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.

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