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the needle in destiny’s jukebox

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quay road, blyth

That night, I had a dream. I drifted off thinking
about happiness, birth and new life. But now I was haunted
by a vision of… He was horrible. The lone biker of apocalypse.
A man with all the powers of Hell at his command.

 

You’re young and you’ve got your health. What do you want with a job?

 The Coen Brothers

Raising Arizona

 

I was standing in the corridor talking to Jack. In his skinny black jeans and biker boots he was leaning against a poster that says Safeguarding is Everyone’s Business. He reminded me a lot of Felix the Cat. It occurred to me Tallulah was in a meeting upstairs.

‘Hey, you’re not waiting for Tallulah, are you?’ I said.

‘Nah,’ Jack said. ‘I’ve moved on, man. I’ve got another cherry in my crystal chandelier now.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I mean, you aren’t actually waiting here now for her are you?  She’s upstairs in a meeting. I thought you might be going back together.’

Jack laughed and shook his head. He adjusted his Aviators on his face and pulled up the collar of his leather jacket. I wondered if he was about to break into a chorus of You’re the One that I Want.

‘I saw her at Tynemouth at the weekend. She was in the Wooden Doll, out on the lash with a slackjawed entourage of mule-faced harridans. She was blathered, man, I can tell you. They all were. Blathered and blotto, blasted, bombed and boogalooed. Know what I mean?’

‘They were drunk?’

‘As skunks, dude.  Lady T can hardly remember seeing me. She was well hammered, mate, hooched up, out of it, tanked, toodlelooed, wrecked, wrinkled, polluted, and duplicated. Man, she was trousered, know what I mean?’

‘I think so. She was drunk. So did she speak to you?’

‘She sneered at me, man, that’s what she did – sneered at me. That lady’s got one helluva attitude problem, my friend. She wants to eat the sparrows from my soul.’

I nodded very slowly.

‘So are you still with the band, Jack?’ I said.

‘Yeah, I sure am. It’s my life, man. It’s what I am. I was born to be a needle in destiny’s jukebox.’

I nodded again.

‘So were you playing at the Wooden Doll at the weekend? Is that how you happened to see Tallulah?’

‘Nah, that was Friday. We didn’t have a gig that night. I was on a recreational mission, if you know what I mean.’

I was about to begin nodding again when Tallulah bowled around the corner at the end of the corridor and began striding towards us like a leopard with a Mae West half-smile on her face.

‘Oh oh,’ Jack said. ‘Here comes Minnie the Moocher. This is probably my cue to skedaddle, dude.’

Tallulah strode up to us, her bag slung over her shoulder, her red hair tied back.

‘Well, well,’ she said, looking Jack up and down, ‘if it isn’t Ronnie Wood.’

‘Miaow!’ Jack replied. ‘What’s the problem, Lady T, did the green-eyed monster come a-callin’?’

‘Dream on, Jack,’ Tallulah replied. ‘But, hey, I suppose that must have been your daughter I saw you with at the weekend, was it?’

‘Have you ever noticed’ Jack said – to me, rather than to Tallulah, ‘how when women reach a certain age they can get a bit confused about those who are young and beautiful?’

‘Oh, come off it, Jack,’ Tallulah came back. ‘If you were only my age you’d still be twice the age of that half-naked tattooed bimbo you were drooling over on Friday.’

Jack looked at me and made a sort of palms up shrug.

‘See what I mean, man?’ he said. He zipped up his jacket.  ‘Time to make tracks, I reckon.’

Jack slouched away slowly down the corridor. As he opened the door at the end he looked back, pulled his Aviators down his nose and, looking over them, blew Tallulah a kiss.

Tallulah shook her head. She turned and looked straight at me, her blue eyes very serious. It struck me that she reminded me a lot of Florence Welch.

‘He’s going to get himself sacked,’ she said. ‘He’s on self-destruct. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jack will be with us much longer.’

For a moment I thought she was going to cry. I was sure she was. But just then Eric came into the building. He spotted me immediately and made a beeline for me.

‘How,’ he said, ‘Aa’ve just seen ya marra’s sidekick, whaat’s ‘ee’s name? The one whaat plays wi’ that baand – yuh knaa, the Gliffs. Ozzy Osbourne – yuh knaa, the Pluto, him wi’ the massa motorbike.’

‘Jack’s band’s called The Clips,’ Tallulah said, as if very politely correcting him. ‘Not The Gliffs.’

‘Ur, aye,’ Eric said, looking at Tallulah. ‘Aye, here, so d’ye knaa ‘ee’s marra, iz weell? The blowk whaat wuz in The Proodloot? Whaat’s ‘ee’s name again? Ur, aye. Hing on.’

Eric slipped into please wait, communicating with server mode, his rigid index finger raised like a coathook.

‘Owen.’ Tallulah replied, laughing quietly. ‘Owen Vardy. Oh, I know Owen, all right.’

‘D’yuh knaa wor young un’s tryin’ t’ get the gadgie at the Fell Um Doon to book them for a neit? Aa’ll get yuh a ticket, if yuh like.’

Tallulah shook her head. ‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘But if he books The Clips let me know. Now there’s a band worth seeing.’

She winked at me and left.

‘We’s she?’ Eric said, as she closed the door. ‘Is that the Pluto’s lass?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No. In fact they can’t actually stand each other.’

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen cooking some onions and scraping some carrots. I hadn’t seen her for a few days. I asked her how Brenda and Tristan were.

‘Not good,’ she said.

‘Any more news on the woman he’s supposed to be seeing from South Beach. Where does she live again, Albatross Way?’

‘It looks like there is no woman from South Beach,’ Margaret said. ‘Mrs Byro seems to have made a mistake. It seems it was something she dreamt.’

‘So Tristan’s in the clear, then?’

‘Not quite. It’s only a matter of time before Brenda figures out what Mrs Byro’s dream means. She thinks the dream is probably prophetic. She thinks the birds are symbols of things to come. Brenda says Mrs Byro is one of God’s chosen vehicles. It’s through the likes of Mrs Byro that the radio stations of the future broadcast their quiet music. ’

I nodded slowly. I could have been listening to a tune by Elgar in my head, but in reality I was thinking how much I dislike it when the clocks go back and all of a sudden you have to drive home in the dark. You feel like the victim of a robbery.

I gave De Kooning a cuddle and sat with him for a while watching the six o’clock news and drinking a cappuccino. Afterwards I went out for a walk in the dark. I went looking for the autumn leaves. I walked through the Solingen Estate and into Ridley Park. I walked from there along Bath Terrace and then back up Ridley Avenue, which might be at its very best at this time of the year. A little while later I walked across Broadway Circle. I stopped beneath the streetlight in the middle, close to the TA building, drifts of fallen leaves all around me. The lights from the Broadway shops – the chippy, the newsagent cum corner shop that calls itself a superstore, the chop suey house, the off-licence – were flooding the dry pavement. And yet there are still those who will tell you that Blyth isn’t a beautiful place.

 .

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when the lion dreams about red shoes

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bebside inn

I love the succession of scents that map the way through summer. The heady coconut smell of gorse, the sweet vapour of may, the clover, the roses, the honeysuckle. I love the way they ambush and seduce you as you walk or cycle the country paths.  For some reason this year I missed the honeysuckle, the one which I perhaps love most of all. I missed it without knowing I’d done so, mostly because it’s by its scent that the honeysuckle announces its presence.  It’s easy to pass a tangled hedgerow and hardly notice it.  The scent of the honeysuckle is its voice. It’s the scent that calls you near. I realised I’d missed the honeysuckle as I was cycling west through Northburn Grange estate in Cramlington a week past Sunday. It was warm and the air was humid, and as I was spinning along the cycle path between a hedge and the bank of the burn I was overwhelmed by the scandalous honey-sweet fragrance of purple Buddleia. Most years it’s the honeysuckle that catches me this way. It’s the scent of honeysuckle that usually establishes for me a deep entanglement with the energy of summer.

Owen was in the office again earlier this week. He was chatting in the team room to Lily when I came in.

‘Are you and Jack okay now?’ I said. ‘I heard you had a bit of a spat.’

‘Jack has an ugly side to him,’ Owen replied. ‘He’s a bully. He seems to have set himself on the dark road to damnation. You’ll know he’s gigging again with the band, of course?’

‘Is he?’ I said. ‘With The Clips? Hey, you can’t keep a good man down, eh?’

‘He should act his age. I don’t know who he thinks he is. He told Tallulah the other day that he saw himself as Dante and that he’s descending into an inferno. Dante! For goodness sake.’

I laughed. ‘So is Tallulah his Beatrice?’ I joked.

Owen smiled thinly, sadly. He then began to tell me about a girl called Beatrice who was an old flame he had, his first sweetheart, in fact.

‘Heidi hates her with a vengeance, of course,’ he said. ‘First love, last love, only love, and all that.  I made the mistake of telling Heidi when we first met that I called Beatrice my little Bee, and that she found me in the dark forest and led me to the foot of the mountain. I told her it was with my little honey Bee that I first walked through the vale and talked about the making of the soul. Heidi said that these conversations were tattooed on my heart, like a harlot’s name on a sailor’s arm, and there was no way they could ever be erased. I’ve told her since that she’s wrong, of course. I’ve told her that she is my true soulmate. But the thought of Bee still cuts her to the quick, I think, even now. Or as she would put it, when she thinks of Beatrice consternation pierces her heart.’

‘Hmmm,’ I said. ‘That must hurt.’

‘The thing was, Bee just wouldn’t let me go.  We parted because her mother and father thought I was too old for her.  And looking back now, I would agree with them. She was just sixteen and I was twenty five. I know now that it was wrong. But without Heidi I’d have never seen that.’

‘And so when her parents said it had to stop, you and your little Bee just kept on buzzin’, I suppose?’

‘We did for a while.  But one day her father accosted me as I was on my way to a rehearsal. It was early June. We were working on a Simon and Garfunkel medley that day. As I stepped off the zebra crossing Bee’s dad walked up to me. “You can’t say I didn’t warn you, you pervert!” he said, and set about me.  The next thing I remember was waking up in hospital with a broken nose. That’s where I met Heidi. I was sitting in A & E waiting for the results of my X-ray. She was sitting next to me. She’d been stung on the eyelid by a wasp.  We began to talk, and the rest is history, as they say. It was love at first sight for us both. I opened my heart to her. I told her what had happened to me and there and then she said she knew that I knew it wasn’t right.  She said she could see that I was a good man who’d been led on to a path of ruination and sin.  And she was right, of course.’

I nodded earnestly. ‘Hmmm. So that was the last you saw of your little Bee?’ I said.

‘No,’ Owen replied. ‘Sadly it wasn’t. It turns out that Bee was utterly obsessed with me.  She seemed to turn up wherever I went and, worst of all, she was always sitting in a front row seat at every concert we played.  And she was always wearing a very short skirt and the red shoes I’d bought her for Christmas.’

‘You were being stalked by a little Bee in red shoes, eh?  Why did you buy her red shoes? What was that about?’

‘It was our thing.  Bee looked like Judy Garland, you see. That’s how it all started.  And when she used to ask where she would tell her parents she was going when she went out, I used to say “Tell them you’re off to see the wizard”. She used to call me The Wiz sometimes and sing silly little rhymes to me, such as “Gee whizz, it’s me, Wiz, your little queen bee, Wiz,” and “You’re the biz, Mr Wiz,” and “Mr Wiz, Mr Wiz, you’ve got me in a tizz!”.’

I smiled politely. ‘And so how long did she turn up at your gigs for?’ I asked. ‘Weeks? Months?’

‘Almost two years. Never missed one show. But it was beginning to take its toll on Heidi.  Heidi can be very possessive and she always worried in case Bee won back my affections, in case I succumbed again to her charms. Heidi became very insecure, and it got so she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. ‘”First love, last love, only love” she would say to me. “Suppose you feel the same way too?” “But I don’t,” I’d say. But for some reason poor Heidi just could not convince herself that I loved her and not my little Bee with her long, long legs and shiny red shoes.’

I laughed. ‘What is it with you and your women, Owen?’ I said. ‘You’ve got more limpets than the Titanic!’

Owen chuckled and blushed. ‘Believe it or not I was a good looking fellow in those days,’ he said. ‘I turned many a fair lady’s head, I can tell you.’

‘Oh, I can imagine you did,’ I said. ‘But how did you ever shake off little Bee?’

‘Heidi took matters into her own hands.  She can be quite resourceful, you know. She rang Bee’s dad and told him where her daughter was going on all her nights away from home. The next concert we gave was in Stockport and Bee was sitting in the middle of the front row, as usual, in her short skirt and red shoes.  For our second number we always played a song I’d written called “Why Is The Sky As Blue As An Angel’s Eye?” In the middle of the first chorus Bee’s dad emerged out of the darkness and marched along the front row. Bee jumped up in fright.  The band stopped playing and the whole place stood up in silence to see what was happening. “Ah ha!” her dad said, grabbing her by the ear. “So you’re off to see the Wizard again, are you, my girl?  Well, I’ve got one or two tricks left up my sleeve too, I can tell you. And the first is to get rid of those red shoes.” He made Bee take off her shoes and place them on her seat.  Then he led her by the ear, barefoot up through the audience and out of the concert hall via the stalls exit.  It must have been absolutely humiliating for her.  But of course for Heidi it was as if a huge stone had been lifted off her shoulder.  We did the rest of the gig with the pair of red high heels sitting on the seat where Bee had been. That night for the first and only time in her life Heidi got drunk. And we never saw Bee again.’

‘Where did the red shoes go?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. I’ve often asked myself that.  I like to think that perhaps they were claimed by a poor fan from Stockport and that she wore them every Friday night when she went out on the razzle. I like to think that fan is wearing them still. But the truth is I really don’t know where they went.’

‘You don’t think Bee came back for them?’

Owen looked shocked. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have never thought that.  My God, Heidi would never cope with the idea that Bee might still be wearing those red shoes for me.  No, if they are anywhere they are safe in the hands of devoted fan from Stockport.’

Owen was thoughtful for a moment or two. I wondered if he wasn’t trying to process the notion that Bee might still be wearing those shoes.

‘Of course, you’ll know I later wrote a song called “Stockport Girl”, don’t you?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t.’

‘Oh yes. It’s a little bit in the style of Bruce Springsteen. A cracking song, even if I do say so myself. Ask Eric about it – he’ll know it well, I’m sure.’

Owen stood for a while, his head slightly bowed, his body language penitent, a bit like that of someone who expected to be whacked across the back of the head at any moment.

‘Ah, those were the days, Owen, eh?’ I said, just to break the silence

‘You know, it was a very peculiar concert,’ Owen said, wagging his spindly index finger. ‘As I remember it now I was playing only to that pair of red shoes on the seat. There was no-one else there.  I still have a dream sometimes where that’s what’s happening. I see myself standing at the microphone in a concert hall with my guitar singing and the only audience I have out there in the darkness is that pair of red shoes.  I dreamt it again just a few nights ago. What do you think it means?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘Were you naked?’

‘No, I had my pyjamas on. Heidi likes us to wear them. We have matching pairs.’

‘I meant in the dream, Owen. Were you naked in the dream?’

‘Oh. No, I was wearing blue jeans, a cowboy shirt and light brown boots with Cuban heels.  Why?’

‘I don’t know. It’s just one of those questions dream analysts always ask, isn’t it?’

Owen nodded slowly and looked up at me, a little like a crumpled cheese cloth Columbo.

‘Were there spurs on your boots?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think so,’ Owen replied, his eyes narrowing. ‘Why? Does that matter?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘It’s just another one of those questions analysts always ask.’

As I was leaving the office later that afternoon I bumped into Eric.

‘Aye, aye, whaat cheor, bonny lad?’ he said. ‘Hoo’s yah marra?’

‘Owen, do you mean? Or Jack?’  I replied. ‘I think Jack’s back with the band and they’ll be doing some gigs again soon.’

‘Whaat?!’ Eric said, his round face lighting up like a camping lantern. ‘Are the Proodloot gannin’ back on the road?  Just wait till aa tell wor young un’ that. Ee’ll be ower the moon! How, do yuh think the’ might dee a gig at the Fell ‘Em Doon?’

‘No, Eric,’ I said. ‘Jack’s back with the band. You know, the skinny guy in sunglasses with the dyed black hair in a pony tail – the one you met a few weeks ago?’

‘Ur. Ur, aye, the Spider blowk. Ozzy Osbourne. Whaat’s his band caalled again? The Gliffs?’

‘The Clips. Short for Pluto’s Apocalypse.’

‘Ur, aye, the five Plutos. Ur aye, noo aa remember. Ur, hing on, ur, whaat waas aa ganna say again?’

Eric put his finger into the air like a grubby crude antenna and waited for a signal. Eventually he got one.

‘Ur, aye, so are the Proodloot not ganna dee any more gigs, then?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Owen’s more a slippers and pyjamas sort of man these days. Give him a nice mug of Ovaltine and his Wizard of Oz DVD and he’s a happy bunny.’

‘Ur, aye. That’s a pity.  If  ‘ee wanted tee, wor young un’ knaas the gadgie at the Fell ‘Em Doon and could probably get them a spot there. Will yuh ask yah marra next time yuh taalk tiv him if ‘ee wants wor young un’ t’ dee that?’

I said I would and began making my way out of the office. And then I remembered that I had to ask him something.

‘Hey, Eric,’ I said, ‘do you know a Proudlute song called Stockport Girl?’

‘Whey, aye,’ he said. ‘Of course. It’s a crackin’ song. It’s on tha thord album, isn’t it? Heroes in Clurgs. Hoo does it gan again?  Ur aye. Hing on.’

Eric shut down, searching for a signal again, like a mobile phone in a deep valley. Then in a sing-song sort of way he recited these lines, which I took to be the chorus:

‘Soothport gorl, Soothport gorl
Bright as a ruby, pure as a porl
Aa’m nivva ganna leave aa
Me Soothport gorl.’ 

 

I nodded, appreciatively.

‘Cheers, Eric,’ I said.

‘Aa’ll dee yuh a CD of it, if yuh want iz tee.’

‘No, that’s fine. But thanks anyway.’

Just as I was opening the door Eric shouted to me again.

‘Ur, aye,’ he said. ‘And can yuh ask yah marra as weell if the Proodloot ivva played on the same bill as the Jefferson Airplane. Wor young un’ says the’ did.’

I agreed to make this enquiry on Eric’s behalf and finally made it back out into the sunshine.

The loneliness of a woman is a sad misfortune, but the loneliness of a man is his destiny. I had this thought yesterday as I ate my tea. I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s first album. I don’t usually listen to music at teatime, but yesterday Margaret was watching The Weakest Link on TV when I got in from work and so I went into my bedroom and put my CD player on. As Cohen sang Suzanne I realised that it is age, not youth that defines a man. It isn’t until a man is getting old that he realises how loneliness defines him. Loneliness, he sees, is his absolute purpose.

I dipped pieces of stone ground wholemeal bread into my bowl of lentil soup. It’s summertime again and I’m struggling to get fit and shed the pounds that winter brought me. And all I could hear was this loneliness, this fact so obvious I began to wonder how I’d ever missed it. I looked at the painting of a lion I painted a year or so ago. He is virtually emaciated. A naked young woman rides him. I see now the terrible loneliness I have put into his orange eyes. She will never be as alone as he is already.

I’m off to Scotland for a week tomorrow. I’m going to walk the hills around Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch. I’ve also arranged to go over to Fort William one night to have dinner with Alice McTavish and catch up on things in her world. I’m really looking forward to it. What would any life be without a good pair of boots and a yellow brick road?

.

the black aeroplane

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blyth brewery bar quayside

It was very summery in the earlier part of last week, although as it happens it wasn’t going to last. On Monday Tallulah was in the office. I was standing in the kitchen at the photocopier wondering if I should ask Eric to brush up all the sand when I heard a soprano voice in the corridor singing ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’

I come home in the morning light
My mother says when you gonna live your life right
Oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones
And girls they wanna have fun
Oh girls just wanna have fun

It was Tallulah. As she passed the kitchen door she glanced in. When she saw me she came in to say hello. Or rather she slinked in. There is something strangely lithe and feline about Tallulah sometimes. Her red hair was tied back in a thin turquoise scarf. She was wearing long silver earrings, a tiny crescent moon at the end of each one.

Tallulah told me that Jack and Owen had almost come to blows at a meeting of the Keats appreciation group a few days earlier. It seems they’d been arguing about Lauren Laverne’s rendition of “the golden pen poem”, as Tallulah called it.

‘Owen felt that Laverne’s reading was disrespectful and impertinent,’ Tallulah said. ‘Jack sniggered at him and accused him of being elitist. Of course Jack didn’t quite put it like that. He suggested to Owen that only a stuck up little twerp who had his head up his own backside could think like that. Owen retaliated by calling Jack “slack and totally without scruples” and said Jack was “lacking a robust sense of the true meaning and value of poetry”. Jack guffawed and suggested the real problem was that Owen had the hots for Laverne but was in denial about it, denial that he was converting into denial about the quality of her rendering of the poem. Jack said Owen would never admit the beauty of Laverne’s reading of the poem until he admitted the beauty of Laverne herself. You should have been there. It was bloody hilarious.’

‘It sounds like it,’ I said. ‘And so Jack nearly hit Owen, did he?’

‘Yes, it’s worrying. Jack’s needs to watch himself. When Owen retaliated by called him degenerate and disrespectful to women, Jack got up, swaggered over to him, poked him on the brow with his index finger and asked him what he was going to do about it.’

I laughed. ‘What did Owen do?’ I said.

‘He trembled!’ Tallulah laughed. ‘What do you think he did? He trembled, picked up his carrier bag of seasonal vegetables and went off to catch the next bus back home to Heidi.’

‘Sounds like Lauren’s really put the cat among the pigeons among the Keats aficionados, eh?’

‘Yeah,’ Tallulah said. ‘But it’s Jack I worry about. I’d hate to see him do something he’d regret.’

‘Bloody hell, Tallulah, since when did you ever care about what happens to Jack? Last time you spoke to me about him you didn’t give him the lickings of a dog.’

‘Didn’t I? Really? How odd. I’m really very fond of Jack.’

Tallulah looked at me with a wide-eyed, innocent expression. It was an expression Laverne herself sometimes wears. I laughed. She laughed too.

‘Hey, do you know he’s taken to wearing a cowboy hat now?’ she said. ‘Well, a sort of Fedora, I guess.’

‘Is it black?’ I asked.

‘Yep,’ Tallulah said. ‘Black as your hat. Black as a spider. Black as night.’

The Good Doctor Sticks also came over last week. We had a session about the Electronic Assessment Module, which he continues to see as the future of social work, and then moved on the other matters.  He had an idea he wanted to pitch.

‘In The Observer this week it said that there were eight hundred Brits on waiting lists for Swiss euthanasia clinics,’ he said. ‘This is a clear case of demand without supply. Where’s there’s need, there’s opportunity. This is the fundamental principle of the market economy. And the government’s not about to make euthanasia legal over here any time soon – except in Gordon’s case as a one off, of course – and even if they did the money’s not there to fund the service from the public purse, so the market will need to fill the gap. I’m looking to pull together some interested people from various disciplines to begin to put together a package and come up with a business plan. Needless to say you, my friend, were one of the first people that came to mind.’

‘Thanks, Sticks,’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘I’m flattered. So how do you see this working, exactly?’

‘Okay, our company will essentially operate in a specialised area which combines the expertise of social care professionals, counsellors and medical practitioners of various kinds with other areas of expertise, such as those of the travel and package short-break holiday providers, the leisure industry, the undertaking profession and funeral services.  The basic idea is that we will put together complete packages in Switzerland for those who wish to end their lives by euthanasia.  We will provide a complete service – transport, accommodation, nursing and medical care, return of the body, funeral services and so on.  But within that service we will offer a bespoke end of life experience for every client and their family.  We will set up a centre in Switzerland where a dying person and their loved ones can spend the client’s final days together. We will offer privacy and five star care. But more than that, we will tailor the whole package around the dying person’s wishes and desires. They will eat the foods  they love, listen to the music they love, see DVD’s of their favourite films or those they’d always wanted to see but missed, have their favourite books and poems read to them, and so on. The family would have a suite with all the amenities they desired and a top notch twenty four hour global care and hospitality package. We’d ensure that we met their every demand. For example if they loved Bartok, they could listen to him all they wished. We might even be able to get a string quartet to play for them.  If they liked Chas and Dave or ragtime, we’d ensure that it was available for them. Rap music, hip-hop, madrigals or Welsh male voice choirs. Whatever they wanted to hear before they left this world, we would ensure they heard it. Similarly with films. If they wanted Close Encounters of the Third Kind they would have it. Plasma screen, wraparound sound, Dolby stereo – the works. Similarly if they wanted The Swimmer or The Masque of the Red Death or The Snowman. And the same with food. If they wanted caviar they would get it. If they wanted cheese and onion pasty and mushy peas they’d get them. Top quality ingredients, cordon bleu chefs. On their final day, which I see as usually being a Sunday, the dying person would have a final evening meal – a Last Supper , if you will – after which they’d retire to their bed to begin their final journey.  At this point the music of their choice would begin to play, and again it could be anything they wanted, from Gorecki’s Third to something like K. C. and The Sunshine Band’s sublime and immortal “That’s the Way I Like It”, uh huh, uh huh. The latter would be my personal choice, of course. We’d want to make dying an unforgettable experience, if you’ll excuse the paradox.’

I nodded slowly. ’You don’t see this as at all cynical, do you?’ I said. ‘The exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people?’

‘I don’t’ Sticks replied. ‘Not at all. Don’t forget, my friend, better the good guys provide these services than let them fall into the hands of the bad guys.’

‘So if good guys do bad things does it make those things good?’ I asked. ‘Or does it not just make the good guys bad?’

‘You think too much, my friend,’ Sticks said, his affable smile rising like a brand new day across his face. ‘The key issue here is need and ensuring that need is met. That’s the business we’re in. We need to see that the market is the future for all areas of social care. There’s no shame in it my friend, no disgrace.  So, are you interested?   Do you want to hear more?’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Go ahead, shoot.’

‘Okay, here’s how I see it. In addition to the Your Final Days centre in Switzerland, we’d need a support, preparation and after-care service in the UK. That’s where you’d come in.  But more importantly we’d need our own aeroplane specially equipped to transport the dying person and their family to Geneva, or wherever. It would be a unique aeroplane for a unique journey, the Final Journey, a journey the dying person will only take once.’

‘So what will you call your aeroplane?’ I said, ‘EuthanAire?’

‘That’s good,’ Sticks chuckled. ‘I like its phonic ambiguities. It sounds like “you thin air”, where the status of “thin” is uncertain. Is it a verb or is it an adjective?  But either way it speaks of the ephemeral, transitory nature of our corporeal selves, does it not?  And the word also evokes the phrase “youth in air”, which is also helpful in reminding us that we all grow old and that death is inevitable, that being young is as fragile as a perfume on the wind. It isn’t the name I have in mind but it’s an interesting suggestion.’

‘No, Sticks, it wasn’t a suggestion: it was a joke.’

‘Of course it was’ he said. ‘But an interesting joke, yes?  However, the aeroplane I have in mind will be completely black, black wings, black from nose to tail fin. But inside it will be lined with white satin and all the furnishings – the seats, the couches and beds, the curtains, the carpets and the drinks trolley – will be gleaming, clean and white and lovely white lights will light every corner of the cabin space.  And the cabin staff will be dressed all in white too. It’s like a metaphor for death itself, you see. From the outside it looks dark and forbidding and inscrutable. The dying person wonders what it’s like inside.  But his or her final flight shows them that inside the black aeroplane it is peaceful and serene and that everything shines like snow.  This is how the Final Flight of life will be for our clients. They will ascend above the Earth and make the passage to Switzerland in the black aeroplane. That will be the name of our company, Black Aeroplane Enterprises.  I like to think that in time the phrase “it’s time to take the black aeroplane” will become an everyday figure of speech for dying, in much the same way as shuffling off the mortal coil and popping one’s clogs are now. And the advertising material is there already: take the black aeroplane and make dying an unforgettable experience. What do you think? Do you like what you’re hearing, my friend?’

‘Yeah, I guess,’ I said. ‘But do you think it’ll ever get off the ground?’

‘A black aeroplane is no heavier than a silver one,’ Sticks quipped. ‘I am anticipating no special difficulties with gravity.’

‘But what about if it’s made illegal to offer such packages. Or what if they liked their last weekend so much they decided they didn’t want to die after all?  Or what if euthanasia’s made legal in the UK and service providers are popping up everywhere?’

‘If the dying person were to decide they wished to remain with us they could return to the UK alive with their loved ones on the same flight that would have taken their body home.  Furthermore they will be offered a fifteen percent discount on a future booking if they make this within twelve months of that date.  If euthanasia is made legal in the UK I already have a plan to capture the market with a chain of high street branches aimed at providing a sensitive high quality service for the volume market. I’ll call these Last Stop Shops, which is rather clever, don’t you think?’

I shrugged. I sometimes think Sticks is on something – like another planet, for example. However, he’s regarded in the Directorate as our key ‘blue sky thinker’ and as a man whose views you should never dismiss.  Some say he sees the order of future where others can see only chaos.

‘You should be on The Apprentice, Sticks,’ I said. ‘Alan Sugar would be bowled over by someone like you.’

‘You think so? ‘ Sticks smiled, a slow, deeply self-satisfied smile, almost the smile of a cat. ‘Well, I’ll take that in the spirit I think it’s intended, my friend. Thank you. Yes, I can see it too: “Sticks: you’re hired!” Ha ha. And so what’s your answer, then? Do you want to be in my project group? Yes or no?’

I rubbed my jaw. ’Let me think about it,’ I said.

‘Fair enough. I’ll give you a bell next week. But remember, if the good guys don’t do it, the bad guys will.’

I love the way there’s so much greenery and light at this time of the year and how it all seems so irrepressible and profligate. I drove along Renwick Road that evening in slightly luminous marbled-pebble light. I passed Ronnie Campbell’s office at the corner of Claremont Terrace. It’s funny how meretricious and unfashionable the yellow and red of Labour looks now (no doubt a rebranding now awaits us in the not too distant future). Less than half a mile by Jag from his big house on Marine Terrace, Ronnie’s shabby office, an old brown corner shop – inscrutable and uninviting and which never looks likes it’s open – seems a metonym for his shoddy worn-out party, a metaphor for the way our representatives weigh the needs of the people against their own needs. I slid around Broadway Circle past the bow-windowed pre-war semis – solid, secure, desirable – and noticed in gardens the yellow tongues of the laburnum lolling in vague, soft shadows. I remembered that when I was a kid I thought these houses were really posh and that they belonged to rich people, people from a different world to me.

When I got home Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing a new jigsaw. It was a picture of a steamroller, a green Aveling and Porter. There was also a large jagged crystal on the bench beside the kettle.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I said.

‘I have,’ Margaret replied.

‘And how was Bowness?’

‘Bowness was good, I think. Tristan perhaps a little less good.’

‘Oh?’

‘Oh, indeed. The man doesn’t know how close he is to being given his marching orders. I mean, he’s so insensitive he even asked Brenda to marry him one night! Marry him, you know! Marry him! What is it about hanging from a thread that the man doesn’t understand?’

‘Tristan asked Brenda to marry him?!’ I said, genuinely surprised. ‘Nah, surely not. Are you sure Brenda’s not just pulling your leg?’

‘Brenda does not pull anyone’s leg,’ Margaret replied, very earnestly. ‘What she told me was the truth, I’m sure of that. They were sitting at a window seat in an Italian restaurant called Rumours, which is apparently at the bottom of the hill opposite St Martin’s church. Do you know it?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do. They do a good garlic bread.’

‘They’d just come back from a cruise on Windermere. It was a lovely evening and the sun was shining on her face. Out of the blue Tristan asked her to marry him, but, and here’s the cherry on the cake, he wouldn’t be able to buy her an engagement ring until business picked up! Brenda says she was absolutely gobsmacked. She felt it was as if he wanted her on the cheap.’

‘So did she say no?’

‘No, she didn’t know what to say. She said she just leaned over, kissed his cheek once and asked if she could have another glass of wine.’

‘Wasn’t she flattered?’ I asked. ‘I mean, it isn’t every day a woman gets a proposal of marriage, is it?’

‘No, she wasn’t flattered. She felt she was being manipulated. She felt she’d been defiled.’

‘Defiled?’

‘Yes, defiled. That’s the word she used. She felt she’d been defiled.’

At that point De Kooning, who until then had been sitting benignly on the kitchen table, took it into his head to steal a piece of Margaret’s new jigsaw. He knocked it on to the floor with his paw, jumped down, picked it up in his mouth and ran away with it, out through the conservatory into the garden.

‘Which piece has he got?’ Margaret asked.

I looked at her and shrugged. ‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘The one that fits the hole that’s still there when you’re finished, I guess.’

Margaret shook her head in dismay. I turned on the oven and got a pizza out of the freezer. I made myself a cappuccino and sat in the conservatory waiting for De Kooning’s return. It crossed my mind that the piece of music I’d want to play while I lay dying in Switzerland would be Dvorak’s cello concerto.

.

pluto and the golden pen

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blyth lampost and street reflection

Jack Verdi was in the office one afternoon last week. He’d been over to see Michelle about the planned placement of the Capstick twins with the Blackstocks in Otterburn. Unfortunately it won’t now be able to proceed because Hilda Blackstock has turned out to have an allergy to feathers. I was standing in the kitchen discussing the situation with Jack when Eric came in.

‘How,’ he said to me, ‘aa see Peter Andre has noo brokken up wi’ that, er, whaat’s aa name, yuh knaa,  hor with the, er – ‘

‘Katie,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ Eric said. ‘Hor. Jordan. Ya marra doesn’t knaa him, does ‘ee?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Unfortunately not.’

Eric glanced at Jack for a moment and then stood absolutely immobile for a few moments

‘How,’ he finally said, ‘aa waas listenin’ t’ ya marra’s stuff again the other neit on me Waalkman.  Tha’s a mint song on tha’ forst aalbum caalled, ur, whaat’s it called? Ur. Hing on. Ur, aye, Deity. D’yuh knaa that un’?’

I shook my head.

‘D’yuh not?  Er, hoo does it gan again. Hing on. Ur. Aye . . . .’

Eric began to sing with an expression of childlike rapture on his face.

‘Deity,  deity, touch me with your gaiety,
Gaiety, oh gaiety
Transcendental entity, come and lay your love on me
Love on me, oh love on me’

 

I shook my head again, in truth not only because I didn’t know this song, but also because Eric sang like a moonstruck buffalo.

‘D’yuh not knaa it? Ur, it’s great. How, whaat’s a deity anyhoo? Is it like a gurd?’

Yeah,’ I said. ‘That’s exactly what it is, in fact – a god.’

‘Aye, aa thowt see.’

Eric dropped into standby mode. Jack flicked his pony tail over his jacket collar and looked at me over the rims of his Aviators, obviously bemused.

‘Hey, Eric,’ I said. ‘This is Jack Verdi. Jack works with Owen. Jack also used to play in a band for a living.’

‘Did yuh?’ Eric said, his face lighting up like tinder in a bonfire.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘Back in the day we were big, man.’

‘Aye, so d’yuh knaa his marra, the one from the Proodloot?’

‘You mean Owen. Yeah, I know him well. We go way back.’

‘Aye, they’re great, aren’t the’?’ Eric said. ‘I bet yuh wish your baand waas as big as they wor. D’yuh knaa the’ were on Top of the Pops once?’

‘Yeah, man, I know,’ Jack said, rocking from foot to foot like a boxer in the corner. ‘Hey, listen, man, I don’t want to diss the dude. I mean, his bag’s his own but his bag ain’t mine, right? But the stuff those guys did was never rock and roll, do you know what I mean, man?’

‘Ur, aye. Nur. Aye. So whaat waas tha’ stuff, then? Waas it like the folk rock?’

‘Listen, man, their stuff was fluff. Wifty wafty holy moly twaddle, dude. All this junk about God. Rock is the Devil’s music, man. What’s rock and roll got to do with all this gaiety and deity flim flam?  That stuff was dead in the water a hundred years ago, know what I mean, man?’

‘So d’ ‘ee not believe in Gurd, like?’ Eric asked.

‘No, man – do you?’

‘Nur, aa divvent either,’ Eric said. ‘But some people still dee. Wor young un’ knaas a lass whaat gans t’ one of them spiritualist chorches, yuh knaa them whaat believes  in spooks an’ that  yuh can taalk t’ the deed an’ aall that. Aa think they still believe in Gurd, divvent the’?’

Jack nodded. 

‘Aye, so whaat wuz your baand caalled, then?’ Eric said.

‘Pluto’s Apocalypse,’ Jack replied. ‘We were a rock band, man. We played the Devil’s music.’

‘Ur, aye. Aye, and whaat are ye caalled again?’ Eric asked, with a dumbfounded sort of frown on his face.

‘They call me Jack,’ Jack replied. ‘Spider to my friends.’

‘Spider?’ Eric said. ‘Like in them creepy craawllie things wi’ the lang legs an’ aall that?’

‘Yeah, dude, the arachnids, the exact same creatures.’

Eric looked at me, raised his crooked finger to about shoulder height and then froze. Jack stood with one hand stuffed deep into his skinny black jeans pocket, the other stroking his jaw. Animation duly returned to Eric’s demeanour.

‘Aye, so we were ‘ee, like – the Pluto?’

‘No, man, there’s was no Pluto. We were all Pluto, man, just as we were all the Apocalypse.

Eric looked a little puzzled. ‘Ur,’ he said. ‘So d’yuh mean tha’ was like fower or five of yuz in the baand and yuh aall like tyuk torns at bein’ the Pluto?’

Jack shook his head. ‘No, man,’ he said. ‘No. It’s complicated. Listen, hey . . . hey, I guess you just had to be there, dude, yeah?’

Eric went briefly into standby mode.

‘So ‘ee waarn’t the Pluto?’ he eventually said.

Jack shook his head again. ‘No, dude, I wasn’t the Pluto. There was no Pluto.’

‘So waar yuh aall the Apocalypses?’

‘Yeah, something like that,’ Jack said, clearly finding Eric a little exhausting.

‘So we waas the Pluto, then? Waas ‘ee somebody whaat used to be in the baand and whaat left?’

‘No, man, no.’ Jack said, becoming visibly exasperated. ‘Hey, what is it you don’t get about this, dude? There never was a Pluto. We were all Pluto. Savvy?’

‘Ur, aye, aye, noo aa see. Ivrybody wuz the Pluto, except that ee waarn’t him and naebody else waas either. Is that reit?’

‘Yeah, man, yeah, whatever. Everybody just called us The Clips any way.’

‘Ur,’ Eric said. ‘The Clips?  Ur, aye, hing on.’ He put his hooked finger to his shaven cranium and seemed to think for a moment before he replied, ‘Nur. Nur, aa’ve nivva hord of them either.’

Eric began to turn around and seemed to be about to leave. But another thought occurred to him.

‘Here, I think aa’ve got it noo,’ he said, looking at his own reflection in Jack’s Aviators.  ‘Waas the Pluto yuh named ya baand after the durg from Mickey Moose?’

Jack shook his head. ‘No, man. Hey, why would a rock band name themselves after a cartoon dog? It was Pluto the Roman God of the underworld.’

‘Ur, aye, aa’ve hord aboot him as weell. Aye, ya reit, ‘ee waas the gurd of the underwawld. Aa remember noo. Waas he owt t’ dee wi’ Horcules and Aphrodite and aall that?’

‘They were Greek, dude,’ Jack said, with a sarcasm that Eric seemed to miss. ‘But yeah, similar mythology.’

‘Ur, aye. Here, we’s that other Greek blowk aa’ve hord aboot, the one wor young un’ likes?’

Jack shrugged. I shrugged too. A guess at a moment like this would have been impertinent.

‘Ur, aye,’ Eric said. ‘Heraclitus, that blowk wi’ the dark onion.’

‘How does your brother know about that, Eric?’ I said, genuinely surprised at such an erudite reference.

‘Aa’ve nae idea,’ Eric said. ‘But ‘ee says ‘ee’s been sorchin’ for the dark onion aall ‘ee’s life. ‘Ee says it’s like sorchin’ for ‘ee’s own shadow by starin’ at the sun. Wor young un’ says the dark onion’s like the final mystery of life, d’yuh knaa whaat aa mean?’

Jack and I both nodded, slowly, affirmatively.

When I got home that night I had pizza for tea. Afterwards I sat with De Kooning in the conservatory, drinking a cappuccino and reading the poems in Frances Leviston’s collection ‘Public Dream.’  Later I went for a walk down through Blyth and along to the beach. It was a clear evening, but still a little cool. There was a gang of raucous teenage kids sprawled and littered around the dog-leg of the promenade, taking pictures of themselves on their mobiles and drinking bottles of lager. As I passed through them I pondered the way they distributed themselves in space. They were like caterpillars on a leaf, perhaps, or a tribe of meerkats around their burrow, or maggots on a sparrow’s corpse – one of those patterns that chaos theory might concern itself with. The sea was a deep steely blue, flat and somehow unnecessarily repressed. I noticed each of the new beach huts now has external security lights embedded in its alcove, trendy and discrete and allegedly powered by the small wind turbine at the edge of the grass beside the car park. Quite a few of them aren’t working.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen. The television was playing to itself in the front room. I plonked myself on the settee to watch it and De Kooning joined me. The Lauren Laverne trailer for BBC Poetry Week came on, the one where she and a friend are returning to her car in a multi-storey car park carrying their purchases after a girls’ shopping trip. As they enter the car park, apparently chatting about what Laverne might want as a gift, Lauren replies as they walk by reciting in a conversational tone Keats’ sonnet ‘On leaving some Friends at an early Hour’. She does it nicely, with a wry fashionable insouciance. That old Post-Modern irony again. The video’s setting – the car park and the shopping trip – picks up on the word ‘car’ in the poem, and other objects that might sound like things a girl shopping might covet – which is vaguely witty, I guess – and in doing so sets the content of the poem against the preoccupations of modern life. Occasionally Laverne’s rendering of the poem seems to allow us teasing glimpses into another value system, a life world of more immediate and authentic experience, a world where the things that matter aren’t things you can buy. The world of poetic experience and imagination. But such a perspective can only be admitted as little more than a curious ironic accessory in our getting and spending universe. But maybe that’s the way we’ve got to take our poetry these days, casually, peripherally, like the vague, beautiful perfume of something that’s all the more astonishing for being so unexpected, incidental and elusive. Maybe that’s the way it always really was.

This is the Keats poem. The next time I see them I must remember to ask Jack and Owen what they think of Laverne’s reading of it.

Give me a golden pen, and let me lean
On heap’d-up flowers, in regions clear, and far;
Bring me a tablet whiter than a star,
Or hand of hymning angel, when ’tis seen
The silver strings of heavenly harp atween:
And let there glide by many a pearly car,
Pink robes, and wavy hair, and diamond jar,
And half-discover’d wings, and glances keen.
The while let music wander round my ears,
And as it reaches each delicious ending,
Let me write down a line of glorious tone,
And full of many wonders of the spheres:
For what a height my spirit is contending!
‘Tis not content so soon to be alone.

‘Maybe poetry’s the new rock and roll,’ I said to De Kooning, who was now lying upside down with his paws over his eyes. ‘Do you think?’

De Kooning appeared to have no opinion on this issue.

‘Maybe I should start a poetry band,’ I said. ‘The equivalent of a rock band. Maybe I’ll call it something like Calliope’s Revenge. I think Jack would go for that, don’t you?’

De Kooning was stubbornly refusing to be drawn into a discussion of the issue. I rubbed his tummy. He gave a little leave me alone I’m happy squeak and kept his eyes covered. Sometimes he’s like this, it’s sleep before all things.

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘Let’s leave it till another time.’

I picked up my copy of Public Dream and wondered if it was too late for another cappuccino.

.

the owl, the albatross, and the dodo

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blyth-croft-road-crofton-mill

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard
in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent
there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was
brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home
by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not
from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.  
 
Daniel Defoe
Journal of the Plague Year (1722) 
 
 

‘How, aa wuz blaan away by meetin’ ya marra,’ Eric said. ‘Aa towld wor young ‘un and he waadn’t believe it. Ee thowt aa waas just mekkin’ it up! But aa towld him whaat he looked like an’ aall that an’ ‘ee believes iz noo. It waas him, waasn’t it?  Ya marra iz the real McCoy, isn’t ‘ee?’

‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘He is certainly the one and only Owen Vardy, late of the much feted minstrel troop who went by the good name of Proudlute.’

‘Aye, that’s whaat aa telt wor young ‘un,’ Eric said. ‘That ya marra waas definitely the blowk oot of the Proodloot.  The lads at the Prymeeaa cannit believe aa’ve met him. Nor can aa. It’s like a miracle for someone who’s been on Top of the Pops to be in Eshinden, yuh knaa whaat aa mean? There’s ownly one thing that waald ‘ave been more amazin’ than meetin’ ya marra. D’yuh knaa whaat that waald o’ been?’

I looked at him and shrugged. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been an audience with George Herbert himself, author of The Country Parson and important early metaphysical poet.  I said I didn’t know.

‘To meet that Peter Andre,’ Eric replied, with an implied ‘obviously’. ‘Yuh knaa the one that’s married to hor wi’ the massa bazookas. Ur, yuh knaa, whaat’s aa name – Jordan. D’yuh knaa we aa mean?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I know them,’ I said. ‘I mean Peter and Katie – I know Peter and Katie.’

‘Whaat? Yuh knaa them as weell?!’ Eric exclaimed, his celebrityphilia obviously allowing him to get the wrong end of a fairly short verbal ambiguity. ‘Is it through ya marra? Does he knaa them from when ee wuz in the Proodloot?!

‘No, Eric,’ I said. ‘I don’t know them in that sense. I know who they are, that’s all.’

‘Ur, aa see whaat yuh mean,’ Eric said, palpably crestfallen. For a moment a dream egg beyond his wildest imaginings had been hatching before his very eyes, the possibility of meeting the legendary Peter Andre. For now Eric would have to do with Owen.

‘Here,’ Eric said, abruptly, putting his hooked finger in the air. ‘Ur, aye, whaat was it again? Eh, ur, aye, eh, hing on.’

At that point Eric stopped dead, his pirate pose frozen, like someone playing Statues. His face became expressionless, his eyes stared blankly into an invisible void. It was as if yet again someone had thrown the switch on his neurological systems. He stood as still a gravestone. And then suddenly life re-entered him.

‘Ur, aye,’ he said, as if no time at all had passed, ‘ya marra nivva met that Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, did ‘ee? Yuh knaa, them whaat did the Woolly Bully an’ that.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t ever recall Owen mentioning them at all, oddly enough.’

‘That’s a pity,’ Eric said. ‘They were mint.’

For a minute or so Eric again seemed absent, as if ruminating in an unseen life world perhaps. You’ll have realised by now that is something that often happens with Eric. I was about to wander off when he spoke again.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Hing on, er, whaat waas it again? Ur, aye, the swine flu and aall that. Whaat d’yuh think of that?’

I shrugged. Before I could give an opinion however, Eric decided to give me his.

‘Aa think the telly’s got it aall wrang, divvent ‘ee? Wor young ‘un knaas someone who’s been to Mexico and tha’s nowt the matter wi’ hor.  Aa mean, ‘ee says she’s got a caald an’ aall that, but nowt weird. D’yuh knaa whaat aa think? Aa think tha’ mekkin’ it up?’

‘You don’t think swine flu exists?’

‘Nur. Whey, hoo waald a human porson catch a pig disease? Hev yuh ivva hord of a pig sneezin’ or hevvin’ a snotty nose? Aa mean, hoo can a pig hev the flu? The flu’s a human disease. Aa mean, the pig would hev to tek paracetemol and aall that!’ Eric laughed, his face lit up like the man in the moon.

‘So what about bird flu?’ I said. ‘Do you believe in that?’

Eric’s systems briefly shut down again, as if he might be downloading something from an external site.

‘Aye, aa dee,’ he eventually replied. ‘Aye, an’ aa’ll tell yuh whaat, aa think the bord flu is warse than this pig one, d’ye not?’

‘Worse? What do you mean by worse? That it’ll kill more people?’

‘Aye. Aa’ divvent think this pig flu’s ganna kill anybody ower here, d’ye? Aa mean, we’re not like Mexicans, are wuh? Hoo can English folks catch a disease off pigs?’

I nodded. ‘Who knows?’ I said. ‘But sooner or later they’ll be right. Sooner or later nature will bite back. But I think you’re right, swine fever might not the one.’

We live in apocalyptic times.  We wait for the hurricane. We wait for the fire. We wait for the plague. But for some of us we’ve already been waiting too long. We’ve got apocalypse fatigue. While most of the world intermittently runs around in blind panic, the prospect of the end of the world bores some of us now. We don’t feel inclined to believe it. Or maybe we just don’t feel inclined to care. And this is more or less exactly how the end will come – and more or less exactly why.

Tristan called along on Thursday night to pick up a box of sunglasses. Margaret was out when he arrived. I invited him in while I looked for the box. De Kooning arrived to give him the once over.

‘What’s your cat called?’ Tristan said.

‘De Kooning.’

‘Hello, De Kooning,’ Tristan said, stroking him beneath the chin. ‘Aren’t you beautiful? My name’s Twistan and I’m vewy pleased to meet you.’

‘So how’s tricks with you and Brenda, Tristan?’ I asked.

‘Oh pwetty good, I think,’ he said. ‘I think we’re getting there.’

‘It’s her birthday next week, isn’t it? Have you got her anything special or have you agreed you’ll just have to tighten your belts his year?’

‘I’ve got her something special,’ Tristan said. ‘But it wasn’t expensive. I think maybe I misjudged her in the past. I think she weally does know it’s the thought that counts.’

‘So what have you got her, then?’

‘An enamel keywing. An owl. It’s weally nice.’

I nodded. ‘An enamel owl keyring, eh? Are you sure Brenda will think this is what she wants? I mean, in what way is it special?’

‘One of Bwenda’s hewoes is the Gweek goddess Athena. Athena’s the goddess of wisdom and I think a kind of wole model for Bwenda. When her business gets bigger and there’s more than one thewapist she’s going to call it Athena Associates. The owl is Athena’s sacwed bird and it’s going to be the symbol of Bwenda’s company. That why this keywing is so special.’

‘Oh, I see. So Brenda sees herself as a sort of wise owl and your gift recognises that wisdom, eh? Clever stuff. You obviously have put a lot of thought into choosing it. ’

‘Yes, I have. I wanted to get her something that said something to her, that has a deep message fwom my heart to hers. You know Bwenda does have a good heart. I know sometimes she seems theatwical and shallow and self-obsessed and pweoccupied with her own needs, but behind that façade there weally is a genuine person. A weal person.  I know sometimes she imagines she’s the bloody owacle or something, but maybe she weally does have something to give others that can help them. Do you think?

I shrugged. ‘Maybe. I just like the idea that Brenda can see in the dark and that she somehow resembles an owl. I’d never noticed that before!’

‘I think maybe that’s the idea of Athena’s owl,’ Tristan said. ‘That it’s a voice that can help us to choose the wight diwection in life. Fweedom is a dark dark fowest, my fwiend. We all need a voice like that sometimes to wemind us where we’re going, to guide us along the wight path.’

‘And so you reckon the enamel owl keyring will keep her happy, do you?’

Tristan nodded. ‘Bwenda’s moved on, my fwiend. She weally has. She’ll be thwilled with her pwesent.’

‘I hope you’re right,’ I said. Of course a little bird in my head was telling me he probably wasn’t.

‘I love birds,’ I said. ‘So does De Kooning, of course. For me, freedom rather than wisdom or capriciousness or  pestilence is what birds symbolise.  Because they can just come and go as they please. They can always fly away. Their presence is always a sort of beautiful gift. Their absence is always a possibility. If you had to choose a bird to represent yourself, Tristan – like Brenda has chosen the owl – what would it be?’

‘I dunno, mate,’ Tristan said. ‘It wouldn’t be an owl, though, that’s for sure. I’m not that wise. Twotsky was intewested in birds, you know. He famously said “The nightingale of poetwy, like that bird of wisdom, the owl, is heard only after the sun is set.”  He’s making a wefewence to Hegel’s wemark about the owl of Minerva, of course.  But I digwess.  So what bird would I see myself as? Maybe it would be a pawwot. Because I weally do need to learn hold my tongue sometimes. I can’t sing, so I couldn’t be a nightingale. I guess it would have to be a bird on a long journey, an albatwoss perhaps. What about you?’

‘I don’t know either,’ I said. ‘A dodo, maybe, or a cuckoo!’

Tristan laughed. I gave him the box of sunglasses and he gave De Kooning’s black fur a final quick ruffle before he went on his way.

‘Good luck with the keyring,’ I said as he walked down the garden path beneath the gently fluttering spring birch leaves.

‘Don’t wowwy, mate,’ he replied. ‘She’ll be over the moon, I pwomise you.’

I sat in the conservatory with De Kooning for a while, drinking a cappuccino and flicking through The Guardian. Gordon’s in deep doo-doo, and it seems to be doo-doo that gets deeper every day. How he must now long for those days when life was simple and all he had to do was try to get his clock to tick more quickly.  Tristan had remarked that Gordon better beware of assassins and coups. Tristan reckons the long knives will be out for him now.

When Margaret came in I told her Tristan had been and collected the sunglasses.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to see he can do something right.’ Margaret’s tone told me there was a whole conversation going on that neither I nor Tristan knew anything about. Brenda was nowhere near as happy as Tristan believed, it seemed.

‘Has he got her a birthday present yet?’ Margaret asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He has. Strangely enough he was just telling me about it.’

‘Good,’ Margaret said, tersely. ‘Let’s just hope it’s something nice. He really does need to make her feel special once in a while. God knows she does enough for him.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I think Tristan does want her to feel special. I think that’s why he’s got her what he has. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into it.’

‘I don’t want to know what it is,’ Margaret said. ‘So don’t tell me. I just really hope he doesn’t let her down this time.’

I was pleased Margaret didn’t want to know what Tristan had bought Brenda for her birthday. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to let the enamel owl keyring out of the bag yet.

It was getting dark. Margaret was chopping onions. I was going to go for a walk but for whatever reason I couldn’t be bothered. I made myself another cappuccino and began to think about which part of Blyth I wanted to paint next. I’m torn between concentrating on Newsham and doing a series of old pubs in Blyth. The Kings Arms in Cowpen is the oldest building in the town and I thought maybe I should do that next. Or maybe I should do the Willow Tree and the Black Diamond first. I began wondering how many pubs there still were in Blyth and if I should map them all before I decided which one I should paint next.

On Friday morning I arrived at the office late. On one of the chairs in reception there was a copy of Neruda’s Selected Poems. There was a lad in his late teens with a shaven head and a stud in his upper lip sitting on the chair opposite. He was wearing white nylon track top and pants and big white trainers.

‘Is this yours?’ I said, picking the book up.

‘Nah,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It belongs to one of them Zorrs. He’s in there talking to one of the social workers.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. I took the book and went through to the team room.

‘Are Mandy and Mr Zee in?’ I said to Lily.

‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘They’ve been getting funny phone calls again. Debs is in with them.’

I flicked through the book and came across Neruda’s poem Bird. I probably wouldn’t have read this one in particular – or even noticed it – had my week already not been so punctuated by avian references.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.

When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

When I came down from my office at about lunchtime Owen was in the team room. He was wearing a thin brown cotton jacket, almost like the sort that a store keeper might wear. It hung on his bony frame like a slowly collapsing tent. He had just been in a meeting with Michelle and was passing time until his bus was due. I told him I’d been talking to Eric and that he’d said how blown away he’d been to meet him at last. Owen smiled, suppressing his elation.  Celebrities do that sometimes, I think. It’s paradoxical. It makes them look all the more remarkable for seeming all the more normal by being modest.

‘He said there was only one other famous person he’d have wanted to meet more,’ I said.

Owen frowned, curiously. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Who? No, no. No, let me guess.’ He gazed at me, narrowing his eyes and giving this issue deep thought. ‘Was it Leonard Cohen?’ he finally said.

‘No, Owen,’ I said, raising an eyebrow. ‘This is Eric we’re talking about here.’

‘Oh yes, Eric, eh? Okay’ He paused again. ‘So was it Neil Young?’

I shook my head slowly, emphatically.

‘No.’

‘James Taylor?’

I continued to shake my head. Owen looked perplexed, non-plussed even.

‘I’ve absolutely no idea, then,’ he said. ‘Give me a clue.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll tell you exactly what Eric said to me when he was trying to remember this person’s name. He said it was the bloke who was married to “hor wi’ the massa bazookas”.’

Owen flinched a little, as if a Jack in the Box had just popped out beneath his nose. He then frowned a distinctly different frown, a frown of disapprobation. For a minute he looked like he was about to suffocate. He shook his head mechanically. It was going to difficult for him to answer now even if he knew. There are some things about a woman a man like Owen can’t admit he’s even noticed. 

‘Peter Andre,’ I said. ‘The guy that’s married to Jordan?’

Owen looked vaguely appalled. ‘Peter Andre? Eric would rather have met Peter Andre than me? Really?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I was only joking. He actually said Chubby Brown.’

‘Did he?’ Owen said. ‘Chubby Brown? Oh my God! I’d have preferred Peter Andre!’

‘Well, there you go. So it’s not that bad after all, is it? It was Peter Andre. Chubby was a joke.’

‘Chubby is a joke,’ Owen quipped. A part of him was obviously beginning to feed off the better bits of being second best to Peter Andre. It’s often a consolation in life if when you lose you focus on those people you’ve beaten rather than those who turned out to do better than you. There’s nothing worse than seeing yourself as a swan and being beaten at the bird show by a turkey. There I go again. I seem to have birds on the brain these days.

Owen then began to tell me another story about Jack. It seems Tallulah has recently taken part in an amateur production of Moulin Rouge, and that she’d brought some pictures of the show into the office. One or two of them apparently revealed her in a red silk basque, pink feather boa, black fishnet tights and black stilettoes.

‘You should have seen Jack’s eyes,’ Owen said, leaning forward and looking around as if to be sure no-one was eaves-dropping. ‘They looked like they were going to pop out of his head!’

‘How could you see them?’  I said. ‘He didn’t take his sunglasses off, did he?’

He did!’ Owen said, his face for a moment assuming the expression of a monkey that had just bitten into a lemon. ‘Between you and me,’ he went on, ‘I think he is descending into depravity. His lechery was undisguised. Utterly undisguised.’

‘So did you see these pictures too, Owen?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘Oh they were truly shameless. You could see all of Tallulah’s legs and everything. I will grant Jack this, of course: she should never have brought such pictures in. Never. She’s as much to blame as he is, in that sense. But her mistake was only an error of judgement, albeit a fairly grave one. She certainly isn’t depraved.’

‘Was she embarrassed by you and Jack looking at the pictures?’ I said.

‘Embarrassed? Tallulah? No, I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. Well, to be honest I don’t know. She must have been embarrassed when Jack asked her if he could have an enlargement of one of them for his wall. Any woman would. But Tallulah was very good, very controlled and professional, and didn’t let it show.’

‘Just as well,’ I said. ‘It sounds like she let just about everything else show.’

Owen looked as if he was hovering on the brink of panic. ‘Oh, look at the time,’ he said, as if gripped by a sudden urgency. ‘I must fly. I really must. My bus is almost due.’

I wandered back upstairs. There were a pair of collared doves sitting on the sill outside my window. I sat down carefully and watched them for a while. Eric was right, I thought: how could creatures like these ever have a human disease?

.

a fickle food, a shifting plate

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

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

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

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

‘Hey, hey, how’s it hangin’, dude?’

‘I’m fine. And you?’

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

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

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

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘They can sack you.’

Jack laughed.

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

‘Clean everything,’ Jack said, sarcastically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who was he?’ I asked.

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

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

‘No,’ I said. ‘Was he from Blyth?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you mean Jack?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Was he? Yes, he might have been.’

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

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

‘Did the’? Really? Wow!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sharon.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, that was one of ours,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 .

elvis, orpheus, and the panopticon

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 cowpen-road-cowpen1

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

Franz Kafka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s quite a shop,’ I said.

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

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Does it show?’

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

‘How’s Jack?’ I asked.

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

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

‘Who was, Ozzie Osbourne?’

‘No, Jack.’

‘Oh yes, I knew that.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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