Long to Reign Over Us?

There’s been an awful lot of coverage in the news already about the Jubilee, and there will be an awful lot more. The hysteria whipped up by The Daily Lie and its chums has the added spice of the Queen’s age and health. Her recent absence from the state opening of parliament, and the obvious symbolism of Charles moodily staring at the crown on a Habitat cushion has sent the rampant royalists in our media into apoplexy. Although, given the fact that she popped up a couple of days later at the races with the verve and joie de vivre of an eighty year old, there is a suspicion that she just couldn’t be bothered to read out loud all of Johnson’s lies about the new Parliamentary programme. Charles, once eager to get his hands on the levers of state, has now clearly realised that the game is up, and would much rather William did it, while he, Charles, continued to talk to his plants, talk dirty to Camilla, and schmooze with Saudi murderers and horsey people. He delivered the speech in a bored monotone that would have embarrassed a sulky adolescent.

 Nicholas Witchell  has been wetting himself in excitement. The Prince Philip funeral was always only going to be a dry run for the big one – the death of her Madge. And it seems as if it’s not too far away. Obviously, as she is 96 years old. Nicholas has been preparing for this for years. It’s nice that he doesn’t seem to bear a grudge about Charles who was once caught on a rogue microphone muttering, “I hate that man”. But then, he knows who is buttering his bread, I suppose.

Despite the reliable efforts of the Daily Lie and the other rags, it does seem that there has been movement in terms of the Great British Public’s attitude to the Royals in the last few years. It’s not hard to see why. They are almost as gaffe-prone as the arch liar Johnson, and what is worse (for them, at any rate) they do have the decency to be a little shamefaced about their blunders.

We’ve had the fall out between William and Harry, with the related racist bullying of Megan Markle by jolly hockey sticks Kate, and her cheerleaders, the ridiculous Piers Morgan and the rest of the fleet street sycophants. One very entertaining sideshow of all of this has been to watch the existential angst of Hello magazine. Their very raison d’etre is to suck up to celebs, whether they be old school ones or the new kids on the block from reality tv. Now, they have to take sides in the royal turf wars. Their solution is very much part of the zeitgeist, the Johnson doctrine, which states that you can say what you like, safe in the knowledge that most people have the attention span of plankton and will not remember what you said by the time the next issue comes out. So one week they fawn and gush over William and Kate, with snide anti-woke allusions to the other two (cos one of them’s black, you know) and the week after, they do the same for the US wing of the firm, endorsing their various right- on campaigns. It’s as principled as my arse, as Jim Royle would say. From the proper Royle Family.

Then there’s the splendid spectacle of various Royals having to stand and smile and suck it up, as the elected representatives of a range of Caribbean islands tell them the unvarnished truth: colonialism is so last year. Apologise for slavery, start a conversation about reparations, and get the hell off our island. It’s a far cry from drinking gin fizz, watching quaint becostumed locals performing ancient cultural dances/rituals or neutered spear carrying savagery. No wonder the Queen won’t go any more.

What is really telling about this, with both William and Kate, and then a week or so later with Sophie and Edward, is just how hopelessly out of touch their advisors were about these trips. Didn’t statue removal register with them? How could anyone even vaguely part of the twenty first century think that this sort of thing would play well? It’s almost as if they believe that the Daily Lie, and it’s online shadow, the Mail online, has its finger on the pulse of the public mood.

The real clincher, though, is the appalling Prince Andrew. Yes, you remember him, don’t you? Paedophile, sex offender, sweatless, corrupt liar, whose every fleeting appearance instantly reminds people that the Royal family are privileged, entitled , free loaders, who like our friends in the modern Conservative party are laughing at us while we bow and scrape and fawn. This one did cut through with the young ones though, and he is now definitely persona non grata on the balcony. Even Hello magazine thinks twice before running a feature on his selfless work for charity.

So the landscape has definitely changed, and despite the inane patriotic culture wars of the militant Brexit tendency, support for the royals is dwindling. The Queen is held in high regard, and young William has some with-it credibility with the young, but that doesn’t solve the problem of Charles. Unfortunately for the would-be King, his subjects have long memories when it comes to the saintly Lady Di, and the wicked  Camilla. The monarchy will have to navigate some choppy waters in the next few years if it is to survive. Prince Andrew will find to his cost just how ruthless the ruling classes can be when it comes to clinging on to their privilege. They will throw him to the wolves the minute his mother has been buried.

How different it all was when we celebrated the Silver Jubilee, back in 1977.The Seventies, unfairly maligned by right wing historians, was a much more innocent age. Just imagine, if you can, a world before Margaret Thatcher, Neoliberalism, The Royal Wedding, social media, the internet, mobile phones, fake news. The post war consensus of the mixed economy still existed: no privatisation, employment meant you did not have to be on benefits, and homelessness was virtually non-existent because of a plentiful supply of good quality social housing. 

As a student at York University, the Queen seemed impossibly old and stuffy, and twenty five years before seemed to be a lifetime or two away, belonging to the olden days that were  always in black and white. How strangely one’s perception of time changes with age. Now, 1977 was forty five years ago, and in some ways it feels almost like yesterday. During my second year at York the jubilee hardly impinged on my consciousness. I barely read newspapers and certainly didn’t watch TV. There were far too many interesting other things to be doing. The thing that dominated our thoughts and minds back then was the exhilarating, whirlwind that was punk. It ripped through every aspect of life that mattered to a twenty year old – clothes, bands , ideas, taste, politics , opinions.

And it was through punk that my understanding of the Silver Jubilee was mediated. The scandal of God Save the Queen, the Sex Pistols swearing through the Bill Grundy interview, the sense that the old was being swept away by the new and exciting – this was the backdrop to the Jubilee celebrations back then.

It was a hot summer as I remember it. Earlier in May we had made the pilgrimage to Leeds to see the legendary Clash gig, and then God Save the Queen was released as a single. For a young socialist, who despised the establishment in general and the Royal Family in particular, it was cultural gold dust. The single was duly bought and played to death.

To add further grist to the mill, there was the suspicion that the BBC, crusty old Auntie Beeb, were playing their traditional role in what passed for culture wars back then, pumping out pro establishment Propaganda. It seems very quaint that in the name of anarchy and revolution we were all eagerly awaiting the release of the official chart in the week of the Jubilee itself. Lo and behold, the chart was issued and the Pistols had peaked at number two, just behind Rod Stewart’s “I don’t wanna talk about it” None of us blamed you , Rod, because we didn’t wanna talk about your record either.

There were the inevitable street parties and the harking back to the same kinds of events after the Second World War. For a republican, it was like being a stranger in one’s own land, eavesdropping on a conversation that was not meant for you. As if, you had switched on the radio only to find it tuned to Radio 2, and you became aware for the very first time of a whole other universe that ran in parallel to yours.

Life, of course went on. And for students, dedicated hedonists the lot of us, we went out into York for a curry and a session in the pub. The main route walking into York from campus ended up in Walmgate, one of the ancient thoroughfares of the old city. You passed through the city walls, under Walmgate Bar and then along this ancient mediaeval street, past the River Foss and into town.

For several weeks, the entire length of the street had been festooned with Union Jack bunting, cheap plastic flags fluttering in the traffic fumes. We put aside our distaste and enjoyed the symbolism: the monarchy celebrated with tawdry, tacky flags destined for landfill.

No such restraint was available on the return journey, where our liberal sensibilities had been fatally compromised by industrial quantities of Samuel Smith’s best bitter. Alcohol and Republicanism is a heady cocktail, beyond our understanding or control. I’m afraid, dear reader, I celebrated the Silver Jubilee in the early hours of the morning, singing God Save The Queen (no, not that one) at the top of my voice and pulling down every union jack I could find.

It was probably against the law. But we were young and it felt both important and harmless at the same time. Brave class warrior that I was, I lived in fear of the knock on the door by the boys in blue. Well, for a week at least. Thank God there was no CCTV back in the day.

And I am still, forty five years later, a Republican. I wish Elizabeth Windsor no harm. I’m not advocating a rerun of the French revolution. She seems at least to have some admirable qualities: a sense of duty, a work ethic, a lack of selfishness or ego that is refreshing in these days of rampant narcissism and egoism. This does not wash away her immense privilege and wealth gained by the systematic manipulation of tax laws and the careful avoidance of scrutiny. Ultimately, she is a symbol of everything that is wrong with Britain in the twenty first century. Immensely wealthy, the head of the rump of the British Empire, her presence as the Head of State encourages the appallingly corrosive sense of British exceptionalism that so disfigures and distorts our body politic, and poisons our approach to other countries. We are condemned forever, or so it seems, to live in a fictitious glorious past when we ruled the world and everyone was grateful. It is a childish version of how society should operate, as ridiculous and inappropriate as still believing in Santa Claus as an adult. We are not in some kind of  LadyBird book of Kings and Queens.

It really is time to put away childish things and to grow up. We should be citizens, not subjects, and there is a world of difference between those two things. The approaching death of Queen Elizabeth, sad though that  is for her family and maybe for some people in the country, is an opportunity for us to rethink the whole monarchy thing. Time to get over it.

I bet Rishi’s house is warm

I bet Rishi’s house is warm.
No extra jumper for him.
Perhaps a silken dressing gown
Over shorts and sliders, as
He pads across the heated tiled floor,
To eat eggs benedict and read the FT.
He never stops working, to keep the economy safe.

I bet Rishi doesn’t turn the thermostat down a couple of degrees,
Or shares the bath with his wife to save a few bob on the bill.
To be fair, she’s a non-dom, so she doesn’t live here.
Not really.
Unlike Dom, who does.

I bet Rishi has a shiny walk-in fridge, with banks of delicacies from around the world
To sustain him when he’s peckish.
He will choose between smashed avocado on sourdough
or locally sourced quails’ eggs with truffle oil.
We will choose heating on, or white sliced toast with marge.
He’s just like you and I, underneath, honestly.
Because we are all in this together.

He does not know how to use contactless,
Or fill his small, grubby car with petrol, bless him.
He’s too busy for that. Because
He never stops working, to keep the economy safe.

So, it is just terribly unfair
When moaners smear his wife for avoiding tax.
After all, Rishi, a very modern Conservative, 
Does not own his wife.
He just owns
Us.

Looking back on Boro v Chelsea in a house divided

A great FA Cup quarter final in prospect: a potential Giant Killing with added moral fibre

The excitement has been building ever since young Josh Coburn lashed in the winner against Spurs in the fifth round, but now it’s reaching fever pitch, given the long overdue sanctions against Abramovitch. That, and the London club’s spectacularly cack-handed attempts to get the game played behind closed doors, has given this game, already a spicy prospect, extra helpings of chilli.

It’s telling that the responses to Chelsea’s entitled maneuverings on the Boro bulletin board, Fly Me To The Moon ( www.fmttm.co.uk, an excellent confection of passion, intelligence and humour, well worth checking out, btw) have routinely described Chelsea as a horrible club with horrible supporters. Even the saintly Steve Gibson stuck the knife in and twisted it with his carefully considered judgement that “Chelsea and Sporting integrity do not belong in the same sentence”. What a brilliant put down, so refreshing to see, rather than the usual bland, diplomatic answers that controversial topics generate. The sort of diplomacy that will not see Gibson sent to intervene with Putin and Lavrov any time soon, even though it would do them good to hear the unvarnished truth for once.

The posters that use this inflammatory language, point to key moments in the history of the two clubs, episodes where Chelsea fans did not cover themselves in glory. I was there at all of them (more of that in a minute), and share the general sense of loathing for the club, but as the big grudge match approaches, I find myself in an awkward situation. It’s a situation that compels me to swim against the tide for a moment and speak out for Chelsea supporters who have followed the club through thick and thin, and who will be there long after the oligarch, and the next “fit and proper person” who takes over, have gone on their way to exploit another potential trophy club.

Before I explain why, let me just take a little digression through the highways and byways of footballing history. It’s undoubtedly true that there is “previous” between Boro and Chelsea, and for Boro at any rate, a sense of unfinished business. The first game I can remember, a few years before the bad blood started, was back in the bad old days of the mid-eighties. I went to see an end of season game at Stamford Bridge.

In those days, the Bridge was a crumbling Victorian shell of a stadium, needing more than the annual lick of paint to keep it standing. There really wasn’t a lot to choose between either the teams or the clubs at this point in their histories. The only thing that set the Bridge apart from Ayresome Park was the fact that it stood just a little way along from the uber fashionable Kings Road.

Even the most blinkered die hard Boro fan might concede, albeit grudgingly, that was a little more stylish than the area surrounding Ayresome, notwithstanding the delights of Middlesbrough General Hospital, The Blind School and The Yellow Rose. It may have played a part, later on, when Roman was deciding which club to use to launder his corrupt Russian Roubles.

The only thing that has lodged in my memory of this end of season relegation scrap goalless draw was the grassless, baked mud surface at the Bridge that echoed to the sound of Mickey Droy’s lumbering runs. Droy was a big lad, an old school centre half, and someone who clearly had the diet and fitness regime of Razor Ruddock after he left Liverpool and resigned himself to the Harry Redknapp school of post football careers: Brown envelopes, Betting apps and Reality TV appearances. He moved like that massive, engineered Orc in the Lord of the Rings films, a dinosaur powered by a tiny brain, like a supermarket own brand AA battery powering a double decker bus. We escaped the dreaded R word, but these were clearly two clubs going absolutely nowhere, if they were lucky.

The real first chapter of the bitter rivalry, however, was the historic Play off Final in 1988, the first time such a marvel had taken place. It was, even stranger, between the team just above the automatic relegation places in the old First Division against the team finishing just behind the automatic promotion teams. So, you can see, it was a very high stakes game. It was the culmination of a brilliant first season back in Division two by Bruce Rioch’s team, the legendary liquidation avoiders, and was propelled on the back of an awesome defence and the outstanding goal scorer, Bernie Slaven, the poor man’s Gerd Muller. 

It was over two legs, with the first leg being played at Ayresome Park. So long ago was this, children, that it wasn’t televised, but it was beamed direct into a few select cinemas in the heart of London’s glittering West End. Living in London, it was a chance too good to miss and I duly got myself a ticket for one of the cinemas in Leicester Square. I went on my own, as none of my footballing friends thought it was anything more than a gold-plated opportunity to get a good kicking at the hands (and boots) of the SW5 chapter of the NF. In those days, Chelsea’s reputation was a mere cigarette paper above that of Millwall.

Sure enough it was a hairy occasion. The commentary was full of the chuntering of chairman Ken Bates complaining that Boro had watered Ayresome Park before the game kicked off. The cinema was packed  with the great unwashed of Chelsea. I saw one lad bravely wearing Boro colours, and I spent most of the after game journey home fearing for his safety.

This was because as the game went on, and Chelsea were being both outplayed and outscored, the “fans” in blue began to pay more attention to him than the game itself. I simply turned my collar up, hunched down in my seat, and kept my trap shut. I slipped out of the cinema a few minutes before the end , hyperventilating as I went. I often wonder whether the lad got home unscathed or not.

I also made it to the infamous Battle of Stamford Bridge for the second leg. Undeterred by my brush with physical violence in the first leg, I went with a friend. We could only get tickets in with the Chels. It was the main stand (The Matthew Harding stand, was it called?) and I made the very naive calculation that the posh folk would be there, and the hooligans would be herded into the Shed End, so we’d be safe. Every apocryphal tale you’ve ever heard about this game is true. It was terrifying. Right from the beginning of the game, it was clear we were surrounded by psychopaths in blue. For a football supporter, I was unnaturally quiet, and that in itself drew me to their attention. My mate, who had a soft Scottish accent, did a heroic impersonation of a Chelsea supporter to anyone in blue who would listen to him, and that kept us alive until halftime. As soon as the whistle went for the interval, we scuttled to a copper on duty at the gates and explained our very likely bloody demise in the second half unless we were let out. He could obviously spot naked fear when he saw it and allowed us through the gate and into the uncovered end behind the goal, in with the Boro faithful. What a relief! I can still remember the joy of feeling the sense of safety that came with the warm embrace of Teesside accents, and raucous chanting.

Until the end of the game. Where with some horror, it became clear that some of the Chelsea stewards had opened the gates of the Shed and an army of lager soaked hooligans charged across the pitch towards us. It was the only time that being fenced in seemed like a good idea, because it definitely prevented carnage that day. Getting back to the car afterwards seemed fairly easy as I remember. Perhaps the police had got their act together after the pitch invasion, I don’t know , but we made it back without further incident.

There were , however, untold stories of Chelsea violence, including one tale of a child being dangled over the top tier of a stand. Did that really happen? Or has the passage of time addled my memory? Whatever the truth of it , the  two legs were the beginning of the toxic relationship that developed.

I could go on to detail the Zenith Data Trophy final at Wembley a couple of years later, when I along with thousands of other Boro supporters ran the gauntlet of Chelsea “fans” spitting at us (including young kids) as we walked along the concourse. And I could spend even longer on the 1997 Cup Final, where we were not even given one minute of hope (typical Boro) in our first major final, when Ben Roberts flapped at a speculative long range effort by Di Matteo which crept under the bar. To add insult to injury, a perfectly good goal by Festa was disallowed. Oh for retrospective VAR!

There have been other needle matches since then. All of them collectively add up to this being a game of more significance to Boro fans than merely getting to a semi-final. This matters, because of everything that has gone before. So why, after all of that, am I left in a dilemma?

Well, gentle reader, after living in London since 1982, my son, bless his cotton socks is a Chelsea supporter. It could be worse and he could be  Palace supporter. (That’s a tale of personal rivalries, which I won’t bore you with now) No, Chelsea is his chosen team. I have to confess, I’ve played a part in fostering that allegiance. When you get, I took him along to Stamford Bridge for a couple of third round ties near his birthday in January. It’s the only time you can buy tickets for Chelsea home games without having to take out a mortgage and when you have a realistic chance of getting in. He is loyal enough to refer to Boro as “we” but really, that’s just him being nice to his old man. He would definitely fail the Norman Tebbit cricket test. And let’s be clear, there will be no divided loyalties come Saturday at 5.15.

So, this is just a gentle reminder that, notwithstanding the history I’ve alluded to earlier in this piece, and bearing in mind the appalling Abramovich money that taints all of Chelsea’s achievements in the last 19 years, there are still some nice people who support the club for all of the right reasons. 

Of course, I won’t be giving them a second thought come kick off. Up the mighty Boro! And for my son, well the one thing he has not experienced as a Chelsea fan is adversity. Real adversity I mean, not just the adversity of not qualifying for the Champions League. I hope this is the start of an exercise in prolonged character building for him. And if he gets fed up with Chelsea, I’m pretty sure Boro would take him back.

Appendix – for those still awake

What about the game? Well I’m full of anxiety. Chelsea are a much, much better side than either Spurs or Man U. I don’t mind losing as long as we acquit ourselves well. If Chelsea press us high and aggressively, I think we’ll be in big trouble. If they sit off, on the other hand and we get a chance to build some possession, then we have a chance. We’ll need Chelsea to have an off day and every unit of our team have to play well, especially Lumley and the defence. I think Isaiah Jones will relish playing against Alonso, and I just hope that the recent form of our on loan strikers carries on. 

Game on!

Hot Stew

A review of Fiona Mozley’s second novel

This is an unexpectedly fabulous book. Mozley received lots of critical acclaim for her debut novel, Elmet, published in 2017, but, I have to confess, I was underwhelmed by it. It seemed to me to be one of those novels that sacrificed the more humble virtues of plot, character and credibility of motivation for obliqueness and a certain poetic sensibility. Having arrived at an interesting (though not really believable) story, she recast it through a vague lens of obscuring the connections and back stories and motivations to make it more “interesting”.

The reader is forced to become a detective, piecing together fragments of description and dialogue, working out time shifts and changes in perspective until a narrative emerges just in time for a vaguely satisfying resolution to come into view. Of course, you can only do this if you’re an experienced and sophisticated reader, so in a very real sense you’re being set a test. If you like the book, you’re an intellectual. If you don’t and you wish that the author would just bloody well tell the story, then you’re out of your depth and should stick to Mills and Boon. The real sign, the dead giveaway, is when the puzzling out of the connections is actually more interesting, more satisfying than the story that is eventually revealed.

Hot Stew is a million miles away from this. It’s a wonderful confection of a book, Dickensian in its portrayal of contemporary Soho, and the depiction of an extraordinary range of characters and relationships. It also functions very effectively as a critique of modern urban life and the interplay of rich elites with us ordinary folk. Mozley portrays all of them with skill and verve, so that the reader is propelled along by concern for the characters and the forward motion of the plot. She handles a vast cast of characters, who interconnect and intersect at times, very skilfully, and with an instinctive feel for pacing and sequencing. Aspects of the plot verge on the dreaded magic realism, and at times one has to suspend one’s disbelief with an industrial winch, but it’s all done with a knowing wink that left me at any rate, indulgent of any flaws or half baked, unresolved threads. This is partly because it’s funny and partly because Mozley is on the right side – there is a clear affection for the area and for people forging lives and relationships from adversity. This is a welcome departure from the world of Elmet, that turns rural Yorkshire into a kind of Deliverance style grim struggle, a world of violence, amorality and shabby survival. In Mozley’s Soho, there is love and humour, as well as exploitation and snobbery.

It’s received a lukewarm reaction from the critics, in comparison to Elmet. That is clearly because it’s written in a transparent, open style that invites its readers to participate in receiving an entertaining and thought-provoking story. Come on Fiona, wise up! You’ll never win the Booker like that – but you will win readers, who, like me, will eagerly await your next offering.

Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Sally Rooney’s third novel frustrates and disappoints in equal measure.

The View from The Great North Wood

I’m sad to report that the answer to the question posed by the title of Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World Where Are You?” is, “Well, not here, at any rate.”

I had looked forward to this for some time, keenly anticipating more of the glorious writing that characterised “Normal People”, a novel I loved, with great surprise after finding her first effort, “Conversations with Friends”, a full blown example of the Emperor’s new clothes. The critics gushed, and told us we were witnessing a new kid on the block who was authentically chronicling life and love as experienced by the middle class, educated twenty-somethings of Dublin (and by extension, everywhere else). I found it tediously thin and empty. “Normal People”, on the other hand, is one of the great novels of the twenty first century, a subtle and beautiful story of an enduring and evolving relationship between a “difficult” middle class young woman and a talented working class young man.

So I come to this with some perspective. Neither an adoring fan, nor an anti-woke critic, I really wanted to love this book. And there is much here to enjoy and admire, but ultimately, it disappoints. It tells the story of four young adults in Dublin and some unspecified Irish seaside town, and their attempts to find meaning in their lives and relationships, doing so via different perspectives, omniscient narrator and text/ digital message exchanges.

Rooney seems at pains to demonstrate how much she really is the voice of a new generation by laying on with a trowel the importance of social media to all of these characters. Time and time again, scenes are punctuated with exhaustive (and exhausting) descriptions of tapping on social media icons, scrolling through news feeds, checking messages etc etc. Sally, we get it. You don’t need to do this. We all do these things, even old fogeys like me. It’s a bit like Charles Dickens droning on about closing the doors on that new-fangled train type thingy. Interestingly, the key relationship, the friendship between Eileen and Alice, only seems to work digitally, when they are writing to each other. Whenever they are together physically in the real world, they fall out, and their friendship seems false and unsupportive.

The social media stuff, and the painstaking, repetitive description of the physical choreography of sex, shows that Rooney seems to want to challenge Knausgard in her relentless accretion of the mundane details of the business of living. Again and again, we are battered with flat, colourless prose recording hands resting on limbs, legs touching and not touching. And just like Knausgard, it is draining and dull and says nothing, a mere inventory masquerading as an insight into a new configuration of millennial sexual relationships.

It’s also hard to love a book that focuses on such unlikeable characters. The two women, Alice and Eileen, apparently best friends, are tiresome in the extreme. Alice is a thinly-veiled portrait of Rooney herself, a young female Dublin novelist who is lionised from her debut novel. This in itself is a little depressing. It’s like the Rock Band who have made it big. Their first album is sparky, innovative, full of energy and ideas. The difficult second album is more of the same with greater technical competence. Then, when they’ve broken through and are established in the mainstream and are selling out stadiums in America, the third album is written in hotel rooms and includes songs about the emptiness of life on the road in endless hotel rooms. The songs reflect their changed circumstances, but who gives a toss? It’s very difficult to empathise with the neuroses of the creative rich and famous.

After a vague nervous breakdown, she now clearly despises the trappings of fame and despairs of the emptiness of her life and world. No matter how hard I tried, I really couldn’t summon any sympathy for a woman afflicted by wealth, fame and privilege. Her friend Eileen, from their university days, is presented as the junior partner in the friendship. Less successful, less confident, her relationship with Alice mirrors that with her elder sister, Lola, despite the fact that Eileen loathes Lola and idolises Alice. Her lack of agency, her diffidence in articulating clearly what she wants, her self-pity about her life, is after a while, simply grating, generating annoyance rather than empathy. A key narrative thread in the novel is her long-standing love for Simon, five years older than she is, who she has known from home since childhood. They have had a history of almost, but not quite, falling into the relationship that clearly both of them want, but circumstances and other relationships, and bad timing have prevented from happening. Simon is probably the only likeable character out of the four, and is in some sense, a rehash of Connell from “Normal People”. Committed to social justice, modest, strikingly fit and handsome, and successful in terms of a career in the political world, he seems like a nice self-effacing kind of chap. Obviously he is markedly inept in terms of opening himself up to intimacy, but dear readers, there are worse crimes to be indicted for.

There is an element of their relationship that works well for me and it’s another echo of “Normal People” which was a tour de force on tentative, awkward communications between people who really like each other but are scared they might say the wrong thing and ruin it all. This is beautifully done there and once again, the conversations between Eileen and Simon are toe-curlingly awkward and realistic, leaving the reader wanting to shout at them, “Just tell each other straight, for God’s sake” Rooney is brilliant on this kind of self-sabotage through embarrassment and feelings of lack of self-worth.

“Telling each other straight” is the one positive quality I could discern in Felix, the final character of the four. He seems to be the partner of choice for Alice so that Rooney can signal her right-on ness yet again. He’s an unskilled working-class chap who she meets on some Tinder-type dating app. Their first date is a disaster but she is intrigued by him. As the novel progresses, we learn that he was a low achiever at school, and does not read, so has little idea of her career as a novelist, but it is clear from Rooney’s descriptions and his dialogue that he is intelligent. The dialogue between Alice and him is refreshing and thought provoking. They fence around like all of the others, but Felix’s great strength is that he is fairly clear and straightforward about what he wants from her. He’s respectful about asking though – this is not a portrait of an abusive man – but Rooney deliberately muddies the waters by including a scene where Alice finds some particularly nasty, violent pornography on his phone. The fact that she does not judge him negatively for this seems to be part of Rooney’s schtick that modern love and sex is different somehow.

I don’t buy it I’m afraid. He lets her know he is bisexual and makes a mockery of his own name by making it very clear he’d like to have sex with the gorgeous Simon, right in front of Alice and everyone else. Rooney seems to be saying that, these days, for these fabled millennials, sex is just another appetite and is disconnected from other emotional connections. Loyalty, fidelity, exclusivity in relationships seems so last century. The ghastly Felix, appears utterly selfish on one level, such that, in a scene late on in the book, when he gets back home to be reunited with his beloved dog and there is a detailed description of him lovingly stroking it, I feared for the dog’s honour. We were genuinely just a short step away from a bold depiction of the love that dare not speak its name. Fear not, gentle reader, the dog survived, honour intact. As did Felix’s relationship with Alice, which just did not ring true to me.

There are some redeeming features. The opening 4 or 5 chapters are wonderful. She is a beautiful, precise writer, and effortlessly draws the reader in to a scenario. I was expecting something magnificent, but ultimately, I was disappointed. She is also brave enough to tackle big ideas. The email/message exchanges between Alice and Eileen have them dissecting weighty themes about the meaning of life. What is important? What really matters in life when climate change and populism threaten our very existence? Rooney concludes it is the connections we make with other people and the pursuit and enjoyment of cultural beauty. The trouble is, after a little while, one’s heart sinks when yet another musing whatsap message exchange about the meaning of life hoves into view. In the end, I just flicked to get to the narrative. Ideas are all very well, but let’s not forget about the story.

Speaking of the story, very early in the novel she gives us ten pages of back story, telling us about the childhood connections between Eileen, Simon and Alice. It’s a curious pause in the proceedings. On its own, it’s a masterful bit of plotting which could have been the outline of a very satisfying, better novel. And then I realised that it was too close to the plot/milieu of Normal People, so she couldn’t just repeat that again. So in effect, it’s a what-happens-next continuation of Normal People in disguise.

The weirdest aspect of the novel for me, given that I think that Rooney is a great stylist, is the curiously flat, perfunctory prose that sucks all of the life out of every description. There is a distance set up between the reader and the characters, and in effect, between the characters themselves, because the style makes it so hard to care about what happens either way. At times it’s like reading the shipping forecast, or a clinical psychotherapist’s academic report, holding up a mirror to the participants.

She’s a wonderful writer, but at the moment the scoresheet reads won 1, drawn 1, lost 1. She needs a big result from the next book. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

A Review of Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

The Great American Novel: the weight of expectations and current US obsession with Christianity is too much for Franzen’s latest effort to bear.

For a certain type of contemporary fiction lover, there exists a fascination with the pursuit of The Great American Novel. The very idea seems to me born out of a longing for old school respectability in the ranks of American commentators. American pre-eminence in the new cultures of the Twentieth century only serves to sharpen the longing for recognition of their excellence in proper culture – fine art and literary fiction – rather than the bubble gum worlds of the movies, TV and pulp fiction.

It speaks to a notion of America being both looked down on for its cultural poverty at the same time as being lionised as the world’s major superpower, politically and economically. “Give us some respect”, it seems to shout, “we’re just as good as you failed old Europeans. You’ve had your day -it’s our turn now”

This is the mindset that periodically proclaims someone to be the latest carrier of that torch. The writer in question (usually a white man) needs to have written a very long book, to be able to bear the weight of cultural expectation. It is, after all, The Big Country. The Great American novelist has been subject to regular reinvention – now a woman, now someone of colour – but the essential premise is the same: this is a great stylist, working on a large canvas, to portray some quintessential truth about a great country.

Jonathan Franzen has laboured for a good few years under the burden of this label, ever since The Corrections was published in 2001, and Crossroads is his latest epic that lays claim to the title, Great American Novel. So, how does he fare?

Well, two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. It’s just a shame that the one he fails miserably to reach is the most important. Let’s be clear right from the outset, this novel is a long way from being great. It is certainly a novel, of sorts. And unquestionably, it’s American. Looked at from the outside, at a distance and standing in the shadows it could be mistaken for TGAN, but it really wouldn’t pass muster in an ID line up under harsh neon strip lighting. It’s big (540 pages) and it deals with a WASP family from the Midwest, with the usual stresses and fault lines just under the surface, that break out with dramatic consequences in the second half.

So far, so good. If it sounds like a duck and smells like a duck and moves like a duck, it’s probably a …well, you get the picture. Except not in this case. Because despite all the approximations, this is quite clearly not a duck. And the breathless, positive reviews it has garnered all smack of lazy journalism from people who have not actually read it, but have, instead, gone on Franzen’s back catalogue and The Duck thesis. It’s not that Franzen has phoned this in. I think he thinks he was writing a significant opus. He wouldn’t have bothered to churn out 540 pages or so if he didn’t think he was writing a book that said something important and insightful about contemporary American Society. But in a sense, that’s the problem. The minute you start to write with posterity in mind you’re holed below the waterline. Rather like sublime pop musicians who don’t have the confidence in the validity of their genre and then try to write something proper to prove their cred. And before you know it, you’re Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Some previous Great American Novels

The frustrating thing is that much of the essential material is good. The extended family unit and their dysfunctional dynamic works really well. The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the head honcho at the local church and has had a reputation of late sixties counter cultural credibility. This makes his later fall from grace, at the hands of a younger, newer version of the hip vicar even harder for him to take. He loses interest in his wife Marion and starts sniffing around a young widowed member of the congregation, the foxy Frances, all the while oblivious to the travails of his various children: Clem the favoured son who having discovered sex at college is on the verge of dropping out and volunteering for service in Vietnam; Becky the well-balanced, beautiful and successful girl who also discovers sex and religion (though not in that order) and Perry, the genius rebel who is quickly disappearing down the rabbit hole of  his many, undetected (by Russ at any rate) drug addictions. The characters are well drawn and there are some entertaining and well-drawn set piece scenes, with some sparkling prose at times. But for much of the time, particularly after about a third of the way in, it is painfully dull and repetitive and I found myself flicking the pages of yet more back story to get to the meat of the here and now. It’s far too long. Structurally, it’s a mess, with the momentum of the narrative repeatedly disrupted by really hefty expositions of the back stories of the main characters. In themselves, they are quite interesting, but the overall effect is of having three or four related novels clumsily stitched together to make one mega novel. As avoiding this to protect the reader’s interest in the drama of the main story is a basic rule drummed into wannabe writers by all of the agents, mentors, and creative writing tutors out there, it comes as something of a surprise that Frantzen, a veteran, seems to think the “rules” don’t apply to such as him. If this had been a first novel by a nobody, it would have garnered little but rejection slips.

And then there is the American obsession with religion. Or rather Christianity. Readers of faith may have to turn the other cheek here and forgive me, for I know not what I do. Not really, obviously I know what I do, but you’ll have to forgive me anyway. This is a portrait of a culture, of a community, a family and myriad individuals steeped in the conventions of the established Christian church. And what a stultifying, suffocating, irrelevant, dogmatic portrait it is. What possible attraction does this religion have for anyone? And where were the naysayers? Why are there no characters that push back against this rigid conformity? Becky shows admirable lack of interest at the beginning but then is tempted to join the ghastly Youth Group, the Crossroads of the title. This is initially to get closer to the boy of her dreams, but then after a ludicrous encounter with cannabis, she embraces Christianity with missionary fervour. It makes Cromwell’s puritan Britain in the seventeenth century seem like a liberal enlightenment. By the way, Frantzen’s description of what happens when you smoke a joint, reads like an extract from the reefer madness propaganda of the fifties. Ironically, he manages to serve up the most powerful anti-drug message imaginable. If this is what smoking weed does to you (turn you into a swivel-eyed Christian zealot) then no-one will want to touch it with a barge pole.

The Crossroads youth group is a terrifying manifestation of the brainwashing of vulnerable young people. Given that never -ending revelations about child abuse undertaken under the cloak of respectability provided by The Church are so familiar to us these days, it beggars belief that Frantzen offers no caveats about this highly dubious organisation led by the classic, “charismatic” young trendy religious leader. At its most innocent, it’s a portrait of a nauseatingly smug hero leader basking in the adoration of his teenage congregation. At worst, it’s a lot more sinister, but not for the author, who seems to see it as a force only for good. I imagine he had some sort of similar experience as a teenager or young man. Whether as the Messiah or the Disciple, I’m not sure.

The characters spend so much time agonising about whether they have lived up to the expectations and teaching of the scriptures, that they seem to have little left when it comes to actually treating their friends, family and community with love and respect. If they could just forget about doctrinal regulations, and put the same amount of effort into their own therapy and a better understanding of their fellow man, their lives, and those of the community, would be so much better.

Franzen appears to be aware that he could be accused of being obsessed with the emotional travails of the white American middle classes, and that these days in 2022, he runs the real risk of being cancelled, or worse, thought to be irrelevant. To counter this, he throws in a couple of tremendously awkward sub-plots, one involving the poor black community that are the focus of Russ’ do-gooding endeavours and the other centred on his relationship with a Native American community out in the wilderness of the reservation where as a young, firebrand preacher he had earned his radical, alternative stripes. There is some sense that Frantzen has the self- awareness to satirise white American liberal guilt, but only some. The overwhelming feeling is that these scenes are only there to provide a smidgeon of cred.

Finally, thankfully, the whole towering edifice collapses exhausted at the end. I have no idea why it ended where and how it did. The last third dribbles on in a meandering ineffective way. It could have ended at the full stops of any of the final several hundred sentences, but on it ploughed, as I listlessly flicked the pages praying for the end.

I’m sorry to have been so negative. Buried deep underneath the layers of subcutaneous fat here, there probably lurks a decent, interesting novel. But it’s the job to the writer to do that preliminary archaeology, not the reader.  It’s what the editing process is for. 540 pages that could so easily been 280 and so much the better for it.

And guess what? It gets worse. In preparing to write this review , I discovered something I was not aware of when reading the book: Franzen plans this as the first of a trilogy. Oh dear.

This blog was first published at rjbarron.co.uk

The Last Day of Christmas Term

Here’s an extract from my novel, Zero Tolerance, a satire on toxic schools and Government policy on refugees, published by Matador books. It’s the last day of the Autumn term and an exhausted group of staff gather in the staffroom for farewell drinks. Sound familiar? See how many characters and scenarios you can recognise. If you enjoy this chapter, you can buy the book from the following link:

14

It had been the kind of December day that never really gets light, a smudgy, damp greyness having hung over the day for hours. It was completely at odds with the manic, unhinged hysteria that had reigned at Fairfield from the moment the first students had arrived at about 7.30 am. A non-uniform day, strictly in aid of charity of course, the last day before the Christmas holidays was traditionally a day to be endured. Damage limitation was the name of the game. Students were arrayed in tinsel, hats and flashing festive jumpers and nearly all of them were toting huge bags full of cards and sweets and presents. The whole day was a battle between staff and students to keep them all off the corridors and in classrooms. This had always been a struggle, but since the advent of mobile phones and messaging in all its forms, it was now nigh on impossible as students were alerted to the best party (Miss has got pizza for everyone!), the best DVD showing or when and where the assembly entertainers were rehearsing.

Just after the lunch the final students were escorted off the premises, the last bus duty had been completed and the last angry phone call from a local shopkeeper or resident about behaviour on the buses had been taken. Senior Team and the long-suffering Heads of Year had answered the calls and patrolled the local area, trying to keep a lid on high spirits. Now, at about two o’clock, with early darkness closing in, everyone congregated in the staff room for the farewells and drinks. The first couple of drinks took the edge of the empty-eyed, numbed exhaustion that pervaded the room. This first half an hour at the end of the autumn term was almost painful, so exquisite and acute was the sense of release from torment. So much time stretching out in front of them, with no early starts, no marking, no planning, no late meetings.

There were just a couple of staff leaving, so the event would be mercifully short, allowing the younger staff to pile down the pub before going out on the lash for the rest of the evening and the older staff time to get home early and have a nap on the sofa before a quiet night in in front of the telly. The real victims were those in between with young children, who would have already calculated the amount of Christmas shopping they could get in before getting home to play with the children and make the dinner.

As they were waiting for everyone to arrive and for the speeches to begin, staff congregated in their friendship groups, staking out territory in comfy chairs around low tables, hoovering up twiglets and warm white wine. Charlotte, found herself in between Kevin and Kwame.

“So, you going away in the holidays either of you?” she asked.

“No such luck,” grumbled Kevin. “We’re hosting this year. We’ve got a house full for about five days. It’s costing me an arm and a leg.”

“What about you, Kwame?”

“Yeah, we’re taking the kids to my sister’s in Leeds. We’re not setting off until Christmas Eve. So I’m looking forward to a few days of sleep before then. She’s a great cook, my sister, and the kids really get on well with her kids so it should be good. Then it’s our turn next year.”

“Lucky you,” said Kevin. “Enjoy this one while you can. What about you, Charlotte?”

“We’ve got John’s mother staying with us for the week, so that’s a week of back-breaking hard work, with no thanks and constant moaning from the Queen.”

“Difficult, is she?”

“Nightmare. She thinks I don’t look after him properly and that I’m a mad career-obsessed harpy who couldn’t wait to farm the kids off to childcare.”

“Knows you well then, by the sound of it.”

She shot him a look. “Hmm, very funny. Honestly though, it’s just a week of torment. I’ll be glad to get back to school, I’m telling you.”

“See, I told you, she’s got your number perfectly,” retorted Kevin, warming to his second glass of wine.

“Oh, I’m not talking to you anyway, Kevin, after you let us all down so badly with the snow. What was it you said? Definitely snow before and after Christmas. I can’t tell you how that promise has got me through some tricky days in the last few weeks. And for what? Absolutely nothing. Not even a bit of frost. I thought you said that Norwegian site was infallible.”

“Sorry guys, believe me no-one’s sorrier than me. I don’t know what went wrong.”

Kwame changed the subject. “So, who’s leaving today then? How many speeches do we have to sit through?”

“Just a couple,” said Charlotte. “That young technician, Matt, I think his name is, you know the one that looks about twelve years old and that woman who was on long-term supply in science.”

“Plankton, then,” said Kevin. “Good, we’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”

“Ey up, here she comes,” said Charlotte, as a quietening of the crowd indicated that something was afoot.

Jane stepped up to the front of the room, waited a second for quiet to descend and then encouraged it on its way.

“Okay, colleagues, the sooner we begin the sooner we can finish. I know we’re all desperate to draw a line under this term and to have some quality time with our nearest and dearest.”

The hum of chatter subsided and all eyes were on the front. Jane, normally so easy and generous with her end of term addresses, that had become something of a local legend for their humanity and good humour, was strangely clipped. The two speeches and exchange of gifts for the two admittedly minor departures were rattled through and almost before people had settled in, they were at the end.

Almost before the departing IT technician had mumbled his thank-yous and farewells Jane was back out front, resuming her role as Mistress of Ceremonies.

“So, not long to go now,” she started with a smile. Encouraged by the ripple of laughter this created she pressed on. “I don’t want to keep you much longer. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all, particularly those of you who have been with me on this journey for the past ten years, but all of the rest of you as well, for all of the hard work and dedication you show to the children in our care every day you come to work. We don’t get much thanks these days for the work we do with our client group, our students, as they used to be known. And since no-one ever went into teaching for the money, thanks are an important currency in terms of morale. Our kids are frequently described in the outside word as problems, burdens, difficulties to overcome. I’m quite used to that lack of understanding from the media, who frankly get just about everything wrong that they report, but it gets harder and harder to take when the people who should know better, our glorious leaders, seem to revel in their own ignorance and parade their prejudices as if they were great new insights to be proud of.”

Jane’s voice had dropped and the audience, raucous and irreverent minutes before, were enveloped in an air of intense concentration. What was happening here? This was not the speech they had been expecting. She continued.

“I want to thank all of you for your outstanding work during Ofsted, but more than that, the outstanding work you do day after day, not to get a pat on the back from Big Brother, but because it makes a difference to our kids, many of whom arrive at our doors looking for respite from damaged and difficult family circumstances. The kid who has spent the night in emergency accommodation. The kid who has not eaten since free school meals the day before. The kid who lives in fear of a family member coming into their room at night. The kid who watches their mother battered and brutalised. For those kids, we are the nearest thing they have to love and security. And on their behalf, I want to thank all of you for that.”

Rick, standing to the side, felt a lump rise in his throat. He battled his stinging eyes and wondered where this was going next. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn this was a resignation speech.

“Many of you will have worked out that this will be the last ever farewell speech I will give…”

What? Rick’s heart skipped a beat and his mouth fell open. Avril, standing next to him, held her breath.

“…in a Fairfield High that is a local authority-controlled school.”

They both began breathing a little easier. Rick remembered to close his mouth.

“Now, I’m sure you will all agree that Longdon have been a signally useless local authority for much of that time, but at the very least, they have been our useless local authority, with human beings we know and can talk to and have some kind of productive relationship with. With some sense of accountability and transparency. From January, we move over to the control of the Bellingford Multi-Academy Trust, and things will change, inevitably. So far, I am reassured by what Alastair Goodall and the Trust have been saying about their plans for the future, and I hope that this marks the beginning of a prosperous and harmonious new relationship.”

She paused and looked around the crowd. The gap she had left grew, and in it everyone in the audience mentally inserted the next part of her speech for her: “But I don’t think it will.”

She left that unsaid, of course and pressed on. “So, I am sure that the Trust has lots of additional work lined up for all of us in January. That makes it even more important that we all have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Spend quality time with those you love, family and friends. Just in case, in January, work takes over, and it becomes harder to give those people the time they deserve. Merry Christmas to you all.” She raised her glass to the audience, who did the same and chorused, “Merry Christmas.”

While conversations carried on, mostly about the weirdly affecting tone of Jane’s speech and everyone’s holiday plans, and people decided to have one last drink or another sausage roll, Jane slipped out of the staffroom before Avril or Rick could buttonhole her. Avril was about to follow her, when she was collared by someone who was rather exercised by a mistake in her December payslip that had just materialised in her pigeonhole. She watched her go, over the shoulder of Joyce, who was worried about how she was going to pay for Christmas without the correct salary. Just in time, Avril averted her eyes from Jane’s departure, and gave Joyce her full, smiling, yet concerned, attention.

By about four in the afternoon the school site was just about deserted, with a mere handful of cars left in the car park. Rick and Avril both found themselves outside the closed door of Jane’s office.

“You as well?” said Avril, as Rick rounded the end of the corridor.

“I just wanted to check she was all right. I’ve never heard her give a speech like that before.”

“Me neither. But she’s gone. I knocked and tried the door. It’s locked.”

“Gone? But she’s always the last to leave. Without fail.”

“Listen, it’s probably nothing. I’ll ring her later, just to check. Don’t worry about it. Go home and start the holiday.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right. I will. Have a good Christmas.”

“You too. See you in January.”

By four-thirty there was only one car left in the playground. Tony, the site manager, was stomping around jangling a huge bunch of keys. He was desperate to lock up and put his feet up. The school was a much pleasanter place to work when there were no students in it and a positively delightful place to work when there no teachers either.

“Bloody Kevin. What the hell is he still doing here?”

Up in the top floor observatory that was his classroom, Kevin was putting the finishing touches to his leaving preparations. He had spent the previous twenty minutes doing last-minute checks of the Norwegian weather site. This was partly because Kwame and Charlotte had spent the twenty minutes before that mercilessly taking the piss out of him for his snow closure obsession and the failure of his predictions.

He stared at the screen, an expression of triumph on his face. “Ha! I knew it! It was right all along.”

Then triumph turned to disappointment. “What a bloody waste of a fall of snow. What a criminal waste,” he lamented.

Five minutes later he passed Tony jangling his keys as he went through the main entrance to the car park.

“Sorry mate, didn’t mean to keep you. Have a good Christmas.”

“Same to you,” he grunted, rattling the doors as he locked up behind him.

Kevin loaded up his boot with marking and a bag full of cartons of Celebrations and bottles of wine his grateful students had given him for Christmas and opened the driver’s door to get in. At that moment, the first fat snowflake floated down from the lowering darkened skies and landed on the bonnet of his car. By the time he drove through the car park entrance onto the road, the air was thick with flakes.

Kevin peered out of his window at the sky full of silent white feathers. He shook his head as he drove off. “What a terrible waste,” he muttered.

The Chains He Forged

I’m reposting an old story and podcast so that new followers will get the alert. It’s a Christmas Ghost story

A ghost story for Christmas by The Old Grey Owl

Click the link below to listen to the podcast of this story:

https://anchor.fm/old-greyowl/episodes/The-Chains-He-Forged—a-Ghost-story-for-Christmas-en747n/a-a3q6q6i

Marley was alive, to begin with, but that’s not how it stayed. After a while, he died. This is how everyone’s story turns out, yours and mine, in the end.

They discovered the body when they finally unlocked the door to the loft, expecting to find a decaying rat or pigeon. The smell, which had steadily grown stronger over the previous weeks, was like a punch in the face when the cold, stale air billowed through the open doorway.

The old building was full of musty smells, creaking floorboards and hidden, disused rooms. They had been promising to refurbish it for years: the addition of a new block here, replacement windows there. There was even talk at one stage of razing it to the ground and replacing it with a plate glass, chromium and cedar-clad cathedral of prize-winning architect design. Staff had joined focus groups to talk to the architects and builders and pastel coloured plans had been drawn up and displayed with much pride in the old library. When the crash pulled the plug on all of the planned public sector investments, the grand schemes were quietly forgotten and the crumbling pile slumbered on undisturbed as the occasional tile or stained piece of plaster flaked and fell to the ground, as if the building was an ancient sleeping behemoth suffering from psoriasis.

It was the thing that Marley was most looking forward to about his new job. A Headship in a new school, in a gleaming new building, fit for the 21st century. Like him, he thought smugly. Fit for the 21st century. A Headteacher who had jettisoned all of those tired, ridiculous practices so common when he had started teaching. Learning styles, group work, discovery learning, thinking skills. What on earth had they all been thinking of? Marley had sniffed the way the wind was blowing early. He’d read the right books, gone on the right courses, networked on Twitter with the right people and had adopted the right poses.

The head he had first worked under, Richard Fitzwig, seemed like an exhibit from a museum now. Yes, it had been a happy place, but it’s easy to be happy when the Head lets you do what you want. Wiggy wouldn’t last five minutes in a school today. How happy would those kids be now, applying for jobs and courses on the back of crap grades? At least now, after three years of relentless focus on results and behaviour, they had something to show for it. And of course, there had been casualties on the way. Collateral damage, as he liked to think of it. Exclusions, “arrangements” for off-rolling, the endless detentions and uniform checks and silent lines and mobile phone battles. Not to mention the set piece assemblies to humiliate the ring leaders. What were they called again? “Flattening the Grass” assemblies, yes that was it. He smiled grimly at the memory.

And if many of the kids and more of the staff resented what he had had to do, then so be it. No-one had said it was a popularity contest. But, in his more reflective moments, usually alone in the small hours, he wondered. Part of him envied the easy camaraderie some of his colleagues seemed to have. And the same part was relieved he was leaving. The headship was just reward for hours of thankless work turning the school round, but more than that it was an opportunity to start afresh as the coming man in a shiny new building.

He looked around his bare flat, magnolia walls hardly troubled with pictures, shelves untouched by photos or books. A kitchen littered with a week’s worth of pizza boxes and foil trays. One Christmas card, from his mother, a bleak accusation of the lack of personal success to match his professional achievements. Not even a jokey card from Bella, for old times sake. Her poetry was for someone else now. Not that he’d ever understood it, mind you. He was a scientist, a rationalist, who chose the minimum number of words to communicate exact meaning, not nuance. She’d tried to explain it to him one day, when he was newly qualified, and it had sort of made sense then, but not any more. Nuance was for losers. Once he’d settled into his new job, the salary would mean he could buy somewhere bigger, somewhere more appropriate to his new status. And maybe then it would be worth investing something of himself in it, so it became his home, rather than an extension of his office. Whether it would be worth investing anything in anyone else was a different question. He had been badly burned last time. People always let you down, he thought, and the only way to guard against that was to keep everyone at arm’s length. Easier that way.

He roused himself, making a deliberate effort to shake off this dangerous introspection. Through the window he could see the blurred grey light of Christmas Eve ebbing away. There was a gust of wind and a flurry of thin snowflakes swirled across the pane. He shivered. Maybe this run was not a good idea after all. He could always leave it until January. But no, he needed to get it out of the way so he could leave the school and that life behind him, and the run would do him some good. Once he got going, he wouldn’t feel the biting wind. He reached for his rucksack, checked his laces and grabbed the keys before heading downstairs to the front door of his block.

There was already a thin dusting of snow on the pavement, and the knifing wind blew it up into dancing clouds and the beginnings of drifts in the corners. He took one final look at his watch underneath the gloves. One o’clock. He should be back in a couple of hours if all went well and the building was empty. He’d unlock and disable the alarm as usual, collect the last of his stuff from his office and most importantly, remove a couple of things from his computer, just in case. He’d intended to do it on his last day, but there had been too many people milling around, so he had resolved to wait until now, Christmas Eve, when he could be sure that he’d be the only human being in the building.

Fifteen minutes later, he rounded the corner, and saw the familiar turrets and towers of the sprawling, dirty red brick institution where he had worked for the last ten years. When he told people where he worked, they would invariably gush about how amazing it was. Hogwarts they called it. He had tried to explain the first few times it had happened that, close up, it was a dirty, crumbling, inefficient, fire hazard, but gave up when it became clear that people didn’t want their gothic fantasies to be spoiled. After a while he just smiled and nodded and agreed with them. And then, inevitably, they would move on to what a shame it was that the school had gone downhill so far and so fast, and how it was all down to the sorts of children that went there these days. He’d be glad to leave that behind as well.

As he pounded the last few metres, his breath steaming into the darkening sky, he noticed with a start that the gate was open. Turning into the car park, his worst fears were confirmed. There were half a dozen cars parked in front of the school, and the yellow lights blazed out into the gathering gloom. He pulled up, and leaned forward, his hands resting heavily on his knees, his breath coming in laboured pants and gasps.

“Shit,” he thought, “It’s open. Who the hell is in there?”

The poster on the plate glass of the entrance answered the question. The Longdon Players production of “A Christmas Carol”. Damn. Of course, how could he have been so stupid? And, yes there had been an email about it to all staff, but he had been so caught up in his leaving that it hadn’t registered. The local amateur theatre group had a two-week run at the school, before and after Christmas. They must be in doing some last-minute tweaking before they went again on December 30th.

He removed his headphones and pushed tentatively at the main entrance door. There was no-one behind the desk on reception and no signing-in book. Gary, the site manager, must have come to some arrangement with the Theatre group. He’d be hunkered down somewhere watching the football, and he’d re-emerge to switch off the lights and lock up when they had all gone. He looked up. Beyond the harsh neon lights that flooded the foyer, all was in darkness, but he could hear the distant noise of people, from the small theatre space in the far corner of the building. Good, he thought. If he slipped in and up to his office, he could avoid anyone noticing him and get away without any awkward conversations. If it took longer than he thought, he had the keys to be able to lock up again after he had set the alarm.

He switched on the torch on his phone and crept up the main staircase. If he turned on the main lights that would bring someone running, so he followed the eery, silvery light from his phone, occasionally catching his breath at the strange looming shadows it conjured up as he made his way to his office on the second floor. He had been here late at night on his own many times before and there was no doubt about it, it was a creepy place. In the wind, the building emitted the full panoply of creaks and groans and whispers, and with no lights save for the shimmering, unsteady beam from his phone, the shaky pools of darkness would have tested the most determined rationalist.

Still, that had worked to his advantage many times in the past. Being a key holder, and often on call for building and alarm issues, he had had to unlock and have a quick check many times in the past. And once in, on his own, he was free to do a little sneaking around. Hacking in to the passwords of every member of staff was child’s play for someone like him. He had never done anything criminal. He wasn’t stupid after all. But information was very powerful and he had information on everyone. He was conflicted about leaving all of this behind. One the one hand it would be something of a relief to not have that capacity in the future. As a Headteacher, he would have power of a different, more respectable kind, and it would be a triumph of sorts to have got away with some of his deceptions. But then again.

He unlocked his office and switched on the light, blinking as it pinked into life. There was a chill in the air as the seasonal shut down of the boiler had begun to take its toll. Those people down in the theatre must be freezing, he thought. He could just about hear the strains of one of the songs from the show, floating up from the rehearsal.  The office was stripped down to the bare bones, with just a few reminders of the previous five years. He went over to his computer and switched it on. There, on the key board, was a Christmas card. It was sealed and addressed to “Ben Marley”.

He sat down and shook his head. What a waste of money. People were so stupid. Why on earth didn’t they just send a group email to everyone? The virtue-signallers could link it to some charity thing if they really felt the need. And the Greens could feel smug about cutting down on waste. He just didn’t want to spend money and he didn’t feel the need to dress that up in any finer motive. Christmas was just one big con.

Still, he could take it home with him and it could join the one from his mother. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out the card. A bog-standard holly and robin snow scene. At least he was spared the sanctimonious Christian nonsense. He opened it up.

“Dear Ben. Thanks for all of your hard work and support over the years. Enjoy your well-deserved promotion. Now you will really find out what it’s all about! Here’s some advice from someone who knows. Take some time and trouble nurturing relationships with your colleagues. It will help in the long run. Regards, Margaret.”

His pleasure at getting a hand-written card from the Head, who normally got her PA to do all of that for her, was soured by his annoyance at the thinly veiled criticism of her advice. Relationships indeed. She should mind her own bloody business. Maybe he wouldn’t take it home after all. He picked it up and looked at it closely again. With a flourish, he ripped it into pieces and dropped them into his bin. He’d like to think of her finding it on her return in the New Year. That would show her.

And then he saw it, just to the side of the monitor. A neatly stacked pile of what looked like more cards, all identical in white envelopes. There must have been about twenty-five of them all in the same pile. Who the hell were these from? He took the top one from the pile and examined it. In black biro in capital letters on the front of the envelope was a single word: MARLEY. The card inside had a simple message: “Fuck off and Die, you miserable bastard.” It was signed “Jack, 10B4”.

He grabbed at the second card in the pile and ripped it open. It had exactly the same message, this time signed, “Sophie, 10B4”. He didn’t bother with the others. His heart sank. All of them, every single one, hated him with a passion. Yes, he had been very harsh with them since September, but that was necessary to knock them into shape for their GCSEs. Yes, the exam specification and the league tables demanded that everyone be drilled to within an inch of their lives, and he wasn’t paid to be an entertainer or a social worker. It would be him that would get it in the neck if they didn’t get the results that the school needed. People got the sack for that kind of poor performance. There were no second chances these days.

The first flush of pain he had felt converted steadily into anger. How dare they? What cowards, to wait until he was leaving the school before they were brave enough to put their names to this outrage, after months of lessons with sullen faces brought on by screaming and shouting and eventual compliant silence. In a fit of rage, he swept the pile of cards from his desk onto the floor, before turning his attention to his computer and memory stick.

He worked steadily for a couple of hours, deleting files, copying them, and getting rid of emails. Finally, he stretched and yawned and looked away from his computer for the first time. The window was a dark square now and to his surprise it framed a blizzard of thick snowflakes. It was time to go. He rubbed away at the condensation on the window and looked outside. The show had settled and there was a couple of inches laying in the car park. There were no cars there now and, strangely, no tracks. They must have all gone before the snow had really got going. Now he came to think of it, he hadn’t heard anything from the theatricals downstairs for some time. He shivered at the sight of the snow swirling in the darkness outside. His run back home was going to be a lot more challenging than the one earlier.

He took one last look around the office, the cards still strewn across the floor, and locked the door, fumbling with his keys in the darkness. The corridor was heavy with darkness, but right at the far end, a thin yellow light leaked from the doorframe of the last classroom. This high up he could hear the wind moan and the walls creak, as if the old bones of the building were flexing in the aches and pains of accumulated years. And then, just as he was about to feel his way to the staircase, there was another noise.

He stopped and listened. There it was again. But it couldn’t be, surely? He narrowed his eyes and bent his head down towards the far end of the corridor. Yes, again. The sound of a distant child softly crying. Using the torch on his phone again, he navigated his way to the end of the corridor and flung open the door of the lighted classroom. A small boy, sitting at a table at the back of the room, jumped out of his seat in fright, shocked by the violent entrance.

His face was tear stained and he was wide-eyed and staring. He was about ten or eleven years old, and he was wearing a shabby, old-fashioned looking uniform. He held a cap in his hands.

“What on earth are you doing here? Who are you?” Marley demanded.

“Please Sir,“ stammered the boy, “I’m Ignorance. Or was it Want? I can never remember which I am. Maybe I’m both.”

He wrung the cap between his hands and wiped his runny nose on one of his wrists.

Marley looked utterly baffled. “Ignorance? Want? What are you talking about lad? And what the hell are you doing here? Who else is here?”

He scanned the four corners of the room, as if a gang of the young boy’s accomplices were about to spring out and attack him.

“No-one Sir. I am quite alone. Quite alone in the world.”

Marley looked more closely at him. He was filthy. His hands and finger nails were black with accumulated grime, and his clothes were threadbare. Marley’s frown deepened and then suddenly broke into a smile.

“Of course!” he exclaimed, “The production. You’re from the Theatre thing, aren’t you? Do they know you’re up here on your own? They’ve all gone, I think.”

The boy wiped the tears from his face. “Beggin’ your pardon Sir, but I dunno. I dunno nuffink about no theatre group.”

“What are you talking about? You must be from the production. Don’t play games with me lad. Otherwise, where’ve you sprung from? Who are you?  What are you doing here?”

The boy looked up at him, his eyelashes jewelled with tears. “But I’m always ‘ere Sir.  Always ‘ave been. Always will be.”

“What do you mean, ‘Always here’?  I’ve never seen you before.”

“No, Sir, you ain’t. I’m always ‘ere, but you never seem to see me. No-one sees me. I sees you and I hears yer shout at the kids. Always shoutin’, never listenin’, that’s you. Not that you’re the only one, Sir, oh no. There’s plenty like you. More in the last few years, if anyfing. But you’re the worst.”

The boy pointed a bony finger at him and fixed him with his beady eye.

“You’re the worst,” he repeated.

Marley stared at him, mouth open. The chill in the room had started to bite and he shivered involuntarily.

“Is some kind of a joke?” he demanded. “Did someone in 10B4 put you up to this? “

The boy’s eyes flicked to the back of the room. There was a set of rickety stairs leading to a tiny landing in front of a door. Marley’s eyes followed the boy’s. The door led to the loft, a kind of attic space under the eaves. It had been used for storage before Health and Safety regulations prevented it. Nobody went in there now.

“They’re in the loft, aren’t they?” he demanded, a triumphant smirk on his face. “Aren’t they?”

The boy simply smiled without answering. In the silence that filled the gap came the moaning of the wind outside. It was really starting to blow hard now, and the rafters creaked and groaned as the gusts of wind battered them. Marley stared again at the door. Slowly, the handle started to turn.

“I knew it!” Marley exclaimed. “We’ll soon settle this nonsense.”

He strode up to the staircase, leaped up the five or six steps to the landing and grabbed the handle. The door would not open.

“Locked in, are you?“ he shouted through the door. “Shall I leave you in there? Wouldn’t be so brave spending the night in darkness locked in the loft, would you? You know what they say about it don’t you? Haunted it is. Haunted.”

As he was shouting these threats through the door, he fumbled with his keys. He found the right one, unlocked the door and opened it. It was pitch black inside.

“Come on out,“ he called into the room, “ You’re caught. You might as well give up now before you make things worse for yourself.”

He reached for the light switch which was outside the loft on the balcony and pressed it. The loft space was suddenly flooded with white-bright lighting, revealing the cobwebbed beams and dusty floorboards inside. There was a sound of scuffling, as if a rat had scuttled away into a distant corner. Marley stepped inside.

“I know you’re in here,” he said in a raised voice. “Just come out from where you’re hiding so we can get this thing over with.”

There was a sharp chill to the air inside and the wind in the darkness beyond was howling steadily now. He took another step inside. There was a sudden noise behind him. He whirled round to see the boy, still holding his cap, out of his seat and standing just outside the doorway on the landing.

“What are you doing? You’re not helping, you know” Marley said. “You kids, you’re your own worst enemies sometimes.”

The boy smiled at him, his tear-tracked, dirty face lit up like a beacon.

“Sometimes,” he repeated.

There was a sudden gust of wind and the timbers of the loft screeched and shifted. The door, caught in the blast, slammed with a tremendous bang. The boy turned the key in the door, reached for the light switch and the loft was plunged into inky darkness.

*

In the darkness outside, all was still and the sky was full of fat snowflakes gently floating down. The wind of earlier had subsided completely and the thick layer of snow on the ground muffled all the sounds of traffic. Gary drew the entrance gates shut, pulled off his gloves and fiddled with the padlock and key, cursing against the cold.

“Bloody theatre company. A no show on Christmas Eve. That administrator bloke must think I was born yesterday, saying he hadn’t sent any email booking a rehearsal.”

He paused, struggling to get his gloves back on over his frozen fingers. “Still,” he smiled, “It’s not all bad. Double time is double time, whether anyone showed up or not.”

*

Several weeks later, Gary was in his office taking the detectives through the CCTV footage of the holidays. They finally located Christmas Eve, and there, in grainy black and white, was film of Marley walking across the car park. Walking next to him was what appeared to be a young boy, from the theatre group, dressed as a Dickensian urchin. From the moment the camera picked him up until he entered the building, Marley didn’t turn or appear to talk to the boy. It was almost as if he did not know he was there.

They ran the film on, hoping to see someone, anyone, leave the school later. There was nothing. “That kid must still be in the building, “ said the senior detective on the case, a balding, corpulent man who gave the impression that he’d really rather be back in his warm office tidying up paperwork.

“But who is he?” asked Gary. “I’ve never seen him here before.”

The detective raised an eyebrow. “I think the question is, ‘Where is he?’”

In the months that followed, there were several TV appeals, posters all over the neighbourhood, and an extensive search of the school. The boy, whose blurred image stared out accusingly at anyone who chose to look, was never identified, nor found. Eventually, they were all discreetly taken down, discoloured and tatty by this time, as if people did not want to be reminded of the harsh realities of the world for which, somehow, they felt they were unfairly being made responsible. More comfortable to take them down, rather than look away.

When the police left, with cursory thanks and platitudes, Gary was left alone in front of the screen. He scrolled back to the point when Marley and the boy entered the school, and, on a whim, switched to one of the other cameras on the feed, pointing out from the main entrance, towards the front gate. There they were again, together but entirely separate, walking through the steadily mounting snow. And then he stopped. He froze the final shot. There on the screen, stretching back from the entrance to the main gate, like a line of punctuation marks, was a track of footprints.

One line for two people.

He stared, and shivered, as the wind rattled the panes of his window and the bones of the building creaked and groaned.

The Old Grey Owl

@OldGreyOwl1

https://growl.blog/

oldgreyowl.57@gmail.com

“It was the day my Grandmother made a cup of tea..” In praise of the slow start.

Earlier this year, the best-selling British crime author, Mark Billingham (left), caused a little controversy at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival when he said that if a novel does not grip him after twenty pages he “throws it away angrily”. He reckons that he does this with 50% of the books he starts to read. “Life’s too short,” he says, “and there are so many great books out there.”

This is an opinion that has divided readers, but it’s one that will be familiar to anybody who has tried to submit a manuscript to publishers or agents, and it’s very much in line with their thinking. You know the drill: submission guidelines that specify the first three chapters in the initial submission. The publishing and self-publishing industry is a growth area of one thing above all else. And its not new novelists. No, it’s companies largely inhabited by people who have fallen foul of those same submission guidelines and can’t get published. What’s the next best thing to do? Why, advise other wannabe authors of course. Look through the individual agent pages of literary agencies, where each agent is desperately trying to pitch themselves and their own USP. “I’m looking for submissions that grab me immediately, that make me desperate for the rest of the manuscript. I immediately know that the novel is going to be amazing from the way it gripped me relentlessly from the start.”

Oh dear. Really? This is as hackneyed and depressing as the relentless mantra, “Show Not Tell” or the terribly modern obsession with writing in the first person or (but usually “and”) writing in the present tense because it makes the novel so much more immediate and engaging. Whenever I see that I have to suppress a yawn, knowing that I’m going to be reading an identikit novel that is indistinguishable from all the others. Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a skilful practitioner, the first person does all that the gurus promise. It’s just that it’s not often in those hands, and the voice of this first person, unless the character is meant to be a wannabe novelist with a penchant for purple prose, is all too often crashingly inauthentic.

But I digress. Iain Banks (below), the brilliant Scottish writer, has a lot to answer for. Ever since his wonderful novel, “The Crow Road” began with the immortal first line, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”, critics, publishers and agents have demanded fireworks right from the off. In that book, it was bold, refreshing, innovative and exhilarating. In the hands of lesser exponents it is simply cliched and desperate. Everyone has been told they have to do it. The first 3 chapter submission requirement underlines that. And so, all books have to follow the same pattern.

How sad! How reductive! How depressing! Like virtually all rules of writing, it’s unhelpful and misleading. If that’s what your book needs, then go for it. But don’t do it because some guide to writing told you to. And if your book needs an opening that is a leisurely unfolding, with space to breathe and think, then be brave enough to do that. The real fireworks are those that aggregate from your deliberate, mindful laying out of a setting, a situation, characters and a dilemma and then, come with a joyful rush at the end.

The real dilemma here is that this approach takes us perilously close to a knee jerk dismissal of all advice, all criticism, all agents. And in the relentless pursuit of publication, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that agents are just cynical manipulators, who care nothing for fiction or creativity, and are simply obsessed with the question, “Can I see this book selling shedloads of copies?” One of the key lessons to learn when dipping your toe into the shark-infested waters of publishing, is that to stand any chance of being recognised, you have to develop the capacity to take criticism with good grace. Ninety percent of it is accurate and helpful, no matter how sharp the sting.

But sometimes, you have to say no. It may not get you past an agent’s rejection pile, but if you don’t believe in the text, then it won’t go much further than the second hurdle. If you think your book needs a leisurely unfolding, it probably does. Sometimes, the budding writer knows more than the established agent. But only sometimes.

If you liked this blog try my novel, Zero Tolerance, available from the link below:

Or, if you prefer Children’s Fantasy adventure, try The Watcher and The Friend, available from the link below:

This blog first appeared in Barron On Books at http://www.rjbarron.co.uk

Guilty Pleasures.

Culture, Politics and Pleasure

In one of the weekend magazines -The Guardian or The Times – they always feature an interview with some celeb who generally has a new book or film to promote. The interview follows a set pattern so the same questions are printed in the piece, with the answers below, like a script. One of them always concerns guilty pleasures. You know the sort of thing: Which book are you ashamed you’ve never finished? What’s your cultural guilty secret? The premise is that there are a set of cultural products that are high status, that everyone with aspirations to intellect and cultural heft should have watched or read, but definitely enjoyed. The flip side of this is that, in this post-modern world, the real mark of a cultural heavyweight hipster, is someone who can slum it with the oiks and can enjoy (though no doubt in an ironic, knowing way) the cultural sludge of popular entertainment. You know it’s trash, but it’s clever trash, it’s funny trash, it’s significant trash. Hence the epithet “guilty”. You know you’re not supposed to, but you like it anyway. You little rebel.

I hope I don’t disappoint, but this blog will walk a different path. I’m afraid I don’t buy the High brow/Low brow distinction that bedevils cultural commentary and cultural transmission in this country. Stormzy or Beethoven? Well, as I’ve made clear before on this blog, the obvious answer, the only admissible answer, is, of course, both. Unfortunately, at this point in our history, the Traditionalists hold sway, and culture wars are engaged in enthusiastically, not only for their tactical worth, but also (and more frightening this, in some ways) because some of the key players of the present time actually believe in all of that stuff.

Well, I don’t. And so, the guilty pleasures in the title are not those things that you shouldn’t really like but do, because they are so ITV. No, there are genuine reasons to feel guilty about them, but you can’t help yourself. Music is most vulnerable to the guilt reflex because of the frequent dislocation between lyrics and music. Something that sounds wonderful can become problematic as soon as repeated listening reveals the meaning of the lyrics. And so it is with the two examples I’m going to confess to today. Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  1. “Stay with Me”  Rod Stewart and The Faces

Quite simply, this is the greatest record ever made. Or rather, it is this week, because as we all know, those kind of judgements change all the time. But unlike all most of the other contenders for the title, it’s quite likely to feature repeatedly as the GOAT. For youngsters who know nothing of Rod apart from his later manifestation as a cheesy embarrassment, this may seem like a deeply unfashionable choice. But they, poor innocents have yet to discover the magnificence that was Rod and The Faces in the early Seventies.

Rod, despite the horror of “Sailing” and “Do Ya think I’m Sexy?”, has one of the finest white soul blues voices ever. Period. And The Faces are the consummate bluesy Rock band. Listen to  “A Nod’s as Good as a Wink” if you don’t believe me. “Stay with Me” is them at their peak.  The opening guitar riff is a joyful harbinger of the greatness to come, reprised at the end by a delicious honky tonk shuffle, as if they can’t bear the song to be over so soon. Magnificent fuzz guitar by Ronnie Wood, honkytonk electric piano by Ian McClagen and a wonderful vocal by his Rodness. The record is greater than the sum of its parts however, because the band motor through it, charting a perfect path between being as tight as a drum and achieving the loose elasticity of boogie woogie. It’s the aural equivalent of the bouncy suspension of a classic Citroen DS. The other great strength is just how evident it is that they are all having a great time, not just playing the song, but living the life. The video of the song depicts the rock and roll fantasy of being in a gang with your mates, having a laugh, going on the lash and the certain promise of sexual activity. A heady cocktail for any seventeen year old.

The trouble is, of course, that once you’ve recovered from the sublime experience of the music, you’re left with the lyrics. Back in the early Seventies they caused me some disquiet as an embryonic progressive. Now, they are positively antediluvian, in their, ahem, strangely sexist portrait of teenage kicks. Back then, no-one really batted an eyelid. But, keep the faith for a moment, the lyrics provide the merest smidgeon of hope. Rod was a clever guy, and understood the essential ridiculousness of rock stardom. The instinct for witty and knowing self-deprecation that was often seen in his interviews, surfaces in this song too. (“I don’t mean to sound degrading……”) It’s a hymn to the joys of young, casual, meaningless sex between consenting adults rather than a misogynistic leer between blokes. And in these days of gender fluidity, that spirit can be retained and improved, simply by substituting “Peter” for “Rita”. Genius. As if by magic, a great work is repurposed for a different age.

Have a little look and listen here:

Unfortunately, with my second choice, it’s not quite so simple. Step forward the sublime Dr Feelgood.

2 “Because you’re Mine”. Dr Feelgood

 It’s hard to accurately convey just what an important place Dr Feelgood occupy in the history of British Rock music in the Seventies, to anyone that wasn’t there. They were the bridge that led directly from Prog to Punk, via Pub-Rock. The John the Baptist to Punk’s Jesus Christ. The key element of their greatness is the texture their records possess. “Because you’re Mine” crackles with menace. It’s as tense as a tightly stretched skin over a drum, the sound created by the simple combination of rhythm guitar, drums and bass and growling, prowling vocals from Lee Brilleaux. Live, the sound was just as ferocious, but the experienced was enhanced by the key characters. Brilleaux in white mohair suit soaked in sweat punching the air in time to his rasping staccato vocals. The Big Figure on drums – large, still, unmoving and unmoved. John Sparks on bass an honourable example of the unremarkable, functional bass layer and last and foremost, the magnificent Wilko Johnson on guitar.

When I first saw them, both on TV and then live, I had never witnessed a guitarist with such a relentless attack. He was the Ian Curtis of guitar, manic staring eyes, mechanical chopping, plectrum-less hacking, and a non-stop, all action, straight lined, psychotic and repetitive marching across the stage. The word “strumming” could never be applied to his playing style. In the age of twenty minute squealing guitar solos, he rescued pop and rock with a thrilling reminder of the glory of three minutes of rhythm guitar.

They were tremendously exciting to watch. But apparently, only for young men. A Feelgoods gig was an extended exercise in male bonding, as I recall. Perhaps there are some female fans out there who went and worshipped as I did. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

But……. Glorious though they were, they had one major flaw, a crack as wide as the San Andreas fault. I’m afraid that, to the naked eye and ear at any rate, Seventies feminism completely passed them by. “Because you’re mine” is actually a nasty little song, a paean to stalking, male domination and possession. And no amount of fiddling with names or pronouns is ever going to fix that. In a case like this, the only permissible response is to cut them loose and consign them to history, like a statue to a long dead slaver.

Two versions here. One is the studio version and the second a mashup to give you a flavour of what they were like live. For some reason, there’s no footage of them actually playing Because You’re Mine live. Enjoy.

So, as a progressive socialist atheist republican concerned about my radical reputation, I plead guilty. There’s really no defending this song. It’s just that it sounds so delicious. My perfect Christmas present this year would be for some gifted song writer to write an entirely new set of lyrics that would enable me to enjoy this masterpiece of tightly wound aural tension with a clear conscience. Politics, Culture and Pleasure, eh? Who knew it it could be so hard?