Local Girl

harper

The bad news, Mrs Harper
Is we’ve found your daughter, dead.
The good news is…
We’ve got your milk and bread!”

A brutal, black punchline
From the mouths of babes
On a playground
In the lost England
Of 1986

A local girl
From local streets
Who wore white socks
And played like us
In sandstone streets
Skipping between
Hot cars under white sun
3-6-9
The goose drank wine
Cat’s cradle and
Tig

A local girl
A simple errand
(The kind we all ran)
Milk and bread
Waved off by mum
At the kitchen door
Just five minutes
A hundred yards
Milk and bread
A penny chew
A lifetime

A local girl
From local streets
Who would not be seen
In sandstone streets
Or skipping between
Hot cars under white sun
3-6-9
The goose drank wine
Cat’s cradle and
Tig

But
Who was, as we giggled,
Clutched by dark fronds
In the distant Trent
Green waters swirling
Around black deeds
Whispered secrets
Carried to the sea

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The Weight of the World

world

According to Google the weight of the world is 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg.

Now I don’t even know what the fuck a Kg is because I’m from the recent past, so I tried to convert it to stone and apparently that works out at, and I quote, “1.543236e+25lb” – and certainly I don’t what the fuck that is. Who talks like that? Can you imagine getting out of the taxi with a skinful and the taxi driver tells you the price in some kind of fucking mathematical notation like that?

“How much, mate?”
“£1.3353e+”

I don’t know. Maybe that is just the going rate for being sick in a stranger’s passenger side door pocket.

Anyway, I’m off Twitter at the moment so even fewer people will read this shit than usual, but my absence is all to do with the weight of the world. I mean the above is about physical reality, yeah? You can quantify things to some degree and stick a number against something and pretend it makes sense somehow. If a bag of sugar weighs 1Kg, then I guess 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bags of a sugar is supposed to be relatable in some way. Only of course it isn’t.

There’s that myth that some tribes don’t bother with number systems that go above 4 that you’ve probably heard: everything above 4 is counted as ‘many’. That sounds like some kind of racist shit to me – the sort of thing you’d throw around if you were trying to stoke up some interest in a bit of genocide (“What? You’re going to kick off about us eradicating these guys? They don’t even have a fucking concept for how many toes they have.”) But there’s some kind of truth in there in that we as humanoid mammals can only deal with so much information.

How many bags of sugar can you imagine? A lot fewer than 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 right? Maybe you can imagine a pallet full of… what… 200 bags? And then you can picture a warehouse full of pallets? But really you’ve already changed the scope of reference, because you just cannot conceptualise above a certain number of bags. So you’ve broken stuff into pallets instead and the question’s lost all meaning. Now you’re just wondering what you’re going to do with all this fucking sugar – especially when you’re a bit overweight and past 40 and you know a couple of people with diabetes and the dentists’ shoulders slump for a moment when you open your mouth until she realises that actually she’s going to trouser £200 for fixing the shit in there.

Anyway, this is all wandering way off the point.

The point is, we can only consider so many things. Our brains have hardwired limits so they don’t explode with trying to process too much stuff. Once you open a question like the weight of the world, it explodes into a fractal of subsidiary questions. Or at least it does for a person like me. If you’re the opposite end of the personality quiz to me, you might just have filed that nugget away, or already forgotten it.

For me though, it’s stuck there. Nagging me. I want to know how they worked that out. And then I’ll want to know how they worked out what a Kg even is.

That’s what my brain is like. It’s a fucking curse, because I’m also slightly too thick to actually, really get these things, and so my thoughts quickly turn into a river thickened with slurry that I can’t even wade across. All my energy is suddenly consumed with the effort of crossing this fucking river when there’s nothing even at the other side. I’m just wading around up to my waist in shit.

And all that is, of course, the trivial stuff. It doesn’t really affect the way I interact with the world. I could maybe drop the weight of the world as a factoid while leaning against a bar somewhere so people would be briefly impressed by me, but it doesn’t matter until and unless someone asks me whether I can help them shift the world this weekend and will it fit in my Nissan (NASA: you have my number).

But what I’m finally getting around to is the metaphorical weight of the world. The crushing knowledge of the collective human experience in the full pomp of its gaudiest horrors. My own personal horrors are enough to deal with – the sheer fucking guilt and shame of just being me – and yet I have unfiltered, 24/7 access to either the unmitigated thoughts of the worst fucking people, or the worst experiences that the best fucking people are having.

My friend recently lost their child. Another went to sleep in a hotel room with her partner and woke up to find him dead. My sister spent months in a psychiatric unit last year. My cousin accidentally overdosed a couple of years before that because he had mixed his prescribed medication with some folk remedy from the internet. You know: the stuff that everyone’s dealing with all the time.

That alone I could possibly handle: it’s a ladle-sized portion of disquiet from a world-sized soup bowl and mostly my shoulders are broad enough for that. My psychological balance sheet with the world is waaaaay in the red, and so I’m trying to do my bit to restore the balance by offering an ear here or a shoulder there or trying to raise a small smile somewhere in the universe.

But we also have the collective misfortune to live in an era where old certainties and paradigms are dying a death – and like many things close to death, there are violent spasms as they cling to life; the last frantic, spastic movements of confusion. The itching of phantom limbs that aren’t even there any more.

Yes, Trump and Brexit are the most visible manifestations of that, but literally every fucking thing seems to be at a constant point of crisis. Our physical health. Our mental health. Our privacy. The terms of reference by which we engage with each other. Our political system. Systems in general. The way in which we gauge each other’s worth. The weird, heightened hatred of two vituperative tribes blasting wave after wave of hot air past each other, becoming further and further entrenched into certainties that – if history be any guide – will disintegrate before we know it anyway. The way we look. The way we act. The things we’ve said in the past. The way we fucking label our food.

I find it increasingly hard to shut out all this deafening noise and go about my business unimpeded by either awful certainty or – worse – awful uncertainty. I not only violently disagree with 50% of the stuff that passes in front of my eyes every day, but I violently disagree with the 50% of the opposing stuff. Not content with that, I violently disagree with myself. I can’t systematise anything any more. Not even cling to some kind of tribal loyalty like a political party (do not start me on the fucking Corbyn Project). Everything is just long, unspooling trains of thought that have a surface rationality but really are just a windy way of expressing that actually I don’t feel like I know anything any more.

Net result: a lot of low-level, constant, gnawing anxiety about problems about which I can do nothing. Like a river eventually cuts it’s way through a mile of bedrock, I feel like all this fucking…. stuff… is cutting it’s way through my sanity, leaving behind a disconcerting, gaping maw in my soul.

Weirdly, it’s only a year or two since I wrote elsewhere that I was struggling to feel anything. My grandma died and I couldn’t even tell you if I shed a tear or not. The same also true of my cousin who died tragically before 40 and used to come to stay with us 2 or 3 times a year. I remember just looking at his coffin and not really getting anything beyond a “well. I guess I’ll not be seeing our Rob again.”

At the moment? It feels like I feel every single fucking thing.

I know that I’ve got a scarred brain, and that scarring is in the right frontal lobe – the part of the brain most closely tied to emotional responses. I mean just look at the fucking side effects. I don’t want to use that as a crutch or hand-wavy explanation for why I suddenly feel like a cunt the whole time, but the truth is that I feel like a cunt the whole time.

I’m only writing this to pass the time of day at work really and to get it off my chest, so you can now fuck off. Thank you.

Brother

rich.jpg

I don’t think of you as often as I should. In fact I’m not even sure when it was you died, and the memories I do have of you are mostly about you dying. I can picture us running on a beach one day, in the false sepia tone of a memory I feel I must have taken from a photograph… but mostly you have gone – an odd, blank void in a memory that I’ve otherwise packed full of colour, and happy days that my memory has probably trickily stitched together from disparate moments of childish bliss.

But I do remember long hot summer afternoons watching motes dance in the sun that came in shafts through the window of the bedroom we shared – you on the bottom bunk, me on the top (I was the eldest, after all). You would have been sleeping on your side, as you often did during what I imagine was your last year, and I would have been sitting with my back to the wardrobe, listless, probably bored. Wishing you would get up and do something with me. I don’t know whether you ever even managed to ride a bike without stabilisers or learn to swim.

And of course, you couldn’t get up. You were always dying – for as long as I knew you. Sometimes weeks would pass when you were away, in hospital somewhere. I’m sure you were sent to London as our parents sought ever more desperately for options to save you. I remember something about your spleen in particular being a big deal for everybody. Perhaps that was a last, desperate roll of the die for you.

I know you were away a lot, because I was often at Flea’s house, under the watch of Flea’s fat, fussy mother and her huge, beaming face. She’s still alive and looks more like Tom Bombadil with every passing day, but Flea’s dad died suddenly a couple of years ago, and he himself has had a minor stroke. As if by some piece of circular logic, his kids now go to school with your nephew and niece.

We stayed up late to watch Live and Let Die in front of their fire during the Spleen Incident and it was a happy time for me, but I’ve seen the photographs of you in hospital beds – smiling even though the beds look uncomfortable with their thin mattresses and tangled sheets and white, tubular frames. I can imagine exactly what it would sound like to rap a coin on those frames – a hollow musical ‘thunk’ – but I can’t imagine at all what it would have been like for you to lie there for days at a time drinking lukewarm orange juice from the plastic jug on the table next to you in those photographs.

Perhaps I don’t want to imagine. I’ve never known whether you were in pain, or whether it was all just a minor inconvenience to you until the end at least – like a broken leg that nagged because you wanted to be up and about and playing football like the rest of us; chasing 99p ‘flyaway’ plastic footballs laughingly down the fields.

I think, though, that you were probably were in pain. How could you not have been? Leukaemia is an ugly word and sometimes I go to read about it on the internet, but it is full of long, equally ugly words about failing organs and bleeding, and a gamut of infections and painful overgrowths. I suspect I actively avoid it.

Today, the survival rates still aren’t particularly great – and I can only think they’d have been worse in the early 1980s. Mum and Dad must have known what was coming, but I imagine they would have kept it from you because they were great at shielding us all from pain. I had a brain tumour almost 6 years ago now. It must have been growing for a decade before that because of its size. It made me behave in odd ways and brought a lot of trouble for me because of my behaviour during that time, but the thing that stands out most from that time is that mum almost collapsed when she heard the diagnosis. She and Dad must really carry that burden deep. As a parent, I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for her

On the night you died, Grandma and Grandad D were babysitting me. I was making them watch Knight Rider. I remember Grandad was smoking a lot, and there had a huge wooden bowl full of nuts in to which he would reach, and pull out one to crack with a great metal nutcracker that otherwise only ever came out at Christmas.  I remember in particular because the smoke and the nut dust kept irritating my eyes (remember how bad my nut allergy was back then?) Mum and Dad came in and at first I thought they were laughing. I think even asked what was so funny.

But then one of them – I think Mum – said “Richard’s dead” through her tears. I remember how the words echoed in my head, and being hugged and cuddled, but also watching Knight Rider through my tears over someone’s shoulder (it was a particularly great episode). I guess I was somehow short-circuited. Or maybe just too young to really understand the finality of death.

And then I remember being asked if I wanted to go to your funeral and saying ‘no’. Everyone came to the house, dressed in black coats, with polished shoes, and great hats with black gauze that fell over the ladies’ faces. Mostly aunts and uncles I imagine – but I’ll never know now. I hazily recollect an awful tension before everyone left, and that Gran C stayed behind with me, and she and I watched television together while they were burying you up at the churchyard – in one of the newer plots at the far end, and not amongst the crazily-angled and briar-tangled headstones of Victorian vintage nearer the church.

I guess everyone went back to the church hall afterward and the women would have busied themselves with the buffet while the men stood and smoked in the kitchen, clutching dimpled pint pots full of dark, foamy beer, and eventually the mood would have lifted from sombre reflection to the ritual exchanging of memories – handed from one to another like highly polished artifacts. I imagine that perhaps Uncle Dave or Uncle Ian would have been the first to raise a laugh, and eventually Dad would have joined in.

One of my strongest memories is after you were gone. Christmas Day. Santa Claus bought me a Raleigh Grifter – a huge, bronze bike that seemed to weigh a million tonnes. I knew that it was a hand-me-down from our Andy because we couldn’t afford a new one and the wear and tear was obvious. But I hid all that to make sure that Mum and Dad knew I was delighted with it anyway and that I’d never actually wanted a Mongoose or a PK Ripper. But then, I heard Mum crying in the kitchen and Dad comforting her.

Stupidly, I thought it was because they were ashamed to have only been able to give me a second hand bike, and ran in to reassure them that it was the greatest bike ever. And of course, they smiled and tousled my hair and said they were glad.

And of course, with the hindsight of years, I now know that they were crying because you weren’t there – and that Christmas was, and is, the time they miss you the most. A constant, nagging hole that I can’t even imagine contemplating as a parent.

But time moves ever onward.

You have a nephew and niece now, and I talk to them sometimes about you. I’ve even promised that they can come with the graveyard with me one day to visit you. You have two sisters too – and through one of them you have another couple of nieces. Neither of them has any recollection of you at all. The eldest of yours sister was only a few months old when you died, and the youngest probably 10 years after that.

In fact, the number of people who do remember you is dwindling steadily year by year. Grandad D died almost around the same time as you (poor Mum)… followed by Gran C, Grandad C and, finally, Gran D just the other year.

I look at our parents now and while they are still incredibly active and alive, at some point in the next 15-20 years they will likely be gone – as will our uncles and aunts. Already there are little intimations of frailty – Auntie M’s ceaseless back problems… Uncle D’s legs… the visits lessening in frequency… the years measured in sagging pockets of thinning skin and clouds of greying hair. None of them smoke any more (but Auntie M’s trifle is still made with a good pint or so of sherry).

And so I hope one day to sit down with Mum and Dad and get a more concrete sense of your life before it is too late. They seem to be at peace with your memory these days.

And after that? There may well only be me left with any direct memories of you at all. And those mainly from a handful of photographs and those fragmentary recollections of fleeting moments with you from 35 years ago or more.

Until then, you are still remembered. You come up in conversation every Christmas, and there are three photo albums that get passed around. One of them is stuffed full of clippings from the paper when Mum was still collecting for leukemia charities. Another contains a yellowing note from the school newsletter – they used to give out an award in your name every year to a child who’d shown great bravery (I used to hope I’d get the award one year, but I never did anything particularly brave).

There are pictures of you in an Easter bonnet, with a ridiculous grin spread across your face. The pair of us sat on a concrete wall with Dad that looks a lot like a penguin enclosure at a zoo (zoos have changed a lot since your day). Me as a toddler holding you as a baby on the ludicrously-patterned car rug that apparently accompanied us on every family trip between 1975 and 2002. Even on the one photograph of you in hospital, you are grinning. Whatever the sad, painful moments you endured, the images of you that remain reflect one thing: happiness.

Anyway. I hope this missive finds you well. I just wanted you to know that you are still remembered and still loved.

Lost and Found

She was never the same after he died. It had come suddenly. Unexpectedly. One day he was there – sharing her bed… breathing her air… sitting opposite her at the breakfast table… harrumphing at Facebook… setting his vast, bare, white belly at the sun in the heat-stunned summer garden… and then he wasn’t any of those things; just 18 stone of cold, pale flesh, spread out across the kitchen floor, the soles of his socks pointed at the ceiling, twisted oddly, a pool of saliva coalescing around his chin as she stood numbly looking down, not even feeling the hot cup burning her fingertips.

It had always been a possibility, she was later informed by a sympathetic doctor as she sat staring numbly at her lap through a kaleidoscope of tears. Aneurysms often go undetected. All those years by his side and she’d never known that somewhere in the back of his school was a bomb, waiting to detonate at any moment and take him from her with the suddenness of a bursting balloon.

The inquest pointlessly confirmed all of those things, and she was plunged into a world of bureaucratic chill, forced to prove that he was dead – as though the evidence of her eyes wasn’t enough to be trusted. She’d seen him. Felt him. Sat first in the ambulance and then by his bed, but the mobile phone company wanted more. They wanted evidentiary proof, and so she’d had to visit a shop with official confirmation folded carefully in her handbag so that a Nice Young Man with a light fuzz of beard and sculpted hair could stare at it, trying to segue from “Hello Madam” to “I’m so sorry” but lacking the guile. And she in turn had tried not to be cold, but found herself incapable, and her lips had hardened into a thin, impatient line as she sat on the chair while he tapped urgently on the computer, trying to get her and the death that tainted her out of the shop.

And then, on the bus home afterward, hating him for having made her do that. And then herself for not having any compassion for what was surely an awkward, fraught moment for him too. And then at him for dying in the first place. The stupid fucking bastard. She’d searched for him for years. And against all the odds found him, and carved out a tentative new life of choosing furniture and fending off an ex-wife and meeting his sullen children, only for him to choose that moment to exit her life. Over and over again; a cycle of first self-recrimination, then bitterness, then hopelessness, then an odd week of determination, all waiting to be punctured by another letter from some utility company or other demanding that she proved all this was real and not just a devious attempt to save £28 a month.

And so the tears came. On buses, and in shops. And on the phone and in the office. And worst of all in the bed she didn’t share with him any more, and the silence that he didn’t fill with his snoring.

But, although she was never the same, the world didn’t change a lick. She still had to go to work with the same people, and catch the same bus up the same road to get there. Her emails didn’t get any less urgent, and she didn’t stop gaining weight, inch by soft inch. It was all the same outside the window and the spells of this or that weather passed, and the flecks of grey grew in her hair more frequently.

People grew less wary of her as she adjusted. That was one small thing. For days… weeks… months… people were afraid of her – as though she were accompanied by the very spirit death at her shoulder. After the outpouring of hugs in the immediate aftermath, people grew wary of speaking to her in case they inadvertently brought forth the tears. But time slowly eroded their wariness and normal words began to flow – a steady pitter-patter of office small talk and little rearrangements of alliances and friendships.

As she thought of all this, she was sitting staring out of the sea front cafe with a mug of tea (milk, no sugar thanks – watching my waist!) The sea was in – just beyond the sea wall, lapping cautiously at it, tasting the land with long, salty licks. In winter, it would bite, but for now it was content to play around under serene blue skies, glittering the sun from its surface.

This was another of their places. They’d come here in their early days together, for dirty weekends of sheet-rumpled, laughing, drunken sex and hangovers – locked arm in arm against the winds that blew from the sea as though either one of them might be whisked away at any moment, leaning in to each as they ducked through doorways for a bite to eat or to drop coins into a chiming, ringing machine. They used to come here – to this very cafe. A panini for him, jacket potato for her.

She smiled at the memory. Yes. Smiled. No longer a smile of bitterness, but a smile of happiness. Those days might be over, but at least they had once been, and even if he wasn’t there in person, he would always be there in the secret fastness of her heart.

She drained her cup and looked out at the great bowl of sky, and the couples passing happily by the window, with kids trailing fishing nets behind them and exasperated mothers mouthing at their husbands’ backs. All life moved on in the end and here was the proof. He would have enjoyed this day. A day of careless nothings under an indulgent sun. But even though he wasn’t there, she would enjoy it too. She popped the cup down with a small smile of happy recognition. A gull keened greedily from the railings along the front.

Yes, she thought, she would live.

Seafront

The old pier still stood there – more or less as I remembered it. A thousand black, sandpiper stilts sunk into the wet sands, holding aloft ten thousand boards and a building of ugly planks that once shone in blinding white under summer suns, but now flapped with peeling paint as the February winds fretted and fussed around them.

I knew that if I walked down the beach and walked in its shadows the air would be as dank with salt and cold barnacles as it ever was, the sounds of the beach somehow deadened – an inverse childhood fairy tale; where the world on the other side of the secret door was wreathed in unknowable silence, hinting at the coming of dark tides that would return to swirl and sloosh vengefully around the ironwork and drag unwary children to their deaths. That was the lore handed to you as you stood there asking for permission to go under the pier, solemnly clutching your red plastic bucket and looking up from under the brim of your sun hat into your dad’s eyes: “the tide’s quick here, see?” and you would nod and run off to collect empty-shelled mussels and translucent dead crabs with flapping carapaces, while constantly looking over your shoulder for the water surging suddenly up to grab you by the ankle.

And it was true. This wasn’t the sea, per se, but rather an estuary; a long, featureless mouth opening the land to the sea. The beach, long and flat and always wet, leading outwards to a thin smear of water on the horizon and the shrouded shapes of container ships sulking as they waited for the tide to turn. And the tides did suddenly advance in uncoiling black rivulets – until before you knew it your ankle-deep pool was suddenly knee-deep and your dad was stood by one of the pier legs shaking his “I thought I told you?” head at you in remonstrance.

I squinted against the wind at the pier. The building was now a ‘restaurant’, as before it had been a ‘party bar.’ The former on the strength of selling toasties (with, no doubt, a garnish of cress, diced red pepper, iceberg lettuce and single red arc of sliced onion) the latter on the strength of selling gassy lager in plastic pint glasses. How strange to look at it now and think of Edwardian men with their Edwardian wives, arms linked, taking a restorative stroll alongside pumping steam organs and bowler-hatted vendors proferring painted wooden toys for thruppence or tu’pennies or brass farthings.

Or perhaps that world had never really existed, and the pier had always been a gathering place for crowds of rootless young men with pallid skin stretched over nobbly bones, livening their days with small acts of lively boorishness, waiting for a war or a vessel or a woman to gather them up and give them purpose.

I took my elbows from the railing and stood up, giving a little sigh at the pleasurably middle-aged twang of back pain. Further along the front – past the bins overflowing with chip wrappers and abandoned sandals, blissfully wasp-free at this time of year. There, the front proper began: a half circle of low, 1970s brick – home to a clutch of businesses.

A seaside shop of the usual seaside knick-knacks – little plastic windmills flurrying in faded colours alongside wicker beach mats and a carousel of postcards depicting happier, sunnier days. A mobility shop – the owner standing outside having a fag alongside his collection of maroon scooters. The Hawaii Cafe, with its incongruously-painted sign of palm trees silhouetted against an orange sun. Toasties: £2 (cheese) or £2.50 (cheese and tuna). Hot dogs: £2. Westler’s Hot Dogs: £2.50 (the power of brand!) Tea: £1. Coffee: £1.20. Jacket potatoes with every conceivable combination of cheese, beans and tuna.

Beyond, to the crazy golf: nine holes of concrete traps and tin windmills and a water hazard with a bottom painted sky blue, but filled with brackish water, dead leaves and a single cigarette butt pirouetting uncertainly in the wind. In the little booth, a tiny, sand-blasted woman huffing on a cigarette, bunched up in an untidy grey cardigan, pen pressed thoughtfully against a crossword clue.

Across the road to the station. How tall the clock tower seemed when I was a boy, and how small it seemed now. That clock! The sight of it a totem of youth. Notice of arrival. A psychological landmark as potent to the mind as Emley Moor Mast spied from the M1, or the Little Chef with the swooping parabolic roof somewhere on the long, hot summer drive on the A1 towards Cambridge, or the black wire sculpture of a rearing horse stood at the foot of the impossibly polished granite of the Lloyds building in Leeds. A hodge-podge of identifiable structures. Part of a mental map of the country that, like the London Underground map, somehow didn’t reflect real geography, but conspired to make a reality all of its own.

The clock. Its gold, iron hands and fussily filigreed casing almost camp in their exuberance. Something of Florence or medieval Hamburg, or a piece of sugar work in a cake shop window. Or perhaps it had been lifted from the pages of Willy Wonka and left here to be marooned on the cold Western edge of the North Sea. How incongruous to find it standing erect over the dismal grey steel roof of the station proper, zig-zagging across the sight lines of the clock since its erection in the 70s, visual absurdity on visual absurdity.

And – on the corner – another signifier. The glorious sweep of curved glass of that fish shop, where I used to sit perched on a high chair by the window – that window with its fine tracery of wrought iron, that had miraculously never rotted away under the fine mists of sea-spray, or been torn down by the same kind of careless act of municipal vandalism that had laid waste to all manner of fondly-remembered buildings in favour of barely- stomached replacements across the country that now themselves faced destruction in turn.

It was too early for it to be open, but if I closed my eyes I could smell the vinegar on the air and see my grandma’s green, floral print dress and her grey sandals, fattened into ovals by heavy feet, and old lady toes peeking out through a gauzy mesh of tan tights as she clambered onto a stool and unwrapped her chips, with the sun on her smiling face. Back when I was small and the chips seemed impossibly large and golden and hot, and the atmosphere was thick with Yorkshire voices and the smell of hot dripping.

Past the chip shop, the decay was unavoidable: the vast, grey, corrugated bulk of “PLE_S_RE IS_AND” – the words spelled in gigantic sequins that fluttered a little in the breeze, keening for their lost letters. Under the awning that ran along the front, a small, raucous collection of machines crying out for money in tinny chimes – offering trumpery knock-off goods for anyone dexterous enough to manoeuver the slack-handed robotic claw: an ersatz Pokemon. A plastic watch. A stuffed bear that might have passed as Nookie Bear, or Pudsey, or Winnie the Pooh or… something. I declined their entreaties and passed on, pounds and pence rattling in my pocket.

Nor did I go inside. I knew what was there: arcade games from another decade. 20p horse racing machines (blue: 4/1, red: 8/1, green 2/1 fav.). A warped bowling alley all of 12ft long. Machines spooling out rows of tan tickets to be exchanged for a potato gun or lucky Japanese waving cat. One peek at the clientele, hunched over, sadly feeding machines from little tubs of change, trapped in little pools of light in the fusty darkness was enough to dissuade me.

Beyond the Pleasure Palace? Boarded up shops playing host to piles of litter that huddled for shelter in their doorways, jostling between themselves for a place nearest the door as if waiting for someone to invite them inside. A second-floor pub stretched across three such buildings: plastic signs inviting me to climb a vinyl, wood-effect panelled staircase to a long room that smelled of old men slowly dying behind round tables, picking apart beer mats during limb-aching conversations of times past and the bleak present; the steady chime of death almost comforting in its regularity, their children escaped, and their grandchildren with no roots here beyond these failing bags of DNA.

There seemed to be no point mooching further along the front, and I leaned again on the railings, looking out to sea and the sulking ships and the distant sea forts that stood, slowly crumbling into the sea.

And the great bowl of grey sky arced overhead and met the edge of the world in cold solidarity, waiting for the return of the sun and the summer crowds.

This Fucking Island

Littlejohn again appears in my sightline, rising wraith-like from the foul, boggy ditches he and his ilk inhabit. It perturbs me. My day is spoilt. I itch from the inside with the knowledge that it is for a goodly chunk of the population that Littlejohn speaks, and that I must share my island home with them.

Today the gays, tomorrow the gays, and the day after the gays – a long, unceasing, one-note, radishy billow of empty, hot air, driven by fear of the gays, hatred of the gays, fingers-in-the-ear deafness to the reality of the gays. Like all pub bores, he gleaned all the information on the subject he needed to know by age 17 and has seen nothing in the long, arid decades since to sway him from his view. A catspaw to his own dark imaginings, he stands behind his bully pulpit each week to fulminate against the gays and what their presence in the world means to him.

And yet the gays are actually only a cipher. For Littlejohn may hate the gays, but he hates what they stand for more. That they are widely accepted by many people – possibly even a majority, despite everything – drives he and those like him to apoplexy. It disturbs what he imagines ‘normality’ to be.

The normality for which he yearns is for cloth-coloured skies, suet puddings and a slipper to the backside. Of the divine order of deference to fat, windy men with burst corpuscles under their cheeks. To school changing room bullying, with wet towels applied to quivering, bare buttocks, and faces pushed into icy puddles. To bare shins over mud-coloured socks slipping to the ankle during hoarse taproom hectoring. Driving home drunk because I’m quite capable officer, regardless of what the breathalyser says. Men only golf clubs where only men discuss men only issues in blustery certitude – fortified by piggish eyes nodding along in concert over tumblers of scotch. Flatulent, porcine breakfasts in wingback chairs and clock-ticking hotel silence. Dates: Crecy. Poitiers. Agincourt. Sunday dinners of leathery beef and remorselessly boiled gravy with a side of good, astringent horseradish. Fortification. All paid for. Hard men working hard, stunted lives underground or in dark, clattering palaces lit by sparking flames and yellow rivers of molten fire  – only emerging for long enough to give their kids a good clout, and possibly one for the wife too before dying heroically of emphysema. Women cleaning their front steps. Flagships and Remembrance Sundays and dishing the French. Brass model Spitfires on brass stands at the end of the bar, next to horse brasses and a collection tin for the Spastics Society. Speaking your mind. Honest toil. Calling a spade a spade.

On a purely psychological level, I get it. I too feel the pang of the old certitudes as they crumble at the edges. My world has passed and is passing too – along with Bagpuss… Bowie… Saturday morning kids’ TV shows… round, glazed Lemon Puffs… qualifications that meant something… footballers called Gary and Derek and Stan and John… snooker players downing lagers between frames… pale, rusky sausages and Smash… sun-faded maps at the back of school libraries with sections of the globe still covered pink… every week another little part of the world I knew passes into memory: an Auntie here, a popular phrase there. Some old, barely-remembered celebrity dies and suddenly it’s 1982 and I am on my Grandma’s rug again, sat in front of her gas fire eating tinned salmon and watching British Wrestling on ITV.

And it hurts. I also remember running. Not wearing glasses. Being able to bend and touch my toes. Being able to pronounce footballers’ names because they could have come from the next street along and not Sierra Leone. The taste of pop before they took the e-numbers out. The smell of Christmas kitchens thick with cigar smoke and the swish of gaudy nylon dresses over shiny nylon tights. Pools of oil on unsympathetic driveways. Saving paper round money for a Star Wars figure. Hot trips to sand-blasted, faded nowheres in cars without air conditioning.

But it doesn’t take much imagination or empathy to see what the world must have looked like if you weren’t me. If you were Mo – the only Asian lad in the year – and everyone just called you ‘Paki Mo’. Or if you were Ms. Johnson – lesbian art teacher, lifting desks up to find “johnson licks fannies” written underneath them. Or if your horizons had been limited by poverty your whole life so a weekend in Rhyl was something you strove for into your sixties and your chairs were still post-war austerity issue plastic. Or if you were a black footballer, running onto a pitch to a hail of monkey noises and shouts of ‘zulu.’ If you were, quite literally, the only gay in the village and all eyes regarded you with suspicion and every newspaper columnist was free to accuse you of undermining the whole moral fibre of the country based on where you wanted to insert your penis, and every sexual encounter was carried out in the black fear of public exposure.

But don’t we grow past these things? Are these the things we want to pass to our children, burnished as a glorious legacy? Are we supposed to want them to huddle as we did at the back of the sports hall, furtively starting smoking habits and swapping National Front ‘Buy British’ stickers? Are we supposed to chuckle with fatherly pride if our sons burst in from school to tell us how they found out that Martin Price was gay and shoved his head down the toilet? Would our hearts swell with pride to see our daughters married to the local foundryman who’ll drink himself to death before hitting 50 and leave her with an inheritance of broken teeth? Are we supposed to beat the gay out of our kids if they come out to us? Shouldn’t we recognise that actually it costs nothing just to button our mouths or change the way we refer to certain people, and actually plays up to one of our supposed cardinal virtues: politeness. Does anyone actually aspire for their kids to grow up to be Littlejohn?

But still, Littlejohn speaks and England listens. You could swap his mouth for his arsehole and it wouldn’t change a thing – other than to sweeten his breath. Reason, nuance and fact are un-English virtues to be destroyed: and thus Newton and Darwin and Turing and Dunning and Franklin the meanest of traitors. Only the hated metropolitans have a place for such airy-fairy nonsense as facts. “Facts” in inverted commas, cooked up by the fifth-columnists at the CBI and the Royal Society and the British Medical Journal and the Metropolitan police and the whole vast, gothic array of institutions that are in thrall to trendy nonsense like “don’t judge people on their wealth, sexuality, gender or ancestry but on the strength of their character.”

And he, and Hopkins, and Morgan, and Moir, and a thousand other such commentators stand on every corner, speaking for England as if this is what England is. To hell with them.

The USA is a Monarchy

Looking at the Orange Despot across the sea, it is hard to believe that America was a land founded in hopeful rationality, in response to the tyranny of inherited kingship, and informed by Enlightenment values. In fact, the American Presidency as currently stands is almost directly analogous to a Medieval kingship. Meanwhile, our Monarchy fulfills a role almost directly analogous to that imagined for the Presidency by the Founding Fathers.

But how did we arrive at this pass? Let me take you on a whistle-stop tour of history – and how the British system has evolved in a kind neat  inverted symmetry to the American as each nation has responded to various crises over the centuries.

Side note: I’m not a historian in any sense of the word. I’m sure anyone can poke holes in various facts I’ve used to construct this argument (mainly because I’m not that clued up on actual facts!) but I think there’s a broad truth to it when you look at the big picture.

This Side of the Pond

One of the big problems facing countries in Medieval Europe was the character of the King. The King was the owner and dispenser of power in the land. No part of state business could be done unless it were in his name, accompanied by his seal and delivered by his agents.

The King might listen to his ‘great men’ or take counsel from advisors from the church, or defer to the Pope in spiritual matters, but essentially his word was law. His position was ordained by God, and he claimed leadership by either birth or conquest.

And so his character mattered. A great deal, in fact. The names of ‘bad’ kings come to us easily: Ætheled the Unready*… Edward II… John… Richard III. And the reason they are considered ‘bad’ is intimately tied with their character as people. Hapless Æthelread was constantly surprised when the Danes reneged on their promises year after year after year and turned up to pillage anew. John vacillated and lied to his great men. Richard schemed and plotted, and probably murdered his nephews** to cement his claim to the throne.

And then there were other Kings who don’t rank as highly on the scale of ‘badness’ but were otherworldly (Richard I: who really just wanted to worship God the whole damn time) or feeble-minded (Henry VI – who endured long periods of mental instability, rendering him incapable of governing, which lead partly in turn to the Wars of the Roses).

Every time one of these ‘bad’ Kings took the throne, trouble was never far behind. A weak King could be subject to whim or fancy, or turned by powerful manipulators. An outright incapable King such as Henry VI after his mental collapse in 1453 posed other questions: if the King is rendered incapable of even signing his name, who governs?

The whole sorry sage of our halting, uneven and often bizarre journey towards our parliamentary system (imperfect as it may be) is essentially a series of reactions – or corrections – to bad kingship.

The first repudiation of kingly infallibility is Magna Carta, which established (weirdly specific) rights for barons that the King could not simply overrule. Treacherous, avaricious John had pissed off his large landowners on whom he relied for revenue in the form of taxes. Although he was technically within his rights as King to do as he pleased, it turned out there was actually a limit beyond which a King could go. It was the first recognition that a King had to obey ‘natural’ law derived from human experience on some level – rather than just on ‘My Will is God’s Will.’

And so Kings began to recognise that they needed some degree of consent and parliament gradually started to influence and constrain kings. Periodically a King would still get out of hand, however.

Henry III was desperate to be rid of this tiresome encumbrance, which led to what was effectively the first war between King and Parliament in the form of De Montford’s Rebellion. This set a sort of precedent that if a King overreached his unstated powers, he could be fought, killed or deposed and replaced by another King – for over time the number of competing bloodlines simply grew and grew (shout out to the Wars of the Roses, and the various houses that were imported and skin-grafted onto the British system until the  19th century).

So the overarching theme between the 10th and 18th centuries was really a story of monarchs of varying calibre creating – or failing to prevent – various disasters. A vainglorious Henry or two could ruin the country by marching to war against France, breaking with Rome, or going mad. A mad king needed a body to rule in his name. A bad king needed to be removed. In neither case was there really a framework to operate within, so factionalism and civil wars followed as night follows day.

And so, gradually, the power of the King was curtailed and trammelled. It was uneven progress – a fairly modern sounding system of rules to govern the relationships between King and country was signed as early as 1258 in the form of the Provisions of Oxford for example – but each crisis of Kingship served to bounce the country further in the direction of our modern conception of governance.

Occasionally, a King like Henry VIII might tip things back towards tyranny, but bit by bit the powers of the King were eroded until they ended up embodied in the figure as someone who wears hats and cuts ribbons. They are still the head of state, but modern monarchs are effectively for ornamentation only. Real power lies with elected representatives – and our most pressing problem is that those elected representatives are weak, poorly-informed, and governed by their own superstitions more than by by fact or reason.

Over the Pond

The ‘final’ revolution against the idea of kingship came not on British soil, but in our American colonies. George III’s taxes weren’t actually that onerous on the American colonies, and the colonies did need protection from the depredations of other powers such as the Spanish, so some taxation was justified. And at the outset of the Revolution, most Americans actually assumed that the outcome would be merely better administration in the name of the King, rather than independence. Letters from the revolutionaries to the King are couched in the usual lickspittle terms of endearment and obsequiousness you’d expect to come from loyalty rather than revolution.

But. George III – even before his madness – was still somewhat entrenched in the Medieval mindset. These upstarts needed to recognise his right to rule and so he followed the time-honoured path of Kings in beginning a war based in principles and lofty goals, rather than thinking about logistics and pragmatic possibilities. It was a war he could never hope to win.

The colonies dutifully won, declared independence and then set about on a remarkable experiment: to devise a system of governance rooted in the legitimacy of popular mandate, in which no one arm of the legislature could overpower the others. This is the famous ‘checks and balances’ system.

All of this precisely because the system of Kingship had spent the previous 700 years debunking itself.

The logical conclusion of a parliamentary system was that the people should pick their rulers rather than have them imposed by matter of whose grandfather fucked whose second cousin.

So: a head of state, analogous to a King, would be elected by the people to represent them at home and abroad and to keep something of a hand on the tiller of state, but limited in terms of power and the length of time they could serve.

But history proved that this system itself – like the Death Star – contained a fatal flaw. Sometimes, the situation demanded that someone take action where Congress found itself unable to act. The American Civil War probably marked the first major turning point. Until then, Presidents had largely been figureheads who rarely used their notional powers. But in order to win the war, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, expanded the size of the army and blockaded Southern ports without Congressional Authority. Arguably these were all necessary for the War to be won, but it established the precedent that would lead to Trump: in exceptional circumstances, the President could just go ahead and do things that Congress itself was unwilling or unable to do.

In the 1930s, in the face of the Great Depression, Roosevelt took new powers to the Presidency in order to push his ‘New Deal’ through. Congress demurred once again to the President. As this precedent had been set, it become rote. New powers were given to the President during times of crisis and were simply never returned. WWII… Vietnam… and, most particularly, the War on Terror merely continued this constitutional slide, unbalancing the system heavily in favour of the executive.

So today, the President has the powers that once would have been the reserve of a King. He appoints his own ministers and advisers. He directs the military. He has command of foreign policy. He can declare war. He can veto almost any legislation coming from his parliament. He has command of a vast network of spies and informants and can direct their attentions to any foe internal or external. Although the FBI for example has nominal independence, and presidents have historically been reluctant to interfere in FBI business, Trump merely followed a precedent set by Bill Clinton when he fired James Comey as its head. The FBI is under the command of somebody who serves purely at the pleasure of the president.

Like a medieval King, he is in theory limited by other powers in the land – notably the judiciary – but he can appoint his own judiciary, tilting the long term tenor of the legal system towards his own views long after he has left office.

He is also limited by time: he has 8 years maximum to do what he can, and it widely accepted that beyond a president’s first term, mostly presidents as perceived of as struggling to achieve anything of legislative significance.

Nonetheless, in my estimation, the current form of the US Presidency is closer to that of a King than was ever intended by the writers of the constitution.

But don’t take my factually unsteady word for it. Here’s William H. Seward (1801–1872) – who served as secretary of state to both Lincoln and Johnson:

“We elect a king for four years, and give him absolute power within certain limits, which after all he can interpret for himself.”

And so here we are. America in 2018 has arrived at the point that England faced at various points during the Middle Ages – governed by an insane, tempestous King, with god-like powers, surrounded by faction and swirling rumour, raging against both the real and imaginary forces arranged against him. And for all the good the constitution is in this situation, we may as well as do as peasants did in the Middle Ages and pray.


*Fact attack: ‘unready’ is actually a corruption of ‘unræd’ – literally “poorly advised”. Originally, this was a neat pun, as ‘Æthelread’ roughly means “nobly advised.”

**Fact attack: the fate of the ‘princes in the tower’ is still a mystery, but it seems absurd that a man so conscious of his reputation would not have produced the Princes to repudiate the very public claims that he had had them murdered. It is, of course, possible that they died of innocent causes (disease, accident) and that he knew this knew that this would never be believed.