yammering

oh, well, whatever . . .

Posts Tagged ‘keats

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.

.

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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.

.

while searching for the nightingale’s grave

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horton-church-and-graveyard-window-72dpi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

horton-graveyard-graves-72dpi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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the nightingale’s cage and the prince of pipers

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newsham, blyth old stationmaster's house

When I arrived at the office on Tuesday Jack Verdi and his colleague Owen Vardy were in reception. They had come for meetings about different families. These two men have a strange affinity with one another, something their appearance belies. It’s believed they even have the same birthday. Jack – who has now taken to wearing skinny leg black jeans and trainers – is increasing rock-Gothic black and motorcycle dangerous, a man in shades, a refugee from the crypt. Owen by contrast is David Livingstone without the pith helmet. He has about him something of the demeanour of a country parson, gentle and reed-like, with a rather tentative and deferential style. Unlike Jack, Owen seems not to want to rage against the dying of the light, not even to seek to challenge it subversively. Of course, the word on Owen is that he may not be quite as meek as he seems and that somewhere inside that parson-like persona there burns a still unquenchable fire. What these two men share, besides their birthday, is that they are from the same generation, that they both were once professional musicians – Owen was part of a quite successful folk-rock outfit called Proudlute – and that both have known fame. Both are trying to get their bearings in an obscure post-celebrity netherworld. Both also share an enduring fixation with John Keats. When I arrived they were discussing Keats’ epitaph, and appeared to be disagreeing about whether it would be an appropriate epitaph for us all today.

‘Ah ha,’ I said as I approached them, ‘Verdi and Vardy, the undertakers, I presume.’

Keats is buried in a grave in Italy. Famously, he did not want his name put on his gravestone. He wanted it only to contain his epitaph, the line he told his painter friend Severn he wanted: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. This phrase deploys an image taken from the play Love Lies Ableeding, written by Beaumont and Fletcher some two hundred years earlier. The image is generally taken as speaking of our transience, the brevity and impermanency of life and fame and renown, and how we are all destined to die and to be forgotten. It says the world will not remember who we were. In Keats’ case you might also argue that his identification and involvement with the sensuous, sensual substances of the world is also represented in the image, that it suggests that who he was is written in the concrete stuff of nature, the things he let himself somehow unite with and become. A good example of negative capability, perhaps. But either way, a name written in water will not endure, at least not at the level of individual identity, of being discernible as anyone in particular. No-one’s name will long survive their passing. It is a tad ironic, of course, that the anonymity of Keats’ gravestone and the pessimism of his epitaph have enhanced its fame and made it more likely to be remembered.

Owen was saying that he wanted the same epitaph on his grave. Jack was arguing that times had changed and that the epitaph needed to be updated accordingly

‘It’s a new age, man,’ Jack said. ‘If Keats had been around now he wouldn’t have accepted death so easily. Life expectancy has increased dramatically since those days. People are no longer resigned to an early death. Hey, one day soon people might not even need to die! The epitaph needs to reflect that change. “Here lies one whose name was writ in rock,” that’s what my epitaph’s going to be, man!’  Jack chuckled, at his own felicitous ambiguity, no doubt.

‘That can’t be right,’ Owen said. ‘The whole point of the epitaph is its universality. It’s our transience and the temporary nature of our existence that binds us together as human beings. It’s the very thing that makes us human, Jack.’

‘No, man,’ Jack said. ‘That’s bollocks. It might have been that way once, but not now, man, not now. If Keats was around now he wouldn’t be moping around with this romantic despair and dissolution mullarkey. He wouldn’t be even one percent in love with easeful death. He’d be saying grab the future and strangle it, dude! Carve your name into the stars, man! The spirit of Keats is transformative, man, and we’ve got to pay the cat his dues. If Keats was around today he wouldn’t slip so quietly into his grave – they’d have to drag him off the stage, man, crowbar the axe from his hand.’

Owen looked pensive, like a man looking into an empty bird cage. Someone told me that Owen in fact did once keep a pet nightingale. Jack says the only pet he ever had was a flea. He said he found it on himself after he had spent an afternoon in a room in the Chelsea Hotel with Janis Joplin. He says he just couldn’t bring himself to crush a creature that had been on Janis’s body, that may have tasted her blood and felt the warm throb of her skin. He tells how he put the fortunate flea in a jam jar and kept it with him on the tour bus for weeks. He named it Jimi. One day the band was on Route 66, driving through the night on their way to a gig in St Louis. A roadie who had been drinking a lot of beer was desperate to relieve himself. It is generally believed that Jimi probably died by drowning, although some like to think he escaped into the night when the jam jar was hurled from the bus and shattered on the pavement of a small unknown town somewhere in middle America.  Some will tell you Jimi’s still out there, living the good life in a motel east of Albuquerque. This tale may be apocryphal, of course. In true rock tradition, Jack’s not the sort of man who would let factual accuracy stand in the way of the construction of his personal myth.

‘No, man,’ Jack said, ‘it’s the desire to cheat death, to defy it, to overcome it, to transcend it – that’s what makes us human, that’s what binds us together. Not the willingness to surrender demurely to the Reaper.’ I wondered if he was alluding to Tallulah at this point. Surely not.

Owen shook his head gently. ‘I really, really don’t agree,’ he said. Jack was leaning against the wall, wiry and spectre-thin in his skinny leg jeans, inscrutable behind his Aviators. What struck me was the way he was more and more deploying the vocabulary of a rock musician again. If I’d closed my eyes when I was listening to this conversation I might have thought it was Keith Richards speaking.

As I walked along the corridor I thought that one of the differences between Jack and Owen is that Jack has no children. I wondered if he had whether he’d have a different attitude to death, a different attitude to life. It’s surprising how much difference that can make, at least for some people.

When I went into the team room Michelle collared me to talk about baby Davina. After a short spell in foster care Davina was returned to her mother, Tania, and both had gone to live with her dad. Unfortunately Tania has on several occasions gone awol for two or three nights on end, leaving the baby with her dad. She was away again and her dad was at the end of his tether.

‘There’s just no attachment,’ Michelle said. ‘It’s never going to work. I think it’s time to call it day with Tania. Grandad is prepared to go for Residence and I think that’s the way we need to go now.’

Attachment is the new love for some social workers and other professionals. Some of them seem to think that if attachment is good then parenting will be good. Attachment theory is on its way to becoming a theory of everything for some professionals, the only real construct they’ll ever need. Things are not that simple, of course, and some day soon someone’s going to have to write the book Attachment is Not Enough. But what is true is that if a parent has a poor attachment to his or her child, the child’s needs are not likely to be fully met and the child is far more likely to suffer harm. A child to whom no responsible adult is attached is a child a wolf will soon devour.

‘So where’s Tania gone this time?’ I asked.

‘Her mother’s, she’ll say. But she hasn’t. I’ve been there. My guess is she’s lying in bed with Joe again, not answering the door and having a merry old time while grandad feeds the baby and changes the nappies.’

‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. ‘Talk to grandad and pull a planning meeting together.’

Angie had been hovering nearby and wanted to talk about her new client, Naomi Bell.

‘Are there attachment problems there too?’ I asked.

‘Probably,’ Angie said. ‘The place is a pig sty and the kids are running amok. But the main problem is she’s barking. I asked her about what support she had and she told me she was close to her mother, who gave her lots of advice and kept her right. The trouble is her mother’s been dead for years.’

‘So maybe she was speaking historically.’

‘No. She was speaking to her mother while I was there! “Mother,” she calls out. “Mother, are you there?” Spooky, or what?!’

‘And was she – there, I mean?’

‘Yes, it seems she was. She told Naomi to feed the bairns bananas and porridge and everything would be fine.’

‘Hmmm, tasty suggestion. Does she have a CPN?’

‘Nope.’

‘A psychiatrist?’

‘No.’

‘A sympathetic GP?’

‘No, none of those. What she’s got is a medium.’

‘A medium?’

‘A medium, and a spirit guide called Fatima.’

‘You’re thinking of a referral the mental health and a strategy meeting, right?’

‘Right.’

‘Okay, let’s do it. Invite the medium, invite Fatima – mother too if she’s available. Let’s remember the spirit of Working Together.’

I’ve been reading a book that my dad discovered in the library called ‘The Clough Family of Newsham’. It’s published by the Northumbrian Pipers Society. Some members of the Clough family were important and celebrated Northumbrian smallpipes players, particularly Tom Clough. My dad knew they were pipers but hadn’t realised how famous a Northumbrian piper Tom had been. Tom, a pitman, is said by the book to have been known as The Prince of Pipers. I had never even heard of the family and the name meant nothing to me. But it turns out that my dad actually knew Tom and his son, Tom junior, another well known piper. My dad remembers that sometimes in the summer Tom would play his smallpipes in the backyard of his house in Brick Row at Newsham, which is demolished now but stood in the area opposite the Willow Tree that is now grassed over, just before you get to the railway crossing. When my dad was a kid he and his friends would hear Tom playing in the yard and sometimes throw things over the wall as a prank.

On Thursday night I walked up Plessey Road to the Willow Tree to look at the space where Brick Row had stood. I had never heard of this street and it must have been demolished decades ago. It was called Brick Row because it was the only row built of bricks. My dad lived in Stone Row – you can guess why it was called that – which ran at right angles to Brick Row along the eastern side of railway line to the Stationmaster’s house. That row has gone too, but the Stationmaster’s house remains, black and redundant at the far reaches of a somewhat anonymous estate of social housing – maisonettes and small semis. I listened for and tried to imagine the “amazing, hypnotising runs of notes”, the “startlingly clear and inspirational” playing and “masterly rendition of old airs” described by the authors of the book. I listened hard but I’m not sure I heard any tune I knew, only the sound of the wind whining through the railings in the darkness and the grumble of the traffic across the line over on Newcastle Road.

The book says Tom senior suffered from an increasing loss of his hearing in the late 1940’s. It’s suggested by some that this may have been because in September 1940, during the war, a bomb destroyed their house. Others suggest that he had been almost deaf for years before that because of a mining explosion. We don’t really know why, but there’s no doubt Tom’s hearing went. He had a poetic streak and in the 1950’s wrote this:

My hearing now is not so keen,
As what it was or might have been.
In whispers soft the old pipes say,
‘Just fill the bag. We know the way.’

 

It sounds a bit like he might have been the Beethoven of the smallpipes. In one of his notebooks he wrote “Music is some Divine Essence that clarify’s the Soul enabling it to take momentary glimpses into heaven.” This phrase might have made a good epitaph for him, I guess. He died in 1964 and is buried up on the hill in Horton churchyard. I’ve no idea what his epitaph is, but I might stop by there one day on my way to work to visit his grave and find out. Maybe I’ll hear the plaintive lilt of his smallpipes in the wind. But then again, there’s every chance I won’t..

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tallulah and the good catastrophe

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newsham-hotel-christmas

It looks like Debs will be off sick for a few months. Earlier this week I held an emergency meeting with the whole team to talk about redistributing her cases.

‘How do you want to do this?’ I said. ‘Do you want me to decide who gets what or should I just throw all the names into a hat and let you take turns picking one? Or do you want to discuss them one by one and see who’s interested?’

They decided that I should decide. I divided the couple of dozen most serious cases on Debs’ caseload between the five workers left standing. Angie copped for Mandy Potts, who as it happened turned up just as the meeting ended. She had Apple and Sparky with her. Mr Zee wasn’t with her. Mandy was upset.

‘Seems like a good time to introduce yourself,’ I said to Angie.

‘Oh, isn’t her weird boyfriend with her?’ Angie said. ‘I was looking forward to meeting him. I like young men in uniforms.’

‘A Zorro outfit’s hardly a uniform, Ange,’ Lily said.

‘Isn’t it?’ Angie pulled her pondering face, and wandered off to meet Mandy and the kids.

‘What’s up?’ Lily asked, when Angie came back along.

‘They’re going to make Mr Zee get a job. The dole’s on his back. Mandy doesn’t want him to because she’s scared that if she’s on her own Flinty will come to her door.’

‘She has a point,’ Lily said. ‘But it’s not a point the dole will take.’

‘No, they won’t,’ Angie said. ‘He’s down there now and he thinks they’re going to send him for an interview.’

‘He should go,’ Lily said. ‘No-one’s going to give a job to a man dressed as Zorro, are they?’

‘Well, that’s the other thing,’ Angie said. ‘Mr Zee isn’t prepared to not dress the way he does. He thinks he has a human right to do so, like Christians wearing crucifixes and Muslims wearing the veil.’

‘Another good point,’ Lily said. ‘But again, not one the dole will buy.’

‘No, they won’t,’ Angie said. ‘They’ve suggested he may need to take work at MacDonald’s.’

‘Oh my God,’ Michelle said. ‘Can you image that, Zorro appearing in the drive-thru window! Imagine asking Zorro for a couple of  Happy Meals and a regular Coke!’

‘It could bring them business!’ Lily said, chuckling to herself as she tried to get on with inputting stuff on to the computer. ‘It’s a shame MacDonald’s aren’t likely to think the same.’

‘Mandy thinks that Mr Zee will leave her and return to Newcastle if they force him to take a job where he can’t continue to dress the way he does.’

‘That surprises me,’ Lily said. ‘I always had the impression from Debs that he’s really committed to Mandy and the kids. Things will fall apart if he does leave, that’s a certainty. Mandy will never cope without him.’

‘Bloody men!’ Angie said. ‘Is there a single one out there that isn’t a complete waste of space?!’

It snowed on Thursday. I sat in the team room for a while first thing going through the post and listening to the team talking about the BBC documentary on the Shannon Matthews case which had been on the previous night. Fairy tale explanations are the bedrock of the world according to the popular media, and on this occasion the police seem especially ready to give the story the right slant by stating that this girl’s mother was ‘pure evil’. Here we have The Cruel Mother. ‘I thought that police officer was about the tell us the story of Hansel and Gretel or something,’ I heard Angie say. The police are hardly more self-aware or enlightening as social narrators than The Sun or The Daily Mail. It is within the terms of the crude and narrow narratives the popular media constructs that the identities and aspirations of their audience will to a significant extent arise. Karen Matthews, who no doubt is a person who came to see herself in the terms of those narratives, was and is stupid, dysfunctional, misguided, and inadequate. But this description could equally as well be applied to the police themselves who had four hundred officers in the area for almost a month and failed to find a child who all the time was under their very noses. The same could also be said for the troops of journalists who traipsed around the area 24 hours a day for the same period. And now they’re blaming social workers for not seeing this coming two years earlier. Lily wondered when we would get our crystal balls.

‘It’s a pity Shannon didn’t think of dropping pieces of bread as a trail to her wicked uncle’s house, isn’t it?’ Angie said. ‘That’s always the thing to look for in a case like this.’

I went upstairs. About mid morning I was sitting up in my office looking out over the car park watching the white stuff falling hypnotically, like a weird quiet currency being repaid to the world. Nature has a fascinating economy. A pale blue Favorit slithered into the car park. It was Jack Verdi. He got out and pulled the collar of his black reefer jacket up around his face. He was wearing his Ray-Bans. His long grey hair was tied back in a pony tail by what looked like a red elastic band. In his pale desert boots he gingerly made his way across the snow into the office. He brought to mind something vaguely Russian, maybe someone from a Gogol story. He’d come for a meeting with Debs and forgotten she was off. He asked if I was free and came upstairs for a chat.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said when he came into my room. ‘How’s tricks?’  He shook my hand. As he leant forward to do so I briefly caught sight of his pale blue eyes peering out over his sunglasses.

‘Hey, I’m not so bad, mate. Bloody awful weather though.’

I looked out of the window and nodded.

‘Actually I like the snow,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ Jack said, ‘to look at, but not to drive in!’

I made him a cup of tea and for a while we talked about music, as we always do. He always asks me who I’m listening to as a preamble to him telling me what I might want to try instead. On this occasion I swapped him Teddy Thompson and Josh Ritter for a classic album from Jefferson Airplane and Neil Young’s Live at Canterbury House 1968,  Sugar Mountain album.

‘Hey, that was quite a performance you gave at Rosie’s leaving do,’ I said, finally mentioning the elephant in the room. ‘Man, you certainly blew them away that night!’

Jack shook his head and looked down into his lap. ‘Yeah, well, maybe. I just wish I’d stuck to bloody well playing the piano, as I was supposed to do.’

‘Yeah, me too,’ I said. ‘Banging out Chas and Dave numbers in a room so thick with the reek of HRT isn’t exactly my bag either.’

He laughed. But he had something more on his mind, and I thought I knew what it was.

‘Hey, Jack,’ I said, ‘I’d just let it go if I were you. Most people will already have forgotten about it, you know how they are. You’re the only person who’s thinking about now.’

‘Oh yeah, yeah, I know that,’ he said. ‘No, it’s not that, it’s what it’s telling me about me that bothers me. I’m becoming desperate. I can’t seem to let myself ever be anything but young. You know why I did that? Because I’m scared to death of getting old. I’ve seen this happen to other guys, guys who I was once in bands with. I’m starting to do what they’ve done and make a bloody fool of myself.’

‘Well, as they say, if you recognise a problem you’re half way there to solving it.’

‘Yeah, but how do you solve the problems of decrepitude and death?’

I laughed. I wanted this conversation to remain light. ‘Euthanasia’s good,’ I said. ‘I’ve already booked myself a one-way ticket to Switzerland.’

‘I don’t want to go,’ Jack said, shaking his head.

‘You don’t want to go to Switzerland, Jack? Compact land-locked mid European country? Bankers, watchmakers, Toblerone, Heidi, St Moritz, lots of big snowy mountains? It’s the sort of place where there’s never any litter and they don’t ever have to think about Asbo’s. Switzerland’s not such a bad place, Jack.’

‘I don’t mean I don’t want to go to Switzerland, man.  No, I mean I don’t want a die. At least not yet. I’ve still got some good times left in me. The problem really is that the rest of the world is starting to disregard me. It’s as if as you get older there’s a quiet conspiracy to exclude you from things. It starts when you’re about thirty. The world begins to tell you that you can’t do that. And do you know why it says that? It says it because it embarrasses them if you do. They just don’t want you around. They discard you, like you’re an old-fashioned appliance of some sort. I don’t buy it, mate. There’s some stuff I’m just not ready to say goodbye to.’

‘Like good old rock and roll, eh?’

‘Well, yeah, but not just that.’ His Aviators looked straight at me and for a moment or two he paused. ‘You read poetry, right?’ he said.

I said I did sometimes, yes.

‘You know I’m into Keats, don’t you? Yeah? Okay, can I show you something? It’s like a modern take on something he wrote. I’d be interested to know what your response to it is.’

He bent over and unbuckled his brown leather satchel bag. He took out a couple of sheets of A4 and handed them to me

‘You’ll know the original,’ he said. ‘It’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’

I.

O what’s bothering you now, my bonny lad,
Alone and palely loitering?    
Has thy assessment slithered into the sink?            
Are you waiting for the telephone to ring?
  
           
II.
 
O what can ail thee, fostering man!            
So flushed and so woe-begone?          
The question from the Chair was crass,         
The Police Checks were never done.
   
    
III.
 
I see a cloud across thy face          
Your reviews are all long over due,            
And in thy diary a fading date         
When your anxious manager last hounded you.
  
         
IV.
 
I met a damsel in the tearoom,         
Full beautiful-an Ashington child,             
Her hair was red, her foot was light,          
And her laughter was quite wild.
 
              
V.
 
I bought a cosy for her napper         
And sent her a text from my mobile phone;              
She texted me back and asked me to sing        
‘Will you give this little dog a bone.’    
    
VI.
 
I sat her in my Skoda’s front seat             
And put Crosby, Stills and Nash on,            
I whizzed her around the slippery bends        
Till all her lingering doubts were gone.
  
             
VII.
 
She bought me bags of morish sweets,           
And Honey Tunes and herbal tea,        
And then in an accent strange she said-        
“Bonny lad, aa’ve got the hots for ye.”  
      
VIII.
 
She took me to her terraced grotto,            
And swept the sawdust from her floor,          
And I gazed into her wild wild eyes            
Until my heart could take no more.
 
            
IX.

 

And with a tambourine she lulled me asleep,            
And I dreamt I heard a terrible din            
‘Twas the scariest dream I ever did dream,             
I dreamt I was trapped inside her bin.

X.

I saw pale ploughmen, businessmen too,
Old heartthrobs, death-pale as if without feelings;
They cried-“The Bonny Lass Without Pity
Has dumped us amang her peelings!”
 

XI.

I saw their starved lips in the garbage
With horrid warnings gaping wide,
And I awoke and found me dumped,
With another old scratter at my side.
 

XII.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
My assessments all soggy in the sink,
And my mobile phone not ringing.

 

After I’d finished reading it I said nothing for maybe a minute or so. Nor did Jack.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘This is, er, interesting.’

Jack looked at me. He wanted more than just, er, interesting.

‘Hey, Jack,’ I said. ‘What do you want me to say here? How I’d feel if I was the woman you wrote this for?’

‘It shows, then?’

‘Yeah, Jack, it shows. It’s about Tallulah, right?’

He nodded slowly.

‘So,’ I said, tentatively, ‘have you and her got a thing going on, or what?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s just tittle tattle. Emma Pope started that rumour as a put down to me.’

‘But you would like to have something going on with her, yeah?’

He nodded, safe behind his sunglasses. ‘Yeah.’

‘And? . . .And? . . . And what? You think she’s too young for you?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Not at all. What bothers me is that she’ll think I’m too old for her.’

‘She’s not a kid, Jack. She must be well into her thirties now. What are you saying, that she’s shallow?’

‘No, she’s definitely not shallow,’ Jack said, almost indignantly. ‘She’s a woman with deceptive subtlety and depth. She’s like a great river and her complexion is forever changing as she makes her course through her days. Sometimes she’s wild and tempestuous, sometimes she trickles and gurgles, but sometimes she’s quiet and still and just so damned profound. No, she’s not shallow, man, but I’ve got twenty years on her, and she knows it.’

I nodded. I almost smiled. I looked at the poem again.

‘This dustbin metaphor,’ I said. ‘That’s serious, right, a deep concern hidden behind a daft joke?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Exactly. What bothers me is that even if I got something off the ground with Tallulah she’d pretty soon dump me for a younger model.  She has a bit of a reputation for chewing guys up and spitting them out.’

‘And the bin, that’s the bin of decrepitude, yeah?  It’s a bin you fear that once she dumps you in you’ll be in for the rest of your days?’

‘It’s more than that,’ Jack said. ‘It’s a bin I fear I’m already in. Not because I want to be there or because I’m really need to be. It’s just the bin the rest of the world has put me in. It ‘s like that Yeats line, isn’t it,  the one about old age being tied to you like a tin can to a dog’s tail. It stinks, man!’

‘And the bonny lass without pity, that’s not just Tallulah, is it? She’s society too, isn’t she, and young mistress Time herself. This bonny lass is The Reaper.’ A picture of Tallulah Hudspith wielding a giant scythe crossed my mind. It was an image from a Tarot card.

‘Yeah, something like that, I guess,’ Jack said.

‘You know what I’d do if I were you, Jack? I’d go for it. What’s the worst that can happen – you don’t get the gig. Or if you do you don’t get booked for a second night. But hey, Jack, for you this might just be the gig to end all gigs. One night with Tallulah might be your Madison Square Garden moment, the one gig you’ll never forget!’

Jack stood up. He very deliberately buttoned up his black reefer jacket. He smiled quietly and flicked his pony tail back over his collar. It was indeed a red elastic band holding it together.

‘Carpe diem, eh, man? I kinda knew that would be your take on it. Thanks, man. It helped.’

Jack picked up his brown satchel and slung it over his shoulder. ‘Hey, and one more thing, eh? This conversation we’ve had, strictly between me and you, right?’

‘Yeah, of course, Jack,’ I said. ‘Between me, you and the gatepost.’

He smiled and shook my hand again. I walked along the landing with him. As he was making his way down the stairs he turned and asked me if I knew Warren Zevon’s stuff.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He’s good.’

‘He wrote a song called I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,’ Jack said. ‘Give it a listen some time.’

‘I will’ I said. ‘But isn’t poor old Warren now fast asleep himself?’

‘He is, man. But what a way to hit the mattress, eh?!’

I laughed. Jack left. The snow had turned to rain.

When I got home I had a quick pizza and then put my boots on to go for a walk. It was turning cold and the slushy snow was beginning to freeze into crusty waves. I walked along Broadway and then on as far as the Thoroton Hotel. I went up Marlow Street and cut through past the sports centre and over on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down Winship Street past the site of the Big Club, which is still fenced off but now completely razed. At the roundabout I stood for a moment or two and looked at the strings of Christmas lights slung above the road. I then made my way back down Plessey Road. In the last few days a lot more Christmas lights have appeared on houses and a lot more Christmas trees in their windows, but Christmas still seems slightly reluctant to appear this year, even though the Angel Alistair and the Good St Gordon from every television in the land sing, ‘Spend, Spend, Spend!’

‘Spend what?!’ the world sings back.

When I got back home Brenda was there again, gathering more slippers into boxes to take away for dispatch.

‘Hi, Brenda,’ I said. ‘How’s business?’

‘Brisk!’ she replied. ‘Surprisingly so. Things have really picked up in the past few days.’

‘Well, you can never go far wrong with slippers at Christmas, can you?’

‘Yes, I think you’re right. Folks may not have much money this year, but everyone can afford a good old fashioned pair of slippers, can’t they?’

Brenda didn’t have her Auguries of Innocence cardie on that day. She had a sort of long very expensive looking camel-coloured wrap around coat. She was also wearing green knee high leather boots with big shiny silver buckles on them, and out of the collar of her coat the leafy frills of a spring green blouse of some sort erupted. She also wore a coffee-coloured knitted hat of some kind, a one with a peak and a small chocolate brown button on the crown, the sort of hat that reminds me vaguely of Barbra Streisand. For a moment it crossed my mind that Brenda looked rather like a tortilla wrap.  

‘So what’s Tristan getting you for Christmas?’ I asked.

‘Oh I don’t know that!’ she replied. ‘That would take all the fun out of it. I like surprises.’

‘But there must be something you hope he gets you.’

‘Oh well, yes, of course. What I’m hoping for is a Matthew Williams Chapelle weave coat and some Jimmy Choo Erica ankle boots, as well as some lovely smellies and maybe some nice stocking fillers, such as earrings and brooches and choccies and things. Just lots of lovely lovely delicious surprises really. I’ve pointed Tristan in the direction of net-a-porter.com and I know for certain that he’s looked.  I’m quite excited really. But what about you? What do you want for Christmas?’

I paused for a moment, as if taking thought. ‘The emancipation of the working class, I think,’ I said, very calmly and seriously. ‘Yes, that definitely. That and world peace.’

Brenda nodded her head approvingly. ‘That’s just such a beautiful wish,’ she said. ‘Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. It is the spiritual aspect of Christmas that really matters, not all the shopping and materialism. And in any case it really is better to give than to receive. You know, I don’t really care what anyone gets me actually. Christmas is just such a special time of year. Just be close to someone you care about and to know they’re there, that’s all any of us really needs.’

So I’ll tell Tristan to just send you a note and prod you from time to time then, I thought. I know what great joy and cheer that will bring.

‘So what are you getting Tristan?’ I asked.

‘An electric screwdriver set.’ Brenda replied. ‘I saw one at B & Q. It was such a good buy and it will be all he’ll ever need. He’s always saying how much he wished he had one.’

‘That’s nice, Brenda,’ I said. ‘If you’ve got to spend then a practical gift is always the way to go, I think.’

Lucky Tristan, I thought. But of course I’m sure Brenda will get a huge amount of pleasure from giving Tristan his electric screwdriver set.

‘Oh, but what do presents matter?’ Brenda said. ‘Christmas really is first and foremost a spiritual time, a time to think of others. As you said, a time for peace and love. Material things are such a terrible distraction sometimes, aren’t they?’

For a moment I wanted to ask her what the word ‘spiritual’ meant. But I thought better of it. In any case I think I already know how spiritual Brenda is: she’s about as spiritual as a checkout till. She has exactly the sort of spirituality the Angel Alistair wishes we all had this year.

‘Do you know anything about the Tarot, Brenda?’ I said, changing the subject. It was like asking a seagull if it knew about fish heads.

‘Yes, of course,’ she replied, becoming animated. ‘Do you want me to do a reading for you?’

‘No, not really,’ I said. ‘But thank you for the offer. No, I was wondering about one of the cards and what it means.’

‘Which one?’ Brenda said, always ready to share her esoteric knowledge with the curious.

‘The one with the reaper on’ I said. ‘Is it called the Tallulah?’

‘The Tallulah?’ Brenda said, screwing up her face. ‘The Tallulah? The Tallulah’s not a Tarot card. No, no. No, the card you’re describing is the Death card.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘The Death card. So there’s not an expression which is like “turning the Tallulah” or something like that?’

‘No,’ Brenda said, a little sharply. ‘No, there isn’t. The reaper is on the Death card.’

‘And if that card turned up for you it would be bad news, right?’

‘No, not necessarily,’ Brenda said. ‘That’s a common misconception. The Death card does not necessarily signify death. But it does signify that major change will occur in your life. Catastrophic change, in fact, but not necessarily for the worse.’

So, I thought to myself, turning the Tallulah foretells catastrophe. But not necessarily a bad catastrophe. The idea of a good catastrophe appealed to me. This was an idea it would be good for Jack to know about.

‘So have you ever done a reading for anyone when the Death card has turned up?’

‘Oh, yes, of course,’ Brenda replied. ‘Many times.’

‘And are any of those people still alive?’ I asked.

‘Yes, so far as I know, they all are.’

‘But they will have all encountered a catastrophe by now, yes?’

Brenda had rumbled my game a while ago of course. She was prepared to play along no longer.

‘You should stop taking the mick,’ she said. ‘You know, many people have been helped to make important decisions in their lives through the Tarot. Just because you think it’s nonsense, doesn’t mean it is nonsense, you know.’

I nodded. She was right of course. I began to wonder about making a catastrophic decision, or rather, making a decision to have a catastrophe in your life. It seemed to me that since the future can’t really be foretold, this must be the way the Tarot works. The cards suggest that decisions of a certain kind should be made. It sets an agenda in someone’s mind. Decisions are then made according to the cards’ suggestions and hey presto – the cards appear to have done what cards never can and to have foretold the future. The classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps most divination works in exactly the same way. The effect is that you take active responsibility for your own future but that by some sleight of hand you can always say that whatever happens was bound to be, that it was written in the cards.

I wandered through to the conservatory. De Kooning was sitting on the windowsill, looking out into the dark where the snow had fallen among the gaping spaces of the Citadel. Sometimes I think I’m too passive about the future. It’s not something I get a hold of and try to make for myself. Maybe it’s that working class thing. Maybe it’s something else. I just seem to be happy to sit and watch the river flow by. I could dip my foot in, I know that. Maybe I fear a catastrophe if I do. Maybe I think I might turn the Tallulah if I get my feet wet.

I wondered if I should get a Tarot pack and do a reading for De Kooning. I know of course that this sort of stuff doesn’t work for cats. Cats sit on life’s windowsill and sing Que Sera Sera. They sing it nine times over.

.

exodus and a last hand of whist

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newsham-library-twilght

They’ve been demolishing Newsham Library this week. I noticed as I drove through Newsham on Friday that it is now almost all down. A gaping space has opened up between the shops and the flats, a sort of scandalous vacuum. I caught glimpses of it down Elliot Street and the back lane between the Black Diamond and Tanz-N-Ere. I could see the giant crooked metal arm of a demolition machine poised above the rubble. It reminded me that things are disappearing so quickly. I really must hurry and photograph all those buildings and places that will be gone any day now. This is a matter of urgency to me. Time moves on inexorably, flattening the old world to make a place for the new. It worries me that some places might be destroyed before I’ve made a record of them. I want my inventory to be as complete as it can be. I know of course that the photograph will never really bring them back.  But it may bring back memories. Things do need to be remembered. My granddad spent the last years of his life in sheltered housing in Newsham. He probably toddled down Winship Street to this building every week a few years ago to find himself a book to read, probably a political biography, or maybe a travel book or a whodunit, or maybe The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The truth is I don’t really know what my granddad’s taste in books was.

In 1984 I was a student. During the miners’ strike I was a member of the Labour Party.  My monthly ward branch meetings took place in a room in Newsham Library, which at that time may have been a community centre of sorts, I think, or maybe it was still a working men’s club. Bundles of canny old ladies from another age would faithfully attend to make tea and provide a sort of amiable Socialist ballast. They had votes they gave away in the same good-hearted spirit that they gave away the cakes and biscuits they brought along. The rest of the branch comprised a bunch of men of various ages, dispositions and motivations – Arthur Hancock, Ronnie Milburn, Bill Brookes were among them, as I recall – who would debate or mull over or grumble or chunter on about the heroic tragedy or stupidity of the strike, flying pickets, the difficult or duplicitous position of the railwaymen, Kinnock’s devious cowardice, Scargill’s reckless leadership, or whatever. The branch chairman was Peter Mortakis, an insignificant Machiavellian sort of man with the political and moral integrity of a blowfly. He was in cahoots with the MP at the time, a useless, self-serving, Rumpolian, persistently absent carpetbagger. A lawyer. The sort of man who could have been Tony Blair’s favourite uncle. 

The room where the meetings took place was dark, maroon and brown, full of deep shadows and dim yellow lights that glinted on the glasses and bottles behind the bar. A sense of history seemed to stain the place, like blood on an old carpet. I never felt comfortable there, but it was a place where I somehow had to think I belonged.  It was like needing to stand for a while in a painting by Norman Cornish or Tom McGuinness.  Here was a world of ordinary people bound together by adversity. Here was the security of a mythical universe. Of course I can see now that the writing was already on the wall. Thatcher had already lined up the machines that would one day come and demolish this place. This week that day arrived. You can be pretty sure that a block of affordable first-time buyer apartments is already on its way.

Things have been hectic at work in the last two weeks. A tsunami of referrals has hit us after a period of inexplicable calm. This is always the way in social work. It’s unlikely that some mysterious force is at work in society that from time to time casts a curse over a particular place and makes a lot of children there suddenly begin to suffer harm at the same time, a sort of evil spirit that randomly visits a part of the population.  It’s more likely that these waves are to some degree chance occurrences and a consequence of fluctuations in levels of responsiveness and concern among professionals. But maybe it is all down to chance. And a sighting of Snow White’s stepmother in Ashington would hardly come as much of a surprise these days.

Thursday was a particularly bad day. Kids scared to go home from school, kids with bruises, kids with fractures, kids with burns, kids home alone, babies losing weight, babies in cold houses, tiny babies that no-one could find. Drunken mothers, drunken dads, dads throwing plates at walls, mothers throwing shoes, depressed mothers, dads doing drugs.

Late that afternoon everyone in the team was out on something or other. Michelle had spent half an hour with the police trying to get into the house of a twenty five year old mother called Tania who seemed to have lost all interest in her three week old baby. The flat was in darkness but the key was visible on the inside of the door, so there was obviously someone in the house. Eventually Tania came downstairs and answered the door. She was with her new sixteen year old boyfriend, Joe, the same boy who a few days earlier had bitten her on the face during an argument. She’d dumped him, she said. Joe and Tania had been in bed when Michelle and the police disturbed them. But where was baby Davina? Tania wasn’t telling. Tania wouldn’t take Michelle and the police to see her, not even under the threat of arrest. Michelle rang me up: what should we do? Baby P was on all our minds; the moorings of rationality were coming loose. All we could hear was the footfall of the beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

‘Have you tried torture?’ I said. ‘Pull her fingernails out. Offer her money. Tania needs to be persuaded to tell us where her baby is. If she doesn’t do so she’s got no chance of keeping it when we find it. But for God’s sake don’t make her any promises. We’re not going to be able to leave the baby there tonight now in any case, are we?’

Fifteen minutes later Tania told them where the baby was and they all set off in the police car to find her. She turned out to be with Tania’s sister. She’d been there all day. She was fit and well. On another day we might have decided to just leave her there and look at it again in the morning. But Baby P was on the minds of the police officers too. Baby Davina was made subject to Police Protection. Michelle arrived back at the office with the baby in her arms at about half past five. I told her who the foster carer was going to be.

‘Oh, is Debs around?’ she said. ‘I’ve just seen a police car chasing a white Mercedes down Milburn Road. I’m sure it was being driven by an Arab.’

‘Debs is at the hospital,’ I said. ‘Kid with a broken arm.’

On my way home that night I went to Tesco’s at North Shields. I was looking for a DVD of The Wizard of Oz. They didn’t have one, but I did pick up a copy of Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. I didn’t see it when it came out, although I’d wanted to. At about seven o’clock I was driving back through Whitley Bay. My mobile rang. It was Debs.

‘The paediatrician says the injury could have been accidental. She’s not prepared to say it wasn’t.’

‘And the kid and mother are sticking to their story that he fell off a wall?’

‘Yep.’

‘And there have been no previous concerns about this kid?’

‘Nope.’

‘Then the kid goes home and we do an assessment, I guess.’

‘Should we have a strategy meeting?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, Debs. Maybe. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’

I turned on the car radio and listened to Bob Harris’s country show on Radio 2. He played a song by George Strait called ‘I Saw God Today’. 

On Friday morning Debs’ husband phoned in to say she was sick. She’d been taken ill during the night. It sounded serious and she was probably going to have to go into hospital.

‘Tell her to take it easy and that we hope she gets well soon,’ I said, and began to wonder what I could do with her caseload.

‘Anyone fancy doing an assessment on a kid with a broken arm?’ I said to the rest of the team. Daft question. They all looked at me as if I needed treatment. At that point reception rang to say that Jack Verdi had arrived for a meeting with Debs. I went along to see him.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘Hey, hey, rock and roll! What’s with the shades, dude?’ He was wearing a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators.

Jack laughed, but he didn’t explain. I told him Debs was poorly and that the meeting couldn’t go ahead. He was fine about that and immediately went on to talk to me about the genius of Keats. Jack sees himself as in some way Keats last real disciple, which is odd for a man who’s prepared to prance around in little more than his boots to impress a few dozen middle aged women. There’s only so much mellow fruitfulness such women can take. But autumn is always a peak activity time for the disciples of Keats, of course, so Jack’s digression wasn’t really that unexpected.

Today it was breezy but bright and fairly mild for November. In the morning I walked down Plessey Road and bought The Guardian at the newsagents. I then continued on down to Park Road corner and along Beaconsfield Street towards the town centre, before turning  to cross Croft Road and go up Marine Terrace and back across Broadway Circle. A few leaves still cling to the trees but most are assigned to the gutters in drifts of yellow and brown or stuck on the roads like squashed butterflies.

This afternoon I rode along to my dad’s on my bike. The refurbishment of his house is still not complete. It’s becoming pretty obvious that a lot of the tradesmen recruited by the private contractor doing the refurbishments – Frank Haslam – don’t know what they’re doing. Some of them have admitted this to my dad. Some of them also seem to be canvassing for the redecoration work off their own backs. My dad’s cheesed off, but there’s not much he can do to get the work finished any quicker.

My dad was born and brought up in Newsham.  I told him about the library building now being knocked down. I asked him what he could remember about this building.

‘We called it the Big Club,’ he said. ‘Your grandfather used to often go down there at one time to play cards. He was very friendly with Bob Oxley, who was the steward at the time.’

He went on to tell me that what is now the Victory Club used to be the Wooden Club, because it was a wood building. There were also a couple of other pubs in Newsham in those days, neither of them more than a stone’s throw away from the three that still survive. They were the Miner’s Arms and the Turk’s Head. Newsham Coop used to be close to the Miner’s Arms and close to the Big Club, During the 1926 General Strike the Sunshine Fund or some such charity used to provide meals for the kids upstairs in the Coop building. The thing my granddad always remembered was the smell of the gingerbread pudding drifting down the stairs and into the street.

The local doctor had a room in the house opposite the Big Club. I think my dad said he was called Dr Gordon, although this could be a Freudian slip: it might have been Gardener. Either way, he was known as ‘The Butcher’. He was the doctor employed by Cowpen Coal Company for their compensation scheme. He had a reputation for sending men back to work at the pit when they were still unfit to be there.

It was getting dark as I rode back. The light was enchanting. The sky had those hard clear gradations from black-blues into orangey-greens and tobacco that you only get in winter. The sea was a pale and steely blue. There were quite a few people on the beach with dogs.

I got back before dark. The washed-up computer desk has disappeared from Hugo’s front garden and the gates to his drive are open. It looks like the Alligator is at long last ready for the road. I went inside and negotiated my way through to the kitchen over the assorted assemblies of slippers.  I gave De Kooning a sachet of Felix and made myself a cappuccino. I sat in the conservatory reading The Guardian for a while. The headline said that eight out of ten children who are seriously harmed are ‘missed’ by agencies, whatever ‘missed’ means. This sort of stuff scares senior managers to death, of course. ‘Whither goes Sharon Shoesmith, there go I,’ they think. It’s a situation you can be sure will soon mean a lot of work for the rest of us.

I picked up De Kooning and we peered together out into the darkness beyond the garden fence. The glimmer of strange lights was appearing again in the Citadel. Margaret was on the phone talking to Geraldine.

‘Have you seen any sign of rats out there?’ I whispered to De Kooning. ‘No? No, I thought not.’

Margaret came through and said that she and Geraldine were going to ring Griff on Monday and give him an ultimatum: get rid of the rats or they call in Environmental Health and go to the press.

‘What if there aren’t any rats there?’ I said. ‘How can anyone prove they’ve got rid of something which isn’t really there to begin with?’

‘How could they not be there?!’ Margaret said. ‘Trevor’s seen them again twice this week!’

I began to think that the mythical rats of the Citadel might be refugees from the Big Club building at Newsham. Maybe they are an exiled tribe of working class rodents displaced by modernity, looking for a new set of premises under which to continue their way of life. On their exodus they probably crossed Winship Street and made their way through the allotments and across the old railway line and then followed a route through the back gardens down Twentieth Avenue. I can see them now, scurrying bravely along carrying everything they own, all with their little knapsacks on their backs. Suddenly after forty days of dodging cats and kids with airguns their long walk brought them to the Citadel. The bare girders loomed above them.

‘This must be our new home!’ their weary little hearts exclaimed.

Which seems fair enough to me, but it isn’t exactly the future Margaret and Geraldine have in mind for them.

I was going to watch my new DVD tonight, but Margaret cancelled her plans to go out. I sat in the conservatory reading for a while and then logged on to Amazon. I ordered The Wizard of Oz. I went out and walked up to Newsham. It’s a cool, clear sort of night. The wind has dropped. I walked up Elliot Street. The lights from the pizza and chip shop, the Chinese and the Indian take-away flooded out across the dry pavement. The smell of curry and onions floated in the air. The rubble of the Big Club is fenced off. The big Cat machine stands among it, it’s demolition arm resting its heavy nose on the ground. I stood on the other side of the road.

‘Okay, granddad,’ I said. ‘German whist. Your deal.’

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