Tuesday, 27 April 2010


The cabinet minister slipped out from underneath the bed covers. He stretched in the late morning sunshine that peeked between the half-drawn curtains of the country retreat’s guest bedroom. Outside someone was already churning lengths up and down the swimming pool, the steady slosh of water punctuated by the distant yapping of a dog. The countryside was loud when it was silent.

Stifling a yawn he glanced back down at the young girl who he wasn’t married to asleep in his bed. Long raven dark hair spread across the pillows, pale skin shimmered in the half-light off-set by the scarlet smudged lip stick. In her doze she groaned satisfyingly and licked her teeth as though savouring the taste of him.

Did he believe her? Did he truly believe a woman young enough to be his daughter who turned heads when she walked down the street and had been introduced to him in such a contrived fashion was really attracted to a balding, middle-aged pasty man with growing paunch and black rings around his eyes? Power may be an aphrodisiac, but even that has limits.

Or perhaps he did, for when he fall in lust as well as love we are often blinded to the truth and left with just hope to cling onto.

John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler didn’t, technically, bring down the Conservative government in 1964, although his lying to the House of Commons about it certainly contributed. It may seem slightly quaint, after the relentless exposures of the nineties and the serial exploitation of the expenses system, that one brief fling in the summer a few years previosuly could cause so much damage especially in the retrospectively liberated sixties, but, of course, Keeler happened to also be sleeping with a Russian naval attaché from the embassy. As Secretary of State for War this put Profumo’s indiscretion in a slightly different light. Still, there was no direct suggestion of actual espionage, aside from a lot of presumption that hung around the otherwise apparently rather dim Keeler’s use of the phrase “nuclear payload”. It was the possibility that was deemed serious, not necessarily the truth.

Howard MacMillan – the onetime SuperMac of ‘you never had it so good’ soundbite - retired to his bed chamber and dumped the seemingly inevitable defeat on his Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Interestingly, Douglas-Home along with Jim Callaghan are the only prime ministers since the second world war to never win an election. Whether Gordie Brown will be joining them, we’ll find out shortly.

Profumo lived out his disgrace gracefully. He went to work first as a toilet cleaner, then as a fund raiser for Toynbee Hall, an East End social care charity, pretty much until his death in 2006. Forty years of redemption; it was a long time to say sorry. He didn’t, as someone like Jonathan Aitken has done, carve out an alternative media career as some sort of gentleman cad. He had sufficient dignity to not taunt the public further in the fashion of the MPs facing prosecution over their expenses having the gall to claim legal aid.

My mobile rang at far too late an hour on Friday. I glanced at the display. 0208, not what I’d been expecting

‘Dave! It’s Ben. Mate, I’m having an epic,’ he explained.

‘I think I might have to come and get you.’

‘Yeah and it’s frigging freezing too.’

Despite the decision to reopen European airspace – the airlines seemingly more happy to hope that Institute of Mechanical Engineers prediction that planes “will crash and everybody on board will die” was less risky than indefinite hotel bills for millions of people. Yet, still the ash continues to disrupt the world standing many of my friends in far-corners. Google Steve found himself stuck in California for over a week and whilst Ben made it all the way from Australia, his gear disappeared into a black hole in Dubai and then Heathrow welcomed him back after nearly three years by mugging him of a functional mobile phone and a debit card.

We still managed to find a bar open on the way back to my flat.

Saturday afternoon’s gently browning sun outside the Cutty Sark pub in Greenwich was soundtracked by forty-five minutes of soothing Spanish guitar music and the occasional: ‘Thank you for calling Global Baggage Solutions. All our operators are extremely busy at the moment.’ Three days later his possessions were still absent without leave. All he could do was hope that they turned up on the next flight or the one after that or the one after that…

As I walked through the tube network at Green Park, changing from the Piccadilly to the Victoria line, a woman half hid in a service door way. She had a baby pressed to a withered nipple and a sign scrawled onto a cardboard flap clasped in her free hand: ‘Hungry and homeless. Please help.’

I keep seeing more and more of that. When I first came to London the entrance foyer to Charing Cross underground would be packed in the evenings with people with nowhere else to go sheltering from the city. In recent years it has been clean and shiny like the underground in illustrations for the East London extension; an architect’s impression of a virtual city. But increasingly, the dirty and tired looking sleeping bags are returning.

‘Anyone lost or need information,’ the guy in a stained lumberjack shirt and burnt cap who lurks at the top of St Martin’s lane in the evenings asked, as per usual. I asked him what the time of the last train out of Charing Cross was. He told me. I gave him a quid. He was wrong. Does it even matter?

In Trafalgar Square, a middle-aged American, with an earnestly grey beard, stood up between two guys with fraying jeans and blisters at the edges of the eyes.

‘So, uh, two cans of Stella, is it?’

‘Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks, man,’ one replied.

‘Now, I’m going to leave my bag here, but I’ll be back in a moment.’

They watched him saunter across the mercifully pigeon free piazza, to the Tesco Express on the corner of Northumberland Avenue. As he disappeared out of view, they glanced at each other and an expression of almost disappointment in their conformity to a stereotype leapt to their feet, grabbed the bag and ran in the direction of St James’.

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it either.

Ben and I walked past a woman negotiating with a guy sitting in the gutter outside Marylebone, his toes exposed out the end of his once-white trainers.

‘I’ll buy you something to eat,’ she said piously, ‘but I won’t give you any money. You’ll only spend it on drink.’

‘Fucking hell,’ I said as we entered the Allsop Arms, ‘if I had to sleep on the streets I’d want to get pissed too.’

Every morning I walk to work past the St Martin in the Fields day centre and the queue waiting for the doors to open gets longer. Even as the weather improves, there are more and more people needing a distraction for the day, to keep away from the vomit splattered in doorways, from the boredom of doing nothing and the temptations of the alternatives presented. Oblivion eventually becomes hope’s back-up plan.

The election is taking a decidedly surreal turn in its final weeks. As Petey Mandleson, the one time dark lord of the new Labour media machine, wooed women votes with personal ballroom dancing sessions, the Daily Mail accused Nick Clegg of having Nazi sympathies because his spin doctor is German and Davie Cameron is relentlessly followed around by someone from the Daily Mirror dressed as a chicken for no discernible reason. Parodies are pointless; real life is doing it for the comics, but we keep on trying. After all, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

Atop the Hawley Arm’s roof terrace, looking down at the canals and railway arches of Camden, Ben, Architect Steve and I perhaps felt our age in the face of the onslaught of achingly trendy hats. We squeezed our way up the stairs, looking for another room, somewhere a bit quieter, perhaps where we can sit down.

I opened the door and the immaculately scruffy youngsters looked up at us.

A girl appeared behind us wearing a paper Gordon Brow face mask.

‘You can’t come in here,’ she said.

‘Why not?’ asked Ben.

‘It’s a private party. A party for Gordon Brown.’ She didn’t say whether it was to praise him or to bury him.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies, like so many think tanks desperate to get some media coverage during an election campaign and therefore help justify their continued existence, has announced that all the major parties’ spending plans are flawed. It accuses, or least through the media filter is does, all three parties of not revealing the true extent of public spending cuts required, in conjuncture with their tax plans, to reduce the deficit. The reality, it claims, is that Labour’s and the Liberal Democrat’s proposals would see public spending cut to the same level of Dennis Healy’s 1975 budget whilst the Conservatives would drag us all the back to World War Two.

The media spin is of deceitful politicians; of their refusal to tell the truth because it would cost them votes. Let’s be honest, though, it would. No matter how much we claim to want to hear the truth, no matter how we cry for them to be honest, if just one party said it would have to drag the country’s infrastructure back generations we’d go for false optimism every time.

Wouldn’t we?

But perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. Perhaps it isn’t lies, but hope. Hope that when they get into office it won’t be quite as bad as it looks, that something will happen to magic all the mess away, hope in a sudden flash of economic inspiration that will keep them popular and the country solvent.

The young woman sat in her flat and listened to the racket of the reporters outside. Every time she cast a shadow against the curtains a plethora of flashbulbs burst silver light across the bricks. She was only just beginning to understand the Pandora’s box of scandal that had been torn open. It didn’t seem fair. She’d just been doing what so many girls her age did; having fun, enjoying herself, letting life normally pursue glitz and glamour and the finer things we all secretly crave and every so often a bit of what could have been mistaken for love in a certain in light. Had that really been so bad? She’d always done what she’d been asked to, but as her name became synonymous with sordidness she just hoped it would all go away and things would be as they once had.

Unfortunately, hope alone is rarely enough.

Friday, 23 April 2010


I sat at the bar of the pub at the end of the world, supped my Guinness and pretended to read the paper whilst really listening the cacophony descending around me. Okay, so not quite the end of the world, but perhaps the end of England. A pub in a tiny village near Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish-Northumberland border where the salt wind buzzed in off the north sea.

Outside, high above the country, further than the eye could see, the air was allegedly thick with volcanic ash, but down there on the ground the pub was closing up. It was last orders at the bar for the final time and the place was packed with six angry people.

There was the chunck of pool balls and the clink of glasses and the shouts and the yells and the tears and jeers and all the sounds that make the drink flow more freely. Just another Friday night anywhere in the world. Everything must go, all must be drunk, there would be no recriminations for tomorrow the pub would die.
The pub up the road, apparently, closed its doors the year before. The bar in the hotel opposite accepted non-residents and a lot of tourists – those not in tatty leather jackets and with tents thrown up in April – preferred to drink in there. The locals didn’t. Drinking in hotel bars is something for the transient not the permanent.

The two bolshy teenage girls, who were all volume and physical bluff, were mixing their drinks; taking advantage of the pound-a-go prices to sample things they wouldn’t normally touch.

The one tipped a tequila into her Smirnoff ice. The other necked something white and milky looking.

‘Ugh,’ she grunted.

‘Whaddya, do that for?’ her friend complained, already missing the communal intoxication rituals.

‘The only way I could swallow that creamy shit down.’

I couldn’t help but chuckle.

‘That bloke’s laughing at you.’

I straightened my face and pretended to be amused by the an article about libel laws.

There was no black swirling churl of soot tinged with streaks of molten lava in the sky; the apocalypse didn’t appear to passing through Britain’s atmosphere, but in certain corners it was the end of a sort of world.

Surging through Bedfordshire along the M1 with the sunshine belting down I glanced across at the northbound carriageways and the lines of stationary traffic. The motorway was shut and behind the barricades miles and miles of cars queued in the heat. Engines were switched off, doors open, and bare chested men clambered atop vehicles to lie in the sun, their skin turning pink and prickly. The world was halted and then fried, but still the skies were clear.

I didn’t watch the ITV leaders debate – I was busy watching a turkey fight a dog – but I listened to the analysis the next day on the radio and this is how I pictured events went down.

Cleggy sauntered up to the middle podium in his uniform dark blue mac and flat cap, but then as the camera passed he gave a bit of a cheeky grin and winked. The camera halted. Alistair Stewart couldn’t believe it; he was helpless to do anything other than watch as Cleggy cast aside his drabness. With a flick of his wrist he tossed the cap to the back of the audience and then slowly unpeeled the raincoat to reveal the modern, sleek pin stripes beneath. Then he smiled and a ‘ching’ complete with a glinting star at the corner of his mouth rang out.

‘It’s not what you say, but what you do,’ he said with practiced sincerity.

The audience went into raptures. A middle-aged woman from Somerset held up her hands up to her cheeks and squealed like once she did for Paul McCartney whilst her mother threw her knickers to the stage.

The band struck a cord and dove straight into a cover of Bananarama’s ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.’

Dave and Gordie were like puppets on a Lib-Dem string, forced into acting as Cleggy’s backing dancers they awkwardly shuffled behind the new star as he snatched a microphone out of mid-air and the podiums folded away into the stage. Dave and Gordie wheeled their forearms around, turned their palms flat and swiped them above each other. They take a little step to the left and then a jump to the right. They held their knees in tight and looked at each other, both mouthing ‘help’, but they kept on going like true pros, like there was no tomorrow.

There have been other times when people partied like it was the end of the world. Indeed, someone only the other day suggested to me, as they nursed yet another hang-over, that maybe that was what were doing in 2010. For despite the recession, despite the unemployment rises the pubs and bars and unseasonably sun splashed concrete slabs outside are packed with drinkers losing the world in the bottom of a glass.

Still, arguably no-one fought the hedonist’s war with quite such vigour as a certain class and sect of bright young things in the nineteen-twenties.
It was the time of jazz, of vibrant trumpet and heart-broken vocals crooned by people escaping their history. People did the jitterbug, the Charleston; they throbbed with energy. They drank champagne and gin slings for breakfast or whilst swimming, lazing around in the early evenings in tuxedos brandishing elegant cigarette holders and wraps of fur draped across their shoulders. For some, gender and sexuality were being rendered irrelevant and every action, every breath, every kiss, snort, splurge and frantic gasp reported by a gleeful tabloid press. Not that they cared. All that mattered was excess and extravagance and joyous revelling in being alive when so many weren’t.

Or perhaps, that was just in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies?

For elsewhere there was another class, another sect – the survivors, not that they’d have called themselves as such. Those who kept all the screeching explosions and the sodden perpetually drowning mud and the glassy gaze of a dead man’s eyes locked up inside their own heads; mundane horror echoing throughout every step of life.

The papers landed on the desks at Liberal Democrat hq in the morning after the night before. Clegg’s performance has catapulted them to a projected second place. No wait, first place in some polls. They could be back in government for the first time in over eighty years.

The papers were splayed out in front of them. Cleggy, Foggy Cable and Compo Kennedy sat in a line. One covered his ears, one his eyes and the last his mouth. The same thought passed through their minds, ‘oh shit, what if we have to make Lembit Foreign Secretary?’

Someone emailed radio 4 suggested that the closure of British aerospace and the troubles of tourists struggling home evoked the spirit of Dunkirk. Indeed, the papers were packed with images of British tourists from across Western Europe gathered on the flat sands of Flanders, queuing across miles of craters and corpses and departing hope; trapped for days waist deep in water tainted red from dye in cheap New Look and Primark clothes, holding their imitation Prada suitcases above their heads; they waited for a flotilla of little boats gathered from around the isles whilst Germans in hang gliders strafed them with Euros and sauerkraut.

‘Hey,’ one the girls yelled to the barmaid in the pub at the end of the world. ‘How come these bottles are warm?’

‘Fridge is broken, ain’t it?’ she shrugged back.

‘Why don’t you get it fixed?’

‘Do youse two not get it? The pub’s closing down. After tomorrow, we’re over forever. Why the fuck would we bother fixing the fucking fridge?’

Later, the guy with his arm in a plaster cast led a rousing rendition of Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’. As tears streamed down his cheeks the only things undrunk were Woodpecker sweet cider and Stones ginger wine.

Racing back into London along the M4 corridor, on Wednesday, a jumbo jet seemed suspended in motion; just a a black silhouette against a blood orange sun and I wondered if it was packed with tourists finally winging their way homewards or if it was just another hollowed our empty promise.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Highgate cemetery felt broken down. Shattered slabs of marble were being claimed by the spreading undergrowth. The cracked stone looked distraught in the glinting sunlight. Angels with dirty faces and missing fingers perched atop crumbling headstones, stretching upwards, about to fail in flight.

I tried to ignore my pinging headache and the weeping bloodshotness of my eyes as under my feet ivy snaked its way across names and dates, straggling the history out the place. Yet despite this, it was disturbingly calm and eerily quiet, just the distant burr of traffic occasionally cutting the silence open. Even the Whittington Hospital, barely visible through the thick trees, was free from sirens. The green canopy overhead dappled the sunlight into patches of lightness, fleeting moments of relief from the oppressiveness. The ground was surprisingly wet, as though all the bodies fed it and made it virile, the nutrients soaked the soil to such an extent where when a tree burst fresh and alive out the centre of a marked grave, I couldn’t help wonder if it was a soul being reborn.

Highgate Park at the top of the hill, above the cemetery, looked like another world - one of sunshine and joy, hidden away on the far side of the black iron railings. And then I realised that the guy looking moody on the bench, starring deep into the graves was, almost appropriately, Morrissey.

There were red lilies on Lily’s grave that Sunday morning, their petals gently twisting in the breeze, a simple beauty that made me feel all melancholy and self-obsessed.

All around were the discarded plastic wrappings from Tesco-value flowers, no doubt purchased on arrival in the metro branch on the high street. When I turned the corner I came across a skip packed with old carpet and wooden pallets and crushed cans of strongbow and packets of jaffa cakes with one hundred percent extra free and I asked myself how had these things got inside the sealed gates?

(Yeah, the irony of having to pay three pounds to enter the cemetery where Marx is buried hadn’t passed me by.)

Marx’s big grey marble head leered sternly down at all passers by equally. The words etched onto his plinth - philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it - lay down a challenge. Around the base, in amongst a few flowers, were scraps of paper. I leant in closer and peered over the rim of my dark glasses. They were notes written in a dozen languages. Somehow it’s always been easier to tell the dead our dreams. The only one in English read simply ‘thanks Karl’, whether as genuine sentiment or in sarcasm was unclear. Then a strong wind blew and the papers fluttered into the air and around my head like baby origami birds.

Malcolm McLaren died last week. Behind all the bluster and the sound-bites and the media manipulation, when you looked past the cultivatedly mad hair and tartan scarves and confrontational demeanour McLaren was instrumental in helping the final quarter of the twentieth century give birth to the twenty-first century. If it hadn’t been for punk’s headbutting of the last fragments of repressed Britishness then we’d probably still be strangling ourselves with notions of stiff upper lips and signs in the doors of pubs that read ‘No Dog, No Blacks, No Irish.’

And without McLaren, punk would never have been quite so boisterously in the Daily Mail’s face; he took the thirty-year old concept of angry young men and made them a national scandal all over again to draw attention to the real scandals – unemployment, disillusionment, lack of opportunity, nihilism. Chaos is, after all, better than blandness. And we may be back in recession, services may be on the verge of widespread strike action, youth unemployment may be epidemic, but, hell, it could be worse. We could be Krygyzstan. We could be advising the kids who’ve never worked to just pull their socks up and just get on with life on their own. We might still be believe that we’re not allowed to cry.

Another British icon, Michael Caine entered the election foray with a marvellous display of understanding what the hell was going on. In giving his endorsement for the new Conservative National Service for sixteen year olds, his own national service he has said many times he loathed, managed to not only refer to them as the government, but said that the Tories deserved a second term in office.

“Not a lot of people know that.”

This National Service is another wonderful non-policy from the Tories. No, it’s not a return to compulsory two year tour of duty in the armed forces which was ended in 1960, but instead the opportunity for young people to volunteer for work in the community and charity work. Sorry, but doesn’t this already exist, isn’t it just working in the community and charity work? Where’s the difference? The party that talks about removing big government and streamlining is talking about putting an additional layer of administration in for kids who want to help out. It’s just a pointless rebranding of reality. But then there’s a lot of that about.

Still, it could have been worse for flabby-faced Dave. Okay, so he was embarrassed by the critically lauded film star of Jaws: The Revenge and the Muppets’ Christmas Carol, but poor old Cleggy had got out of his bed at five in the morning, wrapped himself up in his dark blue overcoat, pulled his flat cap down low and flown to Scotland to launch the Scottish Liberal Democrats campaign. He landed with the assembled the press corps to meet a few eager young whey faced candidates alongside the bottle cragged face of Compo Kennedy, only to discover that not one single member of the electorate bothered to show up. You know his problem?

“Ooo – I can’t remember his name.”

“My name is-“

Meanwhile, somehow without a spin through the air or a ‘good grief’ in sight, good ol’Gordie Brown launched the Labour Party’s manifesto on Monday, at once harking back to the party’s glory days of the forties – the adapted future fair for all slogan and accompanying art deco imagery – and basking in the achievements of more recent years in the new high-tech Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham for veterans. He managed to gloss over quite why so many new facilities for teenagers with legs lost below the knee, with metal pipes replacing ribs, with transplanted muscle and regrafted skin keeping them upright, were needed in the first place, though.

Petey was pleased with it. He claimed to feel Blair’s ghost smiling down approvingly on its contents. When told this in front of news cameras Beagle Balls looked shocked: ‘He didn’t really say that, did he?’ perhaps already feeling the daggers digging into his kidneys.

This morning, honest-Dave launched his manifesto – I can’t bring myself to call it the Conservative Party’s manifesto given that they all seem so eager to pander to his cult of personality – set against the backdrop of the wreckage of Battersea Power Station. The post-apocalyptic overtones were as subtle as disgraced Scottish Labour candidate’s twitter post “I think it’s my patriotic duty to kick David Cameron in the nuts.”

The country’s ruined, leaving us scrabbling around amongst the broken bricks and asbestos dust eating dead pigeons and wearing the fur of urban foxes for modesty. Interestingly, honest-Dave also managed to apply some gloss, this time avoiding the fact that Battersea Power Station was closed down in 1975 and has seen a total of six prime ministers fail to find a successful regeneration project for it – as though it was even within their remit.

Still, not to worry. Who’s going to save us from this future that arrived thirty-five years ago. Not Labour. Not the Tories. No, don’t be silly, not the Lib-Dems either.


Yes, vote Conservative and they’ll take the salaries (albeit a five percent lower) and kick back whilst everyone else rescues the failing elements of the country.
Anyone else starting to get confused between their left and right?

Marx had a manifesto. You might have heard of it. It went something like this: Workers of the world unit. Interestingly, the Communist Manifesto built upon Engels’ earlier piece, The Condition of the Working Class in England. Russia, to an extent Germany and Spain, may have been early European adopters, but it was the disparity in English life that helped formulate their ideals of fairness, of equality.

Both men lived and wrote in Victorian London which, like the rest of the country, was a city of two peoples. On one side, there were the immensely wealthy. The Victorians of strict publicly forced moral conduct, austere suits with tall top hats and high necked frocks for the ladies, and rigorously dictated mourning periods and families concerned with the issues of a Wildean farce, of birthright and perceived suitability for a good marriage. Of course, behind the closed doors there were Masonic rituals and sexual deviancy and child abuse and deep seated frustrated resentment, but they were rich. They could afford to keep their emotions, their disappointments in life, locked away in the attic alongside the portrait that aged and deformed alongside with society’s every malevolent move.

Then there we the poor. The so-called great unwashed masses, the children of Dickens. Street urchins without shoes and raggedy clothes covering their scabby backs. Cunning manipulators who’d slice open their father for a chunk of bread. Children stuffed up chimneys. Drunkards drowned in gin. Whores in East End pubs cut to shreds for Lord knows what reason. Desperation with a weary face; the burden of sleeping a dozen to a cramped, damp room; of waking up to feel the cold heavy clasp of your mother’s arm across your chest as her lips turned blue in the depths of winter. Real life, in all its honestly bitter and fucked-off glory.

And somewhere in-between, a small yet growing middle class; those who frantically flailed at the coat tails of the richer whilst snatching worried glances over their shoulders at everyone else lest they catch up.

Marx and Engles wanted to make everyone equal. So it wasn’t perfect, so it wasn’t even that clever, but it would have been fairer. Everyone, however, just wanted to be competitively middle class.

Manifestos are the embodiment, the codexification of political ideals. No wonder no-one’s interested in actually reading them anymore when the ability to react, to change to your mind, to reassemble your personal history and bugger everything else, is the order of the day.

‘We’re all middle class now,’ sneered Tony Blair a few years ago before slinking off to live a life more akin to a nineteenth century Turkish sultan. The problem was that he ignored the huge drifting gulf on inequality opening up in order to get a good headline. The rich have been getting richer and the rest of us… Well, you know how it goes.

There isn’t a hidden Britain, a damaged sodden underbelly of a class that exists in isolation, refusing to interact with the rest of us. There’re just the poor. We can’t rebrand them into some sort of new and insurmountable problem, else that’s what it’ll become: all the shit scooped out of the living room and dumped behind the shed where no-one can see it, but it’ll still smell.

Andrew Rawnsley doesn’t think that elections are won by manifestos; that no-one cares who’s got the best policies, but the winners are those who make us ask ourselves the best question. He’s probably right. Unfortunately, the question almost certainly won’t be ‘who can bring us closer together, who will pull us toward equality?’, but more likely ‘who will put more cash in my pocket?’

Thanks anyway, Karl. Thanks for trying.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


She stood on the bridge and watched the slow churning green-grey sludge below. The spring sunlight tickled at her neck; it broke across the clear sky and dappled amongst the damp on her cheeks. The road behind her was empty save for the chirruping of dawdling blackbirds, idly scrounging for food. The knot in her stomach twisted as she clambered up onto the bridge wall, the concrete grazing against her teenage shin as she went. She climbed up high, to where the bridge reached its tallest point above where the water was known to be its deepest blackest.

And she stepped forward.

The plunge into the depths winded her; the impact forced her mouth open and the water flooded into her lungs. Perhaps, like Virginia Woolf, she had laced her pockets with stones, perhaps she relied on the suction of the grey muck at the canal’s base to hold her steady in its vice. And as the grit and grime filled her, pushing the oxygen out, as her long blonde hair flayed out in the murk like a shoal of sea snakes, as her eyes rolled backwards in their sockets to the rhythmic pounding along her skull, and her guts swelled to bursting point her mind became as clear and as free as the stretched blue sky, the last glint of which pushed at the distant surface high above her sunken head.

And less than a week later, in exactly the same spot, her Father followed her down, down to the emptiness of eternity.

Eighty odd years later I stood as the clouds gathered up ahead, swirling through greys and black and reflecting deep in the heart of the canal and our hidden hearts. Behind me traffic thundered in either direction a pounding grumble of inevitability. I stood and looked down into the blackened waters and thought about whisky and words and love and all the others things that mattered.

I looked down at my parents’ dog. She looked back up at me, her outsized ears flattened with puzzlement and then tugged, impatiently, towards the path, not realising that I was lost amongst ghosts.

‘Yeah, all right,’ I muttered and started to walk down the canal’s towpath.

Canals. In the West Midlands, they’re impossible to escape. They hang around the consciousness of those who grow up there like a smelly mini-disc player. That is, to say, that fleetingly they were the next big thing and then something slinkier, sexier came along and rendered them obsolete.

Actually, the analogy doesn’t quite work. Canals were around longer than eighteen months. Their use and spread may have rapidly increased when the workers flogged to the new metropolitan centres to do mechanised work with textiles and steel and paper and all the other bulwarks of the industrial revolution, but they had already been the bedrock of quick, cheap, speedy transportation across Europe for a millennium.

The industrial spark that lit the fires beneath Birmingham, Manchester, St Helens, Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn, Sunderland and a hundred other northern and midland names applied the same vigour to thwacking out great globules of mud from the land and flushing what would become stagnant water along them. The image of the shirehorse steadily plodding along the towpath, dragging a narrowboat slowly in its wake whilst jauntily capped and open shirted workers dozed on the flat roof in the summer warmth is straight out of the eighteenth century and yet here we are in the twenty-first.

We get a little obsessed by transport, here in the present, don’t we? Perhaps it’s from the claustrophobia of our tiny island right in the northern tip of the world, the innate knowledge that it’s never going to be that far, so why is it taking so long?

After many years of knuckle cracking frustration, I’ve finally started to become almost serene in my approach to transport. London seems to have, eventually, beaten all the impatience out of me. I’m now fully resigned to the fact that it’ll take however long it takes – although, equally, I’m rarely in as much of a rush as I once was. There appears to be more important things to get anxious over than a few minutes here or a couple of moments there.

And occasionally, everything works just beautifully anyway. As I left London for the bank holiday weekend, early on the Friday morning, the traffic radio reports cut through my enjoyment of Jimi Hendrix.

‘Still looking pretty quiet out there on the roads for you this Good Friday.’ I couldn’t even get irate at the inevitable focus around access to the big shopping centres encircling the city, Westfields, Lakeside, Bluewater. Making such good time, I allowed myself a diversion cross-country and outside Bicester found myself trapped in a queue for mid-end fashion retail park. I did all I could, which was to wind down the window, turn Jimi up and contentedly tap my fingers along the dashboard and resist the urge to startle pedestrians with my singing.

When I returned to London, on the bank holiday Monday morning, the roads were once again quiet. The city felt almost abandoned as I headed over to coffee in Hampstead. ‘Where has everyone gone?’ I wondered aloud.

I paused at a junction in Kilburn and spotted a Liberal Democrat election battle bus hidden down a side alley, a flight crew scuttling around loading it up with satellite dishes and anonymous grey boxes. There was no sign of a film crew or any of Cleggy, Compo or Foggy so what were they doing there? Was that just where it was stored, parked up, blocking the entrances to some West London lock-ups, ready to roll when the call came out to war?

Was that what everyone was doing? Waiting?

‘Don’t be fucking, stupid,’ I muttered. ‘They’re just living their lives rather than trying to concoct a point out of nothing.’

I overtook the dog along the canal and walked on past, my hands tucked into the pockets of my leather jacket, the lead wrapped around my wrist. I walked until it extended no further, until I was anchored, then I stood and look down into the waters.

My Dad fell into the canal when I was a kid. Somewhere, down there, his glasses still rot like memory degrading through age.

‘Come on,’ I said.

The dog’s head appeared out the bush where she’d been foraging for smells that had passed hours earlier. She looked at me and then went back to her business. Clearly, I could wait my turn.

Transport even managed to dominate Good Ol’Gordie Brown’s latest cock it up.

This pointlessly amateur election poster mocking Cameron as Gene Hunt of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes fame backfired spectacularly over the Easter break. There are some who watch those programmes as the outdated protagonist thumps, fucks and abuses his way through some slightly comical crime and wryly note how wonderful it is that people are no longer allowed to behave with such casual racism, sexism, violence and disregard for formal processes, but then there’s a lot of people who equally think “cool, fast cars, guns, drinking a lot, smoking and saying what you think! Now, those were the days!”

Out of touch as well as out of date, perhaps. Whichever, it made it rather easy for the toffs to come back with their aching attempt to appeal to normality.

Mind you, whilst we’re parodying election posters...

Still, despite my recently found calmness, I was glad that the rail strike had been called off. I did not find my commute into work diverted via over-packed buses filled to the brim with disgruntled workers. I felt glad not to be flying British Airways anytime soon as cabin crews continue to protest by manning the pickets. But then I catch myself being irrationally irritated again and stop.

I should be on the strikers’ side, shouldn’t I? And not just because of my more leftist ideals, but because so should everyone who’s ever rung a call centre and become annoyed at the never ending pre-recorded messages refusing to acknowledge that you’ve already pressed two seventeen times. Everyone who’s ever thought that an organisation, from the local post office to an accident and emergency ward, from your bank to the train stations, needed more, not less, people should support those trying to save their jobs from automation.

Shouldn’t they?

But things change, they don’t last. Even the canals were swallowed up by the new. The steam trains that would capture the imaginations of a dozen generations of small boys before dreams of red hot coals being shovelled across a footplate were in turn eaten up by jet packs and ray guns and tiny hand held bleeping devices that scarred flickering images into their eyeballs.

Steam trains arrived in the white heat of the late revolution, at such a speed that the Croydon Canal which briefly once stretched from the Thames and down through South East London, including a fledgling area known as Brockley, was drained no sooner than it was finished, and sleepers of oak lain down where briefly water had flowed. Every morning I stand watching the electric sparks in the cold air when it could have been slowly defrosting, wearily turning water.

Things change. Sometimes they change as slowly as the churning silt at the bottom of the sinisterly grey canal and other times at the speed of a charging locomotive. But change, they will.

For many years the canal system fell into disrepair through lack of use and poor maintenance, but as interest in floating along in particularly shaped boats flourished the network has been slowly restored as a tourist attraction. The towpaths and locks repaired and refitted in a systematic programme delivered, in part, by a friend of mine who, by curious coincidence, also has access to canal barge. There is something delightful about floating along through a summer’s afternoon with just the quiet of another time’s world following you. No point in hurrying, no point in rushing. You’ll get there when you get there.

But canals also hide secrets. Two bloated and drowned bodies, for instance, near where my parents live. True story, apparently. My great grandmother was asked by the local doctor to keep an eye on the survivors lest they choose to go the same way.

Why did she do it? Well, there are many reasons why a pretty young girl decides there is only one final solution, but only one reason that was ever likely to keep the curtain twitchers chattering through the generations.

And him? Well he had a reputation as a boozer. His wife would go to the building sites, where he laid bricks and smeared cement, to collect his wages before it all disappeared into the till of the Red Lion. But why did he follow his daughter to her watery end? Guilt? Grief? Despair? A bit of all, perhaps, and maybe, just maybe, the whispered rumour may have held a pittance of truth.

Who knows? Only the canal and it isn’t telling, preferring to leave half-remembered tales until no-one’s left to care, but the glittering sunlight on the thick surface.