Tuesday, 30 March 2010


Nicholas Hawksmoor is not as famous as his teacher and mentor, Christopher Wren, but his existence permeates more thoroughly. Wren’s grandest testimony is St Paul’s Cathedral, that great domed monolith of beauty that I lost many hours gazing out at from the seventh floor window of Ludgate House. Hours I should have spent working, but its monstrous size dominated the horizon and threatened to eat up the adjacent buildings. It captivated me even more so than the regular snaking of the trains and in out of Blackfriar’s Station directly underneath. Wren’s triumph is unmissable, but if he placed all his eggs in one moment of architectural genius, then Hawksmoor’s legacy is not only more subtle, but more widely flung.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hawksmoor was not from a background of privilege. He got on in life through hard work and being fortunate enough to assist other great architects. Whilst many studiers of the built environment (as it had yet to become known) went on grand continental tours, absorbing the classical influences of Athens and Rome, Hawksmoor stayed in Britain and worked. As such, his style is dominated by what was already built and his imagination; an understanding of architecture gained through the cracked mirror of graphite illustrations in a scant few books.

He helped design country houses, including Blenheim House for the first Duke of Marlborough, and eventually he arrived in Oxford in 1715. There he reshaped All Souls College, right in the centre of the old city, infusing its already three centuries of academic life with an idiosyncratic gothic verve all of his own. Alongside this Hawksmoor also designed the Clarendon Building, the pantheon-like original home of the University’s press, the mammothly ostentatious frontage to Queen’s College and was consulted on the plans for Worcester College. Hawksmoor, old Nick, took Oxford between his hands and remoulded it like putty into his vision of the future and past as one forever.

And perhaps, when he was supervising the initial foundations being laid, he glanced out over a paddock of lush grass to see a small herd of deer frolicking, for his time there coincides with the first accounts of Magdalen College’s cross between a petting zoo and gamey symbol of wealth.

This is, of course, pure conjecture on my part. But Oxford is funny like that. It is at once inherently beautiful and yet trapped within the shadows of its own identity and past.

George Osborne went to Magdalen College and there is something like the unreality of a drunken Oxford afternoon that hangs about the shadow chancellor. He seems determined to portray himself as closer to Hawksmoor than Wren, as though he came from a less than privileged background. Yet the implicit message behind stories he tells are completely at odds with the words coming out of his mouth.

Georgie claims that his Father worked up his multi-million pound decorating business from the back of a silver mini. Which is probably partially true, but neglects to mention that his father, Sir Peter Osborn, is also the Baronet Osborne of Ballintaylor, a family seat that’s been held since 1629 and whilst I’m sure that nobility doesn’t also bring with it an interior furnishings business it does gives less credence to the hand to mouth existence Georgie implies for his childhood. Indeed, little Georgie is so much a royal blue he out toffs pretty much every other thinly sculpted, upturned nose on the shadow cabinet’s front bench.

Most disturbingly is that he doesn’t appear to truly believe, or understand, what he is in relation to everyone else. He describes his School, St Paul’s, as being extremely liberal. “Your mother could be the head of a giant corporation or a solicitor in Kew.” Previously, when questioned over his lack of real-world experience – Georgie was more-or-less gifted a job at Conservative central office by an old chum after being knocked back by the Times for his first job application upon graduation – his defence has been: “I have plenty of friends who work in law, in the City, in government agencies.” Which is fine. I don’t actually expect potential Chancellors of the Exchequers, wanna-be leaders of the country, to be besht mates with bin men and train drivers and primary school teachers in schools where your mother could work in Lidl or be stuck on benefits because the tipping scale of what she could earn is insufficient no matter how incredibly boring and frustrating not working makes life, but she needs to do the best for her kids. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be friends with these people, just that I’m not naïve enough to believe that they would ever be so for more time than it takes for the photograph to be taken.

But perhaps an understanding that these people exist and that a significant number of us live in a world that interacts more closely with them than with the world of fishing trips in the highlands with Eric Clapton or sun soaked cocktails on the yacht of Russian zillionaires, the worlds where it’s perfectly acceptable to flip your mortgage payments through the parliamentary expenses system or have a chauffeur drive you down from your Cheshire constituency to London. Say Georgie, why aren’t you out on your ear or in the dock like all the others? Is it because your pal Dave thinks you look too little like a walrus to be derided as old blue?

And perhaps this misunderstanding of how the world works is a little bit your upbringing’s fault, a little bit Hawksmoor’s fault, a little bit Oxford’s fault.

When I was there at the weekend, lurking around Christchurch College – not a Hawksmoor one, unfortunately for the lack of symmetry in the writing – taking in sessions at the literary festival I sat in an oak panelled room with a bristling ancient fireplace, stained glass windows and faded portraits of sternly bearded gentlemen. There I listened to, amongst other pieces, an extract from an Oxford novel. A novel about University life in the city, a story about the challenges of leaving school feeling immensely intelligent and arriving in the hub of brain boxes and feeling woefully inadequate. My initial feeling was that surely we didn’t need another Oxford novel, that surely this particular skit had been done to death. But no, if you’re on the inside it would seem that Oxford never changes, that undergraduates still arrive in their first week with a teddy bear tucked under their arm playing at being Sebastian from Brideshead Revisted until the almighty hangover after they’ve vomited their stomach lining up all around the quad persuades them otherwise. Oxford continues to insulate, to replicate, to regurgitate, to eat itself.

‘Of course I romanticise Oxford in my head,’ my friend said later outside the pub, ‘it’s impossible not to.’ And she’s right. Even I’m starting to do it. It’s a very easy place to fall in love with: Extremely idyllic, the beer’s marvellous, the characters - like the bear of a man I keep running into in pubs, the one in the expensive coat with the goblet of red wine to his lips - leap of the page and into the real world. The air is calm and quiet, you can stand in the centre and throw a ball hard enough and it’ll land in countryside and even the punting, whilst always vaguely ridiculous, has a lazy summer’s afternoon’s charm to it. And the architecture – the architecture transports you, it swallows you up into the myth that you’re timeless.

Returning to London after redesigning most of Oxford, Hawksmoor was involved in the building of new churches for the provision of the city’s soul. Six churches were designed with the Hawksmoor mix gothic towers and intense classical detail and are still distinct within the city’s myriad architecture today. Hawkesmoor churches are unique, from Greenwich to Wapping, from Spitalfields to Bloomsbury, from the City to Limehouse they are all to the east of the centre and as cockney as eel pie‘n’mash and pearly queens.

It is, if you feel so inclined, possible to not only visit the churches, to step inside and enjoy their hushed marvels of stone arches and glittering windows, but to conduct a walking tour between them. Provided you’ve got all day and are of the particular disposition where hiking around London for hours is interesting. It’s worth it. Trust me. The rhythm of walking the city in such a way gives it a feeling of myth, of empowerment, as though your footsteps are rewriting history.

And this is where Hawksmoor’s second world, his second life takes over and he really suppresses Wren. Sir Christopher has the one, frankly implausible, legend attached to this work – that he deliberately started the Great Fire solely to have the opportunity to rebuild the city in his fashion – whilst Hawksmoor has been fictionalised to the point where it is unclear when the real man begins. With so little known about him, plenty of writers have taken the opportunity to fill in the blank canvass from the corners.

Peter Carey made old Nick a Satanist who buried the bones and blood of an innocent under the foundations of Spitalfields Square. Iain Sinclair took the same theme and stretched it out to all the churches so that the mark of the devil etched itself into the East End. Alan Moore pushed it further, expanding the symbolism to damn the whole of London, so as Jack the Ripper took Hawksmoor and a hundred dozen other Londonium legends and through ritual magical murder gave birth to the twentieth century. And in the autumn of 2006 I traced the same route watching and feeling my own relationship with the city collapse in on itself, through the eye of Horus, so as every moment existed in a single point of time when I sat on the steps of a church watching the city pass on by.

It’s all made up of course, but that doesn’t really matter because in many ways it feels true.

Perhaps also, in George Osborne’s head, there are two realities, both overlain with each other.

Except, perhaps with Georgie it isn’t quite clear what the one that’s distinct from the Bullingdon club and champers and caviar is. Beyond the bluster he too seems a bit of blank canvas. This is a man who wants to be the second most influential political leader in the country, but also refuses to do politics in the evenings or weekends. Here’s a chilling thought: Brown called an election in 2007 after all and lost. Dave and Georgie swung into Downing Street and last autumn when the banking system was collapsing and – when in reality Darling worked through the weekend nights to get a deal in place where they could be refinanced so as the country wouldn’t implode on Monday morning – in this alternative Georgie had gone out shooting grouse.

This is a man who, when put on television, should have been the most strikingly engaging. After all, he was up against a man who looks (although doesn’t sound like) a slightly sinister Victorian accountant in Vince Cable and a man who’s stolen a badger and attached it to his own face for decoration in Alistair Darling, yet still little Georgie failed to step up to the plate. His “policies” were still – still, six weeks out from a probable election – vague and contradictory. Case in point, the week before he lambasted the budget as fanciful and full of imagined figures and then proceeded to base his plans for national insurance reduction on those same numbers. Consistency, Georgie, please. It makes it easier for us to
know what we’re arguing against.

His face when kindly Foggy Cable got it a jibe at his expense, was priceless. He looked like he was about to throw a temper tantrum, tear all his clothes off screeching that it wasn’t fair and sit crossed legged on the studio floor tears streaming down his prematurely jowly cheeks playing with himself.

But what was most striking was his continual reference to “the Conservatives, under the leadership of David Cameron,” driving home with each sycophantic reference quite how little the Tories have other than that their number one is younger, smarmier and better looking (if you like that slightly greasy over manicured style) than the other number ones.

God helps us all. Especially, Jesus, if Dave and Georgie have some kind of the Blair-Brown blood brother to the death with their hands around each other’s throats pact. Then we all are really fucked.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Oliver Cromwell lurks over British history like a black cancer spot on the right lung. He came, out of nowhere, arriving aged forty as the member of parliament for Huntingdon in 1628. He made one speech in his first term and that was, by all accounts, met little more than derision. He was a petty-minded, frustrated under achieving man whose dreams far exceeded his prospects.

Or so it could easily have been.

But then, came the war. The Civil War – not a civil war like that which was tinted with roses or when Simon De Montfort staged rebellions against Henry III, but the Civil War. It was a time of arrogant monarchs and dandified cavaliers and the new model army and protestant zeal. But after all this, after the battles of Marston Moor and Newbury and Gainsborough and Edge Hill, after the blood stained the green land and bodies rotted in fields all around the country, after the final swing of the executioner’s axe and the first formalised regicide, then Cromwell really became a problem.

Outside the Houses of Parliament is a statue of Ollie. He is surprisingly short and slight, necessarily protected by high steel fences. His hands are clasped firmly behind his back and he looks as though his thoughts are far away. As though his imagination is lost in a fog of cannon smoke and devout yet silent prayer. The statue is there to highlight his alleged role in protecting the independence of Parliament.

There could not be a more inappropriate man to place on the podium.

Whilst all the traditional dog fighting of left versus right, of Conservative against Labour with a minor side show for the Liberal Democrats will continue with gusto the looming election is unfortunately going to offer something not only different, but also more sinister.

The British National Party are making a play for Barking and Dagenham.

Flabby faced, greasy haired professional bastard Nick Griffin, who managed through the stupidities of proportional representation to get himself elected into the European Parliament last year, is standing against Margaret Hodge for the constituency of Barking.

And even more shockingly, he might have a chance.

Barking and Dagenham, for those who don’t spend long sleepless hours driving around the greater London area, is east of the east end. It is at the end of the a-z. Go far enough along the A124 that runs from West Ham through Barking and across the top of Dagenham and there are no more pages to turn. It is an area dominated by cars, strangled as it is by multi-lane monstrosities that carve ridges through the landscape, the A13 to the south, the north circular to the west and the M25 even further east (as though there were such a thing). It is as much Essex as it is London, yet equally nothing. A hinterland fighting for its own identity. London or Essex, it all depends on who you’re pretending to be.

At night the area is weirdly quiet. It consists of long lines of wide avenues and thirties houses congested into packed estates, backing onto the exhausted industry that lines the river and then swallowing themselves up. There is little high-rise living (and perhaps that’s for the best, since the view would only be disappointing), there is little commerce, for long stretches there is little of anything save for slowly moving cars, concreted front gardens and clustered satellite dishes making some homes suggest that they would be more comfortable orbiting the planet than rooted to the concrete. The A13 rises and dips as it proffers as intravenous tubes to the deserted warehouses and factories, giving an entirely misleading sensation of gently rolling countryside.

The pubs aren’t just closed up, they’re boarded up. They aren’t going to open anytime soon. Shops, cafes and other businesses are secreted away behind iron grates, the locks of which looked as though they may have rusted shut a long time ago.

On a Sunday morning, I returned to see whether it looked any different at times when most of the city was awake. It lost much of its menace, that eeriness of loneliness, that sense of being distant from everyone and everything. The sunlight glowed and at a quick glance it felt normal, but still it felt empty. Perhaps I was there too early for anything other than a few more cars and a couple of teenager pedestrians mooching aimlessly, but as I wandered around I thought: This isn’t so bad. Read the Daily Mail and you’d imagine areas of the country like this to have blood flowing down the streets after the night before drink and drug fuelled anarchy. Instead, it was almost serene as I leant on the cool metal of the bridge above Dagenham Heathway station and watched a tube train stumble its way into the city. I held my hand up to shield my eyes from the glare of metal more used to being underground.

‘Mmmm, Oliver’s army are on their way…’ I hummed.

So, why are the fascist bastards making inroads?

‘It’s all two stops before Dagenham,’ I muttered and turned away.

Cromwell was an over-wrought, zealous fanatic with an obsession about Catholicism and a desire to eradicate it that seemed almost sexual. He created a society, like all fascist regimes, where the need for expansionist violence overrode any sense of normality. After Charles’ death, the Parliament attempted to run the country almost like a modern democracy. But the new model army, Cromwell’s polished steel adorned lapdogs, were trained and armed and bored, needed to be set to work. So they invaded Ireland.

And Cromwell didn’t just invade Ireland – a centuries old hobby of British rulers who’d beaten up the Welsh and the Scots already, but didn’t feel sufficiently well-prepared to take on the French – it was how he did it. The gratuitous slaughter of men, women and children, non-combatants at seemingly every opportunity. 3,500 at Drogheda and then the same again at Wrexford. Systematic murder based on race and religious identity, in the context of a population in the tens of thousands its was genocide.

He committed these atrocities not just to win a war, but because he hated Catholics and Irish Catholics in particular.

The Ford factory used to be regarded as a pinnacle of British industrial ability. Employing forty-thousand people for seventy years it churned out escort after carina after fiesta after mondeo again and again until now it simply doesn’t. Now, it just makes a couple of specialised engine parts to be shipped abroad. Unemployment stands at eight percent which, whilst sounding staggeringly high, I’m also shocked to discover is the national average according to the Office for Statistics.

Council housing was the bedrock of the community, but thanks to the Tories’ right to buy policy of the eighties there’s a chronic shortage of council housing. Couple it with the high unemployment rate and you have a problem. Substantially high proportions of people unable to afford decent rental accommodation and two decades of chronic under investment because right to buy’s success suggested there was no need for it.

But if the unemployment rate is the national average and – let’s be honest – there’s no bloody council housing anywhere, why is Barking and Dagenham different.

Oh, yes, there’s “immigration”.

To my uninformed eye, most of the housing appears to be from the thirties, but it may as well be from the late forties or early fifties for that is when the area was born for the second time. At the end of the second world war the bombed out populations of Bow and Bethnal Green and Whitechapel moved downriver whilst their worlds were rebuilt. And they never went back. They stayed and they built communities and they had children and they settled. The original Eastenders moved further east.

But, as is to be expected, the population that replaced them, the population that came from the collapsed empire, also moved out to larger houses with gardens and closer links to the countryside. In 1996 figures showed that the area was 96% white. In 2001 that was apparently down to 81%. According the Observer, an estimate on Wikipedia put the 2005 level at 73% which apparently means you could expand that to around 65% for 2010. However, there’s a key word to identify in that sentence and it’s not “estimate”, it’s “Wikipedia” – hardly renowned for being rigorously accurate at all times. And aside from this being a possibly badly educated guess it doesn’t actually answer the question ‘and what’s wrong with that?’ The emptiness of Barking’s roads is nothing to do with immigration, with a change the population. Again, a shifting cultural and ethnic dynamic is not unique to Barking and Dagenham – it happens it all major urban centres without the original population embracing the Nazis.

The BNP, however, are enthusiastically using the argument that the change in population has changed the area – that it is being stolen from its so-called indigenous people (side-stepping the fact that most of them only arrived a couple of generations back). Claims are being made that what little council housing that does become available is being given to immigrants in preference over locals and that people of a different shade are being paid by the government to move there in a conspiracy to do, quite what I’m not too sure. That bit always seems to be glossed over.

Apparently, “Africans” have been paid £50,000 by the government to move to council houses in the Barking and Dagenham area. This is being picked up as a mantra by local residents who are instinctively reverting to clichés like “shut the floodgates.” But that is, sorry, a load of bollocks.

1,300 tenants of Hackney were given house buying grants and encouraged to move to different areas. 30 of that 1,300 moved to Barking. 7 were white, 9 were black, 9 were Asian and 5 were mixed race or uncertain ethnicity. Hardly a deluge. And they weren’t necessarily moving to council housing stock!

You can see why I've used speech marks - It’s a lie. Nothing but a lie.

But clearly people are falling for it. People are broke and fed up with the status quo and they’re listening to those who help them find someone else to blame for their misfortune. Isn’t that how it always works? And the BNP will say that they’re not racists and their voters will pretend to have other reasons to vote for them and it is all lies, lies, lies.

On Sunday morning, I couldn’t see how this otherwise normal area was in danger of becoming the most right-wing borough in the country, with a leadership based on hysterical hatred. It seemed too implausible. I wondered what I would do if I saw fuck-face Griffin out and about, perhaps doing a little early morning canvassing? Would I lamp him one? Would I yell obscenities at him? All my possible responses seemed irrational, but then how could I argue with such bigoted insanity?
One thing I noticed was how frequently the word community appeared on signs, painted on the sides of buildings, on flyers pasted on redundant advertising hoardings. Community centres, community action groups, community shelters, community youth clubs. If only everyone would realise that the strength in a community is not just it’s unity, but it’s diversity too.

Perhaps Griffin will win the parliamentary seat. He probably won’t. Even a minister so representative of new Labour’s two-faced materialism and as universally unpopular as Margaret Hodge should be able to survive with the huge majority she has. And even if he slither his way into parliament, aside from seeing his fat, ugly face and listening to his poisonous views a little more frequently, what can he do as the single representative of a party that all the others shun? Very little.

But the real danger isn’t Griffin. It’s the council. The local authority election will take place on the same day. The BNP already has 12 councillors in Barking. If they can increase that 28 and gain a majority then they’ll actually have some real power and start doing real things that legitimise racism. Things like turning a blind eye when black families have bricks thrown through their windows or their cars are vandalised, or giving school places priority based on how long people have lived in the area. And after that? Perhaps making people of different colour sit in different parts of the bus? Refusing local services, such as libraries or refuse collection, to certain households? These aren’t paranoid futures. Things like this are already happening now and the danger is that they will get worse if the people in charge give the local shits an excuse.

‘But we’re not racist,’ they whine. Well, try this on for size: In 2008 the Barking and Dagenham council proposed that a congratulatory letter be sent to the British Olympics team after their haul of medals in Beijing. Pretty innocuous, you’d have thought. The BNP councillors blocked the motion. Why? Non-white athletes were part of the team. Pathetic.

Ian Austin, the communities minister, suggests that we should stop panicking and drawing attention to the situation. That we should trust in the sense of fairness and good judgement of the British people to do the right thing. I really hope he’s right, but after my sojourn out east on Sunday I read in the paper of riots by the English Defence League in Bolton, I hope with my eyes shut and my fingers crossed for luck.

After all, we’ve got form.

Upon his return to London, Cromwell was asked to sit as Lord Protector, a role he joyfully (if anything Cromwell’s dour demeanour showed could be described as joyful) took on.

As he took up residence in the former royal palaces, his life style slowly began to change. It was as though he’d assimilated the tastes and appetites and demeanour of the man whose death warrant he’d to signed. He started to sign his name as Oliver R. R for rex, for king. It became standard for underlings to refer to him as your majesty. It is amazing that when the crown was actually offered to him in 1657 he managed to find the will power, the sudden understanding of self-parody, to turn it down.

But aside from the petty grandiose pampering fantasies of a deluded bigot, he set about transforming the land into one of austere dullness that promoted inwardly and outwards goodliness. Hypocritical given the purple fineries he lived among, yet the Protestant sense of restraint and sourness became the way of life and many who challenged it would be tried as a Catholic and imprisoned or executed. Cromwell’s Britain created an enemy within and then saw it everywhere. It took a personal faith and attributed to anyone who proffered and independent opinion or showed any resentment at the draconian way of life. It manipulated the truth, badging people with a false label and then took their lives away too. And today we proclaim this man a hero? No wonder, Charles II had his corpse dug up and executed to be on the safe side.

‘Mmm, Oliver’s army is on their way, Oliver’s army is on their waaaayy.’

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Bloody Mary

James Brown’s body is missing. The Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the Great Pop Innovators, the total wild-haired mad bastard of dance – his corpse has jumped picked itself up and disappeared into the wilderness.

First gear, second gear, accelerate as the lights far ahead switch from red-amber to green and whizz up the outside, cutting back inside the solitary inexplicably dawdling Nissan micra.

Into third, indicate, mirrors, brake, second, turn right, accelerate, third, mirrors, brake, over the speed hump, mirrors, nothing about don’t bother to indicate, second, down the hill, accelerate, third, fourth, straight down into second, brake, brake harder, slip through the width restriction, accelerate, into third.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

It was the middle of the night in London as I drove at speed through the half empty streets. Night buses lingered at stops as potential staggering passengers attempted to compose themselves. Couples kissed goodnight in poorly lit doorways, away from the light drizzle. Kids in dark hooded tops and shining white trainers lurked behind the smokey murk of recycling bins. An million different stories, all glimpsed through glass as sped on past.

Racked by insomnia and frustrated with simply lying in the lonely bed looking at a dark broken apart by the light of the moon and the hovering street light that crept through the open blinds and casted lines of silver across the room, I gave up and hit the road. I drove through the city’s small hours, navigating by instinct, unable to read the map in the dark and never once paused to check. I let my internal compass weave an irregular pattern across the London’s soul.

Michael Foot may have been the author of the longest suicide note in history with the 1983 Labour party manifesto, but as hypocritical bastards congregated for the great parliamentarian’s funeral I couldn’t help but be pleased that at least he had principles.

In contrast, good ol’Godie Brown and Beagle Balls pointedly refused to answer a question from an eight year old about what their favourite biscuit is - presumably not to upset all the other biscuits. ‘Good grief,’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Nick Cleggy, Foggy Cable and Compo Kennedy finally got their own media smoozing campaign underway and announced their new slogan at the Spring conference: ‘Change that works for you – building a fairer Britain.’

Did-did-didadid-did-did-dida, did-did-didadid-did-did-dida

Aside from all the major political parties adopting grammatically meaningless catchphrases why does everyone seem obsessed with the image of Britain as some kind of fucked up travelling circus?

Did-did-didadid-did-did-dida, did-did-didadid-did-did-dida

Somebody passed me a Bloody Mary, but I left it untouched behind a plant pot. I can’t stand tomato juice. Too much of it makes my piss sting. Bloody Marys, named after Mary I, eldest daughter of Henry VIII and the second of his children to take the throne. Mary had to patiently wait for her younger brother Edward to politely die before she could rule. A penis beat a vagina, every single time back then.

Once on the throne, Mary did what all frustrated rulers who have been lurking in the shadows, disagreeing with what was being done to the lands that should rightfully be their’s – she started to take it apart. Most crucially, Edward was a far more committed protestant that his father ever was, but Mary was a devoted Catholic – the true church had to be restored. But more than that. Protestantism had to be more than just reduced to playing the back-up act, but it needed to be eradicated, burnt from the nation’s heart.

Almost three hundred so-called heretics, two hundred and twenty men and sixty women, were burnt at the stake during her brief reign. Three hundred of her own people murdered for not believing quite the same thing as her. Bloody? There’s no blood in well-done meat.

One evening, I pulled over on Tower Bridge, near the fortress and sniffed the air. Perhaps there was still the tang of blacked flesh. Perhaps it was just the river.

Schroeder Johnson paused from bashing out Beethoven on his miniature piano down on the rugged floor of his private rooms in the Home Office. He looked up from his
cross-legged position on the floor and scanned the notes being thrust in his face.

‘You’re barking!’ he exclaimed to the DEFRA official. ‘Third party insurance for all dog owners?’

Beagle Balls looked worried, pulled down his flying goggles and scuttled away into his kennel, tail between his legs.

A week later, out in the marginals, the government was cowering as the oppositions, released from the leash, gambled and played with complete freedom. They humped and barked and ran and bit as much as they damn well pleased.

Shamefaced, Johnson stepped up to the front in the House of Commons, wiped his shoe on the back of his trousers, shoved his hands moodily in his pockets and mumbled, ‘told you it was a stupid idea,’ before announcing more loudly, ‘it was only a suggestion.’

I stopped at a junction on Haringey’s borders momentarily confused and then saw a sign to familiar Hackney. And I was off again.

Accelerate, brake, change gear, indicate, check my mirrors, all the actions on automatic as the world service murmured sweet nothings in the background. Soothing received pronunciation told me stories of foreign lands, of the weather far out in seas I’ll never experience the salty choppiness of. Calm, steady monotone relating news and politics and obscenely obscure detail for processes I have no need of knowing yet remain endlessly fascinating.

All that was important was that I kept on moving.

Mary was the first woman to rule England. Henry II’s mother, Matilda, was Queen in name, but she spent most of her reign either in exile or fighting the pretender to the throne. Mary actually got the keys to the castle.

Although, she did need a bored and homesick Spanish prince to at least pretend to help.

Despite ascending to the throne legally and through clear inheritance, Mary was weighed down by a severe martyr complex. Partly because felt so insecure, so manipulated by the men around her the same men who had in the past demoted her from royalty and then raised her up again. She felt her status was so unstable that she was desperate for a child, for a son to continue the line and legitimise her rule. Despite numerous phantom pregnancies and complications caused by ovarian cysts, Mary went to the death believing that her role was to be a mother and being patronised by those at her court.

Even so, despite the agonies on the morning of her passing she still managed to sign two warrants for burnings.

Anna Span, apparently a director of “female friendly “porn films, has been selected as a the Liberal Democrat’s candidate for Gravesend. When asked about her suitability as a member of parliament, Cleggy slipped his index finger down his collar to give his flushed cheeks a bit more air, took his mac and flat cap off and stuttered: ‘Well… It’s not really my cup of tea…’ before attempting to surreptitiously check whether any of his ‘at least thirty’ bedroom conquests had been involved in porn. Or perhaps, just whether he’d cracked one off to one her films and tried to claim it back on expenses.

Vacuous, flabby faced Dave exposed his so-called secret weapon over the weekend: SamCam. (And, Jesus Christ, do I want to stab my eyeballs out with knitting needles for having to type that? SamCam. Ugh.) Clearly, someone who’s the daughter of a baronet and descended from Charles II is going to appeal to one and all. What’s her purpose – to discuss economic policy? To be a potential ambassador to Iraq? To lead on sustainable energy production? No, nah, and no way. It’s to praise Dave with faint praise.

‘Oh, he drives me mad,’ I have to paraphrase because my typing no doubt doesn’t have the right upbringing to accurately recreate her words, ‘he so messy. Especially when he cooks.’ Ah, see what she did there? She pretended that she’s making him seem rounded and normal and imperfect because he’s messy (rather than, say, totally fucking barmy - the sort of man who spends what little leisure time he has starring at photos of concentration camp survivors whilst flecks of drool form at the corners of his mouth) but then she qualifies it by pointing out that it’s worst when he cooks.

Because, clearly running a political party means he gets home first and whizzes up some tea for her and the kids. And all the women around the country, who have to feed their spouse’s and partner’s and children’s insatiable appetites with non-stop rounds of tasty meals no matter how heavy their period or bad their day or that their Dad just died, think ‘oh he cooks, the little darling.’

Don’t be fooled.

Everyone’s gone after the women voters. Gordie crops up on women’s hour, using it to pretend he’s committed to defending your summer holiday by opposing the strike of the Labour Party’s biggest donor, whilst Dave lurks around Mums.net trying to pick up yummy sexually frustrated mummy from south ken.

In ninety-seven Blair wanted Mondeo man to vote Labour. Earlier this year, the media identified the target voter as single drivers in committed relationships. In other words, those couples who live near a motorway junction and commute in opposite directions to towns equidistance from the place they live, the sort of town which might only exist because it’s exactly halfway between two other places. Voters who spend huge amounts of their time alone in their cars going to jobs they may be indifferent about, living plastic home lives. Pointing out these people as potential supporters is not a complimentary thing to do. All it does is highlight the concessions to reality they’ve had to make. All it does it make the parties seem smug and self-righteous and all the things we hate about them whilst making real people feel a touch stupid.

Don’t be flattered. The parties don’t really give a fuck what you think or what; they’re just pretending that key groups can make a difference. They want to take non-existent groups of people, the sort who it’s easy to make a bunch of promises to and then it won’t be too much of a problem when they fail to keep them.

‘Hey, listen chaps, I’ve got a great idea. Yeah, like, you know women, yeah? Fnar, not half. Anyway, them. Which women? All of them. I know that’s a bit of a generalisation, but it doesn’t really matter. They’re all the same in the end.
But, listen, let’s promise them everything. I mean, let’s promise free shoes and access to cheaper designer babies and promise to give away free chocolates and pink spotted turtles every time the first of a month is a Wednesday. Just to get their vote and laugh all the way to a five year majority.’

They think that by patronisingly suggesting that they’ll give you free stuff – like happy meal toys – you’ll just blindly fall in line. I’d like to think that the majority of us are not so selfish and/or unintelligent as to be utterly disinterested in a political mandate that only offers fairness and a better way of life a few. I’d like to think it anyway.

Besides, do you really think that a man who refers to his wife as his “secret weapon” is any more reconstructed that the misogynist fighter pilot moustached bowler hated twat? Nah, he’s just got a better dresser.

By day I sat in an overheated office incessantly talking and pumping myself with barely diluted caffeine to combat the black-redness that encroached on my vision. At home, my fingers hammered across the keyboard, the voices in my head talking me elsewhere and filling me with life. But, in the dead of the night I just drove.

Outside, the artificial light blurred into streaks of gold and green and red and silver, tubes of glistening neon disappeared behind and ahead, simultaneously static and mobile – their fixed points dictated by my own mph. White headlights of oncoming traffic pixalate and star as my tired eyes failed to focus properly. Exhausted, yet utterly incapable of sleep, heavy eye lids struck in Newham, in Ealing, in Putney, places where I could pull over, lock the doors and doze blissfully for a few moments, but instead I headed for home and as Peckham or Catford or Lee loomed the fire reignited and the eyes sprung open. Awake again and so on I go, off to search out new corners under railway bridges, darkened boarded up highstreets, thudding bass from houses and other cars, the lost and the lonely on the lower decks of buses watching me at red lights.

So many stories.

James Brown’s body is not missing. It was just a mistake. See how easy it is to get the media to react? You just need to make stuff up and fire off a couple of emails to the right people. It’s harder to take it back, though. In my imagination, forever now, James Brown’s slowly rotting corpse will be propped up in the shotgun seat of a pickup that’s disappearing along the never-ending highway.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


‘Why are you doing this?’ asked York as they stood at the highest point of the fortress. ‘What’s in it for you?’

The English countryside rolled away across the horizon, unblemished save for a scattering of wooden huts hastily assembled. The summer’s sun twinkled and all was still, just the distant gentle lowing of cattle, drifting aimlessly in the air.

‘The same reasons as you,’ smiled Warwick tightly, ‘land. I see no reason to deceive, to suggest that I am doing this because I believe in your case, or I feel some moral obligation. Make no mistake. I want land and the power that comes with it. Nothing else.’

‘Good. At least I know how far I can trust you.’

The Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick sat on the battlements of some unnamed English castle and planned the fall of the monarchy that July of 1453.
The Duke of York was aggrieved that Henry VI’s grandfather had wrested the throne from his cousin, the boy-king Richard, and skipped over York’s maternal line of inheritance. York’s mother was the daughter of Henry’s grandfather’s elder brother. Inheritance law: It’s always been a bitch and never more so in the middle ages, where the winner got everything and the loser nothing.

Twelve months before, Warwick had politically sided with the King, but a year later and embroiled in a petty squabble with the Early of Somerset he changed his mind and the most powerful noble in the land became prepared to fight his monarch to crown York a Richard III.

The best laid plans, though, never quite come good.

Power ebbed and flowed like the changing of the seasons, like the rising of tide, like the change in her preference of rose colour. Militarily superior, but politically unstable York was only able to establish a series of protectorates, each time hiding the feeble Henry away. He ruled, but was never King. The ultimate prize was kept at bay by technicalities and the rallying of Henry’s support.

For seven years the sea came in and rolled back out again. Moments of peace and normality were punctuated by civil war. House fought against house, cousin against cousin. In 1460, at Wakefield, the Lancastrians ambushed York away from Warwick and the bulk of his armies. Far from inexperienced in battle, York still found his head atop a pike over Micklegate Bar in the walls of the city from whence he took his name. Draped atop his bloodied and bruised head was a crown of paper.

Despite his ambitions, Warwick had failed to make a Richard III, but that particular hunched historical figure was still lurking in the wings.

Further south, York’s eldest son was with Warwick and the majority of their forces. The tall youth was filled with such a rage of righteousness over the death of his Father that he went on the rampage only stopping when the Lancastrain army was virtually wiped out, Henry had fled into exile, and a crown of gold was placed on his head.

The Kingmaker had done his work. Edward IV sat on the throne.

Warwick has been mythologized as the kingmaker. He wanted to exert influence from behind the scenes, without any of the inherent risk of being in power himself.

People like that still exist today. Rupert Murdoch is one of them.
Through a globally spanning range of newspapers, television channels and media you probably didn’t even realise exist he has been secreting messages into our minds. Messages that impact on our physical world. The Sun, in particular, claims a long line in responsibility for successful campaign swings from 1992’s headline ‘Can the Last Person in Britain, Please Turn Off the Lights’, to hitching up to Blair’s bandwagon in 1997. Now, they have flip flopped back to the Conservatives and are already congratulating themselves for May.

Although the editorial board will claim the shifts in political alliances are because the Sun ‘has its finger on the pulse of the nation’, that’s all a load of bollocks. The real reason is because Murdoch’s cronies will have already met Dave’s toadies and they’ll have worked out what News International empire’s support of Dave and the Gang will give him when they walk through the big black door with a ten on it.

And the answer?


We stood outside the Bermondsey pub underneath the railway bridge as the blonde finished her cigarette. The rumble of late night traffic bubbled behind her. We both leant into the wall trying to keep out of the wind chill as it sliced icy razors up the main road. Her fingers shivered as they moved up to her lips.

I can’t remember what she said. I can only hear, in the splintering yellow light and flashes of orange, me thinking over and over: ‘You have got the prettiest eyes.’

Then, just as I’d decided in a moment of mild tipsiness, that it was now or never the world shook. A train inched over our heads and intruded into the moment.

‘Oh, that’s me. Gotta go. See you soon, hun.’ A peck on the cheek and she disappeared into the city, lost to the northbound gravity tug and the opportunity was gone.

Martin Amis has been lurking around bemoaning how whenever he has a new book coming out the press corner him into saying something outrageous. And he justified their apparent obsession with him by pointing out that he is the only hereditary writer in the English language. As though anyone had forgotten it.

“I’m not turning into Kingsley. I’m already Kingsley.” Always has been, apparently.

But there are two sides to this, Martin. And if you are Kingsley then Kingsley really did make you, despite your refusal to ever entertain this argument before. Did he pull you up to the top of the literary pile, your young hand clasped within his leathery palm, him belching gulps of beery breath with the effort of raising you up? In that case, you were gifted your position. You never had to fight fought for it. Is that what you’re so angry about, Martin? Was it too easy?

Warwick found himself, by design, at the heart of Edward’s government. He was the King’s principal advisor until they inevitably fell out - over a woman of all things. Warwick had arranged a political marriage to the King of France’s sister in law (also the daughter of the Count of Savoy) only to discover that Edward had already secretly wed himself to the a minor noble lady. A good shag, maybe, but a missed opportunity for forging vital ties with the continent.

Disgruntled, Warwick conspired to stage a coup and place Edward’s younger brother, George of Clarence, on the throne instead. The nineteen year old was not only Warwick’s son-in-law, but ambitious and deluded about his own ability. One who would be significantly easier to manipulate the confident and competent Edward.

After a brief resurgence of the war, Edward found himself in a secluded room in a remote castle and the door closed. But the country refused to recognise the Warwick or George and anarchy reigned. Eventually, Warwick grudgingly recognised the futility of his situation and released Edward. Following the fashion of the day, he promptly fled to France.

The Kingmaker had slipped.

“I suppose they’re trying to make me sound provocative. Well, they messed that up too,” Martin continued. “I don’t sound provocative. I sound like a much feared pub bore in Hove.”

Except, Martin, once upon a time you weren’t a bore. Despite Kingsley’s initial leg
up, you got to the peak on your own, by writing outrageously funny, brilliantly constructed novels full of glitteringly genius moments of language.

And then you just became a bit crap. With the writing not at the standard it once was, the interest remains because of who are. You made yourself, the you of today and of yesterday, whether you like that or not.

I feel a bit sorry for Martin. I can’t imagine anything worse than being continually referred to as the former enfant terrible of the English language. Not as the author Martin Amis, or even Martin, the son of the author Kingsley Amis, but being defined by something as fleeting and as lost as once enfant terrible status.
It must make him feel redundant and perhaps in need of someone’s help once again.

As I stumbled through Soho, heading for the tube, midnight Friday fell all around and the girl with the dyed red hair pulled me half into a doorway. She angled her head to one side and fingered the lapel of my coat.

‘No,’ I said, ‘not this time.’ And I felt unreasonably smug with myself like the bastard I must be.

Believe it or not, Murdoch’s not even the worst of the bunch. No, the Tories have a wolf hidden within in their ranks. Lord Ashcroft. The non-dom billionaire who has wonderfully attracted the attention of shit in ways that he’s spent years trying to avoid. Lord Ashcroft, whose tactical identification of funding overkill for marginal seats is seeing places like Brighton and Hove Conservative Office fight a campaign with a war chest ten times the size of Labour’s with a majority of four hundred and twenty-six.

The Tory defendants point out that Gordie Brown and his crew of lovable dopes also have millionaire backers. This is true – although the coffers are famously empty at Labour HQ, Beagle Balls having blown them all on dog biscuits or Linus van Darling on a new comfort blanket or whatever. However, the point is, their billionaire chums aren’t the deputy chairman of the party. They aren’t on the inside driving an agenda.

This is it: Lord Ashcroft doesn’t live in this country. He doesn’t have the same concerns as you or me because he is infinitely wealthy. He doesn’t have to worry about GP waiting times or the quality of local schools or whether the bins are going to be collected or the public sector pensions’ timebomb. He sits in the House of Lords, unelected, and will almost certainly be given a ministerial position should the Conservatives win the election. At least Petey had the decency to get elected once or twice before being killed off and then resurrected.

And if Ashcroft doesn’t care about the same things most go into politics for, if he isn’t responsible to voters, then why is he doing this?

That’s right.


Same old, same old. You would think we’d learn.

At the spectacular court of Louis XI, Warwick made a most unexpected ally: Henry VI. Supported by French troops Warwick and Henry (not to mention his rather warlike wife, Margaret) invaded.

Outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, Edward shuffled across the sea in the opposite direction to Burgundy. But the Kingmaker’s second King couldn’t last long.

Edward, along with his loyal youngest brother, Richard the new Duke of York, swiftly returned. They landed in the north and whilst the city of their Father was closed to them, as they marched southwards, towards the capital, they gathered support – including George who switched sides once again. Dukes and Earls, sick of Warwick and his arrogance to rule yet not take responsibility, flocked to their banner.

They gathered followers. They gathered an army.

Edward found the gates of London open. The streets were oddly deserted; the militias had packed up and gone home; even the Tower was unlocked – at least until Edward closed its heavy English oak doors on Henry and Margaret.

Poor Henry. He stayed locked up for a few weeks, until he died of melancholy. His fragile frame no longer able to stand the rigours of so many years at war. Or until, at least, one warm May evening when Richard of York opened the door with a glinting dagger in his hand.

But before then, there was the Kingmaker to deal with.

Thick fog settled over two armies formed of hastily forged and still mistrusted alliances, as they lined up at Barnet, just north of London. Good fortune fell with Edward, especially when the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford emerged from the murk in the wrong place and accidentally attacked his own side. By a moment of chance, the battle turned.

As did Warwick. He turned to flee once more. But, finally, escape was impossible. Yorkist troops dragged him down off his horse and into the dirt like the normal man he’d never been. A dozen hands held him down as they prised his visor open and, with a knowing sneer, stabbed him in the face.

I wonder if, as he lay dying and the men at arms stripped him of his gilded armour, he dreamt of comforts away from the field of battle? A soft bed to lie down in for his final moment, perhaps? Behind the screams of the mortally maimed and the reek of burnt gunpowder from discharged cannon, did the Kingmaker’s imagination fill with a fluttering mound the petals from red and white roses?

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Wat and Jack

At the time they were simply angry. Their actions were instinctive with no awareness that they were creating a legend. Yet another poll tax had been levied, this one three times higher than the last. Yet another poll tax to keep funding an unpopular, seeming unending war. A war championed by powerful and loathed individuals with disproportionate levels of power. A tax system that was corruptible, built with loopholes that allowed some to pay less than others. It was inherently unfair.

This wasn’t recently, this was 1381. The war wasn’t in Iraq or Afghanistan, it was the latest phase of the conflict with France that with hindsight would become known as the Hundred Years War. The unpopular aggressor was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who ruled as regent for his nephew, the teenage Richard II. And the angry mob? Well, they were just like you and me. They were just normal people who’d had enough and were going to do something about it.

Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and all the others were ordinary farm labourers; men with children and wives and desires and fears like everyone else. Although, because they lived with the feudal system their wants were probably more focused around a day of rest and not being frightened that the local nobility would conscript them into the army. Today, our concerns seem more trivial, but that’s today, who knows what tomorrow will bring? Above all, though, Tyler and Straw were charismatically angry and they knew it.

In a world before multi-layered communications networks, through a miracle of blind coincidence and rumour spreaders who ran from village to village, groups armed with pitchforks and scythes and bad moods marched from Kent and Essex into London. There was no democracy, no power of the vote, this was the only way to have their say and they were determined to do so.

They came out of Kent and congregated on Blackheath with the smouldering hustle of the city still a few miles away. I wondered as I squatted down in the middle of the grassy expanse, if they could possibly imagine what I saw, over seven hundred years later: Gleaming spires, congested traffic, the dull background noise of an easy life.

Whilst Tyler organised his men and women, Straw had already started rioting in Stepney, and with a wink I was there too, walking through sandy smudged streets of mid-rise flats tumbling over structured leisure space; a cacophony of a century’s enthusiastic rebuilding mish-mashed into a community. The winter chill made the walls shiver whilst the mob ripped open one of John of Gaunt’s palaces scattering his wealth to winds and the dirt. The violence echoed through the centuries.

My morning train lurched into New Cross Gate. The doors hissed open and fresh cold air flooded inside to an audible aaaah from those pressed too close to each other. Then the band got on board. I knew they were in a band because they were implausibly trendily dressed in skinny jeans and open shirts over strategically holed t-shirts, dark shades and stubble that looked deliberate (unlike mine which looked simply not arsed to shave). Oh and they had guitars. They fought their way aboard with their flight cases and inch by inch they helped squish the tiny woman on the far side of the carriage into the wall until the words ‘open’ and ‘close’ were imprinted onto her cheek.

All the way into London Bridge, for eight stifling minutes, they tried to out cool one another with increasingly mad stories of girls and drink and drugs and more girls and always guitars and dark lights in back rooms of pubs and all I can think is not about how I wanted to be that rock and roll, but: ‘why aren’t you still in bed?’

Not so long ago the new brunette and I had found ourselves in Tate Modern, lost deep inside the engineered black cavern that sat in the centre of the turbine hall. Detached voices bounced off the walls and all it needed was a warming breeze or a waft of sulphur and it’d be like the entrance to hell. Somewhere in the murk a child ran away from its parents, the flickering red lights in the heels of his trainers suggested an aircraft falling out of the starless night sky.
‘Where does it end?’ she asked.

I leant closer and took her hand in mine, wrapping our fingers together and raised her arm, pressing our link hands against the felt covered wall.

‘There,’ I replied, ‘that’s as far as it goes for now.’

She smelt of sugared strawberries on a Sunday summer afternoon.

Later, watching a band perform songs that reeked of early sixties girl groups pop in a bowling alley that felt stolen from the fifties Americana that only existed in Happy Days, the guitarists seemed familiar. They weren’t the same guys as from the train that morning, but they did appear to be cut from the same identi-kit template for young obnoxious musicians. That said, they were still pretty good.

I glanced over at the new brunette, but she was looking distractedly into the middle distance and in that moment I reminded myself what I’d thought in the first the moment we’d met: ‘Too pretty for me, unfortunately.’

In Romford, Conservative campaign literature promised to cut immigration levels bemoaning (once again) “we can’t go on like this.” The fact is, though, they’re lying. The only large numbers of immigrants in recent years have been the economic migrants, those mainly from Eastern Europe and that means their travel and work permits are written by European law. No government can deny them access. The Tories are lying and playing on base, unfounded fears. They are encouraging hatred and bigotry and badly informed decision making and people wonder why I fear their possible victory in May.

But not to worry, here comes Gordie Brown to sort it out. The football is carefully placed for him to belt it straight over the Conservative goal. It’s a sitter, an open target, even he can’t miss this one, it is almost too easy. Here he comes, lumbering through an unexpectantly dour and long winded run up, Harriet Harman lies on the ground, her index finger holding the oval ball carefully on end. Boom, boom go the PM’s clomping size tens as he gallops onwards. Crumbs this is going to take the back of the net off.

‘I think Fabio Capello has sympathy for me.’

What? Where did that come from? Oh, look he’s spinning through the air, arse over tit once again, and now he’s landed in a crumpled heap in the dust.
Good grief, indeed.

Somewhere out of the way Nick Cleggy, Foggy Cable and Compo Kennedy are careering out of control down a narrow country lane in a rowing boat strapped to the top of four wheel barrows, but who really cares what they’re up to? They can keep retelling the same jokes forever and a day as their fanbase slowly dies out and they fail to evolve or change and gain new followers.

Tyler and Straw’s trouble makers persisted through the night and the following morning’s sun rose, the rioters gathered together in Smithfield. Then, like now, it was a meat market, a centre of commerce surrounded by the wider bastions of the city life politely ignoring it. Now, unlike then, the glass arched Victorian roof peels over chilled packaging rooms and articulated trucks shoehorn themselves down narrow roads built for totally different forms of transport. Then, unlike now, it was open space where thousands of aggressive country folk could congregate.

Surprisingly the boy king came forth to speak. He slid out of his crimson and purple silk sheets and mounted his purely bred horse. Poised on the far side of the square, kept deliberately apart from the mob, they waited whilst Tyler, flush with the arrogance of success and the dizzy thrill of his new found power, sauntered across and proceeded to act in a most uncouth fashion in the presence of his alleged betters. He was loud and brash and disrespectful. The first thing he did was ask for alcohol. John Terry probably channels his spirit through an ouija board.
The details of the negotiations are now lost to myth, but it appears that at some point Tyler found cause to draw his dagger which resulted in him being stabbed twice. Once in the neck by the Mayor of London and once in the gut by a knight of the realm. Boris would have loved the middle ages.

Seeing their leader felled the peasants murmured surly half-hearted threats to start further trouble. But their passion for the fight seemed to have been extinguished along with Tyler. Richard rode over and promised them safe passage, that their demands would be met, that a degree of equality would be created and somehow managed to persuade them that Tyler had been knighted, not killed. The voice of the king, the boy anointed by God to rule, made them disbelieve their own eyes.

The voice was, of course, forked like the devil. Richard lied.

A hastily assembled militia broke the trudging mass of tired workers apart and sent them back to toil the fields. The leaders were isolated and arrested. Jack Straw lost his head in the grounds of the Tower of London, the final act of the revolt the thunk of an axe through skin and bone, embedding itself in the wooden block below and the tumbling of a decapitated head rolling across the dew heavy stones, eyes rolled up in their sockets.

I am writing all this from memory, but I am unsure whether it is the memory of history learnt or the memory of Peter Ackroyd’s Clerkenwell Tales read. Does history become fiction regurgitated as fact? Our past is fluid in its definition. Our understanding limited by our standpoint. Our knowledge restricted by gaps that can only be filled by the imagination. Where does reality end and myth begin? Does the distinction even matter?

As I walked back through the lateness of Covent Garden the street lights reflected a shimmer in the puddles of rain water stretching across the cobbles. A girl with dark hair, a black puffa jacket and perfect skin, stepped alongside me and touched my elbow.

‘Hey,’ she said smiling a little deeper.

‘Hey?’ I replied cautiously.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Um, Charing Cross? Home?’ I stopped walking and looked at her. ‘Why?’

‘Do you want to come to a strip club with me?’

‘No, you’re alright,’ I chuckled and started to walk away.

‘Why not?’ she asked my back.

‘Not my sort of thing, thanks,’ and as I walked away I found the world implausibly funny and my laughter echoed out around the damp city, following me into the night.