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elvis, orpheus, and the panopticon

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 cowpen-road-cowpen1

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their
silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is
conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing;
but from their silence certainly never.

Franz Kafka

There’s nothing you can’t buy at Al’s Video’s in Ashington. It is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of a shop, a cornucopia of the mundane and the outlandish, the exotic and the ordinary. It’s a Tardis-like shop that somehow contains more space than it occupies. It stands on North Seaton Road, a little way around the Grand Corner from the town centre. Next to Pal Joey’s and Lintonville Fabrics, the curtain shop. Lily once told me she’d bought four exquisite inflatable golden giraffes there. Pippa swears by it for everything from birthday cards to bubble wrap. It’s the sort of haberdashery where you’d get a harpoon if you needed one, the sort of junkshop where you might find magic butterflies among silver confetti. Debs told me once she got a rainbow-coloured paper suit there, good enough to wear for court. On another occasion she got herself a fine lightweight wheelbarrow made from recycled lemonade cans.  Last Thursday I went over to Al’s in search of brightly coloured foam letters and card to make a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign with, along with some sky blue ribbon to hang it by. I found what I wanted next to some luminous plastic skeletons. As I was making my way back down South View I met up with Owen Vardy, carrier bag in hand.

‘So what’s in the bag this time, Owen?’ I said. ‘More vitamins?’

He chuckled. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘Just a few things for my holidays. My wife Heidi and I are going over to the Lakes for a week at the weekend. We always rent a lovely little apartment in Portinscale called The Leveret’s Relief. We stay there every year.’

‘Sounds good,’ I said. ‘So what have you got in the bag, energy bars and stuff?’

‘No, I’ve got some fruit for the first few days, just in case local supplies aren’t available. Heidi and I have got to have our antioxidants, you know.’

‘So what have you got, apples and oranges and that sort of thing?’

‘Berries. Berries are the best thing. I’ve got strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, bilberries, blueberries and red grapes.  I’ve also got some nuts – walnuts and almonds – along with flax and sunflower seeds. I’ve got a couple of nice pomegranates, some tomatoes, broccoli, kiwi fruit and spinach. I’ve got baby leaf herb salad. Oh, and an avocado and some Brussel’s sprouts. And a beetroot. And some sprouting seeds.’

I looked down at Owen’s carrier bag. Al’s Video Shop suddenly began to seem quite ordinary.

‘That’s quite a shop,’ I said.

‘Well, you can’t take any risks with your health, can you? And as we all know, you are what you eat. You’re a vegetarian too, aren’t you?’ he asked.

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Does it show?’

‘I think if more people knew the dangers of eating meat the whole country would soon be vegetarian,’ he said. ‘Don’t you? As Heidi always says, the sausage and the steak are sure-fire short cuts to an early grave.’ I nodded slowly. Heidi’s phrase had a definite prophetic, even Blakeian ring to it. Owen was wearing a long brown jacket, blue corduroy trousers and an open-necked white linen shirt, all hanging loosely on him, as if they were all a size too big, and all somehow wrinkled and in need of an iron. He seemed to be expecting me to continue the conversation. I took a predictable turn.

‘How’s Jack?’ I asked.

Owen’s expression froze. He leaned close, like a sort of spectral Columbo.

‘To be honest, I despair of that man,’ he replied. His expression was one of studied incredulity. ‘He appears to care so little about his dignity.  You’ll know about the motorbike, of course, and that he insists that everyone should now call him Spider. Well, now he’s dyed his hair jet black, blacker than a raven, tarantula black. It’s a terrible thing to say but when I first saw it he reminded me of Ozzie Osbourne. You do know he was born on the same day as me, don’t you?’

‘Who was, Ozzie Osbourne?’

‘No, Jack.’

‘Oh yes, I knew that.’

‘Well, I ask you, is it in any way dignified for a man of his age to dye his hair black like that. Who does he think he is – Elvis Presley, Alice Cooper, Michael Jackson? I ask you, who?’

‘Maybe dignity’s not something that bothers Jack much these days,’ I said.

‘Ah, but it does,’ Owen replied, quick as a flash, putting his hand on my arm like a monkey’s claw. ‘There is not a man alive who doesn’t seek dignity. Believe me, I know. Dignity is truth, and Jack is seeking dignity just as much as you or I, my friend. But he’s taken the wrong road, I fear, and for him there may be no way back.’

I smiled. I was wondering if there was anything in what Owen was saying. I was thinking about how a man might deal with temptation.  I was thinking about beeswax and the lyre. If Owen was Ulysses I was wondering if Jack might not be Orpheus.

‘So what’s happening on the Jack and Tallulah front?’ I said. ‘Has she ridden in red leather on his black pillion yet?’

Owen shook his head, as if the very thought of it in some way ruffled the soft white feathers of his soul. ‘No,’ he said, gravely. ‘Not yet. And we can only pray that she never does.’ He paused. Again he looked troubled, like a heron in a storm.

‘What are you saying?’ I asked, ‘that she might be up for it?’

He looked me straight in the eye, as a priest might look at a heathen. ‘Women are strange creatures,’ he said. ‘Let me tell you that. And Tallulah is a woman.’

I sort of already knew he’d noticed that, of course, although I still wasn’t absolutely sure how much attention his all too human flesh was allowed to pay to this fact. I could now hear our leather-clad siren singing to him. I could see him sailing by, lashed to the mast, his ears stuffed with dignity

‘I don’t really want to talk about it,’ he said, suddenly almost composed. ‘I can’t. It’s wrong in any case. But Jack’s life is his own, Tallulah’s too. That’s something we must all accept.’

I nodded. ‘So you’re off to the Lakes, eh?  Lucky man. Hey, have you ever heard the story of Florence Nelson from Bowness? She was known as The Steamroller Murderess, it seems.’

‘Florence Nelson?’ Owen said, looking up quickly. ‘No. No, I’ve never heard of her. When did all this happen?’

‘Oh it was probably about fifty years ago now,’ I said. ‘In the sixties, I think. Any way, listen, if you do get into a conversation with any of the locals while you’re over there, ask them about it, will you?  I only know bits of the story and I’m sort of intrigued to find out the rest.’

‘Yes, I will do that,’ Owen said. ‘I’d like to know about it myself. Anyhow, time marches on, I really must fly or I’ll miss my bus.’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘Just one more thing – you and Heidi don’t have any children, do you?’

‘No, we don’t. We were never blessed that way. Why do you ask?’

‘I just wondered. Does Jack have any kids?’

‘Not officially, no. However the story does go round that he has a son who he has never seen since he was a baby. They say that the mother might be someone quite famous, a singer.  My own guess is that he doesn’t have a son at all and it’s just something he made up to make himself more interesting.  If he does have a son my guess is that the mother will probably have been a groupie or some other woman he hardly knew. You know Jack.’

‘Maybe it was Janis Joplin,’ I said. ‘Maybe Jack and Janis had a secret love child. Maybe they called him Jimi.  Anyhow, Owen, enjoy your holiday. And don’t forget to ask about steamroller murderess if you get the chance.’

I watched him as he turned the corner on his way to the bus station. I really must find time to read George Herbert, I thought.

I had mushroom pizza for tea that night and then went out for walk. As I walked up past the first houses on Cowpen Road opposite Sure Start I looked up at the massive steroidal three-headed CCTV lamppost at the junction with Albion Way. There are a surprising number of these things around Blyth. I’ve read somewhere that the police have nineteen CCTV cameras in Blyth town centre alone and there are clearly many others elsewhere, such as this one at the junction of Albion Way. In fact I’d already walked past another of these Medusas, the one that looks down on us from the top of Waterloo Road. For some reason I’d taken no notice of it as I passed.

There is nothing benign about being watched. All surveillance is coercive. We are all wearing a t-shirt with “SUSPECT” written across the chest. (It’s probably the same t-shirt the government gave us all, the one with “VICTIM” written on the back.) What I wonder is if we haven’t done anything wrong why are they watching us? To make sure we can’t, or to make sure that if we do we will, in Foucault’s famous formulation, be disciplined and punished, I suppose.

I walked along past Au Naturel and Morpeth Road School towards the North Farm and KwikFit, where there’s another gigantic forbidding three-eyed monster at the junction of Hodgsons Road. In fact Cowpen Quay is supervised by several of these massive inscrutable swivel-headed wardens. The estate is surrounded by these silent Gorgons. It is of course the poorest area of Blyth and has long had a reputation for crime and drug use. These things haven’t stopped of course, it’s just that they now happen indoors, or elsewhere. I walked on past Netto and up towards Cowpen Cemetary, wondering just how many CCTV cameras there actually are in Blyth, wondering if one could see me now. I was thinking it would be a good idea to map them and to try to find which areas of the town aren’t covered by them, to chart those streets down which a citizen can still walk without being regarded as a suspect. It would be good if there were maps like this on the internet of every town in the UK, showing us the places where we can still feel free.

It’s increasingly hard to believe there is anywhere left in Britain where we aren’t being watched. We’re getting to the point where CCTV is so ubiquitous we don’t even know it’s there. But if that meant we weren’t responding to its presence there’d be no point in it being there at all. The truth is we must now assume we are always being watched. We live beneath the mute soulless gaze of a host of invisible God-like controllers who we must imagine track every step we take.  We must know we are not free. There’s something so sinister and feudal and oppressive about those spaces we used to think were ours. Invisible assumed surveillance has taken root in our unconscious, like an imaginary malignant metaphysical presence. This is the psychology of the Panopticon. Irrationality now lurks around every street corner. A new dark age awaits us. Paranoia and morbid dread are key phenomenological characteristics of existence in twenty-first century urban environments. I wanted to ask Gordon if he expects things to get worse. I wanted to ask him if we wanted to say sorry.

When I got home I glanced up at Hugo’s little security cameras. I waved at them as they gazed relentlessly at the junk in his front garden – the old car wheels, the stunted conifers in their pots, the oven hob, the sheets of plasterboard, the orange Bond Bug that glows like a jelly in the twilight. I felt an impulse to vault over the fence and steal something, just to see if I would get away with it, just to see if there was anyone really watching me at all.

It was Easter weekend. It was good to get a few days off work. I painted a bit and did some walking and biking. With De Kooning’s help I did some pruning and pulled up a few weeds in the garden.

On Sunday I decided to go up to Thrunton Woods to walk. I asked Margaret for a garlic clove before I went but she refused to give me one. As I drove up I listened to Elvis Perkins’ new album, Elvis Perkins in Dearland. I thought it was oddly appropriate for a trip to Thrunton. The album was initially a bit of a disappointment to me. I thought it didn’t really come up to the standard of his first album, which I think is one of the best singer-songwriter albums of recent years. Mr Perkins, son of Anthony of Psycho fame, has an elegantly intelligent lyrical imagination and a loose freewheeling vocal style. While being inescapably American and showing a clear debt to Bob Dylan and other North American influences, he also seems to have a distinct dash of European-ness about him, making him sound distinctively cosmopolitan. The new album starts well and the first four songs are very engaging. The opening song in particular has a popish immediacy as well as slyly deceptive lyrical turns. The final songs are strong too. So for me at present the problem is somewhere in the middle, probably around song six. Somewhere around about there he overdoes it a bit, becomes a bit too mannered. Cabaret comes to mind, or maybe the Danse Macabre, something Gothy. Late Beatles circus tent burlesque stuff, a bit like For the Benefit of Mr Kite but without the tune. There’s something just a little too theatrical and artificial going on around here for my liking.

It was cool but the sky was clear and blue. I parked at the top of the woods and set off along the forest road up towards Coe Crag. There were very few people around and for the most part I had the place to myself. The larches were beginning to get their fresh bright green needles. Small birds were chittering among them. As I made it on to the open moor a buzzard slid north far above me. I walked on up to the trig point on Long Crag. I sat down on a stone near there and gazed for a while over the valley and the woods to the hills beyond. Not a trace of snow remained on Cheviot.

I continued west from the trig point and then descended into the valley on the well worn rocky track. I crossed the burn and made my way up through the woods toward the Black Walter forest road. There are secret mountain bike tracks through these woods, trails few other people even know exist. They are like wormholes through the dense homogeneous fabric of the forest and often come out at quite unexpected places. I entered one of the longest, just north of the final ninety degree corner on the long climb. The track wriggles and slithers through the dense conifers all the way back down to the valley, emerging behind the big Scots pine tree near the footbridge. I crossed the bridge and made the long climb back up through the woods and then on up to the huge Coe Crag cairn, where I sat for a while to catch my breath, say goodbye to Cheviot, and lie for a while in the old heather gazing at the sky’s blueness. I didn’t see a single deer during my walk. I hadn’t needed the garlic after all.

I drove south listening to Dearland again. I left the A1 at Blagdon. As I was driving up past the estate wall a Mephisto Travel minibus went past me going the other way. Ahead of me a deep red Honda Civic was turning on to the Cramlington Road. I turned left and found myself following it. It was Brenda’s new car. She was alone. I followed her as far as the Target roundabout, where she took the exit down towards the village while I went north towards Plessey Checks. She hadn’t noticed me behind her.

It could have just been a coincidence, of course. As Brenda says, such things do happen. But my guess was this was no coincidence. A pound to a penny says the driver of the minibus was Elvis Devlin.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen. She was sitting at the table doing a jigsaw while waiting for an onion tart to cook. I thought about mentioning my little chance encounter to her. But I didn’t, and I don’t think I will. It’s not really any of my business.

That night I read some of Michael Donaghy’s Collected Poems. He’s described in the slip jacket blurb as “a modern metaphysical”, and it isn’t difficult to see why, although it’s impossible to pretend he’s George Herbert, of course.  Nevertheless he has an intellectual cleverness and poise which makes the description reasonable.  If I’m honest I find his stuff often a bit austere and lacking in sensual richness, but many of his poems are witty, rewarding and thought-provoking. Here’s one I like. It’s called “Meridian”.

There are two kinds of people in the world.
Roughly. First there are the kind who say
‘There are two kinds of people in the world.’
And then there’s those that don’t.
 
Me,  I live smack on the borderline,
Where the road ends with towers and searchlights,
And we’re kept awake all night by the creak of the barrier
Rising and falling like Occam’s razor.

 

Donaghy was an American who moved to London in the nineteen eighties and wrote much of his work over here. He died in 2004, aged only fifty. There are many who lament his passing.

I finally had a stab a doing a painting of Newsham this week. I used another of my 16″ x 16″ Loxley canvasses. I did a view of The Newsham pub and the roundabout in front of it. I initially painted it monochromatically, in Prussian blue and white. I then added areas of raw sienna as a warm counterpoint. I broke with this rather subdued palette only for the shop front of Tanz-N-Here, where I used vermillion and chrome yellow. It seems to work. It reminds me of Lowry in its limited palette and its simplified urban landscape. It’s a bit more expressionistic than Lowry, however. I pondered a lot about whether to add any figures. I didn’t think I should. Their absence gives the place a more existential focus. It asks the question “what kind of people live here or used to live here?” It makes the trap of sentimentality easier to avoid. While I love the paintings of Norman Cornish, for instance, I wouldn’t want to replicate them or their feeling. I wouldn’t want to characterise people in the same way. Painting the remains of an old way of life, like history, is to present a view of the past from a place in the present. Although it’s very easy to do, it’s important not to lose your historical perspective. ‘Northernness’ as constructed and remembered in the paintings of Cornish and Tom McGuinness is now an anachronism. That world now comprises only vanishing remnants. To paint like Cornish nowadays is to do little more than to produce a nostalgic commodity, historical confectionary. A painter like Alexander Millar, for example,  – the bloke who does the ‘gadgies’ – seems to me to do just that. He’s draws on Andy Capp as much as on artists like Cornish, of course. But his work offers only nostalgic stereotypes and peddles urban industrial northernness as a sentimental commodity. It says little about how we encounter these places now.

Anyhow, I decided on no figures. Those people are gone now. In many ways their lives were as complicated as ours and they weren’t all the same. They were exploited and oppressed, but they also had dignity. They were wage slaves but they knew freedom too. They lived in a tiny world. But like Al’s Video shop and Owen’s bag, this world was bigger than it seems. Sometimes some of them might even have heard the Nightingale’s song. And in any case, if I’m going to paint ghosts they will look like ghosts. But ghosts, of course, are invisible and perhaps I’ve painted them already.

 .

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the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint

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delaval-arms-in-seaton-sluice1 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Still no work, eh?’

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

‘Do you think he can do that?’

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

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

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

‘But you wouldn’t go back?’

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

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Anything you like.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘He’s cute, isn’t he?’ I said.

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

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

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

‘Brenda thinks you’re working?’

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

‘Your secret’s safe with me,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

‘Oh, so what vitamins do you take?’

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

What, no Becherovka? I thought to myself.

‘So are you ever ill, Owen?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘She wants to go to a refuge.’

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

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

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prague, the skylark, the mephisto express

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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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