The Little Darlings

 Posted by at 11:49 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 302010

I am not sure I am going to get my head round these smart new ideas for crossing the road in the central London, based on ak’s description of the new pedestrian system at Oxford Circus. That is, I presume it is a system, and somewhere the system has an intelligence, an electronic super-surveillance cybernetic-netted system, or for want of a better word a mind. And the mind has feelings; of course it does, it wants us people walking on foot to trust it!


I am benign, the mind says, And walk, don’t walk, if you little darlings trust me we will all get along fine.


Walk / Don’t Walk. For those of us who travelled the USA in the 1960’s and 70’s, those ubiquitous signals that lit up with the traffic lights at what they call intersections, and we call crossroads, became our friends. Walk / Don’t Walk also said, We are benign.


And I for one always completely trusted them.


In those days the Walk / Don’t Walk rules for walking across streets in American cities were simple. If you stepped off the sidewalk outside the Walk / Don’t Walk areas, you were a target. It was called jay-walking, and as well as ending up in hit-and-run hospital or dead, you were of course also breaking the law. That is democracy. In those days the motorcars were big and had wide shiny chrome fenders, alcohol was cheap and the vehicle dashboards had holders for cans of beer and half bottles of bourbon, and the drivers were also mostly taking ‘mother’s little helper’ valium on high dose prescription.


Added to which for us on foot the drop off the road edge of the sidewalks were big too, in order to accommodate the storm drains which ran underneath, so stepping off you could easily trip and fall, and even if you didn’t trip, you had to concentrate looking down at the drop so hard you would probably not see that rusty open-topped red-neck truck with the stars-and-bars on its bonnet bearing down on you. Hippy faggot, the open-topped red-neck truck would scream past you, the slip-stream wind grabbing at your tee-shirt.


Walk / Don’t Walk. That is democracy. And maybe it was that time I was on my way to the cinema at the big concrete slabbed wall-and-windowless shopping mall to watch Death Race 2000, about a not-so-distant dystopic future of ‘us’ on foot as hit-scores for ‘them’ in cars. And maybe I had got to the mall walking, following a bare earth track to the edge of the street, before crossing it and then pushing through the hole in the wire ring perimeter fence on the other side.


Because if you wanted to, you could disagree. Walk /Don’t Walk. I could go my own way and Walk / Don’t Walk wouldn’t care. That is why I trusted them.


I am benign, the new mind at Oxford Circus says, And walk, don’t walk, if you little darlings trust me we will all get along fine.


The hell I do.

Piracy and Other Discontents

 Posted by at 2:22 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 252010

I’ve just finished reading Hans Fallada’s 1946 novel Alone in Berlin. If you haven’t got there before me, it’s a thriller of a read and a moral/political exploration of resistance in the face of tyranny – in this instance the tyranny is provided courtesy of the Nazi regime in Germany. Even though the resistance is hopelessly ineffective, there’s an argument for the potential redemptive power of resisting, holding to moral decency (an idea much used by Falada – a translation of anständig), even in the face of a regime fuelled by hatred, drunk on power, which has withdrawn any inhibition that might temper the terrorising of a people. Meanwhile, there you are on the high seas attempting to reduce unbearable pressure in the heads. You do what you are told. You obey the rules. No? Then, off with your head!

But it is possible to think about things differently. One (perhaps banal) example would be the new(ish) traffic/pedestrian interface at Oxford Circus. Gone are the iron railings channelling, controlling, forcing pedestrians into prescribed patterns. Instead, they have been replaced by nothing at all – except a different way of thinking. So, us pedestrians can cross in whatever way is convenient for our purposes plus allowing for the traffic lights. That’s right, we don’t need corralling and controlling; we know what we are doing and where we are going and if we don’t then we can wander in our own sweet fashion. This is because somebody or other has taken the trouble to observe, to look carefully, putting preconceptions on one side, at how we behave rather than following the authoritarian impulse. The critical mass cycling movement takes the same idea – how do we manage when nobody is controlling us; how do we respond to the power and authority of the motor vehicle.

This is all to do with democracy lurching on as we wait and observe and tinker and think and walk and talk.

Of course it is all Politics

 Posted by at 7:43 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 212010

Megaphone diplomacy from off his super-yacht swinging at anchor next to our more modest people-carrier version of a boat, You can’t discharge here, his amplified voice crackles across the bay, It is against the law.


What unnerves me most is that even here in these waters and not that far from Aleppo, Beirut, Jafna and the rest, the accents I keep hearing are educated English, not exactly upper-class, but look-alike Pinky and Perky just like you describe, in other words those constituted and delegated voices of authority, so that I have to rush off downstairs to check the lavs (or ‘heads’ as they like to call them for a reason which escapes me). There is a newly fitted stop-cock behind one of them, which the commodore put in over the winter, and there are two possible positions for the stop-cock handle, vertical and horizontal. The up position has ‘holding tank’ written on the wall in marker pen (in marker pen because these days we don’t like to be seen to be wasting money, and the writing has only slightly smudged). The other sideways position has ‘open’ written beside it.


Like the PR Career impossibility his Chief of Staff sneered about, when they found out ‘somebody went yacht racing last week-end’ instead of spending the whole time down on his knees personally sucking up the stuff, Oh shit, I say to myself, But the stop-cock handle is definitely in the up position, Valves get blocked, the voice in my head is telling me, Fermentation, Pressure builds in holding tanks, It has to go somewhere, Better out than in.


The last voice a Scotswoman, What is she doing here I think, the same horror which, or rather who forced me to hold the pencil and make letters with my right hand, when I was happiest doing it with my left. Before a little later she began mimicking Macmillan, You’ve never had it so good. That was 1961 wasn’t it, Supermac. Self-confidence, Echoes of Empire, Progress, and things can only get better. No, that was 1996, and things definitely didn’t get better, except of course for the likes of him in his superyacht, and to a lesser extent for us in our people-carrier boat.


So that now I start to feel guilty about it too, which of course is exactly what Pinky and Perky want. Guilty. Guilty. I don’t own the boat, I say feebly, I am just staying on it. It doesn’t wash. You will have to pay, a man in a peaked hat has arrived in a speedboat and has begun writing out what looks like a parking fine ticket, but I know is going to be far, far more expensive.

Is This Politics?

 Posted by at 11:44 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 162010

You know how the government like
to take a filthy blunt screwdriver to our minds; threaten us with some horrific
medicine because we’ve messed up, spent too much money, taken out dodgy loans
that there’s no way we can ever repay and then to cap it all, we have, with
much or little reluctance, done as instructed and taken ourselves off to vote
and here’s the result: Pinky and Perky. Who would have credited it! Pinky and
Perky with machetes and flame-throwers, hoods pulled well over their faces. As
though we don’t know who they really are. Come on, give us a break, summer’s
here and the World Cup is on the telly. And all we can see are young virile
footballers – the cream of their generation – struggling round the field, blood
dripping, blood gushing from the wounds of war, one leg, no legs . . .

We told you, things are going to
get worse, for all of us, life is never going to be the same again, the
medicine has to hurt for it to be effective, this hurts us more than it hurts
you, we don’t like to do this to you, after all we are not a bunch of sadistic

Ballroom Dancing the Med

 Posted by at 9:14 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 142010

Strange… but true by George!
In Turkish waters last week, I asked another ancient mariner, Bill by name, who had told me that he lived in his sailing yacht in one of the large marinas which edge on to the broad circular bay of Fethiye, how he had spent his time the last nine months that he had been there. Teaching ballroom dancing, Bill said. He was a tall, fit-looking man in his sixties, and I had no reason to doubt his word, and although I felt it wise not to enquire too much further into his overwintering habits, which he had already explained had continued for several years already in different ports around the Mediterranean Sea, I could not resist asking him further about his winter job experiences as a ballroom dancing teacher. Yes, he said, I have taught in several places, Barcelona, and Majorca, and parts of Greece. And in Rome, He added.
Are you writing the book, I asked.
No, Bill said.
Do you mind if I do, I asked after a pause.
Not at all, he replied.
My transaction over, Bill reverted to his preferred genial role as local expert in sailing matters and shopping guide. So unusual book titles are procured by the acquisitive collector. And books, so it seems from other ancient mariners.Like your soiled hardback copy of Simone Weil’s Memoir. And all for a pound sterling, or even less in my case. Strange coincidences.
And yes, I believe the café in the Earlham Road, Norwich was called the Workshop, where we had both been within a day or two of each other.
Some time later, I watched the line of Turkish day-boats disgorge their tourist cargoes on to an island beach of ravishing beauty. You can walk along the beach, a loudspeaker explained in south London accented English, But return for lunch at one-fifteen. And for departure, it transpired, since the schedule required their moving on to several other bays and inlets before the day was out. Then the fast arrival by an inflatable dingy with a powerful engine into the bay opposite the dayboats, and speeding by I see a man and two women in swimming costumes. The three get out, and I realize it is a mother and daughter, and the daughter’s fiancé, who is a tall, strongly built man. A pretence at a commitment to swimming is performed, the mother wearing orange armbands, but then she carefully lies herself on her back on the inflatable dingy looking away in an equal pretence of sunbathing, while the daughter and fiancé retire along the beach to get to know one another better. Thunder, the clouds build from off the mountains to the north, the sun is hazing over, and there is the promise of a heavy rainstorm to follow soon. The beauty like the beginning of a Fellini film all over again, I think by George.

Normal Beauty Struggles to be Reborn

 Posted by at 10:42 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 042010

It’s not normal that we were both on the Earlham Road in Norwich (coincidentally) within a week of each other. Coincidence brings me up short; I want to make it mean something more – perhaps an implication of underlying meaning and order in a chaotic universe. The café you longed (?) to cross the road to . . . was it by any chance the Workshop? Because that is where Leah and I had a drink on Friday afternoon and in the evening returned to share one of their delicious pizzas. But there’s more: during the afternoon visit, as I drank my coffee, I suddenly realised that it was a Grateful Dead

song from the American Beauty album that I was hearing. The sort of time compression made famous by M. Proust. Next morning I noticed in the kitchen of the house where I was staying a boxed set of Grateful Dead CDs – a present, I later learned, from her to him. Somewhere over the years I parted company with my Dead albums and so I was offered CD copies. Memories force their way in.

Connections, which I believed to be terminally broken, are suddenly joined up once more.


I glance out of the window and across the road and read the headline hoarding outside a newsagents for the Western Morning News: EU RULES COULD CLOSE REGIONS’S BEACHES. No wonder we lurch from one paranoid crisis to the next with such populist sentiments being churned out by the press trying to make news out of nothing. The EU remains a useful standby: faceless Brussels bureaucrats interfering (again!) with our birthright. With a bit of luck that old Turk, St George, will ride forth from wherever he’s hiding and kill the wretched dragon and we will be saved, to breathe easy in freedom.


It’s normal that things never quite work out as we hoped. Yes, beware our wishes. But then as I set out back down the High Street I noticed a book on a shelf outside a shop I’ve never bothered to look in before.  A Memoir by Simone Veil. A hardback; I picked it up to see how much it was but the price was smudged though it rather looked like it was being sold for £1. At that moment a man came out who I judged to be the owner of the shop.

‘Do you own this shop?’

‘Yes . . . ‘

‘How much is this?’

Yes, indeed it is being sold for a pound. And he goes into a long explanation of why it’s being sold so cheaply and on and on so that I began to fear that I would be held there indefinitely because there was no break in his spiel. But summoning a little extra will power I forced myself away from this ancient mariner’s clinging words.

Not Far from Lowestoft

 Posted by at 8:48 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 012010

Another 13 items of normality, which I noticed between 1430 and 1545 (28th May 2010) on the Earlham Road, Norwich:


  1. Several pubs with names like the Royal Oak
  2. Tall trees dressed in full leaf
  3. Colman (mustard)
  4. An ample city of many churches
  5. Inside; mostly older men dressed in jackets and black ties
  6. Inside; older women smartly dressed in tight black skirts and dresses
  7. Alcohol
  8. Inside; very dark varnished wood, ‘olde-world’ decorations, and the pretence of a library
  9. Lord Nelson
  10. World Cup marketing with St George symbols and flags, all humourless apart from the two St George stretchy sockets pulled on to the wing mirrors of a silver people-carrier, which looked like two giant baby’s feet stuck out of the car windows
  11. Inside; a lingering smell of floor cleaner and stale beer, empty glasses, and tight groups of the older men and smartly dressed women sat drinking at several of the tables
  12. Outside; a longing to cross over and sit in the café on the sunny side of the road opposite (where the younger people mostly were, mothers in conversation, dressed in summer tops and patterned dresses, with their children in push chairs)
  13. The noise on the road of the constant stream of traffic heading west (towards the Crematorium), several of the cars filled with other older men in black ties and smartly dressed women in tight black dresses


Then for a few moments rising then falling outside, there was a clanking discordant sound of metal on tarmac, and the steam thrust, heavy piston pulse of a green painted traction engine emerged coming the other way, which frightened several of the children in push chairs, their mothers pulling away from their conversations together at the edge of the other side of the road.