why it is most likely to succeed there (however it may truly look) is because America has the spiritual thirst. But change will require something enormous – the heart, he says, has got to open in a fundamental way. The failure of the human heart can perhaps only be guarded against by social and political change, but this will itself in turn require an inner change in individuals. Perhaps this will arise from culture rather than nature, although the dynamic here is obscure and seems to slide close to a hopeless circularity. But for Cohen hope is fragile. The very culture he sees as having the potential to achieve change is the same one whose moral bankruptcy he lays bare in songs like The Future and First We Take Manhattan.

His performance was spellbinding and absolutely focussed. Cohen is a modernist. He deals in hope and despair, in desire and the collapse of desire. He is looking to find order and value among the chaos and darkness of the world. And he is disciplined: there is not one thing about his performance that is ramshackle or casual. He is the model of composure and poise. He only very occasionally picks up the guitar. Most of the time he is clutching the microphone and delivering his songs with a word perfect intensity. His medium is language and he is exact: he places every word exactly where he wants it, exactly how he wants it. He is precise. The microphone sucks the poetry from his lungs as if it is an eternal ribbon of incontrovertible truth and wraps it around his audience, binds them to him and to one another and, by invoking the absent millions, to the whole of humanity. He conjures solidarity out of the darkness. Perhaps this is his paradigm for the heart opening in a fundamental way. His songs humanise us, at least for the time we spend in his company. We may care for one another a little more from here on in.  But solidarity is fickle and all too likely to melt into the air.

Cohen stalks the stage like a Godfather or a hoodlum. He has always been a poet of the city.  His persona encodes power, knowledge and urbanity. He crouches at times as if there is an invisible weight on his shoulders, like Christ’s invisible cross. Sometimes he looks like an outcast or a plague victim or a figure from a Tarot card, thin and angular. Sometimes he resembles a refugee, sometimes a prisoner of war. Sometimes his body almost makes the shape of a swastika. Sometimes he falls on one knee and beseeches or pleads. He always sings with the hat on, but at the end of each song doffs it to the audience and makes a small bow.  He also occasionally takes it off and bows to a musician in his band after they have played a solo. He introduced his band members several times over during the show. As the waitress said, Leonard likes cheese.

The audience sat reverently. When I found myself singing along I realised I was usually doing so alone. Cohen has an authority and authenticity that seems almost anachronistic nowadays. But let us not be fooled: this is a performance, albeit a consummate one, and a persona is a persona, even if it is a persona he carries with him into his secret and ordinary life.

Towards the end of the show it began to rain. It was almost eleven o’clock and almost dark. The torches around the castle were burning wildly. Cohen ended with another valediction – the danse macabre of Closing Time. I walked back down the Royal Mile in the rain beneath a small umbrella. The lights from the shops of the Old Town glistened on the cobblestones. The crown spire of St Giles Cathedral glowed against the dark sky. I passed the new statue of Adam Smith gazing imperiously down Canongate towards the dark waters of the Forth. This statue was unveiled just a couple of weeks ago.  One newspaper commented that it was a sign of how far society had moved on that this monument to one of Scotland’s greatest sons had been built in such a prominent site. A few years ago, they said, this would have been seen as a political act.  The project was proposed by the Adam Smith Institute. Margaret Thatcher gave it her support. Nothing at all political there, then.

As I returned to the hotel I sang The Future to myself:

            Things are going to slide, slide in all directions                     
            Won’t be nothing
            Nothing you can measure anymore
            The blizzard of the world
            has crossed the threshold
            and it has overturned
            the order of the soul

On Thursday morning I opened the hotel window and leaned on the sill. It was a grey morning over Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat. One or two black-backed gulls sat on the tenement chimneys, which are often pretty much the same colour as their legs. The chimneys stand like rows of soldiers or tins stacked on a supermarket shelf, often ten or twelve in a line, on top of the great tenement stacks. Bare cactus-like shared TV aerials share the skyline with them. Buddleia has found a foothold on many of the high ledges and is blooming now in straggly lilac sprays. I drove south again, taking the old roads where I could and stopping off at Coldingham and St Abb’s to look at some galleries and take in the views over the sea. It was raining most of the way home. When I got back Margaret was at work. The house was full of the smell of onions. The men were working on the Citadel. I walked through the house and opened a window in the conservatory and made myself a cappuccino.

‘So do you want to hear about Leonard Cohen?’ I said to De Kooning. He jumped up beside me and rubbed his head against my shoulder. ‘Or do you want to listen to some monk rock?’ I showed him the CD the Hare Krishna monk boy had sold me.

We sat watching the men on the scaffold and listening to the incessant rumble of their machines. The smell of diesel fumes floated in through the open window and on through the house.

On Friday I returned to work. I spent most of the day in my room, writing reports and replying to emails from those who’d been at work during the strike. At lunchtime I caught Lily and put a fiver on The Angel Gabriel. I was betting with my head. My heart would have gone with the Dalek.


Written by yammering

July 19, 2008 at 1:06 pm

a case of mistaken identity

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There were many suspected sightings of Flinty last weekend. By Monday morning a pattern had emerged to support a widespread belief that he had now settled on a consistent disguise: an Arab. The Arab is a man of about Flinty’s age and build. He wears a white dishdasha, a keffiya and Ray-Bans. He drives an old white Mercedes with a red leather interior.  He has been seen on the estate parked across the street from Mandy’s on at least two occasions, and in the neighbourhood many more times. He was also been seen in Amble on Sunday afternoon, eating chips from the Harbour Chippy with no other than Elephant Carmichael. Standing with Elephant and the Arab were the Fisher boys, infamous as purveyors of dodgy amphetamines and benzos.  By Monday morning the Arab had acquired a mythical identity around the estate: he was Flinty bin Laden.

While the evidence for a fixed identity seems compelling, it needs to be kept in mind that Batman was also spotted twice on the estate last weekend, on both occasions driving a pearly blue P-reg Peugeot 306.  There were also a couple of other curious single sightings of note: on Saturday a Rastafarian in a bronze Citroen BX Estate and on Sunday morning Michael Jackson in a white Fiesta with a black offside wing and a cracked headlight.  There was also an unconfirmed sighting of Robin Hood in a Honda Civic at around teatime on Sunday, although the source of this report is Cheryl Amstrong, a notoriously unreliable witness. It is generally agreed though that none of these individuals was Flinty, but that doesn’t explain the rash of exotic visitors to the estate. There are three plausible explanations for this:

  1. Chance. Despite the statistical odds being long these simultaneous rare visitors are no more than an unlikely coincidence.
  2. Copycat disguising. Flinty has started a craze. Already people are talking about ‘doing a Flinty’, but so far as anyone knows no-one actually has.
  3. Decoys. Flinty has got his mates to dress up to confuse and mislead people. If they can’t all be him maybe none of them is.

The smart money is on the third option. The presence of Flinty bin Laden is now considered an established fact. And while dressing as an Arab doesn’t seem like the most obvious way to avoid drawing attention to himself, remarkably enough he’s never once been pulled over by the police.  Perhaps the decoys are doing their job. Or perhaps they’re mistaking him for Dekka Douglas.

On Wednesday morning Flinty rang Debs to ask about Mandy and the kids. He said he hadn’t heard from her since he came out and was a bit worried. He was just ringing to make sure everything was okay. He was Mr Charm himself, a nicer guy you couldn’t hope to meet. But Debs wasn’t going to let him go without a challenge.

‘People say you’ve been seen hanging around the estate near Mandy’s house.’ she said.

‘People? Which people? Tell me their names.’ Flinty replied.

‘Lots of people, Flinty. I don’t think they’d want me to tell you who they are.’

‘Because they know what would happen if I found out they’d been saying things about me.’

‘A couple of people have said you were across on Saturday afternoon. They say you were disguised as an Arab.’

‘It couldn’t have been me.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I wasn’t there.’

‘Other people say you were there on Monday as well, around teatime.’

‘Do they? So what was I dressed as on that occasion – the Last of the Mohicans?!’

‘No, as an Arab again.’

‘Oh, come on, Debs, do I look like a bloody Arab to you? Tell me who’s saying these things and I’ll go and have a talk to them about it. I think you’ll find what we have here is a case of mistaken identity.’

‘How could you go and talk to them, Flinty? You’re not allowed to cross the Wansbeck.’

‘I’ll ring them, or maybe I’ll get the Elephant to drop in on them to clarify the matter.’

‘Mandy herself thinks you were there on Monday.’

‘Nah, Debs, it couldn’t have been me. I was somewhere else that day. And besides, if the person who was there was dressed as an Arab how would anyone know it was me in any case?!’

‘Because it was an Arab with your face, Flinty.’

‘Nah. It couldn’t have been me. I was with the Elephant in Seaton Delaval seeing a geezer about some DVD’s. Ask the Elephant.  Any way, what kind of car did this Arab have, Debs?’

‘The Arab drives a white Mercedes.’

Flinty laughed, almost theatrically. Then, suddenly, the line fell completely silent.

‘You know I love the lass, Debs,’ he said, ‘and you know she loves me. The kids love me as well, you know they do. I’ve always treated them like my own. So why won’t you lot let us be together? It’s a breach of human rights not to let us be together.’

Debs began to wonder if Flinty had somehow forgotten that he tried to lop off Mandy’s ears with a pair of secateurs. ‘Mandy doesn’t want to be with you, Flinty,’ she said, very deliberately. ‘You know that.  She’s moved on and you need to let her go.’

‘Who says she doesn’t want to be with me?  Does she say that? I bet she doesn’t. Nah, it’s just you and the other busy bodies who say that. If you tell her she can be with me she’ll be back in a shot. Tell you what, Debs, you set up a meeting between me and Mandy – you can be there if you like – and let’s see what she really says.  How about you do that?’

‘No, Flinty. Mandy has a right to get on with her life without having you scare the shit of her.’

‘You reckon?  Yeah, well, time will tell, won’t it?  Tell her I’m asking after her. You can also tell her I’ve seen my brief and my release conditions are going to be changed because they make it impossible for me to follow my usual employment.’

‘What’s your usual employment, Flinty?  You’ve been on the dole as long as I can remember – except when you were locked up, of course.’

‘Scrap. I’ve always dealt in scrap, everybody knows that.’

‘Well, you’ve been convicted of stealing cable, Flinty, but I don’t think that makes you a legitimate businessman.’

‘Look, the law says I’ve got as much right as anybody else to be given a fair chance. That’s all I’m asking for, Debs. Just tell Mandy and the kids I love them. Tell them I’ll see them soon. Okay?’

Debs didn’t reply.

‘Okay. Well, whatever,’ Flinty said. ‘Salaam, Debs.’

Flinty hung up.

‘Cocky bastard,’ Debs said, and logged on to her computer to read her emails.

On Wednesday night it rained heavily. The telephone rang at about six in the morning, and I stumbled to the hall all groggy and tousled and answered it.

‘Hello,’ a quaky, panicky voice said.

‘’Oh, hello, Mrs Middlemiss,’ I said. It was The Widow Middlemiss, as I call her. She lives next door, on the other side from Hugo.

‘Is your garden flooded?’ she said, as if she was stranded. ‘Mine’s under a foot of water. Is yours?’

‘’I don’t know,’ I said. I was a bit bewildered and wondered what I was going to do if it was – mop it up with kitchen roll? ‘Er, I’ll go and check.’

‘It’s terrible,’ she said. ‘It’s run in from the Citadel.’

‘I’ll go and look Mrs Middlemiss. Thanks for ringing,’ I said.

I went into the conservatory, De Kooning traipsing along behind me. The garden was wet but not flooded. I looked out of the side window. Mrs Middlemiss’s garden was indeed under a foot of murky yellow water. Spindly pink lavetera teetered above the flood, like blighted ballerinas.

‘Oh dear,’ I said to myself, and went back to bed.

I went back to sleep and had a vivid, highly anxious dream. We were on an island and a yellow flood was rising all around us. It was gloomy and steam was rising from the water, which was lapping beneath almost luminous double-glazed kitchen and bedroom windows and seeping under white plastic doors. Crocodiles and giant snakes were slithering through the muddy flood and green frogs and brown toads were erupting suddenly out of the depths, like ferocious little missiles. A swan glided eerily across the scene. I was watching all this from the conservatory window. I ran upstairs and threw open the bedroom door. Gordon was there in the centre of a shabby assortment of characters, some of whom I knew but couldn’t identify. On his knee Gordon was nursing a spherical time bomb and gently stroking its smooth surface. Gathered around him were ruddy faced men and women, all gazing in wonderment at the baby in Gordon’s arms. A pale horse was running around; the Widow Middlemiss was its rider. I tried to scream but no sound came out of me. It struck me later that this terrifying bedroom tableau roughly resembled David Wilkie’s painting The Blind Fiddler. The fiddler in my dream version was Tristan, and the man in the red waistcoat was George Bush. For some reason there were a number of traffic cones in the dream too.

As I was sitting in the conservatory on Thursday morning having a cappuccino before I went to work the telephone rang again. I assumed it would be Mrs Middlemiss again and let Margaret answer it. I listened to the news on Radio 4 and ignored the conversation.

‘That was Geraldine,’ Margaret said, when she came back. ‘Edna was flooded last night! She rang Geraldine in the middle of the night, though God knows why. Geraldine did nothing. Typical Geraldine!’ Edna is the first name of the Widow Middlemiss, although not one I ever use since I have never felt I have achieved a sufficient level of intimacy with the woman.

‘She rang us too,’ I said. I forgot to tell you.

Margaret was annoyed. Geraldine had already presumed to ring Griff about the flood.

‘Why didn’t you wake me up?’ Margaret asked.

‘I couldn’t see the point,’ I said. ‘What were you going to do, paddle across and rescue her? The water wasn’t in her house. She wasn’t sitting on the roof with a cow.’ I could see that images from Oh Brother Where Art Thou? were seeping into my brain. I stopped there.

Margaret stomped away to ring Mrs Middlemiss. No doubt she was going to offer her better advice than Geraldine’s. The Widow Middlemiss is about eighty years old, lives alone and has arthritis. She is the kind of accidental victim who has the makings of a cause celebre.

‘You can swim, can’t you?’ I said to De Kooning. He looked at me and then licked his paw and began cleaning his face. He can, but he’d prefer it if he didn’t have to.

On Friday Debs visited Mandy to see how things were going. Mandy told her that Flinty was dressing as an Arab and driving around in an old Mercedes.

‘They call him Flinty bin Laden,’ she said.

Debs said yes, she already knew. Mandy said she hadn’t seen him herself but Mr Zee thinks he saw the white Mercedes on Station Road one afternoon.  Mandy said they weren’t going out much and she felt like a prisoner in her own home.  She said that on Thursday morning there was a small pile of sand on the step in front of her door when she got up. It had appeared there during the night. She thought it was a message from Flinty.

‘Has he rung you any more?’ Debs asked.

Mandy shrugged.

‘We had Yvonne Fair a couple of times last night,’ Mr Zee said. He was sitting on the settee with Sparky, who had a pair of toy binoculars around his neck and a plastic rifle in his arms. As usual Mr Zee was in his full regalia and looking very well turned out.

‘Is that a new mask?’ Debs asked him.

‘Yes, it is,’ he said. ‘I got it over the internet from ZorrStore.com. My old one was getting worn at the edges.’

‘It’s nice,’ Debs said. ‘It’s really, really black.’

‘Thanks,’ Mr Zee said.

Debs was thinking how young and naïve he seemed. She didn’t know how long a young man like him would be able to cope with the situation like this. She didn’t like to think what might happen if Flinty ever got his hands on him.

‘You both need to be careful,’ Debs said. ‘The police say they’re going to keep a look-out for him. They’ll arrest him as soon as they see him.’

Mandy and Mr Zee looked blankly at her and nodded their heads.

‘Has he rung you, Debs?’ Mandy asked.

Debs nodded. ‘Yes. Yes, he has. He rang me to ask if I’d seen you. I told him I had.’

‘So is that all he said?’ Mandy said, frowning.

‘Yes, more or less. Yeah, it was. He said he was living with Elephant. Just chit chat really.’

Debs gave Mr Zee a lift up to the Job Centre. She asked him how he was coping. He said he was fine but he was worried about Mandy and the kids. Sometimes he thinks Mandy is cracking up. He said she was hardly sleeping and she’d been to the doctor’s to get something for her nerves.

‘Do you think he’ll eventually just go away?’ he asked.

Debs shook her head. ‘No, that’s not his style,’ she replied. ‘He won’t go away until they lock him up again. He’s a dangerous bloke, Mr Zee. You need to keep your eyes open.’

Mr Zee in his best brown cape and new black mask thanked Debs for the lift and told her not to worry. He promised her he’d make sure Mandy and the kids would come to no harm.

When Debs got back to the office Jen Larkin from the police rang her. She had some intelligence to share with her.

‘We think Flinty might be dressing up in disguises to cross the Wansbeck,’ Jen said.

‘Never?’ Debs said.

‘Yes, we think so. But we’re not a hundred percent on this one, Debs,’ Jen said. ‘Some lads on patrol thought they had him on Monday when they pulled up a punter dressed as Batman on the Pegswood road, but he turned out to be a bloke from Guidepost on his way to a fancy dress do.’

‘Was he driving a pearly blue Peugeot 306?’ Debs asked.

‘Yes, he was. Do you know him?’

‘No, not really,’ Debs replied. ‘Just a lucky guess.’

This morning Maureen and the Whelp passed our house. They didn’t knock, though. I was disappointed. I had wanted to ask her about the passage in the Book of Revelation which says that three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.

I let De Kooning out into the garden and cut back a few unruly brambles and pulled up a few weeds. Margaret was going off to Brenda’s to pack some orders for despatch tomorrow. It was fine day and forecast to stay dry.

When I went out Mrs Middlemiss was in her front garden, pottering about with her petunias and French marigolds.

‘Hi, Miss Middlemiss,’ I said. ‘Is you back garden okay now?’

‘Oh, wasn’t that just terrible?’ she said. ‘I didn’t know what to do. You must thank Margaret for being so kind to me.’

I will,’ I said. Mrs Middlemiss looked as I imagined Mrs Noah must have looked sometimes. Oddly enough her husband was a stevedore, I believe.

I drove up to Amble and walked up through Warkworth. Amble was bustling with market goers, as usual on a Sunday, but it was quiet along the Coquet. Eider ducks paddled to and fro towing nurseries of little brown chicks. A flock of lapwings swirled overhead at one point, like locusts. Along the river bank the dog roses are becoming ragged, their pale petals falling. The blue vetch is beautiful when it’s in flower, as it is now. I love its weird curling tendrils. They remind me of lyres and millipedes. There were quite a few cars at the castle at Warkworth. I wandered down the hill behind the Sun Inn past the little housing estate they’ve jammed on to the river bank. I saw a heron roosting in a tree on the other side of the river and I sat on a riverside seat eating an apple and watching it for a while.

When I got back into Amble I walked through the path past the marina with a well-spoken man who was on his way to the Co-op. He told me that the big Co-op shop near the church square was closed now and that the building was going to be taken over by Tesco, who were also going to build a superstore with a big car park on another piece of land away from the town centre.

‘Bloody hell,’ I said. ‘What do people think about that?’

‘Most people support it,’ the man said. ‘It’s the car park, you see.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I see.’

I walked around the pier and back past the Harbour Chippy, which as usual had a queue right out the door and around the corner. I was on the lookout for an Arab in a white Mercedes. I didn’t find one, and I saw no sign of the Fisher boys either.


Written by yammering

July 13, 2008 at 10:51 pm

a glimpse of a runaway horse

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A few days ago I was reading somewhere that modernity is a runaway horse. Democracy was the only rein we ever had on it. Unfortunately a jockey can slow a horse down, and the owners don’t want that. Now there’s a ghost in the saddle.

Last week saw another big nasty nail driven into the coffin of democracy – and the protection of the environment – as Gordon slid the new planning laws past the sleeping electorate. It’s true that most of the time all we can do is slow the bulldozers down rather than stop them. But when they’re destroying irreplaceable and precious things, time matters. It’s some consolation to be able to spend a little while longer with things we love before they’re gone forever. Saying goodbye is so heartbreaking. It’s a bit much to expect people to accept these things being whisked away from them overnight.

Speaking of night and things beyond our control, one day last week they were working on the Citadel site well after midnight. The Citizens were understandably incensed. The Council replied there were no restrictions on working at the site, contrary to the impression that both they and Griff had given previously. Just another glimpse of the horse that has no rein.

And of course the Citadel has continued to grow mercilessly. A vast labyrinth of girders and scaffolding has now consumed the skyline from our conservatory. It looms over our gardens and peers down into our bedrooms and kitchens. Its size is far greater than were ever led to expect. There is no doubt that the Council and their partners in this project – by which I mean the egregious Griff and the parcel of rogues he sups with – seriously and systematically misled the residents about this. The structure is now far closer to us than it was a fortnight ago and its shadow falls across our house even earlier in the evening than I thought it might. We are losing more than an hour’s sun every evening. And because the Citadel has consumed the entire horizon we must now accept that every night the sun will be swallowed by it. This brutal, intrusive monument to ruthless privatisation will look down upon us for as long as we live here. We have lost so much more than we were ever told we would. We have lost peace and quiet, privacy, the sun in the evening, the darkness at night, the sky above the garden fence. I suspect we still don’t know how much we will lose in the end. And just as they never warned us it would be like this, never once have Griff or his partners acknowledged the scale or depth of our loss. They probably never will. It’s a disgrace they might have to pay out for if they did.

One evening this week Hugo in checked shirt and baggy jeans stood up on the boards around his pond, three ducks at his feet, elbows leaning on the top of his fence. He was gazing out at the Citadel. For the first time it seemed to me he was feeling the weight of its inescapable presence. He looked reflective, even despondent. I stood in the conservatory with De Kooning in my arms watching him. Margaret came in and I asked her how the Citizen’s struggle was doing.

She shook her head. ‘It’s like walking through treacle,’ she said. ‘They just take all the fight out of you.’

She looked despondent too.

‘You’re not giving up, are you?’ I said.

She shrugged her shoulders. She said she wasn’t but she was beginning to wonder what the point was now. Hugo was still leaning against his fence, his pond pump gurgling behind him.

‘At least the slippers are selling,’ I said, trying to cheer her up.

She smiled half-heartedly and remembered she needed to ring Brenda about something.

Flinty was released from prison at the beginning of last week and has already wreaked havoc. One of his license conditions was that he must reside in Bedlington and is not allowed to enter the area north of the Wansbeck. However he is dressing up in various disguises and using various borrowed cars to enter the area and settle old scores, make drug deals and worry Mandy. Last Tuesday – the day after his release – he dressed up as Felix the Cat and drove north in a clapped out green Datsun to do a deal on some cowies with Black Peter from Newbiggin. Deal done it seems he made his way to Lynemouth and kicked seven bells out of Dekka Douglas for allegedly grassing him up to the police and getting him sent down. Dekka is undoubtedly a police informant and as a result appears to live a charmed life. It’s said he’s been involved in everything from armed robbery to GBH and money laundering but has never yet been charged with anything more serious than having a broken stop light. Dekka seems untouchable, although Flinty proved that this isn’t literally true. Ironically Dekka seems blameless on this occasion. The grass was Elephant Carmichael, Flinty’s best mate. Flinty is currently staying with Elephant until he can find somewhere else, and the word is that it was Elephant who pointed Flinty in Dekka’s direction.  Dekka isn’t likely to point out Flinty’s mistake, of course: Flinty sees Elephant as his blood brother and besides Elephant is every bit as psychopathic as Flinty only three times his weight and twice as ugly. Dekka probably took the view that a hammering from Flinty was preferable to being mangled by the Elephant.

On Wednesday Flinty came over dressed as Bjorn Borg, wearing a blond wig, headband and tennis gear. He was probably inspired by Wimbledon. His vehicle that day was a red Toyota 4×4 pick-up, courtesy of Elephant’s cousin. At some point during the afternoon he turned up outside Mandy’s door.  Just before tea Mr Zee came out to go to the corner shop to get some milk.  Flinty seeing this jumped out of the Toyota and began to approach him. Mr Zee at first thought he was just any other man dressed for tennis, not a common site on the estate although not entirely implausible. However when this Bjorn Borg lookalike began to call him unsavoury names and to gallop towards him, Mr Zee realised who he was lurking behind the headband. He made off up the street, showing a surprising turn of speed for a man wearing knee length boots and a brown cape. It may be that Flinty is out of condition following his period of incarceration, because despite the obvious advantages of plimsolls and shorts he was unable to keep up with Mr Zee and quickly gave up the chase. He then swaggered back to the red pick-up and stood beside it in his white shorts, one hand resting on the bonnet, getting his breath back and glaring belligerently at Mandy’s door.  For whatever reason he obviously thought that discretion was the better part of valour on this occasion, however, and quickly made his way back south to Elephant’s. That evening Mandy received many strange phone calls, all from number withhelds. Some of these phone calls were completely silent, but on all the others Yvonne Fair’s recording of It Should Have Been Me was playing in the background. It is Flinty’s favourite song.

On Thursday Mandy, Mr Zee and the kids came into the office. They were requesting help with a house move to another area. Debs suggested they needed to inform the police about Flinty’s behaviour as he was in breach of his release conditions.  Mandy had done so, but the police felt that the evidence – Mr Zee being chased by Bjorn Borg, and a dozen dodgy phone calls from an Yvonne Fair fan – wasn’t enough to act on, even though they said they knew ‘with one hundred percent certainty’ that Flinty was responsible. ‘Perhaps this was because Elephant Carmichael has told them so’, Debs suggested.

The weekend was quiet, but on Monday Flinty went up to Amble to do a deal on some crack cocaine. He was dressed as a surfer – wet suit and Oakley’s on his head – and driving an old VW camper van. On his way back he parked up opposite Mandy’s for a couple of hours. Sparky spotted ‘the scary frogman’ from the window.  He went away about teatime, abandoning the camper van on the spine road when it broke down. That night Mandy received five further unsolicited telephone renditions of Yvonne Fair’s brash anthem.

On Tuesday morning Mandy came into the office to talk to Debs. She said she was thinking about going back to Flinty.

‘I thought you loved Mr Zee,’ Debs said.

‘I do,’ Mandy said. ‘But Flinty will murder him if he doesn’t get me back.’

‘But Mandy the kids love Mr Zee, don’t they? And they’re shit scared of Flinty, aren’t they?’

‘Yes, I know, I know.  But he won’t let me go, Debs. He really will kill me too if I don’t go back to him. You don’t know him like I do.’

‘Does Mr Zee want you to go back to Flinty?’

‘No. He says I shouldn’t do that. He says he’ll stay with me no matter what. But he’s scared, Debs, I can tell. He’s terrified in fact, I know he is.’

Debs shook her head. ‘I’ll ring the police again,’ she said. ‘You need to see this through for the sake of kids. But you all need protection. I’ll see what I can do.’

Debs rang the police who accepted that Flinty probably was ‘making a nuisance of himself’, as they put it, but that without clear evidence that it was him and that he’d crossed north of the Wansbeck and that he was actually intimidating Mandy there wasn’t a lot they could do. They said they’d alert the local Bobby and ask the patrol car to be aware of the address. Besides the odd musical phone call in the middle of the night things have been quiet since then. But Flinty won’t go away, we all know that. It’s only a matter of time.

I interviewed Hermann Evans last week. He was a great disappointment. Far from being the unapologetic absurdist anti-hero I was hoping he might be, he quickly turned out to be a blubbering Bavarian baby.  I was looking forward to the delights of a conversation with a Teutonic Dadaist. I got a man on his knees, a man who saw himself as a complete victim, and who, between the sobbing, while never admitting to saying anything whatsoever, said that whatever he did it was just in fun and he had been misunderstood. In short Hermann thought that senior managers must hate him for reasons not known to him or to me, and that my whole investigation was a shabby attempt to bring him down. 

I abandoned the interview because of his distress and suggested he needed to go and see his doctor. He didn’t seem to me a well man. Interestingly enough it seems the distraught Hermann remembers the real names of people much better than his bold unsuspended counterpart. In this too he was an immense disappointment to me. I only hope that when we meet again he shows a little more spirit. I want to hear about Freddie Faust and the mysterious Mr Ferret, Brunhilda and Gay Goldilocks.

It rained again today. I went into the garden this evening with De Kooning while Margaret was cooking some onions and potatoes. A hedgehog wandered around the border for a while. The damp air was heady and thick with the swoony scent of stocks and pinks.  The yellow lily too is beginning to bloom in the grey evening. We went in and left the hedgehog to go about his business while he can.


Written by yammering

July 6, 2008 at 9:19 pm