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prague, the skylark, the mephisto express

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We had more snow last week, again on Thursday. For a while it looked like it would never stop. ‘So this is how the world ends,’ I thought to myself.  Most members of my team went home early. There were rumours that the Spine Road might be closed so at about half four I set off for home. It turned out that the snow was already turning to sleet and rain by then. The wild apocalyptic blizzard was a false alarm. Nevertheless it was a slushy slither back down the Laverock and along Newcastle Road into Newsham.

The snow almost interfered with Tristan and Brenda’s Valentine trip to Prague.  Once or twice on Thursday the airport at Ponteland was closed for a while. But the snow is the least of their problems, it seems. Tristan had discovered earlier in the week that Brenda has become friendly with a man she’s been life-coaching. The man’s problems revolve around his marriage, it seems, and making decisions about how he is going to spend the rest of his life. He owns and runs an executive coach company called Mephisto Travel and he has a big house in Tynemouth, it seems. He’s made his fortune and he’s looking forward to taking it easy and seeing the world. What he doesn’t now know is who he wants to be with him on his travels. The man’s name is Elvis Devlin.

‘Elvis Devlin?’ I said to Margaret when she told me the tale.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘That’s right. Do you know him?’

‘Do I know Elvis Devlin?’ I said. ‘Do I know Elvis?’

‘Yes, Elvis. Do you have a problem with that? It’s no sillier than your name, is it?’

‘You’re right. I just hope he’s not an impostor,’ I said. ‘I just hope he’s not a Devlin disguise.’

Margaret groaned and got on with cutting up the onions.

It seems that on a couple of occasions Brenda has been seen having coffee with Elvis Devlin at the Milkhope Centre near Blagdon. This is far enough from Whitley Bay to suggest that these encounters did not happen by chance, although that apparently is exactly how Brenda claims they did happen. (But in any case doesn’t everything happen for a reason, Brenda? I heard myself thinking.) Tristan’s suspicion is that Elvis might be singing Viva Las Vegas in her ear. So Prague nearly didn’t happen. Margaret says it’s a make or break weekend for them. She’s convinced that Tristan’s fears are unnecessary, but you know what the song says about suspicious minds.

On Friday morning the roads were okay and most people made it in. At about lunchtime I went downstairs to make myself a coffee. Lily was checking out the weather on the Met Office website. Michelle was having a sandwich and doing her sudoku book.

‘We’ve got another one,’ Lily said. ‘I’ve got another mother who’s got a spirit in her house. She says it knocks thing off the windowsills at nights and taps on the window.’

‘Has she got a cat?’ Michelle chipped in. Lily laughed.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘She hasn’t even got a broom. The place is mingin’!’

I stood in the kitchen with my hands in my pockets, gazing at the filing cabinets and waiting for the kettle to boil. I filled my cup and wandered back out into the team room. Angie came in and Lily asked her how the roads were. I sat down in Debs’ chair and put my feet on her desk.

‘You don’t believe in ghosts, do you, Lily?’ I said.

‘Nah!’ she said. ‘It probably is the cat. Actually it probably isn’t. She’s probably just nuts.’

‘Oh, I believe in ghosts,’ Angie said. ‘We used to have one on the house we had in Forest Hall.’

‘So do you think Lily should call in an exorcist for her client?’

‘Yes, why not?’

‘Probably for the same reason we don’t make assessments from star signs,’ I said. ‘And because it’d get me the bloody sack.’

‘What sign are you, Lil?’ Angie said. ‘Let me guess. Okay, okay, I’ve got it. You’re a Virgo. Am I right?’

‘No,’ Lily said. ‘I’m an Aries.’

‘Oh, yes, of course. How didn’t I see that? How stupid am I?’

‘I’m an Aries too,’ I said.

‘You’re not!’ Lily said. ‘You could never be an Aries.’

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Honestly.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Lily said. ‘You couldn’t be.’

On Friday night I began a new painting of Seaton Sluice. I’ve painted it before. I’m ambivalent about doing it because it is making a concession to the conventionally picturesque, something I’m trying to get away from. I decided on a low horizon. I was doing a view from the bridge of Rocky Island and the Kings Head pub. I used the canvas I’d underpainted in vermillion a week or two ago. I painted the sky quickly with a big flat brush. Square chunks of white and yellow ochre clouds careering wildly around in a Prussian blue sky.

On Saturday I rode along to my dad’s on the bike. It wasn’t a bad afternoon and the paths were mostly completely clear of snow.

During the week my dad had been to the library. As I was drinking a glass of pineapple juice he gave me a photocopy he’d made of an article from The Blyth News at the end of May 1936. The article reported the death at age eighty one of Harry Clough, the father of Tom Clough, the Newsham Nightingale. “FAMOUS PIPER DEAD”, was the headline, with the by-line “Newsham Man Who Played Before Royalty”. He is said to have died at his home in Plessey Road, of which Brick Row must have been considered a part.

The article said that in 1905 Harry Clough had played for King Edward VII at Alnwick Castle. Until a few weeks before his death Harry had acted as a caller at Cowpen Coal Company, the article said.  Here’s a typical paragraph from the article, which is really a eulogy:

His music like his character delighted his audience. In both cottage and palace he enchanted with the folk music of Northumberland. His nature was kind and genial without ostentation. Unassuming and without any love of fame, his art was always at the disposal of charity.

As I recall Harry was buried at Blyth Cemetary, back down on the beach road. I’d ridden past it on the way along. I wondered if I should stop off on my way back and see if I could find his grave. But no doubt I’d have no more luck looking for the grave of the Nightingale’s father than I had looking for the grave of his son.

I asked my dad which route the old road out of Newsham followed. The book on the Cloughs had said it was very rough.

‘It followed the route of Newcastle Road along to where the little roundabout is now, and it turned right there and went up towards the Laverock,’ he said. ‘Of course in those days the houses on the right weren’t there. The store field was there, where they used to turn out the ponies from the pit in summer.’

‘So was it a rough road?’ I asked.

‘It was wet. When it got over the old railway line to the relief pit it took a big sweeping bend around before going up the Laverock. It was often flooded there.’

Laverock is an old word for a skylark. Most people assume this is how the farm on the ridge got its name and that the road got its name from the farm. I’ve never seen any real evidence for this. My alternative theory is that the place name may have nothing to do with the skylark at all. In Cumbria there’s a place called Laversdale. The first element of this is from the Old English personal name Leofhere. I wonder if this name or something similar isn’t the first element in Laverock and that the second is rigg, meaning ridge. There are ridge and furrows in the field beside Laverock Hall Farm and these will date back to the medieval period at least. The farm is also on a ridge, the ridge along which the road from Seaton Delaval to Horton runs. So the history and topography are arguably there to support the possibility that this might be Leofhere’s Ridge. Furthermore, local people usually talk about going up or coming down the Laverock, as if the land form itself is the thing they are climbing or descending. They do not say they are going up to the Laverock. The word is also said with a final vowel that is very close to the  i sound in rigg, although admittedly inevitably somewhat neutral. There are other examples around here of false etymologies arrived at and imposed by mapmakers, and this may be another. Rigg and rick are close enough together to allow an obvious aural mistake to be made. It was perhaps this mistake that threw an imaginary skylark into the sky above the ancient ridge.

As I rode home I glanced over to the cemetery, but rode straight by. It was getting late and the light was beginning to fail.

At about eight o’clock tonight I went out for a walk. It was a mild dry evening and there wasn’t much wind.  I walked along Sixth Avenue past the front gate to the site of the Citadel. The gates were closed and the security lights were shining eerily on the colossal towering structure. It really is a hellish, oppressive monstrosity, the wrong building in the wrong place. No wonder it reminds me of Kafka’s Castle. I walked through the cut and on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down past the first school. From there I crossed Winship Street into Elliot Street. They are already building on the site of the demolished Big Club. As I walked across I was thinking how these sites aren’t like widows: they don’t have to wait for a respectable period before they allow another building to occupy them. I had thought that apartments would be built here and I was therefore a bit surprised that building had started so soon, given the current depression in the housing market. I noticed a sign on the fence. It said “Considerate Construction”. You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? I went over for a closer look and discovered that the new building appears to be going to be a new library. I was pleasantly surprised and for a moment impressed.

I went down Elliot Street past the take-aways and the betting shop, which was still open for business. An old guy in a flat cap was leaning in the doorway telling the woman inside a story about a bet he’d made. I crossed over to the Willow Tree, which was also open, although there weren’t many in. It seems to be under new management. I noticed there were flyers on the windows for a group called The Buskers, who it seems are playing there on Friday this week. I glanced over to the Brick Row open space. I wondered what sort of music they’d be playing. I wondered if the Cloughs would all be tapping their ghostly pipers’ feet. I walked back down Plessey Road, past the old Grammar school and on under the trees beside the bus stop.

When I got home Margaret was in. She was polishing the old Napoleon from her bedroom. It wasn’t ticking.

‘How did Brenda’s trip to Prague go?’ I asked.

‘I’ve no idea,’ she said. ‘I haven’t heard from her.’

‘But she is back, isn’t she?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, they came back yesterday, I think.’

Or maybe she didn’t, I thought to myself. Maybe she’s already riding the Mephisto Express to Vegas.

I put the kettle on and went looking for De Kooning. I wanted to put him out in the garden for a while before I did a bit more on my painting of the Sluice.

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while searching for the nightingale’s grave

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It snowed on Thursday night. It was unexpected. For the most part the Northumberland coast had missed the snow that for the last week or so had hit the rest of the country and eclipsed the recession, British jobs for British workers and the relentless destruction of Gaza in the six o’clock headlines. But on Thursday night at about midnight it snowed for about half an hour and turned the landscape white. I joined De Kooning behind the curtain to watch the torrent of snowflakes ticker-taping through the blurred chambers of orange streetlight.

It took me about three times as long as usual to get to work on Friday morning. I crawled with a slow caravan of hatchbacks, 4×4’s and white vans up the temperamental incline to the Laverock Hall roundabout. Going north up the Spine Road to North Seaton I joined another cautious procession and after that a few more jittery queues down the hill into Ashington.

By lunchtime it was sunny and the main roads had cleared. I’d spent all morning authorising stuff on the computer and answering emails and I needed to get out of the office for a break. I put my Canon compact in my coat pocket and decided to drive over to Horton churchyard to find Tom Clough’s grave – The Prince of Pipers, as he’s known among the Northumbrian piping fraternity, to me The Newsham Nightingale.

After crossing the River Blyth at Attlee Park and climbing out of the misfit valley, the old Horton road snakes south along thebroad ridge between – to the west – the valley of the river or its tributary the Horton Burn and – to the east – the long slope down to Cowpen and Newsham and the North Sea. Horton Church sits on the high point of the road just before it drops a little to the Three Horse Shoes pub and High Horton farm. The pub sits opposite the farm close to the crossroads of the ridge road on its way to Seaton Delaval and the Heathery Lonnen as it becomes the road down over Horton Bridge to Bog Houses. The crossroads is close to the line of the old Plessey wagonway which leads over the fields and straight down to the river at Blyth. The eastern end of the wagonway’s route is now Plessey Road. 

Bog Houses sits at the point where the up until then relatively steep sided valley of Horton Dean opens out into what was a large flat area of marshland, now for the most part drained and built upon. The slightly shabby little row of pebble-dashed terraced houses stands near the southernmost practical crossing point that the wagonway could follow. The remains of the old raised causeway across the burn are still visible in the field near Horton Bridge, between the old road and the new dual carriageway. Nowadays, we are most of the time disconnected from topography and the way it shaped the lives of people and communities in the days before motorised travel. Walking is a good way to discover why old routes went the way they did. It reconnects us with the shape of the land, the form of the earth beneath our feet. It shows us why places are where they are.

My guess is that both the Horton ridge road and the Plessey wagonway follow the lines of quite ancient routes and that the Shoes sits at what was probably a reasonably busy and significant crossroads at one time.

North of the river the Horton road becomes Bedlington Front Street and goes up to the next hilltop crossroads at the Red Lion pub in Bedlington. The road heads off west along North Ridge and eventually leads to Stannington and Morpeth. Perhaps it was a salters route joining up eventually with Salters Road itself to make its way across Northumberland to Rothbury and Alnham and on into the Cheviots to join with Clennell Street before crossing the border at Hexpathgate, just north east of Windy Gyle.

The road north from the Red Lion crossroads leads to Guide Post, Choppington and Scotland Gate. Perhaps this was a drove route followed by drovers who brought cattle and sheep down from the borders and beyond to take to market at Tyneside. Perhaps they were heading south towards common land at Shiremoor to rest and fatten up their stock after their long journey. Perhaps on their way south the herds or flocks stood a night or so earlier on Longhorsley Common, the night before that perhaps somewhere on the moors up around where Thrunton Woods are now. Maybe the area just north of the river at Bedlington was a stance for cattle too. It’s interesting that there are two old pubs at the south end of Bedlington Front Street: the Dun Cow and the Black Bull. I read somewhere that pubs called The Black Bull often occur on old drove routes.

When the Plessey wagonway was constructed a tavern at the crossroads above the Bog Houses causeway might have picked up custom from the men leading the coal wagons up and down from the river. It’s easy to imagine an old public drinking house here as it filled up at midday with drovers and miners and wagon men, farmers and agricultural workers and assorted itinerant travellers. Perhaps clerks and priests stopped in as they made their way between the church lands of Bedlingtonshire and Tynemouth. This may indeed have been the main purpose of this route, which after going through Seaton Delaval makes its way to Tynemouth through Holywell, Monkseaton and Preston Village, all place names with something to do with religion. So maybe the old inn got more than its fair share of ecclesiastical custom. Perhaps even the gravedigger from Horton churchyard too took a break from his labour and strolled down for a pint of strong ale.

This invisible history would help explain the siting of Horton church itself, which nowadays seems almost stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It sits in a elevated and very visible place, a place which might even have been a significant prehistoric site, perhaps for a stone circle or a burial cairn. There’s no evidence for that, so far as I know, of course, but it’s unlikely that on a site on arable land so close to a highly populated urban area much evidence would survive in any case. And yet this place was once wild. That too hard to see now. So who knows? We do know, however, that Christian churches were often built on the sites of important ancient pagan or pre-Christian monuments and constructions, as a sort of colonisation.

The standard references say the place name of Horton is first recorded more than 750 years ago and that the spelling has remained unchanged since that time. They state that its origin is from the Old English horh-tun, which means a settlement on muddy land. This suggests that the marshland in the valley of the Horton Burn gave its name to the settlement, the marshland the line of the road steadfastly avoids. I had wondered if the origin wasn’t hoh-tun, which would have made it the settlement on the spur of a hill and perhaps fit better with the location of the church. The historical evidence seems to suggest otherwise, however. It seems clear the original settlement was around High Horton farm and it was probably a crossroads town. But either way, high on the hill or down beside the marsh, perhaps hundreds of years ago another piper sat at the back door of his cottage playing old reels and airs in the evening sun in the summertime.

But I’m rambling. Let’s leave this imagined place for a while and get back to my search in the snow for the Nightingale’s grave.

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There aren’t any parking spaces on the road at Horton church. But there is a narrow footpath at the side of the road. I squeezed my car up on to it and against the wall far enough down the road to be visible to cars coming both ways.

When you go through the graveyard gate you see a jumble of old graves ahead of you. Battered and weatherworn stones. They don’t stand straight anymore. Many lean, some have fallen. The ground has settled and sunk and shifted over the long years since these first graves were dug. I was reminded of Hugo’s front garden. You could imagine that passers-by might have simply dumped these graves here at random over the decades and centuries. Here was mortality’s junkyard.

Of course the place has a structure, a superficial order – paths laid out around the graveyard, even though these are for the most part overgrown with grass and difficult to discern, especially in the snow. This is not a particularly well tended or much visited graveyard, it seems. Perhaps most of those that lie here are now more or less forgotten. And as it turns out this attempt at order is no more than a quixotic gesture against the wilful randomness of the universe.

I tottered in my smooth-soled work shoes through the crispy thin snow on the concrete path next to the church building, before heading off through the more sparsely scattered graves to the north and north east. These all seemed like old stones. In many cases wear and moss had left them almost unreadable. The Newsham Nightingale died in 1964, as I recalled. It didn’t look like his grave could be in this part of the cemetery. I wove my way over and between the graves over the snowy slope back up to the church. Have you ever noticed that when you walk across a grave you try to walk on tiptoes, as if to avoid disturbing the occupant, or perhaps because you fear you might sink in, as if a grave is filled with a sort of dreadful quicksand?

I crossed under the line of rugged bare trees into the southern part of the graveyard, where it seemed space was being used somewhat differently: it seemed more crowded. There also seemed to be some graves that had flowers on them and were still got visitors. At the edge of the area of graves, just before the area of still undug earth, I found the most recent group. I went methodically along the tightly crammed rows. In places this group of graves appeared to some extent (although not entirely or very exactly) to follow chronologically, according to year of death. I found the graves of fathers and mothers, grandparents, sisters and brothers. There were children’s graves. Some were infants who had died very young. One was decorated with toys and storybook grave guardians – Winnie the Pooh, a grey resin Peter Rabbit and a black and yellow bumble bee on a spindly wire wand. I felt sure that Tom Clough’s grave would be somewhere among this group, but it wasn’t. There had to be another set of relatively new graves in another area of the graveyard.

I went around the church again and back to the far north eastern corner, where I could now spot the flowers and ribbons of a still visited grave. But this wasn’t the Nightingale’s grave either. Close by there was a grave on which someone had planted a tree. It had grown and its thick, sinuous, muscular roots now curled like the arms of a great octopus and seemed to be delving deep into the owner’s grave. Somewhere six foot under these roots were wrapped around the occupant’s skeleton as if in a gesture of desperate love or overwhelming grief, as if they could not let the buried body go.

I was beginning to notice things about graveyards. First, that there is no strict order in force about who is buried where. A graveyard isn’t like a library – there is no index and the bodies do not lie in a particular order; there’s no sort of Dewey Decimal system for the deceased. You’d think it would be possible to lay them down in strict chronological order. But as we all know death comes unpredictably. The reaper can call at the oddest hours. There’s not one of us who couldn’t turn the Tallulah tomorrow. And a chronological system – although it would help the visitor to find the dead person he or she wanted with relative ease – would potentially not let the dead from a family lie together. A wife who outlived her husband by thirty years might find herself lying fifty yards away from him with a motley crew of strange bedfellows between herself and her dearly departed. Loving couples would have to conspire to pass way together if they wanted to avoid eternal separation in the burial ground. That would never do, obviously. And of course there’s also only so much space can be kept for one family, so eventually some grandson or niece is bound to wind up exiled to yonder end of the yard on their own.

I had wondered if the alphabetical graveyard wasn’t a good idea. There’d be distinct areas set aside for families whose surname began in a particular letter, so the Forsyths would lie down with the Fergusons, the Turners with the Thirlwells, and so on. Again this plan is likely to be disrupted by the Reaper’s arbitrary and sometimes quite profligate ways. It would just take a couple of Smith families with fifteen kids between them to be struck down by some previously unknown strain of a strange new plague to throw this plan into disarray. What would you do then – allow the S‘s to lie down among the R’s and T‘s? Or designate a new area for the S‘s on the undug land at the top of the cemetery? But that would defeat the object of the plan.

I wondered if another plan might be to order them according to age at death, setting aside the most space for the ages at which most deaths occur and proportionately less for the others, in strict accordance with probability as determined by actuarial tables. But this plan too would be easily defeated by the Reaper who one morning could decide to take a busload of fifteen year olds on a school trip and have them all drowned by launching their bus off the Kitty Brewster bridge and plunging them into the muddy river. These things happen, and they must be a nightmare for graveyard managers.

So at the end of the day the graveyard turned out to be a bit of a jumble, an appropriately complex mixture of order and chaos. They aren’t very user friendly for the stranger searching for a strange grave, but their disorder tells us something and reassuringly tells us that, while death will come to us all, some of us might be around a lot longer than any human filing system can readily anticipate.

A last thought on this – and something about which in this day and age perhaps something can be done – is around the permanence of gravestones. Old stones all suffer to a greater or lesser degree from the erosion and eventual erasure of the name by wind and weather. Trying to read these stones and discern who lies beneath them – although it might entail a pleasant and meaningful philosophical or poetic contemplation – is time consuming and frustrating for the time-poor twenty-first century grave finder. Surely there are modern composite materials which resemble granite or marble or another stone and which have a guaranteed erosion free life of at least 500 years. If there isn’t there should be, because I’m not only sure that the prospect of their name vanishing from their memorial stone appals and scares many people, I am also, by the same token, sure there would be a good market for such a material. If the market economy does the job the way they say it does, any day now these new long-life – yes, I know, I know, but what else would we call them, “eternity-proof”? – materials should now be becoming available to the bereaved and to those who like to plan their own funeral arrangements in advance. An epitaph should be forever, not just for as long as it takes an engraving in sandstone to lose it legibility.

I turned from contemplating the octopus rooted grave tree and saw just a little way up the slope a dark simple cross, probably made of metal but very much resembling a wooden cross. This might be the Nightingale’s grave, I thought. It would befit a man who has taken pleasure in the simple joy of music to have such a simple marker, and a one with arms upon which small birds might perch too. As I got closer I could see that this wasn’t Tom Clough’s gravestone. But it did seem to be Tom someone, and to my delight as I got closer it seemed to me that this was cross marked the burial place of one Tom Tremble.

‘Bloody hell,’ I said to myself. ‘This is Tom Tremble’s grave.’ 

Not that I knew who Tom Tremble was, of course: what I liked was the fairy tale sound and connotations of this name. Unfortunately I was to be disappointed. The name was difficult to discern easily from a distance because of the glare of the sun on the snow around it. When I got up close I found that this was in fact the grave of someone called “O.M. Tremble”.  I was struck by the formality and terseness of that marking, of a gravestone that doesn’t tell us the first names of the buried person. When was this person born, when did they die? Were they not the beloved offspring or spouse or parent of anyone? Clearly this person or those who buried him or her (initials don’t disclose gender) favoured a sort of formal if inevitably ambiguous minimalism. This grave gives us only a name and nothing else, not even an epitaph. This tombstone decision throws an interesting light on that of Keats. In this case we see that a name on its own is intriguing but unhelpful and ultimately anonymous. O. M. Tremble is now nothing but a name, as they say. A name on its own might as well be writ in water as in stone. What a name needs is a story. What a name needs is a life.

O. M. Tremble’s modest cross contrasts well with the Leviathan stones some of the long dead have in this graveyard, and it’s true that the size of the stone doesn’t necessarily tell is anything about the worth of the life the dead person lived or their value to society, even though we tend to think it does. O. M. Tremble begins to look like an embarrassed, disgraced or self-effacing nobody, a clerk or a storekeeper perhaps, a criminal even, lain in a field of lawyers, captains of industry and lords of the manor. A grave is like a house and land: we think it tells us something about the importance of whoever it is dwells there.

I made my way back up to the church and looked again back down over the slope. I noticed that all the graves appear to face east. I seemed to recall then that this is a Christian thing, symbolic of the dead awakening into the dawn of a new life, a new day in heaven, or something like that. It isn’t a bad view for them either, out over the fields and the Spine Road to the town and the mouth of river – the pale grey wind turbines on Cambois pier, the Indian red Alcan bauxite silos, the gaudy yellow gantries at Battleship Wharf – and to the deep blue North Sea beyond. They must indeed see some grand sunrises here. The town has the same sort of junkyard look as the graveyard itself does at first glace, and in some way echoes that same ramshackle development – a mixture of opportunity, accident and design – that same mixture of chaos and order. It has the sort of look people like to call organic, by which they often mean unplanned and accidental but somehow also functional and good.

I left Horton graveyard without ever finding the Nightingale’s grave. I drove back down between High Horton Farm and the Three Horse Shoes, where despite the snow there were still a fair number of cars of people who were there for lunch. I knew the Horton gravedigger wouldn’t be one of them, of course.

I turned on the Radio 4 one o’clock news as I accelerated down the slip road on to the Spine Road. It was clear now. I drove back to the office quickly. I was thinking about Tom Tremble. How did he live? Who did he know? What things mattered to him? I was wondering about the story of Tom Tremble’s secret life. I was wondering what he looked like. I was wondering how Tom Tremble died.

 

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a sort of macabre sweepstake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others cringed and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Not good,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the 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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