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.