Thursday, 26 February 2009

Happy such and such.

“Hey, come on in. No, no. You’re not late.” The door swung shut as though it was the end, not the beginning. In the background music played –familiar but indistinct, broadcast out of time. “Yeah, they’re a bit of an odd crowd, but mingle around and see who you get on with.” David shrugged. “Sorry, that’s just how it is. Here, have a beer.”

Graham’s skin was leathered by a dozen suns, darkened and bitter, but his eyes sparkled like He knew that there was no point. He poured himself a scotch and soda anyway.

“Sorry, old man,” he wheezed, “absolutely exhausted. Caught the red eye in from Cuba last night. Incredible. Still suffocated by the shadows of another century. Still,” he smiled, “that can be useful to a chap. Makes certain there’s good scotch for one thing. If you know the right hotel to go to and the right man to give the nod to.”

The ice cubes in his glass clinked like souls looking for redemption when he took a swig.

He eyes darted from side to side, suspicious of anyone leaning in closer, he lowered his voice. “And the women! Everything you could possibly want for just a few coins.” He flushed slightly at the look of bemusement returned. “Come now. We’re all men of the world. We must be allowed to indulge. It’s just a little... Indiscretion? Without them where would be?”

Eric, meanwhile, huddled in the big, tatty armchair as close to the fire as possible. He gave of the impression that, had it been big enough, he would have clambered inside and let the flames clean him. He lit a cigarette, inhaled and then coughed heavily into the palm of his hand. His whole body shook as he retched.

“I’m all right. Really. Just don’t seem to be able to shake this tickle.” His index finger brushed through his narrow moustache. He repeated the action; a fidget, like he had something to hide.

“Still, I’ve got it better than a lot. I thought it was bad before, but things might get a lot, lot worse. I have waking dreams of tired, dirty workers crammed, thirty to a bedroom. Meanwhile, the undervalued library is reduced to only opening on a Tuesday morning just when it’s needed the most. Lurking around the public reading room keeps a man with no function away from the cold and the temptations of boredom.”

Another deep drag, another cardiactric cough.

“It’s like I said – idealists, rebels, we all eventually morph into what they were fighting against. Our greatest weakness is that we can’t change the herd’s mentality. We can’t curtail the desire for self-comfort at the expense of others.”
Paul was smoking too, but in a different way. After each inhalation he would extend his arm as far as it would stretch and angle the cigarette, tilting it slightly, changing the viewpoint. All the time he smiled to himself. He moved his hand again and examined the smouldering tip for the answer to a mystery that only existed in his head. His eyes might have told a story in themselves had they not been hidden behind a pair of sunglasses.

“I miss Brooklyn,” he whined with a vague drawl. “That’s where I’m at my most centred. My wife and I live in this apartment, in a brownstone, in what you might call a colourful neighbourhood. Did I say I was a writer? No? Well, I am. I sit in the back room and compose novels and poems in these really specialised writing tablets that I’d normally describe in intense detail. And I deserve to be a writer. I inexplicably managed to survive for years in Paris and New York neither earning much money nor accepting handouts nor doing any work of a non-creative nature. No, I’m not sure how I didn’t starve to death, either. Luck, perhaps? Or something more mystical? Who has the right to say? But, my dedication has paid off and now I’m fabulously successful.”

He paused, and tried to look enigmatic.

“Of course, none of this is true. It’s just lines from a novel I’m writing.

Existence is a fictional reflection of a certain version of reality.”
James looked older than anyone could have imagined he’d be. His white-grey hair billowed outwards, absorbing endorphins from those who got close enough to listen.

“The impression people have of me is as a drug guzzling, perverted anarchist. That seems somewhat unfair. I don’t even like coming into the city. Urban life, an outmoded concept that small minded unadventurous people cling onto. The suburbs are where the revolutions of the mind will emerge. Where there is space for change to exist. Inside the pillars of concrete car parks shamanic fetishism can absolve our inhibitions. That’s why I live in Shepperton.”

He looked out of the window for a passing idea.

David appeared out the bustle and whispered. “Everyone thinks his fascination with car crashes is weird, but have you ever noticed how absorbed he becomes by corpses? It’s like he tries to inject the dead with his memories of the living.”

“What-ho!” a forced voice said.

“Oh,” said David covering his eyes. “I’d forgotten he was coming.” He raised an eyebrow. “Yes, okay, so he is tremendously silly, but he’s just too endearing to not invite.”

“I say, spiffing soiree you’re having here, old bean. It rather reminds me of the shindig Bunter Biggins had back in whatever non-specific idealised timeframe we’re referring to. Absolutely smashing. There was music and gambling and snidey butlers and farcical levels of coincidence in abundance. A couple of the chaps and I managed to put several whole sheets to the wind, I’m afraid,and before we knew it we’d swapped a policeman’s helmet for a duck-billed platypus. Well, dash it all, if the beggars didn’t see the funny side of it all and I spent the night in the Charing Cross cells drying out. Still, never mind. At least there weren’t any girls about to confine a chap’s curiosity of life. Chin, chin, eh?”

Iain didn’t look like anything. Or rather, perhaps, he looked like everything – like he’d absorbed the collective history of a city, but the populous had left the lights on and now they shone through his skin.

“I walked all the way here. All the way from Hackney Marshes. On the way, I encountered several fascinating characters from a thirty-year old maybe-mythical counter-culture, but I’ll suggest that I’ll come back to them on another page.” He stretched each of his fingers individually as though they had their own postcode. “Walking through cities is the only way to travel. Preferably bare-foot. The city talks to me, whimpers its secrets and I pass them through a slightly skewed refraction and onto others. Things got a bit tricky when I reached the Thames, but in the end I just kept on walking and faith in the life of London carried me across.”

Grant looked like a secret agent. Or so he wished. Immaculate white suit, black shirt, wrap around shades. He smelt otherworldly, but he looked liked the colonial gent reproduced in a nineteen-fifties three-d magazine, layer of self slipping across one another, and he sounded like a Glaswegian bruiser.

“I’ve news for you: This is a gun in my pocket and I’m not glad to see you,” he announced and people had to listen. “It’s not a bullet gun. No, this baby shoots ideas sperm. All I need is a sticky head shot and one of these babies will down load intra-virus-nano-tech straight into your central cortex. The resulting freedom will enable you to harness chaos magic and rewrite yourself into the fabrics of alternative versions of what’s possible. It only works, though, if you truly believe it. Otherwise it’s just a banana.”

That was enough. The beer was finished and the empty bottle deposited on the table. There was time for a handshake and David asked: “Do you have to go? They’re not all like this. Some of them are almost normal. No. No, it’s okay. I understand. You were only dropping in for a quick one. Fair enough. Hey, keep in touch, you hear?”

With apologies to Graham Greene, George Orwell, Paul Auster, JG Ballard, PG Wodehouse, Iain Sinclair and Grant Morrison who have been picked on somewhat randomly. And, indeed, to Paul Jenkins whom it appears had more or less the same idea and probably did it better more than ten years ago.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Options for an unfinished ending.

“I am just about fed up,” said someone I work with as moisture dripped from his nose, “of being either cold, wet or miserable. When’s it going to end?”

“Uh-huh,” I half-replied and swivelled my chair back to face one of the hundreds of computer terminals that never seemed to get switched off, inside a building heated to the point of dehydration. “How and when, indeed.”


Natalie and Jon had seen floods before, but this time it was different. Every year the river had swollen and burst as though it were too old for the banks. Natalie remembered the first big one of oh-seven when it had seemed like an adventure to her young eyes – days off school, wading around waist deep in muck - but it got worse and worse year after year. People would have moved away, but there was nowhere to go.

This time it felt like the tipping point. She’d been able to tell from the moment the first drops fell that they weren’t going to stop for a long, long time. Now, as she looked out of the first floor window at the water lapping against the brickwork, she could see the current snaking its way across the roof of a neighbour’s car. It had already squeezed its way past the sandbags that piled up behind the front door and now it licked at the blackened carpets halfway up the stairs.

“We should have left with the others,” Jon said, fruitlessly lifting boxes of history up high.

Natalie rested her forehead against the cold glass pane. Everything felt wet. The rain was soaking into the structure of their home, into the fabric of their hearts.
It was dissolving them from the inside out.

“There’ll be another rescue boat,” she said, the words catching on her teeth.

Jon stopped halfway up a ladder and looked at her. She had to say it, even though neither of them believed it.


Alison cradled the unnamed child in her arms and stepped through the broken windows. If she’d felt that there was any point, she’d have named her son three months ago when he was born in what had once been a wheat field, but now was just barren soil.

The land of plenty had emptied in mere months. One or two bad crops and then it had all been gone. The land burned with hunger, but there was nothing left.

The floor was a shiver of water. Alison’s timid steps caused ripples that tumbled down the Tesco’s aisles.

The shelves were bare and broken. At the back Alison slipped between the plastic drapes and into the gloom of the stores. The ache in her gut grew ever more desperate. From under her arm, he burbled slightly and his eyes rolled around their sockets. Not even the strength left to cry.

In-between steps her foot brushed against something. She crouched down, letting her free hand feel amongst the shadows. Eventually, her fingers connected with the damp packet. She held it up to the light that cracked through the damaged ceiling.

A packet of custard creams. Sodden in stale water, but full none the less.

She let the first glimmer of a half smile creep across her face and then a fist connected with the side of her head. The blow sent her sprawling into the murk.
She lost grip of her son, but not her biscuits. A boot slammed into her thigh and the face of the boy’s father appeared in the broken light, wearing a sneer.


“I can’t believe it,” Tony’s voice cracked into a million souls, “India and Pakistan just aren’t there anymore.”


The two boys scrambled underneath the link chain fence and darted across the open tarmac. The sun scratched at their skin through what remained of their clothes.

They ended their sprint under the cooler shadows and burst into uncontrollable fits of giggles. Adrenaline made them light-headed, but once their breathing came in less than heaved mouthfuls the younger of the two ran his fingers over the tyre that stood twice his height.

“They’re so big,” he murmured. “How did they get up in the air?”

“I don’t know,” said the older, “but they did. I remember watching them come in over the gardens when I was small. Younger than you, even.” He shielded his eyes from the sun and looked at the Boeing 747. Its windows had been systematically smashed, cables hung down from the undercarriage, seats and furnishings had been torn out and strewn across the wings like the guts of prey. “You could go anywhere in the world.”

“Anywhere? Even across the sea?”

The older boy didn’t answer, but walked towards the back of the plane and along the runway, towards what had once been terminals. He inhaled sharply. There, strewn across the landscape as far as he could see, were the bodies of hundreds of planes, torn apart, split open, just waiting for someone to bury them.

“Why don’t we fly anymore, Louis?” the younger persisted.

“Dad says oil ran out before we were ready.”


The firelight whispered memories as Jackson peered into it. He screwed the paper face into a ball and tossed it into the flames, watching it curl, pause and then disappear.

He repeated the action - a moustached gentleman this time - again it shrivelled and died in an instant and all his thoughts were of her and times never to be had again. He remembered the city as he had discovered it, a land of glass and impossible romance, but now the world was dark and cold.

The next sheaf was all fifties. He paused for a moment before reminding himself, “even if there was something left to buy, there’d not be enough money in the world to afford it.”


Last summer as I tended bar on a dead Tuesday evening, the rain pelted down. Drops fell like stones, hitting the concrete and then rebounding back up into the air. The gutters that ran along the back of the pub overflowed and a waterfall cascaded down the windows. The thick black shirt I had to wear clung to my sweaty back.

The guy leaning at the bar, stealing sips of Abbot Ale, was semi-regular and he liked to chat. I was happy to talk that evening – there was nothing else to do.

As outside some God seemed to turn the taps up higher and the rain fell even more strongly he said: “With the summer we’ve had, you can’t tell me global warming is really happening.”

I wanted to slap him and yell that he’d totally missed the point, but instead I nodded at his empty glass and asked “same again?”


Click save.

Close file.

Shut down.

Fade to black.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Deepest Sleep.

In an Italian hospital a young woman lies in a bed. Her eyes are open, yet she is neither asleep nor awake. Her breathing is regular, yet it is far from normal. Nutrients are pumped into her system intravenously and she is constantly monitored by a myriad of machines which make almost soothing noises – a gentle reminder that this is not a tableau frozen in time.

She will, almost certainly, never leave hospital. She will never even rise up from her bed. She cannot and will not speak, she has no means of communication at all - which is probably a blessing for it is doubtful that she would have anything to explain.

This is how she is now, how she will be and how she has been for seventeen years.

The woman’s name is Eluana. In 1992 she was involved in a car crash that has left in a permanent vegative state. Twelve months before her accident a friend of Eluana’s was left brain damaged after a motorcycle accident and numerous sources claim that the then twenty-two year old said that if something similar were ever to happen to her then she would not want to live. She would rather die that rot away, strapped to a machine. She was emotional, of course, but not hysterical. She knew what she was committing herself to.

To switch off the mechanisms that tie Eluana, unwillingly, to this world would seem an act of humanity. Her friends certainly think so. Her father has spent years fighting for her to have that right and as, finally, judges have given doctors permission to slowly reduce the amount they feed her, the Pope pops up.

For Italy is a Catholic country and the church likes to have its say in all things. The Vatican has announced that to stop feeding Eluana would be a “monstrous and inhumane murder.” Silvio Berlusconi has helpfully waded in too commenting that she is still old enough to have children – which, frankly, sums him up really.

I don’t want to talk about euthanasia or assisted suicide because I don’t feel that this is what would be happening in these circumstances. Since the House of Lords allowed Hillsborough victim Tony Bland’s life support to be switched off in 1992, a distinction has been made in the UK between those suffering and those who would have passed along were it not for grace of medical science.

No, the question I would like to ask is, what right does the Vatican, the Catholic Church or the Pope have to interfere in a Father’s decision about the life of his daughter?

This is the problem I have with religion – well, aside from the tendency to hypocrisy, intolerance and killing anyone who doesn’t agree. I don’t take umbrage with faith. I can see how people take great comfort in religious faith and at times I desperately wish I had some. I sometimes think that if I truly believed existence was an act of divine will, then I may find it easier to rediscover who I’m supposed to be. So, I fully understand and support someone’s right to be believe and take solace in whatever they choose on a personal level, but I object strongly to a structured hierarchy that decides to get involved in things which, fundamentally, do not concern it.

It has taken twelve years for Eluana’s Father to get this far. It has been twelve years since he made what must have been the most difficult decision of his life and he must be beginning to feel as though there will never be a release for his daughter. Or himself.

Italy is a secular country in that its laws and government are not dictated by any religion. Whilst, I assume, Catholicism is the majority religion and I would happily bet that the number of people who regularly attend church of any denomination far outstrips the numbers in this country, it is not obligatory to be a Catholic.

Indeed, Eluana’s father does not appear to be religious at all – “if there is a God, I don’t need an intermediary such as the church to speak for me.” He has not asked the church for guidance, so why does it feel the need to proffer an opinion?

I’m reluctant to say that it is either because in a pompous, arrogant fashion it truly believes to know and understand the situation better than those involved, or because by making such ridiculous statements somewhere somebody agrees and considers joining, but they’re both, unfortunately, probably true.

I wish that the church and the politicians would just back off, would just shut up for once and let a parent finish grieving for his child. It’s been seventeen years since he started, now he just needs to lay Eluana to rest.


I wrote the above piece on Sunday afternoon. Double-checking a couple of things before releasing it on Tuesday night I realise that Eluana has, in fact, died. The Doctors who began with-holding her food on Friday originally thought she may live for a further two weeks. They may now still face prosecution.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Days Like Today

So, I had a couple of ideas about which I could write this week’s entry.
I considered bemoaning the probable final death of my car at the hands of joy-riders. I thought about doing something on the woman who discovered her husband having cybersex via facebook. Or I was shocked at my own paranoia and doom-mongering when I missed a piece of registered post on Saturday and spent thirty-six hours convincing myself, given my current run of bad luck, that was someone suing me, or the police summoning me to court for a crime I wasn’t even aware I’d committed, when in fact it was just my degree certificate. I even considered doing a piece about my turn as a Master of Ceremonies at a recent book launch and the perils of associated vanity (plus the subsequent too-much-too-quick white wine fiasco).

But instead as it’s winter and London’s transport network has ground to a halt, begging someone to come along and put it out of its misery with a single bullet to the temple, and I’ve consequently been barricaded into the house by a three foot deep drift outside the front door, I felt it really had to about snow.

It’s just gone five in the afternoon as I type this, the light is fading and it hasn’t stopped snowing all day. The grey air is still filled with flecks of clear-white that cascade over the roof slates like tears. Outside, the layers pile deeper and thicker across the cars and the pavement as it packs itself into icy blocks.

I went out earlier to buy some milk and some soup. It felt like a soup day. At end of my drive I noticed the lid from the recycling box was missing and that snow clung to empty beer cans and rough drafts of my writings.

“Strange,” I thought.

I took my step carefully as the pavements hadn’t been gritted and it had become much more slippy since I’d ventured down to the locked up station first thing. When I came to Hilly Fields I realised where the box lid had gone. Kids were everywhere, throwing snowballs, rolling snowmen, skidding along on makeshift sledges, their bodies pulling troughs through the ground in criss-crossing patterns of beautiful randomness.

The news has been saying that this is the heaviest snow fall in eighteen years, which if I think about it must be right.

It was February too and the schools were closed for a couple of days. This is one of those memories that probably didn’t quite happen like this, but it’d make existence so much better if it had happened exactly like this.

My parents live at the bottom of quite a steep road on the outskirts of Birmingham. There were four of us. Me, Mark, Oscar and one other whose name I can’t recall. Was it Tom before he moved away? Or perhaps it was James, but he didn’t live that close by, did he? It doesn’t really matter. We could have been four fictional boys, really.

We had three sledges between us. Two cheapo plastic ones, probably bright orange, and someone (not me) had one of the classic, traditional wooden sledges that you sometimes still see on Christmas Cards. Three sledges, four boys. How to ensure that a game involved all four at the same time?

A sledge train, that’s how.

The boy in the first sledge would lie on his back, facing backwards and holding the rope of the wooden sledge which followed. The third boy would lie on his front behind the wooden sledge and hold onto the back. The fourth boy would pull the whole thing along to get maximum speed up before sending the others flying off down the road.

And hoping a car wasn’t coming around the bend halfway down the hill.

I’m not sure which was the best/scariest position. The boy in the first sledge would have no idea what was happening because he couldn’t see, but he’d have the sensation of speed and the knowledge that he’d take the brunt of any collision. The boy sitting in the middle, upright on the taller, classic sledge, felt the least in control. He wasn’t holding onto any of the other sledges and was the most likely to be flung off into a drift. The boy at the back, ah, now he was able to manipulate the thrill by using his arms to swing from side to side like a runaway caravan. If he timed it right he’d be able to use the momentum and the racing line of the bend to release himself and overtake the other two. Time it wrong and he’d crash into a parked car.

I remember doing this again and again for hour after hour, working our way equally through each of positions in the chain. I remember being soaked from the inside and out and the burning flush in my cheeks.

Like I said, it probably didn’t quite happen like that, but who cares? That’s how I remember it and that’s what is important to me.

That’s it for this week. London and the South-East are currently closed for “maintenance”. See you when they open up again.