A Twitter conversation last night about the shitefest that is Glastonbury provoked an idea so wonderful I can't sleep properly. That Glastonbury has made the journey from counter-cultural peace movement mung bean folk rock oddity to corporate staple of the musical calendar is hardly an original announcement but something is wrong with music and, as with most things, I'm pinning the blame on the Tories (and by default New Labour).
Music needs to be overhauled every now and then. Beatlemania, Punk, Acid House all lit the fuse under a tired culture at the time. Now, in an age of Spotify and YouTube, where musical discovery is no longer the art of time consuming investigation and risk taking that it was in my day (IN MY DAY), everything seems to be heading towards some kind of homogenous sludge.
I want to be excited by music again. As a kid, there would be a new song every month or so on Top of the Pops that would make me feel something akin to delirium, a fever only soothed by that moment when I was finally able to see the stylus of the family record player hit the first groove of the vinyl I'd spunked my paper round money on. Occasionally I would fuck up and buy something like Toto's enduringly crass Africa but purchases like Eurythmics electro take on the Shangri-La's psychodrama , Frankie Goes to Hollywood's ballistic Cold War funk and this thrilling voyage into the brave new world of sampling made me feel that pop music would forever mutate into new exciting streams and sub streams, that despite the British public's fondness for novelty shit, sentimental shit and Euro holiday shit - there was still the very realistic hope that next week's edition of Top of the Pops would deliver something wonderful for me to feel that strange anticipation of the new.
When the coalition formed a government in 2010, some wise heads consoled themselves with the thought that music would improve as it had under the last Tory regime. Though industries closed and millions of dreams fell by the wayside, the Thatcher era was ushered in by the post punk sound of Joy Division (led ironically by a Tory voter) and over the next decade or so bands as disparate as The Smiths, Culture Club and Happy Mondays made debuts on Top of the Pops that made a nation gawp - an ever evolving national soundtrack providing sweet relief from the miseries of Margaret.
But it hasn't happened. Top of the Pops finally died in the face of public indifference and the technological marvel of unending libaries of downloadable portable music. Indie became a marketing term for guitar pop as groups of identikit middle class kids from the Home Counties formed the "The" bands - Vaccines, Kooks, Fratellis and decided that vaguely hummable choruses were all that was needed to sustain some sort of career in the music industry. The jaw dropping global success of Mumford and Sons, tonight's headliners at Glastonbury, is the last straw. A band whose schtick is dressing like 18th century mill workers whilst playing mildly anthemic dross have sold 2 billion copies of their records. The nation that gave the world Slade, the Specials and Pulp are repackaging the Tolpuddle Martyrs as life-affirming rock and it wont do.
What we need is a band that understand the true fuel of pop music isn't ambition but an understanding that it should be escapist, absurd and thrilling all at once. That bands dont need stories or journeys that the public must be drip fed in the tabloids, that mystery is the currency of pop genius. What we need is revolution. What we need is the KLF.
The KLF took the entrepeneurial can-do mantra of Thatcherism and subverted it via the technological advances of sampling, hijacked an emerging dance culture and invented something called Stadium House. Epic, thrilling nonsense. What Time is Love - a hybrid of acid house, hip hop, illuminati references and air raid sirens was everything pop should be - a shock of the new containing references to the old. 3AM Eternal topped the charts and was banned from a war-sensitive charts due to its machine gun sample. These were gargantuan slices of lunacy that had no right sharing chart space with Beverley Craven and Simply Red but there they were persuading country queen Tammy Wynette to join them in a song about acid house ice cream vans nonetheless. They ended up burning a milllion quid and dragging sheep carcasses to the Brits - now that's rock and roll - irresponsible, irreverent and irritating all at once.
Watching the likes of Mumfords top Glastonbury with the grim prospect of tomorrow evening being headlined by the Dignitas advert that is the Rolling Stones, it's clear that pop music needs an injection of thrilling irrelevance. Dizzee Rascal won't provide it. There's an embryonic campaign kicking off on Twitter - KLF to headline Glastonbury 2014. The nation needs them, your ears need them. There's a generation of kids right now that think paying £150 to camp for three days in a Somerset puddle to watch some old rich men playing tired old songs half a mile away is a rite of passage. Let's save them.
Saturday, 29 June 2013
Saturday, 15 June 2013
Another piece of autobiographical writing about my son.
Part Time Dad
It’s the Saturday before Christmas and I’m on a packed Tube train headed for Oxford Circus. I hate Christmas. I hate the Tube. Shopping and people – I hate them too. I am devoid of the Christmas spirit but I have promised all year to take my son, Josh, who is nine, to Hamleys. We probably won’t buy anything there because it’ll be ridiculously overpriced because most of their customers are tourists who won’t realise there are other toy retailers within half an hour’s walk. Josh and I are standing – the train is packed and we’re up against a door.
My son looks like the Milky Bar Kid. Little thatch of blond hair, spectacles that keep falling down his slightly freckled nose. So far, so cute. Add to this the fact that he has somehow managed to cultivate an accent which combines the cut glass Sarf Lahndn voice of his father and the sing song soft Welsh lilt of his bitch mother and he has quite a sweet little voice too.
A voice which, sadly for me, he is about to shatter the traditional silence of the packed Tube train with.
“What does homosexual mean?”
Now, at this point, I ought to point out that I am wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend “GAY DAD” in big letters. They’re a band I went to see the weekend before. I liked the T-shirt and I knew that wearing it when I went to pick my son up would upset his evil cow mother.
I look at the rest of the people in our carriage who have turned their heads to me as one, like some Christmas shopping Hydra. They’re all clearly keen on hearing me answer this question and, having clocked the T-shirt I’m wearing, have agreed between themselves on the events that have led me to this moment.
I reckon they think that I’m gay and that my son was the result of a doomed relationship with a woman in which I lived in denial of my true sexuality until I could stand it no more. Perhaps they’ve added a boyfriend. A job too. Perhaps I live in Muswell Hill with a set designer called Piers.
Their eyes haven’t moved. The Hydra, like my son, wants to know what a homosexual is.
“Daddy? What does homosexual mean?”
“Well, it’s a very long word for a small boy to be using. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“Billy called me one.”
“Well, Billy shouldn’t use words he doesn’t understand. It’s not an insult, ignore Billy, he’s being very childish.”
Even my stupid hateful and ugly piece of shit of an ex would have to agree that I had displayed something approaching maturity here. The rest of the carriage, I feel, are about to break into polite applause at my thoughtful parenting skills. We’re all bonding together in the warm glow of my magnificent answer. I feel Christmassy. Come on Hydra, let’s go to the pub and drink some mulled wine and crack open a walnut.
Josh ruins it though. Josh ruins Christmas.
“It’s OK though Dad. I called him a cunt.”
Thursday, 13 June 2013
I like really short fiction.
Many are the ways in which this tale will be written. I want to recall it perfectly, write it purely as I see it from the distance of the sole hour that has passed since the occurrence. For, despite the warnings, already I imagine the varying interpretations taking place, the calculated Chinese whisper passing from powerful ears to weaker ones.
At three minutes past noon today I went to a cash machine a few yards from my office. In error, I asked for a receipt. There was a queue behind me but I waited till it was printed lest others discover the extent of my poverty.
I bought a cheese and onion roll.
Opposite the baker’s there is a pub that sells cheap beer all day and cheap beer all night. Outside it there were the usual crowd of refugees from the world of work. There’s a bench a few yards up from there where I like to sit with my lunch if the weather’s not too bad. I took a seat and opened up the bag. A pigeon heard the tiny crackle of paper and landed close to my feet.
The pigeon looked at me. I thought about shooing him.
And then it happened.
I knew it wasn’t just happening in my head because of all the spilt cars around me, the stumbling beers and crashing women, the way that people clutched their heads to listen closer to the voice, to blot it out, to protect themselves from the sudden madness.
A voice, a voice like none heard yet in the sane world, spoke in all the heads on Earth.
I am the Creator.
I made you and I can unmake you. Abandon your churches, your mosques and temples. Destroy your banks, burn your things. Eden exists. It is all around you. Your beliefs are confirmed but do not become complacent for your rituals disappoint me. Put down your weapons and feed each other. Abandon your wealth as you would your worries for the two are one. The next time I speak will be the last.
I heard the church on the hill at the top of the town smash, saw the smoke rise from here and turned again as the town’s mosques, temples and banks fell into dust. I felt the coins in my pocket burn through the lining, fall and melt into nothingness.
As I speak, the televisions are beginning to crackle back into life silent. I can hear sirens and gunfire. The sky has emptied of clouds and the streets are filled with wondrous, upturned heads. A man on the radio is crying. There is talk of rioting.
A pigeon nibbles at the dropped roll by my feet. I think about shooing him.
And then it happens.
Sunday, 9 June 2013
This is me trying to do something a bit clever-clever and falling a bit short. I'm trying to write something based around all of these characters now, something a bit longer. Credit where it's due, my good friend @stephenmonk1970 (twitter fans) came up with flagwiches at Italia 90.
A Toddler Could Do England
It was all Japan´s fault. Japan was the easiest.
Once you´d done Japan, then you were duty bound to try Poland. Piece of piss, Poland. England was easy too. A toddler could do England. Once you´d mastered them three, you could move on to other countries. Russia and China were tricky, but possible, providing you had mustard or piccalilli.
Actually, now he thought about it, it was all his Dad´s fault. Picture the scene, the summer of 1980. Ten-year-old Martin Monkhouse is watching the Olympics on telly with his Dad, Fat Tony. Everyone knew Fat Tony. Fat Tony the postman. Fat Tony who on Saturday afternoons got the train up to South London to watch his beloved Crystal Palace. Fat Tony, who would have 8 or 9 pints in the Selhurst Arms before the match and take his t-shirt off and do his famous war dance in the pub, shaking his big flabby torso all over the place whilst being serenaded with ´You Fat Bastard´ by all the other mums and dads. Not Fat Tony who ran the taxi rank out Selsdon way, not that fat bastard.
Where was his Dad now, eh, thought Little Martin as he stood behind a huge screen waiting to do a press conference. The nation demanded answers.
Anyway, summer 1980. Little Martin and Fat Tony are on the sofa watching sport on telly. This is what they do every Saturday night when there isn´t a home Palace match. Tonight they are watching the Moscow Olympics. Fat Tony wants Little Martin to love sport as much as he does. Since they were little, they´ve played in the garden together or the shed, recreating what they´ve just seen on the telly. Fat Tony as Big Daddy and Little Martin as Rollerball Rocco after the wrestling´s been on. Look at them coming in, Little Martin covered in grass stains and his dad bleeding from the nose and laughing like a madman. Fat Tony is Pat Jennings in goal and Little Martin is Vince Hilaire. Goal! 1-0 to the Palace.
The previous evening, Little Martin had been Seb Coe in the 1500 metres. And Fat Tony was Steve Ovett. Tonight though, it´s raining and the Olympics are on cos Fat Tony´s wife, Denise, is out with the girls watching a romantic comedy starring Dudley Moore at the local Odeon. It´s the weightlifting on the telly. There´s no British athlete involved so Fat Tony is weighing up the competitors to see who he´s going to get behind. There´s only three left, two Russians and a Japanese bloke. The Russians well, they might have been on our side in the War but they aren´t now so that´s them out. This is how Fat Tony thinks. If you´re not with him, you´re against him. On this basis, and the fact that Tony has recently bought a brand new video recorder made by Toshiba, it is the short, fat little Japanese fellow that they plump for.
Hidetoshi Yakamoto. The commentator tells the viewers back home that Mr. Yakamoto is a maths teacher from Nagoya.
‘Blimey. You wouldn´t be late with his homework, would ya, eh? Fat Tony ruffles his son´s mousey brown hair with his fat fingers.
´No way Dad. He´s massive.´
´Course, the other two are bigger still. Russians, see. Probably got all mad KGB steroids in them to make them bigger than most blokes. Probably going to get shot if they don´t win.´
´I don´t want anyone to get shot, Dad.´
´Nah, I´m only joking. Shall we cheer on that little Jap fella, though, eh? He´s on his own. Them Russian blokes can at least cheer each other up. Who´s that Japanese fella got eh? No-one. He´s on his own.´
Fat Tony paused to belch, putting down the can of lager on the arm of the sofa.
´He´s on his own,´ he continued. ´He´s our man.´
Twenty minutes later, seemingly inspired by the Monkhouse support, the maths teacher from Nagoya was victorious over the Russians. This was cause for celebrations in Maidstone and Moscow.
Fat Tony loved to eat. A champion eater, the kitchen was his arena.
´Fancy some bacon sarnies, Martin?´
´Yeah. Go on then.´
´Do you want sauce?´
´Yeah, I´ll do it.´
When it came to putting ketchup on the sarnies, both Fat Tony and his son were traditionalists. Slam it all over. But that was before the sight of the Japanese flag stirred something in both father and son.
The Land of the Rising Sun was triumphant and the Japanese flag stood proud above the austere Soviet gymnasium. Fat Tony stared at the four slices of white bread beneath him on the breadboard - his ketchup bottle poised above them.
With love and care, Fat Tony positioned the bottle and gave its bottom a firm tap. An almost perfect red circle hit the centre of the bread.
´Hey, look son. Japanese flag bacon sandwich!´
At this, they both started to laugh. Martin took the ketchup from his father and made a similar flag on his bread. They ate noisily and happily, and for the rest of the Olympics, used a variety of sauces and accompaniments to make flag sandwiches to celebrate any Olympic victory.
On the Monday, Fat Tony came home very excitedly with a poster depicting all the countries of the world and their respective flags. Up it went on the kitchen wall, ready for condiment based reference needs. These were the golden memories of Martin´s childhood.
Throughout his teens, Martin looked forward to World Cups and Olympics as much for the flag sandwiches as the sport itself. His dad too, loved these shared moments, and thought of his own strained relationship with his father as a boy. The only flags being waved in Fat Tony´s childhood were white ones.
Some years pass. Martin left school for a stint at a local catering college. Fat Tony got sacked by the Post Office for not being small enough to fit into a post office approved shirt. He stuck his last pay packet into the purchase of a fully equipped burger van. He bought a load of meat from Billy Banks who´d just come out of Brixton nick for biting off the nose of a bookmaker at Catford dog track. The van is painted with the legend ´Fat Tony´s Meat Wagon´. Monkhouse and son are in business.
June 1996. London. The European Football Championships are in town. The burger van is parked close to Wembley Stadium. England are playing Switzerland in 3 hours time. Ninety thousand football supporters and half of them coming past Fat Tony´s Meat Wagon twice in the next few hours. Business is going to be booming.
The next bit of the story writes itself really. There´s plenty of competition and business isn´t as good as it could be until in the hours leading to England´s crucial game with the Netherlands, little Martin, inspired by all the St. George´s flags being dragged towards the stadium, resurrects the flag sandwich. Big slices of white bread quartered with the red cross of St Heinz. Flagwiches. Two quid. Although neither of them know quite what this means, it becomes clear to many that Fat Tony and Little Martin have tapped into what some pretentious media type would call the zeitgeist.
Zeitgeist tapped or not, the demand for flagwiches becomes phenomenal and just as the England team suddenly find themselves playing to their full potential and looking like world beaters, Monkhouse and sons find themselves making thousands of pounds a day more than they could have hoped for. One night, they´re the jokey cheer you up at the end of all the bad news item at the end of the news at ten. Suddenly Monkhouse and sons are talking media rights and licensing money over a mobile phone they´ve seemingly acquired from nowhere.
By the time England lose to Germany in the semi-finals, Fat Tony´s Meat Wagon is a household name. Richard Branson´s invited them over to his island for drinks and Robert De Niro wants to buy the rights to the film of their life story.
From then on, every England football campaign was the cue for another launch of everyone´s favourite fan-snack. People could make them at home of course with just a bit of ketchup and bread but it didn´t taste like the ones you could buy during the World Cup from any participating store. What´s more, it felt like sacrilege. England´s astonishing win over the Dutch was a direct result of Little Martin artfully quartering a slice of cheap white bread with two lines of red ketchup.
´I mean, they really tapped into the zeitgeist didn´t they? They were like, the 12th player in the team´ said David Bowie´s nephew on a television show called 1996 Was Ace.
´For me, there was a definite synergy between the smooth symmetrical nature of the ketchup on the white bread and the movement of the white shirts. It was, dare one say it, a piece of post-modern psychic bonding which acted as a kind of dress rehearsal for the post-Diana displays of public grief,’ said a previously highly respected professor of poetry on the South Bank Show.
Eleven years later and Martin Monkhouse stood on the balcony of his expensive Thameside apartment looking out over the rainy evening. His dad paced anxiously inside as England failed to respond to the carefully timed launch of their latest business venture, Fat Tony´s Beckham Cross Buns.
´I´m going for a walk,´ said Fat Tony as England let in yet another rubbish goal.
´Where you going? It´s pissing down, it’s only a game. It´ll be alright,´ said Little Martin.
It wasn´t alright though and Little Martin knew it.
All across England, the final whistle prompted swearing at television sets, kicking of dogs and half-hearted suicide attempts. A property developer in Devizes decided that the agonising nature of England´s defeat was just typical of his own life, so close to getting what you want and then blowing it right at the end. This idiot, an unfortunate, fat little man called Trevor Ferris decided to drink a bottle of black sambuca and swallow a load of painkillers to say goodbye to a life he considered wretched. However, Trevor forgot to take the painkillers along with the sambuca and got blind drunk, woke up feeling unwell and tripped over his cat and fell through his kitchen window and ended up paralysed from the neck down. Had he not decided to save a few quid on the windows, he wouldn´t even have smashed them. Still, funny old game eh.
Back in London, the England manager, Mickey Sweet decided to forego the post match press conference and ducked out of the stadium through a fire exit. He was fucked, he knew that much. You didn´t lose a game like that and expect to keep your job. The papers were going to crucify him. The last manager but one, blimey. His team drew against Rwanda in the World Cup. Now admittedly Rwanda weren´t a bad side but you know, England were expected to win. Anyway, the erstwhile manager woke to find the headline ´Rwanka´ over the front of the Sun with his photo. Mickey wondered what he was going to wake up to, what terrible pun they were going to wrench out of the word Montenegro. Walking fast with his head down, he suddenly realised he was amongst thousands of wet and pissed off football fans.
´Fucking useless. Montenegro? Where´s that? Jesus.´
´Well at least that twat´s sacked now.´
´Hundred grand a week to be fucking useless. Bastards.´
Slipping down a side street, Mickey pulled his mobile out of an inside pocket. Ignoring the missed calls message on the screen, he phoned for a minicab. There wasn´t one available for at least an hour so he decided to keep walking down various alleyways until he spotted a sign indicating a basement bar called Monty´s. Checking he had his wallet he decided that a few stiff drinks was the answer and casually descended the steel staircase beneath the city. There was a big screen in the corner of the bar showing various ex-footballer pundits trying to be analytical and neutral whilst capturing the mood of the nation at the same time by offering their opinion as to who should be the next England manager. One of the pundits, a charismatic player widely derided in his time as being a luxury player was sticking the boot in, conveniently forgetting that the current man for the job was the same bloke he´d backed the last time round. As well as being his own brother.
´Family loyalties aside, he´s let the nation down and he has to go,´ said Luxury Player.
Mickey struggled through a crowd to the bar as no one seemed to be watching the television. Everyone was getting drunk, it seemed.
´A large scotch please,´ he said to the barman.
The barman brought the scotch, thanked him in an accent Mickey couldn´t quite place and turned his attention back to the big screen.
By now, the news was on the telly and everyone turned to watch. Little Martin was on the telly giving some sort of press conference. He looked devastated.
´Do you think you got the ingredients wrong, Martin?´ said one reporter.
´Why didn´t you stick with the flagwiches before such a crucial game?´ asked another.
´I´m not sure. It´s been a very difficult evening for everyone,´ offered Little Martin by means of explanation.
At this point, Fat Tony walked into the bar. Spotting Mickey Sweet sat alone on a leather armchair; he rubbed his eyes in disbelief before grabbing a pint of lager and taking a seat next to him.
´Well, I´ve had better nights, ´ offered Fat Tony by means of introducing himself.
´I don´t suppose ours can get much worse, though.´
´Might as well stay here and get pissed up, eh?´
And so the soon-to-be sacked England manager and the managing director of the only flag-based snacks company in the world swapped autobiographies and anecdotes over a long night´s worth of short drinks and tall stories. Had they been paying more attention they would have noticed that they were drinking in the only bar in the whole of England aimed at the burgeoning Montenegrin community. Slowly the place filled with celebrating, disbelieving Montenegro fans waving their flags and drinking heroic quantities of plum brandy. But they weren´t paying any attention to that nor the telly that showed their faces in alternating close ups throughout the night´s news bulletins. Nor to the fact the crisps they were eating weren´t just any old snack but traditionally baked bacon grizpoc, specially designed in the same colours as the proud Montenegro flags that danced around them.
Saturday, 8 June 2013
I overheard a conversation between two old women in the now closed Borders in Cardiff. "You never used to like crime, Mary" stood out as something I should at least try to draw inspiration from. So this is it, the second ever story I wrote.
The Book Club
Ann and Mary were sat in Espressions, a book and coffee shop opposite the building site that occupied most of the city they had grown up in. They were both in their sixties and had seen a lot of change in Cardiff but it was getting ridiculous now, they thought. Having finally got used to one monstrous shopping centre, now that had been knocked down to build a bigger, better, brighter one.
At the moment the bigness, betterness and brightness was represented by a set of nine foot posters depicting the ´capital´s exciting retail experience of the future´. That and a square mile of cranes, rubble and fat men in orange hats.
Espressions wasn´t the sort of place they went to normally. But a lot of those places had gone. Once, if Ann or Mary had fancied a cup of tea, then they would have gone to one of the many cafes and teashops that used to operate in the city. Nice, quiet affairs. There were coffee shops everywhere now, all of them filled with horrible teenagers with those skateboard things. And you couldn´t tell if they were boys or girls. And the price of a cup of tea in those places. One pound fifty. For a cup of tea. Ridiculous.
But now Ann and Mary were sat with a pot of tea for two and a cake each that hadn´t given much change from a ten-pound note. Sipping at their tea, they exchanged glances at each other´s little book-sized shopping bags, wondering what the other had bought.
Ann and Mary were both widowed. They´d known each other all their life; they´d grown up on Claude Road together, kids next door. Ann had married Charlie, a bus driver and they were together forty-one years until he´d had his third heart attack and died loudly in his sleep. Mary had married Charlie´s brother, Roger. Roger was a salesman for a local brewery. He´d fallen down the stairs at home after several pints down the Conservative club. The neighbours claimed they´d heard a row but the police weren´t convinced. Still, Roger was well insured and Mary had finally had the house paid off as a result. She´d taken Ann on a cruise but they were both bored now they didn´t have husbands to be bored with.
That was when they joined the Book Club.
There was a poster in the window of a charity shop that they both volunteered at. The shop raised money for the care of rescued circus animals. A man they both recognised, whom Ann always thought smelt slightly of cough sweets, came into the shop with a bin liner full of stuff he thought they might be able to sell. As he was leaving, he did an about turn and asked if he could put a poster in the window.
´What´s the poster for?´ said Ann
´Oh. It´s a book club. A friend of mine is starting one up. Like on that Richard and Judy.´
And so it was that Ann and Mary met Mr. Chubb or Peter as they got to know him. Peter Chubb was a friend of Isabella who was heavily involved in local arts. The Roath Book Club met every Tuesday 6pm at an old church hall off Albany Road. The first meeting it was just the four of them, Peter, Isabella, Ann and Mary. Ann and Mary didn´t know how it worked, that they had just turned up for something to do. Isabella explained that each week someone would suggest a book and the others would read it over the week and then talk about it. Also, somebody would be asked to nominate a book for the group to read the following week and so on.
Isabella´s initial recommendation was The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon. Ann really liked the book, Mary was not so keen. Ann’s first recommendation was a romantic novella she´d read on the cruise the summer before which was a predictable enough romp about an older woman who befriends a Turkish restaurateur with one leg. Mary chose Black Beauty as it was her favourite ever book and she was certain that no one else would have read it. Peter never turned up after the first meeting.
Over the next few months, the book group swelled. There was little Vicky who liked stories where vampires and rape prominently featured. She worked in a bank. Then there was Matthew, a shy Northern man with thick glasses who also liked horror. He had that screeching violin from the film Psycho as the ringtone on his phone. People only knew this because Matthew would show them. The Book Club wasn´t like a library; you could have your mobile on just in case the babysitter rang or the police or whoever. Nobody could recall anyone actually ringing Matthew.
There was Tony, the supermarket manager with a penchant for SAS memoirs. He was a fat man with a speech impediment and always stank of beer. Whenever he used to turn up, he would always try and sit next to Mary. The last time he turned up, he was clearly drunk and asked Mary to come for a drink with him after. She declined the offer and Tony was clearly mortally wounded by this snub as they never saw him again. There was something in the local paper a week or two later. He´d been found dead in his car. No note, just a bottle of Gordon´s and an empty packet of headache tablets.
Mary had made an ill-advised joke when they next met. Vicky had brought in the local paper, trying to look sad and shocked but failing to pull it off. Tony´s picture was in the paper underneath the sad tale of his demise. The headline read ´Suspected Suicide of Supermarket Manager´
´Oh, his poor family, ´ said Ann. ´Why do they have to make such a big headline of that? It should be kept private, these things.´
Mary began to giggle.
´I have a better headline. Who dares gins? ´she said.
It was thought best to cancel the meeting that week.
Catherine was next, both Ann and Mary thought she was a bit stuck up, partly because she had a double-barrelled surname but they admitted to each other that they really liked her recommendation, which was a book about a boy with cancer who could fly. Kim was a bored housewife who liked extremely erotic fiction, which made Ann extremely uncomfortable discussing. The book they´d been asked to read was set in Berlin in the 1920s. The things that people did to each other in that book. Ann was horrified; Mary called her an old prude. They´d had a bit of a row about it on the drive home but it was quickly forgotten unlike the daisy chain scene on page 48 of Verboten Loves.
Then there was another Vicky, who liked something called chick-lit. Duncan liked detective novels. Mark liked detective novels. Ursula was a fat Irish girl with LOVE tattooed on both sets of knuckles. She liked a book called The Tesseract, which everyone pretended to read but didn´t get past page 19.
As a result of this group, Ann and Mary had quickly expanded their literary tastes as well as the contents of their own personal libraries. It was Ann´s turn in a week and Mary´s the week after that. They had heard about Espressions from the other members of the group the week before. And so, one Wednesday morning a few weeks before Christmas, the two ladies caught the bus into the city. Surrounded by iPods and call centres, they felt almost like tourists and instinctively made their way from the bus stop towards the indoor market just to be somewhere that hadn´t changed from their childhood.
Espressions was a big glass fronted department store on the other side of the Victorian market building. It had a coffee shop on the top floor and was staffed by excitable young people with strange facial hair and those headset things you saw assassins wearing in American films.
It was a prime location and handy too as it sat on the space where there used to be a separate bookshop, record shop and an old cafe. The cafe, Bruno´s, had been there since before the First World War and both Ann and Mary remembered being taken there as young girls. Upstairs in Espressions, one wall had been entirely taken up by a huge black and white photograph of Bruno´s so people would remember it fondly.
Mary stared at the moustache of the original Bruno on the wall. Blown up like this, his moustache was now wider than her head. She closed her eyes and tried to remember the sounds and smells of Bruno´s but all she could hear was a compilation of Argentine folk music that was free with every fifty pounds you spent in the store.
The daydream ended. Ann was excitedly emptying her Espressions bag.
´Mary, come on. Show me your wares! This is what I´ve bought.´
Ann had bought three books. One was a romantic novel by someone she'd seen on a cookery programme on telly. Next out of the bag was a selection of poems by Dylan Thomas. She´d probably give it to someone for Christmas. The last book was one she´d seen on display in the front of the store. Tunnel Boy was ´a harrowing memoir of an abused childhood´. Since they´d read the book about the flying boy with cancer, Ann had become slightly obsessed with tales of survival. She hadn´t yet read Robinson Crusoe. For Crusoe to appeal now, he would have to have been raped and partially eaten by Man Friday. This was the book Ann would read first, she found herself quite excited at the prospect of a quiet evening in with Tunnel Boy.
´So. Come on what´s in the bag? ´
Mary emptied her bag. Works by Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and John D Westlake lay on the table. Murders, robberies and more murders. In the last month alone Mary´s eyes had witnessed 27 murders, 14 armed robberies, at least a dozen rapes and various blackmails, beatings and buggeries. No wonder she looked tired, thought Ann.
Ann looked at Mary. Mary stared at Signor Bruno’s 18-inch moustache.
´What´s got into you Mary? You never used to be into crime.´
At this point Fate intervened in the shape of the clumsy looking assistant who´d had the decency to look apologetic when handing Ann the heartbreakingly small amount of change from their tea and cake. He was named Michael and he was, according to the hand written badge on his striped shirt, a barista. Michael had slipped on a piece of spilt tiramisu behind the counter and, in his effort to stop himself from falling, accidentally turned the stereo up to full volume.
Consequently, the only person that heard Mary break down and confess to pushing her violent husband down the stairs and breaking his neck; to holding up a sub-post office near Monmouth with a sawn-off shotgun; and to a host of other criminal offences was Mary herself. Everyone else had their fingers in their ears trying to blot out the noise of an Argentine sheep herder mourning what could have been.
´What did you say Mary? ´
´Oh nothing´ said Ann.
Outside, the cranes swayed uneasily in the wind as the rain picked up again. Shoppers ran for cover. Espressions filled with the sound of wet people pretending to be interested in literature.
Mary stared at the window, at the fresh raindrops silently racing down the outside of the glass.
Wednesday, 5 June 2013
I wanted to write something about being a dad. I'm stealing a title, of course, from the wonderful Blake Morrison.
And when did you first see your son?
So that wasn’t the first time I saw you.
Four minutes after you were born, sometime after two in the morning, I held you for the first time. I remember the surprising warmth and weight of the bundle. I remember the smell of the efforts of labour and the sight of your mother angry with exhaustion. A father can feel like a fraud at such moments, I did. The only thing I saw was the next sixteen years of my life spread out like a dull, sufocating blanket. I knew I loved you but I loved myself more. That wasn’t the first time I saw you.
Taxi home from the hospital; you in the Moses basket on my lap. In the thirty-six hours since you were born I have sterilised the house or near as dammit. I have vacuumed, polished, scrubbed, aired, fumigated, cleansed. It is a museum not a home. My parents are there to greet us all, excited at the new generation of our family getting under way. They coo and they aah at the appropriate junctures. My dad’s brought flowers and champagne. I coo and I aah at the appropriate junctures.
Over the next 18 months your eyes opened more, you crawled, took your first steps. Our days were adventures in growing up for the pair of us. Nappies and inoculations for you; responsibility and domesticity for me. However, my evenings were mine. I couldn’t wait to say goodnight. I could have read to you. I rarely did.
A few days before your first birthday you were rushed to hospital with suspected meningitis in an ambulance with a police escort. Meningitis is big news round here right now. Some tiny lad round the corner died only the week before. And now we’re in a hospital drama, being wheeled at high speed to some special room where I have to bend you and somehow ignore your screams whilst they drain fluid from your tiny spine.
Anxiously we wait for some guy in a lab upstairs to call down. No news is bad news. You didn’t have meningitis. You would live.
I cried that night because I was angry at you for making me cry.
The rest of that time is textbook. Parents too young. Unplanned child. Thwarted dreams. Poverty and rows. The inevitable split. Your mother getting custody.
Before that, not long before that, maybe a week or two earlier, I saw you for the first time.
A miniature village green that acted as an excuse for the cul-de-sac we lived in. A February morning, short on sunshine. What light there is is watered down from months of winter, the birch trees stripped and thin against it like angry veins, tired fingers. The pair of us padded up in thick coats on the wet grass. An impossibly red football in front of your little fat corduroy legs. You are running towards the ball, running, properly running for the first time in your life. You kick at the ball and pleasingly, it shoots away from you a few yards. You chase it. We chase it together. Kicking and running and chasing the rest of the morning. These are the greatest minutes of my life and I don’t yet know it. This is the first time I see you.
It's a story. I never knew quite where I was going with this. The idea, or at least what passed for an idea back then, was to write about the idea of family trees, roots etc. But it's still better than Dan Brown, right? Right?
My dad’s been digging all day. And not just today, he’s been at it for weeks now apparently. A huge hole at the bottom of the garden with the discarded earth behind him rising, becoming quite the little mountain. My mum just takes him out tea and sandwiches. She walks out with the tray and the torch and hollers down into the deep that there is refreshment. Then she starts with the pulley.
All hours he’s out there, digging.
When she called me over for lunch I knew that there was something wrong. My parents don’t phone me; apparently it’s my job to phone them. If I don’t call at least once a week then I can expect to be on the receiving end of several doses of low-level emotional blackmail.
“Just ring her up once or twice a week, mate. It’s not hard.”
“Well, I know you’re busy but I worry. Five minutes is all.”
I didn’t know about the hole till today.
My brothers are both there when I arrive. I’m the youngest of three and I’m thirty five in a month. This, I sometimes joke, is better than being the youngest of thirty five and being three in a month. Ben’s a year older than me, runs a garage about ten miles from here. It’s called Ben’s Garage. There’s a huge neon B in the kind of font they have on American vaudeville posters. A big B hanging out above the road off the roof of the garage. A little part of me dies each time I see it.
My older brother is called William and I have no idea what he does but it earns him enough money to live out by the sea and drive a car that will cost more money to insure than I’ll ever see in my bank account.
I am an obituarist. I write obituaries to order for national papers. Someone famous dies, the phone rings. That’s how I make a living.
Ben and William, of course, ring my mother every day. They seem oblivious to the great crater our dad is making at the end of the garden. They sit there and drink their coffee and read the sports pages.
“How long has he been doing this?”
“Couple of months,” says William without looking up.
“Why? What is he doing?”
“He’s just digging a hole, he’s happy enough.”
Ben starts humming La Cucaracha. My mum joins in whilst she peels potatoes at the sink.
I leave the three of them to it and make my way into the garden.
I hear the echo of my own voice before I see how deep the hole is. One syllable, the second I ever learnt, dropping deep beneath the earth and repeating itself. At the lip of the hole there is the first of what appears to be several improvised ladders. I turn my gaze to the flanks of the garden and notice that the trees are all stumps, amputated limbs from the garden war.
I start to climb down the first ladder.
“Dad,” I call again.
It was around the time of the third or fourth ladder that I started to really worry. Christmas lights stretched down from the extension lead from the shed. Rather than getting thinner, the tunnel started to widen the further I descended. The ladders became stronger, the lights brighter. Further and further down I climbed, calling my Dad’s name all the time until I reached a well-lit platform.
A few yards in front of me there was a door. Behind I could hear voices, one of them my father’s clearly. Several male voices, all familiar to me somehow. A lot of laughter and the clinking of glasses, somewhere beneath those voices I could hear distinctly strains of music.
Swallowing hard and trying to keep my breath at a polite volume, I knocked the door.
It was a wonderful few hours we spent sitting round that table. My great-grandfather was a hoot; he had us in stitches about his time at sea. His own father was also present; several generations of my family were there. Just the fathers mind. We talked about raising children, politics and women. One of my really old ancestors told us about the time he slept with one of the Brontes. I can’t remember which one now but it was a good story. My dad just sat there laughing, turning to me and smiling occasionally as he poured another round of drinks. Every now and then I would feel myself starting to panic; my dad would reassure me with a hand on my shoulder.
A guy with exactly the same jaw as my dad was halfway through a story about hiding from Oliver Cromwell when my dad looked at his watch and said it was time for us to go.
“Nice to meet you all,” I said.
They all smiled politely, raised glasses, and wished me the best.
My dad held out a hand as I negotiated the last few rungs to the surface. I brushed a little dirt off myself and made my way into the kitchen. Will and Ben were sat there eating sandwiches. I made my excuses, kissed my mum goodbye and got into my car.
Tomorrow I will plant a tree in my garden. Maybe after that, as long as nobody I’ve heard of dies, I’ll phone home.