yammering

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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?

.

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.

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the nightingale’s cage and the prince of pipers

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newsham, blyth old stationmaster's house

When I arrived at the office on Tuesday Jack Verdi and his colleague Owen Vardy were in reception. They had come for meetings about different families. These two men have a strange affinity with one another, something their appearance belies. It’s believed they even have the same birthday. Jack – who has now taken to wearing skinny leg black jeans and trainers – is increasing rock-Gothic black and motorcycle dangerous, a man in shades, a refugee from the crypt. Owen by contrast is David Livingstone without the pith helmet. He has about him something of the demeanour of a country parson, gentle and reed-like, with a rather tentative and deferential style. Unlike Jack, Owen seems not to want to rage against the dying of the light, not even to seek to challenge it subversively. Of course, the word on Owen is that he may not be quite as meek as he seems and that somewhere inside that parson-like persona there burns a still unquenchable fire. What these two men share, besides their birthday, is that they are from the same generation, that they both were once professional musicians – Owen was part of a quite successful folk-rock outfit called Proudlute – and that both have known fame. Both are trying to get their bearings in an obscure post-celebrity netherworld. Both also share an enduring fixation with John Keats. When I arrived they were discussing Keats’ epitaph, and appeared to be disagreeing about whether it would be an appropriate epitaph for us all today.

‘Ah ha,’ I said as I approached them, ‘Verdi and Vardy, the undertakers, I presume.’

Keats is buried in a grave in Italy. Famously, he did not want his name put on his gravestone. He wanted it only to contain his epitaph, the line he told his painter friend Severn he wanted: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. This phrase deploys an image taken from the play Love Lies Ableeding, written by Beaumont and Fletcher some two hundred years earlier. The image is generally taken as speaking of our transience, the brevity and impermanency of life and fame and renown, and how we are all destined to die and to be forgotten. It says the world will not remember who we were. In Keats’ case you might also argue that his identification and involvement with the sensuous, sensual substances of the world is also represented in the image, that it suggests that who he was is written in the concrete stuff of nature, the things he let himself somehow unite with and become. A good example of negative capability, perhaps. But either way, a name written in water will not endure, at least not at the level of individual identity, of being discernible as anyone in particular. No-one’s name will long survive their passing. It is a tad ironic, of course, that the anonymity of Keats’ gravestone and the pessimism of his epitaph have enhanced its fame and made it more likely to be remembered.

Owen was saying that he wanted the same epitaph on his grave. Jack was arguing that times had changed and that the epitaph needed to be updated accordingly

‘It’s a new age, man,’ Jack said. ‘If Keats had been around now he wouldn’t have accepted death so easily. Life expectancy has increased dramatically since those days. People are no longer resigned to an early death. Hey, one day soon people might not even need to die! The epitaph needs to reflect that change. “Here lies one whose name was writ in rock,” that’s what my epitaph’s going to be, man!’  Jack chuckled, at his own felicitous ambiguity, no doubt.

‘That can’t be right,’ Owen said. ‘The whole point of the epitaph is its universality. It’s our transience and the temporary nature of our existence that binds us together as human beings. It’s the very thing that makes us human, Jack.’

‘No, man,’ Jack said. ‘That’s bollocks. It might have been that way once, but not now, man, not now. If Keats was around now he wouldn’t be moping around with this romantic despair and dissolution mullarkey. He wouldn’t be even one percent in love with easeful death. He’d be saying grab the future and strangle it, dude! Carve your name into the stars, man! The spirit of Keats is transformative, man, and we’ve got to pay the cat his dues. If Keats was around today he wouldn’t slip so quietly into his grave – they’d have to drag him off the stage, man, crowbar the axe from his hand.’

Owen looked pensive, like a man looking into an empty bird cage. Someone told me that Owen in fact did once keep a pet nightingale. Jack says the only pet he ever had was a flea. He said he found it on himself after he had spent an afternoon in a room in the Chelsea Hotel with Janis Joplin. He says he just couldn’t bring himself to crush a creature that had been on Janis’s body, that may have tasted her blood and felt the warm throb of her skin. He tells how he put the fortunate flea in a jam jar and kept it with him on the tour bus for weeks. He named it Jimi. One day the band was on Route 66, driving through the night on their way to a gig in St Louis. A roadie who had been drinking a lot of beer was desperate to relieve himself. It is generally believed that Jimi probably died by drowning, although some like to think he escaped into the night when the jam jar was hurled from the bus and shattered on the pavement of a small unknown town somewhere in middle America.  Some will tell you Jimi’s still out there, living the good life in a motel east of Albuquerque. This tale may be apocryphal, of course. In true rock tradition, Jack’s not the sort of man who would let factual accuracy stand in the way of the construction of his personal myth.

‘No, man,’ Jack said, ‘it’s the desire to cheat death, to defy it, to overcome it, to transcend it – that’s what makes us human, that’s what binds us together. Not the willingness to surrender demurely to the Reaper.’ I wondered if he was alluding to Tallulah at this point. Surely not.

Owen shook his head gently. ‘I really, really don’t agree,’ he said. Jack was leaning against the wall, wiry and spectre-thin in his skinny leg jeans, inscrutable behind his Aviators. What struck me was the way he was more and more deploying the vocabulary of a rock musician again. If I’d closed my eyes when I was listening to this conversation I might have thought it was Keith Richards speaking.

As I walked along the corridor I thought that one of the differences between Jack and Owen is that Jack has no children. I wondered if he had whether he’d have a different attitude to death, a different attitude to life. It’s surprising how much difference that can make, at least for some people.

When I went into the team room Michelle collared me to talk about baby Davina. After a short spell in foster care Davina was returned to her mother, Tania, and both had gone to live with her dad. Unfortunately Tania has on several occasions gone awol for two or three nights on end, leaving the baby with her dad. She was away again and her dad was at the end of his tether.

‘There’s just no attachment,’ Michelle said. ‘It’s never going to work. I think it’s time to call it day with Tania. Grandad is prepared to go for Residence and I think that’s the way we need to go now.’

Attachment is the new love for some social workers and other professionals. Some of them seem to think that if attachment is good then parenting will be good. Attachment theory is on its way to becoming a theory of everything for some professionals, the only real construct they’ll ever need. Things are not that simple, of course, and some day soon someone’s going to have to write the book Attachment is Not Enough. But what is true is that if a parent has a poor attachment to his or her child, the child’s needs are not likely to be fully met and the child is far more likely to suffer harm. A child to whom no responsible adult is attached is a child a wolf will soon devour.

‘So where’s Tania gone this time?’ I asked.

‘Her mother’s, she’ll say. But she hasn’t. I’ve been there. My guess is she’s lying in bed with Joe again, not answering the door and having a merry old time while grandad feeds the baby and changes the nappies.’

‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. ‘Talk to grandad and pull a planning meeting together.’

Angie had been hovering nearby and wanted to talk about her new client, Naomi Bell.

‘Are there attachment problems there too?’ I asked.

‘Probably,’ Angie said. ‘The place is a pig sty and the kids are running amok. But the main problem is she’s barking. I asked her about what support she had and she told me she was close to her mother, who gave her lots of advice and kept her right. The trouble is her mother’s been dead for years.’

‘So maybe she was speaking historically.’

‘No. She was speaking to her mother while I was there! “Mother,” she calls out. “Mother, are you there?” Spooky, or what?!’

‘And was she – there, I mean?’

‘Yes, it seems she was. She told Naomi to feed the bairns bananas and porridge and everything would be fine.’

‘Hmmm, tasty suggestion. Does she have a CPN?’

‘Nope.’

‘A psychiatrist?’

‘No.’

‘A sympathetic GP?’

‘No, none of those. What she’s got is a medium.’

‘A medium?’

‘A medium, and a spirit guide called Fatima.’

‘You’re thinking of a referral the mental health and a strategy meeting, right?’

‘Right.’

‘Okay, let’s do it. Invite the medium, invite Fatima – mother too if she’s available. Let’s remember the spirit of Working Together.’

I’ve been reading a book that my dad discovered in the library called ‘The Clough Family of Newsham’. It’s published by the Northumbrian Pipers Society. Some members of the Clough family were important and celebrated Northumbrian smallpipes players, particularly Tom Clough. My dad knew they were pipers but hadn’t realised how famous a Northumbrian piper Tom had been. Tom, a pitman, is said by the book to have been known as The Prince of Pipers. I had never even heard of the family and the name meant nothing to me. But it turns out that my dad actually knew Tom and his son, Tom junior, another well known piper. My dad remembers that sometimes in the summer Tom would play his smallpipes in the backyard of his house in Brick Row at Newsham, which is demolished now but stood in the area opposite the Willow Tree that is now grassed over, just before you get to the railway crossing. When my dad was a kid he and his friends would hear Tom playing in the yard and sometimes throw things over the wall as a prank.

On Thursday night I walked up Plessey Road to the Willow Tree to look at the space where Brick Row had stood. I had never heard of this street and it must have been demolished decades ago. It was called Brick Row because it was the only row built of bricks. My dad lived in Stone Row – you can guess why it was called that – which ran at right angles to Brick Row along the eastern side of railway line to the Stationmaster’s house. That row has gone too, but the Stationmaster’s house remains, black and redundant at the far reaches of a somewhat anonymous estate of social housing – maisonettes and small semis. I listened for and tried to imagine the “amazing, hypnotising runs of notes”, the “startlingly clear and inspirational” playing and “masterly rendition of old airs” described by the authors of the book. I listened hard but I’m not sure I heard any tune I knew, only the sound of the wind whining through the railings in the darkness and the grumble of the traffic across the line over on Newcastle Road.

The book says Tom senior suffered from an increasing loss of his hearing in the late 1940’s. It’s suggested by some that this may have been because in September 1940, during the war, a bomb destroyed their house. Others suggest that he had been almost deaf for years before that because of a mining explosion. We don’t really know why, but there’s no doubt Tom’s hearing went. He had a poetic streak and in the 1950’s wrote this:

My hearing now is not so keen,
As what it was or might have been.
In whispers soft the old pipes say,
‘Just fill the bag. We know the way.’

 

It sounds a bit like he might have been the Beethoven of the smallpipes. In one of his notebooks he wrote “Music is some Divine Essence that clarify’s the Soul enabling it to take momentary glimpses into heaven.” This phrase might have made a good epitaph for him, I guess. He died in 1964 and is buried up on the hill in Horton churchyard. I’ve no idea what his epitaph is, but I might stop by there one day on my way to work to visit his grave and find out. Maybe I’ll hear the plaintive lilt of his smallpipes in the wind. But then again, there’s every chance I won’t..

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