Sunday, 5 August 2018

Jazzman John Clarke RIP

I learned about the death of London poetry scene stalwart Jazzman John Clarke this morning, and I'm still trying to process the news. I feel slightly self-conscious about writing a blog entry about him - I'm in two minds about whether it's my place to, and it might seem distasteful to those who were closest to him rather than just a friend of his on the circuit. What I'm hoping, though, is that if I get some of my memories and thoughts down, it will help me to sleep a bit better tonight... and I can make up my mind whether I post 'publish' on this or not tomorrow morning. (update - you're reading this, so obviously I did).

First and foremost, right from the off, John was there. He was one of the first poets in London I spoke to when I moved back in 1999, and he remained a constant presence on the circuit rather than disappearing for a quiet life after a few years. That's why his death has been slightly trickier for me to process than most, I think. I'm a republican and want to see the British monarchy disbanded, but when Queen Elizabeth II passes away there's a possibility I will have my own hypocritical and confused period of low-key mourning, not because I believe in what she represents, but because her death would create a complete erasure of a figure that had dominated my life through many different means - like having an historical landmark deleted from the London skyline overnight. The London poetry circuit without John feels a bit like that, except unlike the Queen, I obviously never wanted to see his role in society diminished, though he might possibly have suited a tiara at one of his bigger gigs (he'd certainly have bloody rocked her EU flower hat).

I can't remember where I first met him (Kerouac's in Deptford? Walking The Dog? Poetry Unplugged?) but he immediately impressed with his energy, enthusiasm, the rhythm and carefree absurdity of his ideas, his beatnik image, and his excitable pre and post-gig patter which was guaranteed.

He always knew of a fantastic gig going on somewhere else in town that week, or a jazz performer you really just had to see - he was, it has to be said, good at making quite personalised recommendations to people he knew reasonably well, always on the look-out for 'your kind of thing' - and once he'd finished talking about those he'd fill you in on what he'd been up to, which would take another few minutes at least, because it was never just a few things. You had to pause whatever you were planning to do and just hear him out.

He had a few decades on me in terms of age, but his energy and determination continually shamed my own. Apparently, he had a much-hated role in a bank which he had quit early to dedicate his life to writing and performing, and it always seemed as if he was throwing himself into the practice with total zeal to make up for lost time. It was impossible to imagine him working in a bank - I sometimes probably wrongly imagined it as being like Manny's role as an accountant in "Black Books" - but he made a very convincing beat styled poet.

The first work of his I was familiar with felt, from memory, zingy and enjoyable but a little naive in places, driven largely by his energy and stage presence. He got good very quickly, though, and as his writing improved so too did his ability to improvise and speed-write in a way that had recently begun to stun me. In February this year, he attended the Mark E Smith tribute night at the Poetry Cafe purely on a whim. He had no idea the tribute night was on, and had turned up to the cafe purely on the offchance of catching up with some fellow poets, having found himself wandering in that general direction. He immediately decided he was going to take part, and quickly scribbled a poem on a sheet of paper - sometimes taking breaks for conversations with people walking through the door - before going downstairs to do his slot where he read the new piece of work.

The crowd completely lapped up what he'd written and the whole thing gelled. Moreoever, he got me thinking about the value of spontaneity, and how you don't have to chisel away and toil over every piece of work for it to have some kind of meaning or value on a particular day or night. We talked about it later on, and he made me realise that sometimes, you just have to let go of your work and have fun with it, see where it leads your feet. Both the best and worst ideas flow out of your pen when you completely relinquish control. Oddly, that conversation was one of the last decent ones I had with him, and made me re-assess some of the bad habits I'd let myself get into lately, including slowly editing my work as I wrote rather than letting something fall on to the page first.

He also had a habit of popping up in unexpected places or being uncannily accurate in predicting your interests or bizarre obsessions. While I was working for Pearson Publishing in 2003, I was stunned to leave the office one day and find him strolling past on the pavement outside. He said hello and gave me a flyer for a forthcoming gig as if it was the most natural occurrence in the world, not a remarkable coincidence at all, then went on his way to whatever his appointment was. I suspect that even in a city like London, he randomly bumped into someone he knew every day.

On another occasion, he sidled up to me at an event, pointed at a random object at the wall and quoted something (I can't quite remember what) from Robert Anton Wilson's "Illuminatus!" trilogy. I immediately got what he was on about and replied with something appropriate, to which he giggled enthusiastically and said "I knew you'd be into that!" He always enjoyed it when someone was locked on to his wavelength, though he seemed faintly disappointed I DJ'ed at Northern Soul nights  ("What's wrong with DJ'ing a bit of jazz?") The jazzman was always pushing his love of jazz.

I've been watching his Facebook page all day, and tributes have been flooding in from every corner of the London poetry circuit - because he was familiar with every corner of it. The man knew everyone, and his work seemed to translate to every audience, even outside the poetry world to places like Ronnie Scott's, where he occasionally gigged. I only really learned today that he would also subtly have words with promoters about suitable acts they could book, and try to influence the circuit for the better. I remember one occasion he did me a huge favour by performing one of my poems at "Bingo Master's Breakout", and sent members of the audience over to talk to me when they wanted to know more about who wrote it. I think people who didn't really know him sometimes got the impression he was a bit of a hustler, ever ready with his bag of books to sell and flyers to distribute, but he was a writer trying to sell his work, doing what writers without other jobs to rely on have to do - besides promoting himself, he also genuinely cared about and listened to what other people were offering, and freely apportioned praise to those he felt deserved it.

That's the tough part about this for all of us, I think. He was our link between the different poetry scenes, an enthusiast as well as a performer, and the rarest of things in our often introverted, insecure and occasionally self-obsessed little world - a genuine people person who would approach anyone he thought he might like completely unselfconsciously. Meeting and talking to people, and having places he could happily share his most absurd ideas without judgement, seemed to make him happy. He's one of the few poetry performers I've met you could put on the bill at a Fall tribute night, or Ronnie Scott's, or an urban spoken word event, or an anti-folk evening, or a 'serious' reading, or an event at an art gallery and get away with it. His image and enthusiasm gave everyone easy immediate points of entry, and the quality of his performances just caused everything else to click into place. I'll miss him, but so will many, many others.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Spoiling All The Paintwork

Back in the earliest days of getting regular poetry gigs on the London circuit, I used to write about them on a fairly obscure Livejournal blog I kept. Hardly anyone read it, and it was rock bottom in any Google rankings. I liked it that way, and didn't bother to publicise it at all. Initially, it felt like a halfway house between a personal diary and a public blog, read only by about thirty or forty people.

Naturally though, you can't keep secrets on the London poetry circuit, and as soon as people found out that I was not only writing about myself but also other poetry gigs I'd been to, they began to drop by in greater numbers. Nothing is more likely to grab a fellow poet's attention than finding out you're writing about them. I was never openly savage towards anyone on the blog (I'd rather not talk about people who are still finding their feet at all. What's the point?) but that didn't matter - if I made the merest hint of criticism, along the lines of "Not quite as good as the performance I saw in Camden last month, but still great", or "One of their new poems fell a bit flat", or "the event over-ran and I didn't get home until half midnight, which was a bit of a pain", people would zero in on that and assume that I was implying something far worse - that they were losing their touch, or all their new material was rubbish, or they had mismanaged their set times in a completely unprofessional way and ruined my entire life.

That's probably not surprising given how insecure a lot of writers are, but I noticed another interesting side effect of keeping a blog. If I highlighted flaws in my own performances, noting when they had gone less well and why, people also dialled up the criticism and assumed it must be far worse than I was letting on. After all, this is social media! Everyone's here to sell themselves! Nobody would ever openly confess to being "not quite up to scratch" unless they were anything other than head-slappingly awful on any given night. These are the kind of lines given to an audience to read between.

Eventually, I just stopped writing about the live poetry scene and my own day-to-day experiences on it, because I became a coward and had retreated to writing the same old non-commital beige nonsense everyone ends up writing in order not to offend anyone else or damage their own chances ("Oh, everyone writes blogs like that do they, David! I see! That includes me, obviously!" - a voice outside).

Having said all that... After 24 years of doing this, I'm sort of past caring. Which is why I'm going to be brutally honest and admit that while certain parts of the feature slot I did at Bingo Master's Breakout earlier this month flew well, other bits received bemused expressions and only polite applause. It was my first feature slot in two years with quite a lot of new material packed into the time I had available to me, and not all of it seemed as good under the glare of a live performance as it potentially could do. Also, some of my intros needed a bit more work.

These are the kinds of issues that you only get to realise in a live performance in front of a proper audience. Open mic slots tend to be short and snappy and have an entirely different dynamic to the sprawl of a full-length set. There were a few moments at BMB where I found myself thinking, while I was onstage, "Oh, there's a reason I never used to structure sets in this way or load them with so much new stuff". On the plus side, the newest poem in the set was the best received, and the longer things went on for, the more I could feel my sea legs returning. The set started in a slightly flat fashion and ended well. That's better than the opposite situation.

"Bingo Master's Breakout" remains one of the weirdest and most unlikely poetry nights on the circuit, combining karaoke, bingo and poetry to an interesting effect. Each Friday night they run follows the same pattern, starting with a Butlins atmosphere and gradually crashing into sing-a-long messiness. They also book a band at each event, meaning a lot of punters who are really only interested in music and showing off on the karaoke machine end up getting exposed to live poetry as well. It's too much of a niche idea to be partly responsible for any upswing in live poetry's popularity, but it has definitely made its own small, eccentric local contribution. I was walking down a street in Central London a few weeks back and heard two bearded young men talking about it behind me, proving that if you have an unusual themed way of delivering a poetry night, people remember and talk about it.

The last show was themed on the work of the reliably brilliant and brilliantly eccentric Lawrence out of Felt/ Denim/ Go Kart Mozart, and one thing will always stay in my mind - the dry ice machine setting all the fire alarms in the pub off. A taxi driver actually stopped his cab outside to stare at the "smoke" billowing through the upstairs windows, and was possibly in the process of dialling 999 until a cheery smile and thumbs-up from me assured him everything was OK. In all, the whole night was the best fun I've had in ages.


I've already talked about Mark E Smith's passing on here, and weeks after the announcement of his death, things haven't quite settled down for everyone. A lot of us are still thumbing through our old records and reflecting, which has been a revelation for me in its own way. The Fall were such a constant creative force, issuing albums with such a frequency, that I usually focused on their latest LP rather than delving back into their back catalogue much (beyond the obvious favourites). Lately though, I'm finding myself picking up copies of under-rated records like "Country On The Click" (from 2003) or "Middle Class Revolt" (from 1994) and realising that while critics might like to tell you that certain periods of The Fall are better than others, every era has at least one great LP in it.

At the Mark E Smith tribute night at the Poetry Cafe on the 12th February, a few people take the stage to read their own tributes or deliver Smith's work as poetry, and the night gradually becomes as unpredictable and chaotic as a typical Fall gig. Blasts of reggae come out of the PA when they shouldn't. A Fall mega-fan who followed them from gig to gig and was eventually beaten up by the drummer Karl Burns "fifteen years before he got to Mark E Smith" gave us backstage gossip. Then finally, a poet delivered the line "Mark E Smith - he has fallen!" dramatically, and at that exact moment a picture of Smith collapsed from the wall. Everybody fell silent for a few seconds and then applauded, presumably figuring that while it probably wasn't the work of the ghost of Mark E Smith, it was probably better not to take any chances.

For my part, I read out The Fall's "Portugal", a bit of an obscure Fall track whose lyrics consist entirely of the cut-up contents of a letter or email complaining about Smith's behaviour. I'm the first reader on, and I feel slightly uneasy opening with this, because it plays into so many of the more recent cliches about him being a chaotic rock and roll character first and foremost. There's way more to The Fall than that. But it sounds great as a piece of poetry, it's huge fun to do, and it's one of the few late period Fall tracks to have a lot of wit and humour behind it ("Mountain Energie", off "Country on The Click" from the same period, is another, and the evening's organiser Paul McGrane read that later on). A few months before he died, Smith said he wanted the next LP to have more lightness and humour about it - "Portugal" points to one way things could have gone.

In common with BMB, it didn't feel like a typical poetry night. It felt like a drunken wake. Albeit one that didn't end as badly as Smith's actual official wake back in Manchester...

Thursday, 1 February 2018

What do Lawrence out of Felt/ Denim and Mark E Smith have in common?

Answer: Besides continuing to stubbornly beat their own particular paths for decades without ever softening what they do... they're both the themed subject of two poetry nights coming up in London very soon, both of which I'll be involved in.

The Lawrence themed evening is at Bingo Masters Breakout, "London's premier poetry/ karaoke/ bingo night", which is exactly as described. Attendees will have the opportunity to sing Lawrence songs on the karaoke machine, win a cash prize at bingo, and listen to poetry - either from other folk on the open mic, or me in the feature slot. It is, to put it bluntly, one of the least conventional poetry nights in the UK, but has managed over a decade of activity and shows no signs of slowing down. I even managed to overhear two bearded youths talking about it while I was walking down a Central London street last week, so clearly it's reaching ver kids in the know.

It's a night that's also very, very difficult to plan a set for, but by pure coincidence I was working on a poem last year which I scrapped because I found it rather too Lawrency, and being contacted to do this gave me the excuse to pull it out of the draft folder and put some meat on its bones. So at the very least there will (probably) be that.

This will be taking place at The Betsey Trotwood at 56 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3BL on 9th February with a 7:30pm start. The Facebook details are here.

On a slightly more sober note, the death of Mark E Smith, while slightly unsurprising given recent reports of his health, still managed to shake up a lot of us on the poetry circuit. This might sound odd to outsiders, but Fall gigs were generally accidental socials for us, as we'd bump into poetry people we hadn't seen in a long while. Smith's lyrical ideas and influences were a beacon, especially to the more experimental spoken word artists, and that's resulted in a huge outpouring across social media over the last couple of weeks.

The Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden is hosting a Mark E Smith special on Monday 12th February at 7:30pm, where anyone can turn up and do an open mic session where they reminisce, read Smith lyrics, poems or short stories by any of his influences, or whatever they feel is appropriate. This is a wonderful idea and I'll definitely be present, as will Tim Wells, Emma Hammond, Richard Price, Michael Shann, Matt Abbott, Claire Temple, Mark Gilfillan, Matt Melia, Dan Cockrill, Michael Wyndham, Simon Pomery and Gavin Martin… and others to be confirmed (Luke Wright - where are you?)

The Poetry Cafe is on Betterton Street, WC2 9BX, and again, the Facebook details are here.

(Thanks - kind of - to Jon Hall for the cartoon at the top of this entry, by the way). 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Bigger The Map

At the end of another trying day, we found ourselves lying down in a suburban London Bed & Breakfast not far from where my grandmother had lived. The amber street light outside bled through a gap in the curtains, so I could make out small amounts of detail in the minimal light- Anna’s arm arching on to my chest, and the faint traces of summer freckles creeping up towards her wrist. I could also see faded hints of flowers on the uncomfortably off-white wallpaper, like faint splashes of Ribena that nobody had been considerate enough to clean off.

Aside from the noise of the odd passing car, the silence was uncomfortable – unexpected even – for a grotty B&B. I decided to break it by talking, which had not usually been a good policy at many points in the last few months.

“I’m sorry for the way I’ve been behaving lately,” I began.

“I know, I know”, she replied gently.

“This isn’t me really, you know, it’s just that I’m ill,” I continued.

“I know, I know,” she repeated.

“Everyone says so,” I added, sensing rare sympathy from her. “It’s generally agreed”.

“I know,” she said again.

The simple repetition of her words and the noise of her gentle breathing was hypnotic. I had grown used to the metronomic noise of the grand-daughter clock we owned in our Bristol flat. When Anna first moved in, she demanded I let it wind down, as it left her unable to sleep. Once I had let it run its course, though, I found I couldn’t sleep myself – I needed the reassurance of its mathematical precision, the certainty of its rhythm. Without it, I felt afraid, wide open to chaos. Right now, her breath and repetitive platitudes were taking its place.

“And this is a fresh start,” I said. “Once we get to Australia in a few weeks, we can rest for as long as we want, and I can recuperate.”

“I know,” she said wearily. “I know.”

“But things are definitely going to change”.

“I know,” she replied again, and moved her hand slowly around to touch my face. I felt her fingers pulling gently at my eyelids, and the palm of her hand brushing my nose. I had forgotten how tired I really was, and her hands felt like a rubbery foam oozing in. Sleep rushed forwards, plugging my ears and eyes, making me oblivious to everything. Before I went under, I had a strange suspicion that she said something else, something which varied the script away from the gentle reassuring rhythms she had been uttering earlier. It caused a vague pang of doubt, but whatever it was, it wasn’t loud or shocking enough to stir me from the first throes of sleep.


The next thing I knew, light was piercing its way through the open curtains, and an unfamiliar middle aged woman was stood in front of the window, talking loudly at me.

“It’s not,” she trilled camply, in the manner of a 1970s TV show puppet, “in my nature to burst into the bedrooms of strangers in this way, but it’s fifteen minutes after the time you were supposed to have left this hotel, I’m afraid. I banged and banged on the door, but you might have been dead for all I knew”.

“What?!” I replied, sitting bolt upright, desperately trying to make sense of my surroundings.

“I said,” she replied, “You have got to be out in the next fifteen minutes. Unless you want to pay for another night here, that is, and,” she sneered, “I’d say you’re not in a position to do that”.

I quickly scanned the room in a vain attempt to make sense of the situation. We had set the

travel alarm the night before, but that had disappeared from the dressing table. Along with it, Anna’s clothes, her rucksack, and her yellow summer jacket had also gone. It was almost as if she had never happened to me, as if the last five years had been some sort of peculiar dream, and I had in reality spent the time sleeping in dingy hostels like this one.

“Oh, she’s long gone, by the way,” the lady said with a pleased expression, restoring some startling sense to the moment. “She left very early this morning in quite a bad way. Having hysterics, she was. I had to sit her down with a cup of tea, try to get her to calm down.”

“Where did she go?!” I demanded forcefully. I received a baleful glare.

“Oh, she’s paid, if that’s all you’re worried about. Don’t fret about that.”

I looked up at the woman in disbelief. She was possibly the angriest individual I had encountered in the last year, and 2005 had taken me to all sorts of places – the DSS, the squalid house-shares of untrustworthy acquaintances, and, due to a misunderstanding with some officers of the law, a police cell for the night. Her face looked like a silicon mask in the process of being peeled off, with a number of pale white spots the shape of individual Rice Krispies glued to her forehead. She looked down her long nose at me from behind dark curls in her fringe, waiting for me to respond.

“Where’s she gone?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

The lady tossed a sealed envelope on to my bed, then waited for me to open it. I ripped it apart with trembling hands, only to find the words “I’M SO SORRY” written in block capitals on a torn-off piece of paper, followed by a single, meaningless “X”, presumably meant to simulate one last kiss.

“What is this?” I asked, the panic bubbling to my head, “Where is she? What happened?!”

“What happened,” replied the lady, “is what always happens. Men like you happened to her. That’s all there is to it, dear. There’s no big mystery. Unfortunately.”

“Yes,” she said, dusting the windowsill whilst I sat in stunned silence, “we had quite a chat this morning. I only spoke to her for about ten minutes or so before she went away, but it was enough to get a good picture of things. She told me all about you and her. I know all about you, don’t you worry about that. You’re lucky I’m not pulling you out of bed by the ears and kicking you on to the street, dear, though I shall be charging you for an extra day if you don’t shift your backside at some point in the next ten minutes. And don’t think I won’t call the police if you don’t have the money to pay me with”.

This made no sense at all. Anna had left me before, four times in fact, but the departures were never sudden. Forty eight hours of tears, tantrums, shouts and arguments normally preceded her exit. Friends of hers appeared at the house to pick up her things, shaking their heads at me disdainfully, and it would always seem as if she’d picked the ones I disliked the most to arrive, purely to spite me. And then we’d sort it all out on the telephone – I’d tell her what I’d been doing to improve my deteriorating ways, and she’d come back wearily, hugging me by the front door in tears. A pattern had established itself. Anna never left me without having some sort of last word. There were times when I expected her not to return, but she wasn’t the type to do things suddenly and without spelling out her reasons. There was no victory in that.

“It’s not what it seems! I don’t understand what’s going on!” I spluttered, playing the sympathy card. “I’m ill! I’m on tablets!”

“Oh, we’re all on tablets, love,” replied the crone. “I’m on so many tablets I rattle when I walk. You don’t have the monopoly on tablets, let me tell you that”.

She left the room for me to pick up last night’s clothes and bundle them back on to my body. Panting and in a rush, I slipped on the faded grey New Order T-shirt that was at least ten years old. I didn’t even listen to the band anymore – it was a relic of my youth that I’d somehow never discarded, something I’d decided to cling on to for reasons that were unclear even to me. I then leapt into my 32 inch waist red corduroy trousers that were seeming at least an inch too small for me these days, and put the wrong socks on the wrong feet, the right shoes on the right feet, picked up my rucksack and went out to the hallway where the landlady was waiting. She was relishing every moment of my misfortune, and had the final line for my departure she delivered precisely with relish, as if she had been rehearsing it for half her life.

“It’s all the same with you lot,” she said, standing before the glass front door, whose vertical lines distorted the street outside like a picture slide puzzle. “With all your big ideas. My husband was just the same. Had a perfectly good job as a lorry driver for years, then decided to quit one day because he thought he could make a living as a landscape painter”.

She awaited a response from me, something as little as a facial expression, but I didn’t give her the satisfaction.

“I mean, a landscape painter,” she scoffed. “I said to him, ‘Jerry, people have cameras nowadays. Cameras and good photographers. Nobody needs good landscape paintings, never mind yours.’ Wouldn’t have it though, would he?”

She then opened the door and made a weary waving gesture for me to walk through on the street outside, seemingly spent of her quota of words for me. It slammed behind me as soon as my right foot left the first step.

I considered knocking on the door again in an attempt to get some more information from her, but the futility of this idea slowly became apparent. My brain was in poor logical working order on an average day these days, never mind after a sudden shock. Sudden shocks had the effect of numbing its workings, making it seem as if I was viewing the world through the lenses of a penny peep strip show at the arcades. It was all dim, slow, flickering and distant, and happening to somebody else. I felt like the voyeur of my own seedy life.

I looked up and down the street for possible signs of where Anna might have gone to. I was

greeted only by arching concrete streetlamps goosenecking their way over a quiet road, and rows of bed and breakfast hotels and Victorian houses. There was no sign of anyone around at all.

I pulled the rucksack from my shoulders and tugged at the giant A-Z atlas that I’d bought the day before from a charity shop. It was leather bound, as solid on the outside as a flatpack furniture shelf, and preposterously large. Anna had tried to talk me out of buying it on account of the fact that it was heavy, old and therefore, in her words, “out of date”.

“But it’s huge! It covers all of London, and all of the far suburbs we’re going to! You can see fields on it! And the farms are all marked!” I replied enthusiastically.

“Size isn’t important,” she said in a small, tired voice, too worn out to even bother to turn her statement into a weak double-entendre, “but age is. Look at it! The M25 is just a proposed motorway on the map. It hadn’t even been built when this was published.”

“Houses disappear, but streets don’t,” I said, smugly justifying my purchase.

I felt less sure of myself in the light of a new day, but hoped I was right. I flicked through the pages, and turned to page 24, which seemed to cater for the immediate area I was stood in. Roads twisted like spaghetti around the page, with one straight, orange A road spiking through the middle of them. I sat on the wall of a neighbouring house and considered my options. The first thought that occurred to me was to return to our Bristol flat to see if Anna would be back there, but then I remembered that I had the only set of keys. She had thrown hers into the Thames a week ago in the middle of an argument, and hadn’t bothered to get any more cut. I now realised that I should probably have read something significant into that at the time.

I phoned Anna’s mobile twenty times, and on each occasion it went straight to voicemail. I then considered telephoning her mother to ascertain her whereabouts, but her mother had placed strict instructions for me never to contact her house, demands that may even be enforced by the local constabulary. I had turned up drunk there on one occasion shortly after a row, and traipsed dog shit into her pile carpet. Contrary to her claims, I hadn’t known I’d trodden in it, but the combination of the angry shouting and the smearing and the smell had used up whatever residual goodwill there was left between us.

My brain, like an old Bakelite television, was taking its time in warming up, and I decided to walk to the visitor’s farm that Anna and I had made plans to go to the night before. I’d talked long and hard about how much it would mean to me, what a large part of my life it had been when I lived with my grandmother, and if there was any hope for us at all, any semblance of romance in the world, I felt that she might actually be there, maybe waiting for me, maybe just trying to make sense of who I was. I had no better ideas.

To get to North Edge Farm, which was clearly marked in a faux-handwritten font on the atlas, I had to follow a few suburban roads that almost appeared to twist into each other, then follow a curved lane which ran alongside some common ground to the north. One thing perturbed me about the atlas. Just above where the farm was, a fat blue semi-transparent dotted line ghosted its way across the landscape, showing the then proposed route of the M25. This had not been present during my grandmother’s days, and I wondered if it might have obliterated the farm now. As I slowly walked through the mist, and heard the hum of traffic in the distance, I totted up facts and figures in my head. I had heard of the farmer near Manchester who had decided to leave his business in the middle of the north and southbound carriageways of a motorway, but was quite sure that such things were far from typical.

I quickened my pace and eventually saw a giant concrete bridge in the distance, slamming its way across the winding lane beneath with delivery lorries snarling above it. Across the open ground I could see the route of a slip road sliding off the motorway embankment leading up to a neighbouring main road, and smaller vehicles and white vans creeping towards it. It looked like the toy road network I dominated the living room with as a child.

I looked to my left for the entrance gate for the farm. It was still there, but there was no mailbox by the stile, no welcoming sign, and no signs of any cattle or life. I put one foot over the other, and clumsily hauled myself over the fence, scraping my legs into mud as I fell awkwardly to the ground.

The grass was truly overgrown and hadn’t been mowed by man or beast in some years. Grasshoppers sounded off their announcements to their potential mates, and empty tins of Special Brew lager clunked under my shoes. As I drew closer to the main farmhouse, I could see only smashed windows, and the distant traces of half-scrawled graffiti over the face of the building. The closer I got, the more the roar of the motorway obliterated the noises of nature. As a child, I would have been pursued and warned by a flock of honking geese by this point, but now, at the turn of the twenty first century, all I could hear was the snake hiss of tyres on wet tarmac, and the growling throttle of trucks.

I turned to go back to the lane, consulting my map again to consider transport routes back into London from where I could return home to Bristol. I must have cut a troubled-looking figure, for eventually a car pulled up beside me, and the driver put his head out of the window.

“Where are you looking to get to?” asked the driver, an olive skinned man with cropped hair and a matey expression.

“Well, I wanted to go and look around the farm,” I said. “It used to be here. But this is all that’s left now”.

He regarded me with an amused face.

“How old’s that map you’re looking at?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Early eighties, I guess.”

“Jesus, mate…” he said. “Listen, that farm’s been derelict for almost as long as I’ve been living round here. The farmer packed up and went. Do you drive?” he asked, disconnectedly.

“No,” I replied.

“A shame. You see, I use one of these”. He pulled out a small black box with a shimmering flat monitor screen.

“They can show you an up-to-date view of the roads in your area. Suggested routes, possible short cuts, the works. I don’t even need to think anymore with this gadget, frees my brain up for other things!” he joked.

I held my atlas up weakly.

“This is a big atlas, though,” I said. “It covers the whole area! And it was cheap.”

The man laughed at me piteously.

“Well this,” he said, holding the black box up again, “is the whole bloody country, and it fits in my hand!”

I regarded him silently.

“You need a lift back somewhere?” he asked. “Hop in if you want”.

“No,” I replied. “I’ll be fine. I came out for a walk, and I suppose I should carry on having one”.

“Suit yourself,” he said. “Good luck!” then pushed his foot down aggressively on the accelerator and skidded away noisily.

I began to walk in the direction of the main road. According to the atlas, a railway station lay just two miles away, and from there I could get a train into central London. I assumed the train line, at least, would still be operating.

The roar of the motorway obliterated everything and stopped me from thinking about anything apart from the discomfort of the noise for awhile, but when I got further away I realised that my brain was working again, and the wrongness of everything that had happened recently came to the forefront. Somewhere in the country, in a mysterious, non-specified place untraceable by the man’s black box, was Anna, but no amount of technology was going to trace her at this stage, and no amount of life-changing, mood-altering pills were going to make her change her mind. She meant it this time. I knew that. The patterns of our relationship had inexplicably changed. There were no games being played anymore.

I turned back and walked towards the motorway again. The noise, the steady flow of traffic, the roar of lorries, the certainty of destinations, drowned the chaos of my life out. I welcomed the modern racket in, and gazed at the vacant farmhouse in the distance. As I looked on at it, I found myself wondering why I was in any rush to go home. It was summer, I had nothing good to go back for, and this was a kind of shelter. I could hide here for a long time to come.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Dog On Its Hind Legs

Of course, we’d both always wanted a dog. We’d discussed the issue many times over, weighing up the pros and cons, zig-zagging around the complexities of canine care. Who would look after the mutt whilst both of us were at work during the day? Would it be fair on the creature to be locked in a small flat in London? Did we really want to make compromises to our lifestyle, always having to put a quadruped first?

These are questions every serious dog owner should ask themselves before committing to their new role, and I’m sure you’ll have seen the numerous campaigning leaflets for yourself – “A Dog Is For Life, Not Just For Christmas”, “Dogs Are Animals, Not Fashion Statements”, “Dogs Die in Hot Cars”, that kind of thing. I was still in the process of quizzing myself over the muddiness of my desire to have a new friend versus the practicalities, when Claire came home one Saturday afternoon with a large black Standard Poodle.

“Surprise!” she declared loudly as she walked through the door with the soft metal haired creature, an eighties salon on legs. It regarded me with what seemed like a mixture of affected nonchalance and dismay, like a rocker sibling observing his skinny, short-haired liberal brother.

“We hadn’t discussed this properly yet!” I said, but she simply waved her hand at me dismissively, as if she’d had enough of that particular subject, then replied “His name is Geoffrey”.

“Geoffrey?” I shouted. “But Geoffrey isn’t a dog’s name! It’s the name of Tory MPs, or children’s presenters, or ageing Yorkshire cricketers! Dogs should not be called Geoffrey!”

“Well, that’s what they told me his name was at the rescue centre, and that’s what he answers to,” she replied, and the two of them walked off and barely acknowledged me for the rest of the afternoon.

In fact, if Geoffrey did indeed answer to his ridiculous name, he certainly never did it when I called him that day. It was almost as if I wasn’t a presence in the flat so far as the hound was concerned – he never once looked at me, nor acknowledged my entrance into the room. If this was what the glory of companionship with a mutt was supposed to be all about, I wasn’t feeling the satisfied glow at all. I was beginning to wish we’d bought a cat.

Two nights later, after two full days of being ignored by Geoffrey, I was woken up in the middle of the night by what I thought was the light in the spare room flicking on and off. I sleepily poured myself out of bed to investigate, and saw only Geoffrey stood by the spare room door, glaring at me. There was no other human presence to be seen.

“Is there someone else in the flat, Geoffrey?” I asked, almost expecting him to answer, but he trotted off doggishly to the kitchen, and returned to his bed-basket. It was then that it occurred to me that he must have used the light-switch himself.

I told Claire about this incident the next morning.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she laughed. “You’ve just been dreaming. He’s not tall enough to turn the lights on and off even if he stands on his hind legs.”

“He could have jumped up and switched them on,” I answered, but she just told me to stop being “silly”.

My suspicions about him continued over the coming days. Many of my possessions had been moved around the flat, some placed on different shelves, some with the tell-tale marks of pawprints or toothmarks. It was almost as if Geoffrey was expressing his dissatisfaction with my reading materials, hobbies and interests by dumping them precariously in unsuitable places. Some even smelt suspiciously of urine. I tried to raise these concerns with Claire, but they were greeted with the usual incredulity.

As you can imagine, then, it perhaps wasn’t as much of a surprise to me as it should have been when I walked into the kitchen yesterday to find Geoffrey stood on his hind legs, as bold as you please, frying up some eggs over the stove for breakfast. LBC Radio was also switched on, but in fairness I don’t know if he had chosen to listen to that station of his own volition or Claire had left it on before heading out. He didn’t even acknowledge my entrance into the room, not even to turn around from his activity to gauge my reaction. To all intents and purposes, it was as if I were of the lowest significance in the dog’s priorities. Whilst the eggs sizzled, he gently rocked the pan backwards and forwards with his front left paw. He looked more like a relative of Brian May’s than a dog.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I commanded Geoffrey, deciding there and then that using the stove surely had to be off the map in terms of what an owner should or should not allow a dog to do. But once again, Geoffrey failed to acknowledge me and I was stunned into silence, and could only watch as he waited for the pan to cool, and then licked the eggs straight off it.

“I don’t think dogs are supposed to eat eggs anyway, it’s bad for their bowels,” I said to him, but he was clearly too busy enjoying the results of his kitchen labour to comment.

While contemplating whether I should phone somebody to sort this ridiculous situation out – although I was a bit stumped to think of exactly who – I also noticed that various slices of Battenburg cake – my Battenburg cake – had been put on to saucers and strategically placed in the corners of the kitchen.

“What the hell have you done with my cake?” I asked the dog furiously, and at that very moment, a mouse scuttled out from under the fridge, took a nibble of the cake, and Geoffrey immediately pounced with the speed of a whippet half his size and clutched the creature in his jaws. Once the rodent’s neck was broken, he let it hang limply in his mouth, and for the first time ever, he looked at me. It wasn’t the loving, compassionate look a dog should give his owner, complete with wagging tail, but a cold, superior look, the look a bear trainer gives to the animal he forces to dance.

Geoffrey did not say a word – he never has done, for all his intelligence he clearly doesn’t think speech is worth the effort – but from his look I seemed to comprehend a clear message.

“Look at you,” he sneered, almost as if he had actually verbalized the phrase. “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that? For months your flat has had these mice, and you’ve never been able to get rid of them, you bumbling piece of airy, pink flesh with your music and your useless, decaying books. You haven’t known the creature’s habits, but I’ve made the effort to watch them come and go. That’s why I cut up your stupid cake and placed it strategically around the kitchen.

“And don’t you ever, ever, order me around again. I tell you, I won’t stand for it. How do you think it feels for me, having an owner like you? You might think I have the hair of the guitarist out of Queen, and need to get myself groomed in poncey boutiques, but you spend money on clothes and still look like some try-hard jerk. At least I can only ever be a dog, and I tell you, I’m bloody proud of that much”.

Once this glare-message appeared to have finished, he dropped the mouse where he stood, then trotted off into another room, leaving me to think about what had just happened. I hadn’t had the chance to absorb very much when Claire came home again and reprimanded me for eating eggs without properly cleaning the frying pan afterwards. I felt it pointless to explain the facts behind the situation.

I suspect I may not be long for this world. Geoffrey has other plans for me. Books about murder have moved their way mysteriously to the front of the bookshelf. The axe from the attic appeared in the hallway recently. And many times, when nobody has been looking, Geoffrey has bared his teeth at me in a manner which could be a hint of things to come. Claire never notices. So far as she is concerned, he seems to take priority in the household these days.

More than once at night he’s come into the bedroom and sniffed my testicles, and made mouth-gestures as if he’s about to bite them off. Next time, if I don’t wake up and notice him there, I believe it may well happen for real. Reader, if I am ever found dead, please take this note seriously, and examine the evidence on the basis of what I’ve just told you. I realize it will be an unusual case, but there may be other similar ones to come in these strange upside down times, where dogs are walking on their hind legs behind our backs.