Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Lion in Winter

In Chinon in the Loire Valley, amongst the stones and mist and turrets and walls as deep as your arm is long, the family gathered. They came across the seas and down the mountains, through the grassed valleys and out of thickly laden forests. They came, not because they wanted to traverse their empire, but because they had been summoned.

The old King sat in his castle with his hated Queen and he called his children, both through biology and through kinship, to his side. Even though they all loathed each other with equal venom they meekly did as they were bid and arrived at the castle gates not in preparation for a summer war, but in readiness for a winter peace.

The House of Plantagent was full once again that twelfth century December.

Henry the Second had kicked and snarled his way to claim the inheritance of his mother. He bullied his way to the kingdom of England, the Dukedom of Normandy, the Counties of Blois and Maine and Anjou when that still wasn’t enough he married into the Counties of Aquitaine and Gascony. The Plantagent empire, the first English empire, in 1183 stretched leisurely all the way down from Hadrian’s wall to the English channel, leapt the sea in a single bound, grappled with most of Northern France and then snaked its lazy way down to the foothills of the Pyrenees and the summer sunshine of the Mediterranean.

For Eleanor of Aquitaine, his older wife, this was on second queenship, having already divorced the King of France after rumours of infidelity and incest abroad on the second crusade. Henry didn’t care about her age or her history. After all it wasn’t as though he loved anything about her other than the titles she carried and the land, wealth and soldiers they brought with them. It had been a strategic marriage, for Eleanor didn’t care about Henry save for the armies he commanded and the slight it struck Louis when not only did she remarry but also squashed his allegations of her infertile nature by bearing four hulking sons.

The boys: Henry the younger, Richard who would late be accused of being lion-hearted, Geoffrey the schemer and poor little John. All were the image of their father, all turned against he who had sired them not only in stroppy teenage portcullis slamming but on the battlefield. All of them were too easily manipulated by their mother. All of them were the same, yet all of them despised the other, were jealous of the others privileges, almost as greatly as they couldn’t stand their parents. Even Henry, the eldest and the heir to the sole actual crown, the boy whom old King Henry envisaged starting a mighty dynasty which through crafty marriage and brutal swordplay could one day rule the entire known world.

At least, that was, until he inconveniently died too young.

So they gathered alongside the strapling new King of France, the young Philip Augustus who was only hanging around either because he was infatuated with the beast of a man that was Richard (and maybe they did share a touch too much under a starry sky one spring night, or maybe they didn’t) or just to annoy his own father. Still, the old King played by Peter O’Toole, the Queen by Katharine Hepburn and the kids – Richard by Anthony Hopkins, Philip by Timothy Dalton, Geoffrey and John by nobodies. Because this might be history, it might be true, but it’s also the Lion in Winter. It’s a good film. I’d lend it to you, but I suspect I might be the only person still using a VCR.

The TV was down too low to hear what he’s saying, but there he was once again – good ol’Gordie Brown, the sunshine of my days, for once without his sidekick Beagle Balls. He stood behind a lectern, his jowls flapped and in front of his hands that no doubt so sweatily gripped the fake wood, a placard read: ‘A future fair for all.’

And again he managed to disappoint me (or perhaps blame should be directed at Dougie Alexander, who’s supposedly campaign managing this seemingly protracted suicide note and of whom I had expected better after listened to him speak under the dome of St Paul’s last Autumn). It’s such an empty meaningless phrase. Or grammatically incorrect, at the very least. Shouldn’t it say ‘A future (comma, hyphen, colon, some sort of fucking punctuation) fair for all’? That might actually give it some sense beyond conjuring jaded images of cranky merry-go-rounds with crackly accordion music which never end until someone puts a bullet in our brains.

Still, at least it’s better than butter-wouldn’t-melt-Davie’s campaign slogan of ‘ ‘. Or possibly, ‘hey, what-ho, at least I’m not Gordon! Who’s for a pimms on my yacht? White properly educated chaps only, of course - the sort of people who cry to the papers about possibly having to stand up and smell the same air as the hopeless on the same train to Darlington.’ It’s not very catchy, is it?

Then there’s the other one. You know: Cleggy? The one wearing the flat cap and the dark raincoat and stumbling incoherently around Yorkshire? The one who doesn’t say much at all in case it’s a dead-heat in May and he and his cohort are suddenly thrust into a position of responsibility for the first time in almost a century.

And so, the morning after Gordie’s crime against English slogan launch, the Observer, the Observer of all places – one of the ones that supposed to be on his side – voiced accusations of bullying at number Ten. By Monday morning a charity mysteriously endorsed by Davie and his polo club chums broke ranks and confidence and confirmed that it has had ‘numerous’ emails and calls (‘well, two actually’) from staff in Downing Street about being bullied. Shamelessly, the charity’s Chief Executive refused to concede that her move was political, claiming that she acted solely out of concern for the bullied in question. Those who are now, presumably, completely exposed for a fully fledged round of fires of hell being released, of Chinese burns and of having their homework flushed down the toilet, by the grouchy dour monster that lives pretty darn close to the peak of our government.

‘And where are you in all this?’ asked the cute blonde in the bar with the view the of city yawing, exposing its electric silver teeth as it fleed across the horizon. ‘When do I get to see the real you step out from behind the front?’

I paused. Hmm, perceptive, I thought. But, sssh, whisper it, I’m actually swamped at real work pretending I have a clue what’s going on, hoping to just muddle my way out the far side as per usual. So, a lot of this is taking place in my head. Or if not in my head, then in the space between my fingers and the keyboard.

I find bullying such an emotive word, such a tricky subject to handle. In one sense I am on the side of the bullied, for when I was child I frequently came home from school bruised and bloodied both inside and out. I suffered seemingly endless taunts with nothing being left sacred. Mocked and relentlessly ridiculed for my weight, my stance, my size, my posture, my mass, my intelligence, my bulk, my lack of height, my density, my disinterest in sports, my inappropriate bulges, my interest, my utter fatness.

‘…I’m mean you,’ my friend said back in the summer, within the context of the conversation, as she lit a cigarette ‘you don’t have to worry about these things, being naturally so thin.’

‘Hah,’ I replied choking on my umpteenth glass of wine.

‘In that case,’ she leant forward and exhaled slowly, ‘you hide it very well.’

Okay, I’ve kept off the weight I shed through the heartbreak diet ™ and even piled on a bit of muscle, but that’s not the point: I’m still overly conscious of my size, not least from being reminded of it on a daily basis as a child.

But then, you know, kids are kids and what’s the harm in a little joking, a little laughing at your absurdities. It toughens you up, doesn’t it? It steels you for adulthood. I’m not exactly known for holding back a quip, cruel or otherwise, if I think it’ll get a laugh. Many times have I had to backtrack, apologising, because it sounded funnier in my head.

But the fights were the difference – and these too were my fault. Me and my increasingly short temper. Frustrated that at the time a witty comeback was beyond me, I’d lash out with my fists and feet. But I was a round kid; neither strong not tall and once that first punch had been thrown, then violence became fair game. A game I routinely lost.

We’ve got to take responsibility for our own mistakes.

Of course, being bullied as an adult in the workplace is very different. No-one throws your bag into the tall steel bins, or down in the gutter running out the sports hall toilets. No-one kicks you in the ribs rather than the face so as the marks won’t show in class.

I've heard people throw the word bully out almost as a default defense mechanism, as though it will get them off the hook for consistently getting it wrong. Being pressurised to meet a deadline or complete an element to a project you don't particualry fancy doing is not being the same as being continually tormented - being bullied is not the same as being given a bollocking for cocking something up.

I could well be proved wrong. This is a political game and Ali, Petey and all the others are avoiding mentioning any real detail about what’s been going on behind that famous black door, but given the amount of disasters and fuck-ups that have plagued Gordie’s premiership I think the guy’s probably allowed to expect better, to ask that mistakes don’t happen again and again and again and when they do, well, perhaps the hairdryer treatment is too tempting. Those on the receiving end could do well to look at themselves, pull their boots back on and get back to work.

Within Chinon’s impervious walls, the fractured family came together for Christmas and there they bullied one another. They taunted and twisted and throttled the next youngest down. Henry bullied Richard, Richard bullied Geoffrey (with a side interest in tormenting Philip), Geoffrey bullied John who in turn, being the very youngest, had no-one of his own to bully (aside from the servants, obviously). So bereft was John that he screwed himself into so many tight circles until he accidentally ended up on the throne, after Richard got an arrow in shoulder trying to storm a French castle and bully Philip some more. Once King, John had a crack at bullying everyone, especially dead Geoffrey’s young son Arthur who also ended up in a grave, but the robber barons who made up the nobility were too much of bullies themselves and so the whole mess came to a conclusion in the field near Runnymeade and the signing of a document: Magna Carta, the foundation of our law formed to make everyone play nice.

‘Life,’ said Suggs being interviewed for Madness’ The Business boxed set and asked whether he agreed Chas Smash had unexpectedly assumed leadership of the popular eighties ska combo group, ‘is made up of bullies. Barson was a bully and Carl’s a bully. And I’m a bully.’

Thursday, 18 February 2010


The morning smelt of sweat. Perspiration clung to the mist and filled my nostrils. The daybreak reeked of saltly musk and of horses. The doe could smell it too. Before me, before I was more than simply unconsciously aware of the approach, she paused, looked north and then ran, brambles flicked away in her wake.

They came across the horizon at a canter with wild yelps that echoed through the forest. Cries of aggression and buoyant macho adrenalin vocalised to rebound off the clustered trees. The lead horse slipped in the wet and churned mud in a grey-brown arch along its flank so that its rider cursed it all the way to black pit as one of his rivals whisked on past.

And then, they were gone; nothing but the gently settling earth and the throbbing vibration of hooves striking dirt vibrating through the earth, through time. I sat on my fallen tree trunk in silence and took a sip of coffee poured from a silver thermos. The New Forest was alive yet dead simultaneously; trapped in-between worlds.

He appeared as though from behind history. A flame haired man atop a chestnut stallion. He was slightly hunched forward, his purple cloak was wrapped tight around his shoulders. He urged his mount to trot forwards, his eyes scanning from side to side, but looking for what I couldn’t tell – the doe? His comrades? No, not his comrades. It was clear they weren’t his equals, but his minions. He paused in front of me and seemed poised to say something, to speak in a tongue I wouldn’t recognise.

That was the when the crossbow bolt hit him in the centre of his chest.

‘An end to Punch and Judy politics,’ David Cameron announced as he stepped up to the lectern for the opposition in the House of Commons in December 2005 – before going onto remind Blair ‘you were the future once.’

I never watched a Punch and Judy show as a child. Puppets tended to scare me, especially those representing humans. I even found the old men who sat up in the box seats for the muppet show somewhat disturbing. But, from what I understand, it’s a dark tale not only of incessant slapping and that’s-the-way-to-it-ing, but of lying and of murder. After Baby, after Judy, after the Policeman and the Crocodile and the strings of sausages Punch just can’t help himself. He has to go on and on like a force of nature.

Towards the end Mr Punch fools the Judge into placing his own neck in the noose and thereby hanging himself.

The rider looked down at the shaft jutting out of his torso and let out a surprised groan. He slid almost wearily, as though resigned the thankful inevitability of it all, to the ground. There he lay, his horse patiently waiting for orders, whilst a growing pool of crimson soaked through his purple finery at the root of the wooden bolt.

I lowered my head and closed my eyes out of respect.

And when I opened my eyes again there was, of course, nothing there. It was nothing but a ghost of nine hundred years prior.

William the second; middle son of William the bastard otherwise known as the Conqueror – the Norman Duke who sailed across the Channel to smoother the land. William, also known as Rufus for his fiery red beard; who reigned for barely ten years and managed to fall out with everyone. William who was slain in the private hunting grounds of the New Forest, Dorset, killed by a solitary crossbow bolt in circumstances that have never been fully explained. An accident or murder, no-one seems too sure. Rufus was childless, arrogant, variously accused of homosexuality and being warlock, renowned for a ferocious temper, happy to make war with his own kin, yet strangely affectionate for finery. Who killed him, we can never know because nobody hung around to find out. In 1099 England the rule of law died with the King and so everyone in the hunting party pelted back to their newly acquired lands and castles and serfs desperate to beat both word of mouth and the grubby hands of their neighbours. After all, he was dead; just another corpse. In those days, no-one cared whodunit as long as they didn’t try to do them too.

Another Rufus had been a more frequent companion recently - high-camp sub-operatic warbling playing in the background of my subconscious.

‘If anyone wants me,’ I cheerfully called out, sauntering across the office floor, ‘I’ll be in the basement making snuff films.’ It got one laugh and even then only after I’d repeated it.

‘Mmmm, making movies of myself,’ I minced as I rode the lift down, deep down underneath the surface of London. And there as I messed around with green screens and video cameras and pretended I understood what we were doing I watched the careful reading of the autocue and the image projected in the directors’ monitor and it all seemed more real than life itself. It was, in that moment, as though the ultimate representation of ourselves was being stolen from the waking world and digitalised, to be flung across a thousand computer screens. Were we losing ourselves?

‘I’ve got so much to tell you, babes,’ said the girl with the dyed red hair who had inexplicably reappeared.

She tucked her chair closer across the crowded bar and whispered into my ear a tale of filth until someone broke the moment by saying: ‘I can’t hear what she’s saying, but I doubt it’s desired effect is a face so horrified.’

Far from ending Punch and Judy politics, Cameron seems to have pushed it on to another layer of perverse macabre.

He’s making the early slavos of the election battle about individuals and the trust we are prepared to place in them; our faith that they are real people rather than anything they might actually do in the future.

Cameron calls Brown shameless over the expenses scandal as the whip is withdrawn from the three Labour members of parliament facing prosecution, conveniently forgetting that the fourth is a Conservative. He then moved onto calling electoral reform proposals ‘cynical attempts to save his own [Brown’s] skin’ and attacks a non-existent death duty. You know what? Just fuck off, Dave.

What’s the alternative to actual policies? The two of them (and they are almost as bad as each other) going on chat shows to be interviewed by sycophantic slimeballs as they try to our mourn each other for the death of their children. Both are enormously tragic events, but don’t – don’t either of – politicise it. So, don’t talk about it. Because you’re politicians so everything you say becomes political.

In the end Mr Punch even manages to fight off the devil himself, refusing to be dragged down in hell and preferring to wander this world, homeless, doomed to recount his bloody tale again and again until his immortal soul has paid its price.

The crowded commuter train was steamy from the rain. Outside, it was unseasonably icy and the torrential downpour thumped off the roof of the carriage, but inside the heater fired wafts of smelly hot air across our faces and water roses up from sodden jackets into the air. The couple pressed up close to me could not help but display their adoration for each other and over minutes gentle nuzzling of noses and little kisses to the dents of chins became fully fledged tongues slipping between teeth replete with squelchy saliva smacking sounds. It ruined my enjoyment of In Cold Blood. I felt like a passive voyeur in a three-some. The whole porno experience was amplified by the ipod of the short bald middle aged man pressed into the small of my back. From out of his ears comes the eighties power electric keyboard chords of Van Halen’s: Der-der-der-der-der-de-dah-‘Jump, you mighta well jump.’

Back in 1099, whilst all the barons fled for home, one man – Rufus’ younger brother Henry – rode for the Winchester and the treasury. Money talked as much then as it does now.

William Rufus was buried almost grudgingly by a suspicious clergy in Winchester Cathedral. When, a few years later, the tower collapsed it was said to be the presence of his blacked heart degrading the holy foundations of the church.

I stood up in the afternoon sun broken by the thick forest canopy and flicked the remnants of the coffee, bitter like burnt bark, onto the floor. As I turned I saw a figure and for a moment wondered if it was the culprit, but it was only a dog walker. A sensibly wax jacket and flat capped man with wisps of grey escaping ears and hyperactive collie collared to a lead. On I tramped out of the woods and across a boggy ridge, my boots squelching through pools of green slop. In my wake I was followed by the muddled memories not of despatched kings, but of idle afternoons, total disorientation amongst the trees, of insects and fish and of the bristle of autumn heather against sun saturated skin.

Later, I drove back up out of the country and towards the city. The motorway slipped away behind me in a haze of fuzzy electric lights and high up above a colossus silver skinned moon hung in the sky like a painted backdrop. The earth felt unnaturally close to the weirdly neon moon as though its craggy craters were carved in high definition. I drove towards the city, back towards answers and that was when it struck me for the first time. Perhaps the city wasn’t the place to find what I was looking for. Perhaps, I needed to look in the country, into our murky past to find the simmering tomorrow. Pop music blared out the speakers and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was driving to the moon itself, leaving that world behind for the blissful void of space.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


J.D Salinger was dead and, as Holden Cauldfield himself might have muttered: ‘So what? He was just another old phoney in a world stuffed full of fakes telling us what to think about life.’

It was a one of those January afternoons where the open sky yawns clear and free. It looked as though it might break away from the sea as they raced in parallel across the horizon. I wondered what might exist in-between.

I walked along the Kent coastal path in the shadow of the ruined Roman fort, its skeleton exposed like torture victims’ tears, and thrust my gloved hands deep into my coat pockets. Out in the waters the white pillars of the wind farm, with their turbines’ slowly twisting arms, sent semaphore messages of ecological disaster, that stretched up to the still fleeing sky and all around me the echoes of snowfall disappeared back from whence they had come.

This was where Augustine came to tame the so-called English - the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes and the mixed up mess of leftover empire. The allegedly uncivilised bastard hybrids of a thousand blood soaked battles, the bedevilled offspring of rape that arrived on the cusp of a wave screeching obscenities. Or if not here, then some other corner of Kent, the mythical garden of England. Some say the Isle of Thanet, some say Ramsgate. The coast from Margate, which snivels its way through Herne Bay and onto the Rochester estuary, is haunted by history, particularly memories of invasion, but has such resonance lingering as that of the arrival of Augustine. He who brought orders from blessed Rome and the sanctification of divine word to spread amongst the peoples of this land.

Legend tells that in the sixth century he landed out of a bedraggled small fishing boat that had barely survived the splurge across the channel, and stumbled, barefoot through the salty waters and across the shingled sands, crashing to his knees and praising his unrecognised lord for delivering unto him a nation of heathens to better.

Actually, that’s not a legend. I made it up. I have no idea what the true story of his landing is. Same as I cannot really pass judgement on the apparent ease with which the King Ethelbert fell for the story of redemption and eternal paradise. It is a legend because history is written by the winners and Augustine and his church, with its holy soldiers scattered throughout the land to enforce moral servitude, won.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I raised my camera and picked off a snaggle of hikers along the far dyke, drenched in the semi-lit red death sun rays falling across the oyster farm. Silhouettes, representations of people. Like Plato’s shadows in the cave. They may have been real people. They may not have been. My imagination might have automatically interpreted them as flesh and blood, filling in the gaps of the framework that the representation suggested.

Perhaps it was just me, but as January limped its way out of the snow drowned suffocation of winter it felt as though something was ending. Or it maybe beginning. It probably was just my imagination (running away with me); seeing things that aren’t there.

Earlier, back when the snow still blanketed the streets and it was warmer out than in as long as I stayed mobile, I walked along the Old Kent Road and felt his leery smug gaze fall upon me. David Cameron’s photoshopped eyes slimed out of the billboard into the city.

“We can’t go on like this,” even his type intoned evangelical hypocrisy, “I’ll cut the deficit not the NHS.”

‘That’s not a policy,’ I grumbled to myself, ‘that’s just an empty promise.’

His great big tight lipped privileged smile was condescending to the whole street, inflated to the size of an upper deck of the number thirty-six. I wanted to clamber up the billboard and rip him into meaningless shreds.

Someone in Hackney went further. “Fuck off back to Eton,” they scrawled in cartoon blood red.

In Hereford a full abusive makeover transformed the Tory leader into a sideburned end of the pavilion Elvis impersonator who’s seen better days. “We can’t go on like this,” he wailed whilst the backing tape slipped, “with suspicious minds.”

The night bus inched its way through Peckham trying to plough through an inexplicable two in the morning traffic jam. I rested my temple against the cold damp glass of the upstairs windows, letting the rumble of the diesel engine throb across by brain. The rhythm burst the red wine bubbles that raced through my thoughts. I dreamed of words, words printed on paper and pushed into hands. And for some reason about shaving all the hair from my body; of being reborn free from sin.

My head was riddled with frivolous thoughts and memories of histories once learnt. But whilst all that was going on inside me, outside in the real world stages were being set.

Gordon Brown stepped out of the St James’ mansion that is Lancaster House; he walked out of nineteen century red silk luxury and into the unrelenting flashbulb glare of twenty-ten media. In his back there were still the stab wounds, the fresh knife cuts overlaying the budding scar tissue. He talked of offering something to the Afghan people other than bullets from the white hot, dust clogged end of an SA-80.

He was careful to avoid phrases such as ‘save’ and ‘peace’ preferring to focus his dour delivery on things he is more comfortable articulating. Monetary issues. Finance. Cash. He concentrated and his body barely moved for fear his wounds might reopen.

The NATO leaders are trying to wash their hands clean as they promise to use the rainy day pots of emergency money to establish a trust fund for Afghanistan. They made a pledge to Taliban fighters; offering to make them wealthy if they will renounce arms. They suggested a binding deal with people whose ideology is, in part, the removal of western capitalist decadence from their homelands. They will attempt to bribe idealists to renounce their cause. And they think this will work.

You cannot solve every problem by throwing money at it. Money, you do not necessarily have. Money, that if you do have it may be of more use elsewhere – such as topping up the fund to rebuild the vibro-shattered infrastructure of Haiti. Sometimes, you have to find principles. Sometimes, you have to have morals.

Meanwhile, a matter of hundreds of metres away the Tony Blair circus rolled into the Queen Elizabeth conference centre and erected its marquee. Journalists reported the shake in Blair’s hand as he fumbled with a water bottle, the only sign of apprehension before the performance began. The immortal star of persuasion politics rose like a phoenix back for one last encore. The smile, the hand movements, the intonations were all nauseatingly familiar, like Oasis’ brief and unexpected revival from beyond the grave a couple of years ago – some things are best left in the time they originate from. He deflected questions, he rephrased arguments, he ignored reality with greatest of ease, like a trapeze artist swinging through the air knowing that the safety net won’t be needed for he never falls.

And at the end, when he was asked if he had regrets, when he was given the opportunity to appear human he declined. The heckles dribbled through, but the shock that someone could be so arrogant was like a thunderclap. Gordon’s back may have been bloodied, his face might have been scarred and bruised, but Tony’s hands were soaked red with gore and the demon eyes flashed out of the past to burn passing good souls.

Was Elthebert a good soul for allowing the patchwork of Christian population suppression to descend across his land? Did he mean well? Did he believe he was doing the right thing? Did history judge him or have we all forgotten who he was?

Indeed, we have no clear picture of the man. There is no photograph, no permanent record of perhaps a distinctively striking, tall, muscular man with fine drapes across his leather cross hatched armour, a noble poise as his horse galloped across the Kent flatlands, marsh mists and horse sweat forming clouds around him. We don’t even know if Augustine convinced him of the power of the Lord or if the King grudgingly converted to keep the marital bedroom a harmonious place, for his wife Bertha was a Frank and therefore already one of the converted. Possibly, he insisted on meeting Augustine and his cohorts under an open sky for that would protect him from sorcery.

Or maybe the monk bunged him thirty pieces of silver and walked straight on past.

I slid off my rock on the sea’s rim and trudged through the loose shingle back to the car. The locks opened with a snicker and the engine fired with an oomph. As I drove back to the city, back the future, I headed into the dipping sun. I raised my hand to shield my eyes and the whole world was blistered with gold.

J.D Salinger is dead. Does that mean we all have to wise up? Grow up? Does that mean I can no longer act like a teenager?

The bus jerked forwards and seemingly travelled backwards simultaneously. I wondered if I was going to make it home before I needed to leave for work. On the other side of the aisle were two young men, sitting apart and yet together. Each had their own double seat. The one in front was turned around and draped over the plastic upright, whilst the one behind leaned in close to hang off every word. Their conversation was lowered, but the snippets I caught were those of an introductory conversation, the sort you make when you’ve just met and are desperate to impress. It was a conversation of hopes and aspirations, of dreams and desires. It wasn’t idle small talk, but statements of intent. The one man ran his fingers across the back of the other’s hand. Romance was blossoming.

Whilst in front of me it was dying. The woman with the bright orange hair was purposefully looking out of the window at the night whilst he turned inwards, almost demanding with his body that she pay attention to his earnestness, his hand cupped empty air for emphasis. Their voices were not so hushed; they drifted in and out of earshot as decorum and privacy were rudely shoved aside by indignation and anger. The argument could have been any relationship burning out. It was about money, or the squandering of it, it was about suspected and refuted infidelity, about jealousy, about effort of lack thereof with each others’ friends. Her voice began to crack with tears. His gestures became increasingly desperate.

The bus stopped yet again. A blonde girl whose smile seemed larger than her face flounced up the stairs.

‘Hi,’ she sat down next to me. ‘Can I make friends with you?’

It took a moment for my brain to stop prying into everyone else’s business and reply: ‘Um, okay.’

‘Cool. I need to talk to some else I’ll fall asleep and it’s always super to make a new friend.’

In my head Billy Bragg sang “I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl,” but I wasn’t sure I believed him.