yammering

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while out walking with kafka and felicity

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The power of the concept of heterotopia lies in its ambiguity, that it can be a site of order just as much as it can be a site of resistance. This ambivalence is at the centre of the utopian idea of modern society that took shape in the eighteenth century. It is the ambivalence contained in the idea of heterotopia as both the castles of the Marquis de Sade and Franz Kafka. 

 Kevin Hetherington
“The Badlands of Modernity”
 
 

 

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space . . . The anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time.

Michel Foucault
“Of Other Spaces”
 
 
 

 

At the same time, images offer location to their own contents, whether these contents be cognitive, emotional, linguistic or . . . imaginational. Scintillating on the surface of the psyche, while also proceeding from its depths, particular images act to implace such contents by offering them imaginal aegis, a home for their continued prospering. Bachelard calls this specifically imaginal sense of place “felicitous space”; in contrast with the “indifferent space” of the surveyor, this is the “space we love,” that is, “eulogized space”.

 Edward S. Casey
“The Fate of Place”
 
 

 

There is a photograph still extant of Franz Kafka arriving in Spindelmuhle, the winter resort where on the same evening of January 27, 1922, he began writing The Castle. Like the country doctor of his own incomparable story or like the formidable Klamm in The Castle itself, Kafka made the trip rather laboriously by horse-drawn sleigh; in the photo he stands, pinched and shy, by the rear runners, his ordinary street shoes heaped with snow. A faint smile appears to play upon his lips, but it is difficult to tell for the print is blurred. It is evening; snow is falling. Drifting snowflakes speckle the flanks of the two black horses that pull his sleigh. Kafka arrived in this north Bohemian town near the source of the Elbe just as K. himself, the truculent surveyor of The Castle, arrived. “It was late evening when K. arrived,” the novel begins, “the village lay under deep snow.”

Eric Ormsby

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Written by yammering

January 3, 2010 at 3:57 pm

ruin porn: a short tour of the coast

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bebside in october

oddfellow arms, blyth

high point hotel, whitley bay

north shields, quayside

ballast hill, blyth

I think people just like a good ruin. I mean, setting aside like any kind of like deep philosophical implications of it, it’s just people like a good smashed-up thing. I know I do.

Thomas Morton

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Written by yammering

October 18, 2009 at 8:14 pm

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esse est percipi and all that palaver

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Kevin Keegan is to take over the management of Blyth Spartans. Britney Spears and David Beckham have been spotted together hand in hand shopping in the Keel Row. The first Disney World in Britain is to be constructed on the site of the old Wellesley School and the land between there and the beach, currently used for caravan storage. It will open in 2011. The Jonas Brothers, Take That, Paris Hilton, Kylie Minogue, P. Diddy, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Krankies, Something Spooked The Horses and Mick Hucknall are all doing shows at the Pheonix Theatre in Beaconsfield Street over the next couple of months. Jonathan Ross has bought a house for himself and his family in the small new development of Sidney Gardens on the site of the old Sidney Arms on Cowpen Road.  Harvey Nichols are opening up a branch on Bowes Street. And a futuristic new bridge for cycles and pedestrians is to be built across the river to North Blyth. It will be made of raw aluminium and bleached timber and in part modelled on the Gimsoystraumen bridge in Norway, we are told. Things are certainly hotting up around here.

But, encouraging as these things might be, I’ve been wondering lately what it would really take to put this place on the map. The prospects, as I see them, are now little short of a nightmare.

Hugo’s hired a camper van and gone off to tour Wales for the week with Mrs Hugo and his daughters. I noticed that an abandoned computer desk has been washed up in his front garden along with some large bundles of what looks like coir or thatch. If it’s the latter then I expect another version of Ye Olde England will soon be added to the unabashed post-modern accident that is his estate. In his back garden I have ascertained that two new plastic otters on a log have joined the menagerie beside the eternally gurgling pond. Another recent arrival is a new brass sundial. It is of a common design with a fixed axial gnomon. The motto is meam vide umbram, tuam videbis vitam. All Hugo needs now is the sun. He also needs to be aware of course that since the construction of the Citadel we’ve lost a couple of hours of sunlight each day and that this may therefore significantly reduce the efficacy of his shiny new chronometrical device.

I was pondering whether the CCTV cameras covering the front of his house will be in operation during his absence. If they are I wonder if he’ll ever replay the tapes. It would be a seriously onerous – not to say boring – task to review a whole week of tape. All those people wandering innocently past his gate, all those cats and post office workers and delivery people . . .  The following thesis occurred to me: things that are taped or monitored on CCTV but are never viewed, never actually happen. This of course is a thesis that owes a great deal to Berkeley’s subjective idealism, in particular the notion that ‘to be is to be perceived’. You will be familiar with the old chestnut (yes, I know – groan!), “if a great tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make any sound?”  While this may seem a daft question in the common sense world – I mean, when did you last see a great tree fall and make no sound?! – it is one which has exercised philosophers a great deal in recent centuries. It would therefore be foolish to dismiss it as a mere trick of the language, one of those questions that can occur for technical reasons but is in reality utterly absurd.

So here is a new slant on the Bishop’s thesis: if it is true that to be is to be perceived, then those who appear on unwatched monitors do not exist. In a surveillance society such as ours this argument could be open to abuse, of course, and would need to be applied with some vigilance. But it may have some bearing on the virtual world. If, for instance, you run a website or a blog that never gets a hit, does the content of that website (and therefore the website itself) ever really exist? Not to be perceived is not to exist. And if the website doesn’t exist, what of the author? This is a conundrum I’ll need to give some serious thought to, I think. It is worrying to think that an unread blogger may have little more substance than a hypothetical metaphysical entity. I can almost feel myself disappearing. This must be what it’s like to be God in a world of atheists. It’s not like the old days, He must be thinking, when a couple of decent thunderbolts or a good old fashioned drought were enough to get any deity noticed.

And perhaps the idea also has a bearing on how to put Blyth on the map. Is a town that no-one notices a town that doesn’t exist? Which is where I came in and brings me back to the breaking news that Sven Goran Erikson and Alex Ferguson have also both now expressed an interest in managing the Spartans.  There are also rumours emerging tonight of a Super Casino, an art gallery and a Big Wheel.  As I said to De Kooning as we gazed together into Hugo’s world, these are exciting times for ontology as well as for town planning. De Kooning of course seemed to be a lot more interested in the noisy blackbird sitting on the head of Hugo’s moose. I really must talk to De Kooning about Schrodinger some time soon.

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white heather and the widow’s life plan

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The Widow Middlemiss has gone to Derby to stay with her brother for a while. She left on the day before I returned from Fort William. While the Widow is undoubtedly old and vulnerable,  somewhat isolated, and doesn’t have a good support network, the received narrative around her departure identifies the stress of the Citadel construction process as the key precipitating factor in her decision to go.  A number of interventions were deployed to try to avert this eventuality. Unfortunately none of these succeeded in making life tolerable for the Widow. Margaret says the outcome is “an absolute crying shame”.

The weather hasn’t been dry but there have been no further floods. Although there were no further sightings nor sounds of slimy google-eyed harbingers of the apocalypse, Maureen assured the Widow that they would still be there. It was a sign of the kind that surely should not be ignored. The Widow may be old but she’s no fool. Once she’d recovered her poise she remembered that frogs can vanish as quickly as they come and that their appearance isn’t always a portent of the Final Days. It was nevertheless clear to Margaret that the Widow’s predicament was dire and that she would benefit from expert support. She asked Brenda if she’d be prepared to see the Widow and offer some advice on a life coaching basis. Brenda agreed and in due course the Widow went south. I would have done the same, I think.

My holiday continued after my return. I’ve done some walking and painting. One day I drove to Kielder village and from there walked up Deadwater Fell and over to Peel Fell and from there along the border line to the Kielder Stone. The air was benign and close, clammy, flavoured with the soft, elusive, feminine scent of ling. It was a dull day and I saw only one other person between leaving the car park and returning. The Stone stood like an impenetrable, silent temple, a geological installation among the remote acres of purple heather. It’s said that in the days of border conflict and strife the stone was a sort of post box and reivers would leave messages for one another there. Those were the days when these were the so-called Debatable Lands. It hadn’t yet been settled whether they were part of Scotland or part of England. The ambiguity intrigues me and gives these moors a very particular atmosphere. Borderlands are in any case always psychologically interesting. The liminality is almost palpable. It seems to haunt the place and to somehow permeate your flesh. It’s as if you’re being watched in a place where you’re certain there is no another living person but you. It’s as if the earth and weather are the eternal wardens of this place. It’s as if you’re being X-rayed by history. Leaving messages at the Kielder Stone must have been like sending a message up the chimney to Santa, I thought. It seemed to me that it must have been an almost metaphysical gesture, although no doubt this perception reflects a radical failure in my historical imagination.

It was as I was descending that I met the only other person on those hills that day. I was crossing the heather on Ravenshill Moor. He was a middle-aged man with an old-fashioned look about him. He wasn’t wearing modern walking gear like me – North Face shorts, Berghaus technical top, lightweight walking boots, sunglasses, rucksack, floppy khaki sun hat. He wore corduroy trousers, stout shoes, a tweed jacket and a flat cap. He had two well-behaved black labradors with him. He stood to one side as I approached him. We had the usual conversation about the weather and I stroked his dogs as they checked me out. I commented to him how quiet it was up there that day and how the heather was so beautiful this year.

‘People don’t know what they’re missing out on, do they?’ I said.

‘Have you ever seen white heather up here?’ He asked me.

‘Up here?’ I replied, looking around at the sea of purple and shaking my head. ‘No, never.’ I assumed that he was guy who’d come looking for it and was about to suggest that his search was futile, when from inside his jacket he produced a bunch of white heather.

‘Did you find that up here?’ I asked, a little amazed.

‘Oh aye,’ he said. ‘I came across this clump of it last year and I wondered if it was still here. It was.’

The man then broke off a couple of sprigs and gave them to me.

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I’ll put the lottery on tonight. If I win I’ll share my winnings with you!’

I wandered off down the hill and back towards the forest, grasping my sprig of white heather. I began to think about what I might want to come out of any good luck that came my way. I was already spending my lottery winnings, metaphorically speaking. I wondered how someone who puts as little credence as I do in such irrational beliefs could find himself doing this. It’s said of the Kielder Stone  that those who think they are unlucky should walk around it three times against the sun and that this will improve their fortune.  I hadn’t done that, of course, but I suddenly began to wonder if I shouldn’t be making my way back up there. A man’s luck is something he needs to work at assiduously.  White heather is probably one of those things that is considered lucky just because it’s so unusual to find it. The lucky part is that you should find it at all. There is inevitably a legend to account for its powers too, of course, and it’s one I remembered vaguely as I went down into the sharp scented conifers. Later I checked it out on the internet. 

A long time ago in Scotland  there was a famous poet called Ossian and he had a daughter called Malvina. It is said she was truly beautiful and had a sweet nature. A strong and handsome warrior called Oscar fell in love with her. They planned to marry, but before they did Oscar went off in search of fame and fortune, as any man would in those days. Malvina longed night and day for his return and often talked to her father about how much she loved her brave husband to be. One fine day in late August Ossian and Malvina were sitting together on the mountainside when a ragged messenger staggered towards them. He brought the sad news that Oscar had been killed in battle. The messenger was carrying a spray of purple heather. He said it was a last gift from her beloved. The ragged messenger told her that Oscar had died whispering her name and swearing his love for her. Distraught with grief Malvina ran out over the hillside, weeping inconsolably. Where Malvina’s tears fell the purple heather turned pure white. When she saw this, or so the story goes, she said “May this white heather forever bring good fortune to all those who find it”. White heather marks a place where the tears of the poet’s daughter fell. White heather is a sign of a special felicity, a place where nature and human narrative coalesce into simple poetic remembrance.

When I got home I let De Kooning have a sniff of my sprig of white heather and then put it to stand in a glass of clear water. I could see De Kooning was already wishing for prawns. As it happened he was about to get lucky too, because that was exactly what I had for him in the fridge.

A couple of days later Margaret was cooking a big pan of onions for herself. I was sitting in the conservatory reading and drinking a cappuccino. As I was ‘doing nothing’ in Margaret’s terms she asked me to take a box of slippers to Brenda’s.

I drove along the beach road and up through Seaton Sluice. At the Delaval Arms at the top of the hill a group of cyclists were sitting out in the hazy sun. The Delaval Arms is a large white iconic building at the border of Northumberland and North Tyneside. It enjoys excellent views. Inevitably some property developer has got his hands on it and wants to knock it down and replace it with yet more housing. It may be what Gordon wants, but Seaton Sluice will be a good deal less interesting and attractive if the Delaval Arms is lost. It announces the village – and the county – from the south and gives the place a lot of its character. The landscape and the place will be a lot poorer if this building is lost.

Brenda opened her door and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

‘Ooh!’ she said. ‘Is this a little pressie for me? Is this what you’ve brought me back from Scotland?!’

I laughed half-heartedly. ‘You should be so lucky,’ I said, staggered into her hall with the large cardboard box and put it down. She asked me if I would like a coffee, but I said I’d just had one.

‘How’s your neighbour?’ Brenda said. ‘Very sad case.’

‘Mrs Middlemiss? She’s still in Derby, I think,’ I replied.

‘Things happen for a reason, you know. I truly believe that. I did a piece of work with that lady, you know. A consultation. The crisis in her life brought us together. And you know, it was clear to me almost immediately that here was a lady who really had no clear life plan at all. I knew I could help her.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘she is about eighty years old? I guess it’s probably okay not to have a life plan at that age. She probably just takes each day as it comes.’

‘No.’ Brenda corrected me, abruptly. ‘It isn’t. Our happiness depends upon a life plan. No life plan and unhappiness is virtually unavoidable. We must each one of us have a life plan for as long as we are on this earth. A life plan is the true foundation of our well being.’

I nodded. ‘Yes, I know,’ I said. ‘I guess I’m just a miserable sod, eh, Brenda?’

‘By the way, did Margaret tell you that we are expanding the range of products we will offer on eBay? We felt that the slipper market was perhaps a little too seasonal.’

‘Oh?’ I said. ‘So what else are you going to sell?’

‘Sunglasses.’

‘Good idea,’ I said. ‘So what are you going to call yourselves now – Slippers and Shades?’

‘No. No, that wouldn’t hit the right note. No, Margaret and I have given this a good deal of thought and we’ve decided that henceforth we will trade as The Slippers and Sunglasses Shop.’

‘Yes, that’s good,’ I said. ‘Best not to confuse the customers, eh? How’s Tristan, by the way?’

‘Tristan? Tristan’s fine. He’s fitting an en-suite today for a lady in Tynemouth. A lovely big house on Percy Park, he tells me.’

‘Give him my regards,’ I said. Brenda said she would and I left. I drove back along slowly, listening to Radio Four.

Later that day I began a painting of the Kielder Stone. I’m doing it in acrylics on a big square canvas. I’ve placed the stone fairly low in the canvas. I want to make it seem massive and inscrutable and to evoke in it a feeling of stoicism and isolation. I want it to sit beneath a huge omnipotent sky, restless, full of movement and power. I want to explore the emotional possibilities of this landscape. I’m not very interested in making the scene immediately recognisable. A painting isn’t a postcard.

I worked quickly with a big brush, trying to find for the sky a rhythm of the kind that might mesmerise or enchant a stone like this, as if enchantment was perhaps the cause of it massive stillness, its inexplicable composure. I underpainted the sky roughly with oranges and browns and then slapped various blues, greys and whites over them in free choppy strokes, the lemon yellow smear of a misshapen sun. The more movement I put into the sky the more the stone seemed to be fixed and immovable. At the same time it just seemed to become blacker and blacker. Around the stone with a smaller flat brush I dabbed in the clumpy moor. I painted it in pinks at first. I wanted to avoid the obvious purple. And then I added a new layer: titanium white. The painting is veering towards the monochromatic. But I like it. And I like the idea that the stone stands in the middle of a whole moor of white heather. I mean, I ask you: what are the chances of that?

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Written by yammering

August 31, 2008 at 8:13 pm

some memories of alice and bill

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‘Excuse me, mate, can you spare some change?’ The balding middle-aged man in a winter coat had a Cockney accent. He was sitting against the whitewashed wall in the subway between the railway station and the High Street. It was the same guy who the day before sold me a copy of The Big Issue beside Lochaber House. I ignored him this time.

Fort William – An Gearasdan in Gaelic, as the road signs north and west of Crianlarich always remind us – wears its problems on its face. The biggest town in the Highlands – ten thousand people, a port and an industrial town (aluminium etc) – it has a fair number of manual workers. It also has deprivation of a kind the single linear shopping district of the High Street cannot conceal. Although you’re sometimes hard pushed to be sure who is a tourist and who isn’t, the lack of truly high order shops and the obvious presence of a number of distinctly low order ones tell you that the invisible poor are here somewhere. At first glance of course you’d wonder where they actually lived. Certainly not in the long line of pleasing residences (many of them B & B’s or small hotels now) that line the main road into town. The poor in fact are tucked away in housing estates elsewhere – about a quarter of the population live in houses rented from the local authority – most notably in The Plantation, an estate which lurks out of sight above and behind the High Street. In Scottish government terms this area is identified as ‘severely deprived’.

Tourism is obviously crucial to Fort William’s economy. And yet it seems to be struggling to transform itself into a modern tourist destination, its solitary ribbon of a high street and the nagging presence of its poor conspiring with its remoteness and relative smallness to make this transformation problematic. It isn’t Edinburgh. It can’t throw up the same kind of impermeable enchanting façade and it isn’t big enough not to be dragged down by its blemishes.

One evening I ate in one of the pubs on the High Street, pub grub being hard to avoid in this town. I was browsing through the menu when the waitress came over and asked me if I was ready to order.

‘I’m a vegetarian,’ I said. ‘I guess it’ll be the mushroom stroganoff.’

She laughed. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we do plough a rather narrow nutritional furrow in these parts, don’t we?’

She was a striking woman of perhaps forty or forty five. She had red hair and her eyes were sparkling, playful and as blue as porcelain. Her name was Alice McTavish. She knew Newcastle and guessed that I came from around there. She told me she went to university in Edinburgh – to do biochemistry, she told me later – but had dropped out to work as a dancer for a while. Later she worked in hotels and restaurants in London and Liverpool before returning to Fort William to look after her disabled mother who suffered a stroke a few years ago, a random event of the kind that shapes all our lives. Alice works now as a waitress during the tourist season only, mostly just to keep in touch with the world, she says.

‘I used to work in McTavish’s, the restaurant,’ she said. ‘No relation!’

‘Where is it?’ I asked.

‘It used to be in that space next to the Grand Hotel at the bottom of the street. It burnt down a couple of years back.’

‘Oh, I’ve noticed that space,’ I said. ‘Aren’t they going to put some new shops there?’ The Grand Hotel is a bland concrete building. It’s now boarded up. Like the hotel next door to it – which is larger and still a going concern – it seems to be a sort of relic of the bus tours of the Scottish Highlands, which I imagine must have been a really big thing in the 1960’s and seventies and which you still sometimes see advertised in provincial newspapers. Although the bus tours are still going – nowadays they seem to bring in mostly the elderly or the less affluent from the industrial areas of northern England – they increasingly seem to be an anachronism, and ironically perhaps yet another albatross around the neck of a town that dreams of becoming a modern holiday attraction.

‘So what would you like to see them put in the space where the restaurant used to be?’ I asked.

‘Oh, something up-market would be nice,’ Alice said. ‘We could do with that. Maybe a nice clothes shop, maybe a Marks and Sparks. Maybe a jewellers and a nice wee art gallery. A Starbucks and a wee piazza. A good Italian restaurant. We could do with a bit culture around here.’

‘Whisky, bagpipes, shortbread and tartan is culture, Alice,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it?’

‘It is, and I love it, of course. But even up here we sometimes hanker after modern things too, you know.’

Alice’s clothes were in fact very modern and fashionable – indigo, green and ivory, cotton and linen. She wouldn’t have looked out of place in Edinburgh or London. I commented on this.

‘Aye, but I didn’t get these at Mc&Co!’ she said. Mc&Co is a somewhat old-fashioned and down market but reasonably respectable clothing shop which occupies part of the Lochaber House complex. There is a branch in Ashington too. Their demographic, as they say, appears to be broadly the rather less affluent social groups.

‘So where do you go to shop?’ I asked. ‘Stirling? Glasgow? Inverness?’

‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘I get my stuff over the internet. I got these things from Monsoon and Debenhams.’

‘So you don’t really need an actual shop, do you? You can be thoroughly modern no matter where you live.’

‘Ah, but it’s not the same, is it? A lassie likes to see what it is she’s buying, you know, to try a few things on and all that.’

‘Hmmm. But why would Marks and Sparks put a shop here? Where would they get their customers from?’

‘Well, the tourists would buy stuff too. They’d get a lot of passing trade.’

This is oddly enough true. Even though most tourists would be able to get the same top or skirt in a branch of a chain shop close to home, it somehow becomes a different garment if it’s bought on holiday, especially if it’s in Scotland. On holiday we lose our spending inhibitions. We temporarily enter a different life-world, a parenthetical life-world of sorts. And things bought in Scotland are in any case mysteriously different. The spirit of Scotland inhabits them and gives them a special value, a magical aura. Place matters. It makes things what they are. It reconstructs everything, be it the book you read or a pop song you hear every day on the radio, an encounter with an otter or a brief love affair. Place makes transcendent souvenirs of certain memories. They become a part of the core of what we are.

‘Aye, but there’d be no customers in the winter,’ I said. ‘There’s the rub.’

Alice nodded. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I know. Thank God for the internet, eh?!’

Towards the end of the week I caught the steam train to Mallaig. As we chugged along the forty odd miles through some of the wildest and most beautiful landscape you could wish to see I found myself musing about modernity and the marketing of Scotland, the product, and the inescapability of me being a consumer of that product. Scotland is all rugged mountains, huge skies and vast stretches of water, Scotland is tradition and history, and it’s easy to imagine that going to Scotland represents a radical escape from modernity and consumerism. But there is nothing accidental or unmediated about the experience. I come to Scotland to consume what I imagine is nature and the tradition of a harmonious, sustainable relationship with the natural environment.  Scotland in my mind is solid and real, the model of a good way of life. I come to Scotland to confirm a construct I already have of what this place is. I come here to find what I know is here. It’s a reassuring game and we all play it. The modernity is in the process, a process that transforms the substance of the world. The ancient is made new; the new is made ancient. I have come to collect a product I bought somewhere else.

Modernity rests on layers of deception, none of them final. It is an onion without a core. It asserts as axiomatic that the new is better than the old. But it also says that nothing is ever good enough, that everything can be improved upon. It rests upon an induced endemic sense of dissatisfaction. We are persuaded to desire things we will very soon be persuaded to reject.  The layers get more pernicious and bitter as we peel them back. We are persuaded next that the products of the restless new world are more than mere things, that what we are is nothing less than the constellation of what we have or consume. We are what we consume and we are also therefore that which we desire to consume. We are what we want. This anguished sense of entitlement turns wants into needs. But despite this overwhelming urgency we will not want these things for long. Indeed this fuels the urgency, since we must have the thing we want while it is worth having and we know that this value won’t last, that the shelf life of all things is limited. Modernity tells us we cannot and should not wait, because we are incomplete until we get the things we want. Soon we will be incomplete because of our association with these very same things. We live in a world where we love ourselves today in the clear knowledge that tomorrow we are likely to dislike ourselves. Soon our being will depend upon the next new thing. Modernity is a ruthless façade.

Modernity has no scruples and is endlessly flexible. The same thing can be sold twice. Modernity encompasses every deception. The traditional can be consumed as voraciously as the novel. The classic car, the country house, the work of art, the antique, the retro, the repro, the replica . . . There’s a market for anything.  And while there are things that can be harvested many times there are others that can only decay. Modernity is cheap, because everything is made to be replaced.

When I got back I came through the subway again. On that day a girl was busking there. She had a good voice and played guitar with some grace. She was singing a song in Gaelic. She wore scuffed maroon calf-length lace up boots with gaping holes in the toes and had long, somewhat lank hair. I threw a pound coin into her guitar case.

I walked down past Lochaber House and took a photograph of it. It looks to me like another product of the 1960’s wave of modernisation in these parts. The simple virtues of concrete must have been very seductive in those days. The building now lacks any discernible architectural grace, resembling a giant breeze block, hollowed out so that termites can labour perpetually within its dank grey carcase. Surely no-one could have designed or constructed such a building with the idea that it might endure and be regarded as in some way beautiful. It’s as if it was constructed on the functional principle that it will never be loved and therefore no-one will cry a tear over its inevitable demolition in the relatively near future. It’s a version of modernity that seems crude and ugly to us now, which is not to say of course that it may not have represented political aims a good deal more progressive and egalitarian than those that drive the current relentless rise of the shopping mall, the foundation hospital and the academy school.

We are accomplices in the promotion of a pernicious Panglossian delusion. Appearance is everything. Facebook, facelifts and facades.  The good is what looks good. Over the road from Lochaber House stands the building that houses the Royal Bank of Scotland, a solid construction of grey and pink stone, built in 1911. It reminded me of a seashell in its deceptively delicate intricacy. It embodies a sense of concern about beauty and design. Inside it I imagined bankers and cashiers and clerks would be going about their business like a scrupulous community of hermit crabs. Here we have modernity deploying the traditional to give a sense of something enduring and secure, the sort of place you’d be convinced your money is safe and will be put to work in the pursuit of decency, fairness and a responsible society. The sort of place you can trust. Here, we imagine, is a brand which is taking Scotland and the values it represents to the rest of the world. We somehow allow ourselves to be convinced that by becoming the customers of such a company we are investing in a world that is stable, solid and beautiful. This appearance is more or less the polar opposite of the reality, of course. The Royal Bank of Scotland identifies itself as The Oil & Gas Bank. Globally they finance projects that have in total more carbon emissions that Scotland itself. They are up to their sporrans in dirty work from the Amazon to Angola. Modernity occupies tradition in the way that some wasps occupy the living bodies of caterpillars by laying eggs in them; tradition is a paralysed, helpless host. I photographed the RBS building too, and then the Tesco Express building not far from it, another uninspiring concrete block.

As I was putting my camera back in my rucksack Alice came by. I told her about my day. We agreed that Glenfinnan station was very quaint and interesting. Alice was on her way to work. I told her I was leaving in the morning but I hoped to be back before too long. I asked her how her mother was and she told me she was fine. We walked together up the High Street. The cockney guy was near the tourist information centre. He was selling The Big Issue with another bloke who was also from the south of England.

Later that evening I walked alone down to the shore of Loch Linnhe and for a while watched the oyster catchers, herring gulls and hooded crows foraging on the shore.  A common seal occasionally popped its head up out of the water as it went about the business of finding fish to eat. The following morning I drove south, through Glen Coe, past Loch Lomond and Glasgow and down the motorway to Carlisle. I listened to the radio for a while. I followed the A69 east for a while and then took the military road along Hadrian’s Wall. It was supposed to rain. It didn’t though. I was looking forward to seeing De Kooning and hoped that he was well. And as it turned out he was.

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Written by yammering

August 20, 2008 at 9:36 pm

between gauntanamo and the grey corries

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Most of the day I’ve been trying to get things in order at the office before I go off on holiday. The truth is that this is a virtually impossible task. The most that can be done is to lift down or push back those things that are teetering on the brinks of the highest shelves so that they won’t fall while you’re away. This task was done with a mixture of hopeful determination and resentment.  But I was constantly prone to a lack of concentration. Already my heart was in the Grey Corries where space itself shrieks and sobs, whispers, breathes and yammers. Where shadows plunge into impossible, unimaginable abysses, where ridges and outcrops leap and glower among dark and ragged skies. The thought of those places made it hard for me to tidy my desk.

Gilmour rang me in a panic earlier in the week. The press had picked up on the discussions on Metro radio. The Journal and the Daily Mail had both been in touch asking what we knew about the Flinties and what we were doing about them.

‘These aren’t Moslem kids, are they?’ Gilmour asked, almost pleading.

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s not clear that they have any religious affiliations at all, in fact. They’re just a bunch of kids running around in pillow cases.’

‘So what’s this throwing aeroplanes at people’s houses about?’

I told him the tale of Flinty’s return and how he’d become a sort of folk hero and spawned this daft craze. I told him about Batman and Bob Marley too.

‘Okay, so what are we doing about it?’ he said.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘What should we be doing, confiscating the pillowcases?’

‘Well, no. But we’ve got some scared people out there. We do need to do something. Or at least we need to seem to do something.’

‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘Incarcerate them in a pillowcase camp, set up a mini Gauntanamo behind the Woodhorn Museum? Get a bit of extraordinary rendition going and ship them off to Middlesbrough?’

‘What about getting some youth workers down there or setting up some activities and play schemes? Perhaps we need to put in some support for parents – educational input and parenting courses. And we need to think about the victims. I’ll speak to adult services. We need to see if we can get some counselling for anyone who’s been traumatized by these young people’s activities. I’ll speak to the police and see if we can get extra patrols in hot spots. We need more police presence in the community, some good old-fashioned Bobbies on the beat. We need to be talking about getting more CCTV on these estates. People need to feel secure. We need to take the lead here. We need to coordinate a full multi-agency response. We’ll see if we can get housing on board. Maybe they can do something about some of these families under the anti-social legislation. I wonder if we should be talking to church leaders too? What do you think?’

What I thought was that he might be over-reacting just a bit. What I thought was that kid will be kids.  What I thought was that Flinty was the only real risk to anyone here and it would be helpful if he was arrested. But I somehow doubted that this was what Gilmour wanted to tell the press. He had gone into full shock and awe mode. I wondered how long it would be before we considered the Guantanamo option.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘What about the funding?’

‘Oh, I’m sure the money will be there for this one. Listen, this sounds good to me. I’ll get on to the press office. We’ll say we’re aware of this problem and we’re on to it, but that we’re sure these young people do not pose any threat to the general public. We’ll say we’re working with the community to find solutions and putting in specialist workers to help these children and their families. We’ll say there’s no evidence that these young people are in any way involved with Moslem groups.’ He paused for a moment. ‘No,’ he went on, ‘I’ll leave that bit out. But we’ll set up a help line. What about using your team to man it?’

‘No chance,’ I said. ‘We’re run off our feet. And anyway, what would we say to anyone who rang? And why do we want them to think we can do anything in any case?’

‘Hmmm,’ Gilmour said. ‘Okay, no help line. Okay. That’s fine. Anyhow, how you doing, my boy? How’s your dad?’

‘Oh, he’s fine. Still working in the boiler room, you know. Yours?’

‘He’s very well, thanks. Absolutely tickety boo. Did I tell you my lad’s driving the quad now?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think you did. Your daughter’s got a dappled horse too, hasn’t she?’

‘She has, yes. Beautiful beast.’

‘And the horse isn’t bad either, eh?’

Gilmour chuckled.

‘Have you had your holidays yet?’ I asked.

‘Not yet, no. We’re off to Provence again in a couple of weeks. You?’

‘I’m off to Scotland next week to do some walking. I’m looking forward to it.’

Gilmour bid me farewell and went off to speak to Public Relations. Just after he hung up Michelle told me there had been another sighting of Captain Hook. He was walking along Pont Street eating a bag of chips. It’s said he has a slight limp, as if he’s hurt his left foot.

I’ll be leaving for Fort William tomorrow morning. After tea tonight I carried De Kooning out into the garden and we gazed together at the Citadel. They’re putting the concrete floors in now and the huge aluminium window frames.

‘Watch what you’re doing while I’m gone,’ I said to him. ‘Don’t you go wandering over there, okay?’

He laid his head against my arm for a moment. I’ll miss him while I’m away, I always do.

We went inside and I began to get together the things I’m taking with me. I like to take a small selection of CD’s and a book or two. I decided to take the latest albums by Eliza Carthy and Meg Baird, both of which are excellent, as well as The Essential Leonard Cohen. I’ll take my book on Scottish art to read, along with a couple of books of poems by Kathleen Jamie. Tomorrow I’ll travel north. On Sunday I hope I’ll walk the Grey Corries again.

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Written by yammering

August 8, 2008 at 9:47 pm

of frogs and flip flops and moral panic

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The Widow Middlemiss has an intermittent plague of frogs. On two occasions since the latest flood she has found one in her utility room. She fears there are many more there and sometimes she lies awake at night thinking she’s heard croaking in her house. According to Margaret our elderly neighbour is a ‘quaking wreck’ and fears her house will be overrun by ‘slimy creatures’. Margaret says it’s a disgrace that this can happen to a woman of the Widow’s age in a modern society. Although she left the question open, I don’t think that in saying this she intends to imply that it would be acceptable for younger women or for men to have to endure such a plague, or even that in a bygone age this would have been a reasonable fate. Last week she wrote letters on the Widow’s behalf to the council and Griff asking who would take responsibility for this “sudden, unpleasant and alarming infestation of amphibians”. She hasn’t yet had a reply.  I did notice last Sunday, however, that Maureen and the Whelp knocked at the Widow’s door and that she invited them in. God knows now what she’ll make of this manifestation of frogs. Margaret may well have wasted her time writing the letters.

Margaret has been somewhat downcast in recent days. It seems that the sales of slippers haven’t been going as well as they’d hoped. 

‘Brenda wonders if we shouldn’t be more up-market,’ she said.

‘Maybe,’ I said.  ‘Or maybe the product’s fine but you’re trying to sell them at the wrong time of the year. Slippers are like mittens, I think – you won’t sell many in the summer but they fly off the shelves when the frost comes. Perhaps you should have a summer product to cover the slipper off-season.’

‘That’s a good point,’ she said. ‘Oddly sensible for you. What should our complementary line be?’

‘What about sandals and beach shoes?  You could rebrand yourselves as Slip Slops and Flip Flops.’

‘Sandals, eh?’

‘Or what about swimming gear. You could become Slippers and Flippers.  Brenda would be the flippers, of course.’

Margaret gave me a raised eyebrows look. ‘This is a serious business to us,’ she said. ‘Not everything in life is a joke, you know.’

I nodded. She is probably right. But I wonder if there is anything in life that doesn’t have the potential to be a joke. I suspected this wasn’t a debate Margaret was up for.

‘How are your teeth?’ I asked.

‘They’re fine. Why do you ask?’

‘Just wondering,’ I said.

Both Captain Hook and The Man With No Name made a return appearance this week, a week marked by the absence of any new characters. The Arab was seen on a handful of occasions, notably with Elephant Carmichael in the white Mercedes at Coulson Park filling station. They put in thirty pounds of unleaded and bought two packets of Walkers ready salted, a pack of Tic Tacs and a copy of the Daily Star. From there they drove up Alexandra Road and into the estate. Later in the week the Arab was seen alone parked at the Queen Elizabeth Park feeding the swans.

We have had several phone calls this week complaining about children in pillow cases terrorising people and launching paper aircraft at their windows. One woman complained that her house had been “besieged by a horde of rampaging Flinties”, as they’re now known. Another caller said her daughter was afraid to leave the house because of them. It seems Flinties have been spotted further afield too, in places like Ellington and Stakeford.

While there is no doubt that there is a loosely constituted flock of Flinties around Mandy’s estate and a bit of a summer craze going on down there, there is a consensus in the team that the sightings elsewhere are probably largely apocryphal at present. But they are generating an urban myth. The population have heard about them and imagine they are prowling beneath every window. They aren’t, of course, and they probably never will be. But it makes you a part of a community to see the same devil that others see.

On Thursday night I drove along to my dad’s to give him a book about early British jazz that I’d ordered for him from Amazon. We sat for a while talking and he showed me a video tape of some clips from Fred Astaire films. I drove the long way home, up the Avenue through Seaton Delaval. I turned on the radio and flicked through the stations. I came across Alan Robson’s Night Owls phone-in programme on Metro Radio just as he was beginning to talk to Hettie from Bomarsund.

‘On the line now we have Hettie from Bomarsund,’ he said. ‘ Good evening, Hettie. What do you want to tell us about tonight?’

‘Hello, Alan, it’s Hettie from Bomarsund. I’m ringing you about the Flinties, Alan. Have you heard of them?’

‘No, Hettie, I haven’t. What are they, a new fashion item?’

‘No, Alan, they’re not. What they are is these kids who wear white pillow cases and you can’t see their faces and they go around in gangs and throw paper aeroplanes at old people’s windows. They’re scary, Alan. They’re mini-delinquents.’

‘It sounds very worrying, Hettie. Has this happened to you?’

‘It happened to my sister in law, Alan. On Tuesday morning when she got up she found all these white paper aeroplanes beneath her kitchen window. She said they were like crumpled pterodactyls. She said the Flinties could just as easily have murdered her in her bed that night.’

‘So have they actually harmed anyone yet, Hettie?’

‘I don’t think so, Alan, no. Not that I know of. But they do scare people. I think they should all be put on those Asbo’s, don’t you?’

‘Well, it’s a difficult one, isn’t it, Hettie?  I mean, are you sure they’re not just kids having a lark? Have you reported them to the police?’

‘No, I haven’t. What’s the point, they wouldn’t do anything.’

‘Listen, thanks for ringing, Hettie. I wonder if anyone else out there has experience of these Flinties. If you have we’d love to hear from you. I’ll be back in just a bit, after this.’

Mama Mia by Abba came on, followed by an advertisement for Blockbuster Videos. Alan Robson returned and said that the next caller on the line was John from Westerhope. John turned out to be something of a hawk on this issue.

‘I’m ringing about these so-called Flinties, Alan,’ he said. ‘With all due respect, Alan, I think it would be dangerously complacent to assume that they were nothing more than kids messing around in pillow cases. That might be exactly what they want us to believe!’

‘Good point, John. So what do you think might be going on out there?’

‘I’d like to see their faces, Alan, wouldn’t you? You can’t trust people who won’t show you their faces. Who are these people, Alan?  Do they have an ideology or a manifesto? What are their motives, Alan, that’s what I’d like to know.’

‘So you don’t think they’re just local children inside those pillow cases, John?’

‘Well, I don’t know, Alan. None of us know. That’s the point. That’s what makes it so scary. You’ve got to admit there’s something sick about throwing paper aeroplanes at people’s windows. Who’s controlling these Flinties, Alan? That’s what I’d like to know, who’s the mastermind behind all this? Don’t you think we should know that, Alan?’

‘So, John, have they been to your house too?’

‘No, Alan, not yet. But I’ve heard about them and they sound very sinister to me.’

‘Well, night owls, what do you think? Is John from Westerhope right, are the Flinties the sign of a sick society or an enemy that has infiltrated us? Or is Hettie from Bomarsund right and are they just gangs of bored kids making mischief during the summer holidays? Would a good dose of Asbo’s sort them out? And what about their parents in all this – don’t they have any responsibility for their children’s behaviour? Give us a ring and tell us what you think.’

Radio Gaga by Queen came on. Alan Robson appears to have a bit of a liking for corny, synthetic soft rock from the eighties. I swung around the roundabout at Laverock Hall Farm and headed down the hill through the corridor of orange lights towards the town. The record ended as I was entering Newsham.

‘Right now on line two we’ve got one of our regulars, Cheryl from Ashington,’ Alan said. ‘Good evening, Cheryl. Nice to hear from you again. What is it you want to talk to us about tonight?’

‘I’ve seen the Flinties, Alan, and I think John is right, there is something strange going on in our society. The Arabs are taking over. And that’s not all, Alan. I’ve seen Robin Hood around here three times and I’ve reported it to the authorities and they simply aren’t interested. Doesn’t that seem very strange to you, Alan, that the authorities aren’t interested in it?’

‘Robin Hood in Ashington – well, that does sound a bit strange, Cheryl, I agree with you there. You’re sure it was him, are you?’

‘Quite sure, Alan. I was no more than twenty feet away from him. I’d know him anywhere. It was definitely Robin Hood, Alan, I’d swear on me mother’s life it was.’

Cheryl sounded more than a little drunk. I turned off the radio and drove home in silence. I went into the house and picked up De Kooning.

‘Do you think we should revise our opinion of Bukowski?’ I asked him.

He began to purr and rubbed his head against my cheek.

‘No?’ I said. ‘Or we need to think about it? Yes, you’re probably right. What about Queen, then?’

He began to squirm. I carried him to the kitchen and put him down. I gave him a plate of fresh prawns and sat down in the conservatory with my book on Scottish art.  For a while I gazed at the reproduction of George Henry’s important 1889 painting A Galloway Landscape. I’ve seen it in the flesh in Glasgow and it’s stunning, so alive and so completely tangible. Margaret was already in bed. I noticed there was a large unopened cardboard box in the hall. It was yet another consignment of slippers. De Kooning finished his prawns and came and jumped up beside me.

‘You really need to see this painting,’ I said to him. ‘It’s so beautiful.’

Yesterday it rained on and off for most of the day. I drove up to Simonside and walked up through the forest, over to Bob Pyle’s Studdie and up on to the crag. I followed the newly slabbed path across to Old Stell Crag and on over it, east to Dove Crag. The heather is blooming now like a vast purple ocean, its scent so heady and wild. I wandered across the top almost alone thinking how much I’d missed the sense of space and freedom you get in places like this. I began to think about Scotland. I’m going there for a week soon to walk the mountains again. I was thinking how much I love that.

After I descended to the trees I followed one of the old hollow ways down hill through the forest and eventually picked up a narrow, overgrown trail through the bracken – which is now almost as tall as me – and the nettles. My legs inevitably got stung in several places. When I got to the car I ate a few wild raspberries from the bushes nearby. They were soft and sweet.

This morning Maureen and the Whelp called at the Widow’s again. She invited them in. God works in mysterious ways, and on this occasion it appears that his secret agents were slimy creatures that croak. Margaret was getting ready to go off to Brenda’s for what she called a pow-wow, which is the highest level meeting that can be convened in the Slipper Shop partnership and indicative of the scale of the crisis they are now facing. I imagine that Gordon too is having his own equivalent of pow-wows, even though he strolls around Suffolk apparently without a care in the world.

I went for a walk through the town, pondering the street names. In Cowpen Quay there are a whole raft of dead politicians commemorated by street names: Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury, Balfour, Goschen. How many of the people who live in these houses have any idea of who these people were or what they stood for? I had to google Goschen to find out that he was a nineteenth century Liberal who became a Conservative. Balfour was a mystery to me too. We don’t have a Thatcher Street or a Blair Road in town, and we’re not likely to get one. Nowadays it’s more fashionable to choose safe marketing bets which have connotations of status or rural affluence or reassuring associations with nature. I walked through South Beach and found sweetbriars and brambles there, pastures and aspens, Balmoral and Sandringham, and a whole flock of seabirds and waders. If things keep going the way they are it may not be long before we have to google those things too, of course.

When I got home I noticed some old fence panels had joined the three tyres in Hugo’s front garden. De Kooning and I went out into the back garden. We noticed Hugo’s platform clock has stopped. It now permanently reads five to twelve. I will suggest to him that he consults Brenda about the suitability of this particular configuration. The moose, heron and three ducks have been joined by a large red owl and, as far as I can tell, the fish are all alive and well.

I glanced at the Citadel and took De Kooning back inside. There was a large pan of chopped onions on the cooker. I lifted it to one side and turned the oven on. I made myself a tomato and garlic pizza and sat in the conservatory reading The Observer and listening to Hugo banging steadily on the Alligator’s tail. I wondered if in Southwold Gordon too was having a quiet evening reading the Sunday papers. For a moment I saw him there with a chalk in his hand scratching a word across the curved surface of his beloved time bomb. And in an instant I saw the word that he was writing and I saw that the word was ‘Miliband’.

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Written by yammering

August 3, 2008 at 7:55 pm

the magical slaughterhouse of the sun

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The Angel Gabriel and Dr Who didn’t show. Nor did the Dalek. The Arab has continued to come and go, as have his accomplices – Batman and Bob Marley.  Cheryl saw Robin Hood again. But not one of the listed runners has yet turned up for the race.

But Captain Hook has. He appeared last Wednesday afternoon and at around seven on Thursday evening. He was wearing a large feathered hat, a red velvet coat, white frills and knee breeches. He had long black curls, a thin black moustache and a cutlass slung from his hip. He also wore a black eye patch, suggesting the imposter wasn’t that familiar with the book and perhaps prone to stereotyping. The pirate was driving a silver Renault, a rusty automatic.

Meg Bomberg manages a team in another part of the building. Meg is a woman of substantial mass. She’s not the kind of woman you’d ever want to tangle with. She has spiky blonde hair and wears lots of denim. She enters every room as if it is a saloon in the Old West. Her feet flick outwards with every step – she sort of waddles – as if she’s kicking stray dogs from her path. She entered our team room on Friday as if she was looking for a shot of redeye and a game of faro.

‘Where’s Michelle?’ she asked.

‘’Whose askin’?’ I replied.

She noticed a bag of chocolate cinder toffee pieces on Lily’s desk. She swaggered over and took one. She looked at it for a moment, as an ape might look at a snot. She then popped it in her mouth and began to munch, like a bulldog chewing a wasp, as they say around here (in a very particular accent).

‘One of her clients has scratched my car,’ Meg said. ‘Scunner Walker.’

‘Really?’ I replied.

‘I think so.’

‘So what do you want Michelle to do about that?’ I asked.

‘I want her to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

I nodded slowly. ‘Easier said than done,’ I pointed out. ‘Why don’t you report it to the police?’

‘How would I prove it was who I think it is?’

‘What evidence do you have?’

‘I saw him hanging around near my car yesterday, and – surprise, surprise – a lovely wiggly scratch has now appeared!’

‘So what makes you think it was him?’

‘Well, who the hell else would it be?!’

‘David Blaine?’ I was about to say. ‘Paul Daniels?’ The full list would be a long one, I suspected, and inevitably incomplete. I was about to begin proffering candidates of varying degrees of probability when we heard the sound of a scuffle in the street. It was none other than Scunner Walker himself, engaged in a fist fight with some other youth in black t-shirt and training pants. They momentarily fell together to the ground, heavily, like slaughtered animals. Scunner being first back to his feet began raining flailing blows down on his opponent. His opponent made it back to his feet and the two circled each other like prize fighters, flinging the occasional kick or wild hook at one another. There were three other young people there. None of them looked like intervening. A girl in a black Parka, high heels, footless tights and big silver hoop earrings was filming the event on her mobile phone and grinning inanely.

‘Call the police, Lily,’ I said. Just then Scunner took a clubbing blow to the left temple that dumped him back on to the tarmac.

‘Get in there!’ Meg said, gleefully.

Two or three people from the office were now outside and telling the youths that the police were on their way. The fight stopped and for a moment Scunner and his pale opponent stood bloody faced and panting, looking at each other like tigers in an alley. Then as quick as mist they melted away into the back lanes.

‘I’ll tell Michelle you want to see her,’ I said.

‘Forget it,’ Meg said. She took another piece of chocolate cinder toffee and sashayed off in the direction of Dry Gulch. Just as the door was closing a ball of tumbleweed blew into the room and I thought again of Hugo’s clock.

I went outside to see if all was well. Mr Zee was sitting in the waiting area with Apple and Sparky. Mandy was inside talking to Debs. When I came back inside I asked him how things were going.

‘They’re getting no better,’ he said. He went on to tell me that kids around the estate are now dressing themselves in white pillow cases with holes cut out for their arms and faces. They’re running around the estate in spooky little cliques carry plastic Kalashnikovs and pretending to be Flinty. Some of them like to make paper aeroplanes and fly them at people’s windows. Mr Zee says this has happened several times to them. One morning they found what seemed like a flock of them littered and fallen at the front of the house. Someone had put a red toy fire engine among them.

‘It’s scary,’ he said. ‘Apple thinks they’re butterflies. We can’t tell her what it’s really about. Did you hear about Hook?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He carries a sword too, I hear.’

Mr Zee nodded. I noticed that in his cloak pocket he had a book of poems by Charles Bukowski.

‘Do you like Bukowski?’ I asked.

He shrugged. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I think I’m supposed to, aren’t I?’

‘Why? Do all Zorrs have to like Bukowski?’

‘No. Lorca is the poet laureate of Zorrs. He’s the one we all read.’

‘Good choice,’ I said.

‘I used to think Bukowski was a pretty impoverished poet,’ I said. ‘Thin on ideas, thin on wisdom, thin on beauty. Now I’m not so sure.’

Mandy came out with Debs. Apple went over to her and held her hand. Mandy told me she was okay. What scared her most were the phone calls, she said, but she didn’t want to change her number because if she did Flinty might turn up her door.

‘Did Zee tell you that we’ve been getting phone calls playing the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly?‘ she said. ‘We got it again at four o’clock last night.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I heard about Captain Hook, though, and the kids in pillow cases. But not the new tune. Sounds like Flinty’s becoming a bit of a DJ, eh?’

On Saturday I went walking through the town. I walked through Ridley Park and then out along Wensleydale Terrace. I was wondering about social justice. I lay among the sand dunes near Gloucester Lodge Farm and listened to the sea. It was a beautiful day. The rampant yellow stars of the ragwort, the demure ivory heads of yarrow, the blinking violets . . . . all the dune flowers dazzled by the sun.

‘So, Twistan,’ I said, ‘Glasgow East gave Gunner Gordon a real bloody nose, eh? Do you think his days are numbered now?’

‘Yep, I weckon they are. Ah, but the woad is long and the stwuggle must go, my fwiend, the stwuggle must go on.’

‘You’re a such hoot, Twistan,’ I said. ‘You always say that.’  I whistled him a few bars of Ennio Morricone’s famous theme and we watched the gulls sliding across the blue sky high above us.

.

Written by yammering

July 28, 2008 at 11:15 pm

and now the wheels of heaven stop

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It’s been a relatively uneventful week at work, other than the two day strike, which wasn’t that well supported. People live in relative affluence these days and are neck deep in lifestyle instalments. Globalisation is the only game in town. There’s no longer a vital sustaining vision of an alternative society. The working class doesn’t seem to know it exists. The masses have been unmassed. Work is fragmented. Nowadays most people work for firms rather than in industries; they have a different identity. The cultural context of unionism has radically changed, the political dimension is attenuated. Even the low paid explain that they don’t believe in strikes and turn up for work. What they really mean is that striking is an expensive luxury that they don’t see the point in buying.

There have continued to be regular sightings of the Arab in the white Mercedes, along with a smattering of Batmen, Rastafarians and Michael Jacksons. There was a further isolated sighting of Robin Hood, by Cheryl Armstrong again. But intriguingly a new, previously unseen visitor was spotted independently on a couple of occasions by two fairly reliable witnesses: The Man With No Name, complete with poncho, spurs and a stetson. On both occasions he was driving a yellow Fiat with steel wheels, and on both occasions he parked near Mandy’s and got out to roll and smoke a spindly cigarette. As always, caution must be exercised when jumping to conclusions about these things, but it may be of significance here that Flinty’s favourite film is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

By the end of the week Lily and Debs had drawn up a book of the most likely new characters to be spotted during the next seven days. They’ve put it on flip chart paper and pinned it on the notice board in the team room.  Odds are currently being offered on the following:

          Shrek                                           5-1
          Spiderman                               11-4
          Biggles                                       10-1
          Godzilla                                   Evens
          Nelson Mandela                     6-1
          Dr Who                                      25-1
          A Dalek                                      9-2
          Elvis Presley                            2-1
          Moses                                         4-1
          Lord Lucan                              33-1
          Winnie the Pooh                    10-1
          The Angel Gabriel                  5-4
 

Betting has been brisk. If Dr Who appears one of the admin workers, Jesse Upton, stands to win over £100. For that sum she might dress up like him herself. Lily says Debs has already ordered a gorilla suit, just in case. Shrewdly, Jesse has made an each way bet.

On Wednesday I went to Edinburgh for the Leonard Cohen concert at the castle. Edinburgh and I go back a long way and it holds many memories for me. I drove up during the day, stopping off at North Berwick for a coffee at the Westgate Gallery and a walk down to the seabird centre. It was very windy and the light over the choppy waters of the Forth and Bass Rock was dramatic and – dare I say it? – sublime.

In Edinburgh I left my things at the hotel and walked down through Princes Street Park and across to the National Gallery, where I mused over Raeburn’s portraits for a while before making my way up into the crowds on the street. There was the usual rich mix of nationalities there, among them a lot of young Italians. As I was walking east near BHS a young guy in skinny black jeans, white training shoes and a black jerkin bounced up beside me and asked me a question I didn’t catch. I looked at him over my sunglasses and asked him if he was street entertainer.

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’m a monk.’ He had an English accent from somewhere south of Lincoln.

‘Ah,’ I said.

‘We have a monastery here in Scotland,’ he said, with an enthusiasm that suggested the news had just come to him in a vision.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So what’s your pitch?’

He told me he was with the Hare Krishna movement. I wondered when they decided to give up the saffron robes, but I didn’t ask. He asked me where I was from and I told him. He told me his group had a place in Newcastle and I said I knew and that I’d often bantered with his lot around there. He asked me if I was interested in meditation. I told him I’d tried it, yes. He acted a little surprised, but I felt he wasn’t really that interested. He then appeared to veer off dramatically.

‘We’ve got a band,’ he said, again as if he was channelling someone and this statement was as much news to him as it was to me. ‘We play monk rock!’

‘Monk rock?’ I said, nodding and pulling a daft face. ‘That’s very clever.’

‘No, no, we do,’ the enthusiastic monk boy said, and putting his hand into his bag pulled out a CD. He gave it to me to inspect.  It had a rather amateurish looking deep blue and yellow cover. It was by The Gouranga Powered Band and appeared to have the title Mosher 6.

‘Do you know what a mantra is?’ he said. I told him I did.

‘And do you know Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath?’

Again I answered in the affirmative.

‘Well, our band does mantras sort of in the style of those groups. Lots of people think meditation is about relaxation – and it is – but it’s also about something else!’

‘So this is a hard rock meditation record?’ I said. ‘Isn’t that a paradoxical sort of thing?’

‘It is, yes!’ he replied. I wondered why he was so excited. I was beginning to feel I must be selling him something and he liked my product. I looked down the track listing. The opening track is Gouranga Hey! The other five appear to have a common element:

            Dance & Mosh

            Sing & Mosh

            Hear & Mosh

            Krishna Mosh

            See Ya Mosh

‘They don’t do Bangers & Mosh, do they?’ I asked. He didn’t hear me and I didn’t repeat myself. I know Hare Krishnas are vegetarians in any case.

‘So what language do they sing in?’ I asked. ‘English?’

‘Sanskrit,’ he replied. ‘They’re traditional mantras.’

‘Sanskrit, eh? These are hard rock Sanskrit mantras?’ I nodded and read the song titles again. ‘Okay, so how much do you want for it?’ I asked.

‘We are asking for nothing,’ he said. ‘You can give whatever you wish to from the goodness of your heart.’

I put my hand in my pocket and found some change. I pulled it out and told him he could have it all. There was about £1.83. I poured in into his bag.

‘We usually get a little more than that,’ he said. I wondered whether he’d lost his script for a moment or if his earpiece had fallen out.

‘Oh,’ I said. I found two pound coins in another pocket and gave him them too. He must then have remembered his anti-materialist principles and offered to throw in a free book. I declined the offer. I said I’d read some of their stuff before.

I wove my way east through the tourists, passed the pipers and the Big Issue sellers and the occasional homeless person in a doorway with his sleeping bag, woolly hat and black and white mongrel dog on a piece of string. I crossed the street at some traffic lights and sat on a park bench under the trees near the Scott monument for a while. I was thinking it was going to rain. I made my way up Cockburn Street, stopping off at the Stills Gallery on the way to look at some photographs by Nicky Bird. I decided to eat and went into Bella Italia on the corner of the Royal Mile and North Bridge. I had garlic bread, a Caprese pizza and a cappuccino.

When she brought me the bill the waitress asked me where I was from and how long I was staying in Edinburgh. I said I was only here for one night, to see Leonard Cohen.

‘He was in here earlier in the week,’ she said. ‘He was with his wife and daughter.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Leonard Cohen? Did you speak to him?’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I said “Hey, you’re Leonard Cohen!”‘ She told me he was wearing a suit and hat and he looked kind of frail. She said he gave some free tickets to the guys who worked there.

‘What did he eat?’ I asked.

‘I can’t remember,’ she replied. ‘But he kept asking for more cheese, I remember that!’

It was a nice enough evening as I strolled up the Royal Mile with the crowd, past the cafes and the bars and the shops of tartan and fluttering Saltires and shortbread packed along the sandstone ravine of blackened old buildings. I made my way to the castle and to my seat way up in the North Stand, high above the stage. I could see out beyond the castle and across city and out to the Lammermuirs. It was cool and breezy, but dry. Cohen came on stage to a great cheer. He was small and frail looking, wearing a well cut suit, a shirt and tie and a black trilby. From the moment he started singing the audience was in his thrall.

Cohen is a serious artist; he’s no mere pop singer. It’s claimed he’s touring because he lost five million dollars to a dodgy business partner and needs to recoup some of this. I’m not convinced. How interested can a man be in money when he’s spent much of the last ten years of his life in a Zen monastery?  Cohen is in his seventies now. He is gracious with his audience, genuinely solicitous in a sardonic sort of way. At some point he thanks us not only for turning up tonight but for showing “an interest” in his songs over the years. An artist’s work is his bid to transcend mortality, and the coming silence for him (as for us all) is one of the dominant motifs tonight. Late on in the show he speaks the first verse of If It Be Thy Will, explaining before he does so that the Webb Twins (two of his backing singers) will then unfold the song for us. In other words the song will go on when the singer has gone. And the song itself is about ceasing to speak, and the context tonight makes the cause of that looming muteness all too clear: death itself. The set list was laced through with newly contextualised valedictions. Hey, this is one way to say goodbye. If this is a swan song, Cohen is singing for posterity. He wants his work to be remembered when he is gone.

Cohen’s work – like his life, perhaps – is marked by the tension between retreat to the inner world of the self and activism, concern about and engagement with the outer world. Tonight’s performance is heavily weighted with the late political songs from albums like “I’m Your Man” and “The Future”. To my mind these songs have a maturity, depth and scope that history may value more highly than the narrower “love songs” he is perhaps still best known for – Suzanne, Bird on the Wire, Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, So Long Marianne, etc –  all of which he also sang in the show. The most powerful moments for me were tied up with those mature songs.

Cohen reminds his audience that in the “chaos and darkness” of most of the world it is a “privilege” to share these moments of “luxury”.  Cohen is a social pessimist. I have seen the future/and it is murder, he says. Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich . . . And everybody knows that the plague is coming/Everybody knows that its moving fast. However, he sees a space for joy and hope. Joy arises in a broken world where not that many bells now ring. Indeed joy can arise almost because things are broken, Anthem seems to suggest: There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in. He sings of “the holy or the broken hallelujah”. The space for hope is an inner space, a solution which is private and individual, but there is a sense that for him this may not be really enough. One particular realm he compulsively explores is love. Love – like its sister, beauty – holds a crucial but difficult place in Cohen’s cosmology. Every heart to love will come, he says, but like a refugee.  And, in another song, love’s the only engine of survival. Chaos and darkness are the necessary conditions of Cohen’s poetry; love is a necessary but somehow not quite adequate refuge. The heart for Cohen is prone to being a cold and lonely place. Cohen’s universe is somewhat Manichean. The sacred arises amid the profane. Love is among the sacred things, but such things are less resilient than things profane, less solid. Sacred things are always fragile and fleeting.

Perhaps inevitably given that Cohen is a Jew born in the 1930’s, the model for the catastrophe humanity faces is the holocaust. The failure is humankind is a failure of the heart, a failure to see humanity wherever it is and to always be fully human. Cohen sees the heart as a source of hope and survival, as a refuge from the world’s darkness. He seems less confident about the heart’s capacity to overcome or dispel that darkness. He sees real hope in social and political change – in Democracy. He sings that democracy is coming to the USA (implying that it isn’t there yet) and says that the reason why it is most likely to succeed there (however it may truly look) is because America has the spiritual thirst. But change will require something enormous – the heart, he says, has got to open in a fundamental way. The failure of the human heart can perhaps only be guarded against by social and political change, but this will itself in turn require an inner change in individuals. Perhaps this will arise from culture rather than nature, although the dynamic here is obscure and seems to slide close to a hopeless circularity. But for Cohen hope is fragile. The very culture he sees as having the potential to achieve change is the same one whose moral bankruptcy he lays bare in songs like The Future and First We Take Manhattan.

His performance was spellbinding and absolutely focussed. Cohen is a modernist. He deals in hope and despair, in desire and the collapse of desire. He is looking to find order and value among the chaos and darkness of the world. And he is disciplined: there is not one thing about his performance that is ramshackle or casual. He is the model of composure and poise. He only very occasionally picks up the guitar. Most of the time he is clutching the microphone and delivering his songs with a word perfect intensity. His medium is language and he is exact: he places every word exactly where he wants it, exactly how he wants it. He is precise. The microphone sucks the poetry from his lungs as if it is an eternal ribbon of incontrovertible truth and wraps it around his audience, binds them to him and to one another and, by invoking the absent millions, to the whole of humanity. He conjures solidarity out of the darkness. Perhaps this is his paradigm for the heart opening in a fundamental way. His songs humanise us, at least for the time we spend in his company. We may care for one another a little more from here on in.  But solidarity is fickle and all too likely to melt into the air.

Cohen stalks the stage like a Godfather or a hoodlum. He has always been a poet of the city.  His persona encodes power, knowledge and urbanity. He crouches at times as if there is an invisible weight on his shoulders, like Christ’s invisible cross. Sometimes he looks like an outcast or a plague victim or a figure from a Tarot card, thin and angular. Sometimes he resembles a refugee, sometimes a prisoner of war. Sometimes his body almost makes the shape of a swastika. Sometimes he falls on one knee and beseeches or pleads. He always sings with the hat on, but at the end of each song doffs it to the audience and makes a small bow.  He also occasionally takes it off and bows to a musician in his band after they have played a solo. He introduced his band members several times over during the show. As the waitress said, Leonard likes cheese.

The audience sat reverently. When I found myself singing along I realised I was usually doing so alone. Cohen has an authority and authenticity that seems almost anachronistic nowadays. But let us not be fooled: this is a performance, albeit a consummate one, and a persona is a persona, even if it is a persona he carries with him into his secret and ordinary life.

Towards the end of the show it began to rain. It was almost eleven o’clock and almost dark. The torches around the castle were burning wildly. Cohen ended with another valediction – the danse macabre of Closing Time. I walked back down the Royal Mile in the rain beneath a small umbrella. The lights from the shops of the Old Town glistened on the cobblestones. The crown spire of St Giles Cathedral glowed against the dark sky. I passed the new statue of Adam Smith gazing imperiously down Canongate towards the dark waters of the Forth. This statue was unveiled just a couple of weeks ago.  One newspaper commented that it was a sign of how far society had moved on that this monument to one of Scotland’s greatest sons had been built in such a prominent site. A few years ago, they said, this would have been seen as a political act.  The project was proposed by the Adam Smith Institute. Margaret Thatcher gave it her support. Nothing at all political there, then.

As I returned to the hotel I sang The Future to myself:

            Things are going to slide, slide in all directions                     
            Won’t be nothing
            Nothing you can measure anymore
            The blizzard of the world
            has crossed the threshold
            and it has overturned
            the order of the soul
.

On Thursday morning I opened the hotel window and leaned on the sill. It was a grey morning over Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat. One or two black-backed gulls sat on the tenement chimneys, which are often pretty much the same colour as their legs. The chimneys stand like rows of soldiers or tins stacked on a supermarket shelf, often ten or twelve in a line, on top of the great tenement stacks. Bare cactus-like shared TV aerials share the skyline with them. Buddleia has found a foothold on many of the high ledges and is blooming now in straggly lilac sprays. I drove south again, taking the old roads where I could and stopping off at Coldingham and St Abb’s to look at some galleries and take in the views over the sea. It was raining most of the way home. When I got back Margaret was at work. The house was full of the smell of onions. The men were working on the Citadel. I walked through the house and opened a window in the conservatory and made myself a cappuccino.

‘So do you want to hear about Leonard Cohen?’ I said to De Kooning. He jumped up beside me and rubbed his head against my shoulder. ‘Or do you want to listen to some monk rock?’ I showed him the CD the Hare Krishna monk boy had sold me.

We sat watching the men on the scaffold and listening to the incessant rumble of their machines. The smell of diesel fumes floated in through the open window and on through the house.

On Friday I returned to work. I spent most of the day in my room, writing reports and replying to emails from those who’d been at work during the strike. At lunchtime I caught Lily and put a fiver on The Angel Gabriel. I was betting with my head. My heart would have gone with the Dalek.

.

Written by yammering

July 19, 2008 at 1:06 pm

a case of mistaken identity

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There were many suspected sightings of Flinty last weekend. By Monday morning a pattern had emerged to support a widespread belief that he had now settled on a consistent disguise: an Arab. The Arab is a man of about Flinty’s age and build. He wears a white dishdasha, a keffiya and Ray-Bans. He drives an old white Mercedes with a red leather interior.  He has been seen on the estate parked across the street from Mandy’s on at least two occasions, and in the neighbourhood many more times. He was also been seen in Amble on Sunday afternoon, eating chips from the Harbour Chippy with no other than Elephant Carmichael. Standing with Elephant and the Arab were the Fisher boys, infamous as purveyors of dodgy amphetamines and benzos.  By Monday morning the Arab had acquired a mythical identity around the estate: he was Flinty bin Laden.

While the evidence for a fixed identity seems compelling, it needs to be kept in mind that Batman was also spotted twice on the estate last weekend, on both occasions driving a pearly blue P-reg Peugeot 306.  There were also a couple of other curious single sightings of note: on Saturday a Rastafarian in a bronze Citroen BX Estate and on Sunday morning Michael Jackson in a white Fiesta with a black offside wing and a cracked headlight.  There was also an unconfirmed sighting of Robin Hood in a Honda Civic at around teatime on Sunday, although the source of this report is Cheryl Amstrong, a notoriously unreliable witness. It is generally agreed though that none of these individuals was Flinty, but that doesn’t explain the rash of exotic visitors to the estate. There are three plausible explanations for this:

  1. Chance. Despite the statistical odds being long these simultaneous rare visitors are no more than an unlikely coincidence.
  2. Copycat disguising. Flinty has started a craze. Already people are talking about ‘doing a Flinty’, but so far as anyone knows no-one actually has.
  3. Decoys. Flinty has got his mates to dress up to confuse and mislead people. If they can’t all be him maybe none of them is.

The smart money is on the third option. The presence of Flinty bin Laden is now considered an established fact. And while dressing as an Arab doesn’t seem like the most obvious way to avoid drawing attention to himself, remarkably enough he’s never once been pulled over by the police.  Perhaps the decoys are doing their job. Or perhaps they’re mistaking him for Dekka Douglas.

On Wednesday morning Flinty rang Debs to ask about Mandy and the kids. He said he hadn’t heard from her since he came out and was a bit worried. He was just ringing to make sure everything was okay. He was Mr Charm himself, a nicer guy you couldn’t hope to meet. But Debs wasn’t going to let him go without a challenge.

‘People say you’ve been seen hanging around the estate near Mandy’s house.’ she said.

‘People? Which people? Tell me their names.’ Flinty replied.

‘Lots of people, Flinty. I don’t think they’d want me to tell you who they are.’

‘Because they know what would happen if I found out they’d been saying things about me.’

‘A couple of people have said you were across on Saturday afternoon. They say you were disguised as an Arab.’

‘It couldn’t have been me.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I wasn’t there.’

‘Other people say you were there on Monday as well, around teatime.’

‘Do they? So what was I dressed as on that occasion – the Last of the Mohicans?!’

‘No, as an Arab again.’

‘Oh, come on, Debs, do I look like a bloody Arab to you? Tell me who’s saying these things and I’ll go and have a talk to them about it. I think you’ll find what we have here is a case of mistaken identity.’

‘How could you go and talk to them, Flinty? You’re not allowed to cross the Wansbeck.’

‘I’ll ring them, or maybe I’ll get the Elephant to drop in on them to clarify the matter.’

‘Mandy herself thinks you were there on Monday.’

‘Nah, Debs, it couldn’t have been me. I was somewhere else that day. And besides, if the person who was there was dressed as an Arab how would anyone know it was me in any case?!’

‘Because it was an Arab with your face, Flinty.’

‘Nah. It couldn’t have been me. I was with the Elephant in Seaton Delaval seeing a geezer about some DVD’s. Ask the Elephant.  Any way, what kind of car did this Arab have, Debs?’

‘The Arab drives a white Mercedes.’

Flinty laughed, almost theatrically. Then, suddenly, the line fell completely silent.

‘You know I love the lass, Debs,’ he said, ‘and you know she loves me. The kids love me as well, you know they do. I’ve always treated them like my own. So why won’t you lot let us be together? It’s a breach of human rights not to let us be together.’

Debs began to wonder if Flinty had somehow forgotten that he tried to lop off Mandy’s ears with a pair of secateurs. ‘Mandy doesn’t want to be with you, Flinty,’ she said, very deliberately. ‘You know that.  She’s moved on and you need to let her go.’

‘Who says she doesn’t want to be with me?  Does she say that? I bet she doesn’t. Nah, it’s just you and the other busy bodies who say that. If you tell her she can be with me she’ll be back in a shot. Tell you what, Debs, you set up a meeting between me and Mandy – you can be there if you like – and let’s see what she really says.  How about you do that?’

‘No, Flinty. Mandy has a right to get on with her life without having you scare the shit of her.’

‘You reckon?  Yeah, well, time will tell, won’t it?  Tell her I’m asking after her. You can also tell her I’ve seen my brief and my release conditions are going to be changed because they make it impossible for me to follow my usual employment.’

‘What’s your usual employment, Flinty?  You’ve been on the dole as long as I can remember – except when you were locked up, of course.’

‘Scrap. I’ve always dealt in scrap, everybody knows that.’

‘Well, you’ve been convicted of stealing cable, Flinty, but I don’t think that makes you a legitimate businessman.’

‘Look, the law says I’ve got as much right as anybody else to be given a fair chance. That’s all I’m asking for, Debs. Just tell Mandy and the kids I love them. Tell them I’ll see them soon. Okay?’

Debs didn’t reply.

‘Okay. Well, whatever,’ Flinty said. ‘Salaam, Debs.’

Flinty hung up.

‘Cocky bastard,’ Debs said, and logged on to her computer to read her emails.

On Wednesday night it rained heavily. The telephone rang at about six in the morning, and I stumbled to the hall all groggy and tousled and answered it.

‘Hello,’ a quaky, panicky voice said.

‘’Oh, hello, Mrs Middlemiss,’ I said. It was The Widow Middlemiss, as I call her. She lives next door, on the other side from Hugo.

‘Is your garden flooded?’ she said, as if she was stranded. ‘Mine’s under a foot of water. Is yours?’

‘’I don’t know,’ I said. I was a bit bewildered and wondered what I was going to do if it was – mop it up with kitchen roll? ‘Er, I’ll go and check.’

‘It’s terrible,’ she said. ‘It’s run in from the Citadel.’

‘I’ll go and look Mrs Middlemiss. Thanks for ringing,’ I said.

I went into the conservatory, De Kooning traipsing along behind me. The garden was wet but not flooded. I looked out of the side window. Mrs Middlemiss’s garden was indeed under a foot of murky yellow water. Spindly pink lavetera teetered above the flood, like blighted ballerinas.

‘Oh dear,’ I said to myself, and went back to bed.

I went back to sleep and had a vivid, highly anxious dream. We were on an island and a yellow flood was rising all around us. It was gloomy and steam was rising from the water, which was lapping beneath almost luminous double-glazed kitchen and bedroom windows and seeping under white plastic doors. Crocodiles and giant snakes were slithering through the muddy flood and green frogs and brown toads were erupting suddenly out of the depths, like ferocious little missiles. A swan glided eerily across the scene. I was watching all this from the conservatory window. I ran upstairs and threw open the bedroom door. Gordon was there in the centre of a shabby assortment of characters, some of whom I knew but couldn’t identify. On his knee Gordon was nursing a spherical time bomb and gently stroking its smooth surface. Gathered around him were ruddy faced men and women, all gazing in wonderment at the baby in Gordon’s arms. A pale horse was running around; the Widow Middlemiss was its rider. I tried to scream but no sound came out of me. It struck me later that this terrifying bedroom tableau roughly resembled David Wilkie’s painting The Blind Fiddler. The fiddler in my dream version was Tristan, and the man in the red waistcoat was George Bush. For some reason there were a number of traffic cones in the dream too.

As I was sitting in the conservatory on Thursday morning having a cappuccino before I went to work the telephone rang again. I assumed it would be Mrs Middlemiss again and let Margaret answer it. I listened to the news on Radio 4 and ignored the conversation.

‘That was Geraldine,’ Margaret said, when she came back. ‘Edna was flooded last night! She rang Geraldine in the middle of the night, though God knows why. Geraldine did nothing. Typical Geraldine!’ Edna is the first name of the Widow Middlemiss, although not one I ever use since I have never felt I have achieved a sufficient level of intimacy with the woman.

‘She rang us too,’ I said. I forgot to tell you.

Margaret was annoyed. Geraldine had already presumed to ring Griff about the flood.

‘Why didn’t you wake me up?’ Margaret asked.

‘I couldn’t see the point,’ I said. ‘What were you going to do, paddle across and rescue her? The water wasn’t in her house. She wasn’t sitting on the roof with a cow.’ I could see that images from Oh Brother Where Art Thou? were seeping into my brain. I stopped there.

Margaret stomped away to ring Mrs Middlemiss. No doubt she was going to offer her better advice than Geraldine’s. The Widow Middlemiss is about eighty years old, lives alone and has arthritis. She is the kind of accidental victim who has the makings of a cause celebre.

‘You can swim, can’t you?’ I said to De Kooning. He looked at me and then licked his paw and began cleaning his face. He can, but he’d prefer it if he didn’t have to.

On Friday Debs visited Mandy to see how things were going. Mandy told her that Flinty was dressing as an Arab and driving around in an old Mercedes.

‘They call him Flinty bin Laden,’ she said.

Debs said yes, she already knew. Mandy said she hadn’t seen him herself but Mr Zee thinks he saw the white Mercedes on Station Road one afternoon.  Mandy said they weren’t going out much and she felt like a prisoner in her own home.  She said that on Thursday morning there was a small pile of sand on the step in front of her door when she got up. It had appeared there during the night. She thought it was a message from Flinty.

‘Has he rung you any more?’ Debs asked.

Mandy shrugged.

‘We had Yvonne Fair a couple of times last night,’ Mr Zee said. He was sitting on the settee with Sparky, who had a pair of toy binoculars around his neck and a plastic rifle in his arms. As usual Mr Zee was in his full regalia and looking very well turned out.

‘Is that a new mask?’ Debs asked him.

‘Yes, it is,’ he said. ‘I got it over the internet from ZorrStore.com. My old one was getting worn at the edges.’

‘It’s nice,’ Debs said. ‘It’s really, really black.’

‘Thanks,’ Mr Zee said.

Debs was thinking how young and naïve he seemed. She didn’t know how long a young man like him would be able to cope with the situation like this. She didn’t like to think what might happen if Flinty ever got his hands on him.

‘You both need to be careful,’ Debs said. ‘The police say they’re going to keep a look-out for him. They’ll arrest him as soon as they see him.’

Mandy and Mr Zee looked blankly at her and nodded their heads.

‘Has he rung you, Debs?’ Mandy asked.

Debs nodded. ‘Yes. Yes, he has. He rang me to ask if I’d seen you. I told him I had.’

‘So is that all he said?’ Mandy said, frowning.

‘Yes, more or less. Yeah, it was. He said he was living with Elephant. Just chit chat really.’

Debs gave Mr Zee a lift up to the Job Centre. She asked him how he was coping. He said he was fine but he was worried about Mandy and the kids. Sometimes he thinks Mandy is cracking up. He said she was hardly sleeping and she’d been to the doctor’s to get something for her nerves.

‘Do you think he’ll eventually just go away?’ he asked.

Debs shook her head. ‘No, that’s not his style,’ she replied. ‘He won’t go away until they lock him up again. He’s a dangerous bloke, Mr Zee. You need to keep your eyes open.’

Mr Zee in his best brown cape and new black mask thanked Debs for the lift and told her not to worry. He promised her he’d make sure Mandy and the kids would come to no harm.

When Debs got back to the office Jen Larkin from the police rang her. She had some intelligence to share with her.

‘We think Flinty might be dressing up in disguises to cross the Wansbeck,’ Jen said.

‘Never?’ Debs said.

‘Yes, we think so. But we’re not a hundred percent on this one, Debs,’ Jen said. ‘Some lads on patrol thought they had him on Monday when they pulled up a punter dressed as Batman on the Pegswood road, but he turned out to be a bloke from Guidepost on his way to a fancy dress do.’

‘Was he driving a pearly blue Peugeot 306?’ Debs asked.

‘Yes, he was. Do you know him?’

‘No, not really,’ Debs replied. ‘Just a lucky guess.’

This morning Maureen and the Whelp passed our house. They didn’t knock, though. I was disappointed. I had wanted to ask her about the passage in the Book of Revelation which says that three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.

I let De Kooning out into the garden and cut back a few unruly brambles and pulled up a few weeds. Margaret was going off to Brenda’s to pack some orders for despatch tomorrow. It was fine day and forecast to stay dry.

When I went out Mrs Middlemiss was in her front garden, pottering about with her petunias and French marigolds.

‘Hi, Miss Middlemiss,’ I said. ‘Is you back garden okay now?’

‘Oh, wasn’t that just terrible?’ she said. ‘I didn’t know what to do. You must thank Margaret for being so kind to me.’

I will,’ I said. Mrs Middlemiss looked as I imagined Mrs Noah must have looked sometimes. Oddly enough her husband was a stevedore, I believe.

I drove up to Amble and walked up through Warkworth. Amble was bustling with market goers, as usual on a Sunday, but it was quiet along the Coquet. Eider ducks paddled to and fro towing nurseries of little brown chicks. A flock of lapwings swirled overhead at one point, like locusts. Along the river bank the dog roses are becoming ragged, their pale petals falling. The blue vetch is beautiful when it’s in flower, as it is now. I love its weird curling tendrils. They remind me of lyres and millipedes. There were quite a few cars at the castle at Warkworth. I wandered down the hill behind the Sun Inn past the little housing estate they’ve jammed on to the river bank. I saw a heron roosting in a tree on the other side of the river and I sat on a riverside seat eating an apple and watching it for a while.

When I got back into Amble I walked through the path past the marina with a well-spoken man who was on his way to the Co-op. He told me that the big Co-op shop near the church square was closed now and that the building was going to be taken over by Tesco, who were also going to build a superstore with a big car park on another piece of land away from the town centre.

‘Bloody hell,’ I said. ‘What do people think about that?’

‘Most people support it,’ the man said. ‘It’s the car park, you see.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I see.’

I walked around the pier and back past the Harbour Chippy, which as usual had a queue right out the door and around the corner. I was on the lookout for an Arab in a white Mercedes. I didn’t find one, and I saw no sign of the Fisher boys either.

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Written by yammering

July 13, 2008 at 10:51 pm