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a sort of macabre sweepstake

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Last Wednesday morning I was at a meeting in Morpeth first thing. When I arrived back at the office about mid morning Jesse and Pippa from admin were in the team room talking to Michelle, Lily, Sally and Angie. They were discussing a game Pippa’s daughter plays with her colleagues at the place where she works.

The object of the game is to be the person who picks the well known person who dies before any of the people picked by anyone else. It seems each person can pick three people – let’s call them their Gees Gees (which could stand for Grim Gallopers) – and they pay £5 into a kitty for each of their Gee Gees. No two people can choose the same Gee Gee. The person who has picked the Gee Gee that dies first collects the whole kitty. At that point everyone in the game has the opportunity to pick a new set of Gee Gees. It’s a sort of macabre sweepstake.

A week or two earlier Pippa’s daughter’s workmate – Kathy – had won: Patrick McGoohan, the star of the one-time cult TV series The Prisoner had died. He was eighty. His demise brought Kathy a windfall of £540, or, to be strictly accurate, £525, as her original stake should be deducted from her winnings.

Pippa’s daughter had been sitting with Hugh Hefner, The Pope and Amy Winehouse. In the way the game is played at Pippa’s daughter’s company (sorry, I don’t know Pippa’s daughter’s name) on there being a winner everyone gets the option to keep the Gee Gees they hold or to throw in one or more. Pippa’s daughter chose only to keep Amy Winehouse. Rather than go for old people who might go on forever she decided to go for a full hand of younger people with dangerous lifestyles. She added Pete Doherty and Lewis Hamilton to her portfolio.

‘Why don’t we play that game?’ Angie said. ‘I’d pick Margaret Thatcher.’

‘That’s just wishful thinking,’ Lily said. ‘If that worked I’d go for Richard Madeley. He’d be gone tomorrow.’

‘Oh, no, he’s not very old,’ Sally said. ‘I think I’d put my money on Patrick Moore.’

‘Isn’t he already dead, Sal?’ Angie said.

‘No. No, he isn’t,’ Sal said. ‘I saw him on The Sky at Night just a couple of weeks ago.’

‘Yes, Sal, but was he alive?’ Lily said. They all laughed.

‘Don’t you think this game’s a bit sick?’ Jesse said.

‘Yes,’ Angie said. ‘It is. But isn’t that the point?’

‘Why don’t we make up our own variation?’ Michelle suggested. ‘What about trying to pick the next local authority to have a child death on one of their social workers’ caseload? Who bags Haringey?’

The others cringed and frowned.

‘Why stop there?’ Angie said. ‘Why don’t we just put the money on the kids on our own caseloads?’

‘Hush up, Ange,’ Lily said. ‘Don’t tempt providence.’

I made myself a coffee and wandered upstairs to my office. At first I was pondering the idea of tempting providence and wondered if this was another manifestation of magical thinking. Maybe it’s closer to the idea of speaking of the devil. Maybe it’s to do with the idea that God is not mocked. And yet what kind of insecure and fickle deity would it be that needed to throw Its weight around like that for such a trivial provocation? Maybe it’s just something to do with a primitive belief in the power of words.

I sat down with my coffee and looked out over the rooftops. I began to think about painting. I haven’t painted anything since I finished my canvas of Corby’s Crag. I have been thinking about painting somewhere more urban. I like Gillies’ paintings of Temple, and although it seems to be a village and probably quite rural, I want to find and show the beauty in the things beneath our noses. I want to say we don’t have to go far to find something worth looking at.

When I logged on to my computer I discovered I had received an email from Alice McTavish in Fort William. She was writing to tell me that there had been a fair amount of snow up there this winter and she was wondering if I was planning to come up for a few days skiing. She offered to make me a mushroom risotto. I wrote back and said that I couldn’t get any holiday until the end of February. I asked her to make sure none of the snowflakes melted before then.

At about lunchtime Tania picked up baby Davina during a supervised contact session and simply walked out of the office with her. Michelle followed her down the street, telling her she was being daft and doing herself no good. Tania was having none of it. Davina was her baby and she’d do what she liked with her. Michelle told her she couldn’t because we had a court order and Davina had to stay with her dad, who was now approved as her emergency foster carer. Tania just walked on.

Michelle was powerless. What was she supposed to do, rugby tackle Tania and wrestle the baby from her grip? She ran back to the office. She was in a panic. She rang the police and gave them a description and potential addresses Tania might go to. The police went straight out but had no luck. They visited Joe’s house too. His mother said she had no idea where he was. He hadn’t been home since yesterday. The plot was thickening. A young mother with no real interest in her baby had abducted the baby and gone off with a hare-brained youth. Maybe Michelle’s about to win the kitty, I thought to myself. I didn’t say it out loud, of course.

Next morning baby Davina and Tania were still missing and we had no clue where she was. I took a call from a police inspector and agreed to publicity. Later that day the missing baby began to be mentioned on the news bulletins on Metro Radio, along with pleas to the public to contact the police if they had any information about the whereabouts of mother and baby. The whole day passed without any news. Michelle sat in the office, unable to do anything. The rest of the team made her cups of tea and told her not to worry, the baby would be found fit and well, they were sure. Gilmour rang to see if there’d been any news. He also asked how Michelle was.

‘Not good,’ I said.

‘Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that this baby is okay,’ he said.

For a moment or two I imagined that the universe was indeed at the command of some perverse force. That things don’t ever go wrong by chance or accident. That they go wrong because the world is in the hands of providence, and providence is amoral and prone to mischief and cruelty. Providence is metaphysical spite. It’s funny that such a nutty belief will probably be reassuring to some people. We’d rather believe that we’re in the hands of a monster than think we’re in the hands of no-one at all.  At least you can talk to a monster.

After tea Margaret was baking onion tarts. De Kooning was hiding somewhere. I went for a walk through the Isabella and over the reclaimed land to Tynedale Drive. I walked all the way to Cowpen Road and then down past the cemetary to the North Farm. I came back along Renwick Road, past the Thoroton Hotel and back along Broadway to Rotary Way. Later I went along to my dad’s to return the library book on the Cloughs, which was almost overdue. I drove up the Avenue and through Seaton Delaval on the way back. I turned on the radio and flicked through the stations. Alan Robson was on Metro. Hettie from Bomarsund was on the line.

‘Hello, Alan,’ she said. ‘It’s Hettie from Bomarsund here.’

‘Good evening, Hettie. What do you want to talk to us about tonight?’

‘Good evening, Alan. Alan, have you heard about that young lass who’s kidnapped her own baby?  Isn’t that a terrible thing? I think she must be in a terrible state to do something like that, don’t you, Alan.’

‘Well, I don’t really know that much about it, Hettie. I mean, can a mother really kidnap her own child?’

‘Yes, but this bairn was being looked after for her by a foster parent, Alan. She’s obviously got needs, Alan. Don’t you agree, she must be a girl with needs?’

‘You might be right, Hettie. If that lass happens to be listening now, Hettie, what would your message to her be?’

‘You know what I’d say to her, Alan? I’d say, “Take your baby back, pet. People are just trying to help you. If you hurt your bairn you’d never forgive yourself.” My heart goes out to her, Alan.’

‘Thank you, Hettie. Let’s go now to line two, where we’ve got John from Westerhope. Good evening, John. What do you want to say to the night owls tonight.’

‘Hello, Alan. What I want to say is that with all due respect your last caller is exactly the sort of person who’s got this country in the pathetic state it’s in today. Do you know what my message to that girl on the run with her baby would be? It would be “Good for you, girl.” It’s the do-gooders who have taken away all our freedom and brought the country to its knees, Alan. Social workers only take people’s kids off them to give them to middle class couples who can’t have them or to put them with lesbians and paedophiles.’

‘Well, I’m sure there are a lot of people won’t agree with you there, John. Surely sometimes social workers are right to take children off their parents, aren’t they? What about Baby P?’

‘Exactly, Alan! Exactly! That’s proves my point, doesn’t it? If this lass’s child had really been at any risk of harm at home the social workers would have left her with where she was. That’s what they do, Alan. You can hardly open a newspaper these days without coming across the story of another poor kid social workers have left to die.’

‘I’m not sure you’re right on this one, John. But of course I respect your point of view. Let’s have another record. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there who want to have their say on this lass’s baby. We’ll be back after this.’

Chesney Hawkes came on. The One and Only. I drove past Newsham Coop and over the railway crossing, past the Black Diamond and the Newsham Hotel and around to the Willow Tree. I glanced over the grass where the Brick Row once stood and through the dark spaces where the Newsham Nightingale once piped, across to the anonymous little council houses beyond and the little yellow rectangles of their windows. Tania and Joe were probably holed up with baby Davina in just such a house tonight. They were probably with a bunch of raucous kids, drinking cans of lager and smoking cannabis, arguing about whose turn it was to be on the Wii, passing Davina round like a stray kitten they’d brought in from the street. A tattered-eared pitbull called Tyson was probably sniffing at her face.

As I drove into the top of my street Chesney stopped singing and Alan Robson returned to the mike.

‘So, welcome back, night owls,’ he said. ‘Tonight we’ve been talking about the girl who’s stolen her baby from social workers and gone into hiding with her. Right now on line four we’ve got Cheryl from Ashington. Hello, Cheryl. How are you tonight? This bairn’s from around your way, isn’t it?’

‘Hello, Alan. It’s Cheryl here. Yes, Alan, she is. I could tell you who she is, Alan, if you want to know.’

‘Oh no, Cheryl. No, no, I think we’ve got to respect this lass’s right to privacy, haven’t we?’

‘Yes, Alan, that’s true. But what you don’t know is just what’s going on around here . . .’

At that point I turned the radio off. The last thing I needed to hear was that baby Davina had been abducted by Robin Hood and his Merry Men and was being taught to use a bow and arrow in Bothal Woods.

I slept badly that night. I awoke at least three times. Baby Davina was on my mind. The first time woke up I was wondering who was feeding her. She was in a dark place crying frantically. She was completely alone. De Kooning made his way to the top of the bed and sniffed at my face. He began to purr. I pressed him back down on to the duvet and gave him a stroke.

‘Go back to sleep, De Kooning,’ I said. ‘It’s not morning yet.’

Next time I awoke I was thinking about Michelle. I knew she’d be lying awake. I knew she’d be worrying herself to death. If anything happened to baby Davina she’d carry the can. Her photo would appear in The Daily Mail. She’d be pilloried. She’d be destroyed. I heard De Kooning begin to purr again. I put my arm out of the sheets and rubbed his tummy. He gave my hand a little play fight.

‘Go back to sleep, De Kooning,’ I said. ‘It’s not morning yet.’

The third time I awoke I had been having a terrible dream. I dreamt I was King Lear. Or perhaps I was some other character from that play. The Fool, perhaps. Or Edgar. Or Gloucester. I was probably an amalgamation of several of the characters all in one dream person. I was caught in a storm. I was blind and stumbling close to the edge of a cliff. I dreamt I was gathering samphire. I dreamt I was gathering samphire and I heard De Kooning fidgeting. He was purring again, loudly, like a tractor.

‘Go back to sleep, Cordelia,’ I said. ‘It won’t be much longer now.’

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the return of the muslim vampires

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Yesterday morning I went to a meeting in Shiremoor. On my way back I decided to call and see my dad in Seaton Sluice. He’s getting his house refurbished – rewired, new kitchen and all that palaver – and I was wondering how things were going. When I got to the Sluice I saw Tristan’s white PermaPlumma van parked just around the corner of the Collywell Bay Road, more or less opposite the social club.  I spotted Tristan himself in his white boilersuit and blue jacket, leaning against the fence looking out over into the harbour. It was sunny and cold, quite suddenly like winter. The white buildings on Rocky Island were gleaming in the sun and the whole scene looking north had a picture postcard quality about it. I parked up and went over.

‘Hey, Tristan, what’s happening?’ I said. ‘Have you got as job up this way to do?’

‘No, mate,’ Tristan said. ‘No job. Work’s dwied up a bit, I’m afwaid.’

He looked just a little despondent, a little stoical.

‘So what you doing in the Sluice?’ I asked.

‘I’m just getting out of Bwenda’s way,’ he replied. ‘She’s got clients all morning. I didn’t want to be under her feet.’

I nodded and shared the view with him for a few seconds.

‘Hey, so what do you think of the response of the Left of the credit crunch, Tristan?’ I said.

‘What wesponse?’ he replied, suddenly becoming more animated. ‘The so-called Left squats like a bullfwog on a log and cwoaks and cwoaks but never jumps.’

‘So what’s it waiting for?’

‘I dunno, mate! A sign, maybe, or a call from heaven.’

‘So what should it do, Tristan? What would it look like if the bullfrog jumped?’

‘You know something, mate, I don’t think this bullfrog knows how to jump. I don’t think it’s actually got the legs for it anymore. It isn’t organised, that’s the problem. Who are the Left? Who’s leading them? Without organisation, mate, this fwog ain’t jumping anywhere.’

I laughed and said that maybe this was true, but surely that it just begged the question of why there was no organised Left in the first place, why we had a frog that couldn’t jump.

‘Maybe it’s because it can’t see anywhere to jump to?’ I suggested. ‘Maybe that one smug log in the backwater is the only one this frog can sit on these days. There’s no other log for the socialist frog to swim towards, is there?’

‘This is a chicken and egg situation,’ Tristan said. ‘Pwaxis, mate, that’s the way to deal with this kind of pawadox. You’ve always got to be weady to jump. Jumping’s what changes the world. Jump and the future weveals itself!  Wemember what Marx said: in the past it was the job of philosophers to understand the world, the job now is to change it. The fwog needs to get on with jumping, I say, and stop gazing at its navel and cwoaking. A fwog that loves the sound of its own cwoak is a fwog that will soon be dwowned in the tide of histowy.’

‘You make this frog sound a bit like Hamlet, Tristan,’ I joked. ‘To jump or not to jump, that is the question. A frog with its head up its own backside.’

I told Tristan I needed to be on my way. I found his position frankly a little undisciplined for a Trotskyist, somewhat lacking in theoretical rigour. But he is right, the Left’s response to the current global financial crisis has been remarkably passive, and you can only surmise that this is because they either don’t know how to respond or no longer have the capacity to do so. These two things are probably inextricably linked, of course. Marxists can gloat over their man’s acumen about capitalism, but which of them can tell us where to go from here? The Left seems to have lost the belief it once had that it can make history, and that it can even do so in circumstances not of its own choosing. The Left seems to be mostly comprised of Lutherans nowadays. They don’t need to be organised. All that’s needed is that each individual believes in the God of history. If everyone sits quietly in their soon to be repossessed homes praying to this God the revolution will inevitably occur. Capitalism will magically wither and die while they dream.

As I walked back to my car I mused on Tristan’s brave and perhaps slightly incoherent analysis, that the Left is a frog with no legs and nowhere to jump but somehow ought to jump anyway. Basho’s famous haiku came to my mind.

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
Plop!

This poem has been translated by just about everyone, of course. The version I always recall is Alan Watts’ translation. I wasn’t sure how enlightening it was in terms of the Left and the global crisis in Capitalism, but it’s a fine little poem, isn’t it?

I called across to see my dad. His flat is upside down, polythene covering every floor surface, workmen coming and going, the door permanently open. My dad had his coat on and was obviously very cold. He offered me a sandwich; I declined. I told him I needed to get back to work and left. As I drove back down past the social club I could see Tristan. He was still looking out over the bay.

The schools are on holiday this week and it’s Halloween on Friday. Some of the kids in Ashington are using their cast off pillowcases as spook outfits and wandering from house to house knocking on doors. Just after I got back from the Sluice Gilmour rang me about this phenomenon.

‘We don’t have a resurgence of the Flinties, do we?’ he asked. ‘Tell me how worried we should be about this.’

‘Not at all,’ I suggested. ‘They are just kids trick or treating. They’re also wearing witches hats, Frankenstein masks and carrying pumpkin lanterns from Asda. Some of them have luminous plastic vampire teeth and fake knives through their heads. Do they sound like a bunch of Muslim terrorists to you?’

Gilmour agreed, they didn’t, although not without observing that stranger things have happened. And by chance he’d listened to Alan Robson on Night Owls last night and there had been some alarming calls from worried listeners in the Ashington area.

‘A lady called Hettie from Bomarsund rang up,’ Gilmour said. ‘This lady sounded quite agitated. She said to the presenter something like “It’s all happening again, Alan.” He tried to reassure her, but she was having none of it. He asked her if these children were throwing paper aeroplanes at windows again and then as a sort of Halloween joke he said, “Or is it bats this time, Hettie?”  Hettie was not at all amused. “Alan, with all due respect,” she said, “this is not funny.”  Alan apologised. Oh, Hettie wasn’t a happy bunny. Later a bloke called John from Westerhope came on. This guy was obviously some kind of conspiracy theorist. He seemed to think Ashington police were in cahoots with the Flinties to destroy the British way of life. The next caller was a drunken woman from Ashington.’

‘Oh, Cheryl!’ I said.’ Ha ha. Yes, we know Cheryl. She’d be complaining that the authorities weren’t taking her seriously, was she?’

‘Yes, that’s right. She said she’d seen someone dressed as – ‘

I interrupted him: ‘Robin Hood! Yes, she says that all the time!’

‘No,’ Gilmour said. ‘Not Robin Hood. The Lone Ranger.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘Anyhoo, my boy,’ Gilmour said, ‘It sounds like we don’t have to get ourselves into a lather about any of this, do we? So, tell me, how’s your dad doing? Is he okay?’

‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘He’s fine. Still mending fuses in the factory and what have you. How’s yours?’

‘Oh, father’s absolutely chipper. He’s a bit worried that the demand for meat might drop off a bit if there’s a recession, and of course like anyone else he’s getting a bit nervous about property values and his investments. But all in all he’s very well, thank you. Oh, by the way, did I tell you my lad’s driving the quad now?’

‘Is he? The quad, eh? Hey, that’s great. He’s really coming on, isn’t he? By the way, how’s your daughter’s horse doing?’

Gilmour told me the horse and his daughter were both doing remarkably well. I then asked him why he didn’t turn up at Rosie Lake’s leaving do last Friday.

‘Oh, it clashed with something my wife had arranged,’ he said. ‘How did it go? Did they give her a good send off?’

‘Well, Jack Verdi did,’ I said.

‘Jack finally performed?!’ Gilmour said. ‘My goodness, miracles will never cease, eh? What did he do, the old hits from his back catalogue?’

‘Yeah, well, his back catalogue was certainly involved. Nobody’s told you about, have they?’

‘No. No-one’s mentioned it. Hey, it sounds like I missed a good night? I really wish I could have been there. I’ve got a couple of Jack’s old albums, you know. I like his stuff. Is his voice still as good as it was?’

I chuckled. Gilmour asked me why I was laughing. ‘Oh, I guess you just had to be there,’ I said. ‘I’m sure Freddy will give you the full low down when you see him.’

I think our call ended with Gilmour in much better fettle than when our conversation began. It certainly cheered me up.

Debs came up and told me that Mandy was in the office. She was thinking of trying to get a private tenancy outside of Ashington, maybe in Morpeth or Seaton Delaval. She wanted to live somewhere where Flinty might not find her.

‘If she found somewhere could we help her out with a bond?’ Debs asked.

‘Is running away from him the answer, Debs?’ I said.

‘Oh, come on,’ she said. ‘What else is she going to do? The man’s a nutcase. He’s never going to leave her alone.’

I looked at her and shook my head. ‘Aye, all right,’ I said. ‘It’s only money, I guess.’

It was another cold afternoon. As I drove down Alexandra Road at dusk the sky was icy blues, violets and orange. The streetlights had just come on. An old white Mercedes passed me going in the other direction. The driver was dressed like an Arab. I turned on the radio. On the five o’clock news I heard that Gordon had stepped into the furore about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand acting like a couple of prats on Brand’s late night radio programme a week or so ago. Gordon’s the man with his finger on the pulse of the nation.

It was dark before I got home.

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