yammering

oh, well, whatever . . .

Archive for the ‘florence nelson’ Category

the immigrant, the exile and nine lost pieces

leave a comment »

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.

.

Advertisements

a fickle food, a shifting plate

leave a comment »

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.

 .

elvis, orpheus, and the panopticon

leave a comment »

 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.

 .

the week they pretended the world wasn’t broken

leave a comment »

blyth-cowpen-quay-ferry-corner-72dpi

This has been the week of the G20 in London and the NATO summit in Strasbourg. It’s been a week when the leaders of the developed world have orchestrated the grand illusion that things are going to be all right. The world’s had a bad infection, it’s true, but the good news is Dr Obama’s on the case and the patient’s off the critical list. (Obama’s a bit like the political equivalent of House, it seems. A less curmudgeonly variant. What they have in common is that they both know with absolute certainty that whatever illness the economy’s got, it’s not Lupus.)

Of course the week’s been more about saving political necks than changing anything very much about the way the world works. The whole thing was a transparent media event, the straightforward massaging of electorates – or consumers, as they’re now called. A week to persuade the world to renew its faith in free market capitalism. Confidence is the new magic bullet and this week was a gun to fire it. Dr Obama’s job was to squeeze the trigger. For some reason I’m reminded of Burt Lancaster in Valdez is Coming.

Of course, in the movie of this episode in the history of world I’d have Barack played by Will Smith and Gordon by Walter Matthau. My real first choices would be Cate Blanchett for Barack and Morgan Freeman for Gordon, but I’d worry in case this alienated my audience. Casting Sarkozy would be slightly trickier either way, because in both cases I’d want to avoid having one of those films that mix computer-generated animation with footage of real actors.

On Thursday morning I had to go to a meeting in North Shields first thing. Margaret asked me if I could drop a box off for Brenda for her on my way back.

I got there at about eleven o’clock. Mrs Byro was coming out of her appointment as I arrived. She really is an extraordinarily small woman, probably no taller than Noel Edmonds. And her dress sense too is remarkable – for the rigour with which it comprehensively denies the eye all and any aesthetic satisfaction. But Mrs Byro turned out to be a surprisingly articulate woman, albeit one who speaks in a somewhat alien accent, to my ear an odd mixture of Jewish American and Low Polish, perhaps with just the hint of Belfast.

‘Hello, there,’ she said. ‘Have you come to see Brenda too?  She’s marvellous, isn’t she?’

I nodded. She smiled, as if in her eyes we were now members of the same tribe, one of those human beings who cannot live without a shaman.

‘I’m worried about the deer,’ she said. ‘Do you think we’ll be all right?’

‘The deer?’ I said, wondering if perhaps I was mistaking an adjective for a noun.

‘Yes, the deer. The roe deer. I often go to stay with my sister up near the Thrunton Woods, you see. Do you know the Thrunton Woods? Well, they have a lot of deer up there, you know. Yes, and they say some of them have started to bite the necks of other deer.’

‘Really? Neck-biting deer? Do you mean affectionately?’

‘Oh no. Oh no, not like that that.’ For a moment Mrs Byro looked flustered. She seemed to blush a little.

‘So these deer attack the other deer?’ I said. ‘Why?’

Mrs Byro came a little closer. I gazed down at her, as a man in a lighthouse might gaze down at an unexpected visitor. She looked up at me, her eyes glazed like those of a bewildered rodent.

Bloodlust,’ she said. She swallowed deeply. ‘Bloodlust. Some of the roe deer in the Thrunton Woods have become vampires.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Vampire deer? That’s not something I’ve ever heard about before. Are you sure?’

‘Oh I’m sure,’ she said. ‘I’m absolutely sure. My sister says she’s seen it with her very own eyes. These creatures are shameless. They are breaking the laws of nature.’

I shook my head in an understanding way. The Mrs Byros of this world have a way of turning us all into doctors. I touched her shoulder. ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine,’ I said, as if confirming my prognosis. ‘Most deer aren’t like that, I’m sure.’

‘That’s what Brenda said. That’s exactly what she said. She’s a marvellous woman, isn’t she?  I hope she’s as much help to you as she has been to me. I really don’t know where I’d be with out her.’

Mrs Byro ambled off. She somehow reminded me of a walking proggy mat, albeit one little taller than an armadillo. I looked at Tristan and made a what the hell planet is she from gesture. He rolled his eyes and smiled.

‘She pays the bills,’ he said.

‘How are things with you?’ I said. ‘What are you doing here on a work day? Have you come clean with Brenda about having no jobs on?’

‘Yes,’ Tristan said. ‘We finally had a heart to heart. I told her I wasn’t going to pwetend any longer. I told her that if she can’t love a poor man as much as a wich man then we have no future. I’ve cleared the air. I think it’s done the twick, mate. I think we’re cool now. Fingers cwossed, eh? Anyhow, how are you, my fwiend? I hear you’ve been on holiday.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I had a week in Bowness a couple weeks ago. It was good. I went to Brantwood and a few other places I hadn’t been to and did a bit walking.’

‘Bwantwood? Oh that’s a lovely place, isn’t it? My first wife used to love to go there. She loved Wuskin. She loved all that Arts and Cwafty and Pwe-Waphaelite stuff. When the kids were little we used to take them to Coniston evewy summer and we always went to visit Wuskin’s gwave. For Claire it was a sort of annual pilgwimage. She loved those places.’

‘You’ve got kids, Tristan? I didn’t know that. Do you still see them?’

‘Yes, I’ve got two, Effie and Gabby. They’re twins. I speak to them on the phone evewy week and I go down to see them whenever I can. They’re at university now and I’m vewy pwoud of them. They’re my kids, and nothing in the world matters more to me than them. They loved Bowness too, now I think of it. They loved getting the fewwy over to the Hawkshead side. Have you ever been on that fewwy?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘In fact I was on it when I was there. I went over and walked up to Hilltop.’

‘Ah, Beatwix Potter, eh? Effie and Gabby loved Peter Wabbit and Jewemiah Puddleduck and all that stuff. We always used to take them to Hilltop so they could see the house and the pub that’s in the books.’

‘The Tower Bank Arms.’

‘Yes, that’s it. We always had a glass of cider and a packet of cwisps there.’

‘So did you ever hear about Florence Nelson?’ I said. ‘The woman who murdered a love rival on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh yes, of course,’ Tristan replied. ‘Evewyone knows that tale. Flowence Nelson, the Steamwoller Murdwess. She was a bad un’, that one. You have to admire her determination though.’

‘Because she took driving lessons and planned it all so patiently and meticulously?’

‘No, because of the jailbweak.’

‘The jailbreak?’

‘You didn’t know that she escaped? Oh, there was no stopping Flowence Nelson. It was a bit like that film, The Shawshank Wedemption. She dug her way out of Styal pwison with a spoon. It took her over thwee years. She went on the wun. They say she dwessed as a man and hid out for months in a wuined house near Gwange Over Sands. She lived on birds’ eggs and bewwies. She knew that Ned Perfect had taken up with another woman, another wed-head. A hairdwesser fwom Twoutbeck Bwidge called Amelia Pond. They say Ned and Amelia were engaged to be mawwied. Flowence had made her mind up, they were both going to pay the ultimate pwice. They would never be wed.’

‘Florence had her sights on Ned too?  I thought she adored the man!’

‘She did. She worshipped the gwound he walked on. But hell hath no fuwy and all that. From the minute Flowence bwoke out of that pwison carnage was inevitable. But first she had to find another steamwoller, which isn’t that easy for a woman on the wun disguised as a man in the Lake Distwict. Night after night she went out on a moped twying to find one and secwetly watching Ned and Amelia to discover their woutines. Eventually one moonlit August night she found what she wanted, an Aveling and Porter parked up in a roadside barn at High Bowwans. It was in perfect nick and in just the wight place. The stage was set for one of the most infamous cwimes to ever take place in those parts.’

At that point Brenda came through. She said hello to me and asked me if I’d brought a box for her from Margaret. I pointed to it on the table.

‘Oh that’s excellent,’ she said. ‘Has Margaret told you we’ve ditched the fleece and fun idea?’

‘Yeah, she told me. She told me you’ve gone back to the sunglasses idea. So what are you going to call your shop this time round, The Sunglasses Shop?’ I was aware that previously Brenda had dismissed my slightly more fanciful suggestions. I was trying to avoid being flippant.

‘Oh no,’ Brenda replied. ‘That’s far too prosaic. I’m surprised that you of all people would suggest such a thing.’

I shrugged, as if to acknowledge my stupidity. ‘Sorry, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Just a daft idea. So what are you calling it?’

The Maids With The Shades.’

‘The Maids With The Shades,’ I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s good,’ I said. ‘It’s memorable.’

As I drove back along through Seaton Sluice I wondered whether the old man I’d walked with through Far Sawrey wasn’t Ned Perfect after all. It sounded as if Ned too may have ended his days flattened into the tarmac somewhere along the quiet shores of Windermere. No wonder Pippa’s kids never found him in the woods. Next time I see Tristan I must remember to get him to tell me the rest of the story.

When I got home that night Margaret was resetting the time on all of her twenty three stopped clocks. She was setting them to nine minutes past nine. I asked her why she’d chosen that time.

‘Brenda advised me that it was a good time for any stopped clock in 2009.’

‘Just because of the 09 thing?’

‘No. Brenda says nine is a very special number. It is a number full of hope. It encourages and anticipates fulfilment. She says this is because it is the last single number and stands at the brink of ten. Ten represents a goal or aspiration in life.’

‘So nine minutes past nine is a special time. Yes, that makes sense. I can see that. But why not nine minutes to nine?’

‘Well, that’s something you had better ask Brenda, isn’t it?’ Margaret said, slightly dismissively. ‘I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to explain.’

‘I met one of Brenda’s, er, patients today,’ I said. ‘A diminutive tatterdemalion of a woman who has convinced herself there are Dracula deer in Thrunton Woods. Probably a suitable case for acupuncture. Or reiki, perhaps. Anyhow she told me that Brenda’s a marvellous woman.’

‘She is. She’s very clever. You’re probably the only person who doesn’t see it.’

I nodded, as if I agreed. ‘How are things with her and Tristan?’ I asked. ‘They seem better than they were.’

‘Do you think so? Well, they aren’t. Actually I don’t things are at all good there. There are quite a few things about Tristan that I think Brenda’s isn’t happy with at the minute. If he doesn’t watch himself he’s going to lose her.’

‘Her birthday’s coming up soon, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes, the fifth of May. Four weeks on Tuesday. I’ve already got something for her.’

‘It’s not a pair of Wayfarers, is it?’

‘No.’

‘Phew!’

I went out for a walk down to the beach. I had a look at the new beach huts they’re putting up along the promenade. They have all the usual charm and authenticity of copycat retro seaside ornaments. If you didn’t recognise them from photographs you’ve seen of Whitby, Cromer, or Brighton they’d be failing to do their job. Like every other old coal town, Blyth is now more of a commodity than a community. What you see is more about branding than social need. I walked on into the dunes to Gloucester Lodge farm and then back up home through the old campsite and across South Beach Estate.

On Saturday it was dry in the afternoon. I went to my dad’s on the bike, although it turned out to be so windy that I wished I hadn’t.

On his visit to the library this week my dad had got out a locally produced book on the history of the Isabella Colliery. It’s one of those documents that doesn’t really have a clear focus and is largely a compilation of the memories of the usual community suspects, with the inevitable variations in quality. It does contain a dialect poem of sorts about Plessey Road, though. It’s entitled Plessy Waggon Way. It was written by Thomas Thirlwell and published in Blyth in 1903 in a book called Blyth and Tyneside Songs and Recitations. The piece celebrates the improvement of the road from Newsham to Blyth. Here’s the fourth verse.

The say thor’s noo commenced te run
Tom Allen’s three-horse bus se gay
Ne doot the Newsham foaks ‘ill cum
Te Blyth each week te spend thor pay
They’ll catch the fra Willow Tree
Te smoke outside or smile inside
Then roond bi Blyth the seets they’ll see
Wye lads, they’ll get a clivvor ride
 

It’s a piece with more social than aesthetic value.

It was sunny today. I was going to go out the Thrunton Woods to look for wildlife, but I didn’t have much petrol in the car and didn’t feel like going to the garage. I walked from the door, up Plessey Road and then on up the bridleway into the fields which follows the course of the old wagonway. I turned off on the track over to Low Horton farm and then crossed the bridge over the Spine Road on to the Heathery Lonnen. I stopped for a minute or so and looked over to Horton Church. I wondered if I should try again to find the Nightingale’s grave. I decided not to and followed the lane north down to Bebside. I crossed the railway and went down past the crowded Asda car park.  I came back over the reclaimed Isabella Colliery land. When I got home I discovered that Hugo had a new car on his drive, an orange Bond Bug. Hugo was standing, big as a pirate, hands on hips, gazing at it, when he noticed me going up my garden path.

‘Here, mate,’ he shouted. ‘What do you think of her? Isn’t she a little cracker?’

‘It’s a Bond Bug, isn’t it. Fletch?  You don’t see many of those these days.’

‘Aye, that what she is. You don’t see many ‘cos there’s not many left. Me mate says there’s less than a thousand left in existence. These things are like hen’s teeth nowadays.’

‘So can you still get parts for them?’ I asked.

‘You can if you know where to look,’ Hugo replied, gnomically. He probably meant a secret scrapyard somewhere.

I went inside and told De Kooning about the Bond Bug. We went into the kitchen and I made myself a cappuccino. The two packets of onion seeds were still lying on the bench. I took my cappuccino and copy of The Observer into the conservatory. I was reluctant to open it. It’s been the week of the G20 and Jade Goody’s funeral. There’s only so much good news one man can take.

 .

the part of beauty that can’t be destroyed

leave a comment »

bath-terrace-lighthouse-blyth

As I was driving to work one day last week I was devising a questionnaire to help individuals to self-assess their attitude to the place where they want to be buried.  I decided upon one graded and scaled multi-answer question: “Which of these options do you consider better than having no grave at all?” 

  1. An unmarked grave
  2. A grave that has your epitaph but not your  name
  3. A grave that gives only your initial and surname
  4. A grave that gives only your name and date of death
  5. A grave that gives your name and age at death
  6. A grave that gives your name, dates of birth and death, and the names of your parents
  7. A grave that gives your name, profession, date and place of birth and death
  8. A grave that gives your name, profession and cause of death
  9. A grave on which someone has planted a mighty oak tree
  10. A grave that no-one ever visits
  11. A grave that isn’t kept clean
  12. A grave that gives your full name and title, profession, dates and places of birth and death, cause of death, names of parents, children, spouses and old lovers, and an epitaph
  13. A grave marked by a marble statue of an forlorn wingèd angel
  14. A grave marked by a weather-beaten stone skull
  15. A grave on which someone has urinated and left an empty lager can
  16. A grave watched over by solar lights
  17. A grave that no-one can ever find
  18. A grave which has someone else’s gravestone on it
  19. A grave beneath a boulder near the foot of Great Gable
  20. A grave that has fallen into the sea

When I went into the team room Pippa was telling Angie and Sally that The Death Kitty had again been won by someone at her daughter’s workplace, but that yet again the winner hadn’t been her daughter. The winner on this occasion was Malcolm, a finance officer. He was fortunate enough to have selected Hank Locklin as one of his candidates. Locklin had been the oldest surviving member of the Grand Ole Opry. He died on 8th March at the age of 91. One of his best known songs was Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On, which in lyrical terms contains little more than the famous line “Send me the pillow that you dream on so darling I can dream on it too”.

‘I’ve never heard of him,’ Angie said.

‘Me neither,’ Sally said. ‘Had no-one picked Wendy Richard?’

‘They mustn’t have, no,’ Pippa said. ‘I don’t even think anyone’s got Jade Goody.’

‘How do they find out who has died?’ Angie asked.

‘From the internet,’ Pippa said. ‘There are lots of sites out there, you know, such as whosedeadandwhosalive.com, celebritydeathbeeper.com and dead-celeb.com. You can subscribe to some of them and they’ll send you an email to let you know whenever a celebrity dies.’

‘Sounds interesting,’ Sally said. ‘I think I’ll have a look.’

‘What’s your daughter’s name, again, Pippa?’ I asked.

‘Candy.’

‘Oh yes, of course, Candy. So is she okay?’

‘Yes, she’s fine,’ Pippa said. ‘She’s actually on holiday this week in the Lakes with her boyfriend.’

‘That’s where I’ve just been,’ I said. ‘Bowness.’

‘Candy’s in Cockermouth. But we love Bowness,’ Pippa replied. ‘We used to take the kids there all the time when they were little.’

‘Yes, I like it too,’ I said, ‘even though it’s a bit touristy for me.’

‘So where were you staying? In a hotel?’

‘No, I rented a house up on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh, Longtail Hill! Do you know the story about the young lass who was flattened by a steam roller there?’

‘Yeah, I’d heard about that,’ I said. ‘A red-head, wasn’t she?’

‘When the kids were little we used to always get the ferry over to Hawkshead. A woman on the ferry told us the story one day. It seems that Sharon – the beautiful red-headed woman who was eventually squashed? – used to get take the ferry every Sunday morning and secretly meet up with a young man called Ned Perfect. Together they used to take long walks together, hand in hand through Claife Woods and around Far Sawrey. The trouble was that Ned was already engaged to be married to Florence Nelson, and Florence Nelson wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. When Florence heard about Ned’s secret trysts with Sharon she decided to eliminate her rival in a way that would obliterate every last trace of her beauty. She decided to flatten her with a steam roller.’

‘The tale I’d heard was that Florence was irrationally jealous and that Ned had in fact done no more than accept a piece of orange from Sharon. I also thought Sharon always went to church on Sunday mornings.’

‘That might be what she told people,’ Pippa said. ‘But that’s not what the woman on the ferry told us. No, it seems that every Sunday morning Sharon met Ned on the far side of Windermere and that this went on for a long time. Florence eventually found out, of course, and discovered that every Sunday at about noon Ned gave Sharon a goodbye kiss at Claife Station and that Sharon then caught the quarter past twelve ferry alone, back to Bowness, and walked back up Longtail Hill to go home for her dinner. That’s why Florence hatched her plan to ambush Sharon with a steam roller as she was walking up the bank.’

‘Yes, I know about that bit,’ I said.  

‘And did you know that after the murder Ned Perfect would walk out on to Longtail Hill every morning and try to find a strand of Sharon’s red hair embedded in the tarmac, and that he’d prise the strand he found from the road and take it with him on the ferry over to Hawkshead. They say he put all the strands together in a silver box which is hidden among the roots of a tree near Claife Station. When the woman told us the story, she said Ned was still doing the crossing every single day. But that was a long time ago, of course. He’s probably dead now. And in any case we never saw him. The kids used to run around the woods shouting for him to come out, come out wherever he was. It was a little game we always played.’

‘For Ned Perfect, Sharon’s hair must have been the only part of her beauty that Florence could not destroy,’ I said. ‘The part she could never take away.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right,’ Pippa said.

‘You haven’t forgotten about our meeting this morning, have you?’ Angie said.

‘Who’s it about again?’ I said.

‘Mrs McElhatton? Fern? The lady who thinks her daughter’s been replaced by an imposter?’

‘Oh yeah, of course,’ I said. ‘Give me a bell when everyone arrives.’

So it seems likely that the old white haired man I walked back from Far Sawrey with, and who as it happens had left me at the foot of the little path up to Claife Station, the place where Ned always kissed Sharon goodbye, was none other than Ned Perfect himself. It’s amazing that love and loss can bend whole lives into such strange shapes. As I made my way upstairs to my office I also realised that Perfect though Ned might be, he is clearly a far from reliable narrator.  There’s obviously a lot more to this tale, and I was wondering if perhaps I could find out more on the internet. Surely there must be something somewhere about it. Perhaps I’ll find something on famoussteamrollermurderers.com.

As I was leaving the office that night Jack Verdi was pulling into the car park on his motorbike. It was as Owen described it, big, shiny and black. Jack was in black leathers and wore a black high-gloss helmet with a dark mirrored visor.  The word Spider was written across the side of his helmet in blood red lettering.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘What’s your fettle?’

‘Good, man. Yeah, cool.’ He was trying to get the bike on to its stand. It was like watching a man made of pipe cleaners trying to bring a buffalo to heel. I couldn’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have found a Vespa scooter more manageable. He took off his helmet and put it on the tank and began to undo the Velcro on his black gauntlets, each of which seemed to be about as big as a vulture’s wing.

‘Nice machine,’ I said. ‘Yes, I’d heard you’d got rid of the Skoda.’

‘You bet I did, man. That was an old man’s chariot. I might as well have been travelling in a hearse. This baby is more up my street, dude, if you know what I mean.’

‘Owen told me it was a Kawasaki.’

‘Nah, this is a Ducati, man. Classic Italian race machine. Owen wouldn’t know a real bike if it jumped up and bit him. Guess what I call this beauty?’ he said, stepping over it and pointing to some white lettering on tank.

‘Hilda?’ I said.

‘Hilda?’ Jack said, frowning. ‘Hilda?  Why Hilda, dude?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It was just a guess.’

Cruella, dude. I call this baby, Cruella.’ He chuckled and brushed his hand across the name to remove a slight smudge from the gleaming black tank. ‘I named her after our mutual friend.’ He laughed again.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘And this Spider thing – the thing on your hat?’

‘The name on my helmet?  Spider? That’s the name they used to sometimes call me in the band, man. That’s the name I answer to now. That’s my real name, man.’

I nodded. ‘So what are you here for, Jack?’ I asked. ‘A meeting?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got a four thirty with Michelle about the Cassidy girls. We might have found a long term placement for them up over the Carter Bar near Hawick. Nice couple, run a little craft shop. He’s a woodturner, she’s a craft knitter, does handbags and scarves and mittens and stuff. If she likes the look of them I want to arrange to take Michelle up to meet them next week.’

‘Not on Cruella’s pillion, I hope,’ I said.

‘I will if she’s up for it,’ Jack joked.

‘She won’t be,’ I said. ‘You’ll be crossing the border in the Yaris.’

I made my way down towards the car park at the bottom of the street. I listened to Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album as I drove home. It’s certainly a bit more upbeat and musically animated than some of his previous work, but not as much as the reviews I’d read had led me to expect. The faltering, slightly washed-out and vague quality of his voice doesn’t readily lend itself to joy. The Jayhawks, for example, have a kind of emotional buoyancy and confident musical momentum which its hard to imagine Mr Oldham ever achieving – which isn’t to say that what he does isn’t in it’s own way just as good and valuable as the Jayhawk’s stuff, of course.

I drove down the Laverock towards Newsham and noticed that leaves are beginning to appear on the some of the hawthorn hedges. It’s suddenly possibly to believe it’s spring. When I arrived home Margaret was at the gate talking to Geraldine. A couple of months or so ago, Griff decided to add an extension to Citadel, another mere twenty feet of shadow for those of who live beneath it. It was almost as if they wanted the world to see it as barely more than a whim, a casual afterthought, nothing worth getting in a lather about. The Citizens were understandably shocked. They consulted leading members of the ruling political group, who were absolutely clear that they had been against this project from the start. They recommended that the Citizens appear at the planning hearing and seek a deferment, which they duly did. They asked the committee to visit residents’ homes to see just what the real impact was upon their lives.

The Committee made their site visit. The Widow Middlemiss had prepared herself for their visit. The Committee visited the building site, walked among the machines – the cranes, the dumpers, the diggers, the piles of breeze blocks and tiers of scaffolding – and beneath the naked girders and half built walls, and the builders went about their work all around and above them. The council official then announced the Committee could not visit any resident’s house, not even the Widow’s. On health and safety grounds. The official didn’t elaborate on exactly what the risks might be, of course, but Geraldine was pretty sure she’d worked it out.

‘They were frightened that Ethel’s teapot might fall on them,’ she said.

The planning committee duly returned to Morpeth and have now made their decision. It was absolutely predictable that they would grant consent for the extension and they did so. A committee member commented that the extension would not make a significant additional impact on the appearance of the building or upon residents. This of course is in a sense true. But it’s like saying that if you’ve stolen from someone more or less everything they’ve got taking the remainder of their loose change isn’t really such a big crime.

‘Democracy is a farce,’ Geraldine said. ‘They just do what they want. The whole thing’s been a charade.’

‘You’re right,’ Margaret said. ‘We may as well not exist.’

Margaret agreed. I stood and listened and nodded my agreement. I was thinking that the trouble with the councillors is that they’re probably just as powerless as we are, but that that none of them has the courage to admit it. I gazed idly over into Hugo’s front garden, where I noticed an old silver oven and hob unit had arrived in recent days along with a few sheets of plasterboard wrapped in polythene. I also noticed that The Alligator had acquired a new black boot and a towbar. It was obviously roadworthy again. I tried to recall when the beating had ended. Had I heard it this year?  I wasn’t sure.

I went into the house and left Margaret and Geraldine plotting the revolution. I scooped up De Kooning and took him through to the kitchen. There was a pile of onions and carrots on the bench. I made myself a cappuccino and we went through to the conservatory. I stood with De Kooning in my arms and looked out at the giant walls which now constitute the whole of our horizon.

‘That’s it, then,’ I said. ‘The battle’s finally over. There’s no way out of here now. We’re entombed.’

De Kooning rubbed his head against my face and began to purr.

‘Hey, you don’t know any Hank Locklin songs, do you?’ I said to him. ‘Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On? Happy Journey? Geisha Girl?’

It was only half past five, but the sun had already disappeared behind The Wall. As I contemplated the implacable panorama that incarcerated us I began to wonder if Bonnie Prince Billy had ever sung Hank Locklin songs. I wondered how that would sound like. De Kooning was watching the blackbirds chasing each other around the garden. I began to wonder if there was anywhere in Northumberland where I could still buy myself a steam roller.

.

the happiest man in the world

leave a comment »

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.

 .