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Archive for February 2009

the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint

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delaval-arms-in-seaton-sluice1 

At teatime last Friday I noticed a pair of glass earrings and a big green bottle of Becherovka on the table in the conservatory.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I asked Margaret, who was in the kitchen topping and tailing parsnips.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘She brought me those crystal earrings back from Prague. Aren’t they lovely?’

‘Some of the old Czech herbal paint stripper too, I see. So how are things with her and Tristran?’

‘Oh they’re fine,’ Margaret replied, in an I don’t know what all the fuss was about sort of way. ‘They’re all loved up and happy again. They had an absolutely wonderful time. They bought each other amber amulets and they’ve both vowed to wear them forevermore. Brenda bought some really beautiful lace for herself too and a wooden marionette for her consulting room.’

I nodded. ‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘Tristan’s okay.’

I sat down to drink my cappuccino. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me. I’m reading a book of poetry called ‘Beasts for the Chase’ by an American poet called Monica Ferrell. A friend in New Jersey sent me the book. Ferrell wasn’t a poet I’d heard of till then. She turns out to be a bit old-fashioned and prophetic in her tone at times, quite earnest, although quite good at her craft. She strikes me as one of those poets who imagine a poet is a seer, someone with special access to a world behind and beyond this one. Such a vision (!) always entails a belief in the supernatural, often under the guise of the primal. Such poets often invoke animals as their metaphorical selves or equivalents, their spiritual alter egos and agents in the other world. Such poetry always pretends to show us what we really are, what our essence is, and to show us the eternal world our souls inhabit, the world behind the veil of perception. It’s all seductive nonsense, of course. Poetry certainly somehow plugs fairly directly into the way we make the world and the ways in which we make it make sense. But it’s an exercise done with words, just as music is an exercise done with sound and painting an exercise done with pigment, canvas and brushes.  I like Tam Lin as much as the next person, but anyone who thinks that at Halloween he was turned into an adder and a bear and a burning gleed really is away with the faeries. That sort of stuff doesn’t even happen in Glasgow. Poetry and truth have a much more oblique and complex relationship than some poets imagine. We need a poetics that is rigorously non-dualist. I’m sure there must be critics out there who’ve tried to formulate something to rescue us from the mire of misty-brained mythologies. I must go on to Amazon some time and see what I can find.

‘So, De Kooning’ I said. ‘What do we make of this stuff?’

He put his front paws on to my leg and looked up at me. His right ear flicked a couple of times.

‘Yes, you’re right, we prefer Ted Hughes, don’t we?’ I said. ‘We Brits like mumbo jumbo with a bit more muscle.’

It’s been much warmer for the past few days. On Sunday it was dry and almost spring-like. I went out for a bike ride to make the most of it. I rode across to Bebside and up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. I freewheeled down the hill from High Horton Farm and over the Horton Bridge and then went up through the new housing estates towards the Nelson Industrial Estate. There was a noticeable north westerly breeze. I took the road past the Snowy Owl towards Blagdon. I glanced over at the new opencast site. It’s on the estate of those famous stewards of the landscape, the illustrious Ridleys. Matthew Ridley was a prominent figure in the development of Northern Rock and not a man to let concern or consideration for the needs or feelings of other human beings get in the way of personal profit. In fact Matt can’t get his head around the idea that anyone can actually do such a thing, because surely it’s not human nature to think of anyone but yourself. The planning application was rejected by the County Council but overturned by the government on appeal. It’s another shameful mess. I turned left at Blagdon went south past the Holiday Inn to the Seaton Burn Roundabout. The wind was finally behind me. It’s about ten miles home from there. I went via Arcot Lane, High Pit and Shankhouse.

When I got home I did a bit of gardening. I took the secateurs to last year’s withered stragglers from the catmint, lopped some branches of some of the shrubs and cut back the fuschia almost to the ground. New growth is already beginning to appear from the earth and the snowdrops are already flowering. Winter’s on its way out.

I’d finished the painting I was doing of Seaton Sluice. During the week a pack of five Loxley 16″x16″ canvases had been delivered. I decided I’d do another painting of Seaton Sluice on one of those, using the first one as my source. I underpainted the canvas in cadmium yellow and read The Observer while that dried. Then with a big flat brush I scribbled, scrawled and slapped on a sky in titanium white, burnt sienna and burnt umber. It was dramatic and swirly and turbulent and as I let myself get into it I was aware that it was very Turneresque and that it was Turner I was stealing this sky from. It was probably the influence of the burnt sienna, a colour I have only recently added to my palette, used with white on a yellow ground. I think I was somehow remembering The Fighting Temeraire – there was a print of this painting on the wall at my old school, I now recall – and The Slave Ship, I think. Turner is hard to emulate in acrylic paint though because the paint dries too quickly and doesn’t allow you to use glazes very well or to achieve those beautiful subtle gradations and colour shifts.  When I’m a better painter I’m sure I’ll want to use oils a lot more. The sky I produced was of course nothing like a sky you’ll ever see in nature. I don’t think that ever bothered Turner much, and it certainly doesn’t much bother me either. After all, the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint.

On Tuesday morning I had a meeting at the Blyth office. It was another nice morning and after the meeting I decided to have a walk over to the quayside to look at the river for a few minutes before I went back to Ashington. I spotted Tristan’s white PermaPlumba van parked on the quayside close to Eddie Ferguson House. Tristan was sitting alone on one of the benches at the other side of the fence.

‘Hi, Tristan,’ I said. ‘What brings you to these parts?’

‘Just killing time, mate,’ he said. ‘Nothing better to do, I guess.’

‘Still no work, eh?’

‘Dead as a door nail, my fweind. Dead as a door nail. I’m telling you, this wecession will close Bwitain down if Bwown doesn’t sort it out soon.’

‘Do you think he can do that?’

‘No, I know he bloody well can’t. But let’s not pwetend he had nothing to do with getting us into this mess. He should pay the pwice.’

‘So how was Prague?’ I said. ‘Margaret tells me it was the business.’

‘Did she?’ Tristan said, and turned to look me in the eye, as if to see if I was joking. ‘Well, Pwague’s a fine city, sure enough, a place worth seeing.’

‘But you wouldn’t go back?’

He shrugged and gazed out over the river towards the bauxite silos on the far bank. A couple of kids were fishing on the jetty just downstream from there. The first wind turbine loomed above them. ‘Can I ask you something off the wecord?’ he said. ‘Just between me and you?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Anything you like.’

‘Have you heard of a bloke called Elvis Devlin? Wuns a bus company called Mephisto Twavel?’

‘Listen, I know about it, Tristan,’ I said. ‘Margaret told me.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I thought you might know.’

‘It’s no big thing,’ I said. ‘It’ll go no further than me.’

‘Oh no, no,’ he said. ‘That’s fine. That’s fine.’

‘I thought you and Brenda had sorted that out. I thought things were cool between you again.’

‘Bwenda’s vewy needy, you know. She’s vewy insecure. She’s got twust issues, weally big twust issues.’

‘But this isn’t about anything you’ve done, is it?’

‘The thing about Bwenda is you’ve always got to do something to pwove you love her. That’s what the Pwague twip was about. All the fuss she made about her Chwistmas pwesents. Bwenda doesn’t know what the weal thing is. If I was the wichest man in the world and gave her evewything money could buy, it wouldn’t be enough. Tomowwow she’d want something else. Bwenda thinks that if you don’t give her pwesents you don’t love her. The thing is, she’s almost got me bwoke – but I daren’t tell her. I’m wunning our welationship on my cwedit card now. The cwunch is bound to come!’ He laughed a little.

‘Now you know how Gordon feels,’ I said, laughing too, trying to keep the thing in the air. ‘So what you’re saying is that the only way to make sure Brenda doesn’t believe you’re not about to go off with some other woman is to keep on giving her things, and that if you don’t she won’t trust you anymore?’

‘Yes, exactly. You know how matewialistic she is. But it’s weally about twust, not gweed.’

‘But surely there’s no way you can give her things indefinitely? You’re not Richard Branson!’

‘No, you’re damn wight, I’m not Wichard Bwanson. I’ve told her that. I said “Bwenda this is about twust. For you pwesents are pwoof that someone loves you.” That’s why she’s attwacted to wich men, like this Elvis bloke. It’s because they can give her an endless supply of expensive pwesents. You know, that’s why I think she pwobably went for me now. Because when we met I was doing well. I was wolling in it. She’s so insecure she needs you to give, give, give. I asked her: “Bwenda,” I said, “Would you still think I loved you if I couldn’t buy you things?” “Of course I would,” she said. “What on earth do you take me for?!” But she wouldn’t, I know for sure she wouldn’t.”

‘So what’s the answer?’ I said. ‘Maybe she needs to life coach herself a bit.’

‘Oh, yes, I’ve pointed out the iwonies of this situation, believe you me I have. Maybe there is no answer. But the cwunch is going to come before long, that’s for sure. I’m spent up and there’s no work coming in. You can’t wun a welationship on cwedit. Pretty soon I’ll be bankwupt.’

‘Maybe things’ll take a turn for the better soon,’ I said. ‘Gordon’s green shoots might be springing up all around us any day now.’

‘Fat chance of that!’ Tristan said. ‘And besides that would only pwolong the agony. It wouldn’t solve the pwoblem. Bwenda needs to learn to twust. The thing is of course that it isn’t weally men she doesn’t twust – it’s herself she doesn’t twust. And evewy time she cwaves for another pwesent she knows she can’t be twusted. People who can’t be twusted don’t twust others, isn’t that twue?   Because they think evewybody’s just like them. Bwenda can’t see that anyone could ever love her for what she is. It’s a self-worth thing with her. It’s as if she thinks only expensive things will ever make her good enough. But of course they never will.’

We sat quietly for a minute or two watching the river. A seal popped up and I pointed it out to Tristan. He said it had been there all morning.

‘He’s cute, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ Tristan said. ‘He’s really beautiful.’

‘Anyhow,’ I said, ‘I need to be making my way back to work. I hope things work out okay for you and Brenda.’

‘Thanks, mate. Me too. Oh, and by the way, do me a favour, don’t tell Margawet you’ve seen me. I don’t want it getting back to Bwenda where I spend my days.’

‘Brenda thinks you’re working?’

Tristan nodded. ‘Yeah, and I need to keep it that way. God knows what she’d do if she knew I wasn’t’

‘Your secret’s safe with me,’ I said.

I drove past Ridley Park and along Wensleydale Terrace, past the site of the demolished Wellesley School which now stands deserted waiting for the economy to turn to make it worth building houses there. I reached the South Shore estate and glanced over at the sea. At the roundabout I went up South Newsham Road. It struck me that Blyth no longer has outskirts. It has a settlement boundary which marks the point where fields will turn into housing estates. The transition is sudden, in no way gradual. You can’t really say you’re coming into Blyth these days. You’re either in or you’re out. You’ve arrived or you haven’t. I turned on the CD player and listened to The Killers’ Sam’s Town album. I played it loudly. I crossed the railway at South Newsham and cruised up the Laverock and on to the Spine Road.

I parked in the public car park at the bottom of the street. As I was walking up to the office I met Owen Vardy coming down the hill. He was wearing a loose wrinkly oatmeal-coloured linen jacket – it was at least a size too big for him – and pale baggy Chinos.  He had a stripey brown and pink scarf wrapped around his neck, Dr Who style. He was leaning into every step, each of which appeared cautious and measured. Owen walks like a man on a treadmill, a treadmill he thinks might at any moment either stop completely or speed up dramatically. He was carrying an Asda ‘Bag for Life’.

‘Hi, Owen,’ I said. ‘Have you been shopping?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Well, not really. I’ve been to a meeting about the Collingwood children. I carry my files in this bag.  It’s the perfect size, you see. Actually, between you and I, I did take a quick toddle over to the high street to pick up a few vitamins.’

‘Oh, so what vitamins do you take?’

‘Oh, you know –  zinc, vitamin C, B complex, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, selenium, folic acid, echinacea, evening primrose oil, flax oil, omega-3 and omega-6, saw palmetto, feverfew, calcium, magnesium, potassium, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic, CoQ10 . . . you know,  just the usual stuff.’

What, no Becherovka? I thought to myself.

‘So are you ever ill, Owen?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, of course. I’m just the same as everyone else, you know, I catch colds and what have you. But there’s no point in taking unnecessary chances, is there? Oh, by the way, did you hear the latest about Jack?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. Don’t tell me he’s been dressing up again?’

‘No, no. He’s got rid of his Skoda and bought a motorbike. A big shiny black one. I think it might be a Kawasaki. It’s a very dangerous machine, a very dangerous machine. I think he’s being very foolish, actually.’

‘It’s his life, Owen,’ I said. ‘Or death, as the case might be.’

‘Exactly. Do you know he’s the same age as me?  In fact we were born on exactly the same day. You’d never catch me on a motor bike.’

‘I don’t think I’d bother trying,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t stand a chance.’

For a moment Owen missed the joke. He looked at me quizzically, his head slightly to one side, a half smile frozen on his face. What was he listening for, I wondered. Then he got it.

‘Ho ho,’ he laughed. ‘Very good. Yes, very good.’ And then he slid straight back into parson-like caution and prudence. He put his fingertips on my sleeve. He leaned in close to me.

‘And you’ll not have heard what he said to Tallulah either, have you?’ he said. ‘He offered to buy her a full set of leathers – a red leather bodysuit. He offered to take her out on his pillion.’

I laughed. ‘Oh my God, he’s shameless, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Exactly,’ Owen said. ‘He is shameless, and lacking in any sort of dignity too, I think.’ Just for a moment I fancied I caught the elusive vinegary whiff of piety and prurience.

‘Any how,’ he said, looking at his watch, ‘I really must be getting along now or  I’ll miss my bus.’

Owen always travels by bus, for road safety and environmental reasons, he says, although given how much he must spend on vitamins I wonder if he could afford a car in any case. As we parted I was thinking I must read George Herbert again.

When I went into the office Mandy Potts was in reception with Apple and Sparky. She looked like she’d been crying.

‘Hi, Mandy,’ I said. ‘Are you all right?’

She shook her head slowly. She wasn’t. When I went through to the team room I asked Angie what Mandy wanted.

‘She wants to go to a refuge.’

‘Again?’ I said. ‘Why? Surely Mr Zee hasn’t turned nasty?’

‘No,’ Angie said. ‘Anything but. No, it’s not that. Elephant Carmichael called to see her last night. He gave her a message.  He told the Arab said not to forget that what’s his is his forever. He told her the Arab said to say hello. When they got up this morning there were four piles of sand on the step. She said they looked like four little graves. ‘

 .

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prague, the skylark, the mephisto express

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We had more snow last week, again on Thursday. For a while it looked like it would never stop. ‘So this is how the world ends,’ I thought to myself.  Most members of my team went home early. There were rumours that the Spine Road might be closed so at about half four I set off for home. It turned out that the snow was already turning to sleet and rain by then. The wild apocalyptic blizzard was a false alarm. Nevertheless it was a slushy slither back down the Laverock and along Newcastle Road into Newsham.

The snow almost interfered with Tristan and Brenda’s Valentine trip to Prague.  Once or twice on Thursday the airport at Ponteland was closed for a while. But the snow is the least of their problems, it seems. Tristan had discovered earlier in the week that Brenda has become friendly with a man she’s been life-coaching. The man’s problems revolve around his marriage, it seems, and making decisions about how he is going to spend the rest of his life. He owns and runs an executive coach company called Mephisto Travel and he has a big house in Tynemouth, it seems. He’s made his fortune and he’s looking forward to taking it easy and seeing the world. What he doesn’t now know is who he wants to be with him on his travels. The man’s name is Elvis Devlin.

‘Elvis Devlin?’ I said to Margaret when she told me the tale.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘That’s right. Do you know him?’

‘Do I know Elvis Devlin?’ I said. ‘Do I know Elvis?’

‘Yes, Elvis. Do you have a problem with that? It’s no sillier than your name, is it?’

‘You’re right. I just hope he’s not an impostor,’ I said. ‘I just hope he’s not a Devlin disguise.’

Margaret groaned and got on with cutting up the onions.

It seems that on a couple of occasions Brenda has been seen having coffee with Elvis Devlin at the Milkhope Centre near Blagdon. This is far enough from Whitley Bay to suggest that these encounters did not happen by chance, although that apparently is exactly how Brenda claims they did happen. (But in any case doesn’t everything happen for a reason, Brenda? I heard myself thinking.) Tristan’s suspicion is that Elvis might be singing Viva Las Vegas in her ear. So Prague nearly didn’t happen. Margaret says it’s a make or break weekend for them. She’s convinced that Tristan’s fears are unnecessary, but you know what the song says about suspicious minds.

On Friday morning the roads were okay and most people made it in. At about lunchtime I went downstairs to make myself a coffee. Lily was checking out the weather on the Met Office website. Michelle was having a sandwich and doing her sudoku book.

‘We’ve got another one,’ Lily said. ‘I’ve got another mother who’s got a spirit in her house. She says it knocks thing off the windowsills at nights and taps on the window.’

‘Has she got a cat?’ Michelle chipped in. Lily laughed.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘She hasn’t even got a broom. The place is mingin’!’

I stood in the kitchen with my hands in my pockets, gazing at the filing cabinets and waiting for the kettle to boil. I filled my cup and wandered back out into the team room. Angie came in and Lily asked her how the roads were. I sat down in Debs’ chair and put my feet on her desk.

‘You don’t believe in ghosts, do you, Lily?’ I said.

‘Nah!’ she said. ‘It probably is the cat. Actually it probably isn’t. She’s probably just nuts.’

‘Oh, I believe in ghosts,’ Angie said. ‘We used to have one on the house we had in Forest Hall.’

‘So do you think Lily should call in an exorcist for her client?’

‘Yes, why not?’

‘Probably for the same reason we don’t make assessments from star signs,’ I said. ‘And because it’d get me the bloody sack.’

‘What sign are you, Lil?’ Angie said. ‘Let me guess. Okay, okay, I’ve got it. You’re a Virgo. Am I right?’

‘No,’ Lily said. ‘I’m an Aries.’

‘Oh, yes, of course. How didn’t I see that? How stupid am I?’

‘I’m an Aries too,’ I said.

‘You’re not!’ Lily said. ‘You could never be an Aries.’

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Honestly.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Lily said. ‘You couldn’t be.’

On Friday night I began a new painting of Seaton Sluice. I’ve painted it before. I’m ambivalent about doing it because it is making a concession to the conventionally picturesque, something I’m trying to get away from. I decided on a low horizon. I was doing a view from the bridge of Rocky Island and the Kings Head pub. I used the canvas I’d underpainted in vermillion a week or two ago. I painted the sky quickly with a big flat brush. Square chunks of white and yellow ochre clouds careering wildly around in a Prussian blue sky.

On Saturday I rode along to my dad’s on the bike. It wasn’t a bad afternoon and the paths were mostly completely clear of snow.

During the week my dad had been to the library. As I was drinking a glass of pineapple juice he gave me a photocopy he’d made of an article from The Blyth News at the end of May 1936. The article reported the death at age eighty one of Harry Clough, the father of Tom Clough, the Newsham Nightingale. “FAMOUS PIPER DEAD”, was the headline, with the by-line “Newsham Man Who Played Before Royalty”. He is said to have died at his home in Plessey Road, of which Brick Row must have been considered a part.

The article said that in 1905 Harry Clough had played for King Edward VII at Alnwick Castle. Until a few weeks before his death Harry had acted as a caller at Cowpen Coal Company, the article said.  Here’s a typical paragraph from the article, which is really a eulogy:

His music like his character delighted his audience. In both cottage and palace he enchanted with the folk music of Northumberland. His nature was kind and genial without ostentation. Unassuming and without any love of fame, his art was always at the disposal of charity.

As I recall Harry was buried at Blyth Cemetary, back down on the beach road. I’d ridden past it on the way along. I wondered if I should stop off on my way back and see if I could find his grave. But no doubt I’d have no more luck looking for the grave of the Nightingale’s father than I had looking for the grave of his son.

I asked my dad which route the old road out of Newsham followed. The book on the Cloughs had said it was very rough.

‘It followed the route of Newcastle Road along to where the little roundabout is now, and it turned right there and went up towards the Laverock,’ he said. ‘Of course in those days the houses on the right weren’t there. The store field was there, where they used to turn out the ponies from the pit in summer.’

‘So was it a rough road?’ I asked.

‘It was wet. When it got over the old railway line to the relief pit it took a big sweeping bend around before going up the Laverock. It was often flooded there.’

Laverock is an old word for a skylark. Most people assume this is how the farm on the ridge got its name and that the road got its name from the farm. I’ve never seen any real evidence for this. My alternative theory is that the place name may have nothing to do with the skylark at all. In Cumbria there’s a place called Laversdale. The first element of this is from the Old English personal name Leofhere. I wonder if this name or something similar isn’t the first element in Laverock and that the second is rigg, meaning ridge. There are ridge and furrows in the field beside Laverock Hall Farm and these will date back to the medieval period at least. The farm is also on a ridge, the ridge along which the road from Seaton Delaval to Horton runs. So the history and topography are arguably there to support the possibility that this might be Leofhere’s Ridge. Furthermore, local people usually talk about going up or coming down the Laverock, as if the land form itself is the thing they are climbing or descending. They do not say they are going up to the Laverock. The word is also said with a final vowel that is very close to the  i sound in rigg, although admittedly inevitably somewhat neutral. There are other examples around here of false etymologies arrived at and imposed by mapmakers, and this may be another. Rigg and rick are close enough together to allow an obvious aural mistake to be made. It was perhaps this mistake that threw an imaginary skylark into the sky above the ancient ridge.

As I rode home I glanced over to the cemetery, but rode straight by. It was getting late and the light was beginning to fail.

At about eight o’clock tonight I went out for a walk. It was a mild dry evening and there wasn’t much wind.  I walked along Sixth Avenue past the front gate to the site of the Citadel. The gates were closed and the security lights were shining eerily on the colossal towering structure. It really is a hellish, oppressive monstrosity, the wrong building in the wrong place. No wonder it reminds me of Kafka’s Castle. I walked through the cut and on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down past the first school. From there I crossed Winship Street into Elliot Street. They are already building on the site of the demolished Big Club. As I walked across I was thinking how these sites aren’t like widows: they don’t have to wait for a respectable period before they allow another building to occupy them. I had thought that apartments would be built here and I was therefore a bit surprised that building had started so soon, given the current depression in the housing market. I noticed a sign on the fence. It said “Considerate Construction”. You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? I went over for a closer look and discovered that the new building appears to be going to be a new library. I was pleasantly surprised and for a moment impressed.

I went down Elliot Street past the take-aways and the betting shop, which was still open for business. An old guy in a flat cap was leaning in the doorway telling the woman inside a story about a bet he’d made. I crossed over to the Willow Tree, which was also open, although there weren’t many in. It seems to be under new management. I noticed there were flyers on the windows for a group called The Buskers, who it seems are playing there on Friday this week. I glanced over to the Brick Row open space. I wondered what sort of music they’d be playing. I wondered if the Cloughs would all be tapping their ghostly pipers’ feet. I walked back down Plessey Road, past the old Grammar school and on under the trees beside the bus stop.

When I got home Margaret was in. She was polishing the old Napoleon from her bedroom. It wasn’t ticking.

‘How did Brenda’s trip to Prague go?’ I asked.

‘I’ve no idea,’ she said. ‘I haven’t heard from her.’

‘But she is back, isn’t she?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, they came back yesterday, I think.’

Or maybe she didn’t, I thought to myself. Maybe she’s already riding the Mephisto Express to Vegas.

I put the kettle on and went looking for De Kooning. I wanted to put him out in the garden for a while before I did a bit more on my painting of the Sluice.

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while searching for the nightingale’s grave

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It snowed on Thursday night. It was unexpected. For the most part the Northumberland coast had missed the snow that for the last week or so had hit the rest of the country and eclipsed the recession, British jobs for British workers and the relentless destruction of Gaza in the six o’clock headlines. But on Thursday night at about midnight it snowed for about half an hour and turned the landscape white. I joined De Kooning behind the curtain to watch the torrent of snowflakes ticker-taping through the blurred chambers of orange streetlight.

It took me about three times as long as usual to get to work on Friday morning. I crawled with a slow caravan of hatchbacks, 4×4’s and white vans up the temperamental incline to the Laverock Hall roundabout. Going north up the Spine Road to North Seaton I joined another cautious procession and after that a few more jittery queues down the hill into Ashington.

By lunchtime it was sunny and the main roads had cleared. I’d spent all morning authorising stuff on the computer and answering emails and I needed to get out of the office for a break. I put my Canon compact in my coat pocket and decided to drive over to Horton churchyard to find Tom Clough’s grave – The Prince of Pipers, as he’s known among the Northumbrian piping fraternity, to me The Newsham Nightingale.

After crossing the River Blyth at Attlee Park and climbing out of the misfit valley, the old Horton road snakes south along thebroad ridge between – to the west – the valley of the river or its tributary the Horton Burn and – to the east – the long slope down to Cowpen and Newsham and the North Sea. Horton Church sits on the high point of the road just before it drops a little to the Three Horse Shoes pub and High Horton farm. The pub sits opposite the farm close to the crossroads of the ridge road on its way to Seaton Delaval and the Heathery Lonnen as it becomes the road down over Horton Bridge to Bog Houses. The crossroads is close to the line of the old Plessey wagonway which leads over the fields and straight down to the river at Blyth. The eastern end of the wagonway’s route is now Plessey Road. 

Bog Houses sits at the point where the up until then relatively steep sided valley of Horton Dean opens out into what was a large flat area of marshland, now for the most part drained and built upon. The slightly shabby little row of pebble-dashed terraced houses stands near the southernmost practical crossing point that the wagonway could follow. The remains of the old raised causeway across the burn are still visible in the field near Horton Bridge, between the old road and the new dual carriageway. Nowadays, we are most of the time disconnected from topography and the way it shaped the lives of people and communities in the days before motorised travel. Walking is a good way to discover why old routes went the way they did. It reconnects us with the shape of the land, the form of the earth beneath our feet. It shows us why places are where they are.

My guess is that both the Horton ridge road and the Plessey wagonway follow the lines of quite ancient routes and that the Shoes sits at what was probably a reasonably busy and significant crossroads at one time.

North of the river the Horton road becomes Bedlington Front Street and goes up to the next hilltop crossroads at the Red Lion pub in Bedlington. The road heads off west along North Ridge and eventually leads to Stannington and Morpeth. Perhaps it was a salters route joining up eventually with Salters Road itself to make its way across Northumberland to Rothbury and Alnham and on into the Cheviots to join with Clennell Street before crossing the border at Hexpathgate, just north east of Windy Gyle.

The road north from the Red Lion crossroads leads to Guide Post, Choppington and Scotland Gate. Perhaps this was a drove route followed by drovers who brought cattle and sheep down from the borders and beyond to take to market at Tyneside. Perhaps they were heading south towards common land at Shiremoor to rest and fatten up their stock after their long journey. Perhaps on their way south the herds or flocks stood a night or so earlier on Longhorsley Common, the night before that perhaps somewhere on the moors up around where Thrunton Woods are now. Maybe the area just north of the river at Bedlington was a stance for cattle too. It’s interesting that there are two old pubs at the south end of Bedlington Front Street: the Dun Cow and the Black Bull. I read somewhere that pubs called The Black Bull often occur on old drove routes.

When the Plessey wagonway was constructed a tavern at the crossroads above the Bog Houses causeway might have picked up custom from the men leading the coal wagons up and down from the river. It’s easy to imagine an old public drinking house here as it filled up at midday with drovers and miners and wagon men, farmers and agricultural workers and assorted itinerant travellers. Perhaps clerks and priests stopped in as they made their way between the church lands of Bedlingtonshire and Tynemouth. This may indeed have been the main purpose of this route, which after going through Seaton Delaval makes its way to Tynemouth through Holywell, Monkseaton and Preston Village, all place names with something to do with religion. So maybe the old inn got more than its fair share of ecclesiastical custom. Perhaps even the gravedigger from Horton churchyard too took a break from his labour and strolled down for a pint of strong ale.

This invisible history would help explain the siting of Horton church itself, which nowadays seems almost stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It sits in a elevated and very visible place, a place which might even have been a significant prehistoric site, perhaps for a stone circle or a burial cairn. There’s no evidence for that, so far as I know, of course, but it’s unlikely that on a site on arable land so close to a highly populated urban area much evidence would survive in any case. And yet this place was once wild. That too hard to see now. So who knows? We do know, however, that Christian churches were often built on the sites of important ancient pagan or pre-Christian monuments and constructions, as a sort of colonisation.

The standard references say the place name of Horton is first recorded more than 750 years ago and that the spelling has remained unchanged since that time. They state that its origin is from the Old English horh-tun, which means a settlement on muddy land. This suggests that the marshland in the valley of the Horton Burn gave its name to the settlement, the marshland the line of the road steadfastly avoids. I had wondered if the origin wasn’t hoh-tun, which would have made it the settlement on the spur of a hill and perhaps fit better with the location of the church. The historical evidence seems to suggest otherwise, however. It seems clear the original settlement was around High Horton farm and it was probably a crossroads town. But either way, high on the hill or down beside the marsh, perhaps hundreds of years ago another piper sat at the back door of his cottage playing old reels and airs in the evening sun in the summertime.

But I’m rambling. Let’s leave this imagined place for a while and get back to my search in the snow for the Nightingale’s grave.

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There aren’t any parking spaces on the road at Horton church. But there is a narrow footpath at the side of the road. I squeezed my car up on to it and against the wall far enough down the road to be visible to cars coming both ways.

When you go through the graveyard gate you see a jumble of old graves ahead of you. Battered and weatherworn stones. They don’t stand straight anymore. Many lean, some have fallen. The ground has settled and sunk and shifted over the long years since these first graves were dug. I was reminded of Hugo’s front garden. You could imagine that passers-by might have simply dumped these graves here at random over the decades and centuries. Here was mortality’s junkyard.

Of course the place has a structure, a superficial order – paths laid out around the graveyard, even though these are for the most part overgrown with grass and difficult to discern, especially in the snow. This is not a particularly well tended or much visited graveyard, it seems. Perhaps most of those that lie here are now more or less forgotten. And as it turns out this attempt at order is no more than a quixotic gesture against the wilful randomness of the universe.

I tottered in my smooth-soled work shoes through the crispy thin snow on the concrete path next to the church building, before heading off through the more sparsely scattered graves to the north and north east. These all seemed like old stones. In many cases wear and moss had left them almost unreadable. The Newsham Nightingale died in 1964, as I recalled. It didn’t look like his grave could be in this part of the cemetery. I wove my way over and between the graves over the snowy slope back up to the church. Have you ever noticed that when you walk across a grave you try to walk on tiptoes, as if to avoid disturbing the occupant, or perhaps because you fear you might sink in, as if a grave is filled with a sort of dreadful quicksand?

I crossed under the line of rugged bare trees into the southern part of the graveyard, where it seemed space was being used somewhat differently: it seemed more crowded. There also seemed to be some graves that had flowers on them and were still got visitors. At the edge of the area of graves, just before the area of still undug earth, I found the most recent group. I went methodically along the tightly crammed rows. In places this group of graves appeared to some extent (although not entirely or very exactly) to follow chronologically, according to year of death. I found the graves of fathers and mothers, grandparents, sisters and brothers. There were children’s graves. Some were infants who had died very young. One was decorated with toys and storybook grave guardians – Winnie the Pooh, a grey resin Peter Rabbit and a black and yellow bumble bee on a spindly wire wand. I felt sure that Tom Clough’s grave would be somewhere among this group, but it wasn’t. There had to be another set of relatively new graves in another area of the graveyard.

I went around the church again and back to the far north eastern corner, where I could now spot the flowers and ribbons of a still visited grave. But this wasn’t the Nightingale’s grave either. Close by there was a grave on which someone had planted a tree. It had grown and its thick, sinuous, muscular roots now curled like the arms of a great octopus and seemed to be delving deep into the owner’s grave. Somewhere six foot under these roots were wrapped around the occupant’s skeleton as if in a gesture of desperate love or overwhelming grief, as if they could not let the buried body go.

I was beginning to notice things about graveyards. First, that there is no strict order in force about who is buried where. A graveyard isn’t like a library – there is no index and the bodies do not lie in a particular order; there’s no sort of Dewey Decimal system for the deceased. You’d think it would be possible to lay them down in strict chronological order. But as we all know death comes unpredictably. The reaper can call at the oddest hours. There’s not one of us who couldn’t turn the Tallulah tomorrow. And a chronological system – although it would help the visitor to find the dead person he or she wanted with relative ease – would potentially not let the dead from a family lie together. A wife who outlived her husband by thirty years might find herself lying fifty yards away from him with a motley crew of strange bedfellows between herself and her dearly departed. Loving couples would have to conspire to pass way together if they wanted to avoid eternal separation in the burial ground. That would never do, obviously. And of course there’s also only so much space can be kept for one family, so eventually some grandson or niece is bound to wind up exiled to yonder end of the yard on their own.

I had wondered if the alphabetical graveyard wasn’t a good idea. There’d be distinct areas set aside for families whose surname began in a particular letter, so the Forsyths would lie down with the Fergusons, the Turners with the Thirlwells, and so on. Again this plan is likely to be disrupted by the Reaper’s arbitrary and sometimes quite profligate ways. It would just take a couple of Smith families with fifteen kids between them to be struck down by some previously unknown strain of a strange new plague to throw this plan into disarray. What would you do then – allow the S‘s to lie down among the R’s and T‘s? Or designate a new area for the S‘s on the undug land at the top of the cemetery? But that would defeat the object of the plan.

I wondered if another plan might be to order them according to age at death, setting aside the most space for the ages at which most deaths occur and proportionately less for the others, in strict accordance with probability as determined by actuarial tables. But this plan too would be easily defeated by the Reaper who one morning could decide to take a busload of fifteen year olds on a school trip and have them all drowned by launching their bus off the Kitty Brewster bridge and plunging them into the muddy river. These things happen, and they must be a nightmare for graveyard managers.

So at the end of the day the graveyard turned out to be a bit of a jumble, an appropriately complex mixture of order and chaos. They aren’t very user friendly for the stranger searching for a strange grave, but their disorder tells us something and reassuringly tells us that, while death will come to us all, some of us might be around a lot longer than any human filing system can readily anticipate.

A last thought on this – and something about which in this day and age perhaps something can be done – is around the permanence of gravestones. Old stones all suffer to a greater or lesser degree from the erosion and eventual erasure of the name by wind and weather. Trying to read these stones and discern who lies beneath them – although it might entail a pleasant and meaningful philosophical or poetic contemplation – is time consuming and frustrating for the time-poor twenty-first century grave finder. Surely there are modern composite materials which resemble granite or marble or another stone and which have a guaranteed erosion free life of at least 500 years. If there isn’t there should be, because I’m not only sure that the prospect of their name vanishing from their memorial stone appals and scares many people, I am also, by the same token, sure there would be a good market for such a material. If the market economy does the job the way they say it does, any day now these new long-life – yes, I know, I know, but what else would we call them, “eternity-proof”? – materials should now be becoming available to the bereaved and to those who like to plan their own funeral arrangements in advance. An epitaph should be forever, not just for as long as it takes an engraving in sandstone to lose it legibility.

I turned from contemplating the octopus rooted grave tree and saw just a little way up the slope a dark simple cross, probably made of metal but very much resembling a wooden cross. This might be the Nightingale’s grave, I thought. It would befit a man who has taken pleasure in the simple joy of music to have such a simple marker, and a one with arms upon which small birds might perch too. As I got closer I could see that this wasn’t Tom Clough’s gravestone. But it did seem to be Tom someone, and to my delight as I got closer it seemed to me that this was cross marked the burial place of one Tom Tremble.

‘Bloody hell,’ I said to myself. ‘This is Tom Tremble’s grave.’ 

Not that I knew who Tom Tremble was, of course: what I liked was the fairy tale sound and connotations of this name. Unfortunately I was to be disappointed. The name was difficult to discern easily from a distance because of the glare of the sun on the snow around it. When I got up close I found that this was in fact the grave of someone called “O.M. Tremble”.  I was struck by the formality and terseness of that marking, of a gravestone that doesn’t tell us the first names of the buried person. When was this person born, when did they die? Were they not the beloved offspring or spouse or parent of anyone? Clearly this person or those who buried him or her (initials don’t disclose gender) favoured a sort of formal if inevitably ambiguous minimalism. This grave gives us only a name and nothing else, not even an epitaph. This tombstone decision throws an interesting light on that of Keats. In this case we see that a name on its own is intriguing but unhelpful and ultimately anonymous. O. M. Tremble is now nothing but a name, as they say. A name on its own might as well be writ in water as in stone. What a name needs is a story. What a name needs is a life.

O. M. Tremble’s modest cross contrasts well with the Leviathan stones some of the long dead have in this graveyard, and it’s true that the size of the stone doesn’t necessarily tell is anything about the worth of the life the dead person lived or their value to society, even though we tend to think it does. O. M. Tremble begins to look like an embarrassed, disgraced or self-effacing nobody, a clerk or a storekeeper perhaps, a criminal even, lain in a field of lawyers, captains of industry and lords of the manor. A grave is like a house and land: we think it tells us something about the importance of whoever it is dwells there.

I made my way back up to the church and looked again back down over the slope. I noticed that all the graves appear to face east. I seemed to recall then that this is a Christian thing, symbolic of the dead awakening into the dawn of a new life, a new day in heaven, or something like that. It isn’t a bad view for them either, out over the fields and the Spine Road to the town and the mouth of river – the pale grey wind turbines on Cambois pier, the Indian red Alcan bauxite silos, the gaudy yellow gantries at Battleship Wharf – and to the deep blue North Sea beyond. They must indeed see some grand sunrises here. The town has the same sort of junkyard look as the graveyard itself does at first glace, and in some way echoes that same ramshackle development – a mixture of opportunity, accident and design – that same mixture of chaos and order. It has the sort of look people like to call organic, by which they often mean unplanned and accidental but somehow also functional and good.

I left Horton graveyard without ever finding the Nightingale’s grave. I drove back down between High Horton Farm and the Three Horse Shoes, where despite the snow there were still a fair number of cars of people who were there for lunch. I knew the Horton gravedigger wouldn’t be one of them, of course.

I turned on the Radio 4 one o’clock news as I accelerated down the slip road on to the Spine Road. It was clear now. I drove back to the office quickly. I was thinking about Tom Tremble. How did he live? Who did he know? What things mattered to him? I was wondering about the story of Tom Tremble’s secret life. I was wondering what he looked like. I was wondering how Tom Tremble died.

 

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fugitives, ghosts, and silver polar bears

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At about lunchtime on the day after baby Davina was abducted by Tania and Joe I got a call from Sergeant Godfrey Garnet at the police to say she’d been found.

‘That’s good news, Godfrey,’ I said. ‘Where is she? Is she okay?’

‘We’ve got her here,’ Godfrey replied. ‘She’s having a great time. Some of the girls are giving her a feed and oohing and aahing all over her and getting all broody.’

‘So where’s she been?’

‘We’re not sure. We got a tip off from a member of the public. We picked them up at the Spa in Bedlington Station.’

‘So was she with Tania and Joe?’

‘Aye, she was. They had some sausages and a big bag of Doritos in their basket and were trying to find the baby milk when we got there. We’ve got them both banged up at the minute. We’re trying to find out what we can charge them with. We want to see if we can do her for kidnap.’

‘So can a woman actually kidnap her own baby, Godfrey?’ I asked.

‘We’re not sure,’ Godfrey replied. ‘We’re taking advice from the CPS about that.’

‘So can we come and get her and take her back to her grandad?’ I asked.

‘Of course. Whenever you like. She’s the centre of attention here so she’ll be absolutely fine till you can get someone across.’

Michelle was out visiting someone in Seahouses. I rang her on her mobile and told her the news. She was speechless with delight and relief. I reassured her that the baby was fine. She said she’d be back down in an hour or so.

‘No hurry,’ I said. ‘The police are happy to baby sit for a while. I’ll ring grandad and give him the news. We’d better arrange to get Davina checked over by a paediatrician when you get back, just in case. The police say she’s suffered no harm, though.’

The member of the public had spotted Tania, Joe and baby Davina on the 447 Blyth to Morpeth bus. Apparently they got on somewhere in Cowpen Estate. Joe was carrying Davina in his arms. She was crying. As Tania paid the fares, Joe took his seat. He laid the wailing baby down on the seat beside him. His behaviour raised the suspicions of Polly Telfer, who as it happens works as a cleaner at the Bedlington Police Station on Schalksmuhle Road. She had been listening to Alan Robson on the night before.

Joe and Tania seemed very nervous during the bus ride, constantly looking out of the window. Polly Telfer told the police that to her they looked like “fugitives”. They got off at the Spa in Bedlington Station. Polly got off just a couple of stops or so later and immediately reported her suspicions to the duty desk. Five minutes later there were four police cars and an armed response unit at the Spa.

An hour or so Godfrey rang back.

‘Will your people be long in picking this baby up?’ he asked.

‘No, not long,’ I said. ‘What’s the matter, has the novelty worn off?’

‘Not exactly,’ Godfrey said. ‘But there is becoming a bit of an atmosphere around here now, if you get my drift.’

I laughed and reassured Godfrey that Michelle would be there any minute.

On the following Sunday I drove up to Thrunton Woods. I parked in the main car park and followed the forest road up on to Callaly Crag. There was a fair bit of snow up there, even though there was none at all down by the car park. It was a sunny day. I looked for a while over to Fawdon Hill and Hedgehope and Cheviot beyond, both white with snow. I made my way south into the glare of the winter sun, over the moor through the open areas between the conifer plantings towards the valley of the Coe Burn. I saw no-one at all during this part of the walk. The heather was high and the old tracks were very squelchy in places. At one point I had the company of a buzzard mewing above me. I saw a couple of pairs of roe deer stepping anxiously through the dead bracken at the forest edge. I left the track for a while and fought my way through the rough billowing heather towards Black Walter, where I picked up the forest road again and made my way back up into the snow before taking the track back down past the area where they are thinning the trees to the car. I walked for about two and a half hours and saw no-one other than a couple and an old guy with their dogs on my way out and a couple of mountain bikers in the car park when I got back down.

Thrunton Woods and the moors lying to the south of Long Crag down to Debdon Burn cover a large area of open land which was once part of the Armstrong estate. Some of it might still be owned by his descendents, although the adjoining Cragside estate is now owned by the National Trust, of course. What’s curious about the Thrunton Woods area is the almost total absence of traditional rights of way, along with the apparent virtual absence of old settlements. This of course cannot truly reflect the way things were before Armstrong got his hands on this land, but must represent the eviction and exclusion of ordinary people and the public from this land. It’s interesting to contrast it with the area of very similar land over at Bewick Moor, which is riddled with rights of way, many of them bridleways following old routes between old settlements. Thrunton has at some point been stripped of that traditional infrastructure of routes. It more closely resembles places like Simonside, Hulme Park and Cragside itself in these terms, probably for very much the same reasons, the loss of traditional rights under pressure from powerful and influential landowners, families and individuals pursuing their own aggrandisement and jealously defending their exclusive right to chase and kill every animal that flew, swam or ran there. Some people say Northumberland remains in some ways a feudal county. You can see what they mean. Places like this are the sites of our own version of the Highland Clearances and are haunted by a similar sense of dispossession and desolation. There’s a wild irony in the beauty and solitude we now find here and for which we love these places so much. We find freedom. We trespass with ghosts.

I drove back down the A697 as it follows the line of the Devil’s Causeway for a while before going through Longframlington and down the long hill into the Coquet valley. I listened to the album You & Me by The Walkmen. Their music has a sort of loose jauntiness, a sardonic sort of ramshackle energy. The singer declaims and laments in a suitably inconsequential and encouragingly post-modern manner. It’s well worth a listen.

When I got back I noticed that the assorted boxes of slippers that have littered the house all winter had gone.

‘Where have the all the slippers gone?’ I asked Margaret.

‘Gone to Brenda’s, every one,’ she replied. ‘We’re thinking of giving them away to a charity shop.’

‘Really? Are you winding up the Slipper Shop?’

‘Probably. The recession has pretty much killed the business.’

‘Oh, that’s sad,’ I said. ‘Still it’ll give you more time to join the Citizens in the struggle against the Citadel.’

‘Oh, that’s a lost cause, I think, don’t you? No, Brenda and I are planning a new business. We reckon that in hard economic times people spend money on things that cheer them up. Brenda reckons cinema attendance always increases during a recession.’

‘So what are you two going to do – get jobs as usherettes?’

Margaret tutted and shook her head. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said.

‘You can’t be going to open a picture house, are you? Surely not.’

‘No, nothing like that,’ Margaret replied. ‘We’re going to set up a funwear shop on eBay. We’re going to call it Frills, Fleeces and Furry Things.’

I nodded. ‘Sounds good,’ I said.

I gave De Kooning a shout and picked him up. We went into the conservatory to read The Observer.

On Monday I got a phone call from an old colleague, Dr Bertrand Sticks. Sticks is a sort of computer boffin these days, although at one time he was a front line social worker. It wasn’t exactly his forte. He has a sort of other worldly detachment about him. He is also somewhat displaced in class terms, having about him the look of one of Harry Potter’s more rotund friends.

‘Hi Sticks,’ I said. ‘What you been doing with yourself? It seems like yonks since I’ve seen you.’

‘It is yonks,’ Sticks said. ‘About four and a half years of yonks.’

‘So what you doing with yourself these days? Are you still in the Stylophone Quartet?’

‘No,’ he said, for a moment appearing to lose his poise. ‘No, that folded about three years ago. I spend most of my free time these days trying to design a new kind of robot, which I hope to build eventually.’

Sticks is a man with an unnatural interest in gadgets. He is one of the broad family of those who think the world is essentially mechanical and most closely resembles a clockwork mouse. The fact that he occasionally lapses into what sounds like mysticism is somewhat confusing, of course.

‘So how will this robot be different?’ I asked.

‘It will possess emotional complexity. My robot will replicate such emotions as fear and arousal with such exactness that it will be indistinguishable from a human being.’

‘Sounds impressive. How far have you got?’

‘I’ve got some drawings. I know how it will look. It will look like a silver polar bear.’

I liked the sound of this. A silver polar bear robot with human emotions. Science can surely hardly go much further than this.

‘The reason for the appearance is that it will commemorate what I think was for me the crucial break through I made in this project. I have recently succeeded in devising a programme which responds to the image of a polar bear with exactly the same complex set of emotions as a naked man would if he were to encounter the actual beast in a natural setting, in his igloo in Greenland, for instance.’

‘Great stuff, Sticks. Sounds absolutely fascinating. But that isn’t why you rang me, is it? You don’t want me to sit around naked looking at pictures of polar bears, do you?’

‘No, I don’t. I’m looking for two or three volunteers from front line practice to help me with the development of our version of the Ernas, the Electronic Risk and Needs Assessment System. As you know there’s a big push towards computerised information recording. The next big steps beyond that are seen as on the one hand gathering the information by direct computer input from service users themselves – probably at terminals in one stop shops, maybe in booths at supermarkets – and, on the other hand, developing models which will allow the computer to analyse that information automatically and immediately issue a plan. As you know, work is also being done on ECI’s – electronic client identities – as a step towards requiring and enforcing compulsory compliance with the plans. The goals are greater efficiency and consistency, arms length risk management, and better performance in terms of meeting timescales. And of course it should free up social workers to do more interesting work.’

‘Sounds like its goal might be to do away with social workers all together,’ I said.

‘Ho ho, ever the sceptic, eh?’ Sticks said. ‘The old Luddite flame still burns as brightly as ever in you, I see.’

I laughed. ‘When people live with lunatics they become lunatics, Sticks. If the only relationships we have are with machines we will become machines. That’s what I fear, Sticks. We both know this stuff’s really all about saving money and keeping the poor in their place.’

‘Okay. So, what are you saying? Do you want to be in on this or not?’

I paused. ‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. ‘Why not?’

‘That’s the ticket!’ Sticks said. ‘Better to be one of those shaping the future than to just leave it in the hands of fools and madmen. You can’t run away from it, you know. It’s good to have you on board, my old friend.’

For a minute or two I sat looking out over the rooftops. Paul Virilio’s statement crossed my mind: The speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalization is the speed of light. I began to imagine it was summer and I was walking again across the moors at Thrunton.

Sticks is coming over to see me next week to talk about multiple choice questions and risk factors. He wants to find ways to break all social work judgements and decision making into a series of binary choices. I’m looking forward to seeing him. He’s completely deranged, of course, but at least you can’t say he isn’t a laugh.

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