yammering

oh, well, whatever . . .

the immigrant, the exile and nine lost pieces

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stott bobbin mill corner lakeside windermere

I was on holiday in the Lakes all last week.

On the Friday before I went off I was talking in the corridor to John Sultan, a senior manager from Morpeth. John’s close to another of the managers based in my office building, Edith Joicey – or Jackboots, as she’s sometimes known. Edith is the directorate’s prima donna. Meg Bomberg dislikes Edith intensely. She had a nightmare one night in which Edith had been promoted and was managing her. Next day she almost handed her notice in.

John is a curiously anonymous man. People call him soulless, and if I believed in the soul I’d have to agree. He dresses like a bank clerk, favouring the dependable dark blue of his Marks and Spencer single breasted suit most of the time. Oddly enough some women see him as almost handsome, although to others this perception is so inexplicable that John’s handsomeness has become the perennial subject of what is in essence a metaphysical debate among the female members of the workforce.

Morally, John is an even queerer proposition. Most of the time his ethical functioning appears to be approximately at the level of a ticket machine, or perhaps, to be more exact, of one of those machines you find in an amusement arcade where you insert fifty pence and get the chance to try to grab yourself a fluffy panda using joystick-controlled silver jaws. John is infamous for shameless petty machinations.

John had heard about our suspected MCTS case, Pearl Twichell, and wondered if there had been any developments.

‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Although one of the mice has gone missing.’

‘Which one?’ John asked.

‘Maybellene tells us it’s Penelope. She says that one’s gone missing before, though, and she’s sure it’ll turn up.’

‘Is she telling us the truth?’ John asked, invoking the inclusive corporate entity of the first person plural.

‘We have no evidence that she isn’t, John,’ I replied. ‘But truth, as we all know so well, is more elusive than a mouse in a mountain of mattresses.’

‘Hmmm,’ John said, nodding intelligently. ‘You’re right. But to me a lost mouse is not necessarily a mouse that has become a child.’

My turn to nod intelligently. ‘Yes, exactly, John,’ I said. ‘Exactly.’

‘Okay. Keep me up to date on this one,’ he said and ambulated away noiselessly, without another word of farewell, his neat black leather document case neatly tucked under his neat right arm.

When I got in from work that night Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing her jigsaw again. There was a big pan of sweet Spanish onions bubbling on the cooker.

‘It’s coming along nicely,’ I said.

‘Your cat’s nicked some more pieces and buried them in the garden somewhere. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point in going on with it.’

I looked down at De Kooning, who was sitting near the door cleaning his face.

‘Cats don’t understand jigsaws,’ I said. ‘Or if they do they obviously find them more intriguing if there are pieces missing. And they’re right, of course.  I think we all do. He’s probably just trying to be helpful.’

Margaret ignored me. I got myself a pizza out of the fridge and put it in the oven.  I picked up De Kooning and carried him out into the garden.

‘So what’s the idea of pinching the pieces from the jigsaw?’ I said. ‘Where are you stashing them?’

De Kooning was looking over the fence into Hugo’s burgeoning junkyard.  The water was trickling down the waterfall feature into the dark pond. The heron still peered unblinkingly into its depths.  I noticed a new blue owl had taken up residence a few feet away from the heron and that an oranges and lemons coloured two seater garden swing had been installed close to the decking and the platform clock, which still hasn’t been brought forward into British Summer Time.

‘So just where are you stashing the jigsaw loot, my little bandit friend?’ I said, walking him around the lawn and gazing down into the lilies, the pinks and the marigolds. De Kooning stared down too, joining with me in my curiously forensic scrutiny of the borders. We found no evidence of the jigsaw burials Margaret had suggested and I began to wonder if the missing pieces hadn’t in fact simply been deposited in a little pile somewhere, perhaps under the tangled honeysuckle or down behind the dense dark laurel bush.

Because I was going away the next day, after I’d eaten my pizza I rode along to Seaton Sluice see my dad. We talked about South Newsham mostly. Some time ago my dad told me that when he was a kid the people who lived in South Newsham – which the people in Newsham called “New Newsham” – used to call the place “Spike Island”.  He has no idea why this is as it is not an island and although there are many small burns running off the fields into the sea, there is no evidence that it ever was, although it may have sat among marshy ground. My dad, who has a tendency to pursue such questions slightly obsessively until he gets to the bottom of them, had tried to find out something in Blyth library and spoken to a couple of local historians. Both of them knew of the place being called Spike Island, but neither really knew how it got its name. One suggested that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a pit pond close to the Hannah Foster Pit in South Newsham and suggested that perhaps there were ‘spikes’ – railings of some kind – around the pond to stop people getting too near and falling in. There is no evidence for this hypothesis, of course.

I had Googled “Spike Island” and discovered that one of the places with that name is an island in Ireland near Cork. It has been inhabited for many centuries and the place name is said to mean “island of the Picts”. Saint Mochuba started a church there when Christianity first came to Ireland. In the eighteenth century the island was bought by the British and Fort Westmoreland was built there. In the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia, this fort became a prison where so-called “convicts” were housed awaiting deportation. Other websites tell us that it was in 1847 that “Spike”, as it is called locally, first became a convict depot and that only male convicts were kept there. By 1850 it is said over 2,000 people were being detained there. In 1848, in the middle of the potato blight, John Mitchel, Irish nationalist activist and political journalist, was held on Spike on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. Mitchel had powerfully expressed the widely held view that the famine in Ireland was due to “the greedy and cruel policy of England”.  Mitchell’s classic Jail Journal, one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts, was written, some say, while he was imprisoned at Spike.

When the Industrial Revolution gathered steam it was largely fuelled by coal from the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham, and because there was very limited local industrial labour much of it was drafted in from remote rural agrarian populations, including significant numbers from Ireland, most emigrating to escape the Great Hunger and the mess that British land ownership had wrought to their economy. My dad told me that at one time there was an Irish Club in Blyth, which perhaps gives an indication of just how many families of Irish origin there are in the area. I suggested to my dad that maybe there had been a particularly high number of Irish families in South Newsham and that they called the place Spike Island as a kind of black joke or homage, in much the same way as people talk about certain parts of some towns as Little Italy or Chinatown or Downtown Delhi. Maybe the name of Spike Island was simply meant to say something about life there, that it was not much different to being in a penal colony.

‘What we’d need to know to see if it might be the reason are the names of the families in South Newsham who were brought in to work in the pit,’ I said.

‘Well, I can remember there were Duckworths, Murrays, Latimers, and Sullivans there.  Your granddad was very friendly with one of the Sullivans. That’s an Irish name.’

‘I think Murray is too,’ I said. ‘That’s interesting, isn’t it?’

‘Aye, it is. I think I’ll go down the library and look at some of the old newspapers. They’ve got the Blyth News back to about 1850, I think. That should give us some idea.’

‘Maybe there was a sort of tribal patriarch there, a man called Spike Sullivan,’ I said. ‘A local hero, a sort of giant Irish republican pit-yacker who ruled the roost over there. If there wasn’t there should have been. Maybe it was his island, a bit like Craggy Island is Father Ted’s island.  Maybe this was a metaphorical island in the poetic imagination of the immigrant labouring families of South Newsham – a metaphor for imperialism and colonialism, maybe, a metaphor for lost Ireland itself, as so many fictional islands have been. Maybe there was a time when the Mighty Spike Sullivan – a sort of pitman Cuchulainn, wage-slaving to survive in a strange land – stood on the shallow highlands of South Newsham and dreamed of the home he was exiled from and of becoming the master of his own land. This would have been wishful thinking, of course, because he was never going to own this land any more than he ever owned his own land in Ireland.  But people do dream. Maybe he stood in the shadow of the pit that had taken possession of his life, on a low mound between hope and despair, and imagined the sea rising all around him and this place becoming his very own island – Spike’s Island. Maybe he imagined growing his own corn there one day, grazing a few cows along the shore. Maybe Spike himself named this place, in the same way that the Swiss Family Robinson named their island “New Switzerland”, as an act of ownership and possession, as a way of saying “This is my new Ireland”. Maybe this is the story of the place that the people have now forgotten.’

My dad looked at me as if to say I might be taking things just a teensy weensy bit too far here.

‘Enjoy your holiday,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’

As I rode back home along the track through the sand dunes I was thinking that the story of Spike Sullivan, like the story of Tom Tremble, was one that cried out to be told.

One afternoon last week I was sitting under a parasol at a table outside the Swan Hotel at Newby Bridge. I was looking over the River Leven at the point where it drains out of Windermere to wriggle and snake its way into the Irish Sea at Morecambe Bay. It was sweltering. The air was claggy, the light hazy and intense. A Chinese woman came and sat opposite me. She was slim, in her thirties. Her  fashionable red-rinsed dark brown hair was mid-length, straight and spiky, as if it had been cut with a sickle. To me it had the look of a hay stook about it. She was wearing big black sunglasses – they reminded me of a bluebottle’s eyes – black walking shorts, lightweight walking boots and a short lime green t-shirt. I was drinking a long cold ginger beer. She was drinking sweet cider and ice. The ducks sailed casually to and fro on the idly flowing water. Swifts and swallows swooped and flickered across the stream.  The trees and green rushes stood still all along the banks.

‘Are you staying at the hotel too?’ the woman said to me.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m in a house up by the lake.’

‘Ah, ‘ she said. ‘Do you know a place called Finsthwaite?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, and pointed over to the signpost near the bridge. ‘It’s up that way too. Are you going there?’

‘Yes. I want to see the grave of Clementina Douglas. Have you heard of her?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Should I have?’

The Chinese woman told me the tale of Clementina Douglas, who is also known as the Finsthwaite Princess. She was buried in Finsthwaite churchyard on 16 May 1771, her full name being recorded as Clementina Johannes Sobieski Douglas of Waterside, a spinster. It turns out that the story is probably apocryphal, but one which has some historical truth as its basis and which has fascinated many locals for more than a century. 

The Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had a long term relationship with Clementina Walkinshaw, his mistress.  Rumours grew that she had a daughter to him, and that this daughter was subsequently shipped off to some remote and secluded place. Local people say that Clementina Douglas was this daughter.  The evidence is slim that Bonnie Prince Charlie had any daughter other than his acknowledged daughter Charlotte, the Duchess of Albany, born in 1753, and even slimmer that if he did then Clementina Douglas was that daughter, living in concealment. Some have suggested that she may have been the daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw but that the father may be a different man. What we do seem to know for certain is that Clementina Douglas did live in Waterside, with a man called Captain James Douglas, who it is believed may have been her father. The rooms in Waterside had been rented by Captain Douglas since at least 1752. The historical evidence that she may have been the child of Clementina Walkinshaw rests on an ambiguous passage in a letter to James III’s secretary. That evidence would put her date of birth somewhere between 1745 and 1747.  The age of Clementina Douglas at her death in 1771 is not known, although clearly if she was the supposed daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw she would have been only aged about 25 when she died.

‘So she died young,’ I said. ‘Do we know what she died of?’

‘I don’t think so,’ The Chinese woman with the sickle cut hair replied. ‘But her dying young seems at odds with parts of the story which has been passed down. In the story she is described “a grand lady”.’

‘Maybe that just means she was posh,’ I said. ‘You know, not just an ordinary person like you or I. Maybe someone more like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson or Joanna Lumley.’

‘Yes, maybe. It is said she was very involved with a family called the Backhouses, who lived at Jolliver Farm, who do seem to have been members of the gentry.  A fellow called Ned Fell said he reburied Clementina’s remains in the grave of a certain Miss Backhouse when the old church was demolished. Others say however that it was a man called Joseph Charles Hunter who dug up and reburied the remains of the princess. They say that among the remains there was some of her fair golden hair and some blue ribbons with which it would have been tied.’

At that point a local man who had been standing behind us came forward and joined in the conversation. He was a tall, broad and grey haired. He had a pot belly. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt with a lattice of dark blue lines across the fabric and a little porkpie sunhat.  His trousers were held up by a broad brown leather belt. It turns out he had been a farmer in the area all his life and was now retired and living with his wife in a house up at nearby Canny Hill.

‘You’re talkin’ about the Princess, I see,’ the pot-bellied farmer said. ‘I don’t believe myself that she was the daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but I know there’s a lot that do. Of course, I know the tale about the mysterious stranger coming and planting a Scottish thistle on her grave and how as the years passed the churchyard became thick with these foreign invaders. But you go up there now and I’ll lay you a pound to a penny you can’t find one Scottish thistle.’

The Chinese woman in her big sunglasses and I both nodded.

‘But they do say that Bonnie Prince Charlie was in Kendal in 1745, so he obviously knew the area,’ she said to the farmer.

‘Oh, yes, but you two are sitting here today. Does it mean in a hundred years time that’ll be reason enough to say you had a daughter and hid her away somewhere up in the woods yonder? I think not. Folks around here like a good yarn and they’re not ones for letting the truth get in the way of their enjoyment.’ The farmer pushed his pork pie hat back on his ruddy forehead, put his pint to his lips and looked out over the river. The conversation then took an unexpected twist.

‘Of course,’ the farmer said, ‘you’ll know the tale about the escaped murderer who holed up in these parts and believed she really was the Finsthwaite Princess?’

We both shook our heads.

‘You don’t? Oh this happened when I was just a young un’. It was a lass called Florence Nelson. She had been imprisoned after murdering her lover’s girlfriend by running her over with a steam roller. You’ve never heard about her?’

The Chinese woman shook her head. But I was delighted at the prospect of hearing more about Florence Nelson and said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard bits of that story. The Bowness Steamroller Murderess. She murdered Sharon Sweet, a red-headed woman. Her lover was Ned Perfect.’

‘That’s the one,’ the farmer said. ‘Spot on. Well. You might know then that Florence escaped from prison by digging a tunnel with a table spoon. Took her years by all accounts. And it seems that while she was imprisoned and working on her escape she came to see herself as an imprisoned princess of some kind.  Florence believed in rebirth and reincarnation and all that codswallop, and she eventually came to believe she had been Mary Queen of Scots in a previous lifetime. The prison authorities were aware of this, of course, but they had already marked her card as a woman who was bonkers and who would never return to society and so they were happy to humour her. The wardens began to call her Your Highness and M’Lady and to bring in pictures of Scottish castles and West Highland terriers for her, which she stuck up on the walls of her cell with Sellotape. Some even used to bring her back presents from their holidays, such as Edinburgh rock or a haggis from Dundee or some shortbread biscuits from Inverness or a woolly Tam o’ Shanter from Hawick. It seems that nothing in the whole world delighted Florence so much as getting gifts from Scotland. It’s said that during the years she took to dig herself out she read all of Walter Scott’s novels several times over. She had to all intents and purposes vanished into a make-believe world of being reborn Jacobite royalty.’

‘My God,’ the Chinese woman exclaimed. ‘So did you ever meet her yourself?’

‘No,’ the farmer said. ‘I didn’t, no. But I remember when they eventually found her and hearing all about it from my mother and other folks who lived around here.  Florence Nelson really did exist, we know that for a fact, believe me.’

‘I thought you said she believed she was the Finsthwaite Princess,’ I said. ‘But surely the Finsthwaite Princess wasn’t Mary Queen of Scots?’

‘No, no, of course not,’ the farmer replied, putting his pint down on the table. ‘No. When she was eventually apprehended again, just after the terrible events up by the ferry, she was wearing a wig of long golden hair tied up with blue ribbons. When the policeman asked her for her name she said, in a Scots accent, that it was Clementina Douglas, and from that day onwards, even when she was returned to prison to serve out the rest of her life sentence, she refused to be known by any other name.  Some time between escaping from prison believing she was a reincarnation of Mary Stuart and being arrested again she had convinced herself that it was a different Scots royal she had been in her previous life, the so-called Finsthwaite Princess. My mother told me that as Clementina sat in handcuffs in the back of the Black Maria that took her back to prison she sang The Skye Boat Song for the whole journey.’

At that point the pot-bellied farmer’s mobile phone rang in his shirt pocket. He had The Archers theme tune set as his ring tone.

‘Oh, hello Billy,’ he said. ‘How you getting on? Is it buggered? Do you need me to come over and give you a hand?’

It seems it was buggered and Billy did, and so the pot-bellied farmer drank down the last of his beer, bid us farewell and made his way round to the car park, from where he emerged a couple of minutes later in a shiny black Landrover Discovery.

‘So do you think that’s all true?’ the Chinese woman said to me. ‘All that stuff about the woman who thought she was Mary Queen of Scots and dug her way out of prison with a spoon?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It might be. I’ve heard about her before and how she murdered people with a stolen steamroller. I’d never heard about her believing she was anybody’s reincarnation, though. Still, if the stories about the Finsthwaite Princess are true than why shouldn’t those about Florence Nelson be?’

The Chinese woman nodded and smiled, the spikes of her hair twitching like the red-brown elements of fibre optic lamp. On the quiet Leven mallards cruised from bank to bank in the relentless heat. White butterflies twirled by.

‘I think I might have another drink,’ she said. ‘Would you like another ginger beer?’

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Thank you. That’s very kind.’

On the day after I went to Finsthwaite churchyard it was again hot and humid. I drove over to Coniston and for a few hours walked the high fells. It was glorious. There is perhaps no experience in the world during which anyone will feel more alive and human than walking the mountains in summer.

Early in the afternoon I walked back down through the village and followed the Cumbrian Way down to Coniston Hall and on through the campsite to the lake shore. I sat on a big stone beneath the trees looking out over the lake to Brantwood, thinking about Ruskin. A group of four giggly teenage girls in bikinis pitched themselves on the shore not too far from me. They immediately noticed a group of boys in Canadian canoes a hundred yards or so further up the lake. In inflatable watercraft – gaudy airbeds and a shiny blue dolphin – they set out on the water, constantly giggly loudly to lure the canoe boys closer.  The strategy took about twenty minutes to work, but eventually the boys arrived.  Two of the girls had just climbed into one of the canoes as I set off to walk back to the village. I imagined Ruskin’s ghost with binoculars at a window across the lake wondering how it was that such sirens as these could complicate paradise. There is evidence that when he was alive Ruskin had a bit of the Humbert Humbert about him and it seems reasonable to assume that the ghost of a man will have the same character as the man himself did, although as I passed by Ruskin’s grave later I admit I began to wonder if I shouldn’t apologise for even thinking that someone like him would ever contemplate perving at those Coniston Lolitas.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen peeling some carrots. Her jigsaw was on the table and at first glance appeared to be finished.

‘Is it all done?’ I said.

‘It’s as done as it can be,’ Margaret replied. ‘But there’s a big hole in it. There’s something very strange about your cat.’

I walked over and looked at the jigsaw. It was indeed completely done except for the area from which De Kooning had taken the pieces. It so happened that the pieces he had taken turned out to be those from the cab window of the steam roller. De Kooning had removed all traces of the driver and his face.

‘Ha ha,’ I said. ‘That’s amazing!’

‘That’s spooky,’ Margaret said. ‘It’s a message of some kind, I’m sure of it. I’m going to get Brenda to come and look at it.’

‘It’s a coincidence,’ I said. ‘Pure chance.’

‘Are you trying to say that by pure chance a cat has taken nine pieces from a thousand piece jigsaw that just happen to fit together and that are the only nine pieces that include any part of the driver?’

‘Hmmm, that does seem remarkable,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’

‘Spooky is what it is, spooky. Do you know what I think he’s done? He’s taken one piece for each of his nine lives. Piece by piece he’s stolen the soul of the steamroller driver for himself. I’m going to ring Brenda and see what she thinks. I’m sure I’m right.’

I put the kettle on and poured a sachet of instant cappuccino into a mug. De Kooning wandered in from the garden and jumped up on my rucksack, as he often does when I return from holiday.  I picked him up and gave him a stroke.

‘No, I’ll tell you what he was doing,’ I said. ‘He was attracted to the pieces with pink in them. That’s what he did, he selected the pink pieces. He didn’t know that the only pink was the pink of the human face and hands. He just likes pink. That’s all this hole in your jigsaw means, nothing more mysterious than that. De Kooning simply likes the pink pieces.’

Margaret shook her head sceptically. She wasn’t buying it. She was going to ring Brenda whether I liked it or not.

.

the black aeroplane

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blyth brewery bar quayside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is it black?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Go ahead, shoot.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I said.

‘I have,’ Margaret replied.

‘And how was Bowness?’

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

‘Oh?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So did she say no?’

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

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

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

‘Defiled?’

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

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

‘Which piece has he got?’ Margaret asked.

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

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

.

pluto and the golden pen

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blyth lampost and street reflection

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

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

‘Katie,’ I said.

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

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Unfortunately not.’

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

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

‘Aye, aa thowt see.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, man – do you?’

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

Jack nodded. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric went briefly into standby mode.

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

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

‘So waar yuh aall the Apocalypses?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack and I both nodded, slowly, affirmatively.

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

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

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

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

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

De Kooning appeared to have no opinion on this issue.

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

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

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

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

.

yellow cheese and moondust

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newsham park - new delaval blyth

It looks like Tristan bottled it.

‘How did Brenda’s birthday go?’ I asked Margaret on Monday. ‘Was she happy with her presents?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ Margaret replied. She was polishing one of her clocks with lemon-scented Pledge. ‘Tristan’s taken her off for a surprise last minute holiday in the Lakes.’

‘Has he?’ I said. ‘Where have they gone?’

‘They gone to one of your hideaways,’ Margaret replied, buffing the clock face with a yellow duster. ‘Bowness.’

Bowness is obviously the new Prague, I thought.  I expect I’ll discover a bottle of Fursty Ferret and a slab of Kendal Mint Cake on the kitchen bench any day now.

A week or so ago we received a referral from Carol Anne McKenzie, a School Health Advisor, about an eight year old girl, Pearl Twichell. Carol Anne suspected that Pearl’s mother – who rather interestingly goes by the name of Maybellene, hopefully after the eponymous heroine of the old Chuck Berry song – was acting in a way that suggested possible MCTS, Malignant Child Transformation Syndrome. Such cases are few and far between these days and I admit to regarding the suggestion with a fair degree of skepticism. However, the case was allocated to Lily and after her initial assessment she felt Carol Anne might well be right.

We called a strategy meeting to share information. Lily told the meeting that she’d asked Maybellene directly about the concerns leading to her involvement.

‘I asked her straight out,’ Lily said, ‘“have you been trying to turn your daughter Pearl into a mouse?” Maybellene replied that she hadn’t. “Isn’t it true that you have three pet mice?” I asked. “It is,’” she replied. “Were those mice once children?” I asked. “Not so far as I know,” she replied, which struck me as a curious answer because it seemed to me to admit the possibility that they might have been. “Are you telling me they might once have been children?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “what I’m saying is that I don’t know. I got those three mice off a traveller who lodged in my house for a while. They were his. When he left he left them behind. I never inquired into their history or ancestry.” “Why not?” I asked. “Weren’t you curious?” “No,” she replied, in a way that was almost cocky, “I didn’t ever think it mattered.”  I think one of the things this meeting needs to realise is that in Maybellene we have a woman of exceptional guile and cleverness. She knows the answers professionals want to hear. Sometimes while I was talking to her I felt she was simply toying with me.’

Jennifer, our new Senior Spells and Potions Advisor, a small plump woman with curly grey hair, nodded knowingly. “I’ve met women like Maybellene before,’ she said. ‘They are very difficult to read sometimes.’

‘Yes, any way,’ Lily went on, slightly irritated, ‘I then asked her why her three mice were called Polly, Penelope and Priscilla. She said they were already named when she got them from the traveller. “But those three names are all girl’s names, aren’t they?” I said. She accepted that this was true, interestingly enough. But she was too clever to fall into my trap. “So are they girls?” I said. “No,” she replied, looking at me as if butter wouldn’t melt, “they’re mice.” “And you’re quite sure that they weren’t girls before they were mice?” “As I said,” she said, “I do not know their full history.” I’m not an aggressive woman, as you all well know, but at that point I felt like planting her one, I can tell you!’

‘But she’s clever. Isn’t she?’ Jennifer remarked. ‘She isn’t suggesting transformation is out of the question. No, she’s only saying that if it occurred it’s not something she had a hand in.’

‘Can we believe her?’ I asked.

‘No, I don’t think we can,’ Lily said. ‘And in any case, surely to take possession of mice you know to have been transformed from infants is little better than to transform those infants yourself. It’s like the kind of thing we did with the torture of those suspected Islamic terrorists – farmed it out to the Americans and Moroccans. If she knew about the transformation she is an accomplice, and therefore responsible for the trafficking of transformed infants.’

‘But do we have any clear evidence about the two areas of concern here,’ I asked. ‘First, that she has been seeking to transform her daughter Pearl into a mouse, and second, that the three mice she keeps are in fact transformed infants?’

The meeting was completely silent.

‘Jennifer,’ I said, ‘these spells that Maybellene is believed to have been using – what do we know about those?  How potent are they? Are they specific to mouse turnings? Do they provide us with clear evidence of an attempted transformation?’

‘They are of moderate potency,’ Jennifer said. ‘Certainly not spells of extraordinary efficacy. But they could achieve mouse turnings if used properly by a skilled practitioner.  However, they are not mouse turning specific and indeed have a quite broad application, including some relatively mundane and benign uses, such as vanquishing the white spots from toenails.’

‘What about the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell?’ Lily asked. ‘That’s the one Pearl’s teacher found written in Maybellene’s handwriting in one of Pearl’s schoolbooks. Isn’t that one specific to mouse turnings?’

‘Yes, Jennifer said, ‘that one is. But what evidence is there that Maybellene ever uttered it?  And that spell is also really only suitable for use by experts. It requires extraordinary exactness and patience. In the wrong hands it can have catastrophic results.  There are many well documented cases of accidental snake and toad turning by inexperienced users of that particular spell. It’s not a spell that comes without hazards. I suppose we’ve got to ask if a mother who loves her child as much as Maybellene appears to love Pearl would take the chance of such a catastrophic outcome.’

‘You see, Jennifer,’ Lily said, becoming distinctly matriarchal and assertive in her tone, ‘this is where you and I differ. To me any mother who would transform her child into a mouse by definition does not love that child. Such an act is a de facto rejection in my eyes and self-evidently emotionally abusive.’

Jennifer nodded patiently. She looked a little like a dandelion clock. ‘I respect your position on this issue, Lily,’ she said. ‘As you know, this is one of those difficult questions that child care professionals we haven’t yet come to a clear consensus about.’

Lily shrugged, and gave me a snarky make-believe smile.

‘The other issue, of course,’ Jennifer continued, ’is that even if we could show that at any point she did give voice to the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell, we’d also have to prove intent. The recent judgement in Highspot v Northamptonshire makes it clear that unless malignant intent can be clearly demonstrated there is no legal basis for seeking an order on the grounds of the utterance of transformative spells. You’ll recall that in that case a child’s grandmother had uttered a spell in her sleep and by accident turned her granddaughter, who had been sleeping nearby, into a lettuce. The court agreed this transformation would have been malignant but only if intent could be proven. Social Services’ applications for orders in respect of the other children in the family were dismissed.’

‘The law’s a mess on this issue,’ Lily said. ‘I think judges are getting this all wrong. The whole thing needs sorting out.’

‘I agree with Lily about this,’ Carol Anne declared. ‘If you ask me no normal mother would act in such a way and any family who even knows such spells should not be considered fit to care for children.’

We all know them, of course,’ I remarked.

‘Yes, but we’re professionals,’ Carol Anne countered. ‘We are not in the business of harming children.’

I nodded sagely. ‘So what about Maybellene?’ I said. ‘You met her too, Jennifer, didn’t you? What did you make of her?’

‘I agree with Lily that she’s a very very clever woman. But I too struggled to find definite proof of malignant intent – or indeed even of intent to transform.’

‘Did you challenge her?’ Lily asked, obviously bristling.

‘Of course,’ Jennifer replied. ‘I also asked her directly about the concerns. “How many children have you turned into mice?” I asked. “None,” she replied. “How many times have you uttered spells over your daughter?’ I asked. “Never,” she replied. “How many spells do you know?” I asked. ‘None,” she replied. “So what about the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell, which is written in your hand in one of Pearl’s school books,” I said, thinking I’d finally caught her out. “Isn’t that just a nursery rhyme?” she said, as if butter wouldn’t melt. “No,” I replied, “it’s a mouse turning spell.” She frowned and said, “Well, I never. You learn something every day. Who would have ever thought it.” I’ll knock the smugness out of you, I thought to myself. “What about when the school nurse – sorry Carol Anne, I know I should have said School Health Advisor – heard you muttering under your breath when you were standing alone in the corridor outside Pearl’s classroom?  What were you muttering then, if it wasn’t a spell?” “A psalm,” she says, as bold as brass. “A psalm.”’

‘A psalm!’ Carol Anne exclaimed. ‘Well, I ask you. I’m telling you it was no psalm she was chanting outside that classroom.’

‘But the difficulty is we have no evidence to prove it wasn’t a psalm, Carol Anne,’ Jennifer said. ‘By your own admission you didn’t actually hear what she was saying. And Maybellene does seem to dote on Pearl, doesn’t she? That child obviously wants for nothing.’

‘Do we have any evidence of harm?’ I asked, looking towards Stephen, our legal advisor, who had sat quietly listening. ‘Anything we could put before a court?’

‘Not in what I’ve heard so far,’ he said. ‘No. Nothing that would stand up.’

‘And there’s been no evidence of transformational signs in Pearl?’ I asked. ‘Carol Anne?’

‘No, none that I’ve seen. No facial fur patches, no ear changes, no changes to her vocal range – nothing.’

‘Of course, we know gradual transformations are very much the exception,’ Jennifer said. ‘Most transformations are instantaneous and occur immediately on the utterance of an efficacious spell.’

Lily looked despondent. Her hunch was that Pearl was at serious risk of malignant transformation, and she may well be right. But unfortunately the evidence wasn’t there to support a decisive intervention in Pearl’s life. This is often the case in social work, the complexities and conflicts of which are not at all understood by the media or the general public, who have for the most part little idea of the reality of the lives of the marginal families we deal with. The lives of the underclass are more or less invisible to the great mass of society. Inevitably we concluded that we didn’t have grounds to remove Pearl from Maybellene’s care and that we could only continue to work with the family on a voluntary basis and try to monitor Pearl’s welfare closely.

As I drove home that evening the sun was shining. I was listening to the Felice Brothers’ album Yonder Is The Clock. It’s good potent rootsy music, Americana, as the genre is called these days, music unmistakably in the tradition of The Band, Dylan, Tom Waits, the Jayhawks and the like. It has that same sort of loose texture and abrasive darkness.

As I sat in the traffic queue on the Horton road at the Laverock Hall Farm roundabout I began wondering what other albums or songs had clocks in their title. The obvious one was Bill Haley and The Comet’s Rock Around the Clock. I wondered how many more I could think of before I got to the roundabout. It turned out to be fewer than I thought, probably because the queue was shorter than usual, or perhaps because there are fewer than I imagine there are. This was my list:

Clocks by Coldplay
Clockwork Orange Soundtrack
Sky Like a Broken Clock by Kelly Joe Phelps
Stop The Clocks by Oasis
Punch The Clock by Elvis Costello
Clock Without Hands by Nanci Griffith
Beat The Clock by Sparks

 

When I got home I noticed that a large bright blue barrel had landed on the gravel in Hugo’s front garden fairly close to his path, near the car wheels and the sheets of plasterboard. It looked like a depth charge. The colour contrasted vividly with the orange of the Bond Bug. I stopped for a moment beneath the fidgety green canopy of the birch and noticed the hosta against my fence were now growing strongly. The air was cool and there was a bit of a breeze. As I was feeding De Kooning Margaret came in and began preparing her vegetables. I got changed and went out for a walk. I went through the Solingen Estate, through Ridley Park, and along the quayside. I came back up Waterloo Road, past the open space of the refurbished market place. At the spire of the Presbyterian church I turned south on to Cypress Gardens and made my way back to Broadway field. A couple of young children in yellow coats and their parents were in the new play area. When I got back Margaret was out. I put Shine Eyed Mister Zen on the CD player. De Kooning sat with me and we listened to it. It’s my favourite Kelly Joe Phelps album and I hadn’t heard it for far too long.

The weather went downhill later in the week. It rained and got windy. I went to my dad’s in the car.  Our conversation was dominated by the MP’s expenses scandal.

‘I see Campbell’s paid back six thousand pounds for furniture he bought for his house in London,’ my dad said. He was talking about our honourable member, the redoubtable Red Flag Ronnie.

‘I noticed that,’ I said, munching on a chocolate Brazil. ‘Such a generous gesture. But I bet we don’t know the half of it yet, eh?’

Campbell is an unreconstructed old style pseudo-egalitarian. He may lack Peter Mandelson’s urbane façade and sophistication, perhaps even his intelligence, but at the end of the day they have more in common than either would admit. Campbell used to be a miner, an NUM official at the time of the miner’s strike in 1984. He got himself elected on a wave of local Labour party consolation, mixed with the disillusionment with the absent carpetbagger who was his predecessor. Ronnie had a slogan, a vision, a USP: he was an ordinary man, a man of the people, a socialist. He declared to the whole self-seeking throng of Thatcher’s world that he, Ronnie Campbell, would do an MP’s job on a miner’s wage. Hubris, Ronnie, hubris. Nowadays he rakes in nearly quarter a million pounds a year from being an MP, taking his full sixty five grand salary and pretty much every expense he can, including the usual twenty odd thousand for the mortgage payments on a second home. Many people also believe that his wife is probably on his office staff payroll, although to date Ronnie’s been a bit coy about sharing the details of that arrrangement with the electorate. This is at least consistent with his unstinted opposition to the introduction of the new Freedom of Information legislation, of course.

When Ronnie was elected he lived in an old terraced house in Cowpen Quay. He now lives in a big detached house on Marine Terrace and drives to the betting shop in his Jaguar. It turns out that what some of us suspected all along was true: Red Flag Ronnie doesn’t really have a red bone in his body. His sort of socialism was never going to have the spine to reasist the siren songs of the John Lewis list.

‘Aye, Campbell’s been a big disappointment,’ my dad said. ‘I know you didn’t agree with me, but I thought he was a decent man, somebody who was on the side of ordinary people. But we know now he’s just as bad as the rest of them. How does he think history will remember him now? It won’t be as a socialist or a man of the people. It’ll be as just another insignificant self-seeking old Labour crook, the ex-pitman who had to pay back six thousand pound for furniture he’d fiddled on expenses.’

‘Yeah, that and his support for fetishes,’ I joked, alluding to the occasion last year when Ronnie had declared his public support for National Fetish Day after misunderstanding the meaning of the word. Ronnie thought it had something to do with worrying about which horse to bet on. ‘You can see the headline for his obituary already, can’t you – Furniture and Fetishes MP Dies.’

‘What do you think happens to them when they get into Parliament?’ my dad said, a look of disbelief on his face. ‘Is it an infection, do you think, like the Swine Flu? Or is it just the glitter and clink of the cash? Is that what casts a spell on them?’

‘Maybe it’s the wicked witch from the Fees Office,’ I said. ‘But I don’t buy the idea that these are good people inevitably transformed to bad people by some strange irresistible system. Not everyone turns bad. Those people that do were perhaps weak and self-deceiving from the start. Maybe they were never really in it for the good they could do, or if they were there was always a stronger motive lurking behind that façade, one waiting like a lion to pounce out and devour them – self-interest, vanity or greed. We don’t choose our representatives well. We choose them for sentimental and irrational reasons. We don’t really know them when we choose them, we only know the label they’ve got stuck to them. It’s a pig in a poke every time.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ my dad said. ‘Campbell did well enough during the strike. He looked like he was on the right side then, no-one can say he didn’t. You’ve got to be fair to the man.’

‘Appearances are deceptive,’ I said, nibbling at what was at least my seventh chocolate Brazil. ‘That’s the bedrock of modern politics, isn’t it?’

‘Surely the Labour Party will deselect him before the next election,’ my dad said.

‘Do you think so?’ I said. ‘I bet they don’t. If he isn’t their candidate, it’ll be because he’s decided himself not to stand.’

‘Well he should stand down. The man should be ashamed to stand again.’

‘Maybe that’s why he won’t stand down – because it’d be admitting his faults. And any way he’s probably forgiven himself already. Politicians never let their sins weigh on their consciences for very long.’

‘Well, I’ll not vote for the scoundrel,’ my dad said, picking up my empty pineapple juice glass and taking it to the kitchen. ‘And I’ll tell you this, there’s a lot of other people who won’t either. They cannot understand why he did it!’

‘Did what? Bought the furniture? Well, he thought he was entitled to it.’

‘Pah, baloney! He knew he wasn’t entitled to it! He’s a stupid bugger, I’ll grant you that, but he knew fine well he was only entitled to what he needed. Do you not think so?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I do think so. But I think Ronnie lacks a reliable moral compass and probably always has. It’s depressing. Another example of an all too corruptible fallen socialist, yet more evidence that the prospect of a fair world is just pie in the sky. It just confirms the view that greed is human nature and that everyone’s born like that. But if we are we’re done for. It’s just a dog eat dog, cat eat mouse world.’

I drove back in the rain, past the new beach huts and on to Plessey Road. I listened again to Yonder Is The Clock. I was pondering whether I’m sometimes a bit too hard on Ronnie and wondering if Tristan and Brenda were back from Bowness yet.

 .

the owl, the albatross, and the dodo

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blyth-croft-road-crofton-mill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You don’t think swine flu exists?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘De Kooning.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So what have you got her, then?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head slowly, emphatically.

‘No.’

‘James Taylor?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

a fickle food, a shifting plate

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

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

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

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

‘Hey, hey, how’s it hangin’, dude?’

‘I’m fine. And you?’

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

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

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

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘They can sack you.’

Jack laughed.

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

‘Clean everything,’ Jack said, sarcastically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who was he?’ I asked.

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

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

‘No,’ I said. ‘Was he from Blyth?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you mean Jack?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Was he? Yes, he might have been.’

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

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

‘Did the’? Really? Wow!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sharon.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, that was one of ours,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 .

elvis, orpheus, and the panopticon

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 cowpen-road-cowpen1

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

Franz Kafka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s quite a shop,’ I said.

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

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Does it show?’

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

‘How’s Jack?’ I asked.

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

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

‘Who was, Ozzie Osbourne?’

‘No, Jack.’

‘Oh yes, I knew that.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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the week they pretended the world wasn’t broken

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This has been the week of the G20 in London and the NATO summit in Strasbourg. It’s been a week when the leaders of the developed world have orchestrated the grand illusion that things are going to be all right. The world’s had a bad infection, it’s true, but the good news is Dr Obama’s on the case and the patient’s off the critical list. (Obama’s a bit like the political equivalent of House, it seems. A less curmudgeonly variant. What they have in common is that they both know with absolute certainty that whatever illness the economy’s got, it’s not Lupus.)

Of course the week’s been more about saving political necks than changing anything very much about the way the world works. The whole thing was a transparent media event, the straightforward massaging of electorates – or consumers, as they’re now called. A week to persuade the world to renew its faith in free market capitalism. Confidence is the new magic bullet and this week was a gun to fire it. Dr Obama’s job was to squeeze the trigger. For some reason I’m reminded of Burt Lancaster in Valdez is Coming.

Of course, in the movie of this episode in the history of world I’d have Barack played by Will Smith and Gordon by Walter Matthau. My real first choices would be Cate Blanchett for Barack and Morgan Freeman for Gordon, but I’d worry in case this alienated my audience. Casting Sarkozy would be slightly trickier either way, because in both cases I’d want to avoid having one of those films that mix computer-generated animation with footage of real actors.

On Thursday morning I had to go to a meeting in North Shields first thing. Margaret asked me if I could drop a box off for Brenda for her on my way back.

I got there at about eleven o’clock. Mrs Byro was coming out of her appointment as I arrived. She really is an extraordinarily small woman, probably no taller than Noel Edmonds. And her dress sense too is remarkable – for the rigour with which it comprehensively denies the eye all and any aesthetic satisfaction. But Mrs Byro turned out to be a surprisingly articulate woman, albeit one who speaks in a somewhat alien accent, to my ear an odd mixture of Jewish American and Low Polish, perhaps with just the hint of Belfast.

‘Hello, there,’ she said. ‘Have you come to see Brenda too?  She’s marvellous, isn’t she?’

I nodded. She smiled, as if in her eyes we were now members of the same tribe, one of those human beings who cannot live without a shaman.

‘I’m worried about the deer,’ she said. ‘Do you think we’ll be all right?’

‘The deer?’ I said, wondering if perhaps I was mistaking an adjective for a noun.

‘Yes, the deer. The roe deer. I often go to stay with my sister up near the Thrunton Woods, you see. Do you know the Thrunton Woods? Well, they have a lot of deer up there, you know. Yes, and they say some of them have started to bite the necks of other deer.’

‘Really? Neck-biting deer? Do you mean affectionately?’

‘Oh no. Oh no, not like that that.’ For a moment Mrs Byro looked flustered. She seemed to blush a little.

‘So these deer attack the other deer?’ I said. ‘Why?’

Mrs Byro came a little closer. I gazed down at her, as a man in a lighthouse might gaze down at an unexpected visitor. She looked up at me, her eyes glazed like those of a bewildered rodent.

Bloodlust,’ she said. She swallowed deeply. ‘Bloodlust. Some of the roe deer in the Thrunton Woods have become vampires.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Vampire deer? That’s not something I’ve ever heard about before. Are you sure?’

‘Oh I’m sure,’ she said. ‘I’m absolutely sure. My sister says she’s seen it with her very own eyes. These creatures are shameless. They are breaking the laws of nature.’

I shook my head in an understanding way. The Mrs Byros of this world have a way of turning us all into doctors. I touched her shoulder. ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine,’ I said, as if confirming my prognosis. ‘Most deer aren’t like that, I’m sure.’

‘That’s what Brenda said. That’s exactly what she said. She’s a marvellous woman, isn’t she?  I hope she’s as much help to you as she has been to me. I really don’t know where I’d be with out her.’

Mrs Byro ambled off. She somehow reminded me of a walking proggy mat, albeit one little taller than an armadillo. I looked at Tristan and made a what the hell planet is she from gesture. He rolled his eyes and smiled.

‘She pays the bills,’ he said.

‘How are things with you?’ I said. ‘What are you doing here on a work day? Have you come clean with Brenda about having no jobs on?’

‘Yes,’ Tristan said. ‘We finally had a heart to heart. I told her I wasn’t going to pwetend any longer. I told her that if she can’t love a poor man as much as a wich man then we have no future. I’ve cleared the air. I think it’s done the twick, mate. I think we’re cool now. Fingers cwossed, eh? Anyhow, how are you, my fwiend? I hear you’ve been on holiday.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I had a week in Bowness a couple weeks ago. It was good. I went to Brantwood and a few other places I hadn’t been to and did a bit walking.’

‘Bwantwood? Oh that’s a lovely place, isn’t it? My first wife used to love to go there. She loved Wuskin. She loved all that Arts and Cwafty and Pwe-Waphaelite stuff. When the kids were little we used to take them to Coniston evewy summer and we always went to visit Wuskin’s gwave. For Claire it was a sort of annual pilgwimage. She loved those places.’

‘You’ve got kids, Tristan? I didn’t know that. Do you still see them?’

‘Yes, I’ve got two, Effie and Gabby. They’re twins. I speak to them on the phone evewy week and I go down to see them whenever I can. They’re at university now and I’m vewy pwoud of them. They’re my kids, and nothing in the world matters more to me than them. They loved Bowness too, now I think of it. They loved getting the fewwy over to the Hawkshead side. Have you ever been on that fewwy?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘In fact I was on it when I was there. I went over and walked up to Hilltop.’

‘Ah, Beatwix Potter, eh? Effie and Gabby loved Peter Wabbit and Jewemiah Puddleduck and all that stuff. We always used to take them to Hilltop so they could see the house and the pub that’s in the books.’

‘The Tower Bank Arms.’

‘Yes, that’s it. We always had a glass of cider and a packet of cwisps there.’

‘So did you ever hear about Florence Nelson?’ I said. ‘The woman who murdered a love rival on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh yes, of course,’ Tristan replied. ‘Evewyone knows that tale. Flowence Nelson, the Steamwoller Murdwess. She was a bad un’, that one. You have to admire her determination though.’

‘Because she took driving lessons and planned it all so patiently and meticulously?’

‘No, because of the jailbweak.’

‘The jailbreak?’

‘You didn’t know that she escaped? Oh, there was no stopping Flowence Nelson. It was a bit like that film, The Shawshank Wedemption. She dug her way out of Styal pwison with a spoon. It took her over thwee years. She went on the wun. They say she dwessed as a man and hid out for months in a wuined house near Gwange Over Sands. She lived on birds’ eggs and bewwies. She knew that Ned Perfect had taken up with another woman, another wed-head. A hairdwesser fwom Twoutbeck Bwidge called Amelia Pond. They say Ned and Amelia were engaged to be mawwied. Flowence had made her mind up, they were both going to pay the ultimate pwice. They would never be wed.’

‘Florence had her sights on Ned too?  I thought she adored the man!’

‘She did. She worshipped the gwound he walked on. But hell hath no fuwy and all that. From the minute Flowence bwoke out of that pwison carnage was inevitable. But first she had to find another steamwoller, which isn’t that easy for a woman on the wun disguised as a man in the Lake Distwict. Night after night she went out on a moped twying to find one and secwetly watching Ned and Amelia to discover their woutines. Eventually one moonlit August night she found what she wanted, an Aveling and Porter parked up in a roadside barn at High Bowwans. It was in perfect nick and in just the wight place. The stage was set for one of the most infamous cwimes to ever take place in those parts.’

At that point Brenda came through. She said hello to me and asked me if I’d brought a box for her from Margaret. I pointed to it on the table.

‘Oh that’s excellent,’ she said. ‘Has Margaret told you we’ve ditched the fleece and fun idea?’

‘Yeah, she told me. She told me you’ve gone back to the sunglasses idea. So what are you going to call your shop this time round, The Sunglasses Shop?’ I was aware that previously Brenda had dismissed my slightly more fanciful suggestions. I was trying to avoid being flippant.

‘Oh no,’ Brenda replied. ‘That’s far too prosaic. I’m surprised that you of all people would suggest such a thing.’

I shrugged, as if to acknowledge my stupidity. ‘Sorry, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Just a daft idea. So what are you calling it?’

The Maids With The Shades.’

‘The Maids With The Shades,’ I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s good,’ I said. ‘It’s memorable.’

As I drove back along through Seaton Sluice I wondered whether the old man I’d walked with through Far Sawrey wasn’t Ned Perfect after all. It sounded as if Ned too may have ended his days flattened into the tarmac somewhere along the quiet shores of Windermere. No wonder Pippa’s kids never found him in the woods. Next time I see Tristan I must remember to get him to tell me the rest of the story.

When I got home that night Margaret was resetting the time on all of her twenty three stopped clocks. She was setting them to nine minutes past nine. I asked her why she’d chosen that time.

‘Brenda advised me that it was a good time for any stopped clock in 2009.’

‘Just because of the 09 thing?’

‘No. Brenda says nine is a very special number. It is a number full of hope. It encourages and anticipates fulfilment. She says this is because it is the last single number and stands at the brink of ten. Ten represents a goal or aspiration in life.’

‘So nine minutes past nine is a special time. Yes, that makes sense. I can see that. But why not nine minutes to nine?’

‘Well, that’s something you had better ask Brenda, isn’t it?’ Margaret said, slightly dismissively. ‘I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to explain.’

‘I met one of Brenda’s, er, patients today,’ I said. ‘A diminutive tatterdemalion of a woman who has convinced herself there are Dracula deer in Thrunton Woods. Probably a suitable case for acupuncture. Or reiki, perhaps. Anyhow she told me that Brenda’s a marvellous woman.’

‘She is. She’s very clever. You’re probably the only person who doesn’t see it.’

I nodded, as if I agreed. ‘How are things with her and Tristan?’ I asked. ‘They seem better than they were.’

‘Do you think so? Well, they aren’t. Actually I don’t things are at all good there. There are quite a few things about Tristan that I think Brenda’s isn’t happy with at the minute. If he doesn’t watch himself he’s going to lose her.’

‘Her birthday’s coming up soon, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes, the fifth of May. Four weeks on Tuesday. I’ve already got something for her.’

‘It’s not a pair of Wayfarers, is it?’

‘No.’

‘Phew!’

I went out for a walk down to the beach. I had a look at the new beach huts they’re putting up along the promenade. They have all the usual charm and authenticity of copycat retro seaside ornaments. If you didn’t recognise them from photographs you’ve seen of Whitby, Cromer, or Brighton they’d be failing to do their job. Like every other old coal town, Blyth is now more of a commodity than a community. What you see is more about branding than social need. I walked on into the dunes to Gloucester Lodge farm and then back up home through the old campsite and across South Beach Estate.

On Saturday it was dry in the afternoon. I went to my dad’s on the bike, although it turned out to be so windy that I wished I hadn’t.

On his visit to the library this week my dad had got out a locally produced book on the history of the Isabella Colliery. It’s one of those documents that doesn’t really have a clear focus and is largely a compilation of the memories of the usual community suspects, with the inevitable variations in quality. It does contain a dialect poem of sorts about Plessey Road, though. It’s entitled Plessy Waggon Way. It was written by Thomas Thirlwell and published in Blyth in 1903 in a book called Blyth and Tyneside Songs and Recitations. The piece celebrates the improvement of the road from Newsham to Blyth. Here’s the fourth verse.

The say thor’s noo commenced te run
Tom Allen’s three-horse bus se gay
Ne doot the Newsham foaks ‘ill cum
Te Blyth each week te spend thor pay
They’ll catch the fra Willow Tree
Te smoke outside or smile inside
Then roond bi Blyth the seets they’ll see
Wye lads, they’ll get a clivvor ride
 

It’s a piece with more social than aesthetic value.

It was sunny today. I was going to go out the Thrunton Woods to look for wildlife, but I didn’t have much petrol in the car and didn’t feel like going to the garage. I walked from the door, up Plessey Road and then on up the bridleway into the fields which follows the course of the old wagonway. I turned off on the track over to Low Horton farm and then crossed the bridge over the Spine Road on to the Heathery Lonnen. I stopped for a minute or so and looked over to Horton Church. I wondered if I should try again to find the Nightingale’s grave. I decided not to and followed the lane north down to Bebside. I crossed the railway and went down past the crowded Asda car park.  I came back over the reclaimed Isabella Colliery land. When I got home I discovered that Hugo had a new car on his drive, an orange Bond Bug. Hugo was standing, big as a pirate, hands on hips, gazing at it, when he noticed me going up my garden path.

‘Here, mate,’ he shouted. ‘What do you think of her? Isn’t she a little cracker?’

‘It’s a Bond Bug, isn’t it. Fletch?  You don’t see many of those these days.’

‘Aye, that what she is. You don’t see many ‘cos there’s not many left. Me mate says there’s less than a thousand left in existence. These things are like hen’s teeth nowadays.’

‘So can you still get parts for them?’ I asked.

‘You can if you know where to look,’ Hugo replied, gnomically. He probably meant a secret scrapyard somewhere.

I went inside and told De Kooning about the Bond Bug. We went into the kitchen and I made myself a cappuccino. The two packets of onion seeds were still lying on the bench. I took my cappuccino and copy of The Observer into the conservatory. I was reluctant to open it. It’s been the week of the G20 and Jade Goody’s funeral. There’s only so much good news one man can take.

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tasting the dark onion

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It was probably last Wednesday. I was driving down the Laverock listening to the Decembrists’ latest album The Hazards of Love.  It has an unstoppable momentum. This seems to have something to do with the keys and tonality, but the main factor is probably the lack of spaces between the tracks: the music never stops. The effect is irresistible continuity, and continuity in space and time have an extraordinary force, binding together things which might be meaningless and adrift in eternity if they stood on their own as discreet items.  The illusion of continuity conjures purpose out of chaos.

It was spring-like and suddenly there were shameless hosts of golden daffodils strewn along the verges. I was thinking that I needed to take control of my food intake and lose a few pounds for the summer. I stopped at Newsham Coop for some broccoli and tomatoes. There was the usual bunch of cars parked on the yellow lines just outside the door. I parked around the corner on the cobbles of the loading bays. My dad used to drive for the bakery for a while in the nineteen seventies, and in those days they used to load up the bakery delivery lorries there. When he was a kid he used to live in Store Terrace, just up the road a little way, next to the Post Office. In those days they used to load the various horse carts in these cobbled bays – the butchers’ carts, the bakers’ carts, the greengrocers’ cart, and so on – which they would take from street to street selling their produce. In the seventies I think only bakery and milk vans remained. My dad sometimes drove one of the electric bakery vans all the way to Cambois and back, over the new Kitty Brewster bridge. That was in the days when the pit at Cambois was still open, of course, and before they demolished the pits rows. There were still people there to sell stuff to in those days. It used to take the electric van about three quarters of an hour each way, but it didn’t matter much because most people in Cambois in those days didn’t have cars and were happy to buy their bread from the bakery van.

At the checkout I found myself behind Tania, baby Davina’s mother. I asked her what she was doing in these parts.

‘I’m staying with my new boyfriend,’ she said. ‘He’s called Darren. He lives in the Oval.’

‘Oh, so what happened with you and Joe?’ I asked.

‘I finished him,’ Tania said. ‘He was just such a loser.’

‘So what does Darren do?’

‘What does Darren do? Like a job, do you mean?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Darren hasn’t got a job. He’s got a car and that, though.’

‘Right. So how are you, any way? How’s the baby?’

‘I haven’t seen Davina for a week or two now. I’ve been helping Darren to paint the doors.  Anyway me and my dad aren’t really getting on at the minute, so it’s probably better if I don’t go over there.’

Davina had some Bachelor’s savoury rice, sausages, a large sliced white loaf , a big bag of Doritos and a couple of tins of beans in her basket. She also asked for a pack of Rizla’s, twenty Lambert and Butler and a four pack of Fosters.

‘Tell Michelle I’ll ring her, will you?’ she said, as she left.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Will do.’

I drove down Plessey Road listening to the Decembrists again, thinking about continuity, the importance of connections. What would places be without the roads and paths between them? What would our days be without the trails of memory and dreams that tie them together, without stories? The narratives we invent or find in our lives are like the branches of who we imagine we might be: without them each day would be like a leaf from a different tree.

Margaret was in the back garden, apparently gazing at the Citadel. De Kooning was sitting in the middle of the lawn cleaning his black face. I went out and picked him up. We looked over Hugo’s fence. There were daffodils in flower at the moose’s feet. I noticed the station clock had never been put back at the end of summer time last year.

‘Too late now,’ I said to De Kooning. ‘In a few days time it’ll be right again.’

When I went back inside I noticed a couple of packets of onion seeds on the bench near the kettle. Ailsa Craig and Bedfordshire Champion. March is the best month to sow onion seed in these parts. I realised Margaret must be thinking about growing her own onions and was outside looking for a place to plant them in the garden. Perhaps she was wondering if there was still enough light for them to thrive now that we lived in the shadow of Griff’s soulless castle. I’ve heard that onions can grow by starlight. I don’t know if it’s true, of course. It might be.

I decided to go for a walk before tea. I went down to the Mason’s Arms and along Coomassie Road, across Waterloo Road and through to Morrison’s car park. I made my way up Wright Street, through the cut past Sure Start and along the Sports Centre path to Newsham Road, from where I made my way back home.

When I got back I asked Margaret if she knew if there was a variety of onion that could grow by starlight.

‘No,’ she replied.

‘I think I’ll ring the Greek,’ I said. ‘He’ll know.’

The Greek seemed pleased to here from me. ‘It’s been a long time,’ he said. ‘Oddly enough I was saying to Mr Geller only the other night how I hadn’t heard from you for a while. So what can I do for you, my friend?  Don’t tell me your broken Napoleon is still ticking.’

‘No, it stopped, just as you said it would. No, everything seems quiet on the clock front at the minute. What I want to ask you about is onions.’

‘Ah, the holy vegetable, our mysterious layered companion. Go ahead, shoot. Tell me what you need to know.’

‘Is there a variety that will grow on starlight alone?’ I asked. ‘I seem to remember reading somewhere that there is.’

‘Ah,’ the Greek said. ‘The fabulous Dark Onion of Heraclitus! Yes, we’ve all heard about that one. But which of us has ever tasted it? I’ve searched all my life for it, my friend. But the more I search the less likely it seems that I will ever find it. I’m beginning to think the Dark Onion may be no more than a myth.’

‘No chance of picking up a packet of seeds at Peter Barrett’s then?’

‘No, none. Not at Heighley Gate either. I would suggest you stick with Ailsa Craig, my friend. The Bedfordshire Champion is another popular and reliable variety. But if by any chance you were to stumble across the fabulous dark one, I would be in your eternal debt if you could in some small way share your good fortune with me.’

I thanked the Greek for his advice. I cooked my broccoli and tomatoes with some wholewheat pasta and garlic. I sat in the conservatory as darkness fell. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me.  I remarked to him that we needed to find out more about Heraclitus.

On Saturday it was cold; it rained that night. It was the night the clocks went forward. On Sunday it was clear and sunny. I drove up to Druridge. The tide was out and I walked up the beach. Far away to the north Cheviot and Hedgehope Hill were as white as angels. I drove back south and listened again to The Hazards of Love.

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the part of beauty that can’t be destroyed

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As I was driving to work one day last week I was devising a questionnaire to help individuals to self-assess their attitude to the place where they want to be buried.  I decided upon one graded and scaled multi-answer question: “Which of these options do you consider better than having no grave at all?” 

  1. An unmarked grave
  2. A grave that has your epitaph but not your  name
  3. A grave that gives only your initial and surname
  4. A grave that gives only your name and date of death
  5. A grave that gives your name and age at death
  6. A grave that gives your name, dates of birth and death, and the names of your parents
  7. A grave that gives your name, profession, date and place of birth and death
  8. A grave that gives your name, profession and cause of death
  9. A grave on which someone has planted a mighty oak tree
  10. A grave that no-one ever visits
  11. A grave that isn’t kept clean
  12. A grave that gives your full name and title, profession, dates and places of birth and death, cause of death, names of parents, children, spouses and old lovers, and an epitaph
  13. A grave marked by a marble statue of an forlorn wingèd angel
  14. A grave marked by a weather-beaten stone skull
  15. A grave on which someone has urinated and left an empty lager can
  16. A grave watched over by solar lights
  17. A grave that no-one can ever find
  18. A grave which has someone else’s gravestone on it
  19. A grave beneath a boulder near the foot of Great Gable
  20. A grave that has fallen into the sea

When I went into the team room Pippa was telling Angie and Sally that The Death Kitty had again been won by someone at her daughter’s workplace, but that yet again the winner hadn’t been her daughter. The winner on this occasion was Malcolm, a finance officer. He was fortunate enough to have selected Hank Locklin as one of his candidates. Locklin had been the oldest surviving member of the Grand Ole Opry. He died on 8th March at the age of 91. One of his best known songs was Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On, which in lyrical terms contains little more than the famous line “Send me the pillow that you dream on so darling I can dream on it too”.

‘I’ve never heard of him,’ Angie said.

‘Me neither,’ Sally said. ‘Had no-one picked Wendy Richard?’

‘They mustn’t have, no,’ Pippa said. ‘I don’t even think anyone’s got Jade Goody.’

‘How do they find out who has died?’ Angie asked.

‘From the internet,’ Pippa said. ‘There are lots of sites out there, you know, such as whosedeadandwhosalive.com, celebritydeathbeeper.com and dead-celeb.com. You can subscribe to some of them and they’ll send you an email to let you know whenever a celebrity dies.’

‘Sounds interesting,’ Sally said. ‘I think I’ll have a look.’

‘What’s your daughter’s name, again, Pippa?’ I asked.

‘Candy.’

‘Oh yes, of course, Candy. So is she okay?’

‘Yes, she’s fine,’ Pippa said. ‘She’s actually on holiday this week in the Lakes with her boyfriend.’

‘That’s where I’ve just been,’ I said. ‘Bowness.’

‘Candy’s in Cockermouth. But we love Bowness,’ Pippa replied. ‘We used to take the kids there all the time when they were little.’

‘Yes, I like it too,’ I said, ‘even though it’s a bit touristy for me.’

‘So where were you staying? In a hotel?’

‘No, I rented a house up on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh, Longtail Hill! Do you know the story about the young lass who was flattened by a steam roller there?’

‘Yeah, I’d heard about that,’ I said. ‘A red-head, wasn’t she?’

‘When the kids were little we used to always get the ferry over to Hawkshead. A woman on the ferry told us the story one day. It seems that Sharon – the beautiful red-headed woman who was eventually squashed? – used to get take the ferry every Sunday morning and secretly meet up with a young man called Ned Perfect. Together they used to take long walks together, hand in hand through Claife Woods and around Far Sawrey. The trouble was that Ned was already engaged to be married to Florence Nelson, and Florence Nelson wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. When Florence heard about Ned’s secret trysts with Sharon she decided to eliminate her rival in a way that would obliterate every last trace of her beauty. She decided to flatten her with a steam roller.’

‘The tale I’d heard was that Florence was irrationally jealous and that Ned had in fact done no more than accept a piece of orange from Sharon. I also thought Sharon always went to church on Sunday mornings.’

‘That might be what she told people,’ Pippa said. ‘But that’s not what the woman on the ferry told us. No, it seems that every Sunday morning Sharon met Ned on the far side of Windermere and that this went on for a long time. Florence eventually found out, of course, and discovered that every Sunday at about noon Ned gave Sharon a goodbye kiss at Claife Station and that Sharon then caught the quarter past twelve ferry alone, back to Bowness, and walked back up Longtail Hill to go home for her dinner. That’s why Florence hatched her plan to ambush Sharon with a steam roller as she was walking up the bank.’

‘Yes, I know about that bit,’ I said.  

‘And did you know that after the murder Ned Perfect would walk out on to Longtail Hill every morning and try to find a strand of Sharon’s red hair embedded in the tarmac, and that he’d prise the strand he found from the road and take it with him on the ferry over to Hawkshead. They say he put all the strands together in a silver box which is hidden among the roots of a tree near Claife Station. When the woman told us the story, she said Ned was still doing the crossing every single day. But that was a long time ago, of course. He’s probably dead now. And in any case we never saw him. The kids used to run around the woods shouting for him to come out, come out wherever he was. It was a little game we always played.’

‘For Ned Perfect, Sharon’s hair must have been the only part of her beauty that Florence could not destroy,’ I said. ‘The part she could never take away.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right,’ Pippa said.

‘You haven’t forgotten about our meeting this morning, have you?’ Angie said.

‘Who’s it about again?’ I said.

‘Mrs McElhatton? Fern? The lady who thinks her daughter’s been replaced by an imposter?’

‘Oh yeah, of course,’ I said. ‘Give me a bell when everyone arrives.’

So it seems likely that the old white haired man I walked back from Far Sawrey with, and who as it happens had left me at the foot of the little path up to Claife Station, the place where Ned always kissed Sharon goodbye, was none other than Ned Perfect himself. It’s amazing that love and loss can bend whole lives into such strange shapes. As I made my way upstairs to my office I also realised that Perfect though Ned might be, he is clearly a far from reliable narrator.  There’s obviously a lot more to this tale, and I was wondering if perhaps I could find out more on the internet. Surely there must be something somewhere about it. Perhaps I’ll find something on famoussteamrollermurderers.com.

As I was leaving the office that night Jack Verdi was pulling into the car park on his motorbike. It was as Owen described it, big, shiny and black. Jack was in black leathers and wore a black high-gloss helmet with a dark mirrored visor.  The word Spider was written across the side of his helmet in blood red lettering.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘What’s your fettle?’

‘Good, man. Yeah, cool.’ He was trying to get the bike on to its stand. It was like watching a man made of pipe cleaners trying to bring a buffalo to heel. I couldn’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have found a Vespa scooter more manageable. He took off his helmet and put it on the tank and began to undo the Velcro on his black gauntlets, each of which seemed to be about as big as a vulture’s wing.

‘Nice machine,’ I said. ‘Yes, I’d heard you’d got rid of the Skoda.’

‘You bet I did, man. That was an old man’s chariot. I might as well have been travelling in a hearse. This baby is more up my street, dude, if you know what I mean.’

‘Owen told me it was a Kawasaki.’

‘Nah, this is a Ducati, man. Classic Italian race machine. Owen wouldn’t know a real bike if it jumped up and bit him. Guess what I call this beauty?’ he said, stepping over it and pointing to some white lettering on tank.

‘Hilda?’ I said.

‘Hilda?’ Jack said, frowning. ‘Hilda?  Why Hilda, dude?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It was just a guess.’

Cruella, dude. I call this baby, Cruella.’ He chuckled and brushed his hand across the name to remove a slight smudge from the gleaming black tank. ‘I named her after our mutual friend.’ He laughed again.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘And this Spider thing – the thing on your hat?’

‘The name on my helmet?  Spider? That’s the name they used to sometimes call me in the band, man. That’s the name I answer to now. That’s my real name, man.’

I nodded. ‘So what are you here for, Jack?’ I asked. ‘A meeting?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got a four thirty with Michelle about the Cassidy girls. We might have found a long term placement for them up over the Carter Bar near Hawick. Nice couple, run a little craft shop. He’s a woodturner, she’s a craft knitter, does handbags and scarves and mittens and stuff. If she likes the look of them I want to arrange to take Michelle up to meet them next week.’

‘Not on Cruella’s pillion, I hope,’ I said.

‘I will if she’s up for it,’ Jack joked.

‘She won’t be,’ I said. ‘You’ll be crossing the border in the Yaris.’

I made my way down towards the car park at the bottom of the street. I listened to Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album as I drove home. It’s certainly a bit more upbeat and musically animated than some of his previous work, but not as much as the reviews I’d read had led me to expect. The faltering, slightly washed-out and vague quality of his voice doesn’t readily lend itself to joy. The Jayhawks, for example, have a kind of emotional buoyancy and confident musical momentum which its hard to imagine Mr Oldham ever achieving – which isn’t to say that what he does isn’t in it’s own way just as good and valuable as the Jayhawk’s stuff, of course.

I drove down the Laverock towards Newsham and noticed that leaves are beginning to appear on the some of the hawthorn hedges. It’s suddenly possibly to believe it’s spring. When I arrived home Margaret was at the gate talking to Geraldine. A couple of months or so ago, Griff decided to add an extension to Citadel, another mere twenty feet of shadow for those of who live beneath it. It was almost as if they wanted the world to see it as barely more than a whim, a casual afterthought, nothing worth getting in a lather about. The Citizens were understandably shocked. They consulted leading members of the ruling political group, who were absolutely clear that they had been against this project from the start. They recommended that the Citizens appear at the planning hearing and seek a deferment, which they duly did. They asked the committee to visit residents’ homes to see just what the real impact was upon their lives.

The Committee made their site visit. The Widow Middlemiss had prepared herself for their visit. The Committee visited the building site, walked among the machines – the cranes, the dumpers, the diggers, the piles of breeze blocks and tiers of scaffolding – and beneath the naked girders and half built walls, and the builders went about their work all around and above them. The council official then announced the Committee could not visit any resident’s house, not even the Widow’s. On health and safety grounds. The official didn’t elaborate on exactly what the risks might be, of course, but Geraldine was pretty sure she’d worked it out.

‘They were frightened that Ethel’s teapot might fall on them,’ she said.

The planning committee duly returned to Morpeth and have now made their decision. It was absolutely predictable that they would grant consent for the extension and they did so. A committee member commented that the extension would not make a significant additional impact on the appearance of the building or upon residents. This of course is in a sense true. But it’s like saying that if you’ve stolen from someone more or less everything they’ve got taking the remainder of their loose change isn’t really such a big crime.

‘Democracy is a farce,’ Geraldine said. ‘They just do what they want. The whole thing’s been a charade.’

‘You’re right,’ Margaret said. ‘We may as well not exist.’

Margaret agreed. I stood and listened and nodded my agreement. I was thinking that the trouble with the councillors is that they’re probably just as powerless as we are, but that that none of them has the courage to admit it. I gazed idly over into Hugo’s front garden, where I noticed an old silver oven and hob unit had arrived in recent days along with a few sheets of plasterboard wrapped in polythene. I also noticed that The Alligator had acquired a new black boot and a towbar. It was obviously roadworthy again. I tried to recall when the beating had ended. Had I heard it this year?  I wasn’t sure.

I went into the house and left Margaret and Geraldine plotting the revolution. I scooped up De Kooning and took him through to the kitchen. There was a pile of onions and carrots on the bench. I made myself a cappuccino and we went through to the conservatory. I stood with De Kooning in my arms and looked out at the giant walls which now constitute the whole of our horizon.

‘That’s it, then,’ I said. ‘The battle’s finally over. There’s no way out of here now. We’re entombed.’

De Kooning rubbed his head against my face and began to purr.

‘Hey, you don’t know any Hank Locklin songs, do you?’ I said to him. ‘Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On? Happy Journey? Geisha Girl?’

It was only half past five, but the sun had already disappeared behind The Wall. As I contemplated the implacable panorama that incarcerated us I began to wonder if Bonnie Prince Billy had ever sung Hank Locklin songs. I wondered how that would sound like. De Kooning was watching the blackbirds chasing each other around the garden. I began to wonder if there was anywhere in Northumberland where I could still buy myself a steam roller.

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