5

The ecstasy and the agony – why you should never take ecstasy

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Back in the early nineties when ecstasy really was ecstasy not the tepid shit that they sell to the kids these days I smuggled a couple of tabs into Zante. Only two tabs: one for me and one for Marie – enough for her to fall in love with me for a night and me with her. Although I’d lost count of the number of times I’d been carrying I always got a little nervous when I went through customs. However, I prided myself on my originality when it came to hiding things. I’d never needed to swallow anything or shove it up my arse, I was too subtle for that. So on this occasion I individually wrapped the tabs in clingfilm and dropped them into a bottle of thick gloopy yellow shampoo. Then I wiped the top and put a smudge of PVA around the thread. This would add a little authentic stiffness to the lid on the off-chance that an overenthusiastic customs guard should decide to open it. I shook the bottle and held it up to the light. There was no way you could tell it was concealing anything.

Even so, I was sweating a bit when I went through; that musty, under-the-arms kind of sweat that always smells bad. Stupidly, I was wearing a biker’s jacket, a personal statement which guaranteed that I would be stopped and searched at customs. On this occasion they went one step further and pulled me into a little room and got me to empty my suitcase. If I say so myself I showed a great deal of panache as I did so, affecting the resigned but amused air of somebody who was obviously put out by what was happening to him but apparently viewing the experience in a post-modernist existential kind of way. In a display of unfeasible braggadocio I even handed the shampoo to the plump matronly uniformed woman whose job it was to go through my socks and underwear. But she wasn’t interested and eventually waved me away with mock embarrassed shrugging.

Marie was waiting for me by the MacDonald’s with that dumb face of hers sitting blankly atop a body that she appeared unaware of, although this couldn’t possibly be true. She asked me what had happened, which seemed a completely senseless question but for the time being I was content to indulge her innocence and her stupidity. If everything went according to plan I would soon have my hands on that body of hers, which seemed adequate compensation for such admirable patience.

But things started to go wrong.

Inevitably the hotel was a shit-hole. It was damp and smelled of piss. Whatever colour it had once been had been bleached away by the sun. Nothing like the picture in the brochure. And there were two single beds, which fucked me off no end. Worse still when I poured the pills out of their hiding place they had somehow reacted with the shampoo and more than doubled in size. They had become soggy, clingfilmed pouches of shampooey dust that were no good to anyone. I resolved to let them dry out in the sun for a while and curtail my nefarious plans until later. This turned out to be a bad idea because as soon as we hit the bars Marie was immediately surrounded by panting admirers who were oblivious to my presence. And before I knew what was happening she was sitting on the lap of one of them, a seven foot Devonian cavemen who really was Neanderthal, not in the pejorative sense but an actual, living breathing Neanderthal, complete with bone jutting brow, undersized eyes and oversized hands and feet capable of crushing my puny Public School digits. And then he took Marie home with him and presumably had sex with her, leaving me alone to wank away my frustrations back in that shit-hole of a hotel room. That was Day One – surely things could only get better?

On Day Two we did the beaches. Marie in a bikini, inevitably already bronzed. Me in shorts and a t-shirt that made not even a cursory attempt to hide the rolls of fat beneath. I didn’t mention the events of the previous night to Marie in the hope that they never actually happened. The Plan was back on and I was once more Dick Dastardly. We had lunch and then lay together on the sand listening to a radio. I took off my shirt, sucked in my belly and allowed the hot sunshine access to my flabby white torso as I fell into a dream. When I awoke four hours later that torso was still flabby but now it was pink and radiated its own heat source, moreover I was shivering like it was the middle of winter. I spent that second night alone again, trying to keep warm under the flea-ridden bedsheets in the shitty hotel room as everyone else on the island broiled in the Mediterranean heat. Marie was nowhere to be seen.

The next morning hit me with dehydrated agony, every part of my body blistered, my taut skin ready to crack. Unable even to turn my head. Unable to leave the hotel room for fear of the cruel burning sun. Round about six Marie finally rolled in. She had bite marks on her neck and her eyeliner had run to form black tears. She refused to speak and slumped on to her bed, immediately falling into a deep coma. I lay in the next bed listening to her grind her teeth, my balls aching and the rest of me slow cooking, too sore to sleep.

I lost track of time: Marie disappeared and I spent days and days on my own prowling the island. Staying in the shadows like a vampire, avoiding direct sunlight. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of Marie in the distance with her various companions. As well as the tall Neanderthal one, there was a black one, and a white one, and what looked like twins. One time she saw me looking at her and waved at me happily. Not a trace of concern for my well-being on her beautiful face or any regret for abandoning me. As the days trundled by I got drunker and drunker and stumbled blindly into women, desperate for attention, for companionship. Even the ugly ones swatted me away as you might do an irritating tick. However, one woman spent the afternoon with me, drinking my drinks and telling me tales of woe, of unwanted children, of beatings. She was attractive in a proletarian way and my standards had dipped so down below the bar that I would have happily have clambered on top of her. Finally, she asked to borrow money and I gratefully obliged. She said she would go back to her hotel to retrieve her forgotten purse and pay me back straight away. It would only take five minutes, she said. Then we’d get drunk together. I never saw her again.

Gangs of youths in Gazza t-shirts marched the dusty streets squeezing wobbly plastic glasses of expensive cheap flat beer between their brutish fingers. Their yells made no sense to me as I submerged myself in a bottomless lake of alcohol. I swam in that lake and through a heat haze found myself talking to one of these pink-faced youths. The words refused to emerge but I still managed to say something that this person took exception to. He was smiling like an indulgent father as he smacked me hard in the mouth and I jinked to the floor like a cow in a slaughterhouse, blood squirting from somewhere within the roof of my mouth. ‘Fucking cunt!’ he said, the first time anybody had spoken to me in what seemed like a lifetime.

In blood and pain I somehow made my way back to the room. Marie was there applying the evening’s make-up. She looked at me in confusion. ‘Are you having a nice time?’ she asked, frowning at the blood and covering her love bites with a silk scarf.

And then it was suddenly the last day. If I was ever going to enact The Plan it had to be now. The sun had turned the soggy ecstasy into a fine dry powder and I took a shower and dressed myself in clean clothing. I put on aftershave. I cleaned my teeth. My flesh was peeling like a snake shedding its skin but I felt clean for the first time since we had arrived in Greece. Marie looked even more beautiful as she sat across me at the dinner table later that evening. For the first time in close to a week we were actually alone and I was able to put my Oxbridge charm into play, pretending not to talk about money and watching the effect it had on her. I fed Marie glass after glass of gin and her words began to slur as I produced the powered ecstasy and slipped it into her drink. Then I poured the other tab into mine and downed the mixture in one. I grinned.

Marie looked puzzled. Then she looked worried. And then she nervously asked about the powder in her drink. When I told her what it was she didn’t want to know. She had never taken ecstasy, she explained, and nothing I could say or do would make her swallow the contents of her glass. ‘But I’ve just taken it…” I protested in slow motion. I’d just taken the powdered ecstasy and was about to embark on a trip that would last the whole night.

We argued for a while. I tried to make her see sense. But it was a waste of time. And so I did what any sane person in my position would do: I picked up Marie’s glass and drained it too.

Smooth fade:

I find myself standing on a beach. The biggest sun ever seen by the human eye sinks slowly beneath the waves as I’m overcome by a feeling of profound overwhelming absolute love for the world and its entire contents. I wander up to strangers and engage them in the deepest conversations that they will ever be party to. My mind travels at the speed of light. The people around me shrink to the size of pinheads. There is nothing around me but love. Love. Love. Love.

The seconds last minutes. The minutes last hours. Love. Love. Love.

I’m sucked into the midst of a crowd. Every one of them my best friend. Every one of them a stranger and an intimate. We drink and we and we drink and we drink until there is nothing left to drink on the island. But it has no effect on me. I could drink the entire world if I wanted to. I am Jesus. I am God. I am love. Love. Love. Love.

Smooth fade.

There was a loud bang and I woke up on the pavement with a cut on my shin and two pairs of eyes inches from my own. Beside me was a buckled motorbike with its engine smoking, wheels still spinning. The owners of the eyes were shouting at me angrily in Greek. They wore police uniforms. In my MDMA haze I tried to make sense of where I was and what was happening. It is only much later that I realise that I had somehow stolen the bike and been hurtling through the Zante town centre at top speed, lucky not to kill anyone. To kill myself. The shouting continued and quickly escalated. A pair of handcuffs were produced. I was about to be arrested and put in a Greek prison cell.

It was then that a miracle happened.

‘There he is!’ shouted a female voice. ‘He’s always doing this. Give the stupid sod to me and I’ll take him home.’

Four Greek eyes and two English eyes turned in surprise towards the source of the voice. She was in her late twenties, mousey blonde, Essex accent, nothing much to look at.

‘Come on,” she continued. “You two boys can leave him to me… He’s going to get it when I get him home!’

And this was the miracle: I’d never met this person before but she’d been passing by and noticed that I was in trouble. And even more of a miracle: the two Greek policeman put away the handcuffs and did as they were told. As they walked away I picked myself up and thanked my saviour. ‘You all right then, mate?’ she said, moving away from me. ‘See you around…’

And see her around I did. Because lo and behold who isn’t sitting right behind Marie and me on the flight home? And strangely enough, her name is also Marie.

By the end of the flight I was sitting next to the other Marie. And when the plane landed she did indeed take me home, as she had promised the Greek police. And I’ve never left. I even married the girl.

She’s in her late-forties now, mousey blonde, Essex accent, still nothing much to look at. And when dinner is eaten and coffee has been poured we never tire of telling our friends about the the day that we met.

4

God Save Jeremy Corbyn

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Let’s get this straight: I’ve got nothing against Liz. I’ve never met her, I’m never likely to meet her, and I’m really in no position to make personal judgements. Moreover she’s old and wrinkled and has fluffy white hair. And everyone knows that when a person gets to a certain age you’re not really allowed to be nasty to them.

That’s not to say that there are certain things about her that I am not at liberty to comment upon. I don’t like the blue coats, for example – too much like Maggie; and I don’t like the way she waves – although I can understand that it must be quite tiring doing it all day. And I don’t like the voice – although you can’t really blame her for that. And that’s just about it really. Not much of a hate list.

But I do hate everything she stands for. Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate it. Hate to the power of twenty.

I’ve never met her husband and once again I never will. But I’m actually pretty close to hating him. He’s a racist: he makes racist comments. He makes them publicly all over the world. And he seems to be under the impression that we still have an Empire while being totally unaware of the enormous privilege that life has gifted him. He probably smells, too. I don’t like him.

And I don’t much like her sons: The eldest is obviously not the sharpest spoon in the drawer; if you’re to believe the press (yes, alright…) he apparently talks to plants, dreams of eating Tampons and seems to see himself as a self-appointed arbiter of good taste. All harmless good fun. I still don’t like him though. Although not as much as I don’t like his horrible father.

The middle son seems alright as far as he can be. He seems to keep his head down flying women and chatting up helicopters or whatever he does. He survived the recent underage sex accusation, as any celebs must do these days, and he’s not such a baldie as the rest of his brethren. We’ll never be friends but I can’t really slag him off with any great sincerity. In life you’ve got to at least try to be reasonable about things.

Can’t say the same for the youngest son, however. I actually did meet him once and he really did come across as a prime pillock. A prime little pillock flanked by embarrassed looking bodyguards. He’s tried this. And he tried that. And he’s failed at this. And he’s failed at. But then haven’t we all? Still, in fairness it can’t be easy being under the spotlight trying to make your way in the world.

The daughter: well again she’s another who seems to mostly keep her head down these days. She was bigger news in the 1970s, of course, when she won a gold medal for sitting on a horse while telling reporters to ‘naff off’. You’ve got to feel a little sorry for her: she looks even more like Queen Victoria than Queen Victoria did.

That’s the immediate family dealt with. The ones in line so to speak. The rest I steer clear of. If I see an article about them in a newspaper or magazine I generally turn the page over. If they’re on the telly I tend to look away and do something else. I have difficulty naming most of them. I know that there’s a Will and a Harry, although I couldn’t tell you who’s who. I sort of like the ginger one because he seems like someone it would be good to have a beer with. And one of them’s married to someone called Kate, who’s just dropped yet another royal sprog, a future royal baldie with genetic pattern baldness.

But why should I know who they are? Why should anyone know who they are? And why are they still here?

I can’t answer any of those questions because the very existence of a Royal Family in this day and age bemuses me.

That’s not to say that I don’t know how they got here. That’s easy. They got here by killing anybody who happened to disagree with them or had something that they wanted over a period of thousands of years. And they consolidated their power by amassing a ginormous army of bullies and simply marching into other countries and helping themselves to whatever they wanted in order to aggrandise their ‘dynasty’. And when their army of bullies got too big to afford to pay their wages they taxed their ‘subjects’ to death and duly dismantled the catholic church (not a bad thing as it happens) and appropriated all the treasures that the catholic church itself had stolen from thousands of unfortunates.

So I think we’re agreed that the Royal Family got to be the Royal Family because they were better at raping, pillaging and stealing than anybody else. They were the biggest bullies in the playground. That’s not me saying this. It’s a historical fact.

Let’s also agree that whatever power they had has gone. They’re not allowed to kill people anymore and would probably get a very firm rap on the knuckles should any of the dysfunctional bunch ever do so.

And that’s why I don’t want to be rewarded by these people. I don’t want an OBE or a CBE or an MP3 or whatever they call these phoney baloney awards. I don’t want a knighthood, a dayhood or any kind of hood. Moreover, I’ve never done anything of enough note to warrant one. I’ve never kiddy fiddled or made millions singing songs or worked in banks ripping people off and drawing massive bonuses; I’ve never told jokes (I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried), I’ve never pretended to be somebody else on stage, I’ve never killed anyone, I’ve never kicked or hit or swallowed a ball for money. I’ve never done anything and more than likely never will. I will never do enough to catch the attention of this murderous family so that they might pin a little bit of shiny metal to my lapel. I don’t have a lapel.

And that’s why I don’t sing their tune. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as patriotic as the next man. On those rare occasions that England score a goal in the World Cup finals I’ve been known to frighten my daughter to death with my drunken shouting. I get all tense when Andy Murray loses. I even paid a fortune to go and cheer some anonymous canoeist go for a dip in a lake during the Olympic Games. But I won’t sing their song.

I don’t believe in God and I most definitely don’t want him/her/it to save our Queen. Because she has no more right to continue breathing indefinitely than anybody else does. So if you want me to sing for my country you’d better change the song (I always thought Bohemian Rhapsody would be a good choice) because I’m not raising my voice in deference to this murderous clan. And nor should anybody else.

Yes, the queen is now old enough to have achieved the ‘bless her’ suffix but that’s as much as she’ll get from me. And from anyone with half a brain. And if she really wants her own personal tribute concert she should go and do what everybody else does to earn one: i.e. get locked away in prison for 27 years or get hungry. Very, very hungry.

And this is why I tip my non-existent hat to Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t want a political leader who wants God to save the queen. The idea is frankly preposterous. I want a political leader with the good sense not to waste time singing pointless inane songs about pointless inane tyrant offspring. So God save Jeremy Corbyn.

4

This is the world we live in

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This is the world we live in:
Where people live and people die,
Where people fuck and people cry,
Where people walk and drive and fly,
And don’t know where or when or why,
This is the world we live in.

This is the world we’re lost in:
Where God is love and God is hate,
Depending on which town or state,
Or street where you originate,
For that is where they seal your fate,
And point you down the road you take,
This is the world we’re lost in.

This is the place we hope in:
Where bombs explode and all the while,
You go to work and try to smile,
And wonder why they want you dead,
Perhaps it’s something that you said?
More likely those who use your name,
To do their deeds and play their game,
Whichever case, it ends the same,
It’s you who is the one to blame,
This is place we hope in.

This is the place we love in:
Where people starve to death in pain,
And children die before they’re named,
For want of but a fist of rice,
That rains down on the bride,
So nice…
…to see that they are having fun,
Lives just beginning, others’ done,
This is the place we love in.

This is the land we dream in:
Where those who have are given more,
And those without are shown the door,
Where rich stay rich, and poor stay poor,
And live their lives below the law,
And kill and rob and maim and whore,
To raise themselves above the floor,
And crane their necks towards the sky,
But never know the reason why,
This is the world we dream in.

This is the land of freedom:
Where actions cost but talk is cheap,
About a megabyte a week,
Is all you need to squawk and Tweet,
And with that you can wipe your feet,
Of all the prayers you should be praying,
The info you should be relaying,
The demons that you should be slaying,
(Only saying…)
This is the land of freedom.

This is the world we live in:
A land of plenty for the few,
The rest of us must just make do,
And try our best to make it through,
This is the world we live in.

4

The wedding picture

Wedding image

This image was sent to me out of the blue the other day by my mother via Facebook Messenger. It seemed somehow incongruous that a snapshot from a bygone age would arrive in such a thoroughly modern manner. Still. I suppose that we’ve all got pictures like this in dusty biscuit tins somewhere at the bottom of cupboards. But given the events of the last few years this one struck a deep resounding chord with me.
I’m the little chap at the front, by the way, the young fellow in white with the somewhat less than masculine stance. Although in my defence one is never really going to look macho wearing white shorts and a bowtie. I guess I must have been three or four at the time and if I really strain I do actually have some sort of dim recollection of that day, well of those shorts anyway. Standing next to me is my elder sister. We both look so innocent, as should be the way with the very young; she not knowing that she would run away from home at the age of sixteen and be mother to two of her own girls within three years; me never guessing that the shock of hair I was casually sporting at the time would also run away from home by the time it reached thirty.
Standing behind me with an inscrutable expression on his face as he watches, presumably, the best man snog his new bride, is my Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack was semi-famous in Burnley, the location for this picture, for apocryphally playing football for Blackpool, for bearing a passing resemblance to Freddie Garrity of Freddie And The Dreamers fame, and for most definitely possessing a black belt in karate, which he ofttimes used to dispatch much larger men after closing time.
Directly behind him is George Wright, my step-grandfather. Despised by my own father but loved by the infantine me, George was a long distance lorry driver, one-time stand-up comedian and former sheet music salesman on Blackpool Pier. George liked to boast that he always carried £100 in cash. (When he died it was discovered that his stash was actually newspaper sandwiched between a couple of tenners.) George also had a strange penchant for having his Brylcreemed hair combed by yours truly. As a child I would spend hours and hours combing and brushing his hair as he sat and watched TV. He a special stainless steel coiffure set that he would bring out for this purpose. George would literally purr with delight as I did so. It wasn’t until years later that it struck me just how bizarre and possibly perverse this seemingly innocent activity might actually have been.
Before George died of cancer in the 1970s, he paid a visit to our house in Bristol. I remember watching him eat chicken, chewing it to a pulp and then spitting the remains on to his plate because he could no longer keep his food down. ‘I’m getting t’goodness out of it,’ he would explain in the same heavy Northern accent that sometimes advised that the best way to play snooker was to ‘hit it where it shines…’.
Directly behind him in the black bow tie is my father. I’m guessing the tie was the one that he wore when he was ‘singing in the clubs’. A fact that he would proudly remind people of ad nauseum. How I loved and hated and loved and hated and loved and hated my father. He was a source of pride and terror to me; something I’ve never really gotten over. He was an autodidact, a working class hero, an abused child, a Labour councillor, a bully, a sloth, semi-alcoholic. A mass of contradictions that even he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand me either, and probably didn’t even try to.
In the picture he looks handsome and content. When he died last year he was apparently in the running to become mayor of Weston-Super-Mare. For a control freak like him this missed opportunity will have been a source of frustration that he carried to his grave. We spoke maybe five or six times in the last thirty years. How I loved and hated him. How I despised him. How I respected him. How I wanted to be him.
Standing right behind the bride is his wife, My mother. She sought to protect me from my bullying father’s all too frequent ‘good hidings’ by smothering me with love. Literally choking me, squeezing the air out of my lungs with love. For this reason it’s difficult to determine if she’s looking at the bride or actually craning her neck to stare over at me and check that I am all right. She looks pretty in the picture, I think. I like the beehive and remember the choking odour of cheap hairspray that used to saturate the house. When I was a kid I used to think that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Prettier than Elizabeth Taylor, sexier than Wilma Flintstone.
Towering over George Wright and my mother is Uncle Ken. He was a former Royal Guardsman and stood something like 6’ 4” in an age when 5’ 11” was considered tall. When he left the guards he worked on the trains; sometimes I would be playing football at the end of my grandmother’s street and see the train go by, him standing filthy-dirty in a heap of coal, shovelling it into the burner. When he wasn’t doing this he was drinking. And when he wasn’t drinking he was beating up Auntie Shirley.
If you look over to the right, that’s Auntie Shirley. She dressed as a bridesmaid and even though the photo is old and grainy you can see those teeth of hers that were always her defining feature. She was a naughty girl, was Auntie Shirley, and always mine and probably everybody else’s favourite. Running away to London at 18. Married to her handsome guardsman soon afterwards. Four kids. Lots of laughs. And lots of bruises. I particularly remember the bruises. The black eyes. The split lips. And I recall with crystal clarity the abject poverty that even we were shocked at when we went to her terraced house when I was a kid.
I also remember her kindness: of how I called around unexpectedly in the late-70s and when I said I liked the record she was playing she took it off the turntable and gave it to me without batting an eyelid. She didn’t have much but what she did have she was happy to give away.
And I remember the last time I saw her: about five or six years ago when I visited Burnley and she was in the latter stages of leukaemia. Of how I crept into her bedroom and held the fragile yellow hand of the jaundiced body that lay motionless on the bed. And of my cowardice later when I avoided seeing her again later because it was simply too hard for me to take. I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to provide her with the comfort that she probably – most definitely – needed.
She’s glowing in the picture, though. Young and cheeky and effervescent and toothy, which is how I’ll always remember her.
To the right of Auntie Shirley is my grandmother. She was a former bus-conductress who fractured her pelvis in a road accident in the 1960s and never worked again. People used to say that she looked like the Queen, and if you hold this picture up against a £20 note you will probably get what they were talking about. She’s even wearing a coat like the Queen’s and holding her handbag in the same manner.
Some said she had Spanish blood in her, others that she was Jewish. Although in truth I can’t even remember where I got that information from, or indeed if I’ve simply made it up. What I do remember, however, is her love for me. And the oasis of safety that she provided for me as a child. I remember her dog, Sheeba; I remember the ornaments on the mantlepiece that used to fascinate me, I remember the bowl of fruit on the window ledge that seemed to be eternally self replenishing.
And her kindness was not only limited to me: when she learned that Uncle Ken’s violence also extended to his children, she took in the eldest, a girl named Lynette, my cousin, and legally adopted her. She brought Lynette up, gave her opportunities that she would surely never have had if she had stayed with Auntie Shirley.
I remember when George Wright died and my grandmother took Lynette and I on a tour of Europe, not wanting to waste the ticket she had previously purchased for her recently deceased husband. And I recall sitting with her in a Dutch bar listening to her explain that the last time she had visited they had played ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones, a song that George loved. Of course, naturally, inevitably, the song stuck up again the very next instant and I was left to comfort my grieving grandmother in the awkward, clumsy way that only a fourteen-year-old boy can.
Eventually Lynette left home to join the army and years later paid a surprise visit to her adopted-mother-cum-actual-grandmother. And this is what killed our grandmother, who was so shocked to see her darling Lynette turn up expectedly that she had a massive heart attack and tragically died instantly.
These are the people whom I know and remember in this photograph but there are others faces that I dimly recognise. Is that Auntie Florrie standing to the left of Shireley? The little old lady who was actually my great-grandmother, the woman whose house was adorned with home-made rag carpets and who kept a commode in her bedroom? Is that Uncle Jordie on the far left? Auntie Florrie’s quietly spoken husband who worked down the pit and painted exquisite toy soldiers as a hobby? I don’t know but I’m sure my mother will tell me. The woman who has just messaged me while I was writing this to tell me what a ‘bonny little lad’ I was.
Not so bonny any more. Not so bonny…

0

The Great Tea Wars (2001) – A Modern Parable

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It would be an over exaggeration to claim that Ian was delighted when Linsey offered him a cup of tea. Delight was really not the word. Nevertheless Ian was at the very least pleased with the offer: he was new to WMP and Linsey was tall and busty. It was far better than being ignored. Even when the beverage in question arrived and it was rather less than steaming and tasted more like rusty puddle water than anything that had allegedly originated in the exotic Chinese sunshine.
Ian was careful to drink the tea with a cheery smile. Whenever Linsey looked happily towards his desk he raised the cup to his lips and gave the thumbs up like Paul McCartney announcing the breakup of Wings. It was his first day in his new job and already he’d made a friend.
However, little over an hour later Linsey’s happy demeanour began to change. Her smile rotated 180º and the crease of a frown was seen to distort her features. It took a while for Ian to comprehend the sudden change. And when he did he could have slapped himself around the head for being so dim. Of course! What an idiot! Linsey wanted him to return the favour! She wanted him to make her a cup of tea! What a delightful place to work this is, thought Ian, everybody friends together; everybody making each other cups of tea. Why there’ll probably be a biscuit run soon.
Linsey introduced Ian to Sally, a small hunched figure, whose attempts at surgically removing 20 years from her age had left her with a face like a burns victim. Wouldn’t it be lovely, said Linsey, if Ian made Sally a cup of tea as well as making one for her? Wouldn’t it be lovely indeed, agreed Ian. Heading to the kitchen to undertake his side of the bargain.
Ian certainly put some effort into it. He really wanted impress his two new friends. He washed the scum off the cups, warmed them, made sure to use the freshest boiling water and was able to deliver quite possibly three of the best cups of tea that had ever been made in this country since Catherine of Braganza forced Charles II to drink some back in the seventeenth century.
And then it was four: soon Maggie was added to the little rota, and Tom. And Lucy. And Malcolm from the picture library. Debra from accounts. The tea rota quickly became a living, breathing entity. It was like Woodstock all over again. Everybody loved one another and delighted in the creation and consumption of sacred tea. It was a branch of Communism that actually worked. Karl Marx would have been proud – and he would have been delighted with the unremitting quality of brew that was served up. But like all self-perpetuating systems there was a flaw in its flue. And in this case the flaw’s name, amongst others, was Jon.
Jon was in middle management and the wrong side of forty. Like a lot of people of that age he had a face that he deserved, which looked like it had had three previous owners. Like everyone else at WMP Jon was impressed by the exotic flavour of Ian’s tea. And he was also happy to join the rapidly growing ranks of the tea rota. What he wasn’t happy too do, however, was actually make the stuff. Why should I? thought Jon. Somebody else can do it.
Within a fortnight the tea rota had begun to swell out of all proportion. It was beginning to reach an unmanageable size.
The unlucky person whose job it was to make tea for everyone now had to patrol the office with a notepad, writing down the particular likes and dislikes of the tea rota’s members.
Some wanted sugar. Some no sugar. Some wanted milk. Some no milk. Some wanted almond milk, some soya. Some wanted decaffeinated tea, some wanted Earl Grey. Some liked their tea hot, others liked it tepid. Sandra from production refused to drink her tea unless it was in the cup with ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps…’ emblazoned on the side. Murray the maintenance man would only drink coffee. It was a logistical nightmare. Something had to give.
Clever, devious people such as the aforementioned Jon from middle management sought to circumvent the tea rota. Whenever it happened to be his turn to make the tea he would arrange it so that he was engaged in a long telephone conversation. ‘Sally, would you mind getting this,’ he would mouth, with his hand cupped over the telephone receiver, ‘I’ll do the next one.’
Of course, there was never a Next One for people like Jon. And he was not the only one displaying a peculiar talent for avoiding tea rota duty. Ian could not help notice that Linsey was always doing something in the Ladies whenever it was her turn. He felt betrayed. It irked him that the person who had been his tea rota co-creator was always in absentia.
Ian began to hate Linsey. It was a gradual thing. Suddenly it did not seem to matter that she was tall and busty. That was purely incidental. The important thing was that the ugly cow never made tea. And as for that wanker Jon in middle management…
The weeks went by and the hatred and resentment swelled like an unlanced boil. The once jovial atmosphere at WMP was replaced by an atmosphere of mistrust and loathing. Woodstock was over and all that was left were empty Coke tins and plastic bottles full of piss. Utopian Communism had been replaced by grim Conservatism in which those who had exploited those who hadn’t. A fuse had been lit. An explosion was imminent.
As always, alcohol was the catalyst for the looming explosion. At the office Christmas party Linsey danced with Jon and neither of them stood their round. Drinks were bought for them with nothing in return. The office separated into two distinct factions. Them that did. And them that didn’t.
After the Christmas break the dids studiously ignored the didn’ts. The didn’ts merely shrugged, as if to say they didn’t care a hoot for what the dids did. Needless to say the dids didn’t make tea for the didn’ts. Civil war was a whisper away.
And then one morning Ian had had enough. Although nobody could have guessed that it was to be the very last time, Ian made one final tea round.

Clutching his notepad he made one last circuit around the office and took down everybody’s last orders:

Linsey, tea, white with no sugar
Sally, tea, black with two sugars
Jon, tea, white at no more than 70º in temperature
Malcolm, tea with lemon
Sandra, Darjeeling, microwaved for precisely 16 seconds and then gently fanned for six minutes
Chris, cream tea with scones made from Yak cream
Trevor, decaffeinated latte with a lactose free chocolate dusting in the shape of a heart with an arrow going through it

And so the list went on. Each person an individual. Every person making their own particular demand. For one last time Ian put the kettle on. He’d been hoping to ask Polly from editorial to do this for him, but she’d gone away somewhere.

Ironically, Jon was the first to notice that something was wrong. He’d already drunk more than half of his cup of tea before he began to cough. At first he thought it was just a tickle but the cough quickly grew worse. And then he felt a painful burning sensation in his throat. As he climbed to the feet in absolute agony, Jon could hear other people coughing. The noise was accompanied by the sound of groaning. One by one the entire second floor of WMP fell to the ground. Within five minutes every staff member was dead.

Everyone, that is, except Ian. Who stood alone, silently impressed that Amazon had been so efficient with his cyanide order. It had only taken a day to arrive and they had posted a card through his door telling him to pick it up from his neighbour when he got home. Ian would certainly use Amazon again.

Naturally the papers couldn’t get enough of it. The story of the  serial killer who wiped out an entire floor of co-workers dominated the headlines for more than a week. At the trial the judge looked at Ian like he was a cross between Ted Bundy and Tony Blair. He was given a life sentence, as well as a lucrative advertising contract with P G Tips.

*****

Life in prison was even grimmer that Ian had imagined. Locked alone inside his cell for 23 hours every day, Ian had plenty of opportunity to reflect on his behaviour. And then, on his seventh day in captivity Ian was finally allowed to interact with another human being. In the exercise yard, a young prisoner approached Ian with a welcoming smile: ‘It’s not so bad here,’ he said. ‘You really do get used to it after a while.’
‘Is that right?’ said Ian grimly.
‘Listen,’ said the other man. ’The name’s Brian – fancy a nice cup of tea?’
’No I fucking do not!’ replied Ian.

20

Hate Thy Neighbour – Racism in the 1970s

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When I was nine years old my parents did something to me that I would never dream of doing to a child. I know this because I was talking to my wife about this over the weekend and we both agreed about the damage that it can cause. What they did was move me away from my school in Burnley, Lancashire, to another school in Bristol, Avon (as the county was called in those days).

No big deal. People move house all the time. But while there was certainly no malice involved on their part, no evil intent, the 200 miles or so of separation had cataclysmic consequences for me. All at once my cosy life in a small but friendly Northern working class town was over. I had lost my place. I was suddenly dislocated. Everything about my life was different in every way. And the relocation gave me my first taste of what it was like to suffer racism, or rather its distant cousin ‘regionalism’.

The journey from North to South marked me as something outside the norm. Sure I looked the same as my new schoolmates: I was and remain whiter than white in complexion, however much I lie on the beach. However, the moment I opened my mouth I was a marked man. My deep northern accent presented a huge contrast to the west country Bristolian dialect sported by practically everyone I came into contact with. It marked me as an outsider. I was different to almost everybody else in school. And my schoolmates inevitably reacted to this difference in a variety of ways.

Some seemed not to notice it and treated me no differently to anybody else. Others saw it as an opportunity to improve their standing in the school at the expense of my own. And a small minority saw it as a chance to bully somebody who wasn’t the same as them. But I was a relatively hardly child; in an even battle I could usually give a good account of myself. Black eyes and bruises became a regular part of my school uniform; and they gained the approval of my father, who saw them as a badge of honour. When I was outgunned I simply used my wiles – pretending to be unconscious on the floor, for example, when a much larger boy once attacked me.

It didn’t help that I went to two other schools in Bristol (thus I was put through the thoroughly harrowing process of relocation three separate times) before eventually settling in a large comprehensive with probably a 3:1 ratio of white school kids to black. It was there that I encountered others who were also outsiders. Because that’s what they were. Black people were outsiders: objects of ridicule, objects of fear and misunderstanding. And subjects of all the sorts of things that I as an outsider had been experiencing. It was small wonder that they tended to keep to their own groups.

This is was in the 1970s. And if you think we’ve got it bad now you’ve only got to take a look at some of the TV programmes that were around at the time and how black people were depicted in them.

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To name but a handful there was ‘The Black And White Minstral Show’, in which white people ‘blacked up’ and sang to white audiences (I remember that one show actually had white people ‘blacked up’ wearing kilts and singing in pigeon Chinese while pinching their eyes to depict Chinese eyes!). There was ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ which celebrated British colonialism by simultaneously attacking anybody who happened not to be born in England (the Scots, Welsh and Irish were also fair game) or was homosexual (woe betide you if you were gay in that era).

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There was ‘The Comedians’, in which an ugly array of working class ‘comedians’ took savage pot shots at black people, at Asian people, at gay people, at fat people, at women; in fact, anybody who wasn’t a working class ‘comedian’.

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Last but not least there was ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, in which a black couple move next door to a white couple and are subjected to untold jibes about cooking pots, tribal dancing and their inherent laziness while routinely being called ‘nig-nog’ and ‘Sambo’ by their smug, beer swilling, pot-bellied neighbour. Even in those days it was utterly amazing that such a program could be shown on mainstream TV. Even more incredible was the fact that some 7 million viewers regularly tuned into to watch this racist, reactionary celluloid disgrace. (In an attempt to redress the balance, the black couple got the chance to call their neighbours ‘white honkies’.)

No small surprise then that is this climate of institutionalised racism trouble was not always far away in the playground. Fights between groups of black and white boys were a regular occurrence. In the home, too, racism was commonplace. Whenever she was looking for someone to blame for anything at all, large or small, my mother had no problem at all pointing the finger at ‘those coons’ as she called them (like many people she would deny it these days). While my father played it another way, boasting about the fact that he drank in the pub with a number of black people and that ‘there’s not a lot of difference really’. Apparently some of his best friends were black.

Yet from all this I somehow managed to emerge relatively liberal. Not politically I hasten to say, but ethically. And I think it was all down to the fact that like many of the racial minorities at my school (West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese) I knew what it was like to be different. Even though my difference was in only in the way that I spoke it was enough to set me apart from the majority. And that’s often enough.

Because isn’t it true that we live in a world of racism? That it’s hard-wired into our very essence? I’m always fond of pointing out that our sense of tribalism is so deeply ingrained that if you walk down the street in North London wearing white on a Saturday afternoon you’re quite likely to get a smack from somebody wearing red. And it was the same in Bristol all those years ago when I was a kid: if you wore blue on a Saturday you were at war with those who wore red.

And this is why my wife and I we are staying put. We could easily put our London flat up for sale and get six or seven bedrooms in Kent in return. But we both understand the potential damage this could cause to our daughter, who is at a crucial stage in her development. Because to this day that move from North to South all those years ago still leaves me an outsider.

4

Reading Johnny Nothing to the kids.

The last time that I did a public reading of any of my work was way back in 1998. It’s so long ago that I’ve forgotten what it’s like. Nerves aside, it’s tremendous fun and really does put you face to face with your readers.

Last Wednesday I undertook a short tour of primary schools in Cambridgeshire. Apart from appalling the odd headmaster I can report that things went swimmingly. It was really enjoyable, so much so that I’m doing it again in London tomorrow. Here’s a brief excerpt: