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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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if rats are made out of nothingness

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newsham-elliot-street-pan-ahar

New Labour won the Glenrothes by-election. Gordon will be gloating. He sits at night in his new primrose yellow room full of broken cogs and scattered springs and cannot believe his luck. He sniggers. He chortles. He laughs like a Kirkcaldy drain. How many dark nights did he sit over-winding his beloved timebomb, praying to the mythical deity that the bloody thing wouldn’t blow up in his face? But blow up it does and guess what: he’s off the hook! You’d almost think Gordon had done this deliberately, wouldn’t you? I gather he’s now asked Sarah to get him a wrecking ball for Christmas. He’s told her he’s come up with an ingenious solution to the recession in the construction industry.

I spoke to Talullah Hudspith a few days ago. I hadn’t seen her since Rosie’s leaving do. She asked me what I thought of Jack’s performance.

‘Quite remarkable,’ I said. ‘And brave. The man rocks, doesn’t he?’

Talullah and Jack have an odd relationship. Some say she has a thing about him; others say the exact opposite is true. I personally remain agnostic on the Talullah and Jack issue.

‘Do you think so?’ Talullah said, with more than a hint of a sneer. ‘I thought he was bloody ridiculous, actually. I mean, what on earth would possess a man of his age to prance around like that in front of all those poor women? He’s got no shame.’

In the light of this response you too will now no doubt be hypothesising about Talullah and Jack. I certainly was. But a tactical evasion seemed the order of the day.

‘So is he back at work?’ I asked.     

Talullah chuckled, or perhaps snortled. ‘Oh ho, he’s back all right!’ she said. ‘The dirty hound’s always skulking around in the shadows somewhere. He’s never yet spoken to me about his antics, of course. He’s quite ridiculous, really. Do you know he’s now wearing dark glasses for work?  He never takes them off. Who the hell does he think he is, Elvis Presley?!’

‘Yeah, I would be too if I’d done what he did!’ I said. ‘The guy’s probably just a bit embarrassed.’

‘Embarrassed?! Him?!  That’s a laugh. You couldn’t knock him back with a shitty stick, man. No, he’s a star reborn, that’s what our Jack is. I wish he’d do us all a favour and just retire.’

‘So,’ I said. ‘How’s the delightful Mrs Gormley? Did she enjoy the night?’

‘Oh, Betty loved it! She’d do it again tomorrow if she could.’

‘Maybe Jack’ll play for her if she asks him nicely,’ I said. ‘If he really is a star reborn, he’ll have no problem with that. Nor will she, I suspect. Just as long as he keeps his pants on next time.’

Talullah’s from a theatrical blackground. She’s naturally dramatic. She’s the kind of woman who likes to start a riot. Maybe it just gets up her nose that Jack upstaged her.

Mandy has been into the office a couple of times this week. There have been almost daily sightings of the Arab in the white Mercedes and she’s getting very stressed. On Friday she and Mr Zee were waiting to see Debs when I arrived at the office. Mr Zee looked very smart, as always. His rich brown cape was almost shimmering in the morning sun.

‘How you doing?’ I said to him.

‘I’m okay,’ he replied. ‘You know.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I know. So are you still reading Bukowski?’

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I decided he wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m reading Neruda at the minute. They’ve got lots of his stuff at ZorrStore.com. I’m trying to get into Rumi too.’

Mandy then told me that the phone had rung seven times during the night for each of the last three nights, and each and every time it was the same old tune.

‘Is Flinty still with Molly?’ I asked.

Mandy shrugged and looked at Mr Zee.

‘We don’t know,’ he said.

‘Have you told the police?’

‘Yeah. Nothing they can do. The caller’s using a stolen mobile.’

When I got home that night there were three more big boxes of slippers in the hall. De Kooning was sitting on top of them playing king of the castle. Geraldine was talking to Margaret about the latest curse of the Citadel: rats. They were first spotted by Big Trevor while I was in Glasgow it seems, scuttling around beneath his railings.

‘They weren’t there until the builders came,’ Geraldine said.

I wondered if she thought the builders had imported them as a sort of alien species, or simply because no building site is complete without a good infestation of rodents.

‘So how did they get there?’ I asked, already allowing my mind to toy with the notion of their ex nihilo creation.

‘Well, it can only be the building site, can’t it?’ Margaret said. ‘They weren’t there until they started building that monstrosity.’

Okay, I thought, but how did they get here? Did Griff dress himself as the Pied Piper and lead them here from their old haunts along the quayside?  Did they hear along the grapevine about the Citadel site and make their way here, like the Israelites to the Promised Land, like Americans to California? My guess was that they’ve always been here or that perhaps the sightings are apocryphal, a plague of the Citizens’ collective imagination.

‘We need to visit the site en masse and register our protest,’ Geraldine said. ‘Rats are dangerous. Did you know that they sometimes curl up on your pillow beside your face as you sleep!  Imagine that. It’s horrific!’

‘Will we be safe?’ Margaret asked.

‘As long as we wear sensible footwear we will be!’ Geraldine said, obviously recalling the mass trespass during the summer when she fell off her high heeled boots. It’s not often Geraldine makes a joke about herself.

‘I’ll wear my Timberlands,’ Margaret said. ‘They’ll never get me in them.’

I went through to the conservatory to drink a cappuccino. There were a dozen or so pairs of slippers lined up across the floor. They were obviously part of the Christmas stock. Slippers with owls and guitars and ducks on them. Camper van slippers, cows and gingerbread men slippers. There were also a couple of pairs of fake fur leopard skin bootie slippers.  I stepped over them and stood at the window. The sky was almost dark. There were vague lights flickering somewhere deep in the carcase of the Citadel. It looms over us like Kafka’s Castle. I began again to wonder where Hugo had put his little giraffe.

‘Edna will never come home now,’ Margaret said, after Geraldine had left. ‘She’ll never cope with the idea that she might wake up and find a rat sleeping next to her face. It’s an absolute crying shame.’

I stared out at the Castle. I wondered about the rats that are made out of nothingness.

‘I’m going to Brenda’s tonight,’ Margaret said. ‘Her friend who’s an astrologer is coming to her house. She’s going to do my horoscope.’

I nodded. I said nothing for a minute or so.

‘Are you taking some of these slippers with you?’ I eventually asked.

‘No,’ Margaret said. ‘But I am taking the boxes in the hall.’

When she left I had another cappuccino and sat for a while reading my book on Scottish art. Some of W G Gillies’ paintings are stunning. I love his border landscapes and they sort of feel like home to me too. It takes a lot of confidence to paint as freely as he does in those paintings. But I was particularly taken on Friday night by his 1973 painting The Garden in Winter. We sometimes fail to see the beauty that lies in the ordinary things, the things we can see from our windows. We sometimes fail to see how much those things really matter. I gave De Kooning his prawns and painted a new square canvas over with a Prussian blue ground.

I watched it dry and listened to Meg Baird’s album. I decided I would have to go up to Temple soon to see the house where Gillies lived and where he did all those late paintings.

I watched Newsnight. I went to bed.

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