Sunday, 27 February 2011

Journey II – A place to crash

By the time I found somewhere to stop it was very dark and the others had all vanished. I left the street and crossed a patch of neglected lawn under some trees. It was a very still night, humid and heavy. The fresh scent of balsam poplar wafted past. The lawn sloped down steeply ahead, down toward a wooded gully. I didn't know where to go next. I’d been wandering the lamp-lit streets for what seemed like hours.
All the while I’d not been alone I’d been able to be strong, stay focused. The others looked a lot younger and more nervous than me and I took the lead, but when I realized I was down to my last companion – a morose, hunched, be-hoodied teenager, his chin barely covered in straggly black bristles, I began to feel a panic. I couldn’t make out anything he was saying. He seemed to be talking to himself. He mumbled that he needed a toilet but had no paper. I watched him standing, fidgeting. ‘Come on’ I said, heading off across the road and past some trees into a deserted market place. I don’t know where I lost him.
So I headed for the building across the grass on my left. It was a long, low, two storey place, with windows all along the side. There were lights on in one or two windows and music coming from one of them. I could see someone moving about inside. There was a little laughter. I moved cautiously across the wet grass to a shadowy stone archway. Inside there were doors opening left and right onto a corridor and in front of me a winding stone staircase to the first floor. I turned left. All along the corridor there was random stuff lying about – bikes, posters fallen down, cardboard boxes, and the smell of fetid sportswear, stale food and patchouli – the unmistakable ambiance of university accommodation. Further up I could hear voices and muffled music coming from a room on the right and I decided check it out. I didn’t want to but I couldn’t just wander about all night. I got to the doorway and took a deep breath.

I don’t know what I’d been expecting exactly but this was a little disappointing. It was a kitchen basically, dimly lit by a low watt bulb hung low from the ceiling and covered by a reddish shade and a piece of tatty Indian silk. There was a table in the middle, largely covered in bottles, smoking paraphernalia and bits of paper. To the left of the door under a window was a sofa, also tatty, also hidden with bits of ethnic fabric. There was a fridge freezer covered in stickers and magnets opposite, and with more miscellaneous stuff on top, and a sink at the end to my right, behind the door, heavily loaded with unwashed crockery. Every corner of the room, shelves, floor, back of the sofa had stuff on it – magazines, clothes, books, more bottles. There was like a drift of it in every space that was not needed to walk through to get to the sink or the fridge or around the table. Then there were the inhabitants, who hardly seemed to notice me. There were two guys chatting at the table, one with long floppy hair and a goatee, in a paisley shirt, the other in black with his head shaved, and mostly involved in rolling what was obviously a joint. There were a couple of girls on the sofa, one in a dress with leggings underneath and with beads in her hair, and the other in jeans and a vest with TALK TO THE FACE ‘COS THE TITS AIN’T LISTENING written across her enormous boobs. They were also chatting and smoking. The latter smiled and waved at me casually. Two other guys were sitting on the floor by the fridge in deep discussion and there was a girl with short spiky hair over by the sink looking exasperatedly for something. The room smelled, not unappealingly, actually rather cosily, of hash, incense, wasted food, damp, and barely adequate personal hygiene. The music was some sort of dub hip-hop compilation I vaguely recognized from the 90s. It was all very familiar. One of the guys at the table grinned at me and offered me a smoke, which I took, to be polite, and asked how it was going. I got some wine from the fridge and squeezed in at the far end of the sofa. Nobody seemed to object.

I was still there when I woke up in the morning and one of the guys came to look in the fridge. The day was overcast and not helped by the grime on the window and the attempt at a curtain strung up there. I looked around. It all looked very grey and dingey in the daylight. The bulb was still on but that only made it worse. Every surface was dusty and ringed with drink stains. Later on, the guy with the floppy hair came in and made tea. I saw a pair of red football shorts, a stained white tee-shirt and pale pimply legs where his robe fell open. He made some toast and coffee and left. Later on, when it became obvious that nobody cared if I was there or not I went to have a look around to see if there was somewhere I could crash. I found my way up the stairs near the entrance where I’d come in. On the corridor above, the girl with the short hair, apparently wearing nothing but an extra large tee shirt came out of her room rubbing her eyes, yawned and headed up to what I guessed was the bathroom. Going up the steps I could see her little white bottom under the hem. I looked out the windows and across the uncut lawn and over some small trees to the road and the houses opposite. Blackbirds were hopping about down there. I could hear the bass of some music coming from one of the rooms up ahead. The whole building had a faded arts-and-crafts feel to it with lots of mouldings on the stair well and window frames, but seemed to have been badly decorated and furnished in the 70s. Nothing matched, everything was scruffy and stained and discoloured, but felt strangely familiar and oddly comfortable.
I found an empty room not far from the stairs. It had a small Victorian cast iron fireplace (long unused) and a single bed took up most of the rest of the room against the wall under a window. I put my bag on it. Everything, including the fireplace, was painted an unpleasant pale green, and most of the daylight was excluded by a brown cloth. I took it down. The room was cold and smelled damp but the door was lockable. I sat on the bed and looked around. I’d definitely stayed in a lot worse places in my life, squats and hostels, and my house mates seemed harmless. I got my belongings out and put them on the shelves and tried the bed. The sheets felt cold but we’d been issued with sleeping bags on the boat so I got into mine and quickly fell asleep.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The L-shaped garden

I did a few ‘festies’ back in my thirties - Glastonbury of course, The Elephant fair, Womad. They were good years in retrospect, although tough in some ways. During my twenties I’d given up on ever being anything whatsoever. I’d spent a bit of time on the street, sleeping rough, but I couldn’t hack it long term. Mostly I stayed out of trouble using the same techniques I’d used at school – basically by becoming invisible (not literally you understand, though anything seems possible here). But I wasn’t pushy enough – wouldn’t beg and I didn’t look hungry enough so I tended to miss out on the handouts a lot of the time. Too proud I suppose, but I also knew that if worst came to worst I could go home to mum and dad, which tends to take the edge off your survival skills.
Mind you, home wasn’t exactly the soft option. Guilt, disappointment – palpable. I couldn’t stick it for long, and what with Justine and the kids and Amelia, after the accident, well, I couldn’t burden them, so back to the street it was. And you can’t avoid trouble forever. You have to remember, although I didn’t have any readily identifiable mental illness, I wasn’t right. I was hopeless at looking after myself, got sick and ended up in the hospital with pneumonia more than once, and another time with internal bleeding from some arseholes down on West Street kicking me about. Difficult to be invisible when you’re lying face down outside a pub on a Saturday night.
I ended up on the psych ward for a while, but more because they didn’t know what else to do with me than because I was sick. “Personality disorder” was as close they got to a diagnosis. I understand this to mean “Person who gets excessively upset about things that I (doctor, police constable, social worker – delete as applicable) happen not to consider all that important.” The psychiatrist admitted as much at one point. One of them said I had an adult form of attention deficit disorder – too impulsive, too easily bored they said. Mum would have said that only boring people get bored. I suppose that’s one of those obviously stupid things people say that nobody ever questions. The other theory was that I was mildly autistic, or ‘Aspi’ to use the vernacular. That seems like another way of just saying you don’t fit in. Anyway, I certainly wasn’t short on imagination and empathy, which is supposedly a feature of that condition. If anything I had a bit too much. I picked up on every nuance, every look, every movement. People were too difficult, too complicated. It was all too much. I couldn’t cope.
So then I got put out into ‘the community’, so called, which was worse – out of the microwave into the waste disposal unit. At least there had been plenty of hot water in hospital and the people who attack you tend to be sedated, which makes them easier to dodge. There was supposed to be therapy but it never amounted to much. I wasn’t dangerous, addicted to anything or suicidal so that was it – I believe the clinical term is ‘Falling between two stools’ which is an interesting image come to think about it. I found something similar later talking to the various middle-class hippies at the festies. Seemed like they were all involved in some variety of counselling or other, usually fairly pricey. It seemed you could get help with pretty much anything – commitment phobia, executive stress, your bed facing the wrong way, whatever, as long as you could pay. If your problem was not being able to hold down a job you could go hang yourself.

Eventually mum and dad came and took me home again. I was malnourished and dehydrated from a stomach bug. I explain all this not out of self-pity but to remind myself what it was like and to rekindle my wonder at how I managed to get like that.
And it wasn’t all bad. Those were just the highlights. Mostly it was just routine – boring, hungry and cold, but actually I had some very good summers later on. I went down to the West Country and became a real hobo, sleeping in woods, living off the land, communing with nature as it were. I found a book in the public library called ‘Wild Food’ and became a proper hunter/gatherer.
Now you might assume that being homeless would be more tolerated in the city than in the countryside but you’d be wrong. As long as you look the part, don’t do anything obviously dangerous or weird, and stay out of the way when necessary (with the aforementioned talent for invisibility), you can manage surprisingly well. The real key is to keep yourself clean – get a shower when you can, wash your clothes. Campsites are useful. Stash your gear in a tree and wander in in your flip-flops and a towel with a toothbrush in your mouth. Nobody stops you. Plus I was always well spoken and polite. The wealthy always like that sort of thing. Keep your past conveniently vague and they’ll even assume you’re one of them, fallen on hard times. They’ll let you cut their grass and muck out the horses for a small fee. And they’ll tell you all sorts of things they wouldn’t tell the ordinary tradesman... Interesting.
So anyway I got a hike tent for my birthday that year and a little stove. I learned to fish and collect seafood at low tide. I did alright. Proper aquatic ape I was. Not so good in the winter though.
Later on things got even better because I fell in with a lot of hippies on the beach at Gorran Haven and I even managed to get off with a girl, which was a first. I suppose I looked the part – I was pretty fit by this time, clean, bronzed and muscular from all the swimming, long bleached ponytail, army surplus shorts, slightly dangerous look in the eye. Mind you I was a good deal less dodgy looking than many of them, and a lot handier about the place too. This came from my not being permanently wrecked. Quite often I was the most together person there (I was as surprised as anyone). So they took me with them to the Green Gathering and the Elephant Fair and I made myself useful, first on the site crew, then, when it was realized I wasn’t really that into drinking and smoking I worked in a café making curries and chai. I sold a lot of drawings too. And I had sex! Only times in my life that happened. Of course, having been involuntarily celibate for 30 years I took the whole thing far too seriously and got summarily, unceremoniously and comprehensively dumped, but it was nice while it lasted. I suspect I was actually too nice. I appeared a lot more dangerous than I actually was and it quickly became obvious once I’d been slept with that I was a bit silly about women.
A hippy chick at a festival once told me ‘You’re too good for this world’. It was late, she was stoned, but she didn’t want to have sex with me. She wanted to have sex with the other guy who definitely wasn’t too good for this world as I recall.
Of course I had to endure a lot of weird shit from new age types: reincarnation, auras, crystals, crop circles, you know the kind of thing, but then there’s this - where we are now. I wonder what they make of all this? I comfort myself by telling myself that at least I didn’t claim to understand the universe. They thought they did and they were just so fucking wrong! Ha ha!
That all went on for nearly ten years and then dad died and mum needed help. I moved back home feeling a lot more confident about myself, and, for the first time in my life, with plans, but really it was too late. Amelia was in hospital again and Justine had her hands full. Luckily mum had invested well and we were ok financially. I tried to work but, really, I just couldn’t. I can’t talk about the rest. Maybe another time. Suffice it to say, after mum died I continued to live in the old house. The mortgage was all paid up and the girls didn’t mind so I stayed on.
It was an enormous spooky old Victorian semi with about two thirds of an acre at the back including the ends of two gardens bought from the neighbours. It was heavily overgrown with brambles and nettles and had some huge old sycamores at the end. I got a dog, learned how to grow veggies and raise ducks and rabbits and I built a cabin down at the end out of salvaged timbers. It was a fantastic construction. It started out just being a big garden shed, but I had mains water installed and got hold of some Tilley lamps and a stove, and a big old steel bed and I ended up spending most of that summer down there. It had a somewhat musty, smoky, doggy ambiance, and there were spiders and mice galore but I just couldn’t bear being in the house any more, not on my own. On the other hand I couldn’t bring myself to sell up and leave. It’d been my home since I could remember. What could I do?
So I put more windows in the cabin so that I could look out across the garden from my table, and a sink and proper floorboards and insulation. I only went to the house to pick up the post and have a crap. I rented it out for a while but it was too much hassle, and then Justine lived in it for a time too, but in the end I just wanted to do my garden, sit in the doorway and watch the birds.
My plot was a paragon of organic husbandry, overflowing with colour, flavour and biodiversity. I was reusable, repairable and recyclable. I was ninety percent self-sufficient right up to the end. What little I couldn’t grow I ordered from the supermarket and they delivered to the house. I listened to radio 4. That was my main link with the outside world the last ten years or so – that and the public library. Justine visited sometimes to check I was ok, but she had to admit I was probably healthier and happier than most of the people she knew. We used to sit on the step, watching the sun go down over the railway embankment drinking sloe gin.

I miss her so much, both of them. Poor Amelia. I’d love to see her again.
Well, we’ll have to see won’t we.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Andrea I – Politics

‘You don’t think you need to be especially intelligent to get rich?’ says Andrea, bemused. She’s a gorgeous curvy white-skinned redhead and she also happens to be my guide this time around.
‘Have you met these people?' I say. 'Smug, arrogant nonentities the lot of them.’
‘That doesn’t seem to me very likely, considering...’
‘They’re only in charge because half the time they’re so obnoxious nobody wants to argue with them.’
She looks at me very sceptically.
‘Oh look’ I say, ‘no doubt some of the rich are very clever and charming but I don’t think there’s any particular correlation. They know what they need to know. They know how to make money.’
She looks away and huffs a bit.
‘You naively assume’ I continue, ‘that knowing how to make money out of a thing necessarily implies some real aptitude for the thing itself. Do you imagine the bloke who runs a vast chain of, I don’t know, shoe shops for example, has any particular talent for making shoes?’
In the course of our debate her expression veers from polite attention to cool indifference to wry disdain to, as time goes on, intense irritation. I don’t like it but it doesn’t make what I’m saying wrong. I press on.
‘Of course he hasn’t. He simply takes the credit. “Look at these wonderful shoes I’ve made” he says. Bollocks he hasn’t so much as touched them. I wouldn’t mind so much if I thought that the people actually on the shop floor, the actual craftsmen, the artisans got paid properly – you know “a fair days pay for a fair days work” and all that’ I look into her face. ‘That’s Marx in case you were wondering.’ She appears unmoved. ‘How revolutionary is that?’ I add sarcastically.
She gives me a tight little smile in return, humouring me. ‘You’re surely not going to tell me you’re still a Marxist’ she says.
‘I have certain sympathies’ I say, ‘but no. I reject all labels, as they say.’
‘But I’d have thought, after Stalin and the gulags and all that...’
‘I’m in little doubt that Marx would have been spinning in his pit if he’d seen what became of his ideas. Actually I suspect Jesus would feel the same way about some of his followers, but anyway, as I was saying, in my humble opinion...’ (I used to use that phrase a lot, although despite my frugal lifestyle I refused to be humble.) ‘In my humble opinion the individuals I’ve come across who earn the most are the ones doing the most completely pointless jobs...’
‘I suspect my father would have had something to say about that.’
‘What did he do?’
‘He was a doctor.’
‘Well, that’s a grey area. Do you know, the most highly paid person among all the people I knew wrote press releases for a firm of accountants? How bloody crucial a role in society is that? And I knew quite a few teachers and nurses too. A dustman does a more useful job of work.’
She sits forward, making an obvious effort to engage with me.
‘Well there’s the stress I suppose...’ she offers, ‘the long hours, years of training...’
‘So, pay them for their hours. I don’t have a problem with that – double time for weekends and bank holidays if you like.’
‘Ok, but it’s not just that is it Gabriel? There’s all the responsibility. I don’t know why I’m even trying to explain – you must know all this.’
‘Stress and responsibility?’ I laugh, pretending to be amused. ‘Everybody has stress and responsibility. My dad had so much stress and responsibility it killed him, and he was just a bloody gardener. The only stress and responsibility is screwing up and losing your job. And that’s the same for everybody.’
I catch myself jabbing hard with my finger at her, making the point. It’s an ugly, intrusive gesture. I don’t like it. I put my hands down and take a deep breath.
‘But some people have more to lose than others’ she says quietly.
And I’m off again.
‘Oh, right’ I laugh sarcastically. ‘So if you haven’t got anything much in the first place you won’t mind if you lose it. Interesting theory.’
‘Oh you know what I mean.’
‘No I really don’t.’
‘But if you’re a manager there’s all the other people under you who might also lose their jobs, and the customers...’
‘With all due respect, that’s rubbish. They don’t give a toss about anybody else, these people. Something goes wrong they just find some insignificant underling to blame. Top executives only get the sack as a last resort. And you know this Andrea. I don’t know why I'm trying to explain. Losing their jobs is all that scares them, and that’s universal. Anyway, these executives – they love all that wheeling and dealing, risk taking... It’s what they do.’
‘I’m sorry’ she says, huffing somewhat ‘I can’t agree with all this. Some of them work bloody hard and...’
‘And nurses and teaches don’t?’
‘Look, let’s cut to the chase. These people get paid what they do because they are in a position of power – they control things, they can dictate terms. You may or may not want to justify that but lets not kid ourselves that they earn all those millions in bonuses because they do something a hundred thousand times more important than a dustman. Come on, they make money and money is power.’
‘You make it sound like some sort of extortion racket.’
I give her my most infuriating grin ever. Clever girl. My point exactly.
She sits and frowns at me, her arms crossed over her (rather lovely) bosom.
‘Well, I don’t know’ she says, shrugging. ‘I thought they were supposed to be creating wealth, and growing the economy...’
‘Ah, the jolly old trickle-down effect. I saw a lot of that in my time. Also known as getting pissed on from a great height. You know the only thing scarier than a revolutionary communist is someone who truly believes in the free market economy. Seriously.’ (That’s not my line – I read it somewhere but I always like to quote it when I get the chance.)
She looks impassively at me from her chair across the room. Her legs are crossed, Buddha style, her toes tucked under the arms of the chair. I warned her at the beginning she’d soon be heartily sick of me. She said ‘Why’s that?’ and I said, ‘Oh, any number of reasons.’
Well now she knows.
Light is streaming in through the windows above us. I lean back in my chair, one leg over the arm, nursing my glass of water in my lap. This is our third session. I always seem to end up going on about politics. I want to talk about other things but it always comes back to this. I know she thinks I believe the world is out to get me. And I do actually, but not just me – millions like me – misfits and weirdos. I’ve always believed in political analysis more than psychoanalysis where people’s problems are concerned. I mean, I had my faults like anyone but that doesn’t explain everything. And anyway, why should it always be me who has to change?
‘It always seems to me’ I resume and I see her take a deep breath, readying herself, ‘that the people who get the money are merely the ones who are good at looking good, saying the right things, playing the game – not the ones who actually know how to do things, who actually make things, or have to deal with actual people. I understand this is not an original observation but somehow you still don’t hear it said often enough.’
Andrea is obviously not convinced. Do I really imagine I am changing her mind? Do I really imagine she even gives a toss? After all, all this stuff is in the past. What does it all matter here?
‘You don’t believe that you can have what you want if you put your mind to it and buckle down and work hard?’ she says.
‘Oh come on. Seriously?’ I laugh. She lets it go with a smile and a shrug. I sense she doesn’t really believe in that particular fairy story either. Well that’s something.
‘So you considered yourself an “artisan” as you put it?’ she says ‘one of the ones who actually does the work...’
‘Not me so much. I was a bit of a slacker. But my dad, millions like him, my sister Justine...’
‘And these “bosses” are somehow conniving to prevent you from getting rich like them?’ She’s getting weary and impatient but I don’t appear to be able to let it go.
‘No, A, they are not conniving and B, I merely wished to make a living. I never said anything about getting rich’.
‘Well, you seem to have thought of everything. So how come you were unemployed most of your life?’
Later on I work out what I should have said to her at this point, but at the time it hit the target and disabled me. I should have said that that was because I refused to play their greedy egomaniac games. But I feel like a fraud. I really did never want to be rich, but somehow pressing the point seems like protesting too much.
‘It didn’t work out for me, no’ I say, looking at my hands.
‘You feel like you missed out – didn’t get a big enough slice of the cake.’
I look up at the smug cow. I hate all this.
‘I can see why someone like you would have to assume that envy would be my motivation’ I say, a little nastily I admit.
That shuts her up. I feel mean for taking such a low shot, but I think she’s been just as mean for implying that I have the same cynical motives as the people I’m complaining about – people who like to find little ways to catch you out, to show you that deep down you are just as cynical and compromised as they are, people who find that this somehow makes them feel better about themselves.
Except her view is, of course, common sense – the politics of envy and all that bollocks, and therefore, she believes, not offensive. She just thinks I’m naïve for not admitting it to myself. She after all was the one who went to Uganda or some such place in the middle of a war, with Medecins sans Frontiers or whoever it was, to look after AIDS victims. What did I do? I kept up with my recycling, bought free-range eggs, signed a petition about an incinerator they wanted to build locally. And yet I’m certain, deep down, she really believes the poor are that way basically because they are stupid or lazy (she could excuse the children – they knew no better). I know there are a thousand reasons why the poor are poor – laziness and stupidity, in my experience, least among them. I’d have thought Africa (not that I’ve ever been) would have at least demonstrated that to her. Still, what can you do? She had a rich daddy (a consultant in IVF or something) from a ‘good’ family. Before she went to Africa she used to practice reiki and tai chi, and had her own practice in Hove apparently, plus working all the hippy festivals in her tee-pee with her massage table and her essential oils and wot-not. She did quite well I gather. Nobody in my family ever went to university or owned their own business. Andrea went to med school, I suspect, not because she was particularly bright, or compassionate, but because she could. She went to Africa because it would look good on her CV and, to hear her tell it, as a brand of extreme sport. I overheard her tales of the sons of American investment bankers and lawyers, supposedly there to save the planet, running about the forest in the dark, giggling, stoned out of their heads, dodging bullets, playing Heart of Darkness. At about that time I’d have been in my garden, struggling to keep the slugs off my brassicas without the use of chemicals. Could I have done better than them? Abso-bloody-lutely, except my folks couldn’t have afforded to send me off on a ‘gap year’ even if they’d known what a bloody gap year was. Shit heads. I bloody hate the lot of them.
So anyway I want to press my point. What do I have to lose? Andrea’s good opinion of me, that’s what. It’s probably best not to fancy your guide if you can possibly help it.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I really did just want some job satisfaction, some security, enough to live on, a bit extra for fun...’ I know it sounds a bit feeble. I’m trying to be reasonable, but it comes out submissive.
‘That’s all?’ she says humourlessly.
‘That’s all’ I say. ‘That and a good woman...’
I didn’t mean to flirt with her but she’s clearly unimpressed anyway.
‘I just didn’t fit in I guess...’ I add, conciliatory, backing down. Why am I always the one to bloody back down?

This ‘not fitting in’ has always been my problem. I always say to myself that I have a right to be the way I am. It’s not like I’m a psychopath. I have my talents. I’m not evil (not usually). I wash. But deep down I’m not convinced. I don’t fit in, it’s true. I never did. I tell myself it’s their loss, and I genuinely believe it is. Who knows what I could have achieved, given the chance, but they don’t miss me, the employers, the managers and so on. My face didn’t fit. I wouldn’t play their stupid game. They could do without me. They’d rather have had someone who’d do as they’re told than someone who actually cares. Bosses hate to employ people who actually know what they’re doing because it shows them up.
‘I’ll tell you the difference’ I say, resuming suddenly. I’ve had these conversations so often before – it’s just a matter of getting the lines in the right places. ‘Someone like me would say “This is what I love doing – I wonder if I can make a living at it?” The businessmen would say “What can I do to get rich?” and he wouldn’t much care what it was.’ I sit back to catch my breath.
‘Live and let live’ she says glibly shrugging.
‘But that’s it – they won’t let you live. They’ll put you out of bloody business if they can. And no, before you say it, it’s not a game. It’s never a game. Games are things you do for pleasure. You don’t have to join in if you don’t want to. This is real life I’m on about – health, housing, education. Play the game? Be a team player? They’ve completely changed the meanings of the words to make conformism sound like fun. Can’t you see what I’m talking about? It’s the new totalitarianism – free-market, global, corporate bloody dictatorship...’

Sometimes, when I get going like this I find I can’t breath. Maybe I’m hyperventilating. I’m not sure. Andrea looks at me uncomfortably. I feel the need to break the silence. Can’t stand silences, never could. ‘I’m sorry’ I say. ‘Got carried away... again.’ She smiles coolly and says it’s fine, but I don’t think it’s fine. I tend to get into these rants during our sessions. She’s actually a lovely girl, and she doesn’t deserve to sit and listen to this boring old fart going on at her.
The reality is, in any case, that I achieved bugger all in my life. I fondly imagine, in theory, that I had/have talent, that, given the chance, I could have done something exceptional – make myself a living as an artist, be respected, ‘important’, but I really don’t know where I got that idea. It wasn’t a result of anything that happened in this life – that much I can tell you. I was a big disappointment and an embarrassment to my mum and dad, and although at some level I know there’s good reasons why that was and I did what I could, at another, more insistent level, I agree with them. I just didn’t try hard enough. People have said they think I’m smug, or arrogant even but I’m not. I didn’t make a difference. I didn’t stand up to be counted. I copped out, that’s what I did and I’m ashamed of myself for it. I couldn’t beat them and I couldn’t bring myself to join them, so what did I do? I went and played with myself at the bottom of the garden, as I’d always done.
But who can you make a stand against these days anyway? Faceless functionaries and government wonks, shop assistants and call centres – never the real villains – torturers and despots and profiteers. Terrorists? Who’s ever even met one of those? So people take it out on the poor bloody immigrants and even the kids and teenagers these days get blamed for everything.
Child molesters – that’s who’s left – the last legitimate target, the final bogey man, about whom we can all get royally self-righteous.

I retire to my bunk and look out at the sea. It’s a bright but misty day outside but I want to stay inside and think about Andrea.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Journey I – We're not in Brighton any more

The ship docked mid morning. The quay was deserted. We all stood there with our bags, looking up at the hull with some very mixed feelings. On the one hand we’d had enough of the long months of sailing. There was nothing more to say or do and it was time to move on. On the other hand the town was suspiciously quiet, and despite the gorgeous weather, there was something chill in the air.

Today the sun is eye-hurtingly bright on the lime and salt encrusted stones and the chalk cliffs. The sky is breath-stoppingly blue as we look up at what is unmistakably a British seaside town. In fact I’d go so far as to say it seems like Brighton, my hometown, if Brighton was a quaint little harbour town, which it isn’t. It has a marina, but this isn’t it. This isn’t a modern port. The quay, the sea defences, the buildings are made from enormous timbers, held together with huge rust red bolts. Rust red riveted water tanks and cranes and chains stand idle. Ropes and other trash discarded in piles between the buildings and the walkways are black with grease. I smell seaweed and oil. Windows are cracked or missing. Wooden chests and casks are piled up inside cavernous wooden warehouses. This place can’t have changed since Dickens’ time. The water below us is chalky green with an iridescent oil lacquer, and it laps gently on the moorings and under the boards as we make our way in silence along the jetty. The town above us is at the top of a sheer chalk cliff, shored up in places with weathered timber and more rust red bolts. Bleached plants flower in the cracks above and seabirds look down at us from the ledges. We carry on along to a wooden ramp that leads up a slope through a gap in the cliff face, stepping over some rusty rails where a truck stands in a siding. Apart from the clucking waves below, and the distant mewing of nesting gulls, all is absolutely silent and still. Where is everyone?
The guides on the ship tell us that we need to get up into the town before nightfall and new guides will meet us in the main square later. So we pick up our things and head up the steep ramp into town, a definite sense of unease developing. We want to get them to wait and tell us more but they need to get going. We don’t know what’s happening. We all feel a bit let down, but are assured it’ll be ok and to carry on up the slope. I look around for Cathy and Harvey and the others. They’re nowhere to be seen.

The town is actually rather beautiful – town houses, white-washed or brick, with wrought iron balconies. Shops apparently closed for lunch, bars darkened and silent. Leafy branches lean over garden walls above us and cool shady alleys curve round to other roads which themselves narrow into cobbled twittens arched with trellis and the branches of fruit trees. No cars could get about here. We pass steel garden gates revealing oases of colour and rank fragrant vegetation within. Water can be heard trickling somewhere. Insects buzz and birds twitter and brawl in the bushes. A cat comes to look at us and allows itself to be petted. Someone’s washing billows quietly on a line.

Several hours (it seems) later, somehow we’ve got lost. And our numbers have dwindled down to five. We don’t know how. Once we realized what was happening, that there weren’t as many of us as there had been, we tried to keep an eye on each other but it doesn’t seem to have worked. It’s coming on for dusk, and this place is a ghost town, and a maze. We keep walking, the four of us.
In this part of town the houses and gardens are bigger though still only two or three stories high and still mostly in terraces or pairs. It’s a pleasant, leafy turn-of-the-century suburb on a hill. The houses are set back behind gardens, always overflowing with plants, often with children’s toys scattered in the grass. Still nobody seems to be about.
We have a feeling that there are people living here. Lights are on in some rooms and there are the sounds of things happening elsewhere, but we can’t locate them. Finally it’s very dark and the streetlights are weak and there’s no moon. We knock on doors and call but there is no movement. A dog barks somewhere. We don’t want to break in but we’re getting frightened.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Voyage I – Travelling man

I’d always wanted to travel but I never got the chance in life. When I was in the sixth form a few intrepid souls were going inter-railing or working on a kibbutz, and then, in the eighties everybody was off to India or Thailand, or Australia. Everybody travelled back then. Cheap air travel was virtually a human right. I missed it all of course, along with everything else exciting and glamorous. And yet now here I am, on the deck of a ship going who knows where. Everything visible right now is cold and inhospitable but apparently it’ll only be a few months and we should be arriving on some exotic foreign shore, from whence we travel over land until we arrive at the far shore and rebirth. Apparently they provide camping equipment. Somehow I expected more of an ordeal, this being the afterdeath and all, but in fact I’m very much looking forward to it.

I never wanted to go to Asia myself – everybody went there. I could just picture the toilet paper flapping in the bushes all the way up to Anapurna Base Camp, and the merry tinkling of the broken coke bottles in the pure mountain streams. I’d like to have gone to Mexico or Brazil perhaps. I remember as a kid seeing pictures of the tops of pyramids emerging from the rainforest with those bizarre crests, like petrified seventies bookshelves set on top. I remember having a debate with a chap at Womad about extraterrestrials and the whole ‘Chariots of the Gods’ thing. I don’t necessarily dispute that there may be life on other planets and they may even occasionally visit us by some, as yet undreamt of method of propulsion, but this chap seemed to think he had inside information on who they were and what they wanted of us. I’d always considered such people fair game and there was something about the passion of his conviction that just forced me to try to demolish his entire belief system. Of course I failed because whereas he knew that the crystal skull was the work of aliens, I could do nothing better than suggest that there might be alternative explanations. One of the main planks to his belief as I recall, was the ‘extraordinary’ coincidence of form of the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids which was of course proof that the ‘Gods’ had had something to do with both. We argued long and hard about whether it had been adequately demonstrated that such technologically primitive peoples could have built such structures. We inevitably went on to discuss Nazca lines and crop circles. Unfortunately it didn’t occur to me until later that if you want to construct a truly massive edifice and your only technology is slaves, then a pyramid is pretty much the only shape to go for.
I know I should shut up and let them get on with it, but when people are talking crap at you, as if they know what’s what and you’re just a naive fool, well, as life goes on, sooner or later you just have to say something, if only for your own self-respect. I’m quite certain I never changed anyone’s mind about anything whatsoever.
That’s why I like it here. Nobody except the guides claim to know what the heck’s going on (and the guides don't claim to know much). Nobody knows anything about anybody else – except what they choose to tell. It reminds me a bit of hospital – with the staff in their greys and this hushed, almost narcotic atmosphere. On the other hand there’s an excellent menu and counselling and a library, and at least some sense of going somewhere. I go up on deck and sit and look at the ice flows passing in the fog, or watch the cormorants in the rigging. Other times I go and sit in the bar or the lounge with a good book and a strong cup of coffee. Maybe I’ll get bored but I don’t think we’ll be sailing for very long. I probably should be feeling bereft but to be honest I’ve never been happier, not in the whole of my life.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Book 2 - Neglect

No Stars, No Moon
‘Have you looked at the sky?’
‘No’ he says and looks up. ‘Why?’ but his voice tails off. Why is obvious. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? The night sky is as black as... what? It’s hard to think of a simile – except perhaps blindness.

Close your eyes in a cupboard in an unlit room at night, with the curtains closed. What’s that expression? ‘You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.’ It’s very rarely literally true in life, but here, in death, once the sun has gone, that’s often what it’s like. Pull a pile of blankets over your face. Seal the edges. Feel the damp warmth of your breath collect in the dusty fabric. Feel the carbon dioxide accumulate. For where the night sky in life gave us some feeble sense of the infinite (terrifying or thrilling according to taste), here it holds you down, seals you in, encases you. The sky is as black as your hat, as they say, but that hat is shoved down over your face.

Death # 2 - Man in a shed
My name is Gabriel Fortune – artist, philosopher, man of the road.
My life ended rather enviably as it happens. We’ve all heard of someone that lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully in their sleep, and, inevitably, someone says ‘That’s the way to go’. Well, that was what happened to me that time. I'd got to about 68 I think when it happened – must have happened in about 2030. I was living in a shed at the bottom of the garden and nobody found me for nine weeks, which wasn’t so much fun for them, but, on the plus side, nobody knew me well enough to care and there wasn’t a lot to find. The animals had seen to that.
How had I ended up in a shed? You may well ask. At the time I’d have given you short shrift, grumbling on about life’s iniquities and ruing my own shortcomings, but really, I have to say, that last couple of decades I was as content as anyone I’ve ever known, and I think I was aware of that at the time too. Grumbling was just how I was. It was a habit.

Things had got weird early on. Time came to leave school and I’d screwed up my A levels and all my friends (so called) went off to university, and I was at a loss what to do. I'd hated school – was totally bewildered by the whole abysmal experience, but whatever horrors lay in that particular institution were as nothing compared to the prospect of the “outside world”, or “real life” as some insisted on calling it. Stupid really. I only had to get Cs to get into Art College. They’d liked my work that much. They hadn't even asked me to attend an interview. I was that good. As it was I didn’t even pass.

I don’t know. Don’t ask. It wasn’t drugs or sex or any other hedonistic adolescent excess. Chance would have been a fine thing. Who knows what I might have achieved had I got those rocks off! What heights might I have scaled after sojourning in some altered state of consciousness? Who knows indeed. No. I was scared. It was as simple as that – scared of the responsibility, of the teachers, of the other kids, of girls, my parents, study, work, life. I just couldn’t face it. So I didn’t.
I had a few crappy jobs early on, signed on, eventually moved out and stayed in some crappy places in Brighton, took a few crappy courses but nothing ever really lead to anything. I carried on with my drawing and even had an exhibition one year at the Brighton Festival but somehow it never came to anything.
Ok, I know now why that was. I can’t pretend I don’t. Some people said I had success issues – cue ironic double quotes, but that’s not quite right. Success would have been fine. I could have coped with that. My trouble was failure. All the while you mosey along quietly you can’t fall very far, but if you start to succeed, and then you fail... Sounds like cowardice doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s just a realistic assessment of my limitations. Sure, sometimes I did some impressive work. I know that, I’ve always known that. But I also know what happens to me when the pressure is on, when I have to produce to order, I know what will happen, or I’ve got a pretty good idea. I’ll go to bits, I’ll go get lost, and I’ll let everyone down. And I can’t stand it. I’d really rather not if you don’t mind.
But it was good. I did produce some good things. Sometimes I’d take myself by surprise and finish something, and people would go ‘Wow! You did that? You should do this for a living’ and I could be all modest and self-effacing and give people nice presents they couldn’t afford ordinarily. And it was ok. Really. We can’t all be Damien bloody Hirst you know.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.