Thursday, 27 March 2014


As regular readers may have spotted, I don’t tend to do things by halves.

Shortly after my fiancée and I started going out we were at her place in Maida Vale on a Saturday morning.  My fiancée is a tea-lover, but I – while a big fan of tea – like a coffee on the weekend mornings.  It’s something of a treat, partly because only instant is available at work and my refusal to spend fifteen percent of my salary with tax dodging scumbags like Starbucks, but also because it just tastes like time to myself.  It’s something I can take my time over.  We were still in that early phase when you’re happy to do whatever the other wants she duly pinched some of her flatmate’s coffee and made a pot. 

We then went out for the day, I forget where.  I think, maybe, there was some sort of food fair taking place at the clock end of Elgin Avenue.  As we walked down the road in the early autumn sunshine I was aware that things weren’t quite right.  I had a nasty headache brewing and felt a little like I wasn’t entirely there.  The pain in my head grew to the point where, while not actually grumpy, it was certainly distracting me.  I was focussing on not being sick, on not being snappy, rather than enjoying her company. 

We hadn’t done anything special the night before, just been out for a couple of drinks.  I’d been more or less sober at the end of the night – see, still in the early days of trying to impress – and so it wasn’t a hangover.   Beside it felt different.  It was more aggressive, less regretful.

Eventually we went for a cup of tea and almost immediately the headache receded and I could think again.

Later, my fiancée apologised to her flatmate for pinching the coffee.

‘Coffee?’ the flatmate replied, looking confused.  ‘But I haven’t got any coffee other than the decaff.’

This was worrying. I was aware that I’d become psychologically addicted to the routine of tea and coffee drinking which had filled my life for years, but I wasn’t aware I was so physically stuck to them too. 

Eighteen months later, having successfully gone dry for the previous year’s Lent, I considered giving up all caffeine for forty days and nights.  But at the time we were in India and the tea was just too nice to ignore – let alone the social awkwardness refusal could have caused.  The next year we were stressed about the potential lack of anywhere to live.  It wasn’t the right time, I told myself.  This year, this time, there wasn’t anything I could conveniently use as an excuse.  I had to go for it.  I had to know how bad things were.

I’ve drunk tea for as long as I can remember.  I don’t know how young I was when my parents first gave me a sip.  Eight, maybe?  Possibly younger.  My family runs on incessant cups of tea.  By the time I was at senior school, I looked forward to going home after class not just to escape the hell of enforced education, but also so I could have a cup of tea.

I liked proper coffee when I took it, but it was a rarity growing up – as it probably was around much of eighties Britain.  Coffee culture didn’t really take off until the mid-late nineties.  I remember the excitement when I was in Sixth Form College and a branch of the Seattle Coffee Company opened up in central Birmingham.  There wasn’t such finery in Sheffield when I headed up there so it wasn’t until travelling around Europe and then living in London that I got a serious Jones on for coffee.

Tea is more fundamental to existence – like bread – but coffee, coffee is sensual.  The way it smells, the way it jolts, the grounds feel sharp yet tender between your fingers:  it’s a love affair, I admit.

And, Jesus Christ, coming off it was painful.

I was quite clear on the rules: no tea, coffee, green tea, energy drinks, colas, anything with caffeine in it.  Decaff tea and coffee feel pointless, so I haven’t bothered.  I’m just drinking herbal teas and Redbush tea, which is a surprisingly good substitute.  I think it’s the milk; it almost fools my body that it’s the real deal. 

As an aside, a colleague decided to be helpful and googled alternatives to coffee for me.  Tea was the obvious one, but my detox is more comprehensive than most of the wimps writing on the internet.  The next suggestion the website offered was cider.  Yep, that would go down well first thing in the morning on a work day.

The first few days were dreadful.  Lent, obviously, starts in the middle of the week so I was thrown into an office environment while going cold turkey.  The headaches stormed in firing vicious shots of lightning around my brain.  Pain spread through my body, random aches appeared, mainly in the chest, but also in my kidneys and liver like everything was grinding to a halt, the tank empty.  I felt exhausted and like there was a fog in my brain.  Weirdly, I became insomniac for a couple of nights, despite going to bed early and absolutely shattered.  Sometimes it hurt to wee and I was constipated for a while.  Too much information, possibly, but every ailment you can imagine threw itself at me.  The only day I didn’t feel like hell was the first Sunday when we went for a long bike ride through Kent, the adrenaline replacing the caffeine keeping me sharp, the sunshine making me feel well.  I was still in bed by about ten thirty, mind.

After a few days, the constant craving and pain drifted off and I began to feel more normal, although less sharp.  The headaches lasted the longest, about six days.  Now, the only problem is the muddle of my thoughts and the struggle to articulate myself.  I am more crotchety than normal in mornings.  I crave my bed earlier than usual.  I run out of energy to work at about nine o’clock.  I don’t feel like I’m all there.

The withdrawal has been necessary.  It does one good to purge the system of toxins every so often and clearly I was more reliant on caffeine than I realised.  Still the moment those forty days are up I’m going to have a bucket of espresso.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Tony Benn (1925-2014)

Tony Benn died last week.  The left-wing politician who became increasingly radical – or immature, according to Harold Wilson – passed away surround by his family in his Notting Hill home.   West London, hardly the hotbed of the working classes he was so eager to represent, but then Benn’s contradictions were at his very core.

Benn was, back when I started to understand politics a little better than simply left versus right, a man I immensely admired, but coming to write this I find myself struggling to articulate why.

Reading the obituaries to him over the weekend I am left little wiser.  His achievements as a politician were mediocre and probably would have been delivered by anyone else in post at the time: the opening of the post office tower, the establishment of pop music radio stations ending the pirate radio ships, championing Concorde (which was being built in this then constituency of Bristol).  Some of his more interesting and hard-line left ideas, such as issuing stamps without the Queen’s face, not only ended in failure but now seem tame.  In the sixties they were hardly incendiary either.  With hindsight, at least, they appear to have little more than a sense of mischief about them.   

By the time he developed his more militant attitude he was in opposition.  The early eighties battle to be deputy leader of Labour – which Benn again lost – was not only bloody and helped keep the party for a generation, but saw Benn be christened, by an over-excitable right-wing media, the most dangerous man in Britain.  In later life Benn used to joke that he achieved national treasure status by being rendered harmless by both old age and leaving parliament.  He was both right and wrong.  By the eighties he was pretty harmless too.  More is the pity.  He became a politician of greater conviction – bemoaning his own involvement in the sixties stand-down from socialism that saw Labour elected (usually only just) four times in two decades – but only after the opportunity to deliver had gone.

In his sort of retirement he traded on his image as a nice old man with a firebrand tucked inside.  The pipe, the incessant tea drinking, the standing up for things which should have been seen as unilaterally right – not invading Iraq, banning nuclear weapons, the NHS, trade unionism – but for the oddities of politics weren’t.  Somehow the most radical (former) politician in the country came across as a kindly uncle.  Albeit, one with an unusual range of pronunciation.  And, of course, he was a politician so there must have been an element of the bastard in him.  I quite liked the anecdote Andrew Rawnsley threw in his Observer column about a journalist interviewing Benn who didn’t like the way the conversation had gone and so wiped the tape, there and then, with a magnetic device he kept handy in his office.

I first read about Benn in a mammoth book my Dad had when I was a kid: A Chronicle of the Twentieth Century.  Despite being published in 1987 - and so far from complete - this enormous compendium reprinted important newspaper items for every month of the century.  I was obsessed by it and would read it again and again, focussing mainly on the bits I was more familiar with from school and comics (mainly various wars), but as those became over-familiar anything and everything that caught my eye.  July 1963 must have been a relatively slow month on the global scene for the book reprinted a slight article about Anthony Wedgewood Benn renouncing his hereditary title in order to serve in the House of Commons even though being in the House of Lords didn’t preclude you from being in government.  In fact not having to win an election seemed like an easy option to me.

Of course I didn’t fully understand the intricacies of the situation.  I didn’t know that Benn’s father, also a Labour politician, had only grudgingly ascended to the upper house himself; that the title may have been jettisoned but the Benn’s were never going to be destitute; that peers can’t hold the highest offices of the land, suggesting that blind ambition might have had a lot to do with it.  Okay, so I didn’t grasp all that, but I found the idea of giving up what I thought of privileges to be a common man and to devote yourself to the service of others on a point of principle to be wonderfully romantic.

In the late nineties I was at university in Sheffield and would drive between Birmingham and Yorkshire in a tired eighties bright red Fiat Panda.  Made of thin steel and sporting an ineffectual one litre engine taking it on the motorway felt like asking for an early grave and so I used to drive up the A roads passing through Benn’s later constituency of Chesterfield.  That fact is irrelevant.  It’s not as though I ever saw Benn, nearly ran him down at a zebra crossing or anything.  I imagine that he was, unfortunately, rarely there.  I bet he preferred the comforts of West London to the rain sodden spire twisted shopping centres of North Derbyshire. 

But it was at that still impressionable age (although you’d deny it, wouldn’t you?) around twenty that my ideals of socialism were beginning to form more fully.  I wasn’t active in student politics, much to my regret, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about these things.  About the big questions.  Thinking and debating them too late at night with my friends over another unnecessary beer. 

Tony Blair might have shared Benn’s initials and he may have been the first Labour leader to not only win three successive elections but to win with a significant majority, but there was no love lost between the two.  Blair being seen as the heir to Thatcher must have made Benn’s blood boil and up in Sheffield, as I experienced my first protest marches against the introduction of student fees, I couldn’t help but feel let down.  The first Labour government of my life and nothing was changing.

Even then, before Iraq, dodgy dossiers and a skin colour that stinks of money, Blair was coming across like a career politician.  He seemed like a man who would do – and say - anything to win.  He didn’t seem confined by an ideology or principles.  It didn’t seem like he gave a shit for anything other than being at the top.

Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before I think New Labourdid brilliant things for the country – certainly things the previous five years have reminded us are unlikely to be repeated under a Conservative government – but I can’t help wondering if the price was too high.  If that to get some things done, they have sold off what they stood for on too many fronts.  No wonder Benn resigned from Parliament to spend more time in politics.

Maybe that’s it: maybe that’s what I’ve always admired.  Benn was never afraid to lose if it meant having the fight that was right; he wouldn’t back down on the things he believed in, even if by not backing down he knew that he’d never have the opportunity to try and do them. 

Tony Benn then, aside from everything else, he was a man of principle.  I can only hope to be thought of in such a fashion.


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Licence revoked


Someone out there is pretending to be me.

Back in July, when we finally moved into our home, I sent my driver’s licence and V5 car registration documentation off the umpteenth time.  Since moving to London, this is my seventh address - including the couple of months we were homeless and I transferred it back to my parents’ house, and fourth from which editions of David Marston Writes have been sent out from.  Sorting out the DVLA is just another part of the standard routine for laying down roots, as much as sorting out the electric, gas and internet, figuring out where the nearest place to buy milk from is and what the closest pub has in terms of bitter on tap.  It’s just another chore to do, only this time it went a bit wrong.

Moving in meant we needed new furniture and fittings as we revert many of the modernisations made by the previous owners.  My fiancée is determined to restore the house’s character and so took to ebay with gusto looking for authentic thirties fixtures of fittings.  She quickly sourced a mantelpiece to go with the fireplace we were planning to put back into the lounge. 

‘It’s nearby,’ she said enthusiastically, ‘we can go and pick it up.’

‘How big is it?’ I asked.

The dimensions were almost exactly the same as the back of the car with the seats down.  Of course, this meant we could only be certain it could be manoeuvred around the various plastic fittings and other obstacles around the boot entrance by actually trying to fit it in.

Surprisingly it fit, although only just and at an awkward angle.  The wooden u was twisting slightly.  If the traffic was slow it might have caused a permanent warp or even snapped and so my fiancée opted to sit with her arms stretched behind her, supporting it in place.  All very uncomfortable, but not dangerous and it was only a short journey.

Out on the south circular, accelerating up the hill from the roundabout with the A20, the angle of the car shifts the mantelpiece.  The movement drops the weight onto my fiancée’s arms.  She squeals in pain.  I glance over to look at her.  Making sure she’s okay takes longer than I would normally have my eyes off the road for.  I look back too late.  The lights have just changed to red.  There are no pedestrians waiting to cross, the traffic from the side road is still stationary.  I dither for a second, worried about slamming the brakes on and hurting her further.  In that micro-moment, I’ve sailed through the red light and – quite rightly – incurred points and a fine due to the fixed camera.

I know what’s happened.  I am cross with myself for the hesitancy and incurring the fine, but I was completely in the wrong.  It’s only when the official notice arrives that I realise my driver’s licence hasn’t returned from the DVLA.  My V5 is back but not my licence.  I leave it a few more days, hoping each evening I return from work it’ll be on the mat.  It isn’t.

Eventually I ring them.  I was posted several weeks before, but clearly it hasn’t reached me.  They issue a new one, which does turn up and is immediately sent off to be marked with its crime, but this doesn’t answer the question of what happened to the first?

I assume that envelopes marked with the DVLA have some sort of value to them.  Identification papers, even if not a passport, must surely be worth something to the right person.  Most likely they were popped through the wrong letterbox, maybe next door while it was empty and then hovered up with all the pizza, nanny, roofing and estate agent leaflets into the recycling bin, but possibly not. 
In a week when the news around the missing Malaysian airlines flight is focussing on the two passengers using stolen passports, it seems intriguing to reflect on what someone could do with my identification.  Have they got their hair cut in a dishevelled spiky mess, bought themselves a pair of fake glasses and are currently masquerading as me?  What can a photo-id with your address on it get you?  The DVLA says it cancelled the serial number on the licence, but no-one actually checks those when you hire a vehicle.  They just glance at the likeness and ask how many points you’ve got.  I could be accumulating stolen Hertz cars around the country.  With a bit of creative fibbing to utility companies they could probably open a bank account in my name and drain the overdraft.

There comes a point where they could be more me than I am.

Alice Kendrick had been a detective for too long.  She’d spent too many nights in bad bars regretting the darkness in humanity which was they gave her cases like this.  She’d been spared the worst of the P&O bombings.  It hadn’t been her or anyone on her team who’d been pulling mangled bodies out the Dover docks, trying to distinguish burnt, twisted metal from torso remains.  She’d managed to avoid the crematorium smoke taste to the morning air, the grinding of the ferry’s skeleton breaking up in the tinted sea and the smell of doused fire lingering on the dawn. 

She may well have avoided the full sensory experience, but those who’d got the complete works also got to leave it behind.  Provided they could.  At least they had some sort of chance.  Alice Kendrick, though, had to look at the photos of four hundred bodies and twelve bodies every day until she managed to unpick what happened. 

The fact that this prospect didn’t fill her with dread was when she knew she’d been a detective too long.

She wished they still let you smoke in the workplace.

Dover hadn’t had an incident room large enough for her team’s needs so they’d commandeered the basement.  No natural light, a dank odour, stark concrete walls made it appropriately bleak.  They’d decorated, but only by tacking images of each and every victim to the wall.  A before and after shot to remind them that they’d been alive once.

She’d sent the rest of them back to their hotels.  It was late, not that you could tell in the windowless confines underneath the street.  They’d been working solid for almost three weeks, tracking down potential connections, trying to figure out who, the why would fall into place on its own.  The water had played havoc with any results they would normally have expected from forensics, ballistics and all the other scientific back-up modern policing received.  They were working in the past.

She’d sent the others back to the hotel, but she knew they’d be doing exactly the same thing as she was: thinking, unable to let it go.

Alice’s mobile rang.  The display said Hopkins, her number two.

‘What have you got, Paul?’

‘I think we’ve found something,’ he exhaled slowly.  Alice could picture his nervous hands toying with a pen, rolling it between his fingers in want of a cigarette.  ‘I’ve been going over the CCTV footage.  I’m looking at a guy boarding. I think he’s our man.  He’s nervous, keeps checking over his shoulder, adjusting his position in the seat.  No-one checks his car, but you can see the way it’s sitting on the suspension there’s something heavy on in the boot.’

‘So he just drove the bomb on board?’

‘Incredible, yeah, I think he did.’

‘Sometime simple works better than some over-complex conspiracy thriller plot.’  Alice paced the room, her fingers drifting across the photos tacked to the walls.  ‘Any leads on the car?’

‘Yeah, registration and licence documents are in the name of a David Marston.  Lives in Lewisham, London.’

‘Pick him up,’ she said.  ‘Let’s bring him in, find out what he knows.’      

Just a bad fiction thought. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Nigel's imaginary day out

Saturday morning I sat at the table eating toast, drinking coffee and reading the Guardian, just like most weekends.  Amongst the more serious news of Russia’s covert invasion of the Ukraine, Nigel Farage pops up with his usual mindless tirade.  This time he’s focussing on people speaking English and how in, supposedly, large areas of the country it is no longer the dominant tongue.

Farage backs his theory up with an example of a recent train ride.  He caught a stopping train out of London Charing Cross, heading for the safety of the UKIP friendly parts of Kent.  It stopped at London Bridge, New Cross (pictured), Hither Green and it was only beyond Grove Park – zone four suburbia, non-London residents – that he could hear English being spoken on the train.  Although not explicitly said, the implication is, of course, that any English being spoken was drowned out by the cacophony of other languages being shouted in that way people from other countries are wont to do.  In other words, there were too many foreigners putting their feet on the seats and generally disrupting his peaceful journey.

Hello, Nigel. 

My name’s David.  I am a resident of Lewisham, through your train will certainly have passed because it’s one of the stops between New Cross and Hither Green and I think you’re wrong.

Here’s why:

I don’t deny that you may well have found yourself in a carriage with particularly loud group of, let’s say, Russian students living in Hither Green who, perhaps excited by their trip to the West End or concerned by the imminent invasion of a former Soviet republic, were quite loud.  Possibly shouting and cheering or even jeering depending on the nature of the conversation and drowning out any Shakespeare being recited. 

Or, you don’t say when your train was, but perhaps it was mid-morning and, as is often the case, the carriage was empty save for you and a Spanish woman talking on her mobile phone.  At Grove Park she got off and a couple of English speaking women with pushchairs got on and continued their conversation thus the sound of Anglo-Saxon words filled your ears once again and all was right in your world.  Both of these scenarios are perfectly possible and therefore your anecdote could be perfectly true, if not actually representative of a common reality.

And it is fair to say of Lewisham, as it is of the rest of London, that it is a multi-cultural place.  There are people from all walks of life, all skin tones, all dialects, all backgrounds here.   But when a significant proportion of the population is of Afro-Caribbean descent it is wrong to suggest that English can no longer be heard.  Indeed, one of those young Mums who got on the train at Grove Park is black, but her Grandparents came over in forty-nine and she’s as British and you or I, Nigel.

After breakfast and the paper I went, with my English-speaking fiancée and her English-speaking parents, who were visiting, to Brockley Market.  The nearest station is St John’s, Nigel which your train might not have actually stopped at, but it would certainly have passed through.  It’s just over the road and down the hill.  Brockley Market is artesian and earnest, shortlisted for the BBC’s food and farming awards, packed full of raw milk, fresh game, organic purple carrots, golden beets, Mediterranean flat breads and coffee so hip it rides a fixie and sports a beard.  The place rings out with English voices. 

Alas, most of the voices are received pronunciation, calling out after Florence as she toddles off, but that’s the crime of gentrification which isn’t something I want to get into here.   

On the way home, we pass through the park where local kids are playing organised football matches.  A whizz of multi-ethnic colour curls across the boggy grass, but I can’t hear anything other than English yells of “man on” and “cross it” coming from there.

Back on our street we sit in our house which we bought of a couple of Cypriot-Turkish descent who only ever spoke English as far as I know.  Even if they did speak Turkish to each other, she grew up four streets across so doesn’t she have more right be here than I do?  I only turned up in 2001 sporting a degree and middleclass pretentions to usurp the neighbourhood dynamic.  Up and down the streets there are people of different shades, different histories.  Some of them born in the UK, some of them not; some of them from London, some of them, like me, not.  But, I can’t hear any language drowning out any other here.

I have several friends living nearby.  Some of those are from New Zealand and one is American.  They don’t have English passports.  As I’m sure you’d be keen to stress, Nigel, your, UKIP’s, point with this ridiculous train story was to highlight immigration issues, not to be inherently racist, but they’re immigrants and they speak English.  So, do they not count in your sums?  Is a Southern hemisphere accent okay with you, but not someone speaking French? 

Nigel, I guess my survey is as scientific as yours – namely useless – and I clearly don’t agree with you, but at least I’m trying to understand your point. 

Can I ask you a question, Nigel?  When you’re in Brussels – sweating pure xenophobia in your role as an MEP - do you speak French to your English colleagues?  Do you conduct your mobile calls in Dutch?  Do you attempt to speak the local languages, or do you just carry on in English? 

I’m betting it’s the later, in which case: why should, for example, the two Polish roofers on your train, who are here legitimately for work, speak to each other in anything other than their own language?  Especially as they will speak English when buying their groceries, when talking to their clients, when going about their daily lives?  Do you know how to order coffee in Brussels without speaking English, Nigel?

Would you mind explaining the difference?  Would you mind explaining your inconsistencies?

And while you’re at it, could you try to explain why it’s a bad thing?  Spoken words are just a sequence of noises our vocal cords are spurting out.  Meaning, Nigel.  That’s the important bit.  And I think we all know what you really mean.  You’re just not willing to say it.  You’d like to keep a respectable disguise on until the next election, I know, but also, you saw what happened to the BNP last time out, so you’ll hide the truth for a little while longer, won’t you?