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as good will stalks the fairy-lit earth

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It would have been a miracle if all the slippers had gone when I returned from Ambleside. They hadn’t. Over the weekend one after another, like Magi logging on to LastMinuteMyrrh.com, Citizens came to collect their orders. Big Trevor had ordered no fewer than six pairs. For his mother he’d ordered some lambswool moccasins in dusky pink. For his mother-in-law the same, but in a more restrained natural light tan. His two sisters and sister-in-law all got shiny silk sequined mules with a low heel in silver, black and red. His daughter got a pair of Winnie the Poohs, which Margaret says have been one of the best sellers over Christmas. Interestingly Trevor didn’t order any slippers for himself and nor did anyone else order any for him. Perhaps Trevor’s a barefoot sort of man at home, I thought. Or perhaps he’s hoping to get a pair for himself in the Slipper Sisters eBay shop sale, which was starting on Christmas Day (because that’s when Marks and Sparks start theirs, Margaret explained).

While I was away the Widow Middlemiss returned home. Her brother and sister-in-law are staying with her until the New Year. It seems she had been quite anxious about returning and had feared that when she got back she would find her house overrun with a plague of frogs. Fortunately this was not the case, although it did occur to me that as was it was winter now and the heating in the house hadn’t been on for months there could be any number of them hibernating behind her settee or under her bed. She sent Margaret a glittery white Christmas card with a picture of an angel on it. Inside the card she thanked Margaret for all her help at the time of the flood. She also gave Margaret a similar card to pass on the Brenda. On Sunday morning Maureen and the Whelp turned up at the Widow’s door. How do they do that? How did they know she had returned? Do doorstep evangelists have some sort of special radar which enables them to detect the presence of people like the Widow? Are they for instance like sharks, which are said to be able detect a single drop of blood in the ocean from more than five miles away and without fail to always find their way to its source within a matter of seconds? How do they do that?

At work most of the toys from the Salvation Army and other charities were delivered and distributed in my absence. We don’t get as many as we used too, though, and there are always a number of parents who turn up at our door in the days before Christmas asking if we can help. For the most part the answer is no. Whatever other Christmas bonuses he gives out there is no allowance for toys for the children of the poor, perhaps because that whole process would look a bit Dickensian and evoke images of the Poor House. The Poor House is not the sort of image New Labour is really looking for.

Lily took Boz’s kids through to the hospital to see him. He’s no longer on a secure ward and expects to be discharged early in the new year. Lily said he was very calm and ‘absolutely lovely’ with the kids. He had bought them presents and had a little Christmas party with them on the ward. They all wore Christmas hats and played pass the parcel and musical chairs with some of the other patients. Angie asked if the Mad Hatter had been there. Lily said he hadn’t. Apparently he’s on Prozac now and not half as much fun as he used to be.  As I listened to this conversation I recalled that the Mad Hatter had been found guilty of murdering time and his stopped at teatime watch came to mind. I wondered if Margaret would be resetting the time on her twenty three clocks for 2009.

On Christmas Eve Angie visited Mandy, Apple and Sparky. Mr Zee was still there and the situation was calm and settled. Mr Zee’s job interview was cancelled because the company went into liquidation and so the possible crisis has been averted, as least for the time being. Angie asked Sparky what he was hoping to get from Santa, and he said a Zorro suit just like his ‘daddy’s’. Unfortunately Flinty has become aware of this development in the relationship between Mr Zee and the children. He rang Angie on Christmas Eve, ostensibly to ask again how he was supposed to get his presents to them. Angie reminded him that he’d already been told several times that if he got them delivered to the office they we would see to it they got to the children in time.

‘Aye, but how can I do that?’ Flinty said. ‘I’m not allowed to enter Ashington, am I? What are you saying, that I should break the conditions of my parole?!’

‘No, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie said. ‘I am not suggesting you do anything of the sort. I would suggest that it would be very irresponsible for you to ever do such a thing.’

‘Aye, exactly,’ Flinty replied. ‘So how are the kids going to get their presents?’

‘Last time we spoke you said you could get your sister to drop them off. I thought that’s what we agreed would happen.’

‘But what if she doesn’t want to do that?’

‘You said she wouldn’t have any problem doing that. Did you ask her?’

‘That’s not the point, though, is it? What if she’d said no?’

‘So she said yes? So she can drop them off and we’ll make sure they’re delivered.’

‘Any way there’s another thing I’m not happy about. Someone tells me that that freak is making my kids call him dad. Is that true?’ It better bloody well not be.’

‘So far as I am aware Mandy’s current partner is not making the children call him anything,’ Angie said.

‘Hey, listen, pet. Them’s my bairns and I’m telling you now that neither you nor anybody else in this world has the right to let them think some weirdo from a fancy dress parlour is their dad. Got it, pet? I’m their dad, not that freak.’

‘Mandy’s partner has a very good relationship with the children, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie said. ‘It would be quite wrong to judge anyone merely by the way they dress. But for your information I can assure you he does not dress the way he does as a form of fancy dress. He’s actually a very serious person.’

‘Serious person, my arse! What sort of serious person needs to dress up as some sort of fictional Mexican bandito?! Eh?! If it isn’t just fancy dress, what is it, eh? Is he in disguise or something? Is he being hunted down by the Federales or something?!’

Flinty had a point, of course. There is a big difference between dressing up and being in disguise. A man dressed as an Arab to evade the attention of the police is a good example of the latter, and his behaviour is obviously open to explanation by reference to his predicament (although the reasons for his choice of disguise might be less clear). The reason why someone would simply want to spend all his or her waking hours dressed as Count Dracula, Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Godzilla or Zorro is rather less obvious, and in any case if someone did the term ‘wearing fancy dress’ would probably not be an adequate account of their behaviour. But Angie wasn’t wanting to debate the complexities of this issue with him or to provoke him further by raising The Arab question with him, an identity which in any case he’d simply categorically deny he’d ever assumed.

‘I think you’ll find, Mr Flintoff, that we all have a right under Human Rights legislation to dress as we choose, just so long as it doesn’t offend public decency or break some other law.’

‘And you don’t think that a geezer dressed up in cowboy boots and a cape living in the same house as my kids offends me?! What planet are ye from, pet?’

‘Obviously not the same one as you, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie replied. ‘Can I suggest that this conversation is getting us nowhere. If you get your sister to bring the presents in I’ll make sure they are delivered in time for Christmas.’

‘Hey, don’t bother, pet. I’ll tell you what, I’ll deliver them myself!’ he said, and hung up. Flinty’s sister brought the presents in to the office an hour or so later.

Every morning on the days before Christmas I noticed there was a lot of sand around the photocopier, especially on Christmas Eve morning. ‘Morning, Frodo,’ I said as I passed him. ‘How’s tricks?’

‘Is Tom having any holiday this Christmas?’ I asked Jesse from admin when she came up with a letter for me to sign.

‘No, I think he’s in every day,’ she said. ‘I don’t think he’s very big on Christmas.’

‘Has he got any family?’

‘Actually, I’m not sure. Tom’s a very, very private person. He never talks about his home life at all. He’s a sort of international man of mystery.’

‘So he doesn’t have a partner?’

Jesse shrugged. ‘If he does it’s not one he’s ever told anybody about,’ she said.

‘Kids?’

Jesse shrugged again.

‘Parents? Grandparents?’

She shook her head.

‘A girlfriend, a boyfriend, a best friend, a confidante?’

Another shrug.

‘A cat? A budgie? A goldfish?’

Late that afternoon there was only a skeleton staff left in the building. Tom had let all the other admin workers finish early and was in the main office, manning the telephones. I wandered through and sat down at one of the desks.

‘You all ready for Christmas, Tom?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am. I’m looking forward to a few days off.’

‘So do you do anything special at Christmas? Are you a party animal or a stay at home kind of guy?’

‘Oh, I’m not one for parties.’ he said, and smiled.

‘No, me neither,’ I said. ‘And doesn’t all this present buying business drive you loopy?! There’s supposed to be a recession going on. I don’t know about you, but to me it still seemed like Bedlam again out there this year! Still, what’s the point of having money if you’re not going to spend it on anyone, eh?’

Tom smiled, meekly. I noticed a parcel lying on his bag. It was wrapped in fine silver paper with gold spots on it and tied up with a blue satin ribbon. From its size and shape I would have said it looked very much like a new toner cartridge for a Xerox M35. There was also a ream of Premium Ivory Bond and a brand new green extendable leash on the floor near him, as well as another big gift wrapped bundle which looked to me as if it probably contained a quilted stable rug coat for a small horse.

‘Do you want to get away?’ Tom said. ‘I’m happy to hang on here. We can always get you on your mobile, can’t we?’

‘Thanks, Tom. That’s very kind of you. Yeah, I might do that.’

I suspected Tom wanted everyone to go so he could take Frodo home for Christmas. I sat for a minute or so. I got up, leant over towards Tom and shook his hand.

‘All the best to you and yours, Tom,’ I said. ‘Have a really good Christmas.’ What I was wanting to do of course was to remind him that a Xerox is for life, not just for Christmas.

‘Yes,’ Tom said. ‘All the best to you too. Merry Christmas.’

When I got home the house was full of the smell of the sweet onions Margaret was cooking for Christmas Day. I fed De Kooning a plate of prawns and sat for a while flicking through Bill Smith’s book on D Y Cameron. Then I went out for a walk. I crossed Broadway Circle and went along to the top of Waterloo Road to look at the house with the Christmas lights and the inflatable Homer Simpson dressed as Santa. I walked down past the still unfinished market place refurbishment and the bus station and on down to the quayside. It’s easy to convince yourself on a night like this that all is well with the world and that good will really does stalk the earth.

When I got back home Margaret was wrapping up the last of her presents.

‘Did you get Brenda something?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I got her a pair of winter gloves and a matching muff in leopard skin faux fur and a sweet little Radley purse with a lime green dog. I also got her a Chanel Coco Mademoiselle Gift Set – perfume, body cream, body wash, everything. Cocos her favourite. She’ll really love it. Oh, and I got her some silver earrings from The Biscuit Factory, handmade ones with little birds dangling down.’

‘Did you get anything for Tristan?’

‘Of course. I wouldn’t leave him out, would I? I got him a three-pack of striped socks from Topman.’

‘Hmmm, good choice,’ I said. ‘Troskyists are really big on stripes this year.’

‘Oh, by the way, that’s your present from Brenda over there,’ Margaret said. ‘The one beneath the tree in the holly and mistletoe paper.’

I picked it up. It was a cube, each side being perhaps twelve inches in length. I shook it. It rattled a little and I fancied it might have slurped or gurgled too. I very much wanted it to be an electric screwdriver set, but its weight and sound told me it wasn’t.  I wondered if I stared at it long enough and wished hard enough I could change the contents of my unopened gift into what I wanted it to be. I wondered if it was a Plaster of Paris Paint It Yourself horse’s head or an illuminated world globe showing the map of the British Empire at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It was probably not a good idea to entertain such thoughts though, just in case. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

‘Do you know what it is?’ I asked Margaret.

‘No, of course not,’ she replied.

I decided to open it. It was a battery powered Zen-style Feng Shui Windchime Table Fountain. That’s what it said on the box. I took it out. It somehow reminded me of the whale’s jawbone arch at Whitby, although of course that isn’t made of silver plastic. The Table Fountain is obviously meant to be a therapeutic ornament, something to soothe me.

‘Oh, isn’t that lovely!’ Margaret said. ‘It’s so unusual, isn’t it? You must remember to thank her for it.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I will. By the way, you did put my name on her present, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, of course. Why? You haven’t bought her something on your own, have you?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I haven’t. Not this year. I only wish I had.’

 .

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kurt schwitters and the empty box of fate

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I spent last week staying in a cottage at Under Loughrigg close to Ambleside. I usually have a week away walking in the hills in December, and last week was an especially good time to go this year as it meant I escaped the mayhem of Margaret and Brenda trying to post off all those slippers in time for Christmas. But last week wasn’t such a good week weather-wise. It rained almost every day and on a couple of days rained very hard. Some nights I could hear the Rothay running high and rushing by below my bedroom window.

Monday wasn’t a bad day. There was still quite a good covering of snow on the mountains. In the morning I left town by the old coffin road going north towards Grasmere. As I made my way up the hill toward Rydal Hall fugitive glimpses of sunlight were catching the snow high up on Fairfield, my destination. As I often do when walking where he lived, I tried to put myself in Wordsworth’s shoes and to imagine how walking this path must have felt to him. I often convince myself that this is a futile exercise: even my footwear and map militate against it. Wordsworth had a relationship with the weather and the place that I can hardly begin to imagine, I suspect.

It was cold on Fairfield and felt damp. I made my way down the snowy descent to Grisedale Tarn, which lay below me like a slab of grey pewter in its bowl of broken rock and white snow. From the tarn I followed the bridleway back down to Grasmere. I wandered around the village and had a cappuccino before making my way back by way of the paths to the south of Grasmere and Rydal Water. It turned out to be the best day of the week. After a frosty start on Tuesday the rain began.

Each morning I opened the curtains and looked out to see rain on Wansfell. Last Christmas I had a cottage over that way, not far below Jenkins Crag, close to where Kurt Schwitters lived when he first came to stay in Ambleside in 1945. The weather was better last year and I spent several good days up on Wansfell looking for Schwitters’ footprints and walking the paths he must have so often walked in the last years of his life.  

Because it was raining much of the time last week I found myself spending more time than usual in the cottage. Sometimes I’d sketch, sometimes I’d read or listen to music. Sometimes I even watched daytime television. I saw programmes I’d heard people talk about but never seen before.

Late one rainy afternoon I sat watching the dusk closing in, descending like a dark amorphous cloak over Wansfell. I turned on the television and Deal or No Deal appeared, hosted by Noel Edmonds. Edmonds has bleached blond hair, oiled and slicked back, and a scraggy goatee beard. He reminded me of Richard Branson, who also has this cheesy swashbuckler look about him. I initially simultaneously recalled both Amundsen and the Aryan Nation. Putting those echoes aside, I noticed how much of the Barnum and Bailey Ringmeister Edmonds had about him. A small, middle-aged man, perhaps no taller than a vacuum cleaner, he was clad in seasonal browns and russets, perhaps with a little gold or scarlet trimming here and there. He was wearing a high shouldered sort of jacket with a collar of a different colour to the body. It may have been velvet and for all I could see may have had a fitted waist and tails. I think he was wearing a waistcoat and he was in a collar and tie. His look seemed to encode a sort of amiable if vaguely counterfeit authority and expertise. He reminded me of a medicine man of some sort, the sort of quack doctor who at one time in America travelled from town to town in a caravan selling hair restoring potions, wonder cures for warts, patented tonics, snake oils for every occasion, that sort of thing. Dr Swapshop, perhaps, or Dr Houseparty.

It’s easy to dismiss a programme like this as cynical, manipulative poppycock just because that’s what it happens to be. But maybe this programme actually shows us a lot about how we construct, imagine and deal with risk in our society. It appears to set desire and dream against reason, but the hero(ine) of the show is always the (relatively poor and needy) contestant, and we are quickly persuaded – as are the studio audience – to identify with the contestant’s wishes and fears and to believe in the dream. The Dream of course is the usual fairy tale that if you want something enough you will get it. The hapless viewer is sucked into a regressive world of magical thinking. We join the contestant and the audience in believing that wishing can alter the way things are. The scrupulous – and inscrutable – sealed boxes seem to suggest that as no-one can tamper with them a rational decision can be made knowing there can be no cheating. But the inscrutability of the boxes means that until they are opened they could potentially contain any amount of money, and magical thinking leads us to think that we have the power to change that amount – or rather that whatever amount is in there will be the direct consequence of our fears and wishes. The boxes are the property of providence and contain nothing until the future reveals them. It’s another version our old esse est percipi conundrum. The future is empty. It will only be filled by events that have yet to happen.

The other player in this game is the banker, whose money it is that we are to suppose the contestant is playing for. From time to time this inevitably somewhat metaphysical banker intervenes by telephone via the dapper little Dr Swap to make the contestant an offer for the box in front of him or her, the box that contains the amount of money the contestant will win if he or she chooses to go that far. The banker’s interventions are supposed to be cold, rational and driven by a calculation of self interest. But within the context of the game of course they are as dubious and manipulative as any other element. Our mistrust of bankers comes into play: how do we know this banker doesn’t know what’s in the box all the time?  The banker’s offer can never be taken at face value, even if he (let’s assume he’s male!) appears to merely respond to the fortunes of the contestant. If he offers a large sum to someone who’s on a winning streak it might mean that he actually knows there’s a bigger sum in the box and he is trying to prevent the contestant winning it. The offer can therefore be seen as evidence that the contestant is indeed in for a big win; the offer should be rejected. On the other hand a small offer to a contestant on a losing streak might look like an attempt to make them think they’re bound to lose when the banker actually knows all along that there’s a lot of money in that final box. So this offer too, which in rational terms may also represent as much as the contestant is ever likely to win, is rejected. Similar self-deceptions occur if we assume the banker doesn’t know what’s in the box. A good offer in this case encourages the contestant and his or her audience to see this as evidence of the efficacy of magical thinking. It says the banker too knows that wishing hard enough really does change the future. A bad offer has a similar effect, because it too can be read as the banker attempting to discourage dreaming or encourage fear because he knows the power they have. In this world of fortune and fate every sign must let you believe that you can be a winner too.

Of course in this game the truism that the future has not yet happened and therefore no-one can know what it holds is entirely illusory. The inscrutable boxes that contain the future cannot be changed. Not unless you believe that wishes and fears do determine the future. If you believe this a swan will hatch from the duck’s egg that was irrevocably laid in the contestant’s box, or, if your fears are too strong and you don’t wish hard enough, your immutable treasure will dwindle to a trifle.

As the thick saturated mass of night fell on Wansfell that afternoon a young woman with a toothy smile had a run of good fortune: by chance she opened four boxes in a row that had only low amounts in them, thus increasing the probability – and belief – that her box contained one of the large sums. The banker responded by offering her £10,000. On a balance of probability basis this was more than the contestant was likely to win: most of the remaining boxes contained less than that, even though one did contain £250,000. But faced with the go for it, girl dream that drives these things, reason went to the wall. Encouraged by her boyfriend and the rest of the audience the young woman chose to open more boxes. She lost three of the remaining four large amounts in quick succession. The banker made another offer: £1,200. Again on a balance of probability calculation this was a reasonable offer, but as there was still a one in eight chance that she might win £35,000, she pressed on. She eventually opened the box in front of her and won £5. The offers the banker made were never enough to coax her out of her belief in the power of wishing, and that’s probably the only real calculation our make believe banker ever made. At the end the young woman with the toothy smile said sorry to her boyfriend for failing. Perhaps she felt that she hadn’t wished hard enough or that she had feared failure too much, although I imagine she later rationalised it all as a failure to make a rational choice based on probability when it became advantageous to do so. ‘I should have just taken the ten thousand, shouldn’t I?’ she’ll say.

The next contestant that afternoon was Gordon Brown. Gordon, like the young woman with the toothy smile, began well enough and had some early success in eliminating a better than chance number of low amount boxes. The telephone rang: the banker was offering Gordon £20 for his box. Little Dr Swap, standing on some books to enable him to see over the table top, rolled his eyes. Gordon smirked knowingly. He’s a man who knows all about bankers: when they act like this you can be sure they’re up to something, and that something is probably feathering their own nests.

‘I, er, owe it to the nation to honour our manifesto promise on this, er, issue. I am able to announce today that in respect of the, er, Honourable Gentleman’s offer our position is this: er, no deal,’ he said. He laid his hands on his inscrutable future, as if it was the dispatch box at question time. He had about him a smug certainty. If there was ever a man to defeat the banker, Gordon was that man. The audience cheered. Gordon winked at his wife Sarah, who was sitting in the front row of the audience with one of their children on her knee.

Gordon next opened box number seven, the one in the possession of The Man in a Cowboy Hat.

‘I’m prayin’ for you, pardner,’ The Man said.

‘Go for it, Gordon,’ someone from the audience called out.

The box was opened. It contained only £1.

The audience cheered. Gordon smiled bashfully, and turned to look at Sarah. He was visibly chuffed. He went over and shook The Cowboy’s hand, as if to thank him for his act of exceptional good will. The Cowboy smiled, as if he was a hero too. ‘I guess my prayers were answered,’ he said.

The phone rang. The banker upped his offer to £2,000. Gordon smirked again. He looked like a man who thought he had already all but vanquished the possibility of defeat.

‘It is my, er, responsibility to manage the nations asset prudently. Through prudence and good management this government has established the healthiest set of unopened boxes in a generation. I am confident that we can withstand any, er, minor, er, mis, er, fortunes. We are therefore in a position to say again to the Honourable Gentleman: no deal, sir.’

The audience loved it. St Gordon could do no wrong. But then, just as it had with the young woman with the toothy smile, fortune took a turn for the worst. In what seemed like no time at all Gordon was reduced to only four unopened boxes. Three of these boxes contained amounts of £15 or less; the fourth contained £250,000. The telephone rang. Standing as tall and proud as a pepper mill Dr Swap lifted the handset slowly to his ear. He nodded and then nodded again.

‘He’s now offering you . . . ‘  Dr Swap paused and took a deep breath. For a moment he reminded me of a miniature Kirk Douglas. ‘£15,000. Deal or no deal?’

Gordon smirked and smiled knowingly.

‘No deal,’ Gordon said, without hesitation. Here was man who felt the hand of history on his shoulder. ‘I have not come here today to make a deal. I have come to restore pride to our nation. I have come in the can do spirit that has always characterised our nation. I can win the £250,000. I will win the £250,000. Anything less will be failure.’

The audience went bananas. The tension in the room was electric. Sarah had her hand over mouth.

‘Which box do you want to open next?’ Dr Swap asked.

Gordon looked at the three remaining choices. He chose to open box number nineteen, the box belonging to The Swiss Cheese Girl.

‘Good luck, Gordon,’ she said. ‘Vee all vont you to vin.’

The Swiss Cheese Girl opened box nineteen. The audience gasped and the studio fell into a dreadful silence: the £250,000 was lost.

Gordon hung his head. He suddenly looked ten years older. The phone didn’t ring. Gordon opened another box and the £15 was now also gone. There were now only two boxes remaining: £10 and 10p, and one of them was definitely his.

The telephone rang. Little Dr Swap listened attentively.

‘Oh, that was nasty,’ he said.  With an expression that resembled a bewildered chicken he turned to Gordon. ‘He’s offering £7.50. Deal or no deal?’

Gordon looked back over his shoulder. Sarah was sitting with Alistair Darling. They both smiled half-heartedly, shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders. Gordon looked down at his unopened box. Surely all hope was now gone. But Gordon was not a man about to smile bravely at the cruel hand fate had dealt him. No, Sirree.

‘I have an offer to make the Honourable Gentleman,’ Gordon said.

‘You have?! That’s new!’ Dr Swap said, suddenly as upright and tall as a meerkat standing on its hind legs.

‘I want to ask the Honourable Banker to allow me to put half a million pounds into each of the two remaining boxes,’ Gordon said. ‘Deal or no deal?’

The audience gasped; the audience murmured.

‘Well, I never!’ Dr Swap exclaimed. He put Gordon’s offer to the banker.

‘He says it’s highly irregular. But he is prepared to consider it. But first he wants to know what happens to money in the box you don’t open,’ Dr Swap asked.

‘That money will be his,’ Gordon said. ‘I only get to keep my, er, winnings from the box I open, in accordance with the, er, rules of the game.’

The offer was put to the banker. The banker’s reply came back immediately.

‘He says it’s a deal!’ the dapper one said, with a gnome-like gleam on his face. He carefully placed the phone back into its cradle.

The audience clapped, stamped, whooped and cheered. Sarah and Alistair gazed at Gordon in what looked like a mixture of amazement and adoration. Little Dr Swap was again looking around the audience in much the same way as a meerkat might look across a desert. He was in new territory too. Gordon nodded to Alistair, who made a quick mobile phone call and confirmed that the money was now in the boxes. The game could go on.

‘Well,’ Dr Swap said. ‘I think I know what you’re going to do now.’

Gordon was just about to answer when the phone rang again. Our Little Swashbuckler assumed an expression of frozen disbelief. He slowly picked up the receiver. You could have heard a pin drop in the audience.

‘Okay. Yes, I see. Okay, I’ll put that to him.’  Dr Swap turned to Gordon and paused. ‘He wants to make you a final offer.’

Gordon smiled, almost smirked again. Self-satisfaction was returning to his face. He was truly back in the game.

‘The banker wants to offer you the amount you would have won originally had you been left with only the highest value box. He is offering you . . . £250,000. Deal or no deal?’

The audience emitted yet another collective gasp. This was a game like no other. The banker had never before offered that kind of money to anyone.  Gordon nodded and again smirked just a little. He looked over his shoulder. Alistair and Sarah were nodding enthusiastically. They had manic grins all over their faces.

‘It has always been our hope to bring success to this country,’ Gordon said. ‘To act in the interests of all of the people, not just some of them. We have not achieved what we have by taking unnecessary risks or behaving in a reckless way. By following a policy of sound financial management we have become the envy of the world and restored this nation’s stature in the world. Now is no time to abandon the successful course we have set. Tell the banker I will accept his offer. Tell him he has a deal!’

The audience cheered enthusiastically. Sarah and Alistair sprang from their seats and ran across to Gordon and embraced him. Little Dr Swap shook his head and smiled. He sidled over and shook Gordon’s hand.

‘That was quite amazing, Gordon,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever see a game like that again. Against all the odds you achieved your goal – you won the £250,000. Gordon, you are a winner!’

Later that evening the rain eased off. I walked into town and went to Zefferelli’s to eat. It’s always a very good place to go and for me the most comfortable and pleasant place to eat in Ambleside. I ordered garlic bread followed by vegetable chilli and rice. As I waited for my food I listened to the conversation the two couples on the table next to me were having. They were obviously well-educated and well off. I think one of them perhaps lectured at a university, perhaps in politics or sociology. He also seemed to speak fluent Italian and at times demonstrated this a little too loudly.

They were debating Gordon’s performance that afternoon. Three of the four took the view that it would increase his poll ratings significantly. The lecturer bloke wondered if a snap election early next year wasn’t now a possibility. The other man felt the Conservatives should be given a chance. The lecturer argued that both major parties would follow very similar policies and that winning an election at present would be a bit of a poisoned chalice. Things could only get worse.

After I’d eaten I wandered around Ambleside for a while. There were a few Christmas lights dangling above the street and strung across shop windows and their reflections shimmered darkly on the wet pavements. It looked very seasonal. As I walked I remembered that Schwitters is said to have sometimes gone to the cinema that now also houses Zefferelli’s restaurant. I began to wonder what films he might have seen there. I like to think he would have gone to see It’s a Wonderful Life and perhaps also The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall. I like both of those films and decided that when I got back I would see if I could get DVD’s of them both.

On Friday it rained very heavily. In the morning I wanted to visit Schwitters’ grave but it was chucking it down. I sat drinking a cappuccino and watched the Jeremy Kyle Show instead. Kyle appears to be the ratfaced scourge of the Chav Nation, television’s self-appointed grand inquisitor of the underclass, who appear to submit themselves to abuse and humiliation as if it is in some way their version of living the dream. If you worship the Great God Celebrity it seems to matter little how you get yourself to its altar. Kyle would never get away with talking the way he does to any other group in society, of course. The powerlessness of his victims is a key element in his show, although perhaps one we only become aware of if and when we reflect critically on the power Kyle himself appears to exercise, the way he mistreats his guests with impunity. Would he talk to Andrew Sach’s granddaughter like that, or Kate and Gerry McCann? Kyle’s programme is one of those that seems to enable the middle classes to feel superior but which in reality is fascinating and reassuring because it acts out the secret nightmare of their own lives, the dark shadows of what they really are. Kyle’s programme revolves around sexual intrigue and betrayal, infidelity, promiscuity, paternity and disordered family life. He deploys the DNA test and lie detector test with much the same cavalier brutality that a witchhunter might have deployed thumbscrews or the ducking stool. I think the grotesque enjoyment we might get from watching this programme is superficially sadistic, but ultimately secretly deeply masochistic. We may be the witchhunter, but we are always also the witch. On Friday Gordon Brown was on the programme. Remind me to tell you about that some time.  It was really quite revealing.

Early on Friday evening the road south to Windermere and the road north to Keswick were both flooded for a while. The Rothay was running high behind the cottage and once or twice I went out with a torch to check that it wasn’t about to burst its banks. By midnight the level was beginning to fall again. I went to bed and listened to its rush. In the morning I left early. I needed to talk to De Kooning about the empty box of fate. I was hoping all the slippers had gone.

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Written by yammering

December 24, 2008 at 11:30 pm

eliza and the last day of summer

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Last Sunday I went to Keswick to see Eliza Carthy at the Theatre by the Lake. It was a fine day that had the feel of the last day of summer. I strolled around the town – which was surprisingly busy, I thought – and browsed in the outdoor shops. It’s sale time because it’s the end of the season and next year’s stuff is about to come in, and perhaps also because the economic slow down is having an impact. I sat outside at the Lakeland Pedlar with my elderflower cordial and carrot cake and gazed up at Skiddaw. The mountains were lolling in a loose grainy mist, benign and summery. I was wishing I’d brought my boots. But I hadn’t.

I wandered along the lake path from Crow Park down to the National Trust Centenary Stone at Calfclose Bay. On the way back I sat for a while on a seat near the Ruskin Memorial at Friar’s Crag looking out over Derwentwater. Perhaps his unquiet ghost sat down with me for a while. Places are made of memories. I was thinking about how double-edged they are, how the past perpetually constructs and reconstructs the present, and how the present constantly reconstructs the past. I gazed at the soft roller coaster ridge of Causey Pike and the snaggy peak of Eel Crag, like a lover gazing at a beloved he cannot reach. Memory is a landscape of longing and loss. The power of association is greater than Ruskin wanted to admit. But I wasn’t thinking about any of the many days when I’d walked these hills, any particular adventure or experience. I was just opened up somehow, peculiarly undefended in the face of the mass and texture of the place. I seemed to be somewhere beyond the particularity of events, but somehow there and then in a very particular moment.  I wished again that I’d brought my boots. I went past other walkers as if I was carrying a secret, as if I’d stolen one of the hills and it was in my rucksack, wrapped up in my black fleece. When I got back to my hotel room it struck me that I hadn’t taken a single photograph. Some days, I suppose, we must need to just let the moments be. Remembering, like art, is like an an act of love that sometimes feels like a violation.

I sat in my room near the window reading The Observer. But I wasn’t really paying attention. I wasn’t taking anything in. The articles floated by on the skin of my mind. None of them broke the surface tension or sank. I was preoccupied, wrapped in the paradox of being somewhere else at the very moment of being most fully here. It was probably beauty I was really wondering about, and how it had both immediacy and depth. The landscape of the Lakes is something that like most other people I experience as beautiful. There are paradigms of beauty we learn as children and find on every postcard. And yet while I knew that it was a common experience in its appearance and in its immediacy, I felt beauty must also be idiosyncratic and individual in its depth. Surely it’s more than a mere facade. Beauty is recognition. Beauty is knowledge of a kind. I was wondering if memory isn’t at its heart. I doubted that beauty could exist for a being without a memory. Beauty, I thought, in my Ruskinesque register, is a kind of angel of memory.

The articles in The Observer floated by. I was sounding a tad transcendental, I was thinking, a wee bit like a Platonist. A bit high-falutin’ and airy-fairy. Perhaps Ruskin’s ghost was still yammering inside me. I’d have to watch that. Beauty is recognition, but it is organic, material, iterative, cumulative, learnt, synthetic – I was looking for the words, the qualities to nail it down, to make sure it stays where it is, here in the real and ordinary lives of real and ordinary people. Beauty is not beyond us, not elsewhere, not the glimpse of another world. I was getting hungry. It was teatime. I was thinking that perhaps the study of idiosyncrasies of beauty must be like the archaeology or geology of memory. I was thinking I had wasted my money buying a newspaper today.

I had a quick shower and put back on the clothes I’d just taken off. I ate at Casa Bella, where the food is consistently good, much better than it ought to be for the price, I always think. I sat at a table near the window and watched the passers-by. I was feeling okay, I thought.

Eliza is lively and engaging, pale skinned and girlish, ordinary in a way. The intimacy of the venue suited her well and enhanced the sense of her being emotionally and personally close to her audience. This is probably particularly important for a folk artist, where being perceived as remote from her audience might be an unfortunate irony. The perceived distance between an artist and her audience is of course a key element in the experience of the performance. Eliza’s rapport seems utterly natural, as if it’s never had to be worked at. This is an illusion too, of course. She has a nice line in apparently spontaneous waffle, as she might call it, about things her audience of ordinary people know and can identify with, like boyfriends, mobile phones, families, babies, getting drunk, parties, rowing on the lake, and the pirate’s hook that happens to be hanging on the microphone stand. Tonight’s performance was ostensibly as much a conversation with the audience as a performance of the songs from her latest album. The conversation – in actuality a sort of monologue, of course – undoubtedly added context and thus depth to the songs and therefore altered and arguably enhanced them for her audience. The truth is that as entertaining and likeable as she undoubtedly was, I found myself at times wishing she would play a little more. There is depth and common experience – an inescapable humanity – about folk songs which is personal in any case and which can stand alone. I felt like a spoilsport at times, as if I was being a little churlish in my desire to hear her sing and play her fiddle more. And I was, because she is so personable and probably very genuine.

What I like about Eliza’s records – her music – is the intensity, the way the force of her music – rhythm, repetition, persistence, tone, texture, and what have you – ensnares me, wraps itself around me, possesses me. I like the way dark spaces are opened up- chasms – and the way the music is a kind of rope that swings and hauls me around spaces that seem simultaneously dangerous and safe, depraved, reckless and (ha ha – I’ve slipped this one past you once before!) sublime. I like how I’m made to lurch and stumble, teeter and soar, glide and fall. What I like is the palpable physicality of her music, how it reunites me with movement, with the dynamics or kinetics of being an animal in an animal’s world. Maybe this is one of the things the beauty of music remembers for us, the way the body moves, how we made and make the space where we find ourselves as bodies. I’d watched videos of Eliza on YouTube and she seemed to me to be also possessed by the physicality of her music. I had come to witness some of those moments. And I did. Eliza and her band are all strong musicians and seem to be deeply involved with their material. There were times when I got what I came for, the immediacy of Eliza fiddling and stepping and swaying around the stage like a distracted hobgoblin, driven to a dance that is as deep as we are, as deep as any of us can be, and stepping up to the microphone to fathom and release unfathomable emotions. Eliza surrenders her voice to her song, her body to her violin – that’s how good she is.

After the concert she came out into the bar and sat at the table with her CD’s. I bought another copy of Dreams of Breathing Underwater and asked her to sign it for me. She’s pregnant and I wished her good luck with the baby and she thanked me for that. Eliza wants to be the same woman off stage as she is on stage, I thought, and maybe she is, in some ways at least. But it would be a mistake to assume that a Yorkshire lass has any less of a secret life than Leonard Cohen.

The next morning I had intended to hire a rowing boat and go out on the lake for an hour. I was thinking I might drown the ghost of Ruskin once and for all. But it was raining steadily. I drove down past Thirlmere, over Dunmail Raise and through Grasmere in the quiet silvery rain and it looked very like the first day of autumn. I went to Ambleside and browsed around the outdoor shops there, but again bought nothing. I wandered around the town and spent a little while in the Old Courthouse Gallery looking again at the paintings of Libby Edmondson, which I particularly like and whose style in some ways reminds me of mine.

When I got back home there was only De Kooning in the house. I could hear the Napoleon still ticking in Margaret’s bedroom. De Kooning gave me a nudge with his head and I took him to the kitchen and gave him some prawns. I told him Eliza was good but asked him not to mention Ruskin. I went through to the conservatory as I checked my mail. There were seven large onions on the coffee table. The clatter and rumble of the Citadel men was relentless.

When Margaret came in I asked her if she’d wound the Napoleon up.

‘I have not,’ she said, emphatically. ‘I haven’t tampered with it at all. Brenda has advised me that intervening would not not a good idea.’

‘I didn’t know she knew about clocks.’ I said. ‘There’s no end to her talents, is there?’

Margaret rolled her eyes. She didn’t need to tell me that the awakening of a long dead clock would be regarded as a sign by Brenda. What it was a sign of was less obvious, of course.

‘Did you tell Brenda about my spider’s corpse theory?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ Margaret replied, tersely. ‘She said that such an explanation is so far fetched and unlikely that it can be safely dismissed.’

And yet the idea that the clock might start up again in contravention of the laws of nature and in doing so have a higher meaning, which might be of very great significance indeed, isn’t so unlikely, it seems.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Okay.’

On Thursday I noticed the clock was still ticking and I asked Margaret again if she had wound it up. Again she said she hadn’t.

‘Then someone has,’ I said. ‘Because even if we don’t know why it started, what we do know is it won’t keep going unless someone keeps winding it up. Perpetual motion isn’t possible.’

‘I haven’t touched it,’ Margaret repeated. ‘And I won’t. But let me tell you this – that clock may never stop again. Brenda’s right, everything happens for a reason, and that Napoleon is no exception.’

‘I think I’ll call the Greek,’ I said.

‘You can call who you like,’ Margaret said. ‘There are some things that even the Greek can’t explain.’

I rang the Greek. He said to be patient. Sooner or later the Napoleon will fall totally silent again.  But it hasn’t done so yet and it’s beginning to worry me. Imagine if the world according to Brenda just happens to turn out to be true. 

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Written by yammering

September 20, 2008 at 10:32 pm