Tuesday, 25 February 2014


Some of this happened.  Some of it didn't.

The other day I went to the sorting office in Lewisham.  We’d had one of those missed delivery cards that the postman seems to drop through the door automatically assuming we’ll be out mid-morning, mid-week.  This time we were both at work, but my fiancé often works from home and they still land on the mat.  Maybe the door bell doesn’t always work; maybe it’s just more efficient to decide that anything bigger than a bank statement isn’t going to fit anyway, so they might as well leave them back at base for lazy Amazon buyers to come and collect.

The card said there were two parcels waiting for us and it quoted both our names.  When I got there, however, it turned out there was one parcel each and because I wasn’t my fiancé and my driver’s licence, obviously, didn’t name her I couldn’t take her stuff too.  Irritated at having to make the same trip and endure the same queue on another morning, I took a more meandering walk home to calm down.

I started to follow a path I’d not noticed before, down by the side of the boarded up office complex.  The one with the seating area outside, right on the dual carriageway, which looks like it was trying to encourage lunchtime team eating together.  That’s probably why the business went under; people never like being encouraged to be chummy.  The path led down to the Ravensbourne River as it scuttles off under the station and towards the Thames.  I thought there might be a point where I could scramble up to the footbridge and then home, so followed it further, but rather than continuing along the water the path abruptly ran out.  

There, at the end, was a tent.  More than a tent, a whole campsite.  Someone was living under canvas just outside Lewisham town centre.  There was an upturned steel drum acting as a rainwater butte.  The white brushed ash demarking a fire.  Some clothes hanging from a bush, presumably drying in the morning sun and a rolled up tarp to the side suggesting some more extensive waterproofing had been in use recently.

My immediate thought was that the occupant was an Eastern European migrant worker, down on his luck.  I don’t know why I assumed that.  Possibly because, years before, I’d read something about some Estonian guys camping out in Suffolk waiting for casual labour or agricultural work to be offered.  Not enough money to afford anything else, not even to go home.

I turned to leave, not wanting to intrude when I heard the sound of the tent’s zipper being undone.

‘Hello,’ said a distinctly English voice, ‘fancy seeing you here.’

‘Crikey,’ I replied, ‘hello, George.’

I hadn’t seen George in about five years.  He’d been a regular in one of the pubs I’d worked in while doing my Masters.  He’d always seemed a well to-do chap, one of the ones who came in wearing a suit and tie on the way home from work, two pints of lager and then off to the wife, I assumed.  He wasn’t one of those who seemed more interested in self-destruction than dinner.  He didn’t drink himself stupid every night only to come back in the next day and complain that he just wasn’t appreciated at work, that he was long over-due a promotion, that it wasn’t fair when he couldn’t get on in life and yes, damn it, he would have another tequila chaser with his beer.  Of all the people to be sleeping rough by the Ravensbourne, I hadn’t expected it to be George.

‘Cup of tea?’ he offered.

I nodded and squatted down next to some nettles while he set up a small camping gas cooker.

The flame roared while we sat in silence.  It was surprisingly tranquil down by the river; the roar of the main road drowned out by the gentle flow of the water and the rustling of who knew what through the undergrowth. 

‘No milk,’ he apologised.

‘Thanks,’ I said.  The tea was hot and wet in that uniquely satisfying way.  ‘Black’s fine.  George, I, I don’t know what to say.’

‘You can ask, you know?  You can ask me why I’m living in a tent.’

‘Okay, why are you?’

‘When did we last see each other?  2008?’

‘Something like that.’

‘I lost my job.  The firm weren’t directly hit by the financial crisis, but we kind of got caught up in the ripple.  Everyone did, I guess, but we couldn’t keep our head above the water.  Ten years I’d been there just for statutory redundancy.  And then, well you know what it was like?  The money didn’t last.  I couldn’t find work.  I’m not that young anymore.’  He paused and slurped his tea.  ‘Madeline, well, she didn’t cope so well.  Seemed to think we had some sort of right to paid employment.  I tried to tell her, but you can guess how that conversation went.  I never expected her to leave, though.  That was something of a shock.’

I looked at George.  He didn’t, aside from the tent, look homeless.  He was clean shaven.  His clothes looked recently laundered.  In the porch of his tent there was a sealed, transparent plastic crate. Inside was at least a week’s worth of food: tins of tomatoes and tuna, bags of pasta, rice, a can coconut milk for God’s sake.

‘Strangely, the week after she’d scarpered I got an interview and then a job offer.  Less well paid than before.  A small accountancy firm in Lee, but better than nothing.  Nice people.  She should have waited.  Should have trusted me.  Still,’ he smiled, cheerfully, ‘that was her call.  The whole thing made me think hard about life, mind.  The decisions we make and how we’ve got to where we are.  And I realised that I’ve been going through it all, just letting things happen to me.  I’m not proactive enough.  I mean, I never intended to stay in London.  It just seemed like a bit of fun.  Something to do when you’re young.  I always wanted to move to the countryside, do something with the land.  I never wanted to work in an office at a computer all day, every day.’ 

He leaned back on the grassy bank and looked up to the sky.  The sun was surprisingly strong after the recent downpours.  George looked like he’d been missing it.  His skin wasn’t yet leathery like folks who’ve toiled outside all their days, but it did have a certain robustness to the edges.  He closed his eyes, as though concentrating on absorbing the rays.

‘But now, who’s going to risk moving to the country?  It took me over a year to get a job in London.  How long would it take in the middle of nowhere?  So I came up with a compromise.  About a year ago, I put the house on the market, sold it and moved here.  I kept my job, but I also get to be, I don’t know, more back to nature.’

‘That’s, that’s,’ I floundered.

‘Crazy?’  He looked at me, almost disappointed as though that’s what everyone says.

‘Brave,’ I countered, knowing full well it could mean the same thing.

‘Not really.  No-one knows I’m here.  The winter has been mild, if somewhat wet.  I guess that’s helped.’

‘What do you do about being paid?  Do you have a bank account?  I mean, there’s so many things that you need an address for.’

‘Sure, all that stuff’s registered with at my cousin’s place.  She lives in Charlton.  And when the rain got a bit too much over New Year, when the office was closed, I stayed with her a couple of days.  It was okay.  Like a short holiday.  But I was pleased to back here.’

‘Right,’ I said.  It was all I could think of.

‘Right,’ George agreed, looking into his empty mug.  ‘Time to go and catch the bus.’

‘Oh, okay,’ I handed him back my mug.  ‘Thanks for the tea.’

‘You’re welcome.  Pop round anytime.’

We both walked back to the street, he turning left, I right. 

A couple of days later I thought about going to see if he was still there, but part of me doesn’t want to know either way.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Here comes the flood (rivers of mud, baby)

Abandon all travel, tweeted Virgin trains.  It was the twenty-first century equivalent of yelling ‘abandon all hope’ while traipsing up and down a rain lashed high street where the only shops were the bookies, pound shops and discount off-licences and brandishing a sandwich board covered in deranged scrawling.
Almost five years ago I wrote options for an unfinished ending, a selection of short fictions suggesting various apocalyptic conclusions for humanity.  I was, at the time, somewhat pessimistic about life in general.  Aside from my own problems, it increasingly felt obvious that we’d broken the planet.  Which was a bit of a downer.  Five years later my own circumstances have significantly improved, but small problems are always going to be easier to fix.

In 2009 the one good thing about a potential incoming Tory government was their environmental position.  After a few years of power, however husky hugging Dace wants to get rid of all the Green Crap.  Vote blue, it seems, and you don’t get green, but a more suffocating pallor after all.  Just like it always was.  We, the electorate, have to do something about this.  I mean, come on:  Caroline Lucas, bless her, can’t save us all on her own.

The other weekend my fiancé and I were visiting our delightful friends on the outskirts of Oxford.  ‘Don’t forget your wellies,’ they texted.  Ah, how bad could it be?  My smug metropolitan dwelling self thought.  I don’t own wellington boots – haven’t for decades, for reasons that involve a mental nausea at so much rubber and blisters gained somewhere on the outskirts of Telford – but I assumed my hiking boots would suffice. 

Wrong.  On the walk into Oxford the waters which should have been in the river and instead were flowing over fields and paths and allotments came well above my ankles.  There were frogmen in places there were no right to be.  On the way back, early that evening, the water was running fast and closer to my knees.  The situation had become worse in the space of a couple of pints.  I avoided wet feet through an overly complicated system of wellie sharing – a practical example of the wolf, sheep, hay, boat riddle – and took friendships to a new level of intimacy.  Less than a week later the army were erecting barricades in our friends’ village.

Post-pub fording we were ensconced safely in our friends’ house and the conversation lingered on the falling misery outside.  Somehow it drifted into biblical Noah and his ark.  Clearly, we are not experiencing such a deluge, but the sense of being abandoned, either by God or Government, must be similar.  Although I am in no way thinking that the floods are God’s punishment on us for tolerating UKIP, many communities we do appear to be on their own.  This is serious.  No-one is going to gather us up two by two and lead us to safety.  Noah spent over a century collecting his animals and constructing his vast ark.  We don’t have that sort of time.

This was fiction; this is real.  Even when it doesn’t feel like it.  The appearance of sink holes across the country, big enough to swallow whole family cars or crack a house in two, have a fictitious air about them.  It’s like something out of Jules Verne where a hidden world under the earth’s crust is there for the exploration.  Surely any journey to the centre of the earth is only going to cause even more environmental mishap.  An expedition setting off from Suffolk could expect to generate air and water pollution, earthquakes, disruption to infrastructure and irreparable damage to the ecosystem.  Somebody actually undertaking such lunacy could only exist in fiction, couldn’t they? 

Oh, yeah: fracking. 

The world is changing and it will affect everyone.  Even in aloof London, where we might think it doesn’t make any difference it does.  The problems at the moment might be minor – a bit of damp coming through the newly decorated lounge walls, a seal on the guttering that needs replacing, the back gate swollen so that it needs to be hammered open and shut, maybe my bike would have stayed upright when that prat cut me up the other morning had the tarmac not been slick with rainwater – but forget all that: imagine the Thames flooding the city.  Then we’d have a heck of a lot more to worry about than the tube strike.

It’s not just rain (although there is a lot of it) and it’s not just now.  The summer of 2008 had a monsoon season, sweatingly hot punctuated with torrential short downpours.  That November it snowed in the South briefly and then more significantly the following February when the city ground to a halt because we forgot to salt the bus garages.  That summer there was more monsoon rain.  I remember meeting some friends in the Royal Festival Hall.  Originally it was only supposed to be a quick rendezvous, but as the rain tore down we kept getting more wine in, assuming it would stop at some point and we could go get some dinner.  It didn’t.  By the time we were booted out, it was still chucking it down.  I got home at midnight, tipsy and hungry to discover that so much rain had come through the extractor fan in my bathroom that an inch of water covered the floor.

Then it snowed again.  I think that was the winter my olive oil froze.

And on it goes.  Increasingly extreme weather attacks the country and we still keep getting in our cars, running our electronic devices twenty-four-seven, keeping our homes snug and warm despite the escalating heating bills.  I do it.  We all do and then the world fights back, like we’re some sort of disease and the weather is the planet’s immune system finally kicking in.

The counter-argument is that this is nothing new.  That bad weather has always struck occasionally – like the when London last flooded in 1928 or the great Thames flooding of 1953 – but it feels more consistent.  Maybe it’s my guilt, but it feels more our fault.  As I grind my way along the Old Kent Road, the wind almost pushing my bike backwards, the cold rain lashing my face, it doesn’t feel unusual anymore.  I seem to spend more time commuting in the wet than any other state.  There are only short windows around May and October when the cycling is pleasant before winter is replaced by summer’s unpredictably clammy weather.

So, if we can’t save the world by going back, then we must adapt.  We must learn to live alongside it again.  We must change our ways so the antibodies cease to target us and concentrate on Nigel Lawson.  Part of that is around reducing our current and future environmental impact, but part of it is accepting we can no longer go back.  Climate change is unlikely to be reversible, so these shifts in weather patterns are here to stay.  Instead we must find ways to make existence plausible.  If that means choosing not to live on the pretty spot by the river, than that is, what we must do.  If it means owning a canoe and solar-powered ski mobile, then fine.  If it means being a bit more clever by life then we better give it a go.

Because what’s the alternative?

The cat sits by the back door and shouts at me.  Outside it is, of course, raining.  She wants to go out, but clearly doesn’t fancy getting wet.  As her god and master she appears to think I can do something about this.  I can’t stop it raining, but that doesn’t mean I, any or all of us, should, as Virgin Trains have suggested, simply give up and accept our fate.