1

We’re all going to die screaming in agony

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God I’m getting old. I know this because I’ve met people recently who a/ Can’t name any of the Beatles except for Ringo; b/ Have never seen The Jungle Book; and c/ Ruin my wonderfully amusing anecdote about meeting Joe Stummer in The French House by not having a clue who Joe Strummer is. Yes I’m getting old. We all are. And as the days tick by I’m more and more aware of the fate that awaits all but the very lucky ones: WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SCREAMING IN AGONY.

I’ll say it again in italics: We’re all going to die screaming in agony.

‘The human species is the only one which knows it will die, and it knows this through experience…’ Wrote Voltaire in his Dictionaire Philosophique in 1764. This statement, with very few provisos, is a distinctly inarguable truism. But what that eminent brain box failed to point out was the sheer, abject misery that destiny has in store for us. The fact is, death is an unequivocally unpleasant experience. It is full of pain and agony and torture and all of us have it waiting for us. We can’t avoid it any more than we can avoid inhaling oxygen. And yet we know this and still carry blissfully on.

But I lie a little. Because actually there are more pleasant ways to die. Well not pleasant. What can be pleasant about shuffling off your mortal coil? What I mean to say is, less unpleasant. You could, for example, ‘die peacefully’ in your sleep. Or be hit by a bus. Or get blown up in a plane. All of these are events that tend to evoke universal sadness from friends, relatives and tabloid headlines. But it could be said that the only one not to suffer is the person who actually died. One second you’re alive and kicking, thinking about what’s for dinner or about having sex another alive (or dead) person. The next, absolute nothingness. Zilch. The final countdown. Totality. But the complete unexpectedness of death could actually be a godsend. That’s if you believe in God, which, it has to be said, is a fairly important if somewhat moot issue when you’ve just died.

They are the lucky ones. The ones who meet their maker completely out of the blue, without forewarning, sans advance notice, are the ones to be envied. For the rest of us the grim assassin is set to creep upon us in a predictably attritional manner. One moment you’ll have that dull ache, followed by a frisson of blood, followed by a period of denial, followed by a trip to the doctor, followed by those inevitable tests that are surely designed purely to humiliate, followed by that grim diagnosis (we’re all destined to experience that dark conversation with a doctor which begins ‘I’m very sorry, I have some bad news for you…’), followed by a period of fruitless drug consumption that is nearly always going to be a total waste of time, followed by a period spent in your bed, followed by a return to infancy in which your wife or husband or a complete stranger becomes your mother, feeding you and cleaning up the shit, followed by pain, more pain, pain and agony.

If I seem depressed it’s because I am depressed. Any doctor reading this would immediately dole out the Citalopram and hope that I go away and start smiling at people. But I’m not really depressed because if I am I’ve been so since I exited the womb screaming in agony. This, I believe, is what may separate someone like me from a lot of other people. We’re all dying, folks. And some of us are more dying than others.

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4

Waterlow Park – Chapter 04

Another day. Another chapter of the aborted ‘Waterlow Park’. Interestingly, someone seems to be reading this. Had an email from a small indie publisher in America yesterday who wants to see more. Well here’s the more:

 

Chapter 04
“What’s wrong with you?” says the kid called Smitty, whom I don’t even know.

“Nothing,” I reply.

“Well why’d you keep looking around everywhere? What are you scared of?”

“Nothing.”

I don’t know Smitty’s real name. I don’t even know if he has a real name although I suppose he must have. In fact, I don’t know much at all about Smitty. Except that he isn’t a giant like all the other boys at the new school seem to be.

“Well something’s wrong. I can tell something’s wrong.”

It’s been two whole days since I found the bag of money and Smitty’s started following me home. He’s in the same class as me – 7W – and it turns out he lives just around the corner from me. I don’t know how he found this out, and I certainly didn’t invite him to start walking home with me. But here he is – walking home with me for the second day in a row. What an idiot.

“I’m telling you… Nothing’s wrong at all.”

“Well you’ve hardly said a word since we got into the park.”

“I’ve got nothing to say…”

Smitty doesn’t know the reason why I’ve got nothing to say but I obviously do and it’s freaking me out quite a lot. It’s because we’re walking through Waterlow Park and I can see the bushes where I found the bag of money. Standing only a couple of feet away from that spot is a man. A really big man dressed completely in black. And he’s looking right at me.

He wasn’t there yesterday. And he wasn’t there the day before. In fact, nobody was there yesterday or the day before when I walked home from school. Just when I was beginning to think that whoever the money belongs to had forgotten all about it.

I turn away. And then I wait a few moments and try and get a sneaky look at the man. He’s still staring at me. I quickly turn away again.

“Look at the size of that bloke,” says Smitty.

Another sneaky look. He’s still watching me.

“What bloke?” I say.

“That bloke’ says Smitty pointing right at the man.

“Stop it!” I say, grabbing hold of Smitty’s arm and pulling it to his side. “Stop pointing at him – it’s… It’s… Stupid…”

Smitty looks at me with a puzzled expression on his face. From the corner of my eye I can see the man still staring right at me. He also has a puzzled expression. I think.

Without realising it, I increase my walking pace. Smitty, who is really fat and really unfit is soon out of breath and struggling to keep up with me. We get closer and closer to the man. So close that I can see his grey eyes. He’s old and craggy and sunburned like he’s been under the grill for too long. He has grey bristles growing out of his chin. He’s wearing a woollen hat and a black jacket. He looks really weird, although actually to other people he probably looks quite normal. He’s so close that he can hear us talk. Except we’re not talking.

“So anyway,” I say, attempting to remedy the situation, “School’s really boring, isn’t it…”

“Huh?” says Smitty.

I try to wink at Smitty but I’m not getting any better at winking. “I said: school’s really rubbish, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“OMG. I said: school’s rubbish! It’s rubbish, isn’t it?”

“If you say so,” shrugs Smitty, looking at me really oddly.

We walk past the man. He smells of some sort of weird perfume or aftershave. As we pass, his head swivels around to follow us. Quite blatantly. He doesn’t even pretend to be looking at something else. I’m wondering if I even saw him smile a little. A really evil little smile. It had to be.
***
I eventually shake off Smitty and hurry home. I’m covered in sweat, partly because of the walk and partly because of the man. Sofia’s waiting for me. Her school’s closer than mine and she always gets home before I do.

“I just saw someone,” I pant, hardly able to get the words out.

“Congratulations,’ says Sofia. “I saw at least… Let’s see… Probably about a hundred people today.”

“No – idiot! I mean I saw someone in the park.”

“Really? Shall I call the newspapers?”

“What?”

“Shall I call the newspapers and tell them that you saw someone in the park? Do you think it will make the front page?”

As well as using big words and constantly finishing people’s sentences, Sofia can be very sarcastic.

“Somebody standing near the bushes…”

“The bushes?”

“…The bushes where I found the you-know-what.”

Sofia goes white and quiet for a moment as the penny drops. She reduces her voice to a whisper. “You mean the money?” she asks.

“Yes! The money!” I reply. “He was standing right next to where I found the money. And he was watching me.”

I describe the man’s appearance to my sister. And as I do so I remember more detail. “He had sharp pointed shoes. He had a leather leash wrapped around one of his hands.”

“Do you mean a dog lead?”

“I dunno. A leather leash. He kept looking at me and Smitty.”

“Who’s Smitty?”

“I told you yesterday. He’s a stupid fat boy in my class. He wants to be my friend. He keeps walking home with me.”

“Oh… Well maybe you should speak to him.”

“I do speak to him. I keep telling him to go away.”

“No. Not Smitty. The man in the park. If he’s there on Monday speak to him.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Because it might be his you-know-what. It might belong to him. He might give you a reward.”

3

Waterlow Park – Chapter 03


I was wrong: yesterday’s response was even more underwhelming than the day before. All I got were a couple of likes and a typo pointed out to me. Still, out of sheer bloody-mindedness more than anything else, here’s chapter 03 of Waterlow Park.

Ian

PS I’m writing this on a Logitech iPad Pro keyboard, which is very swish but takes some getting used to. Mistakes are likely.

 

Chapter 03

“Money!” yells dad. “The whole world is trying to take your money!”

Dad’s in a shouty mood. He’s just come back from work and he needs to get things out of his system. He’s always in a shouty mood.

“Do you know I got out of the tube and five people asked me for money?” he continues, although everyone in the room is pretending not to hear him. “There was an idiot selling the Big Issue, an idiot playing an accordion, some idiot woman who looked like a zombie smoking a cigarette, an idiot standing at the bus stop and some idiot who tried to sell me a poxy idiot flower. What’s the world coming to?”

In dad’s world everyone’s an idiot except him. People on the telly are all idiots. All pop singers are idiots. All politicians are idiots. Me and Sofia are definitely idiots. Everyone.

“Calm down Tony,’ says mum. ‘Think of your blood pressure.”

Mum’s a nurse. You can tell by the way she’s always talking about health. Dad teaches people how to use computers for a living. He hates his job. He hates the people he teaches. He says they’re all idiots.

“I am calm Janie!” shouts dad. “It’s just that I’m surrounded by…”

“…Idiots?” says Sofia.

“Yes… That’s right, Sofia,” says dad like he’s never heard the word before. ‘IDIOTS who want your money!”

Mum and dad don’t often have a lot of money. This is probably because whenever they do they go out and get rid of it as quickly as they can. Mum spends it clothes for us but dad mostly drinks and smokes it. Don’t get me wrong – we never go hungry. We both have mobiles and proper clothes and trainers and things. Well not proper – not with proper names like the ones that the kids at school wear. But we’re always aware that the we have to be careful. The last week of the month is always a bit of a struggle for everyone.

“How was school today?” Now mum’s talking, she trying to get dad to stop going on about idiots. “Anything interesting happen?”

Sofia and I look at one another, probably guiltily. There is a silence, which forces both mum and dad to stop talking and stare at us suspiciously.

“I got put in the golden book for spelling,” says Sofia, breaking that silence.

“Very clever darling,’ says mum. “And what about you Stephen?”

“I had a nondescript day.”

“Hark at him and his big words,” says dad.
***
After dinner mum and dad have a row. Sofia and I are not sure what starts it because any little thing is enough to get dad and mum arguing. We go upstairs and put our fingers in our ears as mum screams at dad and dad shouts at mum. Their voices are loud but muffled enough to hide what they are yelling about. We hear the sound of breaking glass and Sofia starts to shake so I get her to clean her teeth and put her to bed. Then I get into my pyjamas and go to bed myself. I hide under the sheets and read an Avengers comic by torchlight. Later, mum comes into the room and kisses me on the forehead and I pretend to be asleep. She’s been crying. She’s always crying.

2

Come to Archway With Words

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On Friday 16 October I’m going to be reading excerpts from my kids book ‘Johnny Nothing’ to a press-ganged group of children as part of the annual Archway With Words Festival. Do come along if you want to be deafened by a horde of screaming ten and eleven-year-olds.

It’s also worth mentioning that there are still tickets available for most of the other acts and personalities appearing.

ArchWay With Words Part Three – a 9 day odyssey of fiction, science, comedy, history, poetry, puppets and singing!

ArchWay With Words 2015 has an illustrious line up of ‘superstar authors and spellbinding speakers’. There’s headliners galore with National Treasures Joan Bakewell and Phill Jupitus, Booker winner Ben Okri and the hugely popular and cool historical novelists Jake Arnott and Tracy Chevalier.

Esther Freud, Joanna Briscoe and Matt Baylis lead the literati and there’s another terrific showing for science featuring Simon Singh returning with his original Enigma Machine, Professor Peck of the Antarctic Survey talking about polar biology and the Professor and stand-up comic Sophie Scott on the ‘Science of Laughter’.

As usual AWWW will be showcasing the prodigious local talent with writers Penny Hancock, Callum Jacobs, Heather Reyes and Caitlin Davies all speaking on the first day, but the programming net is thrown very far this year with the finale headed by New York performance artist and recent Fringe First winner Penny Arcade, in a session with punk pioneer Viv Albertine.

This year’s Spoken Word offer features the hottest London talent and is spectacularly headlined with a rare performance from Linton Kwesi Johnson. Biography is well represented too with talks on Alexander McQueen and John Peel, and special interest subjects are clue-cracking with a Times cryptic crossword setter, recordings from the urban hubbub with the London Sound Survey, ‘Hot Feminism’ and experts on the history of protest in the Capital, and London’s best swimming spots including the Thames.

We hear from playwrights Tanika Gupta and Diane Samuels, with the latter undertaking a huge creative writing project that will culminate on the 2nd weekend at Archway Market, on a day of fun with storytelling from Spud & Yam, a performance from a sitar maestro and three booksellers on hand to assist with your reading needs. With 35 events in all, this is another spectacular feast for your mind from AWWW.

AWWW2015 takes place from October 10th – 18th in Archway Methodist Church, Hargrave Hall, the new ‘Bomb Factory’, the nightclub above the Tavern and the Library. Tickets are available at archwaywithwords.com and this year Archway Library will be the very conveniently located box office. Brochures can be found in shops, restaurants and venues.

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

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…