Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Say It's True

Say it's true there are such things
Of glory and great power
Exceeding ought the neath life brings
And quickening the hour
When worldly pains at once depart
To leave us swathed in peace
Which vindicate the constant heart
Whose love would grudge to cease
Then by such power some fraction lives
Unfuelled by the blood
And timeless truth its being gives
To be now understood
That through the windings of life's span
All thoughts return to one
As sure as he exists a man
Remains his mother's son

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Trans-Pennine Express

Things start to go wrong at Preston

I’m reading The Road to Wigan Pier and adumbrating the differences between the working class and the bourgeoisie when my up-to-now peaceful carriage fills with a crowd of ugly girls, all caked in make-up and bringing with them their own micro-climate of sickly perfume. 

I recognise Irish and Liverpudlian accents. Evidently it’s a hen party. They fall into the three or four rows of seats closest to me and start yapping, telling dirty stories, swearing and cackling.  

I tense up, realising my status has changed. No longer the suave, bookish journeyman; rather the cornered, cowering prey. Whatever happens now it can only be bad. At the very least, they’ll start loudly debating the size of my cock.

What is it with them? Is it that they don’t know or don’t care how to behave? Whatever it is, they're an unstoppable force of violent yapping. The bottles of Smirnoff Mule and little hand mirrors come out. I feel sickened.

The phrase ‘end of civilisation’ comes to mind. But of course it isn’t. They have their own values, they’re just not mine, just not so delicate as mine. It’s a group of working-class girls having a laugh.

My sister lives in that world. She could easily be among them, the Lambrini girls with their painted talons, their hair extensions, headbutts and accidental pregnancies. Is that what I think of her – the end of civilisation? Where the fuck do I think I am from?

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Baby born

The photo is of my dad in a hospital armchair, with his bald head and branded glasses, cradling his newborn granddaughter in his arms. Isla Blue is born at 10.30pm on Monday August 13. “Mother and baby ‘doing fine’”, as the text to the vague extended family says.

My dad is holding the baby and in the midday sun the two windows behind them are blocks of pure white light.

My dad is wearing a plain lemon yellow t-shirt and new-looking black trousers. Smart. He is in a classic male baby-holding posture, slave to an old unspoken rule: arms forming an awkward cradle, shoulders hunched, looking down at the tremulous pink bundle in his arms with the blank curiosity of, well, a child. 

Under her miniscule body, his hands look enormous: another-species big. Less than 24 hours old, dressed in a pink bodysuit, wearing white mittens, Isla is a glowing perfection in blinding summer light. 

This is my niece, my niece in white mittens.

When I Was 29

When I was 29 I decided that the world was too much with me, and that I needed to purge myself of everything that made me feel that way. So I gave up on watching television, listening to the radio, reading newspapers and clever-sounding books, engaging in chit chat, shopping ‘as leisure’, answering emails, going 'out', taking drugs... I emptied my life of itself.
What I needed was space to think, to breathe, to be able to savour ‘being’, the texture of things, to not let my precious days on earth piss away in trivia, aches and worries. Fuck that. Just to be and to appreciate the moment, that’s all I wanted for myself. To watch the birds flying over my head, to watch the flowers grow, to enjoy the peace and quiet, the simplicity that life should be…
So I gave up all this stuff. No more HBO, no more X Factor, no more Breaking News, no more adverts, no more Taste the Difference, no more ‘coruscating visions of the human condition’, no more drunken dancing, no more comedowns, no more hi, how was your weekends, best regards, all the bests. I gave it all up…
Then I grew lonely and depressed.
The silence that I’d wished for started to drive me mad. I started to hate my own company. I’d look in the mirror and think, oh fuck me, you again. 
Suddenly I hungered for all the stuff I’d abandoned. So I went back to my old way of living. Going to the supermarket became a religious experience. Television started to feel like salvation. Simon Cowell became as an angel. A cartoon-faced, redeeming angel with divinely white teeth.
I’d go out on the piss with all the people who used to bore me so much and I’d love it, love them, even the most boring of them, so grateful was I for the responsiveness of another human being. I’d delight in asking people I hardly knew how they were and whether they’d had a good day and would respond with hysterical enthusiasm when they said they were 'fine thanks'.
Anything to get away from myself...

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Batley Boy

At the crack of dawn in the train shed at York Station. It’s spring and I’m leaving the north. Tired but happy here. A clear morning, a fine old shed, the trill of swallows echoing in the rafters. The sun comes alive. Light dances over the shed's broad arches, lemon yellow and carnation pink glints bursting from high windows, lending the tracks a thin golden glow.

Puffy-eyed travellers ranged across the platform. They keep to themselves, coat collars up against the residual chill of night, in spirit still back in their warm beds.

Of all places to be, on the east coast rail network at the beginning of day, somewhere up north, might be best. Always a feeling of effervescence at these transit points, ready to speed across the country on a train, landscapes appearing and disappearing as a striated blur past my window, on the way to who-cares-where. 

A wintery breeze brings me back to reality, to the long filigree hands of the big clock, the echoes of the automated PA. As the heavy machine shifts reluctantly into motion, I feel a fleeting sensation that I’m going the wrong way. I have to suppress an urge to jump out, sneak on to the Aberdeen Express and just head for oblivion. Aberdeen, in this case.
The Dirty Old Town I leave behind leaves me vexed – it doesn’t care that I came, nor that I am leaving again.  As I head south, I leave a trail of grudging attachment to the town, to its bleak imagery: dark railway bridges built of barrelsized sootblackened bricks, endless damp mossy walls, bare tree branches soaked in smog and vanishing into the sky like dead yearnings…

I once saw my town mentioned in a poem – the only time yet that it has been so immortalised. This was no paean, though. Rather an escapee's send-up of the drabness of provincial life, arch little quatrains on a selection of grim-sounding northern towns. ‘I'll tell you now and I'll tell you flatly/I don't never want to go to Gatley,’ the poet begins - the town which bore me coming next in the list of places he never wants to go to by virtue of its easy rhyme.  

What is there to be vexed about, I wonder as the train speeds onward, through Wakefield, Sheffield and beyond the mystical boundary line of the north. What was so special about Batley?

A creased little photo of a boy in red corduroy dungarees with his shoelaces undone. A bright red-lipped smile and a thatch of dirty blond hair crowning his head… 

The boy in the creased old photograph was me. Sulky little boy, with a fear of everything he didn’t understand, a fear of almost everything beyond the limits of 18 Loxley St… a fear that met with no correction.

I grew up on a red-brick cul-de-sac in front of a sink estate, the main area of the estate and its squalor always looming behind. There was a fence separating my mum and dad’s house from the estate proper, but errant kids could climb over, or break the slats and wriggle through, if they wanted. I was one of those kids, sometimes.

At the bottom of our street was the park. Here there was a boating lake with an island in the middle where they used to keep boats, but which had since become a home for ducks and geese. When I was a boy a few of us errant boys found a dinghy and paddled over to the island.

There were six of us so, in our two-man boat, we had to make the trip three times there, three times back. This meant that on the return leg some of us were left on the island at the mercy of the paddler, as the dinghy made its passages. As I stepped into the dinghy with two other boys and we were on our way back to the homeward side, an older boy grabbed a big duck egg from one of the hutches and threw it at us. We had no way of dodging it and it exploded against the side of the dinghy covering all of us in duck slime. It stank.

On the last trip, the paddler left the stupidest boy on the island and he had to wade through the lake to get back to land while we all laughed at him. I think as he got used to his clothes being wet and the slime under his feet he was laughing too.

The boy who threw the egg, Wayne, had ear studs in both ears and he shagged girls. He rarely stayed at home with his family, but rather with one of his succession of gum-chewing, Regal King Size-smoking girlfriends. ‘One of his slags’, as his brother Stephen used to say – until Wayne kicked the shit out of him for saying it. Wayne was such a troublemaker that I think his mum and dad were happy for him to be elsewhere.

Once, we were playing football on the field by the old railway track. By the side of the track there was a big ditch and my football got kicked into it. When I went to get it I found it had gone into a patch of thorns and burst. I was nearly crying and started walking home carrying my flaccid ball. Wayne was being a total shithouse that day and thought it would be funny to chase me and spit at me as I went. So I scuttled home sobbing with him laughing like a moron and spitting all over the back of my coat.

Wayne wasn't all bad. He was of what doctors would have called 'subnormal intelligence'. Got suspended from school over and over again. Nicked off to the point where his teachers simply forgot about him. 

His brother Stephen, who was my age, was not much brighter. I remember he used to spit a lot too. Later, he got an ear stud just like Wayne. Stephen used to have a little black dog called Lucky. Lucky got run over after a while, then he got another little black dog called Lucky Two and it got run over as well. Once when Stephen was sat on the floor by the swings in the park, Lucky came up behind him, hopped up and dangled his paws over Stephen's shoulders. We all thought it was funny and Stephen loved all the attention he was getting. Then Lucky Two started humping Stephen, growing a red slimy hardon all the while, and everyone laughed even more.

That dog had a horrible bark. We all thought it was annoying. We thought the same of Stephen. He was an absolute vegetable. He used to make strange animal noises for no apparent reason, like Chewbakka from Star Wars. He didn’t do it for attention - I know this because I once spied on him standing on his front doorstep late at night and just groaning like that… an imbecile's call into the void.

There was one other brother in this family who was a bit older. He was called Stacey. I used to kick the footy around with him all the time and swap stickers, even though he was older than was appropriate for that kind of thing. He loved Everton and would pretend he was their star striker of the time, Tony Cottee. I used to think Stacey was fucking ace at football, and fast as lightning, but looking back it was just that he made himself look good by playing against the young kids.

I had my first two sexual experiences with Stacey. The first time, he'd hidden a porno in the bushes over in the park. One day he took me over and showed the porno to me, and we spent a few minutes licking pictures of big peachy fannies on its weatherwarped pages. I hadn’t started wanking yet, but seeing those fannies made my head swim and my prepubescent cock throb. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to eat the pages of the porno.

The other happened in my back garden. It was starting to get dark and we were kicking a football around. My mum was peeling potatoes in the kitchen that looked out onto the garden. Stacey kicked the ball away from us and said, ‘Come over ere. I want to show you something.’ We went behind the rose bush in the middle of the garden. We lay down flat on our backs next to each other, hidden from the kitchen window by the rose bush. Stacey pulled his pants down to his knees and told me to do the same. Then he started stroking his cock. ‘Go on, you do it’, he said. I copied him, while my mum went on making the tea in the kitchen window. Stacey’s cock was hairy and thick. Mine was smooth and small. We both lay back on the grass with our jeans around our knees, stroking our cocks until they were erect. Then we pulled up our pants and went in for tea.

Stacey used to be really fast and a better football player than any of us, even though he was about five years older. Now he's really fat, with a bald ovaloid head. He works in a paint factory where his dad also works. He plays snooker, like his dad does, and drinks pints, like his dad does. Stacey's dad sometimes used to take us swimming and when we were in the changing rooms I noticed he smelled slightly of shit. Now I imagine Stacey smells slightly of shit as well. 

The park and the woods beyond them were a frontierland when I was young, places where I knocked about with the other estate boys, played football, tennis, touch rugby, green bowls, cricket, putting on the putting green, and any other game that any of us knew how to play. It was also a place where I sometimes went to get lost. 

Lots of gradated paths, flanked by fragrant rhododendron bushes and wild garlic, snaked up through the woods, meandering and branching off in so many directions that when you walked up them you were rarely sure where you would end up. Some of the paths would open up upon mossy relics of the park of yesteryear: stone ruins of bandstands and crumbling bridges. It was a place of mystery to a young lad like me. Its dark arbours, its undulating terrain and little streams, the sounds of unknown animals rustling in the leaves and snapping twigs, the whispering of the canopy, the unnatural darkness and hemmed-in fragrances - of rhododendrons, humus and stagnant water from dead streams… for a time this was an uncharted land to me, a place with its own moods, somewhere I would lose myself and, in my childish way, test fate.

At the top of the woods was the topiaried, tiered garden of the museum, with yet more rhododendrons, its huge Italianate fountain and a central set of broad stone steps leading up to the huge copper-towered museum. If Batley were the cosmos of the ancient Greeks, this is where Zeus and Hera would have lived. To the right, looking up towards the museum there are farmers fields, cattle pasture, but nearer, hidden under a natural curtain of tree growth, a little observatory, Batley’s modest link to the mysteries of cosmos, the door of which was always padlocked.

Often I would walk up the hill-sloped wood alone at night, trekking from the valley bottom where I and the scummy estate folk lived, to the rarefied heights, where people had latest registration cars and lived in houses that had names, like 'Woodrise' or 'The Poplars'. Having emerged from the pitch-dark woods, breathless with relief from the horrors that my imagination dreamed up along the way – of serial killers chasing me up the meandering path, of sex maniacs or cannibals leaping out from the bushes – I would climb the tiered steps of the museum garden, feeling like an alien, but safe at the same time. I'd turn around and look over the silhouette sea of trees that separated me from my the valley bottom, my home. Here I would experience an exquisite sense of solitude. I would look on the darkness of the wood below as a sort of cosmic void. And I would lean into it. Sometimes I would be too scared to walk back through the woods to get home and would have to take the road route round the wood, which was three times as long…   

About 95% of my youth was spent kicking a football against a wall. Or dribbling around the rose bushes my dad had planted in the back garden. (I remember as emblems of incongruous beauty those pale salmon-coloured roses that flourished for the two summers that dad wasn’t too depressed to tend them…) 
Dribbling the ball around the rose bushes and providing my own gushing commentary as I went (Oh and look at this gifted youngster,  such a joy to watch. He’s away! A glorious shimmy there. The ball’s glued to his feet. Past one, past two.This is wonderful stuff… Not since Maradona have we seen…) Practising Cruyff turns and stepovers I’d learned from the John Barnes training video that Malcolm the football coach had lent me. Left foot over the ball, turn and away with the right… over the ball, turn and away… over the ball, turn and away... Umpteen hours. Me, a football and my dreams of glory. 

Bittersweet velleities, born in the pit of the belly, travelling up to the creases of my eyes. As, when feeling stupid and lost, I read the spines of my favourite books. Here I am, sat on my backside, yet coursing with the speed of a hero across an entire country. The journey seems not four hours long, but of a single, dimension-bending second. Past my window streak the backs of houses, past scrubland and claggy, furrowed fields where suddenly, with blue confetti flickers, a flock of wood pigeons take wing. It’s a virginal day. The first sighting of blue in the sky for a long time.   

Monday, 23 July 2012

Menage a trois

It was the three of us. In the old man's pub on the Botley Road. We went straight for the cheap spirits. Neither of you was even old enough to be there. But we got served. And on what was a very ordinary Sunday afternoon in West Oxford, we necked the spirits and hugged each other as a grinning, careless trinity, and that was as fulsome a threesome as we ever were.

If I had special powers, I'd have enormous sex with 7,000 girls at the same time. But second to that, I would be in that pub with you two, necking cheap spirits, linked arm by arm, with the uncomprehending eyes of the barman flitting over us.

To thine own self be true

Wake up and expect it will go on for ever when the reality is very, very different. Wake up, go to work. Lots of little disappointments. In headaches and in worries vaguely life leaks away. Keep telling yourself, it will get better and it is worth the ever so regal patience.

What do you live for? In what does your hope consist? Unclear. How shit of you not to be able to put it into words, and how boring to do that anyway. It is happening, it is happening, and it is so tiring, so often trying. It should be clear. You should have it emblazoned over your desk, tattooed on your forehead. Is it something to do with love, with looking upon your beloved and saying calmly, I don't want any more than this?

Some abandon thinking. Others never thought. Still others strive for justice, solidarity, to pass on knowledge and wisdom. I live by the heart, by the selfish heart that wills to hear a broken plea answered. And that is a vague way to live. Empty accusatory days. There is plenty of time for it though, isn't there? Plenty of time to ask oneself the question: am I living in full awareness of the quiddity of being alive? And to answer: Hell no.