I’ve been going to job interviews lately, for the obvious reason that I need a job. Stupidly, I went to one interview in the market research world. Or maybe not so stupidly, because it reminded me exactly why I left it.
“We’re looking for a BRIC speaker.”
Really. So ok, you want someone who can speak Brazilian – wait, isn’t that Portuguese? – and Russian. And Indian and Chinese. But Indian, I mean. Urdu? Or Punjabi? Or all of these? Do you know? Or is this just my attitude problem thing again?
So the job spec then. Someone who can go and do groups. Oh and visually interpret them. Let me see. You mean go and do group discussions but through a translator, unless you’re doing them in Portuguese, Russian, Urdu and Mandarin simultaneously, who can also judge the body language of all of those different cultures at the same time.
This is why most groups are crap, isn’t it? Because you’re asking them to be something they can’t be, but you won’t say that, so you’ll pretend that’s exactly what they are. Except the only difference will be you’re going to get me to fly half-way round the world to sit in someone’s living room while their dog is locked in the kitchen so we can talk about different colours of packaging for biscuits. Ethically, obviously, but not including the ethics of flying around the planet to help sell sugary rubbish to the developing world.
Oh, and do the PR. Because that’s really easy, isn’t it? Or do you mean schmoozing the client in four languages at the same time, like Roy Castle playing a drum, banjo, cymbals and a whistle on Record Breakers? Is that what you really want?
And collaborate through the organisation rather than ‘lording it’ to use their phrase, in a small company. I badly let myself down there. I didn’t tell them to fuck off and walk out.
But they will book the tickets and a hotel.
Business culture – what’s yours?
They actually said that. If I’d been on the Two Ronnies circa 1977 I could have said thank-you, a large scotch and he could have adjusted his designer glasses while the audience screamed with laughter, but I’m not. I waited for the next question.
Semiotics. What does that mean to you?
Because I was trying to be a grown-up I didn’t smack my knee and point at him and say Haaaaa!!!! Good one!!
I should have. Like, what’s your sign, baby?
And shepherd the client. And do a few groups, ‘right up to a whole cultural immersion.’ So I can expect a sauna with Abba playing in the background. And Desiree Cousteau dropping her towel, presumably. Come on, there have to be some benefits for putting up with this stuff.
Still, there was a very nice coffee shop next door, just how I’d wanted mine to be when I opened that in a small Suffolk village. And sadly at 2:30 on a weekday it was just as empty.
Me nursing a coffee and a pecan tart, both excellent. Two builders from next door who wanted a warm and to use the loo. The owner was paying £750 a month to share a place in Kings Cross, just far enough to make it too far to walk and a really big hill if you decided to cycle.
The past is another country. It’s not just that they do things differently but you can’t go back because it’s not actually there now. I needed to remember what a tedious pile of self-deluded pretentious bullshit classic UK consumer qualitative research can be. In that, it wasn’t a wasted day at all. I thought I could do with the money, but I was wrong. I have not got time to listen to this kind of nonsense any more.
The only thing I learned about Trotsky was a mistake. I hardly learned anything in three years of Sociology at university, other than the fact that you can’t run a car and a Triumph 650 on a student grant and that if you move in with your girlfriend next door to an occasional girlfriend your life will be a lot louder and considerably less fun than the Austin Powers script you had imagined. I don’t know if Trotsky had that kind of stuff to deal with but he had his own problems.
Like living in Mexico. I went there once. The story of that Sunday and the unfortunate misunderstanding in Tijuana is familiar to a select few very close friends and not usually told to people I’ve only just met, in case they wash their hands after shaking mine and their womenfolk’s faces turn to stone as you close for the parting peck on the cheek. More than usual, anyway.
In some ways I wished I’d paid more attention now. After leading a failed struggle (it says in Wikipedia, which has certainly been more useful than nine terms at Bath) the against kindly Uncle Joe Stalin, whose propaganda machine was still creaking on even when I was an undergraduate, Leon Trotsky did some groovy stuff. He got himself deported from the USSR in 1929, for a start. He lead a thing called the Fourth International in Mexico, opposing Stalin and bureaucracy. He thought the Red Army should fight Hitler when Stalin didn’t think anything of the kind and opposed Stalin and Hitler’s Non-Aggression pact, all of which British Soviet fans had airbrushed out of history when I was at school.
Predictably enough, all this didn’t go down too well with Stalin, who ordered Trotsky’s assassination in 1940. With an ice-pick. This was the only bit I knew then. Because it was so ludicrous. I’ve read James Bond. I understand that sometimes when you want to murder someone the ideal tool for the job isn’t available. But I’d have thought that the chances of finding an ice pick in Mexico were fairly slim, especially compared with the rather high chance of someone saying “where on earth are you going with that ice pick, Ramon?”
And of course, it wasn’t like that. Trotsky really did get an ice-pick stuck in his head, but it was the kind you get in swanky hotels to break up the ice in the bucket behind the bar, not something you find near St Bernard dogs and chalet girls.
Last week I talked with someone who’d been shocked about someone else’s behaviour a quarter of a century ago and still regarded the other woman with awe if not admiration. Except I was able to tell her that actually, while all that may have happened it certainly didn’t to that person because I knew for a fact she was in another country at the time. She’d misunderstood something someone had said. A quarter of a century on she still believed it. I was sort of pleased to find it wasn’t just me.
It was raining pretty much all day from the time we got to the little town to the time we got back to my house, through three cups of tea and cheese buying and wandering around charity shops and marvelling that the Edinburgh Woolen Mill, a place which isn’t in Edinburgh and mostly seems to sell 100% acrylic jumpers is still open.
My friend decided against going in. As she said, “I’ve got another thirty years before I do that.” I didn’t tell her I’d been in earlier to see if there was anything to waste money on. Best not, given the difference in our ages.
I bought some Pecos from Spain and some Ossau-Iraty, then we wandered to another little shop where second-hand, or once-read books were 50p each. I bought a couple, Wildlife in America, the 1959 Beatnik proto-environmentalist set text, and The Day of The Jack Russel, because I could do with something silly and funny with a knowingly ironic title, because a) it’s pouring outside and b) that’s what I’m like. As we were leaving, after my friend found she couldn’t buy the chairs she wanted without the table she didn’t and after she’d bought an oil lamp which then needed us to tour the hardware shops to find lamp oil (found it) and a lamp chimney we had to go to a chandlery in Southwold for, ten miles away, where they ordered it, the old man behind the counter said the magic words:
“If you like books, there’s more upstairs, round the corner.”
The Bitter Road To Freedom
And there were. Thousands of them. Piled in old bookcases, stacked in cardboard boxes, most of them paperbacks and none over £1. Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley joined Collins Easy Learning German Dictionary joined Liberation: The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1944-45 . Those five cost £3.50. Half what I paid for MacDonogh’s After The Reich on Amazon yesterday, and a million times more fun buying them, truffling around a forgotten room in a backwater town with a good friend in the rain.
I’d been in a bad mood that morning, wondering if any of these job interviews would come to anything, wondering if I should bother going to one in London when I’d either have to commute five hours a day or rent some crappy flat in one of the most expensive (but still crappy) parts of London, neither of which options sounded great. I got her to stop at a farm shop so I could get some bread and when I came back to the car gave her the little primrose I’d seen in a plastic pot, to say I was sorry for being such a pain earlier. She said “that’s alright,” and put the pot in the cupholder on the dashboard. “It fits very well, doesn’t it?”
Both of us have wondered where our lives are going over the past year. Today I realised how truly lucky we are. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. Nobody at all, no matter what they’re paid or what they know or however much they’ve trained, however much they need to know exactly what’s going to happen. For all they know, some people are going to wake up dead. And today, for all that we didn’t save the world or cure cancer or do anything anyone else might think of as useful, we were alive and free to walk around a bookshop with the rain pouring down outside.
So many people aren’t. So many people never will be. The title of this self-indulgence comes from an old Arab poem by Omar Kyyaham, a man who didn’t love an electric shaver so much he bought the company. It probably was, anyway. I don’t speak any brand of Arabic so I have to rely on Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, although lots of his stuff sounds suspicioulsy like Fleetwood Mac:
Yon rising Moon that looks for us again- How oft hereafter will she wax and wane; How oft hereafter rising look for us Through this same Garden – and for one in vain.
We drove back to my house and totally failed to get the desk I’d bought through the tiny door of my cottage. She said it was a pity.
“But you know, it would all be much nicer if you tidied up a bit. Threw some stuff away. Sorry. Maybe it’s not for me to say. If you want, I’ll help you on Sunday. I can’t do it on Saturday. I’ve got the Shoot Dinner to do. But I can do it Sunday morning.”
It’s how we live, here. Now. Sometimes it seems almost blessed.
Too much to drink usually isn’t a good thing for anybody. But once, and I mean once, it saved my life and the life of the person I was with.
We’d gone on holiday to Tenerife. We hadn’t known each other long and things were a bit fractious at times. So we went to lunch. It was a long lunch because to be honest, in the part of Tenerife we were in, there wasn’t much else to do.
But we found an OK restaurant, right next to the sea with a table that had a great view of the water and the harbour mouth and people swimming and the food was good and the wine was cheap and things started to get ok, even though the sky was clouding over a bit outside.
Then odd stuff started happening. I’ve been in earthquakes a couple of times in my life and I don’t like them. This was different. A Coastguard launch came out of the harbour with a megaphone blaring and a guy on each side of the boat with a long boathook. They took the boat right up to the few people swimming. I don’t speak Portuguese or Spanish or whatever it is they speak on Tenerife but I didn’t need to. “Get out of the water now or I’ll get you out of it” didn’t need a lot of translation.
That was when we saw that where the water had just been green it was now grey, except where, just near where the Coastguard boat was, a yellow streak about as wide as a road had appeared, right up to the water’s edge. About the same time the staff started looking nervous. It started to rain hard too.
The restaurant was closing but they said we could stay if we liked, so we did and we bought another bottle of wine, which was about the third probably. I’m not recommending this, but as I said, it did save our lives. We thought it was an odd time for the staff to start moving furniture upstairs, but it was their restaurant and what they did was up to them. We were starting to get on better.
Eventually the rain stopped, and so did the furniture moving. It had got all a bit Latin, a lot of banging around up there but again, not our problem.
The Coastguard boat had gone after scouring the rest of the harbour looking for people swimming, but there weren’t any more of them as we left the restaurant. Before we left we said something about how they could get on with moving furniture again, but the person we talked to didn’t seem to know what we meant. Which was when we saw the road. Someone had been throwing rocks around. There were walls down and bricks on the road. And police tape strung across parts of the pavement saying Do Not Cross and big chunks of rock in the road as well as some earthslides spreading down the the hill which one of these days is going to come right off, fall into the sea and tsunami New York, just like in the films.
Nobody was moving furniture upstairs in the restaurant, for the reason that there wasn’t an upstairs. What we’d heard was rocks being shaken off the hill and hitting the roof. None of them came through, but some of the debris we walked past on the way back to our hotel had smashed down parts of buildings. It was like a war zone, literally, as we picked our way through the rubble.
If we’d been walking along this street, the quickest way back to our hotel just half an hour earlier we’d both have stood a very good chance of being dead by now. As it was, we’d sat drinking wine and getting to know each other a little more, while the earth had split under the water of the harbour and tons of rock and earth had smashed their way down the hill.
Drinking kills people. It ruins others’ lives. I’ve seen it change people into something I didn’t even recognise. But just that once it definitely saved my life.
Back in you don’t really need the date, I bought my first flat in a place called Finsbury Park Road. It was one of those bits of London that was supposed to be up and coming. It had been ever since John Betjeman’s Cockney Amorist belaboured himself about a lost love in the Park.
I will not go to Finsbury Park The putting course to see Nor cross the crowded High Road To Williamsons’ to tea, For these and all the other things
Were part of you and me.
In Finsbury Park’s case the up and coming-ness meant that all the brilliant little shops like the place that sold hundreds of different kinds of tea, the two Chinese tool shops, the two butchers, the vegetable shops and West Indian restaurant, the kebab shop, the Arsenal Tavern which definitely wasn’t brilliant, the French cafe you went to on pay-day, the greasy spoon opposite where the French cafe owner not only ate but where his accent became a lot more Birmingham than Toulouse, the picture framing shop that had to be sold, the place that sold massively expensive fireplaces rumoured to have come out of the Iranian Embassy, all of those places except the Arsenal Tavern went.
The butchers used to drive in from miles out in Essex. So did the veg shop guys who learned to speak island Greek, because that’s what their customers spoke. The picture framing shop had to be sold because of a Friday night. The owner got a bit gobby in the pub and said something he shouldn’t have to someone who said ‘say that again, that’s libel, that is.’ The framer did and it was and had to find £30,000 out of nowhere, or out of his shop. As he was.
The French restaurant, A Point Between Nowhere, closed I suspect when the owner died. He looked like a thinner version of Rene in ‘Allo ‘Allo, but totally without the charm. He combined what he clearly thought was Parisien hauteur with a patronising manner bordering on aggression, which is probably where I learned it from. If you had a ten year-old Jaguar and one of those orange wives with capped teeth and a crennalated cleavage you couldn’t get him off your table all night. His prices were ludicrous but the food was pretty much the best around for miles, or certainly around there, then.
What we also had which went away for a bit then came back, was prostitution. My boss at work had lived in the same street ten years before and told me how the only way not to get hassled walking down the street to buy a pint of milk was to carry an old fashioned shopping bag on your arm; apparently it was code for ‘I’m not working.’
In the absence of a shopping bag the message was seen to be ‘stop me and buy one,’ long before anyone had even invented semiotic deconstruction. That was the way it was. And it was a pain.
I got back to my flat one night very late and probably I shouldn’t have done. I dropped my car keys and realised I hadn’t turned the headlights off and got in the car through the passenger door and crawled over the seat to switch them off, got out, dropped the car keys again. As I walked up to my front door a point police helmet popped up behind my dustbins. I asked the policeman what he was doing in my garden.
‘We’re looking for prostitutes.’
I told him I didn’t think he’d find any behind my dustbins.
‘Ah no. We’re hiding from them.’
In the circumstances I thought it best to leave him to it and bade him a good evening, which behind my dustbins I thought was unlikely.
Someone left the front door of the house open one day, so several of us were treated to some stranger on the stairs asking for Tanya or Suzy or whatever other bullshit name he’d been given the last time he’d visited the house, before it got converted into flats.
When I turned the sound down on the TV one night I heard a voice from the front garden asking ‘do you want to do a tenner for some gear?’ which I presumed wasn’t the policeman back behind the bins again.
I looked through the shutters and found three women sitting on my garden wall. One of them was heating something in a spoon that she held a cheap lighter under. I called 999 and told them about the drug taking on my garden wall.
The police asked me how I knew it was drugs. I said that when people burned things in spoons and said things like ‘do you want to do a tenner for some gear’ I generally thought all the references so far were for heroin. The policeman said I sounded as if I knew a lot about drugs and asked for my address. I told him if they were going to send the plainclothes car not to bother sending the Vauxhall with two radio aerials because everyone knew it was a police car and we left it there.
You Really Wouldn’t
They didn’t want to do anything about the real crime. The same way they didn’t want to do anything about prostitution except hassle the girls who without exception looked as if they’d have to give you money and quite a lot of it, rather than the other way around. Obviously, people’s tastes differ, but they were all fat. The poor girl who waited at the bus stop and never got on the bus for four hours in February wore a mini skirt and no tights. If you weren’t into purple thighs you were out of luck.
In Sweden the government has done a sensible thing. Instead of hassling the girls they hassle the buyers, by making the purchase rather than the invitation to the purchase the illegal thing. Back in Funsbury Park we did much the same thing but without the legal backing.
Because we were fed-up with not being able to get parked on a Friday night, because we were fed-up with smackheads shooting up on our garden walls, because we were fed-up with women getting into the passenger seat when we’d just stopped in the road to reverse park into a space, because we were fed-up with having to get people out of our gardens when we came home, we came up with A Plan.
We didn’t have mobile phones. Or the internet. But we did have flash on our cameras, whether or not we had film in them, so we set that off when we walked down the street, pointing our cameras at cars that had stopped in the road for no traffic-related reason. It really worked. A couple of free flashes of a kind the Friday night motorists hadn’t been expecting and all the cars left in a hurry. We got a bit of what used to be called verbal from some of the girls about how they hadn’t done anything wrong. But neither had we, so we couldn’t see what the problem was.
Actually, we could. I don’t think any of us had any moral issue with the girls selling what they could if anyone was desperate enough to buy it. But we were totally fed-up with that happening in our street, in our own gardens. I didn’t want to have to get junkies off my garden wall. I didn’t want to have to deal with syringes in my front garden. And women who lived there were fed-up of it being assumed they were prostitutes simply because they didn’t have a Y chromosome or up for it if they didn’t own a shopping basket.
So we stopped it. A few years later the Director of Public Prosecutions was arrested for kerb crawling. Unsurprisingly, he never went to court, because in England once you’ve got to a certain position in society you almost never, ever, ever go to court whatever it is you’ve done. His wife said she would stand by him. She left him and killed herself a few months later. She came from Gothenburg. I’ve been there. Good cheese and a 1950s feel to the place, but bone-snappingly cold in February. Today if we’d got our cameras out and inconvenienced the DPP we’d probably have been branded ‘terrorists’ and been arrested ourselves.
But the past really is another country. It depends whose version of the rest of the quote you want, Christopher Marlowe’s (himself a man not unfamiliar with dodgy pubs in the wrong bit of London) or JR Hartley’s. The wench may well be dead, sadly. But they definitely do things differently there.
I don’t know why agricultural stuff like green wellies and shooting and Land-Rovers got so popular in the 1980s with people who wanted to be thought of if not as ‘posh’ then certainly as Sloanes.
Both things were invented. Or rather the labels were invented. Posh was supposed to stand for (maybe) Port Out, Starboard Home, describing which side of the ship one’s cabin had been booked for the passage to India, before you stood with everyone else taking their belts and shoes off, not at a swingers party or a mosque but in the Departures security queue at Heathrow. Except some people say it didn’t mean that at all.
Sloanes were obviously a more recent invention. Peter York made them up, or at least the label, when he helped to write the Official Sloane Ranger Handbook back in the dawn of Thatcherism, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Or if not the earth, then at least the Cromwell Road and Sloane Square and when in my own memory, someone on a very ordinary income could still just about afford a house, no, a proper house, not a flat, in Fulham, if you didn’t mind being down the wrong end. Assuming there even is one anymore. Which was the funny thing. There weren’t real dinosaurs, obviously. Just people whose behaviour hadn’t changed much since 1910. The boys got jobs in the Army or a bank or publishing, quite often straight from school and did well, because people did in those jobs when they didn’t really need to work. The girls – well, that was another story. Everyone had a Sloane girl story.
Even at the BBC, when they started getting jobs instead of, or usually before marrying a merchant banker, the keen, enthusiastic Fionas and Vickys (never Kellys, or Tanya, although there was a Tansy I remember, notwithstanding that James Bond’s wife was called Tracy) were dubbed VodaSloanes back in the day. They were the only people who somehow, nobody quite knew how, had mobile phones back when only Bodie and Doyle could call the office without going to a phone box.
And like me, they liked all that stuff. Some of them even liked me, a bit. I’m looking for a car and like them, like then, like now, whatever the specification, whatever I actually need it to do, I always think ‘hmm, what about a LandRover?’
Not a Disco. Not a RangeRover. A proper one. A real Landie. A Defender. Even the Financial Times is talking about them. Although they’ve been making them since 1948 with not many changes, although Americans don’t like them, although it’s unclear how that’s a bad thing in itself, LandRover, or at least the Indian Tata corporation, has decided to stop making them.
The FT claims the lack of a crumple zone and the thin, bendy aluminium bodywork makes them unsafe. I know for a fact it isn’t, because a ladder chassis saved my life.
Like the rest of a LandRover, a ladder chassis is an old-fashioned thing. Think of two big bits of metal, like a railway line, running the length of the car. The rungs are the axles and the bumpers. Everything else is bolted onto that. It doesn’t crumple. That’s the whole point. In a front or rear collision, all the weight is transferred along the ladder. If you’re on the other end of it, that’s a problem. I suspect that’s the ‘safety issue.’
I hit a Ford Mondeo just in front of the driver’s door on a streaming wet lane and opened a hole down the length of the car. I had a small scratch on my bumper. That was a bit embarrassing.
A year later I hit a lorry coming the other way, just managing not to hit it head on and impacting just behind the cab. A policeman saw it happen and ran over, opening my door white-faced expecting to find blood and body parts. I was fine. Ladder chassis, officer.
The fact that the atrocious handling of the thing caused both accidents isn’t the point. And now they aren’t going to make them anymore, the only question that matters is the one I’m asking myself a lot these days.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
Or Tony Blair, with his pretendy WMDs, or Donald Rumsfeld with his oh-so-funny knockabout sketch that slayed them in the Beltway. (and yes, I have actually been there, thanks. Worked there for a short time too. Sorry. You were saying.)
This is what Donald Rumsfeld said. In case you don’t know or forgot, he was US Secretary of State for Defence. For Defence, obviously you need to remember the US Navy’s brief ten years back and presumably still the same now to pursue a strategy of littoral warfare. Littoral means ‘on the shores of.’ Given we’re talking about the sea, that means the US Navy might want a fight anywhere in the world. This is the problem when people start saying words mean anything they want them to mean. They don’t. They have very specific meanings. And the people who forget that tend to end up disadvantaged or dead.
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
Are you laughing yet?
After those words something like half a million Iraqi civilians died. I have to say “something like” because as responsible bringers of McFreedom and democracy, neither we nor the Americans nor frankly anybody else knows. Dead Iraqis? They literally didn’t count.
Didn’t matter. The old white guys had said 911=Iraq=Al Q’uaeda and almost every mainstream media outlet lapped it up.
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Not every time people try to pretend words mean anything you want them to mean hundreds of thousands of people get killed. But when they do, it matters. Even if it’s only one person.
I was talking to a young bride once. Not for long, admittedly. She’d had two children, both with her husband, just one with him before they got married and the other after. I asked her why she got married. If I’d slapped her she would have looked more friendly.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s just a word.”
Maybe, with hindsight, I shouldn’t have asked her why she did it then, but as I had I thought I might as well also ask her if she’d written a proper will. She hadn’t. Which if she and her husband die, say in a car crash, could definitely prove it’s not just a word at all. And that words matter.
My cousin died when he went through a car windscreen aged one and a half. People do. Car crashes can happen to anyone. And it matters like this. If you die without a will the state decides who gets your stuff. Your house, for example. If you don’t have any dependents then the state might decide it’s having everything. If you do, the state will decide who gets what. The son born after the marriage might well get the lot. If he doesn’t get on with the son born before the marriage, the older boy could find he has some inheritance issues. Like not getting any.
Saying ‘it’s only a word’ is total bullshit. It isn’t.
So I was more than a bit annoyed, not for the first time, with Mary Portas. Mary made her career making sure big stores made every High Street look exactly the same, so when it got fashionable to wonder why she was David Cameron’s obvious choice to write a report about how that could un-happen. Six towns were chosen to become Portas towns and each one got a whole £100,000, or a couple of car park spaces and some new signs to make 1970-2010 go away.
Accompanied, obviously, by lots of photo ops for Dave and Mary and a battle bus on TV and much marching down High Streets with a megaphone and a camera to the overdubbed tune: Here Come The Girls, which for a while was a legal requirement for any TV programme or it certainly seemed to be.
I know. It’s a different song. I just couldn’t bear it. Any more than Mary Portas has born a son. Obviously that hasn’t stopped her gurning all over the front pages and another TV series can’t be far away.
Apparently she got her brother’s sperm and had it stuck in her civil partner. She now pretends to be able to see herself and her partner in the boy she calls her son. Which obviously, he isn’t, According to Mary, this is the biggest blow for gay rights ever in the world, which might be news to anyone who remembers Mary Tudor axing the 1533 Buggery Act or Nero marrying Pythagoras and Sporus in 54AD. Which my Maths teacher signally failed to do and probably yours did as well.
If Mary Portas wants to call the boy whose father is her brother and whose mother is her civil partner her son, good luck. Just don’t die Mary, or at least not without a will. Because your son will find words actually do mean things after all. And you won’t be there to do anything about it.
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’
I was driving towards Aspen off the prairie, looking for the cutoff turn at Limon. I still had 400 miles to go.
There. That’s not a bad first line, is it? True, as well.
I’d spent the evening in Colby, home of Miss Kansas according to the big signs I could see from the Interstate, but wherever she was now, coked out and face down in the Playboy Mansion or just home with Mom, washing her hair, she wasn’t at the Rusty Bucket, the most god-awful airplane hanger of a bar I ever want to go to in this life. If your idea of fun is stealing your older sibling’s driving licence and glueing your photo onto it so you can get a drink, that’s the place to go.
Except it’s not really, because they shove every ID under a fluoroscope to see if it’s been cut and they card just about everybody. And that ain’t no lie. This is a place where all the Deputies try to look like Burt Reynolds with pistol grip shotguns behind the front seats in the police cruisers and all the bar staff wear Mace in neat little holsters on their belts. Cosy. Like Rick’s Bar in a parallel and wrong universe.
I got out of there before my cute English accent had a chance to get me somewhere to sleep or dead and went to find a place to crash out in my car. I turned the big old Chevrolet off the highway down some dirt roads and slept to the sound of some kind of engine somewhere.
It had gone by the time the sun woke me around half past five. I got the car back on the highway and headed west looking for some breakfast.
All I found, mile on mile of prairie grassland was a sign for Six States Tower. I didn’t know that’s what it was called then. It was a wooden Victorian English seaside lighthouse stuck out here in the middle of absolutely nowhere at all. As I drove down the track I passed old cars full of empty bottles and a reassuring sign.
See the Two-Headed Calf. Wonder of the Ages.
What could be nicer? Maybe the people I could see at the top of the lighthouse tower could tell me while they were bringing me some food, I thought, except as I got closer I could see they were dressed in Victorian clothes, the women in crinolines. And none of them were moving.
I stopped the car in bright sunshine in front of the tower. From here I could see the people were never going to move, because mannequins never do except in films. Nobody around at all. I opened the car door in the silence of a Colorado summer morning and stepped out into a pool of glistening black stuff that crunched as I walked across it. Then it started shimmering and parts of it rose into the air. It was about then I realised I was walking through a patch of locusts.
I got back in the car, drove straight out onto the Interstate and almost immediately got in a discussion with the Colorado State Patrol about what intersecting the median means and how you can’t just drive onto the motorway in countries where things are properly organised. We got on fine. It was that kind of day.
The Tower and everything about it was real. It was built in 1926. It shut in 2013, when the old guy running it died. The insane collection of tourist stuff jammed into the tower was all sent to auction at the end of 2014. It wasn’t a David Lynch film. It was all real and I was there, even though it isn’t there now.
That’s one thing about getting older. You can. And you can say ‘Yeah, I was there. I know about that stuff, you know?’ Whatever happened afterwards. I was there.
About ten years ago I stayed at a hotel in Hamburg, within sight of the railway station. I knew Hamburg had been ‘badly bombed,’ in The War, ‘badly bombed’ being a polite, English way of saying it was almost removed from the map by the RAF and USAAF who dropped tens of thousands of tons of bombs on civilians.
Like you, I saw the film Memphis Belle. And the noble scene where the pilot refuses to just toggle the bombs away and go home but takes the airplane through the bomb run again, in case his bombs hit a school next to a factory. Because he was noble. Because he was American. Because it was a stupid film.
I had an American pilot from the war stay at my house for 10 days, a couple of times. By the end of the Swing music and recollections my significant other and I had the start of a drinking problem we had to deal with but we were pretty sure we’d qualify on the P51. Early one morning the pilot was describing a manoeuvre I couldn’t understand, something about how flying in flights of four aircraft and having to swing back and forth over the stream of bombers they were escorting, but having to fly much faster than the bombers because that was the way the planes were built, when they turned the inside plane would have to throttle right back and turn tight in, while the outside plane in the four would have to speed up in a much wider turn. Then a couple of minutes or so later they’d have to do it again, but the other way around. Then again a minute or so later again, back the way they’d started. For three or four hours. When I said I didn’t really know what he meant the first time around the old pilot was suddenly in my face, angry.
“What do you mean? You were there!”
It disturbed me. I didn’t know who he was remembering and confusing with me. I didn’t know and suddenly didn’t want to know what happened next.
The bombs went pretty much anywhere, most of the time. I don’t think anyone could tell where in a circle of 500 yards anything was going to go, assuming they could see anything in the first place. And in Hamburg, and Berlin and Hildesheim – at the end, pretty much anywhere, it didn’t matter. Nobody was really aiming at anything. They just wanted those places gone.
I used to use the stairs in the hotel. I didn’t understand then or now how the railway station looked the same as when it was built, except blacker. I thought that would have made a handy thing to aim at, but it was clearly very much still there. So was the hotel. It had a huge Hanseatic ship model hanging in reception.
At the top of the stairs there was a little window that looked wrong. When I had a good look at it I could see why. The glass was much thicker at the bottom of the pane than at the top.
I think the glass had started to melt when the firestorm came. My ancestors did that. My father was in the RAF. He wasn’t the pilot he lied and said he was; he didn’t fly the aircraft. But he helped.
I was supposed to go swimming this morning. We were. Except although someone had assumed the moral high ground when someone else decided they weren’t going to the gym, somehow when 06:45 came this morning they were still fast asleep with a pile of dogs on their bed and bleary when they came to the door.
Swimming was off. I took the dogs out for an hour instead, without even pausing to wonder why I’d woken at five fifteen, why I’d only half finished my tea, why I was even up at this time.
We went down the alley and into the football field, then down through the woods and along the lane. Then at the end of the track we turned down towards the river and back along the bullrushes path before we headed back up into the trees that have grown over the gravel pits, or quarries, or whatever these holes in the ground actually were, once. Somewhere to walk dogs. Somewhere for children to play, but not at this time of the morning.
The bigger dog made friends with one dog, then tried to eat another one, so pretty much the same as normal. Yesterday when we were out he had to defend himself when another dog leaped at him. Its owner said ‘I thought he was going to do that.’ Nice of him to stop it happening, or it would have been if he had.
And for all that, the missed swimming, the half-drunk tea, the dog episode which is going to need a whistle and some biscuits to sort out sooner rather than later, I could smell the Spring.
Someone was still asleep when I dropped the dogs off home. Or just about awake enough to murmur and smile. Another day starting. Another journey begun.