oh, well, whatever . . .

of frogs and flip flops and moral panic

leave a comment »

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’.


Written by yammering

August 3, 2008 at 7:55 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: