From 1997, an imaginary incident At Heaven’s Gate…

At Heaven’s Gate

Grappelli fiddled.
Bremner snorted.
‘So who did you play for then?’
Back came the reply.
‘Hot club de France.’
At which, without hesitation,
Bremner took his legs from under him.
In memoriam
Billy Bremner and Stephane Grappelli – died December 1997

When I was at school in the 1960’s, things were a lot different.

I think there was one black kid in the entire school and you were looked on as something vaguely exotic if you happened to be Roman Catholic. It is probably my generation that is voting UKIP (for their sins) and while I couldn’t ever join that particular bandwagon (a one-issue party, and even that one issue I can’t sympathise with) there are a few things that I’d like to air about religion.

The one thing, it seems to me, that unites Judaism and Mohammedism is their unreserved commitment to separateness. Even if you wanted to join their club, they have set themselves up as formidably difficult to add yourself to. And I don’t think you could say the rules were there for any other reason but exclusivity.

Clearly, there are those who believe that the stuff about pork and shellfish is there as a matter of public hygiene, even if only a matter of public hygiene that was live as an issue hundreds of years since in the Middle East. Well, cling to that view if you will, but when bright (and not particularly crusading) individuals like Stephen Pinker (‘How the Mind Works’) hold a contrary opinion, then it might just be time to revisit your position.

There can’t really be too much informed debate about this; the rules of these religions are pretty much a kind of spiritual mercantilism, there to separate Muslim and Jew from the rest of us. (Probably other religions too take the same kind of approach, but I’m less aware of them).

This, it seems to me, is a dangerous position. For the potential Little Englander out there, it could be seen as adding fuel to the flames. For the potential racist, it’s QED; not us, but them.

I don’t want to criticise anyone’s beliefs – go and worship the great fluffy bunny if that’s your thing – but when you set your religion up to be exclusive to you and you don’t allow people out or in, then that is dangerous. Worse if you start to persecute those who have ‘gone over the wire’ into the arms of some other spiritual faith. Worse too, if you don’t allow other religions on your geographic patch.

Personally, (I was at University in the 70’s in Belfast), I’ve had enough of one religion saying that it holds a monopoly on wisdom. I’ve seen enough of the results those ideas bring. And if one thing could happen to save mankind from itself, it might just be that shutting off the religious impulse (a vain gesture to achieve fairness in a demonstrably unfair world – just my view) would be it.

When the gap between rich and poor gets too big, people get angry and often irrational. How else can you explain UKIP?

When the gap between rich and poor gets too big, people get angry and often irrational. How else can you explain UKIP?

A long time ago, when I was at school in Guildford, we were doing an experiment in which we measured the strength of paper.

To do this, we Sellotaped an elastic band to the paper, then one of us pulled, while the other measured how long the elastic got before the paper ripped.

Of course (and at this distance of time, I can’t really remember whether I was holding the ruler or the paper) but somehow we conspired to let the elastic go just as it caught around the end of the ruler. I don’t think we could have done it on purpose if we’d tried, but the ruler arrowed across the room and shattered the glass of the locust tank. The air became thick with insects. The scene, suitably enhanced by one of our number standing on a stool and screaming, resembled a scene of biblical revenge for some ghastly misdemeanour, for which only a plague would do.

Cue a change of scene to 21st century Europe, and elastic of a different kind is being stretched.

This time the elastic runs between rich and poor, and while there mostly always is a certain amount of tension between the two, these days, the elastic is getting taught, and that’s not a good thing, for you, me or anyone, because, sure as locusts are locusts, once that elastic gets near breaking, some kind of mayhem is bound to ensue.

It’s not just a case of bankers’ bonuses, though the fact that they still ‘don’t get it’ is certainly a contributory factor. Fat cats all across business are saying to themselves that, heck, they’ve worked pretty hard recently (a lot of the time resisting pay demands) and that as night follows day, they need that big pay rise.

Once upon a time, someone suggested that anyone in a company couldn’t be worth more than 200 times the lowest paid worker. That sounded like good sense to me, so much so that it resides with many other good ideas, under the corporate carpet.

And while board members award themselves more and the London property market goes from red- to white-hot, has the stock market, which measures directly the amount of value they have been able to generate, kept pace with their salaries?

The answer of course, is that while the stock market has done pretty well recently, it hasn’t kept up with what directors of Britain’s companies have signed off for themselves.

Stoked by the competitive myth (‘If we don’t keep our valuable people – of whom I happen to be one – we’re going to hell in a hand cart’) and fanned by the people who really benefit from all this (corporate head-hunters who have a vested interest in seeing salaries and other payments leap into the stratosphere), what the men at the top get paid starts smoking like an uncooled fuel rod. They can then only lean back on the line of last resort: ”it’s still a lot less than a footballer”.

It might not matter so much if we all feel like we’re doing well, but of course, but we don’t.

We’ve all had to restrain ourselves because, for some reason, we’re all in this together. Except we’re not. MP’s claimed their duck houses and second homes and the really rich headed for schemes like that Icebreaker thing that Gary Barlow used – just one of the many elaborate fiddles that prove once more my own philosophy of life and tax, which is this.

You’ll never soak the rich, because they’ll find a way round almost anything. That’s why this top rate of tax thing hardly matters except to anyone who wants to wave a flag of one colour or another. The poor are virtually untouchable too, because if you don’t have anything, it’s difficult to take it away. No, taxes have always been paid by us, the people in the middle, and it’s when we sense injustice that there is a leaking sense of meltdown.

And injustice is all around. From the mantra that says that judges (for example) have to be paid more, because we need judges and they have to have incentives. So why are nurses paid so badly? Are they irrelevant? No, but there are more of them, so more expensive to appease. No one needs to bribe a nurse, do they? But it might be worth offering a judge something, or a policeman, or an MP, or an (unelected) Lord? See my point?

And it is corruption is the final link in this chain. The lack of it is the only thing that stops us from becoming a banana republic, and even that division has been wearing thin.

Tony Blair and Mr Ecclestone’s Formula One advertising reprieve? The latest cash for questions lark? The policemen who can’t tell right from fraud (like the ones who accused Andrew Mitchell)?

These are admittedly microscopically thin ends of thick wedges that end up in the bloated maw of (for example) Mr Berlusconi, a convicted charlatan who managed to rule Italy for 20 years. In between is the Eurozone and its near criminality – farm subsidies to non-existent farmers, even the Euro-sceptic MEPs who keep taking the money and to show their disgust, don’t turn up to the institution that pays them.

It all reeks of corruption, and what’s more worrying is that it is the people that we are told we should respect who are responsible for it.

No wonder electors want to give politicians a wake-up call. But voting UKIP is a decision that smacks of turkeys voting for bigger meals at Christmas.

And if all of that is allowed to go on, then that locust tank is going to be shattered and all of us will be sitting around with some unpleasant insects.

 

Hey, Ranulph Fiennes! I really do not propose to turn my head at your ridiculous antics. You are a generation too late to be crossing Antarctica, even if you can’t think of another way to earn a living than by thrusting your sad existence on the rest of us. You’re not alone of course. “The Book” has become the last resort of the unemployable, and its adjunct, the breakfast television sofa is today’s equivalent of putting one’s organs in a blender. Please. Go and boil your head if you want to, but don’t dump the awful experience on me.

This referendum thing is something that the Scots must attend to themselves. I don’t propose to chip in on one side or the other, though I suppose if they do vote for independence, it will leave what’s left of GB looking a bit sparse and distinctly unbalanced. And what indeed would we do without their periodic invasions for sporting occasions and the like?

A long time ago, in the era of the ‘Home Internationals’, I remember popping in to an off license somewhere on Kensington High Street. It was about noon on the Saturday when the Scots were playing England at Wembley. In the doorway of the shop was a huge smell of a whisky-soaked Scot, wrapped in a kilt. He grudgingly moved out of the way to let me in. On my way out, having secured my purchase, he grunted at me. “What way to Wembley, pal?” I didn’t like to tell him it was a bit of a walk and pointed to the North West. He made a lunge for the bottle I was carrying, but it was half-hearted. He followed it up with, “No chance of a lift then?”

A couple of years later, I went to the game with my pal Robert. It quickly became obvious as we approached the ground, that we would be in a minority. Possibly 89,500 of the 90,000 attendees were Scots. We kept our mouths shut. Fortunately, there was little to celebrate from our side or theirs.

The subsequent demise of Scottish football seems to imply that the Scots should be reaching out, rather than looking inward, but that is a question for them, not me. Troubles at Rangers and other clubs have their roots in personal greed and money-laundering I suspect. The lack of talent on the pitch is a worse symptom of disease.

But whatever the outcome of the referendum, I wish them well, even if I can’t quite forgive my (Scots) English teacher at my Grammar School in my youth from inflicting Robert Burns on us all under the guise of literature. Ivor Cutler, of course, had his own revenge (Life in a Scotch Sitting Room) and that should really be enough.

A Hot Whiskey

Reach for your Irish super Powers
Never was water of life better named
And hand me the sweet Demarara,
Unblanched fruit of the Jamaican cane.
A stout but lovely tumbler, not a kind glass
(Or a cousin, or Stein) is requisite too, to stand
With leaden base and crystal edges
To glint in sunlight when freighted,
As it will be ‘ere non, with nectar.
Squeeze a lemon over fragrant cloves
Boil water from your well or stream, fresh, clean.
Pour over all, and inhale heaven before sipping.

God must, I suppose, have been looking the other way for me to get this far.

By any normal rules, I should probably have been committed to the confines of a grave before I reached my 21st birthday. It would have been tough on my parents of course, and maybe that’s the reason I am still walking the streets of London, and doing this blog.

I was thinking this morning of some of the ‘might have been’ moments.

Like stumbling onto the margin of a rather deep quarry at night, when doing a not very successful map-reading exercise at school. Like coming back across the Hog’s Back on my scooter in sub-zero temperatures one early Sunday morning without gloves. It was so cold that William and I – I was giving him a lift home and he didn’t have gloves either – decided that the best thing would be if he did the left hand controls, and I did the right. Like… oh there are a lot more of them, none of which I’m proud of.

The funny thing is that even now, I’m thinking (in a kind of sub-conscious, parallel kind of way) that I might get another chance, that somehow history will re-set itself and I can go back and make good decisions this time, rather than the ill-informed, spontaneous, and just plain wrong ones that seem still to be a factor.

All the while of course, life is closing in.

Image

They look up and gurgle and coo. They are plump and wide-eyed and smiley. They stare at the bubbles that float by. They are hypnotised by the mobile that plays the Brahms Lullaby. They sleep deeply, dreaming of… what? The struggle to get here? The months trapped in the warm liquid? The dive through the sump?

They cry. 

They knit themselves jumpers. They trade on the Internet selling their used nappies to perverts. They wager huge amounts on the outcomes of miscellaneous events. (What colour is Daddy’s car? Will Mummy be wearing a red or blue shirt when she comes in next? Will the story be about the butterfly or the happy train?) IOU’s change hands but are quickly forgotten.

They think about the moment when their egg was fertilised. The big bang. They suck their thumbs. 

They are powdered and pampered. They are photographed. They are kissed, repeatedly, on their chubby faces.

They smoke cigars after lights out. They play poker and get crumbs in their bed from the chocolate croissants that they find by the bread bin. They drink whisky out of plastic cups and indulge in rough humour. They steal small change, sunglasses, jewellery.

They say their first words, making sounds as close to dadda and momma as makes no difference. The parents stand and applaud. This is their first standing ovation. They would bow, but a confident weariness overcomes them. 

Is it any wonder that things go wrong? Is it any wonder that they end up sucking at food jars, rubbing at sore patches between their legs, thrashing around at the taut pain somewhere around the large intestine? And then come the explosions of bone in their mouths, a metamorphosis.

In the darkness, they lie back and think of eternity. They worry about who will look after them on their journey. The odd couple who attend to them don’t seem to have the resilience necessary to bring things to fruition, to help them find peace in a godless world, to set them on the road to truth. But perhaps they can learn. 

They chant a mantra, over and over.

They don’t understand that they are not prepared for draughts of sweet wine; that grapes, figs and sugared almonds hitting a virgin stomach are going to produce indigestion. They are wryly uneasy, because what they really want is to get outside and wallow in a warm pool of mud.

Love is only skin deep when you have no vocabulary. Their ability to trade stocks, to participate in bridge tournaments and bicycle races, to open bank accounts, to watch television, is limited by the strength in their limbs, the weather, but mostly language.

They are fascinated by drunkenness, addicted to sweetness, reliant on warmth and cannot resist temptations as water cannot resist presenting a smooth surface to the world. 

They plan their future careers. One is to be an airline pilot; the other a bond trader, specialising in arbitrage.

Each day, knowledge comes to them in the form of overheard insults, quiet accounting, conversations. And all the while their rosebud mouths are shaping themselves to be ready for invective, calumny, incredible profanities.

Gradually they hold on to more memory. The world no longer has to be reconstructed in their minds each day. Things remain. A brick, a pattern on the wallpaper, a petal on a wet, black bough.

And so, knowledge arrives, and with it frustration, desperate sickness, fecundity. 

Baby Business was first published in Neon, October 2009

My dentist, it has to be said, is both painless and expensive. The one quality probably dependent on the other. So the poem that follows is fictional, but based on a truth, that pain can clarify the heart of existence.

A visit to the dentist

It has to be filled. A hairline in the old amalgam
Uncomfortably sensitive to sweetness.
So the drill whines in the cavity,
There’s a whiff of burning, an avalanche
As I desperately scan the ceiling poster.
A peasant amid goats, lulled by a cow-bell,
On a rocky coast where marble effigies,
Wreathed in weed, sway to and fro with the tides.
Old gods, blind, toothless now, who have taken
Their stained offerings with them, and fled,
Their interventions inept. The drill stops.
Deeper, deeper blue sea have I rarely seen,
My knuckles whiter now than those sands.
I strain my jaw open again. Amongst the ivory
What discoveries? Liquid ruby cabouchons
Capturing fractured light there? In the depth
Of the molar. In the glowing heart of pain.

 

It’s 75 years since the publication of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, a book that made me appreciate what you could do with language and an idea. It’s a little bit ragged round the edges now, but nothing that would stop it from having a similar effect all these years later. To celebrate the master, a haiku:

Drawn automatics
A grapple in the attics
And sleep without dreams

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