yammering

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Archive for August 2008

white heather and the widow’s life plan

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The Widow Middlemiss has gone to Derby to stay with her brother for a while. She left on the day before I returned from Fort William. While the Widow is undoubtedly old and vulnerable,  somewhat isolated, and doesn’t have a good support network, the received narrative around her departure identifies the stress of the Citadel construction process as the key precipitating factor in her decision to go.  A number of interventions were deployed to try to avert this eventuality. Unfortunately none of these succeeded in making life tolerable for the Widow. Margaret says the outcome is “an absolute crying shame”.

The weather hasn’t been dry but there have been no further floods. Although there were no further sightings nor sounds of slimy google-eyed harbingers of the apocalypse, Maureen assured the Widow that they would still be there. It was a sign of the kind that surely should not be ignored. The Widow may be old but she’s no fool. Once she’d recovered her poise she remembered that frogs can vanish as quickly as they come and that their appearance isn’t always a portent of the Final Days. It was nevertheless clear to Margaret that the Widow’s predicament was dire and that she would benefit from expert support. She asked Brenda if she’d be prepared to see the Widow and offer some advice on a life coaching basis. Brenda agreed and in due course the Widow went south. I would have done the same, I think.

My holiday continued after my return. I’ve done some walking and painting. One day I drove to Kielder village and from there walked up Deadwater Fell and over to Peel Fell and from there along the border line to the Kielder Stone. The air was benign and close, clammy, flavoured with the soft, elusive, feminine scent of ling. It was a dull day and I saw only one other person between leaving the car park and returning. The Stone stood like an impenetrable, silent temple, a geological installation among the remote acres of purple heather. It’s said that in the days of border conflict and strife the stone was a sort of post box and reivers would leave messages for one another there. Those were the days when these were the so-called Debatable Lands. It hadn’t yet been settled whether they were part of Scotland or part of England. The ambiguity intrigues me and gives these moors a very particular atmosphere. Borderlands are in any case always psychologically interesting. The liminality is almost palpable. It seems to haunt the place and to somehow permeate your flesh. It’s as if you’re being watched in a place where you’re certain there is no another living person but you. It’s as if the earth and weather are the eternal wardens of this place. It’s as if you’re being X-rayed by history. Leaving messages at the Kielder Stone must have been like sending a message up the chimney to Santa, I thought. It seemed to me that it must have been an almost metaphysical gesture, although no doubt this perception reflects a radical failure in my historical imagination.

It was as I was descending that I met the only other person on those hills that day. I was crossing the heather on Ravenshill Moor. He was a middle-aged man with an old-fashioned look about him. He wasn’t wearing modern walking gear like me – North Face shorts, Berghaus technical top, lightweight walking boots, sunglasses, rucksack, floppy khaki sun hat. He wore corduroy trousers, stout shoes, a tweed jacket and a flat cap. He had two well-behaved black labradors with him. He stood to one side as I approached him. We had the usual conversation about the weather and I stroked his dogs as they checked me out. I commented to him how quiet it was up there that day and how the heather was so beautiful this year.

‘People don’t know what they’re missing out on, do they?’ I said.

‘Have you ever seen white heather up here?’ He asked me.

‘Up here?’ I replied, looking around at the sea of purple and shaking my head. ‘No, never.’ I assumed that he was guy who’d come looking for it and was about to suggest that his search was futile, when from inside his jacket he produced a bunch of white heather.

‘Did you find that up here?’ I asked, a little amazed.

‘Oh aye,’ he said. ‘I came across this clump of it last year and I wondered if it was still here. It was.’

The man then broke off a couple of sprigs and gave them to me.

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I’ll put the lottery on tonight. If I win I’ll share my winnings with you!’

I wandered off down the hill and back towards the forest, grasping my sprig of white heather. I began to think about what I might want to come out of any good luck that came my way. I was already spending my lottery winnings, metaphorically speaking. I wondered how someone who puts as little credence as I do in such irrational beliefs could find himself doing this. It’s said of the Kielder Stone  that those who think they are unlucky should walk around it three times against the sun and that this will improve their fortune.  I hadn’t done that, of course, but I suddenly began to wonder if I shouldn’t be making my way back up there. A man’s luck is something he needs to work at assiduously.  White heather is probably one of those things that is considered lucky just because it’s so unusual to find it. The lucky part is that you should find it at all. There is inevitably a legend to account for its powers too, of course, and it’s one I remembered vaguely as I went down into the sharp scented conifers. Later I checked it out on the internet. 

A long time ago in Scotland  there was a famous poet called Ossian and he had a daughter called Malvina. It is said she was truly beautiful and had a sweet nature. A strong and handsome warrior called Oscar fell in love with her. They planned to marry, but before they did Oscar went off in search of fame and fortune, as any man would in those days. Malvina longed night and day for his return and often talked to her father about how much she loved her brave husband to be. One fine day in late August Ossian and Malvina were sitting together on the mountainside when a ragged messenger staggered towards them. He brought the sad news that Oscar had been killed in battle. The messenger was carrying a spray of purple heather. He said it was a last gift from her beloved. The ragged messenger told her that Oscar had died whispering her name and swearing his love for her. Distraught with grief Malvina ran out over the hillside, weeping inconsolably. Where Malvina’s tears fell the purple heather turned pure white. When she saw this, or so the story goes, she said “May this white heather forever bring good fortune to all those who find it”. White heather marks a place where the tears of the poet’s daughter fell. White heather is a sign of a special felicity, a place where nature and human narrative coalesce into simple poetic remembrance.

When I got home I let De Kooning have a sniff of my sprig of white heather and then put it to stand in a glass of clear water. I could see De Kooning was already wishing for prawns. As it happened he was about to get lucky too, because that was exactly what I had for him in the fridge.

A couple of days later Margaret was cooking a big pan of onions for herself. I was sitting in the conservatory reading and drinking a cappuccino. As I was ‘doing nothing’ in Margaret’s terms she asked me to take a box of slippers to Brenda’s.

I drove along the beach road and up through Seaton Sluice. At the Delaval Arms at the top of the hill a group of cyclists were sitting out in the hazy sun. The Delaval Arms is a large white iconic building at the border of Northumberland and North Tyneside. It enjoys excellent views. Inevitably some property developer has got his hands on it and wants to knock it down and replace it with yet more housing. It may be what Gordon wants, but Seaton Sluice will be a good deal less interesting and attractive if the Delaval Arms is lost. It announces the village – and the county – from the south and gives the place a lot of its character. The landscape and the place will be a lot poorer if this building is lost.

Brenda opened her door and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

‘Ooh!’ she said. ‘Is this a little pressie for me? Is this what you’ve brought me back from Scotland?!’

I laughed half-heartedly. ‘You should be so lucky,’ I said, staggered into her hall with the large cardboard box and put it down. She asked me if I would like a coffee, but I said I’d just had one.

‘How’s your neighbour?’ Brenda said. ‘Very sad case.’

‘Mrs Middlemiss? She’s still in Derby, I think,’ I replied.

‘Things happen for a reason, you know. I truly believe that. I did a piece of work with that lady, you know. A consultation. The crisis in her life brought us together. And you know, it was clear to me almost immediately that here was a lady who really had no clear life plan at all. I knew I could help her.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘she is about eighty years old? I guess it’s probably okay not to have a life plan at that age. She probably just takes each day as it comes.’

‘No.’ Brenda corrected me, abruptly. ‘It isn’t. Our happiness depends upon a life plan. No life plan and unhappiness is virtually unavoidable. We must each one of us have a life plan for as long as we are on this earth. A life plan is the true foundation of our well being.’

I nodded. ‘Yes, I know,’ I said. ‘I guess I’m just a miserable sod, eh, Brenda?’

‘By the way, did Margaret tell you that we are expanding the range of products we will offer on eBay? We felt that the slipper market was perhaps a little too seasonal.’

‘Oh?’ I said. ‘So what else are you going to sell?’

‘Sunglasses.’

‘Good idea,’ I said. ‘So what are you going to call yourselves now – Slippers and Shades?’

‘No. No, that wouldn’t hit the right note. No, Margaret and I have given this a good deal of thought and we’ve decided that henceforth we will trade as The Slippers and Sunglasses Shop.’

‘Yes, that’s good,’ I said. ‘Best not to confuse the customers, eh? How’s Tristan, by the way?’

‘Tristan? Tristan’s fine. He’s fitting an en-suite today for a lady in Tynemouth. A lovely big house on Percy Park, he tells me.’

‘Give him my regards,’ I said. Brenda said she would and I left. I drove back along slowly, listening to Radio Four.

Later that day I began a painting of the Kielder Stone. I’m doing it in acrylics on a big square canvas. I’ve placed the stone fairly low in the canvas. I want to make it seem massive and inscrutable and to evoke in it a feeling of stoicism and isolation. I want it to sit beneath a huge omnipotent sky, restless, full of movement and power. I want to explore the emotional possibilities of this landscape. I’m not very interested in making the scene immediately recognisable. A painting isn’t a postcard.

I worked quickly with a big brush, trying to find for the sky a rhythm of the kind that might mesmerise or enchant a stone like this, as if enchantment was perhaps the cause of it massive stillness, its inexplicable composure. I underpainted the sky roughly with oranges and browns and then slapped various blues, greys and whites over them in free choppy strokes, the lemon yellow smear of a misshapen sun. The more movement I put into the sky the more the stone seemed to be fixed and immovable. At the same time it just seemed to become blacker and blacker. Around the stone with a smaller flat brush I dabbed in the clumpy moor. I painted it in pinks at first. I wanted to avoid the obvious purple. And then I added a new layer: titanium white. The painting is veering towards the monochromatic. But I like it. And I like the idea that the stone stands in the middle of a whole moor of white heather. I mean, I ask you: what are the chances of that?

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Written by yammering

August 31, 2008 at 8:13 pm

some memories of alice and bill

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‘Excuse me, mate, can you spare some change?’ The balding middle-aged man in a winter coat had a Cockney accent. He was sitting against the whitewashed wall in the subway between the railway station and the High Street. It was the same guy who the day before sold me a copy of The Big Issue beside Lochaber House. I ignored him this time.

Fort William – An Gearasdan in Gaelic, as the road signs north and west of Crianlarich always remind us – wears its problems on its face. The biggest town in the Highlands – ten thousand people, a port and an industrial town (aluminium etc) – it has a fair number of manual workers. It also has deprivation of a kind the single linear shopping district of the High Street cannot conceal. Although you’re sometimes hard pushed to be sure who is a tourist and who isn’t, the lack of truly high order shops and the obvious presence of a number of distinctly low order ones tell you that the invisible poor are here somewhere. At first glance of course you’d wonder where they actually lived. Certainly not in the long line of pleasing residences (many of them B & B’s or small hotels now) that line the main road into town. The poor in fact are tucked away in housing estates elsewhere – about a quarter of the population live in houses rented from the local authority – most notably in The Plantation, an estate which lurks out of sight above and behind the High Street. In Scottish government terms this area is identified as ‘severely deprived’.

Tourism is obviously crucial to Fort William’s economy. And yet it seems to be struggling to transform itself into a modern tourist destination, its solitary ribbon of a high street and the nagging presence of its poor conspiring with its remoteness and relative smallness to make this transformation problematic. It isn’t Edinburgh. It can’t throw up the same kind of impermeable enchanting façade and it isn’t big enough not to be dragged down by its blemishes.

One evening I ate in one of the pubs on the High Street, pub grub being hard to avoid in this town. I was browsing through the menu when the waitress came over and asked me if I was ready to order.

‘I’m a vegetarian,’ I said. ‘I guess it’ll be the mushroom stroganoff.’

She laughed. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we do plough a rather narrow nutritional furrow in these parts, don’t we?’

She was a striking woman of perhaps forty or forty five. She had red hair and her eyes were sparkling, playful and as blue as porcelain. Her name was Alice McTavish. She knew Newcastle and guessed that I came from around there. She told me she went to university in Edinburgh – to do biochemistry, she told me later – but had dropped out to work as a dancer for a while. Later she worked in hotels and restaurants in London and Liverpool before returning to Fort William to look after her disabled mother who suffered a stroke a few years ago, a random event of the kind that shapes all our lives. Alice works now as a waitress during the tourist season only, mostly just to keep in touch with the world, she says.

‘I used to work in McTavish’s, the restaurant,’ she said. ‘No relation!’

‘Where is it?’ I asked.

‘It used to be in that space next to the Grand Hotel at the bottom of the street. It burnt down a couple of years back.’

‘Oh, I’ve noticed that space,’ I said. ‘Aren’t they going to put some new shops there?’ The Grand Hotel is a bland concrete building. It’s now boarded up. Like the hotel next door to it – which is larger and still a going concern – it seems to be a sort of relic of the bus tours of the Scottish Highlands, which I imagine must have been a really big thing in the 1960’s and seventies and which you still sometimes see advertised in provincial newspapers. Although the bus tours are still going – nowadays they seem to bring in mostly the elderly or the less affluent from the industrial areas of northern England – they increasingly seem to be an anachronism, and ironically perhaps yet another albatross around the neck of a town that dreams of becoming a modern holiday attraction.

‘So what would you like to see them put in the space where the restaurant used to be?’ I asked.

‘Oh, something up-market would be nice,’ Alice said. ‘We could do with that. Maybe a nice clothes shop, maybe a Marks and Sparks. Maybe a jewellers and a nice wee art gallery. A Starbucks and a wee piazza. A good Italian restaurant. We could do with a bit culture around here.’

‘Whisky, bagpipes, shortbread and tartan is culture, Alice,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it?’

‘It is, and I love it, of course. But even up here we sometimes hanker after modern things too, you know.’

Alice’s clothes were in fact very modern and fashionable – indigo, green and ivory, cotton and linen. She wouldn’t have looked out of place in Edinburgh or London. I commented on this.

‘Aye, but I didn’t get these at Mc&Co!’ she said. Mc&Co is a somewhat old-fashioned and down market but reasonably respectable clothing shop which occupies part of the Lochaber House complex. There is a branch in Ashington too. Their demographic, as they say, appears to be broadly the rather less affluent social groups.

‘So where do you go to shop?’ I asked. ‘Stirling? Glasgow? Inverness?’

‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘I get my stuff over the internet. I got these things from Monsoon and Debenhams.’

‘So you don’t really need an actual shop, do you? You can be thoroughly modern no matter where you live.’

‘Ah, but it’s not the same, is it? A lassie likes to see what it is she’s buying, you know, to try a few things on and all that.’

‘Hmmm. But why would Marks and Sparks put a shop here? Where would they get their customers from?’

‘Well, the tourists would buy stuff too. They’d get a lot of passing trade.’

This is oddly enough true. Even though most tourists would be able to get the same top or skirt in a branch of a chain shop close to home, it somehow becomes a different garment if it’s bought on holiday, especially if it’s in Scotland. On holiday we lose our spending inhibitions. We temporarily enter a different life-world, a parenthetical life-world of sorts. And things bought in Scotland are in any case mysteriously different. The spirit of Scotland inhabits them and gives them a special value, a magical aura. Place matters. It makes things what they are. It reconstructs everything, be it the book you read or a pop song you hear every day on the radio, an encounter with an otter or a brief love affair. Place makes transcendent souvenirs of certain memories. They become a part of the core of what we are.

‘Aye, but there’d be no customers in the winter,’ I said. ‘There’s the rub.’

Alice nodded. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I know. Thank God for the internet, eh?!’

Towards the end of the week I caught the steam train to Mallaig. As we chugged along the forty odd miles through some of the wildest and most beautiful landscape you could wish to see I found myself musing about modernity and the marketing of Scotland, the product, and the inescapability of me being a consumer of that product. Scotland is all rugged mountains, huge skies and vast stretches of water, Scotland is tradition and history, and it’s easy to imagine that going to Scotland represents a radical escape from modernity and consumerism. But there is nothing accidental or unmediated about the experience. I come to Scotland to consume what I imagine is nature and the tradition of a harmonious, sustainable relationship with the natural environment.  Scotland in my mind is solid and real, the model of a good way of life. I come to Scotland to confirm a construct I already have of what this place is. I come here to find what I know is here. It’s a reassuring game and we all play it. The modernity is in the process, a process that transforms the substance of the world. The ancient is made new; the new is made ancient. I have come to collect a product I bought somewhere else.

Modernity rests on layers of deception, none of them final. It is an onion without a core. It asserts as axiomatic that the new is better than the old. But it also says that nothing is ever good enough, that everything can be improved upon. It rests upon an induced endemic sense of dissatisfaction. We are persuaded to desire things we will very soon be persuaded to reject.  The layers get more pernicious and bitter as we peel them back. We are persuaded next that the products of the restless new world are more than mere things, that what we are is nothing less than the constellation of what we have or consume. We are what we consume and we are also therefore that which we desire to consume. We are what we want. This anguished sense of entitlement turns wants into needs. But despite this overwhelming urgency we will not want these things for long. Indeed this fuels the urgency, since we must have the thing we want while it is worth having and we know that this value won’t last, that the shelf life of all things is limited. Modernity tells us we cannot and should not wait, because we are incomplete until we get the things we want. Soon we will be incomplete because of our association with these very same things. We live in a world where we love ourselves today in the clear knowledge that tomorrow we are likely to dislike ourselves. Soon our being will depend upon the next new thing. Modernity is a ruthless façade.

Modernity has no scruples and is endlessly flexible. The same thing can be sold twice. Modernity encompasses every deception. The traditional can be consumed as voraciously as the novel. The classic car, the country house, the work of art, the antique, the retro, the repro, the replica . . . There’s a market for anything.  And while there are things that can be harvested many times there are others that can only decay. Modernity is cheap, because everything is made to be replaced.

When I got back I came through the subway again. On that day a girl was busking there. She had a good voice and played guitar with some grace. She was singing a song in Gaelic. She wore scuffed maroon calf-length lace up boots with gaping holes in the toes and had long, somewhat lank hair. I threw a pound coin into her guitar case.

I walked down past Lochaber House and took a photograph of it. It looks to me like another product of the 1960’s wave of modernisation in these parts. The simple virtues of concrete must have been very seductive in those days. The building now lacks any discernible architectural grace, resembling a giant breeze block, hollowed out so that termites can labour perpetually within its dank grey carcase. Surely no-one could have designed or constructed such a building with the idea that it might endure and be regarded as in some way beautiful. It’s as if it was constructed on the functional principle that it will never be loved and therefore no-one will cry a tear over its inevitable demolition in the relatively near future. It’s a version of modernity that seems crude and ugly to us now, which is not to say of course that it may not have represented political aims a good deal more progressive and egalitarian than those that drive the current relentless rise of the shopping mall, the foundation hospital and the academy school.

We are accomplices in the promotion of a pernicious Panglossian delusion. Appearance is everything. Facebook, facelifts and facades.  The good is what looks good. Over the road from Lochaber House stands the building that houses the Royal Bank of Scotland, a solid construction of grey and pink stone, built in 1911. It reminded me of a seashell in its deceptively delicate intricacy. It embodies a sense of concern about beauty and design. Inside it I imagined bankers and cashiers and clerks would be going about their business like a scrupulous community of hermit crabs. Here we have modernity deploying the traditional to give a sense of something enduring and secure, the sort of place you’d be convinced your money is safe and will be put to work in the pursuit of decency, fairness and a responsible society. The sort of place you can trust. Here, we imagine, is a brand which is taking Scotland and the values it represents to the rest of the world. We somehow allow ourselves to be convinced that by becoming the customers of such a company we are investing in a world that is stable, solid and beautiful. This appearance is more or less the polar opposite of the reality, of course. The Royal Bank of Scotland identifies itself as The Oil & Gas Bank. Globally they finance projects that have in total more carbon emissions that Scotland itself. They are up to their sporrans in dirty work from the Amazon to Angola. Modernity occupies tradition in the way that some wasps occupy the living bodies of caterpillars by laying eggs in them; tradition is a paralysed, helpless host. I photographed the RBS building too, and then the Tesco Express building not far from it, another uninspiring concrete block.

As I was putting my camera back in my rucksack Alice came by. I told her about my day. We agreed that Glenfinnan station was very quaint and interesting. Alice was on her way to work. I told her I was leaving in the morning but I hoped to be back before too long. I asked her how her mother was and she told me she was fine. We walked together up the High Street. The cockney guy was near the tourist information centre. He was selling The Big Issue with another bloke who was also from the south of England.

Later that evening I walked alone down to the shore of Loch Linnhe and for a while watched the oyster catchers, herring gulls and hooded crows foraging on the shore.  A common seal occasionally popped its head up out of the water as it went about the business of finding fish to eat. The following morning I drove south, through Glen Coe, past Loch Lomond and Glasgow and down the motorway to Carlisle. I listened to the radio for a while. I followed the A69 east for a while and then took the military road along Hadrian’s Wall. It was supposed to rain. It didn’t though. I was looking forward to seeing De Kooning and hoped that he was well. And as it turned out he was.

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Written by yammering

August 20, 2008 at 9:36 pm

between gauntanamo and the grey corries

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Most of the day I’ve been trying to get things in order at the office before I go off on holiday. The truth is that this is a virtually impossible task. The most that can be done is to lift down or push back those things that are teetering on the brinks of the highest shelves so that they won’t fall while you’re away. This task was done with a mixture of hopeful determination and resentment.  But I was constantly prone to a lack of concentration. Already my heart was in the Grey Corries where space itself shrieks and sobs, whispers, breathes and yammers. Where shadows plunge into impossible, unimaginable abysses, where ridges and outcrops leap and glower among dark and ragged skies. The thought of those places made it hard for me to tidy my desk.

Gilmour rang me in a panic earlier in the week. The press had picked up on the discussions on Metro radio. The Journal and the Daily Mail had both been in touch asking what we knew about the Flinties and what we were doing about them.

‘These aren’t Moslem kids, are they?’ Gilmour asked, almost pleading.

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s not clear that they have any religious affiliations at all, in fact. They’re just a bunch of kids running around in pillow cases.’

‘So what’s this throwing aeroplanes at people’s houses about?’

I told him the tale of Flinty’s return and how he’d become a sort of folk hero and spawned this daft craze. I told him about Batman and Bob Marley too.

‘Okay, so what are we doing about it?’ he said.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘What should we be doing, confiscating the pillowcases?’

‘Well, no. But we’ve got some scared people out there. We do need to do something. Or at least we need to seem to do something.’

‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘Incarcerate them in a pillowcase camp, set up a mini Gauntanamo behind the Woodhorn Museum? Get a bit of extraordinary rendition going and ship them off to Middlesbrough?’

‘What about getting some youth workers down there or setting up some activities and play schemes? Perhaps we need to put in some support for parents – educational input and parenting courses. And we need to think about the victims. I’ll speak to adult services. We need to see if we can get some counselling for anyone who’s been traumatized by these young people’s activities. I’ll speak to the police and see if we can get extra patrols in hot spots. We need more police presence in the community, some good old-fashioned Bobbies on the beat. We need to be talking about getting more CCTV on these estates. People need to feel secure. We need to take the lead here. We need to coordinate a full multi-agency response. We’ll see if we can get housing on board. Maybe they can do something about some of these families under the anti-social legislation. I wonder if we should be talking to church leaders too? What do you think?’

What I thought was that he might be over-reacting just a bit. What I thought was that kid will be kids.  What I thought was that Flinty was the only real risk to anyone here and it would be helpful if he was arrested. But I somehow doubted that this was what Gilmour wanted to tell the press. He had gone into full shock and awe mode. I wondered how long it would be before we considered the Guantanamo option.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘What about the funding?’

‘Oh, I’m sure the money will be there for this one. Listen, this sounds good to me. I’ll get on to the press office. We’ll say we’re aware of this problem and we’re on to it, but that we’re sure these young people do not pose any threat to the general public. We’ll say we’re working with the community to find solutions and putting in specialist workers to help these children and their families. We’ll say there’s no evidence that these young people are in any way involved with Moslem groups.’ He paused for a moment. ‘No,’ he went on, ‘I’ll leave that bit out. But we’ll set up a help line. What about using your team to man it?’

‘No chance,’ I said. ‘We’re run off our feet. And anyway, what would we say to anyone who rang? And why do we want them to think we can do anything in any case?’

‘Hmmm,’ Gilmour said. ‘Okay, no help line. Okay. That’s fine. Anyhow, how you doing, my boy? How’s your dad?’

‘Oh, he’s fine. Still working in the boiler room, you know. Yours?’

‘He’s very well, thanks. Absolutely tickety boo. Did I tell you my lad’s driving the quad now?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think you did. Your daughter’s got a dappled horse too, hasn’t she?’

‘She has, yes. Beautiful beast.’

‘And the horse isn’t bad either, eh?’

Gilmour chuckled.

‘Have you had your holidays yet?’ I asked.

‘Not yet, no. We’re off to Provence again in a couple of weeks. You?’

‘I’m off to Scotland next week to do some walking. I’m looking forward to it.’

Gilmour bid me farewell and went off to speak to Public Relations. Just after he hung up Michelle told me there had been another sighting of Captain Hook. He was walking along Pont Street eating a bag of chips. It’s said he has a slight limp, as if he’s hurt his left foot.

I’ll be leaving for Fort William tomorrow morning. After tea tonight I carried De Kooning out into the garden and we gazed together at the Citadel. They’re putting the concrete floors in now and the huge aluminium window frames.

‘Watch what you’re doing while I’m gone,’ I said to him. ‘Don’t you go wandering over there, okay?’

He laid his head against my arm for a moment. I’ll miss him while I’m away, I always do.

We went inside and I began to get together the things I’m taking with me. I like to take a small selection of CD’s and a book or two. I decided to take the latest albums by Eliza Carthy and Meg Baird, both of which are excellent, as well as The Essential Leonard Cohen. I’ll take my book on Scottish art to read, along with a couple of books of poems by Kathleen Jamie. Tomorrow I’ll travel north. On Sunday I hope I’ll walk the Grey Corries again.

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Written by yammering

August 8, 2008 at 9:47 pm

of frogs and flip flops and moral panic

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The Widow Middlemiss has an intermittent plague of frogs. On two occasions since the latest flood she has found one in her utility room. She fears there are many more there and sometimes she lies awake at night thinking she’s heard croaking in her house. According to Margaret our elderly neighbour is a ‘quaking wreck’ and fears her house will be overrun by ‘slimy creatures’. Margaret says it’s a disgrace that this can happen to a woman of the Widow’s age in a modern society. Although she left the question open, I don’t think that in saying this she intends to imply that it would be acceptable for younger women or for men to have to endure such a plague, or even that in a bygone age this would have been a reasonable fate. Last week she wrote letters on the Widow’s behalf to the council and Griff asking who would take responsibility for this “sudden, unpleasant and alarming infestation of amphibians”. She hasn’t yet had a reply.  I did notice last Sunday, however, that Maureen and the Whelp knocked at the Widow’s door and that she invited them in. God knows now what she’ll make of this manifestation of frogs. Margaret may well have wasted her time writing the letters.

Margaret has been somewhat downcast in recent days. It seems that the sales of slippers haven’t been going as well as they’d hoped. 

‘Brenda wonders if we shouldn’t be more up-market,’ she said.

‘Maybe,’ I said.  ‘Or maybe the product’s fine but you’re trying to sell them at the wrong time of the year. Slippers are like mittens, I think – you won’t sell many in the summer but they fly off the shelves when the frost comes. Perhaps you should have a summer product to cover the slipper off-season.’

‘That’s a good point,’ she said. ‘Oddly sensible for you. What should our complementary line be?’

‘What about sandals and beach shoes?  You could rebrand yourselves as Slip Slops and Flip Flops.’

‘Sandals, eh?’

‘Or what about swimming gear. You could become Slippers and Flippers.  Brenda would be the flippers, of course.’

Margaret gave me a raised eyebrows look. ‘This is a serious business to us,’ she said. ‘Not everything in life is a joke, you know.’

I nodded. She is probably right. But I wonder if there is anything in life that doesn’t have the potential to be a joke. I suspected this wasn’t a debate Margaret was up for.

‘How are your teeth?’ I asked.

‘They’re fine. Why do you ask?’

‘Just wondering,’ I said.

Both Captain Hook and The Man With No Name made a return appearance this week, a week marked by the absence of any new characters. The Arab was seen on a handful of occasions, notably with Elephant Carmichael in the white Mercedes at Coulson Park filling station. They put in thirty pounds of unleaded and bought two packets of Walkers ready salted, a pack of Tic Tacs and a copy of the Daily Star. From there they drove up Alexandra Road and into the estate. Later in the week the Arab was seen alone parked at the Queen Elizabeth Park feeding the swans.

We have had several phone calls this week complaining about children in pillow cases terrorising people and launching paper aircraft at their windows. One woman complained that her house had been “besieged by a horde of rampaging Flinties”, as they’re now known. Another caller said her daughter was afraid to leave the house because of them. It seems Flinties have been spotted further afield too, in places like Ellington and Stakeford.

While there is no doubt that there is a loosely constituted flock of Flinties around Mandy’s estate and a bit of a summer craze going on down there, there is a consensus in the team that the sightings elsewhere are probably largely apocryphal at present. But they are generating an urban myth. The population have heard about them and imagine they are prowling beneath every window. They aren’t, of course, and they probably never will be. But it makes you a part of a community to see the same devil that others see.

On Thursday night I drove along to my dad’s to give him a book about early British jazz that I’d ordered for him from Amazon. We sat for a while talking and he showed me a video tape of some clips from Fred Astaire films. I drove the long way home, up the Avenue through Seaton Delaval. I turned on the radio and flicked through the stations. I came across Alan Robson’s Night Owls phone-in programme on Metro Radio just as he was beginning to talk to Hettie from Bomarsund.

‘On the line now we have Hettie from Bomarsund,’ he said. ‘ Good evening, Hettie. What do you want to tell us about tonight?’

‘Hello, Alan, it’s Hettie from Bomarsund. I’m ringing you about the Flinties, Alan. Have you heard of them?’

‘No, Hettie, I haven’t. What are they, a new fashion item?’

‘No, Alan, they’re not. What they are is these kids who wear white pillow cases and you can’t see their faces and they go around in gangs and throw paper aeroplanes at old people’s windows. They’re scary, Alan. They’re mini-delinquents.’

‘It sounds very worrying, Hettie. Has this happened to you?’

‘It happened to my sister in law, Alan. On Tuesday morning when she got up she found all these white paper aeroplanes beneath her kitchen window. She said they were like crumpled pterodactyls. She said the Flinties could just as easily have murdered her in her bed that night.’

‘So have they actually harmed anyone yet, Hettie?’

‘I don’t think so, Alan, no. Not that I know of. But they do scare people. I think they should all be put on those Asbo’s, don’t you?’

‘Well, it’s a difficult one, isn’t it, Hettie?  I mean, are you sure they’re not just kids having a lark? Have you reported them to the police?’

‘No, I haven’t. What’s the point, they wouldn’t do anything.’

‘Listen, thanks for ringing, Hettie. I wonder if anyone else out there has experience of these Flinties. If you have we’d love to hear from you. I’ll be back in just a bit, after this.’

Mama Mia by Abba came on, followed by an advertisement for Blockbuster Videos. Alan Robson returned and said that the next caller on the line was John from Westerhope. John turned out to be something of a hawk on this issue.

‘I’m ringing about these so-called Flinties, Alan,’ he said. ‘With all due respect, Alan, I think it would be dangerously complacent to assume that they were nothing more than kids messing around in pillow cases. That might be exactly what they want us to believe!’

‘Good point, John. So what do you think might be going on out there?’

‘I’d like to see their faces, Alan, wouldn’t you? You can’t trust people who won’t show you their faces. Who are these people, Alan?  Do they have an ideology or a manifesto? What are their motives, Alan, that’s what I’d like to know.’

‘So you don’t think they’re just local children inside those pillow cases, John?’

‘Well, I don’t know, Alan. None of us know. That’s the point. That’s what makes it so scary. You’ve got to admit there’s something sick about throwing paper aeroplanes at people’s windows. Who’s controlling these Flinties, Alan? That’s what I’d like to know, who’s the mastermind behind all this? Don’t you think we should know that, Alan?’

‘So, John, have they been to your house too?’

‘No, Alan, not yet. But I’ve heard about them and they sound very sinister to me.’

‘Well, night owls, what do you think? Is John from Westerhope right, are the Flinties the sign of a sick society or an enemy that has infiltrated us? Or is Hettie from Bomarsund right and are they just gangs of bored kids making mischief during the summer holidays? Would a good dose of Asbo’s sort them out? And what about their parents in all this – don’t they have any responsibility for their children’s behaviour? Give us a ring and tell us what you think.’

Radio Gaga by Queen came on. Alan Robson appears to have a bit of a liking for corny, synthetic soft rock from the eighties. I swung around the roundabout at Laverock Hall Farm and headed down the hill through the corridor of orange lights towards the town. The record ended as I was entering Newsham.

‘Right now on line two we’ve got one of our regulars, Cheryl from Ashington,’ Alan said. ‘Good evening, Cheryl. Nice to hear from you again. What is it you want to talk to us about tonight?’

‘I’ve seen the Flinties, Alan, and I think John is right, there is something strange going on in our society. The Arabs are taking over. And that’s not all, Alan. I’ve seen Robin Hood around here three times and I’ve reported it to the authorities and they simply aren’t interested. Doesn’t that seem very strange to you, Alan, that the authorities aren’t interested in it?’

‘Robin Hood in Ashington – well, that does sound a bit strange, Cheryl, I agree with you there. You’re sure it was him, are you?’

‘Quite sure, Alan. I was no more than twenty feet away from him. I’d know him anywhere. It was definitely Robin Hood, Alan, I’d swear on me mother’s life it was.’

Cheryl sounded more than a little drunk. I turned off the radio and drove home in silence. I went into the house and picked up De Kooning.

‘Do you think we should revise our opinion of Bukowski?’ I asked him.

He began to purr and rubbed his head against my cheek.

‘No?’ I said. ‘Or we need to think about it? Yes, you’re probably right. What about Queen, then?’

He began to squirm. I carried him to the kitchen and put him down. I gave him a plate of fresh prawns and sat down in the conservatory with my book on Scottish art.  For a while I gazed at the reproduction of George Henry’s important 1889 painting A Galloway Landscape. I’ve seen it in the flesh in Glasgow and it’s stunning, so alive and so completely tangible. Margaret was already in bed. I noticed there was a large unopened cardboard box in the hall. It was yet another consignment of slippers. De Kooning finished his prawns and came and jumped up beside me.

‘You really need to see this painting,’ I said to him. ‘It’s so beautiful.’

Yesterday it rained on and off for most of the day. I drove up to Simonside and walked up through the forest, over to Bob Pyle’s Studdie and up on to the crag. I followed the newly slabbed path across to Old Stell Crag and on over it, east to Dove Crag. The heather is blooming now like a vast purple ocean, its scent so heady and wild. I wandered across the top almost alone thinking how much I’d missed the sense of space and freedom you get in places like this. I began to think about Scotland. I’m going there for a week soon to walk the mountains again. I was thinking how much I love that.

After I descended to the trees I followed one of the old hollow ways down hill through the forest and eventually picked up a narrow, overgrown trail through the bracken – which is now almost as tall as me – and the nettles. My legs inevitably got stung in several places. When I got to the car I ate a few wild raspberries from the bushes nearby. They were soft and sweet.

This morning Maureen and the Whelp called at the Widow’s again. She invited them in. God works in mysterious ways, and on this occasion it appears that his secret agents were slimy creatures that croak. Margaret was getting ready to go off to Brenda’s for what she called a pow-wow, which is the highest level meeting that can be convened in the Slipper Shop partnership and indicative of the scale of the crisis they are now facing. I imagine that Gordon too is having his own equivalent of pow-wows, even though he strolls around Suffolk apparently without a care in the world.

I went for a walk through the town, pondering the street names. In Cowpen Quay there are a whole raft of dead politicians commemorated by street names: Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury, Balfour, Goschen. How many of the people who live in these houses have any idea of who these people were or what they stood for? I had to google Goschen to find out that he was a nineteenth century Liberal who became a Conservative. Balfour was a mystery to me too. We don’t have a Thatcher Street or a Blair Road in town, and we’re not likely to get one. Nowadays it’s more fashionable to choose safe marketing bets which have connotations of status or rural affluence or reassuring associations with nature. I walked through South Beach and found sweetbriars and brambles there, pastures and aspens, Balmoral and Sandringham, and a whole flock of seabirds and waders. If things keep going the way they are it may not be long before we have to google those things too, of course.

When I got home I noticed some old fence panels had joined the three tyres in Hugo’s front garden. De Kooning and I went out into the back garden. We noticed Hugo’s platform clock has stopped. It now permanently reads five to twelve. I will suggest to him that he consults Brenda about the suitability of this particular configuration. The moose, heron and three ducks have been joined by a large red owl and, as far as I can tell, the fish are all alive and well.

I glanced at the Citadel and took De Kooning back inside. There was a large pan of chopped onions on the cooker. I lifted it to one side and turned the oven on. I made myself a tomato and garlic pizza and sat in the conservatory reading The Observer and listening to Hugo banging steadily on the Alligator’s tail. I wondered if in Southwold Gordon too was having a quiet evening reading the Sunday papers. For a moment I saw him there with a chalk in his hand scratching a word across the curved surface of his beloved time bomb. And in an instant I saw the word that he was writing and I saw that the word was ‘Miliband’.

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Written by yammering

August 3, 2008 at 7:55 pm