yammering

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Archive for the ‘dad’ Category

that goddam glib and oily art

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To tell the truth, just from being so fully and simply a man, I looked upon myself
as something of a superman. 
 
Albert Camus ‘The Fall’
 
My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent.
My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago if they ever did
exist. There are no more barriers to cross. 
 
Bret Ellis Easton ‘American Psycho’
 
I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.  It’s awful.  If I’m on my way to
the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable
to say I’m going to the opera.  It’s terrible.
 
J.D. Salinger ‘The Catcher in the Rye’
 

J. D. Salinger died last week and Tony Blair appeared before the Chilcot Inquiry. Blair’s generation in many ways both embraced and constituted the spirit of Holden Caulfield and constructed their identities around the values he represents. I would guess that Blair has very probably read Salinger, and in fact it isn’t hard even now to imagine Tony turning up for the cameras wearing a red baseball cap backwards, oddly enough. I wouldn’t have been hugely surprised if he’d turned up at the inquiry wearing one. It’s exactly the sort of misguided, cringe-worthy, I fancy myself to death sort of thing he would do. Blair is a malign and manipulative man – nothing at all like Caulfield really. Holden is all too aware of his own motives, all too ready to admit his failings. Holden sees the inescapable phoniness of the world that is closing in on him and he recoils from it, desperate to hold on to what one critic terms his radical innocence. Blair no longer retains one shred of such innocence. He is radically corrupt, annihilated by his own narcissism, a man without authenticity.

I was in Morpeth earlier this week for a meeting about the implications for us of the high numbers of homes that are being invaded by mice because of the cold weather. The Twichell case combined with the current fears about child trafficking in Haiti have alerted us again to the transformation issue. Senior managers were anxious to ensure that we were alive to the danger that abusers might take advantage of the situation and to ensure we had a strategy to address it. Some felt it was a problem that could only effectively be addressed at a higher political level and argued that the right course of action was to lobby the government for a mouse licensing and registration scheme. Others felt that we needed to take a more active stance. John Sultan suggested that it would be helpful if social workers had sniffer cats available to them when undertaking challenging investigations. The Director agreed with him and it was duly decided that two adult sniffer cats would be bought and a select group of social workers trained in their use.

Gilmour was part of the meeting. Afterwards I sat with him in his office for a little while catching up. It struck me that as he matures he’s growing into a warm and affable man. The thing that was most on Gilmour’s mind seemed to be how annoyed he was with John Sultan. Gilmour and John have the same role in different halves of the organisation; they are rival princes in the line of succession.

‘Bloody Sultan!’ he said.  ‘That sniffer cats idea was mine, you know! Did he acknowledge it? Not on your bloody life. He never bloody does!’

I nodded. ‘Yes, I thought it was a bit imaginative for John,’ I said. ‘A bit leftfield.’

‘I tell you, he’ll try to take credit for just about anything,’ Gilmour said. ‘He’s shameless. Last week he told someone that multi-systemic therapy was originally his idea. Just before Christmas I heard him say CBT was another idea he came up with.’

‘He’s a remarkable man,’ I said.

‘Oh, you don’t know the half of it, my boy,’ Gilmour went on, shaking his head in slow disbelief. ‘Antibiotics, string theory, nanotechnology, the electric violin . . . ‘

He gazed out over the rough winter grey grassland outside his office window. A few white gulls circled against the flat grey sky.

‘How’s your dad?’ I said.

‘My dad?’ he said, suddenly cheering up. ‘My dad is ticketyboo, thanks. Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, you know, just wondering.  Is he still in the prize cattle business?’

‘Oh yes very much so. My boy’s following him into agriculture, you know. Did I tell you that? Oh yes. He’s driving the quad now.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘It seems like only yesterday you were telling me about his first day at school. Doesn’t time fly?’

‘It certainly does. But how’s your dad, by the way? Is he well? He hasn’t retired yet has he?’

‘Retired, my dad? Nah, he’ll never retire. No, he’s still in the same line of work, dismantling old turbines in submarines and that sort of stuff.’

Gilmour nodded earnestly. ‘And his health?’ he said. ‘Is he is good health?’

‘Generally speaking, yes, he is,’ I said. ‘Yes. Like any man of his age he has occasional ailments, of course. He had a touch of scurvy just before Christmas and gets sciatica whenever it snows, but on the whole he’s not doing too badly. Is your dad well?’

‘Father is in the pink! Apart from his gout and the occasional bout of biliousness he’s the very picture of health. Not at all bad for a man who has already had more than his allotted three score and ten. But as you say, none of us is ague-proof. How old is your old man now, by the way?’

‘I’m not really sure,’ I replied. ‘My dad’s very secretive about his age. He always has been. He told me about twenty years ago that he was almost sixty. But that would make him about eighty nine now and I can hardly believe that. I would say he’s perhaps in his late fifties.’

‘Yes,’ Gilmour said, a twinkle coming to his watery blue eyes, ‘father’s like that too. Old people are funny, aren’t they? It has to be something to do with the way they deal with mortality, don’t you think? A little white lie they tell themselves to keep the nearness of the end out of sight. I’ll wager that you and I will engage in the very same self-deception when we get to their stage of life, eh?  There are things we’d all rather not see.’

‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘My dad quite likes the idea of it all being over, I think. I think it’s something else with him. Probably sheer perversity, possibly simply vanity.’

Gilmour smiled and looked at me in what I thought was a rather paternal way. His smile then slowly froze and he returned his gaze to the wide field of winter grass.

‘Fiscal easing,’ he said, a  note of horror in his voice. He was almost whispering, as if at a vision.

I nodded, slowly.

‘I’ve just realised Sultan claimed that one too.’  He turned his head and looked at me with almost exhausted astonishment.

‘You should have challenged him,’ I said.

‘I know I should.  I know I should. But at the time you just don’t realise that it’s happening. He says these things with such absolute confidence – with such a sense of ownership of everything he says – that it never occurs to you that these ideas aren’t his or that they might not be true.’

‘You’re going to have to examine every word our John utters,’ I said. ‘Once he’s sold you the stolen goods it’ll be too late.’

Gilmour smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I like that analogy. A robber selling on his ill-gotten gains, eh? A perfidious charlatan, a fraudster, if you like. Yes, exactly. Caveat emptor must be our dictum in these matters. Beware Sultan’s dodgy goods.’

As I made my way across the car park a few minutes later I spotted Jack Verdi parking up the Ducati near a pile of old snow.

‘Hey, hey, dude, how’s tricks?’ he said, turning up both his black leather-clad palms for me to slap as a greeting. I complied, in a perfunctory manner.

‘I’m pretty good, Jack,’ I said. ‘As good as anyone can be after a morning with the management group.’

Jack took off his gloves and laid them on his bike seat. He lifted the black helmet from his head. He reminded me of Ivanhoe.

‘The management group,’ he said, as if slowly crushing each syllable he uttered. ‘Pah! A bunch of grey suits and sell-outs, you mean. Phony bastards, everyone of them, dude. Who was there?’

‘The usual bunch,’ I said. ‘Gilmour, John Sultan – that lot.’

‘Ah, Goneril and Regan,’ Jack quipped. ‘Was Freddie there?’

I nodded. ‘Yes, he was.’

‘I knew Freddie when he sold the Socialist Worker and was planning the revolution’ Jack said. ‘What price integrity, eh, man? Look at him now – Bungalow Bill. He’s a turncoat, man, a toad-spotted traitor, a Benedict Arnold, a Judas,  a backslider, a deceiver, a defector, a dog-faced deserter, a double-crosser, a hypocrite, a quisling, a snake, a hollow square, a fink, a ghost, a google, a nark, a rat, a weasel, do know what I mean, dude? He’s a sell-out, man. Know what I mean?’

I nodded. ‘So what brings you here, Jack?’ I asked.

‘I’m at the Panel again with the Buttercup boys. Waste of bloody time, of course.’

I nodded again. Jack adjusted the red bobble holding his pony tail.

‘Is the band still going?’ I said.

‘Yeah, of course. I’ll be on the road for the rest of my days, man, I know that now for certain. It’s what I was born for.’

‘Born to be wild, eh, Jack?’ I said, smiling.

He laughed and put his Aviators on. ‘Hey, dude,’ he said. ‘Where do you think Joanna Lumley stayed when she came to Morpeth to open the Sanderson Arcade?’

I looked at him, narrowing my eyes. Surely he wasn’t about to tell me she’d stayed at his place? Surely that couldn’t be true?

‘I’ve no idea really, Jack.’ I said. ‘Where did she stay?’

‘I don’t know either, man,’ he said. ‘I’ve no idea. But I don’t think it would have been at the Anglers Arms in Weldon Bridge, do you?!’

‘No, I wouldn’t have thought so – but hey, who knows, Jack, sometimes – ‘

‘I bumped into Talullah down in the Arcade earlier,’ Jack said, cutting across me. ‘She told me that’s where Joanna stayed, in the Anglers at Weldon Bridge. I told her she was dreaming. We had quite a spat about it.’

‘A spat? Why?’

‘Because I told her she was simply wrong. I told her that I knew as more or less a certainty that Joanna had stayed in the Malmaison in the Town. I told her I knew Joanna and that I’d had a drink with her on the quayside the night after the opening.’

‘I didn’t know you knew Joanna Lumley, Jack’ I said. ‘You kept that one to yourself.’

‘I don’t know her, man. I just said that to our redheaded friend to put her in her place. And it worked! She was just so sure of herself, man. She said someone she knew from Rothbury had told her it for a fact. Bullshit, dude! She was blagging, man, blagging, and we both knew it.’

‘I wouldn’t have thought the Sanderson Arcade was your sort of territory, Jack. What were you doing in a place like that?’

‘I was going to Mark and Sparks to purloin a couple of Mexican Three Bean wraps. Ever had those, man? Delish!’

‘Yes, I like them too, they’re good.’

I drove back down to Ashington listening to The Duke and The King. The first two tracks on the album are pretty good – If You Ever Get Famous and The Morning I Get To Hell. When I got back to the office I told Lily that we’d be getting sniffer cats and she might want to think about whether to use one on the Twichell case.

‘I don’t suppose we get to choose the cats’ names, do we?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I said. ‘We don’t.’

Lily shrugged. ‘That’s a pity,’ she said. ‘It would be nice to call one of them Hercules. I’d call the other one Tim.’

I asked her if she’d like to do the training. She said she would.

When I got home that night Margaret was making batches of onion pate and turnip cakes to put in the freezer. I asked her how Brenda and Tristan were doing.

‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Have you heard something?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I was just curious.’

‘Oh, well they’re fine at the minute, I think. Brenda certainly seems a lot less dissatisfied than she was. I’m pleased about that. She gives a lot to others and deserves a little happiness herself.’

I went out for a walk before tea. I left Plessey Road and wove my way towards Links Road through the streets of South Beach Estate. At the corner of Curlew Way and Lapwing Close a couple were kissing beneath a streetlight. I went on past the pub, along Fulmar Drive to the traffic lights and then down to the beach road roundabout. I walked along to Wensleydale Terrace and Belgrave Terrace and down Ridley Avenue past the old police station building into Blyth town centre. It was quiet, almost deserted. I passed Blockbuster Videos, the yellow light swilling on the damp pavement, and up Waterloo Road as far as Coomassie Road before making my way back to Broadway by way of Princess Louise Road.

When I got home I went on to Amazon and ordered some DVD’s of film versions of King Lear: the Olivier version, the Paul Scofield version, and Grigori Kosintsev’s Russian sub-titled version. The Olivier version arrived a couple of days ago. Olivier is convincing and noble enough in a stolid sort of way, but for me Robert Lindsey steals the film with his callow, lithe, and slippery Edmund, sleek and shiny eyed, like a poacher’s dog. Like a viper.

.

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pandora and cabbages and quietly falling snow

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Margaret spent most of the holidays in Salford with Gloria, who she always refers to as her sister in law, even though it’s now almost five years since she divorced Henry. I have sometimes wondered if they might not one day get back together but the chances of that plunged dramatically recently when Henry was jailed for attempting to steal the genetic code of a certain strain of prize cabbage. Gloria was absolutely distraught at this turn of events and it was in part to support her that Margaret went down for Christmas.

‘Take care of my clocks,’ she said as she left.

‘I will,’ I said, glancing at De Kooning as if to ask him what attention twenty three stopped clocks could possibly require.

Having the house to myself meant I could work on my new painting of Newbiggin as and when I wanted to. I left it propped on the mantelpiece for a fortnight, a jar of brushes next to it. Sometimes you’ve got to look at a painting more or less continuously to know exactly what it needs. I tidied everything up on the night before Margaret came home, of course, and moved all my junk back to my bedroom.

When Margaret came home she told me she’d had a good time. They’d eaten a goose on Christmas day and got tipsy on brandy. Gloria’s present to her was a Pandora bracelet with a collection of charms that means they are eternal friends. She and Gloria had even gone to visit Henry in prison.

‘Oh, did you?’ I said. ‘So how is he?’

‘Bearing up,’ Margaret replied, thoughtfully. ‘But he looked pale, and he’s lost an awful lot of weight, Gloria says.’

‘Must be the porridge,’ I said. ‘Or maybe he’s just not getting his greens.’

Margaret frowned disapprovingly.

‘By the way, what kind of cabbage was it that he tried to steal the genetic code of?’ I asked.

Margaret shrugged.

‘Was it an oxheart?’ I said.

Margaret shook her head.

‘Not an oxheart?’ I said. ‘Okay, was it a colewort or a drumhead?’

Margaret just looked blankly at me.

‘Was it a Savoy?’ I said.

‘I don’t know!’ Margaret said. ‘Why would I know that? Do I look like an expert on cabbages? And for God’s sake what difference does it make what kind of cabbage it was any way? Would there have been a different outcome if it had been a different kind of cabbage?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied, after a short pause. ‘I really don’t know.’

‘So why did you ask?’ Margaret said.

‘Just curious,’ I replied, a little disingenuously.

Margaret spent her first night home cutting up and boiling onions for herself. It had been snowing and because she doesn’t like to drive in the snow she told me she’d brought a present back for Brenda and asked me if I’d take it along for her in the morning.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘What did you buy her?’

‘A Pandora bracelet,’ she replied. ‘It’s really lovely.’

‘Yes,’ I said, nodding like Paul Merton. ‘They’re very popular these days, aren’t they?’

Margaret rang Brenda to tell her I would be coming along. She took the phone into her bedroom and closed the door. The call lasted for an hour.

‘She’s expecting you,’ Margaret said when she came back.

The beach road was a bit slushy as I drove south, but the journey wasn’t difficult. When I got to Brenda’s Tristan let me in. He was just on his way to B & Q at Wallsend to get some Stanley knife blades.

‘Hello, my fwiend,’ he said. ‘Mewwy Chwistmas!’

‘Yes, same to you, Tristan,’ I replied. ‘Did you have a good one?’

‘Yes, vewy good, thanks. Me and Bwenda had a quiet one together and then I was away over the new year seeing my kids. Just got back yesterday, in fact. Bwenda was gweat about it, even gave me a few bob towards the twavel costs. I miss them, you know.’

Tristan and I had a brief conversation about whether there was any evidence that New Labour had ever been or were ever likely to be a party of redistribution. He then asked me if I’d mind if he got away as he was in a hurry. I said I didn’t and I’d just sit in the waiting room until Brenda was free.

I was reading the new copy of Closer magazine when Mrs Byro arrived. She shuffled into the waiting room like a confused armadillo and deposited herself quietly on a chair opposite me. I glanced over the top of my magazine and noticed Mrs Byro was wearing black wellies that were probably several sizes too big for her. Her thick maroon wool socks were folded over the tops of them.

In the article I was reading in Closer it said that Cheryl Cole is planning to dramatically overhaul her hectic lifestyle this year. The article tells us that Cheryl is going to Barbados for a ‘much needed break’ from her husband and that she’s also going to change her diet and fitness regimes. The article also quotes Cheryl as saying she doesn’t like her legs.

‘Hello there,’ Mrs Byro suddenly said, quietly. She took off her floppy purple hat and put it on the table.

‘Hello,’ I said, and smiled. I returned to my magazine, as if deeply engrossed in it.

‘Do you mind if I ask what are you reading?’ Mrs Byro asked me, a minute or so later. ‘It looks very interesting.’

‘It is’ I said. ‘It’s an article about a woman who doesn’t like her legs,’

‘Oh, that must be awful,’ Mrs Byro said. ‘Alien Leg Syndrome – I’ve seen a television programme about that. Enmity towards one’s own limbs is such a cruel and terrible curse. She should come and see Brenda too, shouldn’t she?’

I nodded politely. I looked at Mrs Byro, trying to remember why she comes to see Brenda. I had it in my mind that she came for acupuncture because of an irrational fear of wild deer, but suspected I was probably wrong. Fortunately Mrs Byro herself came to my rescue on this front.

‘I’ve come for some meteor balm,’ she said, smiling nervously.

‘Oh, have you?’ I said.

‘Yes, I have,’ Mrs Byro replied. ‘I did something silly on New Year’s Eve. I came to see Brenda first thing next day but she wasn’t here unfortunately. Her neighbour said she’d been out all night and might not be back for a few days. I finally managed to contact her yesterday and came to see her right away. I hope it isn’t too late.’

I looked at Mrs Byro and smiled. ‘I’m sure it won’t be,’ I said.

Brenda came in to the room at that point. I stood up and she kissed me on both cheeks. It felt vaguely like a scene from Dr Zhivago.

‘How’s Margaret?’ she said, as if she hadn’t spoken to her for an hour not twelve hours earlier.

‘She’s okay,’ I said. ‘A bit worried about Henry, but otherwise fine. And how’s Brenda? Did you have a good new year?’

‘Oh it was all right,’ Brenda said. ‘Very quiet. Just me and Jools Holland, really.’

‘Was Santa kind to you?’ I asked.

‘Yes, he was, thank you. Surprisingly so. I was a very lucky girl this year, I think.’

I nodded. ‘Oh, here’s your extra present from Salford,’ I said, handing her the parcel.

I looked down at Ms Byro. She was sitting like a kitten with tattered fur and swaddled in green and brown cardigans, looking up at a conversation between two giants. I noticed her golden yellow scarf has worn and bobbly. I also noticed she was wearing a Pandora bracelet. I wondered what her combination of charms might mean. They seemed to comprise mostly animals and stars and moons. Something to do with destiny and nature, obviously.

I drove back down to the sea front and north past Feather’s Caravan Site and up towards the Delaval Arms. I was listening to a Josh Ritter CD. As I was going down the hill at Seaton Sluice I decided to go and see my dad for a while. We talked for a while about Eubie Blake. He played me some stuff he’d recorded from the radio in the past few days. Our conversation then turned to politics.

‘Do you think New Labour is a redistributive party?’ I said to him.

‘Oh aye,’ he said. ‘Definitely. Campbell is, any way. Look how much he’s redistributed to himself since he became MP!’

It began to snow as I passed the Astley Arms. I drove into Blyth in a line of slow moving traffic. At South Beach we slowed down at the Amersham Way roundabout.  Tristan was coming out of the estate in his PermaPlumb van. He didn’t see me as he passed me on his way south, back to Whitley Bay. Josh Ritter was singing Thin Blue Flame. I sang along and wondered what Newbiggin looked like in the falling snow.

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the immigrant, the exile and nine lost pieces

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stott bobbin mill corner lakeside windermere

I was on holiday in the Lakes all last week.

On the Friday before I went off I was talking in the corridor to John Sultan, a senior manager from Morpeth. John’s close to another of the managers based in my office building, Edith Joicey – or Jackboots, as she’s sometimes known. Edith is the directorate’s prima donna. Meg Bomberg dislikes Edith intensely. She had a nightmare one night in which Edith had been promoted and was managing her. Next day she almost handed her notice in.

John is a curiously anonymous man. People call him soulless, and if I believed in the soul I’d have to agree. He dresses like a bank clerk, favouring the dependable dark blue of his Marks and Spencer single breasted suit most of the time. Oddly enough some women see him as almost handsome, although to others this perception is so inexplicable that John’s handsomeness has become the perennial subject of what is in essence a metaphysical debate among the female members of the workforce.

Morally, John is an even queerer proposition. Most of the time his ethical functioning appears to be approximately at the level of a ticket machine, or perhaps, to be more exact, of one of those machines you find in an amusement arcade where you insert fifty pence and get the chance to try to grab yourself a fluffy panda using joystick-controlled silver jaws. John is infamous for shameless petty machinations.

John had heard about our suspected MCTS case, Pearl Twichell, and wondered if there had been any developments.

‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Although one of the mice has gone missing.’

‘Which one?’ John asked.

‘Maybellene tells us it’s Penelope. She says that one’s gone missing before, though, and she’s sure it’ll turn up.’

‘Is she telling us the truth?’ John asked, invoking the inclusive corporate entity of the first person plural.

‘We have no evidence that she isn’t, John,’ I replied. ‘But truth, as we all know so well, is more elusive than a mouse in a mountain of mattresses.’

‘Hmmm,’ John said, nodding intelligently. ‘You’re right. But to me a lost mouse is not necessarily a mouse that has become a child.’

My turn to nod intelligently. ‘Yes, exactly, John,’ I said. ‘Exactly.’

‘Okay. Keep me up to date on this one,’ he said and ambulated away noiselessly, without another word of farewell, his neat black leather document case neatly tucked under his neat right arm.

When I got in from work that night Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing her jigsaw again. There was a big pan of sweet Spanish onions bubbling on the cooker.

‘It’s coming along nicely,’ I said.

‘Your cat’s nicked some more pieces and buried them in the garden somewhere. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point in going on with it.’

I looked down at De Kooning, who was sitting near the door cleaning his face.

‘Cats don’t understand jigsaws,’ I said. ‘Or if they do they obviously find them more intriguing if there are pieces missing. And they’re right, of course.  I think we all do. He’s probably just trying to be helpful.’

Margaret ignored me. I got myself a pizza out of the fridge and put it in the oven.  I picked up De Kooning and carried him out into the garden.

‘So what’s the idea of pinching the pieces from the jigsaw?’ I said. ‘Where are you stashing them?’

De Kooning was looking over the fence into Hugo’s burgeoning junkyard.  The water was trickling down the waterfall feature into the dark pond. The heron still peered unblinkingly into its depths.  I noticed a new blue owl had taken up residence a few feet away from the heron and that an oranges and lemons coloured two seater garden swing had been installed close to the decking and the platform clock, which still hasn’t been brought forward into British Summer Time.

‘So just where are you stashing the jigsaw loot, my little bandit friend?’ I said, walking him around the lawn and gazing down into the lilies, the pinks and the marigolds. De Kooning stared down too, joining with me in my curiously forensic scrutiny of the borders. We found no evidence of the jigsaw burials Margaret had suggested and I began to wonder if the missing pieces hadn’t in fact simply been deposited in a little pile somewhere, perhaps under the tangled honeysuckle or down behind the dense dark laurel bush.

Because I was going away the next day, after I’d eaten my pizza I rode along to Seaton Sluice see my dad. We talked about South Newsham mostly. Some time ago my dad told me that when he was a kid the people who lived in South Newsham – which the people in Newsham called “New Newsham” – used to call the place “Spike Island”.  He has no idea why this is as it is not an island and although there are many small burns running off the fields into the sea, there is no evidence that it ever was, although it may have sat among marshy ground. My dad, who has a tendency to pursue such questions slightly obsessively until he gets to the bottom of them, had tried to find out something in Blyth library and spoken to a couple of local historians. Both of them knew of the place being called Spike Island, but neither really knew how it got its name. One suggested that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a pit pond close to the Hannah Foster Pit in South Newsham and suggested that perhaps there were ‘spikes’ – railings of some kind – around the pond to stop people getting too near and falling in. There is no evidence for this hypothesis, of course.

I had Googled “Spike Island” and discovered that one of the places with that name is an island in Ireland near Cork. It has been inhabited for many centuries and the place name is said to mean “island of the Picts”. Saint Mochuba started a church there when Christianity first came to Ireland. In the eighteenth century the island was bought by the British and Fort Westmoreland was built there. In the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia, this fort became a prison where so-called “convicts” were housed awaiting deportation. Other websites tell us that it was in 1847 that “Spike”, as it is called locally, first became a convict depot and that only male convicts were kept there. By 1850 it is said over 2,000 people were being detained there. In 1848, in the middle of the potato blight, John Mitchel, Irish nationalist activist and political journalist, was held on Spike on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. Mitchel had powerfully expressed the widely held view that the famine in Ireland was due to “the greedy and cruel policy of England”.  Mitchell’s classic Jail Journal, one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts, was written, some say, while he was imprisoned at Spike.

When the Industrial Revolution gathered steam it was largely fuelled by coal from the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham, and because there was very limited local industrial labour much of it was drafted in from remote rural agrarian populations, including significant numbers from Ireland, most emigrating to escape the Great Hunger and the mess that British land ownership had wrought to their economy. My dad told me that at one time there was an Irish Club in Blyth, which perhaps gives an indication of just how many families of Irish origin there are in the area. I suggested to my dad that maybe there had been a particularly high number of Irish families in South Newsham and that they called the place Spike Island as a kind of black joke or homage, in much the same way as people talk about certain parts of some towns as Little Italy or Chinatown or Downtown Delhi. Maybe the name of Spike Island was simply meant to say something about life there, that it was not much different to being in a penal colony.

‘What we’d need to know to see if it might be the reason are the names of the families in South Newsham who were brought in to work in the pit,’ I said.

‘Well, I can remember there were Duckworths, Murrays, Latimers, and Sullivans there.  Your granddad was very friendly with one of the Sullivans. That’s an Irish name.’

‘I think Murray is too,’ I said. ‘That’s interesting, isn’t it?’

‘Aye, it is. I think I’ll go down the library and look at some of the old newspapers. They’ve got the Blyth News back to about 1850, I think. That should give us some idea.’

‘Maybe there was a sort of tribal patriarch there, a man called Spike Sullivan,’ I said. ‘A local hero, a sort of giant Irish republican pit-yacker who ruled the roost over there. If there wasn’t there should have been. Maybe it was his island, a bit like Craggy Island is Father Ted’s island.  Maybe this was a metaphorical island in the poetic imagination of the immigrant labouring families of South Newsham – a metaphor for imperialism and colonialism, maybe, a metaphor for lost Ireland itself, as so many fictional islands have been. Maybe there was a time when the Mighty Spike Sullivan – a sort of pitman Cuchulainn, wage-slaving to survive in a strange land – stood on the shallow highlands of South Newsham and dreamed of the home he was exiled from and of becoming the master of his own land. This would have been wishful thinking, of course, because he was never going to own this land any more than he ever owned his own land in Ireland.  But people do dream. Maybe he stood in the shadow of the pit that had taken possession of his life, on a low mound between hope and despair, and imagined the sea rising all around him and this place becoming his very own island – Spike’s Island. Maybe he imagined growing his own corn there one day, grazing a few cows along the shore. Maybe Spike himself named this place, in the same way that the Swiss Family Robinson named their island “New Switzerland”, as an act of ownership and possession, as a way of saying “This is my new Ireland”. Maybe this is the story of the place that the people have now forgotten.’

My dad looked at me as if to say I might be taking things just a teensy weensy bit too far here.

‘Enjoy your holiday,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’

As I rode back home along the track through the sand dunes I was thinking that the story of Spike Sullivan, like the story of Tom Tremble, was one that cried out to be told.

One afternoon last week I was sitting under a parasol at a table outside the Swan Hotel at Newby Bridge. I was looking over the River Leven at the point where it drains out of Windermere to wriggle and snake its way into the Irish Sea at Morecambe Bay. It was sweltering. The air was claggy, the light hazy and intense. A Chinese woman came and sat opposite me. She was slim, in her thirties. Her  fashionable red-rinsed dark brown hair was mid-length, straight and spiky, as if it had been cut with a sickle. To me it had the look of a hay stook about it. She was wearing big black sunglasses – they reminded me of a bluebottle’s eyes – black walking shorts, lightweight walking boots and a short lime green t-shirt. I was drinking a long cold ginger beer. She was drinking sweet cider and ice. The ducks sailed casually to and fro on the idly flowing water. Swifts and swallows swooped and flickered across the stream.  The trees and green rushes stood still all along the banks.

‘Are you staying at the hotel too?’ the woman said to me.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m in a house up by the lake.’

‘Ah, ‘ she said. ‘Do you know a place called Finsthwaite?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, and pointed over to the signpost near the bridge. ‘It’s up that way too. Are you going there?’

‘Yes. I want to see the grave of Clementina Douglas. Have you heard of her?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Should I have?’

The Chinese woman told me the tale of Clementina Douglas, who is also known as the Finsthwaite Princess. She was buried in Finsthwaite churchyard on 16 May 1771, her full name being recorded as Clementina Johannes Sobieski Douglas of Waterside, a spinster. It turns out that the story is probably apocryphal, but one which has some historical truth as its basis and which has fascinated many locals for more than a century. 

The Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had a long term relationship with Clementina Walkinshaw, his mistress.  Rumours grew that she had a daughter to him, and that this daughter was subsequently shipped off to some remote and secluded place. Local people say that Clementina Douglas was this daughter.  The evidence is slim that Bonnie Prince Charlie had any daughter other than his acknowledged daughter Charlotte, the Duchess of Albany, born in 1753, and even slimmer that if he did then Clementina Douglas was that daughter, living in concealment. Some have suggested that she may have been the daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw but that the father may be a different man. What we do seem to know for certain is that Clementina Douglas did live in Waterside, with a man called Captain James Douglas, who it is believed may have been her father. The rooms in Waterside had been rented by Captain Douglas since at least 1752. The historical evidence that she may have been the child of Clementina Walkinshaw rests on an ambiguous passage in a letter to James III’s secretary. That evidence would put her date of birth somewhere between 1745 and 1747.  The age of Clementina Douglas at her death in 1771 is not known, although clearly if she was the supposed daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw she would have been only aged about 25 when she died.

‘So she died young,’ I said. ‘Do we know what she died of?’

‘I don’t think so,’ The Chinese woman with the sickle cut hair replied. ‘But her dying young seems at odds with parts of the story which has been passed down. In the story she is described “a grand lady”.’

‘Maybe that just means she was posh,’ I said. ‘You know, not just an ordinary person like you or I. Maybe someone more like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson or Joanna Lumley.’

‘Yes, maybe. It is said she was very involved with a family called the Backhouses, who lived at Jolliver Farm, who do seem to have been members of the gentry.  A fellow called Ned Fell said he reburied Clementina’s remains in the grave of a certain Miss Backhouse when the old church was demolished. Others say however that it was a man called Joseph Charles Hunter who dug up and reburied the remains of the princess. They say that among the remains there was some of her fair golden hair and some blue ribbons with which it would have been tied.’

At that point a local man who had been standing behind us came forward and joined in the conversation. He was a tall, broad and grey haired. He had a pot belly. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt with a lattice of dark blue lines across the fabric and a little porkpie sunhat.  His trousers were held up by a broad brown leather belt. It turns out he had been a farmer in the area all his life and was now retired and living with his wife in a house up at nearby Canny Hill.

‘You’re talkin’ about the Princess, I see,’ the pot-bellied farmer said. ‘I don’t believe myself that she was the daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but I know there’s a lot that do. Of course, I know the tale about the mysterious stranger coming and planting a Scottish thistle on her grave and how as the years passed the churchyard became thick with these foreign invaders. But you go up there now and I’ll lay you a pound to a penny you can’t find one Scottish thistle.’

The Chinese woman in her big sunglasses and I both nodded.

‘But they do say that Bonnie Prince Charlie was in Kendal in 1745, so he obviously knew the area,’ she said to the farmer.

‘Oh, yes, but you two are sitting here today. Does it mean in a hundred years time that’ll be reason enough to say you had a daughter and hid her away somewhere up in the woods yonder? I think not. Folks around here like a good yarn and they’re not ones for letting the truth get in the way of their enjoyment.’ The farmer pushed his pork pie hat back on his ruddy forehead, put his pint to his lips and looked out over the river. The conversation then took an unexpected twist.

‘Of course,’ the farmer said, ‘you’ll know the tale about the escaped murderer who holed up in these parts and believed she really was the Finsthwaite Princess?’

We both shook our heads.

‘You don’t? Oh this happened when I was just a young un’. It was a lass called Florence Nelson. She had been imprisoned after murdering her lover’s girlfriend by running her over with a steam roller. You’ve never heard about her?’

The Chinese woman shook her head. But I was delighted at the prospect of hearing more about Florence Nelson and said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard bits of that story. The Bowness Steamroller Murderess. She murdered Sharon Sweet, a red-headed woman. Her lover was Ned Perfect.’

‘That’s the one,’ the farmer said. ‘Spot on. Well. You might know then that Florence escaped from prison by digging a tunnel with a table spoon. Took her years by all accounts. And it seems that while she was imprisoned and working on her escape she came to see herself as an imprisoned princess of some kind.  Florence believed in rebirth and reincarnation and all that codswallop, and she eventually came to believe she had been Mary Queen of Scots in a previous lifetime. The prison authorities were aware of this, of course, but they had already marked her card as a woman who was bonkers and who would never return to society and so they were happy to humour her. The wardens began to call her Your Highness and M’Lady and to bring in pictures of Scottish castles and West Highland terriers for her, which she stuck up on the walls of her cell with Sellotape. Some even used to bring her back presents from their holidays, such as Edinburgh rock or a haggis from Dundee or some shortbread biscuits from Inverness or a woolly Tam o’ Shanter from Hawick. It seems that nothing in the whole world delighted Florence so much as getting gifts from Scotland. It’s said that during the years she took to dig herself out she read all of Walter Scott’s novels several times over. She had to all intents and purposes vanished into a make-believe world of being reborn Jacobite royalty.’

‘My God,’ the Chinese woman exclaimed. ‘So did you ever meet her yourself?’

‘No,’ the farmer said. ‘I didn’t, no. But I remember when they eventually found her and hearing all about it from my mother and other folks who lived around here.  Florence Nelson really did exist, we know that for a fact, believe me.’

‘I thought you said she believed she was the Finsthwaite Princess,’ I said. ‘But surely the Finsthwaite Princess wasn’t Mary Queen of Scots?’

‘No, no, of course not,’ the farmer replied, putting his pint down on the table. ‘No. When she was eventually apprehended again, just after the terrible events up by the ferry, she was wearing a wig of long golden hair tied up with blue ribbons. When the policeman asked her for her name she said, in a Scots accent, that it was Clementina Douglas, and from that day onwards, even when she was returned to prison to serve out the rest of her life sentence, she refused to be known by any other name.  Some time between escaping from prison believing she was a reincarnation of Mary Stuart and being arrested again she had convinced herself that it was a different Scots royal she had been in her previous life, the so-called Finsthwaite Princess. My mother told me that as Clementina sat in handcuffs in the back of the Black Maria that took her back to prison she sang The Skye Boat Song for the whole journey.’

At that point the pot-bellied farmer’s mobile phone rang in his shirt pocket. He had The Archers theme tune set as his ring tone.

‘Oh, hello Billy,’ he said. ‘How you getting on? Is it buggered? Do you need me to come over and give you a hand?’

It seems it was buggered and Billy did, and so the pot-bellied farmer drank down the last of his beer, bid us farewell and made his way round to the car park, from where he emerged a couple of minutes later in a shiny black Landrover Discovery.

‘So do you think that’s all true?’ the Chinese woman said to me. ‘All that stuff about the woman who thought she was Mary Queen of Scots and dug her way out of prison with a spoon?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It might be. I’ve heard about her before and how she murdered people with a stolen steamroller. I’d never heard about her believing she was anybody’s reincarnation, though. Still, if the stories about the Finsthwaite Princess are true than why shouldn’t those about Florence Nelson be?’

The Chinese woman nodded and smiled, the spikes of her hair twitching like the red-brown elements of fibre optic lamp. On the quiet Leven mallards cruised from bank to bank in the relentless heat. White butterflies twirled by.

‘I think I might have another drink,’ she said. ‘Would you like another ginger beer?’

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Thank you. That’s very kind.’

On the day after I went to Finsthwaite churchyard it was again hot and humid. I drove over to Coniston and for a few hours walked the high fells. It was glorious. There is perhaps no experience in the world during which anyone will feel more alive and human than walking the mountains in summer.

Early in the afternoon I walked back down through the village and followed the Cumbrian Way down to Coniston Hall and on through the campsite to the lake shore. I sat on a big stone beneath the trees looking out over the lake to Brantwood, thinking about Ruskin. A group of four giggly teenage girls in bikinis pitched themselves on the shore not too far from me. They immediately noticed a group of boys in Canadian canoes a hundred yards or so further up the lake. In inflatable watercraft – gaudy airbeds and a shiny blue dolphin – they set out on the water, constantly giggly loudly to lure the canoe boys closer.  The strategy took about twenty minutes to work, but eventually the boys arrived.  Two of the girls had just climbed into one of the canoes as I set off to walk back to the village. I imagined Ruskin’s ghost with binoculars at a window across the lake wondering how it was that such sirens as these could complicate paradise. There is evidence that when he was alive Ruskin had a bit of the Humbert Humbert about him and it seems reasonable to assume that the ghost of a man will have the same character as the man himself did, although as I passed by Ruskin’s grave later I admit I began to wonder if I shouldn’t apologise for even thinking that someone like him would ever contemplate perving at those Coniston Lolitas.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen peeling some carrots. Her jigsaw was on the table and at first glance appeared to be finished.

‘Is it all done?’ I said.

‘It’s as done as it can be,’ Margaret replied. ‘But there’s a big hole in it. There’s something very strange about your cat.’

I walked over and looked at the jigsaw. It was indeed completely done except for the area from which De Kooning had taken the pieces. It so happened that the pieces he had taken turned out to be those from the cab window of the steam roller. De Kooning had removed all traces of the driver and his face.

‘Ha ha,’ I said. ‘That’s amazing!’

‘That’s spooky,’ Margaret said. ‘It’s a message of some kind, I’m sure of it. I’m going to get Brenda to come and look at it.’

‘It’s a coincidence,’ I said. ‘Pure chance.’

‘Are you trying to say that by pure chance a cat has taken nine pieces from a thousand piece jigsaw that just happen to fit together and that are the only nine pieces that include any part of the driver?’

‘Hmmm, that does seem remarkable,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’

‘Spooky is what it is, spooky. Do you know what I think he’s done? He’s taken one piece for each of his nine lives. Piece by piece he’s stolen the soul of the steamroller driver for himself. I’m going to ring Brenda and see what she thinks. I’m sure I’m right.’

I put the kettle on and poured a sachet of instant cappuccino into a mug. De Kooning wandered in from the garden and jumped up on my rucksack, as he often does when I return from holiday.  I picked him up and gave him a stroke.

‘No, I’ll tell you what he was doing,’ I said. ‘He was attracted to the pieces with pink in them. That’s what he did, he selected the pink pieces. He didn’t know that the only pink was the pink of the human face and hands. He just likes pink. That’s all this hole in your jigsaw means, nothing more mysterious than that. De Kooning simply likes the pink pieces.’

Margaret shook her head sceptically. She wasn’t buying it. She was going to ring Brenda whether I liked it or not.

.

yellow cheese and moondust

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newsham park - new delaval blyth

It looks like Tristan bottled it.

‘How did Brenda’s birthday go?’ I asked Margaret on Monday. ‘Was she happy with her presents?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ Margaret replied. She was polishing one of her clocks with lemon-scented Pledge. ‘Tristan’s taken her off for a surprise last minute holiday in the Lakes.’

‘Has he?’ I said. ‘Where have they gone?’

‘They gone to one of your hideaways,’ Margaret replied, buffing the clock face with a yellow duster. ‘Bowness.’

Bowness is obviously the new Prague, I thought.  I expect I’ll discover a bottle of Fursty Ferret and a slab of Kendal Mint Cake on the kitchen bench any day now.

A week or so ago we received a referral from Carol Anne McKenzie, a School Health Advisor, about an eight year old girl, Pearl Twichell. Carol Anne suspected that Pearl’s mother – who rather interestingly goes by the name of Maybellene, hopefully after the eponymous heroine of the old Chuck Berry song – was acting in a way that suggested possible MCTS, Malignant Child Transformation Syndrome. Such cases are few and far between these days and I admit to regarding the suggestion with a fair degree of skepticism. However, the case was allocated to Lily and after her initial assessment she felt Carol Anne might well be right.

We called a strategy meeting to share information. Lily told the meeting that she’d asked Maybellene directly about the concerns leading to her involvement.

‘I asked her straight out,’ Lily said, ‘“have you been trying to turn your daughter Pearl into a mouse?” Maybellene replied that she hadn’t. “Isn’t it true that you have three pet mice?” I asked. “It is,’” she replied. “Were those mice once children?” I asked. “Not so far as I know,” she replied, which struck me as a curious answer because it seemed to me to admit the possibility that they might have been. “Are you telling me they might once have been children?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “what I’m saying is that I don’t know. I got those three mice off a traveller who lodged in my house for a while. They were his. When he left he left them behind. I never inquired into their history or ancestry.” “Why not?” I asked. “Weren’t you curious?” “No,” she replied, in a way that was almost cocky, “I didn’t ever think it mattered.”  I think one of the things this meeting needs to realise is that in Maybellene we have a woman of exceptional guile and cleverness. She knows the answers professionals want to hear. Sometimes while I was talking to her I felt she was simply toying with me.’

Jennifer, our new Senior Spells and Potions Advisor, a small plump woman with curly grey hair, nodded knowingly. “I’ve met women like Maybellene before,’ she said. ‘They are very difficult to read sometimes.’

‘Yes, any way,’ Lily went on, slightly irritated, ‘I then asked her why her three mice were called Polly, Penelope and Priscilla. She said they were already named when she got them from the traveller. “But those three names are all girl’s names, aren’t they?” I said. She accepted that this was true, interestingly enough. But she was too clever to fall into my trap. “So are they girls?” I said. “No,” she replied, looking at me as if butter wouldn’t melt, “they’re mice.” “And you’re quite sure that they weren’t girls before they were mice?” “As I said,” she said, “I do not know their full history.” I’m not an aggressive woman, as you all well know, but at that point I felt like planting her one, I can tell you!’

‘But she’s clever. Isn’t she?’ Jennifer remarked. ‘She isn’t suggesting transformation is out of the question. No, she’s only saying that if it occurred it’s not something she had a hand in.’

‘Can we believe her?’ I asked.

‘No, I don’t think we can,’ Lily said. ‘And in any case, surely to take possession of mice you know to have been transformed from infants is little better than to transform those infants yourself. It’s like the kind of thing we did with the torture of those suspected Islamic terrorists – farmed it out to the Americans and Moroccans. If she knew about the transformation she is an accomplice, and therefore responsible for the trafficking of transformed infants.’

‘But do we have any clear evidence about the two areas of concern here,’ I asked. ‘First, that she has been seeking to transform her daughter Pearl into a mouse, and second, that the three mice she keeps are in fact transformed infants?’

The meeting was completely silent.

‘Jennifer,’ I said, ‘these spells that Maybellene is believed to have been using – what do we know about those?  How potent are they? Are they specific to mouse turnings? Do they provide us with clear evidence of an attempted transformation?’

‘They are of moderate potency,’ Jennifer said. ‘Certainly not spells of extraordinary efficacy. But they could achieve mouse turnings if used properly by a skilled practitioner.  However, they are not mouse turning specific and indeed have a quite broad application, including some relatively mundane and benign uses, such as vanquishing the white spots from toenails.’

‘What about the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell?’ Lily asked. ‘That’s the one Pearl’s teacher found written in Maybellene’s handwriting in one of Pearl’s schoolbooks. Isn’t that one specific to mouse turnings?’

‘Yes, Jennifer said, ‘that one is. But what evidence is there that Maybellene ever uttered it?  And that spell is also really only suitable for use by experts. It requires extraordinary exactness and patience. In the wrong hands it can have catastrophic results.  There are many well documented cases of accidental snake and toad turning by inexperienced users of that particular spell. It’s not a spell that comes without hazards. I suppose we’ve got to ask if a mother who loves her child as much as Maybellene appears to love Pearl would take the chance of such a catastrophic outcome.’

‘You see, Jennifer,’ Lily said, becoming distinctly matriarchal and assertive in her tone, ‘this is where you and I differ. To me any mother who would transform her child into a mouse by definition does not love that child. Such an act is a de facto rejection in my eyes and self-evidently emotionally abusive.’

Jennifer nodded patiently. She looked a little like a dandelion clock. ‘I respect your position on this issue, Lily,’ she said. ‘As you know, this is one of those difficult questions that child care professionals we haven’t yet come to a clear consensus about.’

Lily shrugged, and gave me a snarky make-believe smile.

‘The other issue, of course,’ Jennifer continued, ’is that even if we could show that at any point she did give voice to the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell, we’d also have to prove intent. The recent judgement in Highspot v Northamptonshire makes it clear that unless malignant intent can be clearly demonstrated there is no legal basis for seeking an order on the grounds of the utterance of transformative spells. You’ll recall that in that case a child’s grandmother had uttered a spell in her sleep and by accident turned her granddaughter, who had been sleeping nearby, into a lettuce. The court agreed this transformation would have been malignant but only if intent could be proven. Social Services’ applications for orders in respect of the other children in the family were dismissed.’

‘The law’s a mess on this issue,’ Lily said. ‘I think judges are getting this all wrong. The whole thing needs sorting out.’

‘I agree with Lily about this,’ Carol Anne declared. ‘If you ask me no normal mother would act in such a way and any family who even knows such spells should not be considered fit to care for children.’

We all know them, of course,’ I remarked.

‘Yes, but we’re professionals,’ Carol Anne countered. ‘We are not in the business of harming children.’

I nodded sagely. ‘So what about Maybellene?’ I said. ‘You met her too, Jennifer, didn’t you? What did you make of her?’

‘I agree with Lily that she’s a very very clever woman. But I too struggled to find definite proof of malignant intent – or indeed even of intent to transform.’

‘Did you challenge her?’ Lily asked, obviously bristling.

‘Of course,’ Jennifer replied. ‘I also asked her directly about the concerns. “How many children have you turned into mice?” I asked. “None,” she replied. “How many times have you uttered spells over your daughter?’ I asked. “Never,” she replied. “How many spells do you know?” I asked. ‘None,” she replied. “So what about the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell, which is written in your hand in one of Pearl’s school books,” I said, thinking I’d finally caught her out. “Isn’t that just a nursery rhyme?” she said, as if butter wouldn’t melt. “No,” I replied, “it’s a mouse turning spell.” She frowned and said, “Well, I never. You learn something every day. Who would have ever thought it.” I’ll knock the smugness out of you, I thought to myself. “What about when the school nurse – sorry Carol Anne, I know I should have said School Health Advisor – heard you muttering under your breath when you were standing alone in the corridor outside Pearl’s classroom?  What were you muttering then, if it wasn’t a spell?” “A psalm,” she says, as bold as brass. “A psalm.”’

‘A psalm!’ Carol Anne exclaimed. ‘Well, I ask you. I’m telling you it was no psalm she was chanting outside that classroom.’

‘But the difficulty is we have no evidence to prove it wasn’t a psalm, Carol Anne,’ Jennifer said. ‘By your own admission you didn’t actually hear what she was saying. And Maybellene does seem to dote on Pearl, doesn’t she? That child obviously wants for nothing.’

‘Do we have any evidence of harm?’ I asked, looking towards Stephen, our legal advisor, who had sat quietly listening. ‘Anything we could put before a court?’

‘Not in what I’ve heard so far,’ he said. ‘No. Nothing that would stand up.’

‘And there’s been no evidence of transformational signs in Pearl?’ I asked. ‘Carol Anne?’

‘No, none that I’ve seen. No facial fur patches, no ear changes, no changes to her vocal range – nothing.’

‘Of course, we know gradual transformations are very much the exception,’ Jennifer said. ‘Most transformations are instantaneous and occur immediately on the utterance of an efficacious spell.’

Lily looked despondent. Her hunch was that Pearl was at serious risk of malignant transformation, and she may well be right. But unfortunately the evidence wasn’t there to support a decisive intervention in Pearl’s life. This is often the case in social work, the complexities and conflicts of which are not at all understood by the media or the general public, who have for the most part little idea of the reality of the lives of the marginal families we deal with. The lives of the underclass are more or less invisible to the great mass of society. Inevitably we concluded that we didn’t have grounds to remove Pearl from Maybellene’s care and that we could only continue to work with the family on a voluntary basis and try to monitor Pearl’s welfare closely.

As I drove home that evening the sun was shining. I was listening to the Felice Brothers’ album Yonder Is The Clock. It’s good potent rootsy music, Americana, as the genre is called these days, music unmistakably in the tradition of The Band, Dylan, Tom Waits, the Jayhawks and the like. It has that same sort of loose texture and abrasive darkness.

As I sat in the traffic queue on the Horton road at the Laverock Hall Farm roundabout I began wondering what other albums or songs had clocks in their title. The obvious one was Bill Haley and The Comet’s Rock Around the Clock. I wondered how many more I could think of before I got to the roundabout. It turned out to be fewer than I thought, probably because the queue was shorter than usual, or perhaps because there are fewer than I imagine there are. This was my list:

Clocks by Coldplay
Clockwork Orange Soundtrack
Sky Like a Broken Clock by Kelly Joe Phelps
Stop The Clocks by Oasis
Punch The Clock by Elvis Costello
Clock Without Hands by Nanci Griffith
Beat The Clock by Sparks

 

When I got home I noticed that a large bright blue barrel had landed on the gravel in Hugo’s front garden fairly close to his path, near the car wheels and the sheets of plasterboard. It looked like a depth charge. The colour contrasted vividly with the orange of the Bond Bug. I stopped for a moment beneath the fidgety green canopy of the birch and noticed the hosta against my fence were now growing strongly. The air was cool and there was a bit of a breeze. As I was feeding De Kooning Margaret came in and began preparing her vegetables. I got changed and went out for a walk. I went through the Solingen Estate, through Ridley Park, and along the quayside. I came back up Waterloo Road, past the open space of the refurbished market place. At the spire of the Presbyterian church I turned south on to Cypress Gardens and made my way back to Broadway field. A couple of young children in yellow coats and their parents were in the new play area. When I got back Margaret was out. I put Shine Eyed Mister Zen on the CD player. De Kooning sat with me and we listened to it. It’s my favourite Kelly Joe Phelps album and I hadn’t heard it for far too long.

The weather went downhill later in the week. It rained and got windy. I went to my dad’s in the car.  Our conversation was dominated by the MP’s expenses scandal.

‘I see Campbell’s paid back six thousand pounds for furniture he bought for his house in London,’ my dad said. He was talking about our honourable member, the redoubtable Red Flag Ronnie.

‘I noticed that,’ I said, munching on a chocolate Brazil. ‘Such a generous gesture. But I bet we don’t know the half of it yet, eh?’

Campbell is an unreconstructed old style pseudo-egalitarian. He may lack Peter Mandelson’s urbane façade and sophistication, perhaps even his intelligence, but at the end of the day they have more in common than either would admit. Campbell used to be a miner, an NUM official at the time of the miner’s strike in 1984. He got himself elected on a wave of local Labour party consolation, mixed with the disillusionment with the absent carpetbagger who was his predecessor. Ronnie had a slogan, a vision, a USP: he was an ordinary man, a man of the people, a socialist. He declared to the whole self-seeking throng of Thatcher’s world that he, Ronnie Campbell, would do an MP’s job on a miner’s wage. Hubris, Ronnie, hubris. Nowadays he rakes in nearly quarter a million pounds a year from being an MP, taking his full sixty five grand salary and pretty much every expense he can, including the usual twenty odd thousand for the mortgage payments on a second home. Many people also believe that his wife is probably on his office staff payroll, although to date Ronnie’s been a bit coy about sharing the details of that arrrangement with the electorate. This is at least consistent with his unstinted opposition to the introduction of the new Freedom of Information legislation, of course.

When Ronnie was elected he lived in an old terraced house in Cowpen Quay. He now lives in a big detached house on Marine Terrace and drives to the betting shop in his Jaguar. It turns out that what some of us suspected all along was true: Red Flag Ronnie doesn’t really have a red bone in his body. His sort of socialism was never going to have the spine to reasist the siren songs of the John Lewis list.

‘Aye, Campbell’s been a big disappointment,’ my dad said. ‘I know you didn’t agree with me, but I thought he was a decent man, somebody who was on the side of ordinary people. But we know now he’s just as bad as the rest of them. How does he think history will remember him now? It won’t be as a socialist or a man of the people. It’ll be as just another insignificant self-seeking old Labour crook, the ex-pitman who had to pay back six thousand pound for furniture he’d fiddled on expenses.’

‘Yeah, that and his support for fetishes,’ I joked, alluding to the occasion last year when Ronnie had declared his public support for National Fetish Day after misunderstanding the meaning of the word. Ronnie thought it had something to do with worrying about which horse to bet on. ‘You can see the headline for his obituary already, can’t you – Furniture and Fetishes MP Dies.’

‘What do you think happens to them when they get into Parliament?’ my dad said, a look of disbelief on his face. ‘Is it an infection, do you think, like the Swine Flu? Or is it just the glitter and clink of the cash? Is that what casts a spell on them?’

‘Maybe it’s the wicked witch from the Fees Office,’ I said. ‘But I don’t buy the idea that these are good people inevitably transformed to bad people by some strange irresistible system. Not everyone turns bad. Those people that do were perhaps weak and self-deceiving from the start. Maybe they were never really in it for the good they could do, or if they were there was always a stronger motive lurking behind that façade, one waiting like a lion to pounce out and devour them – self-interest, vanity or greed. We don’t choose our representatives well. We choose them for sentimental and irrational reasons. We don’t really know them when we choose them, we only know the label they’ve got stuck to them. It’s a pig in a poke every time.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ my dad said. ‘Campbell did well enough during the strike. He looked like he was on the right side then, no-one can say he didn’t. You’ve got to be fair to the man.’

‘Appearances are deceptive,’ I said, nibbling at what was at least my seventh chocolate Brazil. ‘That’s the bedrock of modern politics, isn’t it?’

‘Surely the Labour Party will deselect him before the next election,’ my dad said.

‘Do you think so?’ I said. ‘I bet they don’t. If he isn’t their candidate, it’ll be because he’s decided himself not to stand.’

‘Well he should stand down. The man should be ashamed to stand again.’

‘Maybe that’s why he won’t stand down – because it’d be admitting his faults. And any way he’s probably forgiven himself already. Politicians never let their sins weigh on their consciences for very long.’

‘Well, I’ll not vote for the scoundrel,’ my dad said, picking up my empty pineapple juice glass and taking it to the kitchen. ‘And I’ll tell you this, there’s a lot of other people who won’t either. They cannot understand why he did it!’

‘Did what? Bought the furniture? Well, he thought he was entitled to it.’

‘Pah, baloney! He knew he wasn’t entitled to it! He’s a stupid bugger, I’ll grant you that, but he knew fine well he was only entitled to what he needed. Do you not think so?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I do think so. But I think Ronnie lacks a reliable moral compass and probably always has. It’s depressing. Another example of an all too corruptible fallen socialist, yet more evidence that the prospect of a fair world is just pie in the sky. It just confirms the view that greed is human nature and that everyone’s born like that. But if we are we’re done for. It’s just a dog eat dog, cat eat mouse world.’

I drove back in the rain, past the new beach huts and on to Plessey Road. I listened again to Yonder Is The Clock. I was pondering whether I’m sometimes a bit too hard on Ronnie and wondering if Tristan and Brenda were back from Bowness yet.

 .

a fickle food, a shifting plate

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newsham-pub-blyth-acrylic-painting-2009-16-x-16

This is the painting of Newsham. I want to consider it done. But sometimes the hardest thing to do is to leave something alone. I wanted it to be approximate and rough, and I think that’s what it is. But there’s always that temptation to smooth things out, to aim for some sort of illusory verisimilitude or exactness. It’s sometimes so easy to forget that a painting is a painting and that the world isn’t.

I bumped into Jack Verdi in the County Hall car park at Morpeth one day last week. He was sitting side-saddle on the black Ducati, his helmet squatting inscrutably on the tank, his mirrored Aviators gleaming in the sun. He was all in black leather, thinner than a Johnny Spinner. He was smoking and blowing long feathery plumes of blue-grey smoke into the sky, as if he was whistling.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘Sorry –  I mean Spider.’

‘Hey, hey, how’s it hangin’, dude?’

‘I’m fine. And you?’

‘I’m good. Just catching a few rays before I go back down.’

‘You need to careful smoking here,’ I said. ‘You’re not supposed to, and you’re bound to be on CCTV.’

‘Ah, CCTV my arse,’ Jack said. ‘They’re my lungs. If they don’t like what I do to them they know what they can do about it, eh?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘They can sack you.’

Jack laughed.

‘Hey, I saw Owen the other day,’ I said. ‘He looked very well. Now there’s a man with clean lungs.’

‘Clean everything,’ Jack said, sarcastically.

‘He doesn’t have any kids, does he?’ I said.

Jack shook his head. ‘No, he doesn’t. That’s probably because he’s never had sex, of course. Sex is dangerous, man. Owen probably thinks it’ll kill him. And you know Owen, man – every time a woman smiles at him he probably sees the face of the Reaper.  I mean, yeah, I know we all do, man, but with him it’s different. Owen’s the kind of guy who thinks he’ll live forever as long as he doesn’t take any chances and swallows a hatful of vitamins every day. Owen sees a pretty face and he’s reaching for the skullcap and wild lettuce.’

‘Maybe if he had kids he’d have a different attitude to life, eh?’ I said.

‘Yeah, maybe he would take a walk on the wild side while he’s still got the legs to do it. He might let himself take a few chances knowing that if he fell into the fire at least he’d have a sprog to carry the flag on for him. Once you’re gone you can’t come back. You’ve got to leave your mark on this place somehow. It’s just like the man says, dude, it’s better to burn out than fade away.’

Jack began to sing: Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die. I wanted to ask him if he had any kids, but it didn’t seem the right time. I waved him goodbye and headed off back to the office. I listened to Bill Callaghan’s latest album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. This might be his best album. He is urbane, controlled, poetic, dark, ironic, intelligent, spare – a classicist of a kind. His song Dress Sexy at My Funeral from an earlier album has long been a favourite of mine.

On Saturday I went out on my mountain bike. I rode around the back streets of Newsham before going out on the tracks over the fields to New Hartley and on along the cycle track from the Avenue to Monkseaton before turning back towards Seaton Sluice. I took the track behind St Mary’s Lighthouse. It was a sunny afternoon, pleasant despite the slightly cold breeze blowing from south east, and the sea was a deep cobalt blue.

My dad looked well. On his new digital television recorder he had recorded a documentary on the string quartet and he played it for me as we talked and I drank my usual glass of pineapple juice and ate my usual quota of chocolate Brazils. I used to have a recording of Beethoven’s late quartets which I liked a lot, but my favourite quartets are probably those by Debussy and Ravel. I have memories locked up in them and those memories are somehow preserved there forever, even though they bleed and drip from them at every listening.

‘Who do you think is the most famous person born in Blyth?’ I said. ‘Not counting the Cloughs, who are obviously famous among Northumbrian pipers.’

My dad shook his head. ‘Blyth has not produced many famous people,’ he said. ‘I can’t think of any artists or writers, can you?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Has it produced anyone famous.’

‘Clem Stephenson,’ my dad said. ‘He was probably the most famous.’

‘Who was he?’ I asked.

‘Clem Stephenson? You must have heard of him. He played football for England and Aston Villa. He was manager at Huddersfield for years. You must have heard of Clem Stephenson.’

He looked at me as if waiting for it to dawn on me who this man was.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Was he from Blyth?’

‘Whey aye. He was born in New Delaval. Just over the gates from Newsham.’

I shook my head. ‘So when was this?’ I said.

‘Oh, he was born in the century before last. I think he played for Leeds United in the first war. Aye, Clem Stephenson. Your granddad knew him.’

The string quartet documentary was now looking at Bartok’s first quartet. It occurred to me that Bartok had probably written all six of his string quartets during  more or less the same period that Clem Stephenson had followed his career in football. Other than that coincidence there is probably little or no connection between them, of course. I love the dark sorrow of Bartok. I really must go on to Amazon and get myself a recording of his first string quartet.

I rode back to Blyth on the Beach Road, the wind behind me. As I passed the cemetery I thought about Harry Clough again. It’s amazing that a man I hadn’t heard of until a few weeks ago happens to be one of the most famous people this town has ever produced. It was even more amazing that the person my dad reckons is the most famous of them all is someone I hadn’t heard of at all until that day. Fame is obviously a fairly relative concept and not quite as solid as we sometimes think. There are obviously lots of famous people a lot of us have never heard of. ‘Fame is a fickle food – Upon a shifting plate,’ as Emily Dickinson once said.

A few months ago our office cleaner Eric discovered that Owen used to be in Proudlute. Eric watches a lot of Freeview TV and has a magpie’s intelligence. He also does a lot of pub quizzes. It was only a matter of time before Owen’s shiny identity wound up twinkling in Eric’s tattered nest.

‘How, is ya marra that blowk from Proodloot?’ he said to me one day.

‘Do you mean Jack?’ I said.

‘Is he the one who aallways carries a placka bag and wears claes that divvent fit him?’

‘No, that’s Owen,’ I said. ‘Jack’s the one with legs like an arthritic spider.’

‘Aye, whey it’s Owen aa mean. He’s famous, isn’t he?’

‘Well, he’s not Elvis,’ I said. ‘But I guess he used to be reasonably well known among a certain social sub-group.’

‘Aye, like ‘ee was on Top of the Pops, an’ that, waasn’t ‘ee?’

‘Was he? Yes, he might have been.’

‘Whey next time he’s in, man, tip iz the wink so aa can talk tiv him. Aa waant to ask him aboot his records an’ that. Did ‘ee’s band not once tour wi’ the Captain and Tennille?’

‘I’m not sure about that,’ I said. ‘I think they once appeared on a TV show with Basil Brush.’

‘Did the’? Really? Wow!’

For a couple of months now I’ve had more or less this exact same conversation with Eric two or three times every week. He was obviously desperate to meet the famous Owen face to face. Last Wednesday we had our ritual conversation again, at the end of which I told Eric that Owen was in the Lakes this week.

‘D’yuh mean like Ullswaater an’ aall that?’ he said.

‘Yeah, although Owen’s in Keswick, which is a bit further west.’

‘Aye, aa’ve hord of it. Is that the place where that lass mordered them folks wi’ the steamrowler?’

‘No, that was Bowness on Windermere. How do you know about that?’

‘Aa divvent knaa. Ur, aye, wor young ‘un towld iz. I divvent knaa owt aboot it though, ownly that bit aboot the steamrowler. Ur, an’ waasn’t one of aa victims a ginger-heided lass an aall that?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sharon.’

‘Aye, that waas hor. Anyhoo, next time ya marra’s ower giz a shoot. Aa cannot wait to taalk tiv ‘im.’

Today Eric’s wish was finally granted.  Owen had been over for a meeting about the two Daniels. We were in the corridor talking at about quarter to five when Eric arrived. We were talking about his trip to the Lakes with Heidi. Owen was just telling me about their hike along Friar’s Crag.  He had his bag for life at his side (the contents of which on this occasion I hadn’t enquired into) and was wearing large billowing beige trousers, a very loose white cheesecloth shirt and brown sandals, beneath which he wore pale blue-grey socks.

‘Eric, this is Owen,’ I said, introducing them.

‘Are ye the blowk from Proodloot?’ Eric said, giddy with excitement. ‘Wor young ‘uns got aall ya records. Ya like one of wor heroes, man. We aalways play ya records when we gan doon to the Prymeeaa.  Whaat’s that track again, the one ya famous for? Aw, noo whaat’s it caalled?’ Eric scratched a particular spot on his shaven brown cranium with a rather grubby hooked index finger.

Owen shrugged and smiled, as if he had been in a band with a list of hits too long to remember.

‘Waas it “Softer Than a Caald Crush”? Aye, that waas it. That’s great, that one.’ Eric was genuinely excited.

Owen nodded politely, perhaps as any abashed celebrity might when confronted by a true fan.

‘Yes, that was one of ours,’ he said.

‘How, where’s ya beard? Yuh used t’ hev this geet fuzzy thing on ya fyess, didn’t yuh?!’

Owen chuckled a little and rubbed his jaw with his hand.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You’re right, I did. But that hasn’t been there for the past twenty five years at least, my friend.’

‘Ur. Hey, d’yuh ivva see that blonde lass noo, the one in the middle. She wuz the main man, waasn’t she?’

‘Eunice, you mean,’ Owen said, with what looked like a forced smile. ‘The band was a democracy,’ he explained. ‘We had no leader. In fact, Fergus and I were the musicians in the band and we wrote most of the songs.  But, to answer your question, no, I rarely see them nowadays.’

‘Aye, whey, she’s a professor noo, aa think, isn’t she? Doesn’t she teach needlewawk or summick?’

Owen smiled. ‘No, she isn’t a professor,’ he said. ‘However, I think she may have taken a short course in fabric design or something along those lines.’

‘Aye. Aye, whey aa saw hor and ye and that other one the other neit on Channel Fower and aa thowt that’s whaat she sayed.  Anyhoo, she wuz canny, aa thowt.’

‘Was the band on television?’ Owen asked, quite surprised. ‘When was this?’

‘Whey aye,’ Eric said. ‘The other neit. I think it waas a film of yiz at the Sunderland Empire in aboot nineteen siventy three. It was fower and six to get in. Yuh did that Caald Crush one and, er, ah think that Hormin’s Hormits’ song yuh covered. Whaat waz it again? Ye sang it an’ that lass sang alang wi’ yuh. Er, aye, it wuz “Tha’s a Kind of Hush Aall Ower the Wawld”, that one. Hey, ye were a bit like that Peter Noone gadgie, warn’t yuh?  Did yuh model yasel’ on him?’

Owen shook his head, as if something unwelcome had just landed in his hair. ‘No, of course not. Not at all. No, what we did was nothing like their stuff. They were just a pop group.’

‘Aye. Aye, whey were ye not a pop group as weell, like? Whaat d’yuh caall the sort of stuff ye did?’

‘I think we saw ourselves as folk artists,’ Owen explained. ‘In the tradition of artists like the Simon and Garfunkel and . . . ‘

Eric interrupted him, his hooked index finger in the air, like something out of Peter Pan. ‘Aye, yuh did one of their songs as weell! Whaat waas it again? Aye, it wuz “Bridge Ower Troubled Waater.”  Aye, yuh did a canny job of that one. That other gadgie and the blonde lass sang mostly on that one like. Aye, the’ were canny.’

For a few moments Eric stood as still as a standing stone, as if all neurological activity had been inexplicably suspended. He reminded me somehow of a pirate, Captain Pugwash perhaps. Suddenly, just as inexpicably, the neurons fired up again.

‘So is that whaat the other blowk was caalled, Forgus?’ he asked.

‘Yes, Fergus. Fergus and Eunice are married.’

‘Are the’? So waas he knockin’ hor off when ‘ee were in the band as weell?’

‘They had a relationship, yes,’ Owen said, obviously not especially comfortable with some of the moral and cultural aspects of Eric’s discourse.

‘Anyhow, Eric,’ he said. ‘It’s really nice to meet you. Do you think that programme will ever be repeated on Channel Four?’

‘Whey aye,’ Eric said. ‘The’ repeat ivrything aboot thorty times. Aa’ll tip yuh the wink next time the’ put it on, if yuh waant iz tee.’

‘Yes, that would very kind of you,’ Owen said. ‘Anyhow, I really must hurry along now or I’ll miss my bus. Take care, Eric.’

‘Aye, aa will. Ye gan canny as weell.’

Owen shuffled off down the corridor and out into the car park. Eric stood as still and shapeless as an Anthony Gormley sculpture. He looked gobsmacked.

‘So there you go, Eric,’ I said. ‘You’ve met the man at last.’

‘Aye,’ he said. ‘Aa knaa. Just wait till aa tell wor young ‘un. Ee’ll nivva believe it.’

It was raining lightly as I drove home, the first rain we’ve had for many days. The light was soft, saturated and grey. I listened to Radio Four. Much of it was about the Swine Flu. What price a ticket to Acapulco now, I wondered. As I walked up the garden path beneath the starry spring green chickweed canopy of the silver birch, I noticed De Kooning sitting on the windowsill. He stood up and stretched when he saw me. As I entered the house he ran up to me. I picked him up and we went to the conservatory where for a few moments we listened to the almost invisible quiet rain falling on the glass.

 .

the happiest man in the world

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near-sawrey-tower-bank-arms

I spent all last week in Bowness. I rented a very comfortable, secluded house in the woods near Longtail Hill. From a picture window in the living room I could see over the town to the head of the lake and the Fairfield Horseshoe and the other hills above Ambleside.

On Tuesday it rained. I drove down to the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, a gallery I’ve always liked since I visited it some years ago and first saw Paula Rego’s paintings there. The current exhibition is of the paintings of Robert Bevan and the Cumberland Market Group. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Bevan’s work until last Tuesday. He was an excellent painter. His best stuff was done in the last twenty years or so of his life, in that magical age for painting that flowered with the Post Impressionists and bloomed with amazing vitality for fifty years or more. Bevan – who the catalogue describes as a Neo-Realist – was cut down in his prime in 1925 shortly before his sixtieth birthday.

The Cumberland Market Group have nothing to do with Cumberland, despite the exhibition being in Kendal. The catalogue suggests the exhibition was originally shown in Southampton, and the Cumberland Market in question is a square in London in an area to the east of Regent’s Park, just south of the basin of the Regent’s Canal. Bevan had a studio in the Square and did some enchanting paintings of it, one of which is on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. It catches the geometry of the place with an apparent exactness, but the pastelly colours are beautifully modulated – lavenders, pinks, blues, greys, and creams. Some of the other paintings of the area in the catalogue deploy darker tones and have a greater tonal contrast, but all seem architecturally remarkably true in their detail. His best known paintings it seems are those involving horses. He does a mean horse, that’s for sure, catching perfectly their muscular grace and skittish dignity. But again it’s his composition and use of colour that impressed me most, the exactness, the control, the limited palette, the strong dark blues and the orange-tans of the coats of the horse traders. Bevan’s a painter I can hardly believed I missed.

On Tuesday night it snowed a little. On Wednesday morning I decided I’d take it easy. I wandered down to catch the ferry across Windermere. Bowness was a Viking settlement a thousand years ago and there’s been a ferry here since at least that time. The ferry now carries cars as well as pedestrians and cyclists. It crosses the quiet lake slowly, fastidiously, as if undoing history, as if recalibrating time. I’ve read that as we get older time passes more quickly because our metabolism slows down. The ferry trip from Bowness to the Hawkshead side of the lake seems to somehow alter the metabolism of the world. As you step off you could imagine that days, months, even years might pass before you make it through the woods. Each step might take an hour. You’re in the kind of place where nothing might ever change, where eternity starts to make sense. I decided I’d follow the waymarked path to Beatrix Potter’s old house at Hill Top in Near Sawrey, a distance of only two or three miles.

As I made my way up the hill and through the lanes and woodland paths to Far Sawrey it began to snow again. There was little wind and straight up and down soft hail stones dropped quietly all around me. I put out my hand and caught a few. Although I saw almost no-one on my walk there, there were quite a few visitors at Hill Top. The snow had stopped and as I entered Beatrix’s house the sun came out. The rooms of the house are quite cramped and dark brown. The doorways are low and the windows are small, as is Beatrix’s four poster bed. No wonder she felt such an affinity for rodents and other small creatures, I thought. Of course, the truth is I don’t know that much about Beatrix Potter either, although I’ve seen the film with Renee Zellweger, of course, and I’ve got a Peter Rabbit teacup that someone once gave me.

While I was strolling back I caught up with a white-haired old man walking slowly ahead of me with a wooden staff. He asked me if I’d been to ‘the Potter house’. I said I had. He remarked that he could tell I wasn’t a local and asked if I was on holiday. He told me he lived near Lindeth. I told him the house I was staying in was in the woods not far from there, near Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel. The old man reminded me that Beatrix Potter’s family used to rent that house in the early years of the last century, another thing of which I happened to be ignorant. He told me Beatrix loved the house and bought it for her mother in 1915. It seems Beatrix wrote and illustrated a couple of her stories while she was staying at Lindeth Howe with her family a hundred years or so ago.

‘You know this place well,’ I said to the man.

‘It comes with living here for so long,’ he replied. ‘I’ve never been further north than Grasmere and only once been south of Kendal. I went to Morecambe in 1957 for my sister Janet’s wedding. But I always say you don’t need to go far to see the whole of human life. Cast your eyes around these hills. There’s nothing much that’s happened anywhere else in the world that hasn’t happened to the folks that live right here – or nothing much that matters, at any rate.’

‘Aye,’ I said. ‘You’re probably right. But for the rest of us those things don’t happen in a place as beautiful as this. You’re lucky to live here.’

‘Yes, I know that. And there’s not a man on earth who could tell me otherwise. I’m the happiest man in the world. No man could have had a better life than I’ve had, I’ll tell you that.’

As we came out of the woods going down the hill just past Bryers Fold, the old man pointed over the lake towards what I took to be a house on the hill above Storrs.

‘Do you know who lived there?’ he asked. I shook my head. My ignorance was about to exposed again, I thought.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Should I?’

‘No, you won’t,’ he said. ‘It was Florence Nelson.’

The name meant nothing to me.

‘Who was she?’ I asked. ‘A writer? A painter?’

‘No, nothing like that. Florence was a murderer. Everyone around here knows the story of Florence Nelson. It all happened nearly fifty years ago now. Florence was a beautiful but rather eccentric young woman. She had her eye on a man called Ned Perfect. One day she got it into her mind that another local lass, the buxom and very alluring red-head Sharon Sweet, also had her eye on Ned. Florence saw Sharon giving Ned an orange one day and she decided there and then that her rival would have to die.’

‘Love’s a messy business sometimes,’ I said.

‘But not usually as messy as it was going to be for Sharon,’ the old man said. ‘You see, Florence had at that instant also decided on the way Sharon was going to die. She was going to be flattened by a steam roller. There were a couple of snags, though.’

‘Florence didn’t own a steam roller?’

‘Yes, that. And she didn’t have a licence to drive one either.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yes, you see, Florence always regarded herself as a good law-abiding person, and she was not about to take a steam roller on a public road unless she was fully qualified to do so. For the next nine months she went to Lancaster every Saturday morning until she passed her test. She purchased herself a second-hand steam roller, a Wallis & Steevens Advance six tonner. She painted it bottle green and hid it deep in the Black Beck Wood. She waited for her opportunity. She knew that every Sunday Sharon walked from her home up near the golf course all the way down the hill, straight over the crossroads and down Longtail Hill on her way to the service at St Martin’s. There’s no footpath on this road. Florence watched Sharon for weeks. Everyone knew you could set your clock by Sharon and Florence soon discovered that every Sunday at exactly thirteen minutes to one Sharon came around the blind bend near the bottom of Longtail Hill and, head down, continued climbing towards the junction. On the following Sunday Florence drove her steam roller out of woods and made her way up to the crossroads at Ferry View. She waited there until fifteen seconds before thirteen minutes to one, at which moment she threw the throttle wide open and set off hurtling down the hill. An instant before the machine hit her Sharon looked up and saw Florence at the wheel. There was a fixed deadpan expression on Florence’s face. No glimpse of pity, no glimpse of glee.  No glimpse of any emotion but blind determination. Sharon was flattened beyond all recognition. Her remains were almost seven feet wide and over twelve feet long. She was identified by the silver crucifix she always wore and the wide arc of her lovely red hair embedded in the tarmac. Some say strands of Sharon’s hair can still be seen there, even after all these years.’

We crossed the road and followed the path through the woods and on towards Claife Station. It was a bright afternoon and the sun was glittering on the lake.

‘Florence was sentenced to incarceration for the rest of her days, of course,’ the old man continued. ‘She was sentenced six days before the day on which she would have married Ned Perfect. Throughout the trial Florence never once expressed the slightest remorse for what she did. She always blamed Sharon for her own fate. For Florence death was the price any woman would have had to pay if they even so much as dared to bat an eyelid at Ned. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. No, not by any means. Florence Nelson wasn’t finished yet.’

At that point the old man asked me to walk on as he needed to relieve himself and was becoming desperate. He said he’d catch me up in a minute or so at the ferry landing, which was only a hundred yards or so further on.

At the ferry landing I sat on the seat looking up Windermere past Belle Isle to the snow gleaming up high on Rydal Head. The ferry arrived about ten minutes later. The old man hadn’t made it on time. As the ferry slowly crossed the lake to Bowness I kept looking back for him. The white-haired man was nowhere to be seen.

On Thursday I drove to Coniston to go for a walk on the snowy fells. Before I did so I went to Brantwood, the house on the east shore of the lake which was Ruskin’s home for the last twenty five or so years of his life.  Owen Vardy had described it to me as ‘astonishing’, and he was right. The house is spacious and light and full of beautiful paintings and furnishings and books and objects from nature. There were a number of Pre-Raphaelite pieces, which I thought to myself were sure to have had Owen swooning on his visit. He loves that sort of sublimated metaphysical yearning. Brantwood sits on the hillside overlooking the lake and has fine views across to the Coniston Fells – Dow Crag, Swirl How, Wetherlam, the Old Man himself.  To live like this in a place like this could only ever be a privilege.

At the little bookshop I bought a couple of postcards and a little Penguin paperback from the Great Ideas series – ‘On Art and Life’ , which contains two essays by Ruskin, the first being ‘The Nature of Gothic’ which was first published in the second volume of ‘The Stones of Venice’ in 1853. The Ruskin quote on the cover of the paperback is “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both”. Few socialists could fail to admire Ruskin and to admit their debt to him. Even my dad’s got a soft spot for him.

I drove back down the tortuous undulating singletrack road into Coniston village. I parked at the Tourist Information Centre just opposite the internet café. On my way towards the fells I stopped off at Ruskin’s grave. He died in 1900 at the age of eighty one. Someone had placed two small bunches of fresh yellow daffodils beside his headstone. The whole graveyard was full of scattered purple crocuses and dense clumps of droopy snowdrops. I glanced up at the mining cottages. I headed for the the Old Man and the snow.

As I drove back into Blyth on Saturday for once the place looked drab and uninteresting to me. It looked messy and run down. For a brief moment it didn’t look to me at all like home.

 .

prague, the skylark, the mephisto express

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south-newsham-railway-crossing1

 

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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