A bigger SPLASH

 

The most important thing for Kim and I to remember today (November 5) is to empty the bath. It remains half full or thereabouts for much of the week and sometimes longer, depending on how infrequently either of us actually take the plunge. But it is absolutely essential that on this one day of the year one of us pulls the plug. 

It wasn’t always a priority. Indeed I think it true to report that for most of my life baths, either full or empty, were the last things on my mind come November 5.

That date, a Friday this year, has always enjoyed  a particular resonance within the Futrell household as it was my father’s birthday. While we all take pity on those with birthdays on December 25 for having their one big day subsumed by a much greater and significant event November 5 was all the excuse anyone needed to go big time on gunpowder displays. We could see neighbouring bonfires from my bedroom window and brother weren’t they pathetic. I’ve smoked cigars that gave off more heat than those bonfires. As for fireworks, as a rule just those bargain basement mixed assortment boxes you bought in the sweet shop comprising a couple of Catherine wheels, some crackerjacks, maybe a Roman candle if you were lucky and rockets that would be lucky to make it beyond the garden fence. 

That wasn’t for us. Dad would be collecting firewood for weeks stacking it into a giant pyramid at the bottom of the garden upon what was called the compost heap. With trees and fences on two sides, a leaning pyracantha on another and the greenhouse located at the other (ideal for keeping the fireworks away from the flames) it had the feel of secret grotto the flickering orange glow reflected in the glass. 

Dad didn’t skimp when it came to the fireworks either. He got things off to a spectacular star with the biggest Catherine wheel in the shop. It comprised a wooden frame with two tubes of gunpowder at either end with hole in the middle where dad fastened it to a fence post with a nail the size of a finger. There were bangers and sparklers and firecrackers and air bombs that had to be plugged securely into the soil that hurled something invisible and explosive and very loud into the adjoining garden, and rockets launched from copper tubes fixed into the handle of a garden shovel spraying the night sky with golden tinsel.

Mother produced trays of roasted chipolatas and bacon rolls on sticks and there were jacket potatoes wrapped in silver foil in the embers around the edge of the fire. 

The tradition was maintained for years after father’s death only dwindling with significance when Kim came on to the scene with a succession of dogs, Karla, Fozzie Bear and Tashi Delek non of whom appreciated unforeseen explosions just feet away. To make matters worse many Londoners didn’t stick to the November 5 only rule, especially of the big day was in the middle of the week. That meant fireworks and explosions and strange fizzing sounds for a week or longer either side of the fifth. 

Asta was different – at first at least. I well remember while living in Islington, and her just five months old, walking out with her on Highbury Fields whereupon the still early November autumnal tranquility was shattered by the succession of the sort of explosive fireworks you’d expect to illuminate The Thames on New Year’s Eve – not a day or two before Firework Night in an otherwise quiet residential area. Asta? She didn’t bat a furry eyelid. Infact, I don’t recall her showing any reaction whatsoever. Whereas I nearly keeled over with cardiac arrest. I think that was the moment my hair started falling out and I never wanted to see another firework as long as I lived. Meanwhile Little Asta was home bound, tail erect and a bounce in her trot. 

Domestic firework displays are few and far between today. A combination of health and safety, political correctness, shops restricting who they sell fireworks to and of course Covid-19 mean more of us look to local councils to light the blue touch paper. On the bright side we now get fewer household displays although conversely it means those we do have are bigger and much noisier. Like the council one here  three years ago. With The Camel aglow Kim shouted if I’d seen Asta? She had to shout because to deaden the impact of the display we had Exile On Main St quite loud on the deck. I yelled back, no idea. 

Turning down The Rolling Stones in order to hear each other we became aware of a splashing sound somewhere in the distance. 

“The bath,” shrieked Kim on her way through the living room door. Sure enough, it was Asta. Up to her tummy in freezing cold dirty bath water, shaking and sending a spray all over the room. It wasn’t a complete surprise. She’d jumped into an empty bath in our last place in Duke Street; once on Bonfire Night and another time when someone was using a chainsaw a few doors away. But that was before Kim’s mission to save the planet by saving bathwater. I often wonder what was worse for our pup? The temperature of the water or the explosions outside?

I think I’d better stop here – and empty the bath lest I forget. 

 

Posted in Dogs, gone west, London, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

no goodbyes

Friends and those on the fringes of friendship don’t walk out on you overnight, they just sort of fade away, like sunsets. Okay, there’s a handful of I would and have crossed to the other side of the street to avoid. But thankfully they’ve been few and far between. Most friends, loved ones and people I’ve known without ever really liking, whether from school, work, next door, down the pub, or in bed – simply vanish. One day they’re there and a decade later they’re just a bystander in a frayed photograph. I’ve heard about old chums and lovers reuniting on websites and social media platforms sharing intimate details of what they had for dinner in addition to more serious issues like maybe becoming an item. But you know what, I would rather let bygones be bygones. When the drink has gone it’s gone. Until that day when, by chance, my past catches up with me. Sometimes it’s good, surprising even, but not always.

Like that time a couple of years ago, over a coffee with the daughter of a former school friend, giving her tips on how to break into journalism, she’d slipped into the conversation that her father and the boy (now a man) whom I’d never taken to at school, wanted us to have lunch together. What the..? But he’s a di…Oh, sorry I shouldn’t have said.

Lunch happened some months later and after a tricky start, not having a clue what to talk about, it was suggested, due to our mutual friend having been forced to cancel at the eleventh hour, that I may want to leave. He knew, and it took something to say as much. So I stayed and you know what, we enjoyed a very agreeable lunch. So agreeable in fact he, the man I’d have put close to the top of the list of people I never wanted to share so much as a snack with invited me to join him at one of the Eden Sessions to watch Kylie Minogue on stage. I resisted telling him I’d sat next to the Australian chanteuse at a Chinese restaurant in Camden Town. And in case you’re wondering we talked about Minis, the cars not the skirts, she planning to buy one. 

Then there’s the time I’m strolling along my local high street when glancing inside a popular greasy spoon I saw to my amazement one of my oldest and closest friends seated at a table with people I didn’t recognise. We’d been inseparable but had drifted apart the way you do when you get a job and a wife and a home and the future looks different from the past. We’d never exchanged birthdays and Christmas cards, not that the absence of cultural formalities mattered as on the rare occasions our paths did cross (very rarely) we’d pick up from where we’d left off; somewhere around Electric Ladyland. He’d appeared hesitant as I waltzed through the door and called his name: “Whit-ney!” Not his real name and the reason nobody else looked in my direction. He seemed uncomfortable, ill at ease, swivelling in his seat and looking at the others across from him and those behind. I could sense I wasn’t welcome. It seems I’d stumbled upon some sort of therapy session for unhappy people, he telling me as much minutes later when he breathlessly caught up with me on the high street. Others have cropped up: A woman I can’t remember if we did or didn’t do the thing (thankfully I don’t think she could remember either); someone I knew as a child who somehow obtained my address and has been corresponding for several years, now a dear friend I didn’t know I had; and a keen but struggling young writer I once tried to encourage by handing him a Thesaurus which, believe me, turned out to be a big mistake. Imagine The Good Old Days’ Leonard Sachs reviewing reggae releases. He was on the pavement at a shop opening event and impressed that upon seeing him after an absence of maybe 15 years I’d abandoned my car, engine on, at the traffic lights in order to rush across the pavement and heartily embrace him. Weeks later he sent me a monogrammed chessboard and pieces. All those years editing out splendacious and rhapsodic I hadn’t known writing was a second string and that his first passion and principle sources of income were fine carpentry and marquetry. And you think you know people.

Something similar happened a sunny morning in Soho. Those were high powered expense account times and stepping on to the street with a suitcase in my hand, after one of those number crunching meetings that amount to nothing, I was headed for Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express bound for New York and another meeting that could just as easily have taken place on the phone; with the added attraction of a five star hotel, a limo and all the scallops I could eat. The black cab that pulled up was shiny with a scent of pine and the driver, beneath one of those buzz cuts favoured by the prematurely balding, kept tilting his head toward the gap in the flex-i-glass screen that could have done with a wipe. Pulling out into the westerly carriageway of Oxford Street, passing a jingly jangly group of chanting Hari Krishna disciples I caught him glancing at me in the rear view mirror. Our eyes met causing him to jerk his gaze away. Approaching Beauchamp Place at a snail’s pace behind a convoy of red buses he tilted his head toward the Flexi glass opening and inquired if it was me?

Who?

“You know.”

No. Who?

“The Great Mephisto. You are The Great Mephisto, aren’t you?”

I dare say sporting a black goatee beard with an incipient handlebar moustache and a double breasted grey herringbone Crombie overcoat with a black velvet collar (located at a vintage clothing store in Stoke Newington) I may have appeared a shade, how to put it, pretentious? If so believe me it was unintentional. I’d spent a little too long around over dressed pop stars and flamboyant nightclubbers and some of that beau monde silliness had rubbed off. So I could see how someone might be confused and mistake me for a thespian, or at the very least someone hoping to look like one. 

I ummed and erred a bit before offering “sorry, not me.” At which point the cab came to an abrupt stop behind a number 7 and my driver spinning around to face me proclaimed “I know you’re not The Great Mephisto and you want to know how I know? Because you’re Jonathan Futrell…” Only he pronounced my surname the way my parents had done making a sort of ‘trull’ as in ‘full’ sound at the end of the second syllable, at the point where the tongue gets tangled up in the bottom lip. As opposed to the easier to pronounce ‘trell’ ending I’d introduced some years back. I sometimes correct those who continue with the trickier traditional pronunciation but thought better of it. Who the hell was it? I edged forward to get a better look. It didn’t help.

“I didn’t think you’d recognised me – although that would be you through and through,” he added laughing, a but to too cynically.

“Colin, Colin Daniels Hanworth Sec. You beat the crap out if my mate Stu because he was even shorter than you. Remember now?”

Of course. How could I ever forget Colin and Stu? Peas in a pod. Little and Large and completely inseparable.  Colin tall for his age and slim and freckly with a tidy basin cut and always immaculate. Indisputably the best dressed pupil at Hanworth Sec, and smooth with it too. And his best friend Stuart Overin, short, dark, equine features but just as mod cool, and always sniggering in an unctuous irritating way and disliked by just about everyone at the school except for the man in front of me. 

I thought I’d be surprised, but I wasn’t. Colin Daniels  a cabbie and still as cheeky and impudent as ever – it made sense.

“Didn’t you go to some private school after Hanworth, not good enough for you were we? And then,” he continued up a key “I heard you were in newspapers or something.” He leant around a bit further and failed somewhere between the steering wheel, seat belt and the flex-i-glass partition. I told him he seemed to know as much about me as me. He didn’t laugh and then said he’d got my paper round whenever it was I quit. 

 Did he stay in touch with Stuart?

“Who Stu? So you remember him? You really worked him over. remember that. Stu did. Bloody killed him. ‘’Scuse my French. ” 

For a moment I considered reminding him that I only threw two punches, one to the chin and the other to the gut. He’d gone down on the second conveniently slumped in a sitting position on the changing room bench, framed by an assortment of duffle bags and school blazers, moaning a bit but otherwise fine. To tell you the truth I didn’t hang around to see if he was ok. I grabbed my gear and legged it in case Martin and the B stream hard-nuts returned from the gym and found his best pal bent double. I thought better of it.

It’s not easy making idle conversation with someone you haven’t seen for the best part of 25 years especially one who you’d gone out your way to avoid wherever possible. But I gave it a shot, maybe not my best shot, but I was intrigued. How did he like being a black cab driver and was he married and where did he live? I fished around my pockets for my passport and airline tickets and the schedule Jody had handed me as I’d left the office. He was talking, to me or maybe it was cabbie stuff on his shortwave radio? He tilted his head to his left shoulder, the way we anchor phones to leave our hands free, a vein the size of a robusto cigar standing up on the right side of his neck.

“And up yours too sunshine,” barking at a cyclist giving us the finger.

“No insurance, no road tax, and no effing road sense.” That vein even bigger now. I’d never taken Colin for a tough guy. Too dapper and cynical for that; all mouth and finely creased trousers without the punch. Clever answers but always on the back foot. Being tough had come later. At school I remember he was more the quietly sarcastic type. Always a cute excuse but never threatening like some. He could knot a tie though. Indeed both he and Overin always wore relaxed full Windsors, forever making minor adjustments in any available mirror or window. 

I’d met then on my first day at my new junior school, as they was known then. There’d been a sort of welcome assembly/roll call in the school hall. A stage at one end a number of teachers sat upon straight back chairs, each holding a sheaf of paper, and to our left floor to ceiling windows overlooking a tall manicured hedge.  I didn’t know anybody and nobody seemed to know what was going on. The pupils, maybe 200 or so I didn’t count were split up into four groups for reasons that were not apparent at the time but which would become clearer later. They began with what was deemed by the head master, a cherubic looking man with a pink face and thinning hair, D Stream working backwards to A into which I was allocated. Nobody actually said the pupils assigned to D were the no-hopers or that those like me in A were the goodie-two-shoes because the four categories could just as easily have been based on some sort of dress code. Except that that wouldn’t have held up to scrutiny because while the pupils in D were unquestionably the scruffiest, few even in the school’s black and white uniform, nobody could dispute that the B Streamers were by far the best turned out. Looking at them I recall experiencing what I came to understand was my first  ever pang of style envy. Needless to say Martin Daniels and Stuart Collier were both assigned to B the coolest collection of 11 going on 12 year olds I’d ever seen while I’d been grouped with what could best be described as the Young Fogies Stream; appropriate school wear worn with a collective awkwardness. My parents would be pleased I was in the A, I having missed out on either of the two local grammar schools that a number of my more studious primary school colleagues were to be enrolled in, although I’d have accepted a demotion to B in a heartbeat. I can remember looking at them, their ties slightly loose and cocked irreverently to one side and haircuts like the dancers on Top Of The Pops. If Daniels had said his night job was in Herman’s Hermits I’d have believed him. 

“So where you headed for?” He’d flicked a switch and his crisp west London accent, midway between Estuary English and Home Counties coming over loud and clear on some sort of PA system. It made me jump but I could hear the advantages. It meant Martin didn’t have to turn and inflate that robusto vein. 

I told him it was work. A string of meetings and some contracts to be signed.

“Expense account piss up then. I’d always fancied a job like that but with one girl after another in the family way I learnt early on to ditch any ambition of a life on Easy Street and to get on and earn some dough.” His eyes filled the rear view mirror. 

His dad had got him work with a plumber looking to train a youngster. He didn’t like it. Then retail, which made a sort of sense and finally with the council on some truck or other. 

“Didn’t like taking orders. Cabbies are their own boss.

“Stuart always said you’d do ok for yourself. Dad was some kind of journalist or something weren’t he?”

Daily Mirror.

All-Right. Big stuff. You still in that game?”

I told him not anymore and he nodded and ummed approvingly when I explained that these days I was in the music business.

“So freebies up to your ears. I picked up some fella in a bomber jacket with some group’s name I’d never heard of on the back. He handed me a bunch of 12 inch singles when he got out. Load of crap. Gave ‘em away. Nice enough fella though. Tip an’ all. 

“You meet any famous people? I’ve had a few in my cab,” turning and laughing again. “Yeah yeah, I know, we all say that.” And turning a bit further and pumping up that robusto, “ I could say I had the Great Mephisto in mine. The Great Tough Mephisto.” 

Our drive continued like this for a while; at a standstill by Selfridges, left at Marble Arch, stopping for someone holding a sign on a stick guiding two lines of children across the road, and down Park Lane amber in the autumn sunshine passing a woman in a fascinator disembarking outside The Dorchester. I asked him why he didn’t have a white taxi too. Something a bit different for a man of style like him. 

Slowing to a standstill to allow traffic flowing in from Hyde Park he swivelled in his seat and with his left hand holding back the flex-i-glass grinned and replied, “it’d be like driving with me bollocks out.” I could see his point.

That first year at junior school my father died suddenly from something nobody new quite what for certain. My sister and I often didn’t see him from one weekend to the next what with him staying late to see the paper ‘to bed’ and all that beer to be drunk after. The first time I knew he was ill was the morning I learnt he had died and it’s times like these you learn how childish children can be. 

“Lost your dad? Don’t you remember where you left him?” Overin wasn’t the only one to find it funny but he just happened to be no bigger than me and alone in the changing room when I got even. 

Did he see much of Overin?

“You mean Stu? Oh you remember him. You really worked him over. For a split second I thought about reminding him that it was only the two punches; one to the chin and another to the gut. He’d slumped back on to a bench moaning some but otherwise fine. I don’t recall him missing any school time. I think some of the others thought I’d done them a favour. 

“He died. Some intestinal complication, internal bleeding that sort if thing. I don’t know the proper medical term but I think he was in pain for years. Had to watch what he ate and drank.” 

He glared bug eyed into the rear view mirror and I wanted to be somewhere else. Thankfully not much further.

The conversation had come to a stop. No more wisecracks or cabbie anecdotes. Just a pair of old acquaintances with an ocean of distrust and resentment between them. Proof, were any needed, that the past should remain in the past. 

Stepping on to the pavement I asked how much? He looked at me and pulled that toothless grin I’d seen countless times at school. The fare. How much?

“I’n not going to charge the Great Mephisto. This one’s one me.”

Come on.

“No. My pleasure. Say it’s for old time’s sake.

Oh, and Stu – he’s fine. You never could take a joke. Have a good flight mate.” And with that he was gone. 

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A Pub On The Road To Nowhere In Particular

 

My favourite pub isn’t on the way to anywhere in particular. It’s off-the-beaten-track, its isolation playing a key part in why I rate it so highly after just two visits. I clearly recall departing on both occasions with little more than a couple of beers inside me to inflame my good opinion that this is the pub I’ve wanted – down my road – for years. Infact, since the last time I had a favourite pub, a long time ago now. 

This pub, my new undisputed favourite, is so off-the-beaten-track that I’d never have known about it or gone there had not a friend mentioned some years ago that he intended having a landmark birthday there. One of those birthdays when people give zimmer frames and walking sticks.

All my life friends have claimed their pub, curry house, and takeaway is best there is. I even went so far as to have a ‘pizza challenge’ with friends who in blind loyalty claimed their local pizzeria in Muswell Hill was  better than ours in Camden Town. I mean, who in their right mind would think of ordering anything Italian in N10? But I had a hunch the man who introduced me to my new favourite pub, a motorcyclist, with an ear for Dave Rawlins and an eye for a well cut denim jacket, knew what he was talking about. He didn’t disappoint. At the end of a chain of narrow lanes with more passing points than there are roundabouts in the county, on a verdant green with only grey stone cottages and a church for company, the pub wears its skills for beer, pub grub and conversation lightly. 

On our first visit, winter some time ago, we sat in the L shaped bar beneath a timber ceiling festooned with I don’t know perhaps as many as 200 porcelain tankards and just as many beer mats. There were eight ale pumps and the sort of dark wood furniture that nobody wants anymore, unless you own a classic pub and value authenticity. Many of the pubs I used to frequent don’t know if they’re a pub, a wine bar, an airport waiting room, a restaurant or a creche having replaced anything that could be mistaken for being pub like with IKEA spartan. There is a pool room to the rear and a bar maid who likes to banter with the customers and doesn’t need telling when a barrel needs changing. 

The local bitter is golden – almost a lager in colour, but without bubbles, and packed with hops and £3.80 a pint. Others are darker and stronger. Better still among the bar snacks in jars below the spirits optics was pickled eggs. I thought I’d be pushing it to ask if they also had pickled walnuts as well.

Heading toward the door on the way out a group of whom I took to be locals and or regulars asked about Asta, and then where we were from? You’ll be glad to be here then said one and the beer’s cheaper too said another and you’ve got somewhere to park the next, the laughter as intoxicating as the ale. See you soon then they chimed as we stepped through the draught excluder curtain onto a chilly and seductive nowhere in particular and a still you could wear. 

Little had changed when we returned for lunch except except for two signs hanging from a shelf behind the bar, one advertising olives and scotch eggs and the other declaring my new favourite pub to be a ‘Wi-Fi Free Zone’.

“We want people to talk not look at their phones,” said the barmaid. I heard a cheers to that somewhere in the dimness. 

There is a dining room to the right as you enter the pub but with the rain indecisive we agreed to enjoy some of that fecund Cornish autumn air and relish the silence that still shrouds off-the-beaten-track villages. I bit into my pickled egg, took a long slow gulp of beer and left my senses to do the rest. 

Soon we were chatting with a woman of indeterminate age but profound fitness who had been walking since crack of dawn. Seeing Asta she told us of an Airedale Terrier that donated its blood to a poorly dog  that would surely have died without the transfusion. Kim spoke to a man heavily tattooed about a pair of Patterdale Terriers sat at the table with him and a couple two tables along let it be known their admiration for Asta. 

What I hadn’t realised until we got there is that only pre-booked lunchesget the full choice of traditional Sunday roasts: beef, chicken, lamb or pork. Served with roasties, broccoli, carrots Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Some friends turned up unexpectedly and whilst unable to have roasts (just enough bought in to accommodate those who had booked) there was however a selection of homemade fish cakes, fish ’n chips and looking across at a table nearby mackerel ploughman’s that I’ve earmarked for our next visit. I probably shouldn’t have ordered a pud but who could possibly turn down bananas and custard crumble? 

My Favourite Pub, Halfway Along A Winding Lane To Nowhere In Particular.

 

 

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Ever been to south west London

…the riverbanks, avenues and playing fields, beat clubs and bars and clothes shops that were the architecture of my first twenty or so years; the first three in Manchester notwithstanding. An adolescence upon a  stretch of Thames that winds south and west from gentrified Brentford to Teddington, the television studios and the limit of tidal Thames. Passing the London Apprentice at Isleworth and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Syon Park and on to the treeless expanse of Old Deer Park and another bend in the river. My father was fond of this stretch of the verdant towpath in the shadow of Twickenham Bridge, no more than a couple of hundred yards. No pubs or shops, just the kind of homes we aspired to and the five green iron arches of the lock and weir. It was nearly always dark when we arrived, passing brash clusters of evening newspaper billboards, dozens of them, tied to the garden fences on every corner fanning out from Twickenham Rugby Ground. We’d step out of our grey Austin Cambridge with its red leather upholstery into the chilly Thames air dimly lit by Gothic electric lanterns on the road bridge. In the far distance Richmond Athletic Club on the eastern edge of flat and mostly treeless park. Rebadged the Crawdaddy it’s where one misty winter night I caught a bus from Ealing to watch Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac at the height of the late sixties blues revival. Long hair, rugby shirts and leather jackets essential kit. An Easter fun fair still sets out its coconuts and dodgems and helter skelter on the strip of land between the A316 and the railway linking the south west with Waterloo. This strip of arterial road a blaze of pink and white cherry blossom every spring.

From here the still tidal river ebbs and flows beneath the 18th century Richmond Bridge where years ago, starboard side, there stood an ice rink popular with teenagers aiming to make out on Saturday night and the first place I was punched unconscious. On the bright side spinning hopelessly on the ice worked well as a babe(s) magnet. The Odeon cinema stands central atop the bridge on the Surrey high street side facing St.Margarets where The Beatles shot that memorable four front door scene at the start of Help. Next to the cinema the sixties hippie hang out L’Auberge and next to that the greatest menswear shop in London, J.Simons, a shrine to mod casual wear, presently ‘up west’ in Marylebone. I  still wear the triple welt brogues owner John Simons sold me nearly over 30 years ago. 

During my winter as a minicab driver I’d park my white Vauxhall Victor close to the house once lived in by Keith Richards, up Richmond Hill and along from The Star and Garter Hotel, once a war veterans retirement home a stone’s throw from a Poppy Factory today transformed in modern times into smart apartments. From up here you can watch airliners make their descent across Hounslow to Heathrow and follow the river between Ham Fields and Marble Hill Park to Eel Pie Island. Nearby is the entrance to Richmond Park that bucolic deer trodden manicured wilderness linking Richmond with Kingston, Roehampton and Barnes. Turn east through the gates and you can clearly see the capital some 15 miles away; the London Eye on Southbank and the BT Tower close to my former home at Mornington Crescent. 

Neither London nor the countryside, this is the epicentre of the much maligned suburbs at its most verdant. An urban soundtrack of sirens, aircraft and airbrakes with a rural palette. Avenues of London 30s semi detached homes with leaded lights and manicured front gardens. Plane trees with  blotchy trunks and parks of hawthorn, silver maple, oak, and horse chestnut. Bushy Park, Richmond Green, Barnes Common close to where Marc Bolan met his end (there are bunches of flowers left there to this day), Twickenham Green, Kew Green, Orleans Gardens, Crane Park, and Radnor Gardens, 

Our journey passes the the Slug & Lettuce where drinkers dangle their feet above the water on the embankment near Richmond Bridge, although my choice of watering hole was The Waterman’s Arms a short ways up Water Lane towards the hight street. Gentrified and foodie now and no bigger than a front room it was the roughest pub in town then. There are rowing boats for hire close to the bridge and  swans. Further on the river turns west where steel hawsers support a black walnut tree thought to be over 200 years old. Nearby The Crown, a Youngs pub and my local for three or four years where I was attacked for being Jewish; something to do with black hair and big hooter. Petersham Fields on our left and on the right, close to the ferry slipway, The White Swan, known to us as ‘the pig pub’ due to the sheer quantity of its porcine photographs. And finally ‘Twickers’ and Eel Pie Island the hotel that burned to the ground some years ago,  once the location of another rock venue boasting a residency by The Rolling Stones. Manfred Mann, The Yardbirds, and Long John Baldrey with a young Rod Stewart on backing vocals trod those boards. My mate’s band PC Kent played the Eel Pie Island Hotel too less acclaim. 

The open air Twickenham Baths is where I developed a appetite for pretty young things, hot Bovril and Wagon Wheels. Pete Townsend lived in a tall clapperboard house nearby and during summer lunchtime sessions at the Barmy Arms we’d listen to Keith Moon bashing the skins in the back garden.  The Barmy Arms was originally named The Queens Head but renamed following a refit upon which the sign was put back upside down

Through a gate and behind a tall wall and close to a small pedestrian bridge is York House Gardens and a water fountain of white horses and eight life size naked nymphs in various degrees of ecstasy.  Oceanides from Greek mythology brought to Twickenham by a subsequently disgraced financier in 1904. 

My mother lived a few yards away, just far enough to spare her stilettos from the tidal flood waters that wash these cobbled streets to this day. Her ashes spread upon the river from the slipway there. Her funeral was in the Mortlake Crematorium some miles away coincidentally where a service was held for Trevor Bayliss OBE who lived on Eel Pie Island and where I interviewed him for The Sunday Times about the wind-up radio he’d invented with isolated communities in remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa at the forefront of his mind. I liked him and liked him even more when he was awarded the title 2010 Pipe Smoker Of The Year. I often think about the island and the narrow footbridge connecting it with the town and The Balmy Arms where I throw back a large JD every February in remembrance of mum. She wasn’t much of a drinker and would probably prefer if I downed  Danish pastries instead. 

Stately homes abound. Syon House and Marble Hill House and Petersham House, Orleans House and York House and other fine homes long gone. Among them Popes Grotto built in the early 18th century when Twickenham was a bit of tourist destination. Owner Alexander Pope built a tunnel to it beneath a road and in so doing created a grotto decorated with stalactites, crystals, marbe and Cornish diamonds. Some of the grotto remains beneath the school that stands there today. Popesgrove was our telephone prefix.

For all the good it did me I took judo classes at St.Mary’s University and a little further on at Teddington, around and about the toy shop on the bridge that for a sixpence operated a small shop window minature railway, my driving test. I made the hash of the hill start blaming it on the slippery leaves on the road. 

There are a lot of leaves around here, and a lot to think about too. 

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Passenger On Board

The first four hours are the toughest. Traffic from the West End to, well, wherever? People, hordes of them, with one aim – to escape, to get to the pub, to see the kids, to watch television, to kiss the wife. And him at the centre of it. The driver. The enabler. A working night beginning when their working days are ending. A race he’ll never win is on.

It’s slow. That’s the nature of rush-hour. A febrile, anxious, fretful world of hurried slowness, culminating in the final puffy eyed ready-for-bed hours at the end of a shift as another dawn infuses the verdant stillness of south west London with an iridescent glow. Even then, after seven hours behind the wheel and umpteen espressos, he can do Richmond to Kings Cross in 40 minutes, without thinking, probably without opening his eyes? Heathrow even quicker, unless Al Qaida has been active and the army is on the perimeter.  It was the IRA in the 70s said Maxie. It could take hour, maybe more then; passengers threatening legal action if their flights were missed. In the first four hours of the night shift, the five thirty to nine thirty Wacky Races, it can take twice that nowadays.  It’s insane. He dreams of tail lights. Yet no matter how hard he pressed the accelerator in the car or in his dreams he never got any closer, to anywhere. That’s the taxi driver syndrome he was fond of saying to nobody but himself. Like trousers smudged with chocolate and aching clutch ankle. A real ‘nowhere man’. Some tune that. His dad had played it every Sunday while carving the roast. The next car will be an automatic, something he can tailgate in for hundreds of miles with a hand free for a drink. It improves around ten, before the theatre curtains came down and the pubs and bars tip out. Time to catch a breath after the long haul tide of two million people going, just going. What was that Carol King tune?  Time to snatch a coffee and a smoke before the wide eyed dizzy out-of-their-heads club crowd return to reality. 

Michael Marshall, Micky to everyone except his mother, didn’t like his job but he liked the independence. He liked being awake while the world slept. He worked nights and enjoyed his own company.

“Rayburn 43, clear. Rayburn 43 to control, clear I repeat clear  – over.” 

He wiped the dashboard with his handkerchief and switched on the evening news. It was already dark, the time of year when the long umber lull of autumn gives way to endless dark. Chilly too. He sorted the loose change out on the passenger seat and turned on the GPS. A woman spoke with a voice like the one at his bank or was it the phone company? Maybe it was the same voice, the one that said she didn’t catch that and could he say it another way? She said hello and asked him to tap in the destination. “Coming Suzie,” he said checking his quiff in the rear view mirror and laughing at his own banality. Could use a dash more gel he surmised as he spat on his hands and ran them across his head. 

“OK Rayburn 43, I know your there,” said a voice distorted with the sound of chewing. “Don’t get all pushy. There’s a lot going going and roadworks on the 316 aren’t helping. Wait your turn. Over.” He reached below the seat, adjusted the squelch and increased the volume. The voice was clearer then handing out jobs to other drivers.

‘That’s 32 Grange Park Rayburn 36 – outward and return. Over. Confirm 18. Over.” 

It’s one way traffic on the RT. He could hear control, a south London accent without the humour of a Cockney. Featureless and flat. London without extended vowels. 

“Thank you Rayburn 18, you will wait.” He’s eating again. “ The client has agreed a price. Over.” Silence.

“Then wait around the corner where the nasty warden can’t bother you. Over.” Silence.

“You too 32, leave the onions. Over.” 

They were discussing dinner. He looked in the mirror again, tilting his face to one side. A pallid  reflection, the look of a man who hasn’t seen more than a handful of daylight hours in a week. A 747 on a path into Heathrow, its tail lights blinking in the deepening twilight. Ham Fields below, the lambent Thames twisting west past Eel Pie Island towards Teddington and tide’s end. It’s a wait he looked forward to. Watching the river and listening to control, a man called Harold with a comb over and a dislike of young people. A barathea blazer with brass buttons, food stains and two metal badges; regimental? Who knows? Sat in a green leather swivel chair behind a smudged glass screen with a flask of tea. He could see him there now picking his nose and wiping his finger under the desk. Bursts of activity followed by a brooding silence. He doesn’t know how many drivers there are? Maybe twenty, more during rush hour. And though the night a dozen maybe; loners like him; malcontents;  men without families; men like 32, real name Maxie, and, Eric, dour and teacherly, control’s nearest and dearests. That pair get the jobs that pay the best, always clear of rush hour and late night long hauls. He’d listen to Harold cajole and pamper them. For his favourites the sweet runs, over and done in half an hour. Traffic tips and gossip, and always what they’re going to eat next in the nine o’clock lull, the late night snack, and breakfast. Do they drive for food? Then there’s 15, Jake, a thick necked Australian with mean streak and a nose that looks like it’s been stolen from a cartoon rabbit. Deeply tanned inside suits that shine and fit like cling film. Jake doesn’t like anyone. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He just drives.

“Rayburn 18. Rayburn 18 over.” Silence.

“Rayburn 18. 12 Popes Grotto for Putney Bridge. Name of Patterson. I think you know the score, over.” Silence.

“In a moment Rayburn 19. The same for you Rayburn 27. That sort of language isn’t going to do you any favours Rayburn 27, over.” Silence.

“Rayburn 19. Correct. Mrs Patterson. She asked for you. The smart one with the gold rimmed glasses and tie. You get the prize for driver of the month, over.” Silence.

“You too Rayburn 32. You can share it with Rayburn 19. Now both of you, on your ways. Next time I hear from you 32 it’ll be to say you’re DoB. Over.” Silence. 

That’s nice, dinner on board. How about a bit of work on board?

“43, you still there, over?’

At last. “A little trip out to the airport. An account job with the name of Jeffries, Lincoln Avenue. Near Crane Park. Terminal 1. Over.”

Been fine if there’d been a return, but he doubted it. Up and running at last. Across Richmond Bridge to St.Margarets , Marble Hill Park and Twickenham. Past the Green, up The Meadway to Lincoln Road. Nothing exceptional. A world of paved over front gardens and PVC windows. Dull, monotonous and half a million.

“Affirmative Rayburn 43. Call when PoB. Over”

Jeffries was looking out the window as he pulled up. In his forties with an anorak over a suit. He kissed a women and then knelt down. Maybe a pet or a child? Maybe a brief case. The middle ranking executive type that’s all expenses and poor salary. When he finally emerged he had a suitcase. Terminal 1, flying intercontinental. A cut above the average. A tipper, maybe? Micky stepped out of the car and flipped the boot while Jeffries settled into the back. 

“Rayburn 43 PoB. Over.”

Whitton, Hounslow West, industrial estates and two story homes with roof extensions. The Skyline Hotel and into the Tunnel. He’d done this run fifty, sixty, maybe more times and didn’t need to think, watching the thin band of orange on the horizon dissolve into black. Then BANG! A motorcycle overtaking on the wrong side of Hanwell railway bridge making the sort of noise the Citroen made that time he hit a speed hump and the exhaust had snapped. The biker was upright. His arms at shoulder height and the tips of a long beard wrapped around his neck. BANG again, then pause and another BANG, even louder. Was that legal?

“My god,” said the fare. “I was nodding off until that thing.”

“”Me too,” replied Micky. “No, only joking.” It’s not good to banter with clients, especially account ones. It always found a way back to the Major.  

What do you know, no tip. Must have been that quip about nodding off? 

“We live in a contactless world of plastic,” Jeffries said, with a weak, thin, apologetic smile.

“Roger that sir. Not a problem. All discretionary.” Adding, “have a great flight.”

Moments later he was  following a convoy of Ubers through the airport tunnel. Another passed him on the inside. An E-Class with tinted windows. That’ll be him in six months. Albert Cars couldn’t compete with Uber. Who could? It’s only old school clients and long term customers slow or resistant to adapt to the apps revolution that were keeping Albert Cars afloat. He’d refused to ride in an Uber until the tube he and Penny were on ground to a standstill on their way to the cinema. Penny had punched something into her phone and within what had seemed like no time at all a five series Beemer had pulled up opposite Putney underground station with a dolorous Ukrainian behind the wheel. No money changed hands and Penny said the fare was half of what Micky would have charged. It’s a different world and it was getting more different by the hour. He felt the stubble on his chin and freed a piece of kebab lodged in the corner of his mouth. The traffic was lighter against the rush hour torrent flowing west. 

“Rayburn 43 pickup 12 Dene Court Mansions for Kings Cross. You read? Over.”

He knew the address. It’s a woman who wears a lot of perfume and talked on her mobile the whole time. Her name was Harper, Claudine Harper, and he liked her. She was in the lobby when he arrived, drop dead gorgeous, bathed in a camel coat and cream scarf. Could be a Burberry judging by the check pattern. She smiled and slipped onto the backseat like a feather blown in on a silent breeze. He could have watched her do that all night. They exchanged greetings and for the umpteenth time he felt, well, if you really want to know, a bit special. Micky was her driver.  She’d said as much and they travelled all over London – and often. Been awhile though. She’d been away she said, “family business”. Back now and said she was looking forward to getting back to work, “with my favourite car service.”  He felt himself redden as he placed her Louis Vuitton spinner in the boot. She was wearing that perfume again. Sweet, with a hint of some dry and exotic spice. “Cabochard,” she’d said, with surprise the time he’d mentioned it. He liked to savour it the way he’d been taught to enjoy wine; slowly, internally, long after the passing. It’s from the 30s and not so fashionable now she’d told him in an offhand way as though she’d been asked many times. Her aunt bought it for her, adding, with a hint of intimacy and puckering her cabernet lips, “I’m glad you like it.” Then puncturing the flirtatious veil of familiarity with an attenuated giggle and a “don’t want you gasping for air behind the wheel do we now.” Brother, she knew how to hit the launch button.

After asking how long he thought the journey would take she was back on the phone, her one true companion, wedged between her neck and a raised shoulder, an intimacy he could barely imagine. He liked her style. Lean and gamine, a bit French. The broad shoulders of a swimmer and erect stroll of a catwalk model. She was talking softly while looking out the offside window. He saw a low hoop earing resting on on the iPhone. He asked her if he could turn the radio on, down low? Looking into his eyes in the rear view mirror she said fine. Smiling small pleats fanned out from the sides of her mouth and he wondered if she was older than he thought? Maybe 40? Beautiful in that moneyed, manicured, sophisticated way. He tapped a preset button to ditch the drive-time news, something to do with European finance, in favour of a MoR station with non-stop oldies. Sheryl Crow was singing about a freeway. It felt right. The rhythm in time with the motion of the car, taking some of the sting out of the stop-start of rush hour traffic. He thought about his passenger. Her life. Her friends. Her lovers. He hated them all.

He’d picked Claudine Harper up many times, mostly from her apartment a red brick block with bay trees in tall galvanised metal pots either side of crittal doors. She’d usually be alone except for that time he’d collected her from a do in Notting Hill. She’d been with a posh boy in a suit and one of those shirts in which the chest and collar are different colours.  The guy had come on to her on the back seat.  There’d been a tussle and she’d pulled herself together pushing the posho off far enough and for long enough for her to give Micky his destination instructions. Not her place another, probably his, but in the same neck of the woods. The two colour shirt jerk had missed the body language and continued nuzzling her neck and doing something out of sight with his free arm.

“Freddy,” she’d yelled, straightening herself and shifting to the opposite side of the seat. “Stop it,” then looking up to the driver’s mirror, perhaps for approval? Freddy wasn’t impressed. In a high falutin accent, although maybe it wasn’t some theatrical mock and is actually the way he speaks, he insisted that she wasn’t normally this reserved. Quite the opposite in fact, reminding her of the last time they’d enjoyed an evening of martinis.

She caught Micky’s eye. 

“You were more discreet then when there wasn’t a bloody audience. For fuck’s sake Claudine it’s only the sodding driver.”

Micky had jumped on the brakes sprang out and pulled open the rear door with such speed Freddie almost tumbled out onto the pavement. It had the desired outcome too. The alcohol coursing Freddie’s dilated veins was then having the opposite effect to that for which he’d consumed it. In a heartbeat he’d sobered. He mumbled apologies and how he’d been out of order an how he was on medication that doesn’t mix with booze and that he hadn’t been thinking, and…whatever said Micky.

“And of course you’re much bigger than me so why don’t we just have a nice drive home and listen to the radio.” He’d shuffled uneasily. She’d laughed and agreed.

Freddie barely spoke for the next 25 minutes and when he did it was in an indecipherable mumble. He lived in one of the apartment blocks leading up to Richmond Park. One of those faceless steel and glass and always ‘luxury’ blocks that are going up all over the country with tacked on hearth rug balconies and are so cramped inside every window space resembles the inside of a cupboard cluttered with clothes and bicycles and modern paraphernalia. The sort of apartment that Penny said she wanted but which Micky could neither afford nor aspire too. 

Claudine had asked him to wait while she walked Freddie to the door. She kissed him on the cheek and after whispering something returned to the cab. She apologised and said he’s the nicest person on the planet, most of the time, but pour a few drinks inside him and he turns into an octopus, like most of the guys in her line of work. 

“Hands everywhere.”

Micky agreed Freddie had been out of line and that it wasn’t his place to intimidate passengers.

She shook her head and filling the car with Cabouchard disagreed saying he’d been a godsend. 

“Please, I really appreciate what you did. Don’t feel bad. Freddie needs reminding how to behave from time to time.” Her mobile played the opening bars to Boogie Wonderland. She pulled a face and Micky guessed it was Freddie. Stepping out into the warm night air she’d turned and asked for his name?

“Thank you Micky, for being my Galahad.”

“Company policy maam,” he’d replied with a theatrical bow.

She’d never mentioned that episode with Freddie again and he sensed she was reassured that the man behind the wheel was on her side. Then to his surprise she’d bought him a drink one morning on a Gatwick run. Other drivers were always bragging about this or that client buying them gifts, but not him, he’d never accepted anything – until that morning. She’d made up some story about getting the departure time wrong and going without breakfast. She wanted to stop and wanted company. She was coming on to him, that much was clear. She’d been wearing a two piece check suit in beige with epaulets and a green silk scarf tied around her neck like a choker and had said she knew this hotel on the outskirts of Crawley that does a great breakfast. She talked up the homemade marmalade and coffee like it mattered. The place empty but for a woman with silver hair and a small terrier to match. As the waitress approached Claudine announced she wasn’t hungry making a pitch for what she said were killer Bloody Marys instead. 

“With horseradish and a real kick. Whaddya say?”

He looked at his watch. It was probably the last job of the morning, so what the heck? They were sat next to each other in a red leatherette booth with an ornate gilt and glass art nouveau lamp on the table, by a bay window with intercontinental jets disappearing into a platinum stratus. She with her back to the window silhouetted in the grey light and him to her side marvelling her jaw line; a nose that lifted imperceptibly at the end and eyebrows as dark and glossy as her gamine bob. She could be a model and she knew a thing or two about Bloody Marys. 

She talked a lot and had said she’d grown up not far from where there. Her father had worked in airport security until he’d died of lung cancer when she was 10. Her mother was a nurse,  and her younger sister a teacher. She said she’d wanted something more exciting. Travel and entertaining, a bit of glamour. Public relations for a hedge fund (he didn’t like to ask what in hell that is?) was the perfect solution to a suburban girl looking to step out. 

“And you?” 

He told her he shared her passion for travel. He’d been a photographer with a local newspaper but like her wanted something, more. She smiled and raised her glass.  She drank like someone used to working a room and clinked her empty glass against his as if to say, another?

“I’m sorry, you’re driving, I shouldn’t encourage you. It’s just…well, to tell you the truth I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long while.” 

He wanted to kiss her  “I’ll drink to that,” said Micky poking his eye with the celery stalk.” She laughed then seeing his pained expression suppressed it. Time to go. She was still giggling when they stepped into the car.  She didn’t invite him for drinks after that leaving him to wonder  if he should have given her some sort of encouragement.

It was raining when they pulled up opposite the black cab rank at Kings Cross. Like all minicab drivers he knew never to trespass on their sacred strip of tarmac but nevertheless felt angry eyes on him. There was a policeman looking at him too. What’s the big deal? Everyone’s got to make a living. He helped Claudine with her case shifting awkwardly  and looking into her eyes as she stuffed a note into his breast pocket. Some woman he mused slipping back behind the wheel as a policeman in a high viz jacket approached the near side and gestured for him to pull away, pointing pendulously along the double yellow line, the taxi only loading bay. Remonstrating was out of the question. The near side front tyre was worn below the point at which it should have been replaced and he wasn’t too confident with the off-side either. Once you set those fellas off there’d be other misdemeanours. Best skedaddle and as me dear old gran used to say, “keep smiling.”

The Citroen wasn’t old. It’d only just come up for its first MoT, sailing through but for the near side stop light and the wear on that tyre. He’d bought it because it was cheap, very cheap owing to its high mileage and he’d liked it immediately. With He liked the way the hydropneumatic suspension sailed over speed humps at any speed and sound proofing that filtered all internal and external noises to a warm whooshing, seducing clients into feeling that they were riding in something prestigious. The Major, Rayburn’s boss, had liked it too and after a trial week, during which Micky’d done nothing but pub and nightclub runs, clearing gum and vomit off the tan leather, promoted the newby to account jobs.

“Rayburn 43 cleared, over,”. He slipped a CD into the player and slumped back into the driver’s seat as Maxwell’s whine took him back to a room and a girl long ago. Strange he thought, you don’t notice the traffic after a while. It’s just there, like the weather.

“43, it’s your lucky day. Evershalt Street, steps of Euston Station 19.00 hrs for Sandycombe Lane. Name of Joyce. Over.” 

That was more like it. And it’s cash. Slow along the Marylebone Road, and around Shepherds Bush, but who cares when you’re being paid for a return? And they were on time. An elderly couple, nice coats and shiny shoes, with old fashioned suitcases you need two hands to lift into the boot. The type without wheels and with sticker pennants stating where in the world they’d been, and, as it turned out, as good as gold. Been to stay with their son in Manchester. He’s some sort of producer whose wife had recently given birth to their first grandchild. The husband held up an iPhone with photographs of a baby. They smiled and chatted and talked all the way to Kew about how well their son is doing and the house their daughter-in-law is restoring in a neighbourhood that’s a bit down-at-heel but which everyone agrees is on the up. They spoke a lot about the personalities their son works with, names Micky had never heard of. He didn’t let on he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t want to burst their bubble. She rummaged around in a shiny handbag with a metal clasp that she clipped and unclipped and offered him a sweet, one of those parma violets his grandmother loved. He didn’t  take his hand off the wheel so she leant forward and dropped it into his mouth.  They were so nice they didn’t want him to get out when they arrived at their quiet street with tall hedges. When he revealed that he’d been born in Manchester the wife gasped and her husband squeezed her shoulder. “Like we were meant to be friends,” he said.

Next a short run from Mortlake High Street to Richmond, back to Mortlake for Richmond Station and then up to town for a pick up at The Connaught Rooms, destination Barnes Common. Lucky again.  Another cash job and the client, a penguin (one of Maxie’s terms for passengers in black tie). The name of Ingleby, a jolly man with a florid face, curly fair hair, and eyebrows that stood proud of an extended forehead like stickleback fins. He laughed a lot, too much, and said he owned a chain of launderettes. 

“You live around Richmond you may have washed your socks in one of my machines,” said the penguin in a voice more refined than he appeared. Upon which the woman with a voice of cigarettes and costermongering said he ought wash some of his own. The penguin scowled and dropped a business card on the passenger seat landing face down on a the remains of Micky’s egg mayonnaise sandwich. He talked, about the economy mostly, and the lack of get up and go in young people. Mickey wanted to concentrate on the drive but the penguin was leaning on the back of the passenger seat and spitting into his ear. He tried to focus on the neon world ahead of them; tale lights of the jets at roof height over Hounslow; tessellated patchworks of lights and lives in illuminated rooms unaware of inquisitive eyes; the grey blue flickering of televisions, and the ceaseless amber lit road. He’d heard a story once, he doesn’t know if it’s true but he likes it all the same, of a driver who simply couldn’t stop. He’d driven PoB until the fuel had run out, somewhere near Bristol, and even then he’d than remained in the car, the fare asleep beside him.

The penguin tipped well. A Jane Austen, folded in half with another business card inside. Micky left them in the driveway of a detached Edwardian house pulling away across the common to where Marc Bolan had been killed, jaded bouquets and wreaths tied to the chain link fence.

He’d been listening to Harold handing out jobs to Rayburns 32 and 18. Three for each of them for every one for other drivers. Reaching below his seat to turn up the volume heard his own call sign. 

“Go on 43, have a break, you’ve earned it. Got you down for Sheen Court to Notting Hill at ten Lover Boy. Name of a Caring. Over.” 

He’s lived with so many nicknames, what’s one more? His mother used to say, “don’t knock it, it means they’re talking about you. Better than than being forgotten.” Did she have a point? Some names are better than others. He earned his latest after a spate of bookings came in asking for him specifically,  and all of them women. It was his birthday, “and you’re not 30 every day” said Maxie who’d coined the name. Some call in and request Lover Boy which is fine except on those occasions when the pick-up is a couple and the boyfriend wants to now why his other half is so familiar with the driver? At best it’s a laugh, at worst a challenge.

Some drivers took their breaks at Rayburn’s offices above a former stables. But Micky didn’t like to spend too much time there. It’s a mess, rank with odour of cigarettes, food and unhygienic men. One of those smells that gets inside your nose and stays. An ochre lit pit where Dave, an affable Cornishman on the day shift, told him you have to remember to wipe your feet as your leave for fear of carrying something contagious with you. Maxie and Harold were eating kebabs when Micky entered.

“Whoa, Lover Boy. To what do we owe this honour?” Maxie threw him one of his cheesy grins whilst wiping bits of lettuce and chillie sauce from his chin. 

“Shouldn’t you be out spreading love and affection to all the lonely ladies of west London?”

Micky told him they’d have to wait. It’s wet and he needed some caffeine.

“Just don’t leave it too long. Yours is a civic duty.”

Harold made a noise that could be mistaken for a laugh. 

“Look at that,” said Maxie, “you’ve got Harold all worked up.”

Harold made another noise, louder and more unusual than the first. Two other drivers, whom Micky didn’t recognise, joined in the mirth. Maxie was on a roll, revelling at being the centre of attention. One of his favourite routines involved farting, then stopping mid-sentence and demanding to know what the noise was? The other drivers cracked-up every time.  He did it again interrupting a story the day driver, an Asian looking man with black hair and a goatee, had heard from a friend working for another minicab outfit in the east end. There had been some exchanges with black cab drivers at a drive-thru McDonalds and the police had been called. The black cabbies saying the minicabs were uninsured and were a risk to the public. There were no arrests and it all blew over until some weeks later a minicab was called to a pick-up in Soho Square at gone midnight. Within seconds he’d been surrounded by black cab drivers who flipped the Sierra over onto its roof with the driver inside.

“Like, was it a personal thing?” asked Harold.

Maxie laid the remains of his kebab on the radiator. “Yeah, like they were all personally pissed off with minicabs. What do you think you moron.” Harold looked hurt. “They think, and maybe with some reason, that we’re stealing their trade.”

Micky said they could also have been thinking they’d spent five years on The Knowledge and we roll in with hire and reward cover, and a GPS and we’re off.”

“Whose effing side are you on?” spat Jake.

“He’s on our side you wallaby. He’s pointing out, if you’ve got the time to listen, it’s the number one reason lardy arsed black cab drivers are pissed off with us.” Harold liked lardie arsed repeating it several times until Maxie threw him a look and a strip of  lettuce hung.

There’d been other attacks. Dog excrement on windscreens, tyres deflated and what a lot of drivers believed was an orchestrated  campaign of bilking; passengers doing runners at their destination without paying. Micky had had a couple. Initially friendly types, asking him all kinds of chummy questions about the life of a nighttime minicab driver  before skedaddling with a parting “fuck you”. 

If Micky had done his sums right he’d have enough for an E Class by the summer. And that’s when the big money’d roll in. He could break with Rayburn and either join one of the limo firms or go it alone. It’s why there was a photo of Jamie Foxx from Collateral on the inside of the sunshade. Less miles for more money. Evenings in the back seat watching Strictly while the penguins are getting fat. Then there’s the perks. Big ticket clients like to feather their fanbase. Micky had heard of a C-Class driver getting a case of Bollinger. Now it was his turn for some reward. “A man needs deserves some of that prestige action,” he said looking at himself in the mirror. Running a hand through his wavy hair and a finger across the bottom of his nose.  

He’d got six six texts since he last looked; two from his credit card company, another from the phone company, and two, the second a reminder with a quizzical emoji, from Penny asking him to drop by for breakfast. The last was from Annie calling him an “arsehole”; that’d be for calling her Penny in a reply. Disorientation is another part of the job? When will they ever learn? Two five ’til nine nights  one week and five one-after-the-others the next. This was one of the five nights straight and calling Annie ‘Penny’ hadn’t been his only mistake. He’d been counting his takings on the front seat and forgotten he was in gear. The Citroen lurched forward and punched a hole the size of a fist in back of a Smart car. A bony man with a high forehead and expensive spectacles took him for two hundred cash there and then to settle it. A night’s takings gone in a moment of madness. There’d been a mystery overcharging too. It was the first time he’d seen the Major since his interview six months ago. He was accused of overcharging some Dutchman, who he’d charged £50 for a £25 pound job. He’d thought it’d been odd the next day. The drunken idiot had paid so what was the big deal? The Major accepted the Dutchman was drunk, “he’d said as much in his letter. But he’d been expecting some change.”

Penny was in bed when Micky threw the car keys on to the draining board and poured the remains of the Rioja into a teacup. A studio with a bed just three strides from the kitchen appliances. She’d fixed it up well in a hippy dippy kind of way with rugs and antimacassars, William Morris wallpaper with peacocks and swirls, a dream catcher in the window, and bunches dead roses hanging from the bookshelves. He liked it, cocooned in Penny’s mystical world just yards from Richmond Park at the top of stuccoed Regency house with a monkey puzzle tree in the garden. He undressed in the grey half light and climbed in next to her. The bed creaked and Penny  silently drew him closer. Without speaking she rolled to her side and placed him inside her. In the morning he’d found a note about croissants in the bread-bin and fresh orange juice in the fridge.

The pick up at Sheen Court was to Epsom so next to no chance of a return. With the park closing at sunset it meant a run out to Ham and through to Kingston. The GPS pointed him to Surbiton and Ewell. Harold interrupted the Delphonics with something about a police checkpoint at the foot of Kingston Hill. Have to be Hook then, and then cut back.

“Where are you going,” barked the client. “This isn’t the way.” He was indignant. Hadn’t he hear the RT? His anger subsided. A burst water main at Surbiton and a tailback? Of course he hadn’t heard, he’d been on the phone.  Micky assured him it was the same price. When the company quotes it sticks to it. Client indignation goes with the job. There’s always a better, faster and cheaper route. Micky didn’t mind. He liked the quiet life. It’s why he always explained his route before setting off. If they knew a better one, fine. And when theirs backfired, which it frequently did, he’d be in the clear. 

It was gone midnight when Harold sent him back to Twickenham, for the fourth time. A wait and return to Hampton Court, the client paying £30 an hour waiting time. Would have been cheaper to call for another cab. The pick up was at one of those tall terraced 1970s homes with a garage next to the front door. There were German cars on every drive except those with Range Rovers.  The client was around his age, maybe in her early 30s. Nice looking by the name of Gittings. Shoulder length blonde hair with highlights. She was wearing a short checked overcoat with a high collar. Petite, even with heels like skewers. She didn’t smile and didn’t look at him. Sniffy bitch then.

“Sandringham Avenue, wait and return.” Nothing about the weather or the traffic or how it’s a funny time of night to be making house calls. A baby sitter maybe, or a carer? No, non of those. She was way too angry with a face that said she’d belt anyone who spoke out of turn. And then there’s the wait. So, she’s coming back. Hey. Who cares? She was cute, she had money to burn, and this was his favourite time of the shift; gone midnight when the traffic was light and the feeling of desolation comforting for a man who liked to be alone. His mobile buzzed in his pocket. It was Penny wanting to know if he’d be calling in for breakfast? He’d been there four or five times for breakfast now and hadn’t eaten a thing. The passenger was motionless, staring at the back of his headrest, sparkly blue and red maquillage delineating the outline of her cheekbones. To break the ice he said it wasn’t long now. No reaction.

Of course he’d known where they were headed the second Suzie had instructed him to turn left in 400 yards, and to “keep right”. This would normally be about the time the Cabouchard stirred in the back; his class act gathering her phone and papers, ready to flash him that smile. He’d tapped in Sandringham Avenue without giving it a second thought. Why hadn’t Harold said Dene Court Mansions? He’d have got there on autopilot. He could smell the citrus and spice and have killed for another shot at those Bloody Marys. There’s another bay tree and a new lamp above the door and no concierge.

“You know why we’re here, don’t you? No of course you don’t. But you’ll find out sooner or later though so I might as well tell you.” She swallowed like someone whose bitten off more than they can chew. Nervous? No, it’s more than that, she’s set to blow. He shifted around in his seat to face her but she was staring out of the nearside window towards the block.

“We are here…because my husband is in there.”

Was he expecting her he asked thinly? She snorted. “No way. He and his bitch are about to get the surprise of their lives.” And with that she’s out the door and through the wrought iron gate. Turning she snapped, “you don’t move, that’s the deal. You stay.” Micky nodded, then lowering the driver’s window called out, “you sure you want to do this?”  No response. 

He didn’t like it one bit. They’d been mulling over a similar situation at the office just that week, and that one had ended badly. Like tonight the husband had been fooling around, the only difference being that when the wife got out the Rayburn she went to work on the girlfriend’s Audi with a screwdriver. With the car alarm in full swing her hubby was outside before she could complete etching ‘fucking sla…’ on the bonnet.

“Control, Rayburn 43 this Dene Court wait and return can I have some clarity? Over.” Silence, but for the scream of a fox in the rank darkness. Nothing from control. A curtain moved on the first floor and a shaft of light silhouetted an inquisitive occupant illuminating the path to the door. He looked up and the curtain swung back. Something wasn’t right. It had to be more than a coincidence that this was Claudine’s address.

Thinking on his feet was never one of Micky’s strong points. He was more the sort to meander around a situation rather than jump in feet first. Penny used to say he didn’t do spontaneity; she’d order for him in restaurants. What if all hell broke loose and Claudine saw him waiting in the car? He should get the hell out of there, it’s what Maxie would do. It’s what any sensible person would do. Walk away from something that didn’t concern them. But there’s the problem “it does concern me” he whispered as he unclipped the seatbelt and stepped out into the charged night air. He could smell the Cabouchard. A man in a hat with a small dog were leaving as he stepped up to the door. Catching it just as it was about to click shut he thanked the dog walker and was inside before the man had time to ask him what he was doing? If he’d been asked he wouldn’t have known how to answer. He didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing? He called Rayburn again. The brass letter boxes bore apartment numbers not names.  Harold’d sent him here enough times he must know which is Claudine’s flat? He span him some yarn about how the passenger was visiting their account client and had left a package on the back seat. Maxie would have put to and two together but Harold bought it. “You ok 43? Been running?”

Micky said he should quit the fags. “Roger that 43. Third floor,  number 17.” No time for the lift. He ran six flights and felt his chest about to explode. He leant on the doorbell and thumped with his fists. 

Freddie answered bare chested with a towel around his waist. A voice somewhere, Claudine, asked who it was? 

“It’s your taxi driver, and by the look of him I think he wants a duel.

“Is that it cabbie? Guns at dawn?”

Micky couldn’t speak. After 84 steps, and slipping and falling and hitting his head on the polished brass banister he could barely breathe. And here was that posho again, here in Claudine’s apartment looking as smug as a man who’s ship has just come in with a cargo containing the most attractive woman in west London. He should have flattened him when he had the chance. Instead of now feeling the lifeblood drain out of him. 

“Is she alright?” He couldn’t help himself. He could see what it looked like yet despite himself, and having good idea how all of this must have looked to the bare chested Cheshire cat in front of him, he needed to know Claudine was safe. Was there someone there called Gittings. He started to describe his passenger that only had the effect of making Freddie laugh even louder. He tried to look past him but every time he leant this way or that Freddie moved to block his view.

“Ole,” yelled Freddie each time he tilted to block Micky’s view. So, had she called a cab? No, he didn’t think so, calling over his bare shoulder into the dimly lit hall with picture frames on both sides the length of it. A muffled ‘no’ and something he couldn’t discern. Freddie said not to worry and then turned back to face Micky who was starting to regain his composure. “So unless you’ve got a pair of loaded pistols with you I suggest you fuck off.” With that the door slammed shut.

Passing through the lobby the man with the dog said something about it being a private block and something else about turning his back on him. He wasn’t bothered. He needed to be outside in the calm of the night. There was a quarter of Glenmorangie in the glove compartment. There was something else too, the glib, colourless repetition of his call sign on the RT: 43, 43; Rayburn 43; 43, where are you 43? He found the bottle behind his AtoZ and with his other hand swung the Citroen on a short circuit of the cul-de-sac heading back to the main road just as his passenger stepped out into the road with an undisguised expression of defiance. He pulled up along side and lowered the passenger side window. They weren’t at home she said sounding disappointed, “and where were you? I’ve been here for five minutes.” He apologised telling her he’d gone for a smoke.

There it was again, like a pic he couldn’t shake off. Rayburn 43, Rayburn 43 what was his situation? Over.

“POB Twickenham. Over.”

“Sounds like Lover Boy sorted it out. Over.”

“Rayburn 43. Something like that. Over.”

By the early hours the smell of cigarettes and body odour at Rayburn  is overwhelming. There are four bunks in the corner furthest from the glass screened office and every one was occupied by men in crumpled suits, and all but Micky had their shoes and socks on the floor by the only window which was shut  tight and sealed with parcel tape, because it was December and cold outside. The air was sour and the noise an insomniac’s cocktail of muffled RT chatter and the wheezy breathing of men who work long hours and smoked too much. It was impossible to sleep drifting fitfully in and out of consciousness. He thought about the house where he grew up in Suffolk and summers on the beach wind surfing and getting laid in the dunes. He felt a warm sensation and thought of something less erotic. His mobile vibrated in his pocket. She missed him, and he missed her, but only for the thing he is trying not to think about. The phone vibrated again: “bring some bubble bath and I’ll blow your bubbles.” He smiled and rolled over.

It was nearly four when Maxi, prodding his arm with his mobile phone, snapped him out of a dream about a journey he can’t get back from. In it he has to leave friends he doesn’t recognise and return home, but each way he turns is narrower or lower or more precipitous than before. Maxi jabs him harder as he is pushing through a crowd. His legs are moving but he doesn’t make any progress.

“You’re on Lover Boy. Lil wants her  fags, and it’s your turn.”

Lil’s real name is Mary and she is the sister of a singer who had some hits when he was a boy. His parents used to play one, a 45 they’d called it. He could see the red paper sleeve it came in with a hole in the centre.  He doesn’t know what Mary, maybe in her 70s, does, only that she likes to buy her cigarettes  in the early hours of the morning at a 24 hour service station ten minutes on foot from her home.  Some of the other drivers say Mary had come on to them. Maxie even hinted that he’d seen some action there. But that’s Maxie, and whatever he says needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. He isn’t concerned with gossip, he likes her. So what if she’s lost in the past? He couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t bragged about the parties she and her sister had been to, or the headlines, or the phone calls from movie stars he’d never heard of. But that’s ok. He liked her enthusiasm, her fur coats, and heavy makeup, and in a funny sort of way he empathised with her feeling of uselessness. She just liked to break up the loneliness of sleepless nights. He’d said this to Control and Maxie after one such dead of night cigarette run. Their response had been howls of laughter, and more Lover Boy jibes.

“She’s harmless.”

“And so are you,” said Maxie, to hoots of approval.

It was still dark and more than usual because the light beneath the office was out. He pressed the ignition fob so he could be guided by the car’s but doing so he walked full square into an iron staircase that  ceased being  useful years ago. He stumbled back in a heap hitting his head on one of the other cars smelling the blood in his nose and the crack on his forehead. He felt sick. The car lights were on a timer and quickly dimmed into darkness. He pressed the fob again and found the strength to stand and get in behind the wheel. Drawing down the eyeshade and looking in the mirror his injuries were less than he expected. Some grazing and blood hanging from his nose.

Mary didn’t notice the bloodied tissues on the passenger seat, nor his pallor,  talking incessantly about Lily all the way to the service station. There was a comeback tour being mooted and she’d be in charge of the wardrobe. He nodded in an interested way and she was still talking about necklines and shoes long after they’d pulled up in the deserted forecourt. A youth behind the glass looked up from his phone and acknowledged two of his regulars. Micky nodded back and tilted his head towards Mary who was in full flight about an awards show she and Lily were at in the 70s. He’d told his mother about the little woman who does her shopping in the middle of the night, who’d unearthed, from somewhere in a cupboard sealed up for years a record Lily had charted when she was a girl. 

Mary didn’t just want cigarettes. From where Micky was parked it looked like she was doing a major shop the youth tooing and froing between the shelves and the pay window. Holding items up and Mary nodding or shaking her head. Finally he met her at the door and handed her two full carrier bags. She was still talking as the young salesman backed away from the door. Micky papped the horn. She turned towards the car with a smile; a little old lady with two bags and a lot of class. He fished around in the glove compartment and popped another paracetamol. 

Minutes later Mary waved him off. “Rayburn 43, cleared, over.” 

There was a early morning glow to the east, the stuff of postcards. Sheen to the Cross. Victoria to Kew. Twickenham to Terminal 2, and then the cherry of them all, Terminal 2 to Banbury. A pair of Dutch businessmen, on account, handing him a bag of croissants talking a lot about someone called Robin van Persie. He felt good. Clearer than he had for a while. His mobile vibrated. Penny again. He turned it off and followed the GPS’s instructions to a small modern office block on the outskirts of Banbury.  It’d taken an hour, and by then in broad daylight.

“Rayburn 43, Cleared. Over.” What are the chance of a return fare? Slim, but he is feeling lucky and calls again. Still nothing. The paracetamols are wearing off. He reaches into the glove compartment for some more and recalls he’d taken the last. His head hurts now, in a deep, dull, throbbing sort of way, and the smell of blood is back. 

“Rayburn 43. Cleared. Over.” 

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happy birthday

 

When winter’s gone and chills are scant,

Our thoughts do turn to Polyphant.

Therein amid a blaze of grandiflora blooms, 

A steadfast clock and sun drenched rooms,

Each one radiant with wood and dust and webs and brass.

Where to cheer and raise a birthday glass 

To    That There Sonia,

                                                 Sat composedly upon her slender arse…

                                                 Bill Mandrake April 25, 2021

 

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Tied In Knots

 

I’ll be frank, I didn’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed when a friend casually noted that I was wearing a tie while walking Asta on the beach. Not in a business suity sorta way with a white shirt and four in hand knot. More down-home with a sombre drab green casual tie loosely wrapped around an ancient corduroy shirt. Some weeks later our cleaner, observing me with secateurs and shears in the back garden, noted she had never before met anyone doing the gardening wearing a tie. 

Despite having been around for the better part of 200 years ties and tie wearers continue to come in for a good deal of stick. More than cardigans and overcoats, snap-brim hats and suits, in the eyes of many ties represent work and or the establishment –  the embodiment of uncool. And yet I recall waiting outside a nightclub in Victoria some time ago with a friend, whom David Bowie none the lesser once asked approval from for what he was wearing, when the doorman intoned “you can waste the tie.” I thought our other friend was going to clout him. Some years later I pulled out of a local west country society tired of fellow members forever reminding me that the wearing of a tie is not required, and is indeed even frowned upon. Where I come from fleeces and cargo pants are frowned upon. Some blokes even wear lairy patterned socks of that I don’t mind admitting I have a problem with but which I still get given at Christmases and birthdays. Others wear hoodies and jumpers with designer labels on them or ‘old guys rule’ t-shirts. And they complain when I wear tie! It’s not on. 

OK, I’ll admit I wasn’t always so taken with them. Like the other boys in my year I couldn’t wait to get shot of mine the second I passed the school gates in the misguided belief that west London girls would find me irresistible in a two tone striped blue blazer, 17 inch turn up trousers and a hair shorter at the back and sides than the Peaky Blinders’. But hey look sister, no tie.

Looking back I think it was the hippies that changed my perception. If the prevailing style of the western world was going to be intentionally unkempt I was going the other way. While pals listened to Jethro Tull and dressed like Big Issue sellers I was spinning Gladys Knight and spending my Saturday job earnings on three piece suits and ties as wide as tea trays. My knotty predilection coming to chime with the prevailing fashion trend among urbanist-as some years later when New Wave and Punk embraced ties as a sort of piss take. A kind of ‘yeah, a tie, what of it?’ My girlfriend at the time found/bought/stole me a plastic one that was tricky to knot but kept the beer off my shirt. 

 

then

Because I’m the sort of person who likes looking at myself there is a photograph in the kitchen (one of many of Kim and I ) of me in a jacket, shirt and polka dot blue and white tie lunching on a some baguette and camembert in La Tuileries. I’m guessing it was taken in 1977 when I was 24 years old. 43 years later I’m doing the weeding in a brown corduroy shirt and green tartan tie that I found in the pocket of a vintage jacket. It’s probably my favourite tie along with two Yves Saint Laurent ties bought in a Liberty sale around 1988, a pair of Ralph Lauren ties (a black and white one with cars and a red and white with race horses) a present from a musician maybe a year earlier, and a blue knitted one, also from a sale at my favourite department store. My most expensive tie (about the price of a main course at The Seafood Restaurant) and also knitted I found in a vintage shop in Bath.

now (…ish)

So what’s the big deal with ties? They cover the line of buttons down the middle of your chest, provide a symmetrical centre point within the contours of a shirt and notched lapel, and further more set a fella apart from scruffy oiks that make up most of humanity by placing something interesting in that scrawny gap below the chin. In my case (and I’m not fishing for sympathy) they furthermore serve to draw attention away from a sizeable neck scar that’s been both my maker and nemesis since I was a child. It’s one of the reasons I veer on the side of the slackened knot with a top button generally undone look (the scar objects to a stiff buttoned up collar) and with a cardigan rather than a jacket; not a rule that’s set in stone. I can also appreciate the temptation to opt for the buttoned up shirt and tie behind a crew neck sweater as favoured by Carlo Ancelotti. A relaxed smartness. Strong on coordination, ties in wool or cotton and rarely of silk. As rule of thumb anything your geography teacher may have. Come to think of it that may be where my sombre shirt and tie look originated. I remember him (not his name) telling the class he wore a dark blue shirt every day because he could wear it for a week without the dirt showing. How woke. 

In keeping with the classic notched lapel jacket its sartorial partner the tie has its antecedents in military uniforms, appearing first in 17th century when Croatian mercenaries, in the employ of Louis Xlll during the Thirty Years War, arrived in France sporting seriously suave scarves. The French were so impressed they called the scarves cravats (a derivation of Croat and the French word for tie). The tie was more flamboyant in them times and worn by women just as much as men. After centuries of floppy bows by the start of the 20th century those cravats became ties, narrower, less ostentatious and hanging the entire length of the torso from top button to waist. They came to symbolise a certain correctness, professionalism, military rank and status, school, and sports club membership. The tie said who you were. 

I’ll admit these are different times, exacerbated by the pandemic and the drift toward lounge wear. According to research (!) only a third of UK office staff wear ties to work, largely as a result of the ‘dress down Friday’ campaign launched around the turn of the century. Personally I blame David Cameron for a lot of things (the present prime minister included) but the tieless open neck shirt was the final straw.  In California the tech companies that supply so much of what we don’t need but make billions in the process make employment conditional on staff not wearing ties (or suits). The Facebook chief even appearing infront a congressional hearing in a hoodie. 

I’m not saying you must wear a tie with a shirt and jacket. Just don’t leave the tie in the drawer because you think you’ll look hip without it. It’s aesthetics and comfort that count not some half baked belief that dressing down and not like a Croatian military officer means you’re out of step with the street. For three generations of men the tie has come to represent old fashioned; an unnecessary piece of kit long past its sell-by date that means you’re either at work or old and quite possibly both. The sort of men who in their 50s wear cap sleeve T-shirts, quilted biker jackets, beanie caps, Crocks and designer sports footwear and skinny jeans in the delusional belief that they make them appear younger than they really are. My advice to them – buy a tie; better to be dapper than a dope. 

OK, under pressure I’ve tried fleeces (too itchy) and I’ve tried t-shirts (too much neck). I really like roll/turtle necks (but sometimes a bit too artful) and open necks are fine (with a cravat although I prefer the word scarf). But when all’s said and done I’m never happier than in a dark blue button down shirt undone at the top with a loosely knotted darkish tie (result).  I should have been a geography teacher. 

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It’s a dog’s life on Tregirls

The oceanic panarama at Tregirls’ changes all the time. This half mile stretch of sand from St.George’s Well to Harbour Cove, washed by the Atlantic and patterned with a patchwork imprint of thousands of webbed feet, changes from one hour to the next. What may begin as a maelstrom of north westerlies pounding thunderous waves upon Pentire Point can, in the time it takes to follow the track up to the shelter of Chapel Stile, be transformed into a scene of lapis tranquility. To quote myself on such a day many years past – it doesn’t get any better.

Of this changing vista our friend Sonia says “if you don’t like the weather,  just wait 20 minutes and it’ll change.” And she knows this stretch better than most. 

Within this shifting natural world, where the dunes slip and slide and the rock faces crumble and one day the sand is littered with driftwood and seaweed and hunks of coal the next the only constant unchanging element are the dog walkers. Come rain or shine, hail storm or summer breeze, these sturdy walkers and their loyal, happy, and over indulged four legged friends are there. If you want to know what true friendship is all about you should join them.

Some  arrive early while breakfast is still being served. They emerge from the thicket at the foot of Lellizick or from down past the cabbages and cauliflowers on Tregirls Farm, accompanied by the peeping of circling a buzzard. Others make the trek up from Padstow and those with stout footwear may tackle Trig Troll for the breathtaking view that rewards them at the spot where the rutted track falls away to the old stone stile.

Such a hardy bunch. Tregirls just wouldn’t be Tregirls without them.

appearing in the order in which they were photographed

Mike with Maggie and May

Suzie with Brion and Clodagh

 

Kim and Ziggy

 

kim and asta 2

Kim with Asta

Wendy and Betsy

 

Chris and Jim and Charlie

 

Dave with Hugo

 

Cath and Socks

 

Paul and airborne Kinga

 

Steve with Willow

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Coronavirus – a September view from Padstow

Kim and I went blackberrying today to an evidently not-so-secret spot near Constantine Bay: our source heavily pre-picked by the look of the denuded brambles. 

It had been chilly when we left the house, passers-by in puffa jackets and woolly hats, but by the time we pulled up near Mother Ivey’s Bay Holiday Park the cumulous clouds had ameliorated providing plenty of clear blue sky and from it some much appreciated late season warmth.

Our first pickings were slim and a fraction of the over plump fruits that Kim converted into blackberry and apple jelly this time last year. Back then we had had the brambles to ourselves whereas this weekend we were watched by a steady stream of curious ramblers. Happily the quality our pickings improved the closer we got to the beach. (You’ll notice that I am being purposefully vague as to our precise whereabouts). 

Less than a month ago friends and neighbours were looking forward, as we all do annually, to the schools going back and the area returning to a more peaceful normality. A well deserved end to the annoying people dodging on the slow climb up from St.George’s Well with The Camel twisting lazily to our left. This time of year on Constantine you would reckon on fewer than a couple of dozen walkers: weekenders among diehard cold water surfers and stout hearted locals. But this is what they keep telling us is the new normal and on this stretch of coast it translates into holidaymakers in their droves long after they would normally have been expected to home. Narrow lanes of trails of timidly driven cars, restaurants and b&b’s booked up and pedestrians in town and elsewhere oblivious to the new social etiquette.

In fareness most people seem to be behaving responsibly whilst there is a good deal of hugging and handshaking still going on. In Mole Valley Farmers in Newquay nobody challenged those wondering around without masks and in the Wadebridge branch of Aldi I was almost sent flying by a thirty-something couple who evidently put speed above medical courtesy.  Here in the Padstow supermarket I’ve grown accustomed to ducking and diving away from those young and old and many with masks around their chins oblivious to the impact of the their actions. You have to have sympathy for the long suffering staff. 

Of course Constantine was as lovely as ever, maybe more so with a tame north wind clearing a path for the sun. The big difference being no children and an absence of family paraphernalia. Instead there are couples and a deeply blue surf peppered with shiny black dots. I didn’t count how many people were on the beach but it had to be hundreds. The holiday season, possibly because fewer of us going abroad, hasn’t ended here in Padstow and its environs close by  – it’s just matured. The car parks still full of expensive 4x4s but the people behind the wheels that bit older or a tad trendier. 

This Covid thing is impacting on our stretch of north Cornwall in a variety of ways. Despite social distancing and a 10pm curfew there are queues of thirsty masked tourists outside every pub and bar and you’ll be lucky to get an allocated table in a restaurant for longer than 90 minutes.

Then there is the sheer number of properties for sale. At a ballpark guess more than were for sale when Kim and I first came looking in 1993. And not the sort of homes work-at-home-city-quitters are looking for having just en suites, a single kitchen living room and gardens not big enough to swing a kitten in.  Things are evidently changing, it’s just not clear how?

We won’t know the longterm impact of this virus on Padstow for some years to come by which time we will be able to factor in chlorinated Brexit too. There are expensive development projects afoot but without exception each instigated long before age and underlying health issues became the defining medical issues of the 21st century.

Happily Constantine remains magnificent, a broad crescent bay where the elements coalesce to heart stopping effect. Two days later  I am emptying its golden sands from my jeans, the aroma of jam permeating every corner of  The Red House. 

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that’s enough of that then – the scourge of shamefluencers

 

If your sense of style has been turned on it’s head and your concept of acceptable popular culture is in retreat then perhaps like me you are an unwitting victim of  shamefluencing. 

I became aware of this new threat, the converse of influencing, when the obnoxious right honourable member for the 18th century appeared on the national political scene in what is his default attire, a grey flannel double breasted suit, almost the double of one in my wardrobe acquired at a sale in Savile Row. The suit was never a favourite of mine. Whenever I wore it I had to find ways to dress it down and make it seem less like the staple of a karnty estate agent. Nonetheless I clung on to it for those occasions I felt the need for a vast flapping notched collar.

No more. In all honesty how could I wear anything favoured by someone so unpleasantly disingenuous and a tory anti European to boot. I hung on for six months before offloading it on ebay.

forget this….

But alas the MP for north east Somerset is turning into the shamefluencing equivalent of Paris Hilton. Just the other week he was depicted on the front page of another national newspaper scoffing an ice-cream in a double breasted blazer, not dissimilar to a vintage Yves Saint Laurent version I have been wearing for years. The last occasion was for my speech at my friend Robert’s 60th birthday do in Clerkenwell. I think I wore it at his 50th too at The Groucho Club. It has raised as few eyebrows over the years, what with its brass anchos buttons, and suggestions of old majors and cricketing types. But I love it, or I did until that infernal front page.

It’s a neat and infuriating trick turning the new advertising norm of influencing on its head. 

Influencers earn fortunes, and I don’t mean the Kardashians. I’m talking about non celebrity influencers; young and attractive with exceptional teeth. Millions hang on to their every pout on social media earning them eye watering sums to buff themselves with the latest cosmetics,  slip into some new garb, and hang out at cool gin joints. A bit like my time with The Sunday Times’ Good Gear Guide except instead of earning millions I got to keep a few free anoraks and walking boots. I still have a portable espresso maker in a box intended for a quick caffeine hit off the beaten track. 

…and this too

Influencers mean nothing to me being immune to coercion whether disingenuous (faux life) or overt (advertising). I don’t even feel a twinge when I see Ray Winston plying his down-the-pub cockney lilt urging me to ‘bet in play’. My generation- post hippie pre bling – was gifted with a healthy dose of scepticism, ie nausea, whenever someone with status and money seeks to flog us anything – be it crisps, sherry, cars, insurance, breakfast cereal, sugary drinks and footwear,you name it.

But things seldom pan out as planned and I now I find myself succumbing to more insidious shamefluencers. An altogether sinister celebrity cult with the possibly unintentional aim of undermining our faith, trust and desire of long cherished items. The antithesis marketing shaming us to renounce those which we held (wore) dear.

That other right wing scourge , the thin lipped cheeky chappie former banker turned Brexiteer, is also making a name for himself at a shamefluencer. For years I have treasured my single breasted covert coat with a brown velvet collar, bought from my favourite vintage clothes store Hornets of Kensington (coincidentally the source of the Yves Saint Laurent blazer). Nowadays the man who couldn’t buy a seat in the House of Commons can’t be seen wielding a pint of beer without his covert coat and it is surely only a matter of time before someone puts two and two together. 

I used to enjoy cheese too until it was revealed that our prime minister’s self confessed obesity is due to his fondness for fromage. I’d choke if I ate another slice and thence his odious slap-head adviser, the one who drove 60 miles during lockdown to check his eyesight while the rest of us weren’t allowed any further than the supermarket, declared a ‘hard rain’ would fall upon the civil service. In one tainting the Freewheelin’ album and just about any other Dylan track for the sad and simple reason that henceforth whenever I hear them I’ll be reminded of the geek who currently has our prime minister’s arse. 

Quitting when things look wrong is easy. I quit Amazon 12 years ago when I discovered how many bookshops the company was directly responsible for putting out of business. At the last count it was north of 40,000 in the US alone and now has its sights set on grocers. Fast food became a no no during mad cow when we were treated to daily  images of industrial animal rearing. And Medjoul dates – the big plump juicy and very delicious variety from Israel – when it was revealed most come from farms stolen from Palestinians.  Electric cars as it became clear where the lithium and cobalt in their batteries is sourced (the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the child slave labour used to mine them and the cancers and ecological destruction therein.  Then knock out anything by Roman Polanski and Michael Jackson or containing Benedict Cumberbatch.

As yet shamefluencers don’t receive any renumeration for making aspects of my wardrobe untenable. I daresay there are some in north east Somerset who as I write are banging on the doors of Gieves & Hawkes demanding grey flannel double breasted suits and covert coats. I just pray non of the above discover a latent appetite for Bill Evans or Fulham Football Club. 

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