Before I get my gorgeous wings

WE WERE fifty-something, Janet and I, and under no illusion. Our figures had migrated southwards and outwards and our morning faces surprised us, as if someone had slipped a Halloween mask over the top of them in the night. Rules are rules, however, and single and fifty-something equals no one to dance with. And so on Tuesday evenings at the Railway Club adjacent to Elmford Junction, we sat, or stood, at the side of the room, watching other people dance. Outside it was always black, and usually tipping it down. Even in here, just below the perfume and perspiration, there was a trace of the cold, dank oiliness of trains.

Proper ballroom dancers have silver shoes, with silver heels of a particular ballroom shape and straps that loop under the foot or up around the ankle. You can buy them on various websites, but they cost money. Neither Janet nor I had money so we waited, in our flat, black office shoes, twitching discreetly to Shania Twain singing ‘That don’ impressa me much.’

We secretly longed to be shimmering, whirling, gliding in and out of the light beneath the Christmas decorations that should have been taken down weeks ago, oh how we did; but we were careful to keep our faces blank, or faintly amused-looking. Nobody must know about this secret lust of ours. At most, if Shania became too much for us, we could practice the steps on our own, mirroring the couples.

‘Back left side close side. Forward right forward left side close side.’

I am short-sighted even with my glasses on, and so it wasn’t until week three that I could be sure that the print on the far wall as one of Joseph’s. Seven years older than me, my brother Joseph is an artist. He was popular in the late seventies and early eighties, especially with steam fans, because many of his pictures are of steam trains.

An old woman in black is walking towards the end of the platform of an otherwise deserted railway platform. She seems to carry with her an aura of coal steam, night mist, and the beginnings of frostfall. She appears to be shawled, or hooded, and as she disappears into the edge of the frame you cannot make out her face. Behind her, almost incidentally, stands a train in green and gold livery, half obscuring the station sign. You can almost hear that metal creature panting to be away, eager for more important places.

Janet and I did at least have Clive for the first couple of weeks. We shared him equally between us. Clive must have been forty-something. He always arrived on his own. He didn’t wear a ring but there clung to him shreds of that hangdog, domesticated aura married men never entirely manage to shake off. We decided the poor devil was divorced.

‘In ballroom, ladies,’ Robbie the Instructor informed us, ‘the gentleman still rules the roost. Your partner can insert a lockstep at any time and if he chooses to insert a lockstep you will do a lockstep.’ It was my turn to have him, so Clive and I laboured around the floor, from the Light End to the Dark End and back again, watching our feet with fierce concentration. Clive was also breathing hard and counting. Though he didn’t seem to have much personality he was a vigorous taker of corners, and each wrenching turn made me feel like a GroBag. I could see myself being dumped in the boot of someone’s car and the hatch slammed down on me.

Clive had another drawback as far as I was concerned, which was that he hadn’t yet mastered the lockstep, and so was unable to exercise his masculine right to insert one. I, on the other hand, had mastered the lockstep in week one and would have loved to show it off.

This week Clive hadn’t turned up at all, and it seemed unlikely that he ever would again, which meant that Janet and I were likely to be wallflowers until Easter. Robbie the Instructor sashayed over to us once or twice to treat us to a twirl, but of course that didn’t count. Robbie wiggled an awful lot, like a professional, in fact. Narrow-hipped, clad all in black, he possessed an enormous set of perfectly white teeth. He loved to dance and he loved his teeth. Unfortunately, after you had been watching him for a while everything else about him seemed to fade. You were left with just those perfect teeth, jiving or waltzing or whatever.

‘Do you think they’re real?’

‘They must be. I mean, you wouldn’t actually set out to construct a set like that.’

‘Perhaps they’re his special Dancing Teeth?’

‘He’ll keep them in a box, tied with a red ribbon, and only bring them out for Tuesdays.’

Through the glass panel door you could see through into the Railway Club bar where silent off-duty railwaymen stared into their beer.

‘Do you think our Clive was a railwayman,’ Janet remarked. ‘I mean, he could have been sitting out there in the bar one evening, wondering about the froth.’

‘Whether it circles anti-clockwise in Australia?’

‘Yes. And then, maybe he glanced up, observed the couples going round and round in here and thought –’

‘That might be more fun than this!’

‘Exactly.’

‘It isn’t, though, is it?’

The music started up again. They had decided to spring a jive on us. And that was when they finally condescended to get up, the couple I’d christened the Birds of Paradise.

They’d been here since the start of the evening but it seemed they felt themselves to be more ornamental than participatory. One, a dirty blonde with a somewhat doughy face, was tapping things into her mobile. Her face was lit by the yellow glow from the screen, and she was having to squint a bit because their table was at the Dark End. Her friend, of a similar basic shape but sleeker, with bigger breasts, was more effectively harnessed, wearing tight black trousers and the right sort of heels; she had silver highlights in her long, mousy hair, and a silver belt looped around her hips. Tacky, it was, but effective.

Neither girl smiled. Suspended in their formal embrace, one looking to the left and one to the right, they waited for the down-beat.

‘Do you think they, you know, are?’ asked Janet. Somehow I didn’t think they, you know, were. Usually you get some sort of atmosphere from lesbian ladies, just as you do from gay men; you might call it a plus-something from the women and a minus something from the men. Rather, they produced in me one of my visions, akin to the GroBag, boot-slamming one, but astonishingly detailed. I saw them together in some front room on Pittleigh Estate, sofas and chairs pushed aside, practising and practising their dance moves on Sunday afternoons.

It would be one of the semis, I thought, a Council house. There would be a CD-player sitting in the crook of a pushed-aside armchair, and the curtains would not have been drawn. Outside, dusk would be blanketing the overflowing wheelie-bins, the dog dirt smeared on the pavement, the fireweed forcing its way up through the cracks in the paving slabs.

The beat at last arrived, and they started to dance. The fat one failed to be elegant; she could hardly have been so, the shape she was, and in her supermarket jeans, but she was fast and accurate. At exactly the right moment her hand reached out to guide the other girl round or twirl her under. She danced without any apparent physical effort, wearing exactly the same expression as she’d been wearing for the yellow texting.

The sleek one, however: you couldn’t look away. She was transformed by the act dancing, translucent, transcendent. With movements sure and sharp, she flamed, she flickered, pointing and un-pointing her feet in their silver shoes. She made scrolls and curlicues with her arms; furling and unfurling her hands; she described a cat’s claw, a peacock’s fan, a cockatoo’s crest. How elegant and avian she was, how fiery and how cold.

These are odd words to use, but I can’t think of any others: she inspired me, somehow. She reminded me of the birds you see in those watercolours by long-extinct artists, faded hoopoes and pelicans, parrots, lyre birds and bower birds: stylised; birds and yet not birds, just as what this pair were doing was ballroom and yet not ballroom.

Around the room, conversations sputtered and died. The perambulating couples faltered, missed steps and quietly collided. At last the music stopped and the Birds of Paradise sat down. The fat one reached for her mobile to recommence her texting, the sleek one tossed her silver highlights over her shoulders and perched on the edge of her chair, straight-backed, like an automaton deactivated.

Janet had felt it too. ‘I wanted to applaud,’ she sighed.

A brief silence hung between us as we separately considered, and rejected, the obvious solution to our problem. For the Birds of Paradise it had been a triumph but for Janet and me it would have been embarrassing, no more than sad.

Janet was my best friend and yet I could not have begun to tell her how I was grieving, having seen that display. Something had sprung to life in me as I watched those girls, and whatever that was, it was dying now.

Maybe it was hope. Maybe it was the dream everyone whips up for themselves when they are young, that great, glorious, wedding cake of a future they are going to have. Then the bits with the cream in get eaten by other people; one or two bits at the edges get knocked off and other bits go mouldy. In the end there’s nothing left on your plate but marzipan crumbs and a currant or two. I was never going to point my toes in silver shoes or furl and unfurl my fingernails, just so. I had missed my moment to sashay and shimmer, drawing all eyes to myself.

Joseph has never particularly rated that painting, though in fact it was one of his best, which was of course why it was turned into prints and continues to sell well even now. And he never would tell me who the old woman was on the platform, what exactly she meant. He has probably long since forgotten the actual painting of that painting. I suspect the mysterious old woman was just a happy accident, a stray blob of paint he sort of decided to turn into something. Joseph is such a practical man; never an Artist with a capital A, and never much into symbolism. He told me once that painting is as much a craft as an art.

I visited him only yesterday at the Florence Nightingale. So very, very clean it all was; all that laundered whiteness, all those tubes. Poor Joseph. In his dying I suspect he is pining for the last of the steam trains, for the grease and grime and chaos he sketched during every spare moment of his youth, and which he spent the remainder of his years translating into oils. How he must despise this interminable process of fading away in the Florence, an alien fallen to earth, a tattered old misogynist going Un-gently Into That Good Night.

In the briefest of pauses between Shania Twain and Englebert Humperdinck I imagined I heard across all those accidental, random, messed up, squandered and totally meaningless years of Joseph’s, Janet’s and mine, the high, weird voice of Joni Mitchell singing that song about Richard; Richard, who had once been a dreamer:

‘Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away.’

Maybe after all there would be some kind of a rising. If only that could be so. Then we might have them, all of us.

Our gorgeous wings.

The Angel

The Angel

‘You don’t have to finish it,’ said Anthony Adams. ‘Nobody’s holding a gun to your head.’

But I did, and had several more. The pub shimmered and glittered around us; people came and went, perching on stools, sliding off again, feeding coins into the square-in-the-wall jukebox, chattering. The Angel was a faded sort of place, with green flock wallpaper, torn leatherette benches and ceilings turned sepia by years of cigarette smoke. I liked it there.

There seemed no great hurry to get down to business. Anthony Adams was easy company, said little. Every so often he took out a little black book and pencilled in a name, or flipped back the pages, turned the pencil round and rubbed a name out. It had a title in gold lettering in some foreign script. I squinted sideways. Beautiful handwriting. Copperplate, maybe. Some of the names were ringed in black, and some had a kind of halo round them. Trick of the light, I thought.

‘Anthony Adams isn’t your real name, is it?’ I threw this in, conversationally.

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Alliteration. Too much alliteration, and too plain. Geoff Green, Peter Porter – same thing. You made that story up, didn’t you?’

‘Some of it. The bit about the wife and kids and the newspaper in the bath I did.’

‘And the bath-towel.’

‘That too,’ he agreed. “Can I get you another of those slimy yellow things?”

‘Snowball? Yes.’ It occurred to me that he might poison it on the way back, but no, I hadn’t given him the money yet. Tradesmen don’t work for nothing, and payment in advance would be essential for a job like this. He’d be getting cash in hand, of course. I wondered whether he would declare it to the taxman, and if so exactly what he would declare.

I hadn’t felt tipsy up to now, but this time the drink worked and I began to feel blurred and reckless, almost sexy. It made it possible for me to say what I had to say.

‘I want you to kill me, Anthony Adams: when I’m not expecting it but preferably this year.’

He sighed. ‘Yes.’

‘Yes, you will or – ?’

‘Yes, I know. You think I’m a contract killer and you have a thousand pounds in your handbag for me.’

He sounded more sad than I had ever heard anyone sound before. I looked him full in the face for the first time that evening and saw that he was deathly pale.

‘Are you feeling poorly again?’

‘Sick to death, my dear.’

I put my arms around him then, and he put his around me, right there in the pub. We were both out of practice at holding, all elbows, bumped noses and awkward pats on the back. His cheek against mine felt wet. Wet and rough. He smelt of soap and incense.

‘What is your real name?’ I asked as we separated. I wondered if my mascara had run. He told me his name was Azrael.

‘Azrael what?’ It sounded vaguely familiar.

‘Just Azrael. That’s the Arabic version of it. I’m also known as Izra’il, Rahab, Suriel, Mairya. I have many names in many different cultures, but basically I’m the Angel of Death.’

Somehow this worried me less than the idea that he might be a drink-drugger, bag-snatcher or serial rapist.

He told me a lot of things that night. What his job involved. It all sounded a bit archaic. When a soul’s time was up, he said, a leaf fell from a tree at the foot of the throne of God – a metaphorical leaf and a metaphorical tree of course. And then he, Azrael, had forty days in which to sever that person’s soul from his or her body and accompany it to heaven. Or the other place.

‘So there is another place?’

‘Yes. I can show you both places if you like, and me as I really am. I mean, obviously I have to appear in some sort of disguise. I make myself look expected, ordinary.’

I suppose it was some kind of vision. I was still there, in the Angel public house, but before me also in my mind’s eye, this scene. A gigantic creature, black-winged and fiery, a gothic version of the feathery, rosebud-mouthed angels you used to see in those little stick-on texts they used to hand out in Sunday School. It was standing on a bridge between two lands. One land, as far as I could make out, was all sunshine, green meadows and snow-capped mountains, and full of music. The other was very dark, more like Milton Keynes in November only stretching away into the distance for ever and ever. I knew that place. It was where I had been in my head ever since my babies died.

‘So my leaf has fallen?’ I asked, as the vision faded and the bell for ‘time’ and the sound of glasses being loaded into a dishwasher faded in.

‘Well no, actually, it’s still attached. Metaphorically. You see, I also come to those who long for me. And you were longing for me, weren’t you Dorothy?’

I shivered. How long since anyone had called me that? The girls at the shop where I worked invariably called me ‘Mrs Hodge’.

‘So many deaths,’ he said. ‘Oh Dorothy, I long for there to be no more deaths, for rest and sleep. I’m sick of the expressions on people’s faces. The fear, the shock, the pious acceptance, the – whatever. But Azrael will be the last to die. At the Second Trump. Judgment Day and all that.’

‘This dress is killing me,’ I said. ‘It’s far too tight and my stomach hurts from holding it in.’

‘Your place?’ he said.

And that’s how it happened, in a roundabout way, that I got laid by an Archangel, his new black brogues under the bed, waiting for morning. And how we came to be here, in Skegness, walking hand in hand along the front like an old married couple, thanks to my thousand pounds and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of angel dust. An unexpected break, or a permanent escape? Who knew? I knew I would never go back to the shoe shop and, temporarily at least, people had stopped dying; all over the world, in car crashes, hospitals and natural disasters. Sooner or later, of course, somebody would notice. I didn’t want to die right this minute. Somehow, knowing that I could, and that my dear Azrael would come to me whenever I longed for him, it no longer seemed so urgent.

We were looking out to sea one evening, leaning on the rail, as the sun drowned quietly and spectacularly in the drink. I imagined mermaids, fishes, the hissing and bubbling of the water as the sun slid into and under it. I suddenly remembered having been here before. In the early fifties, it must have been, with Mum and Dad and the dogs. Mum was happier then. She held the dogs on a lead, and Dad held my hand. A tall, dark man in a crumpled demob suit. I can’t make out his face against the sun, but I’ll be seeing him soon enough. And my precious babies.

So yah-boo-sucks to you, Muriel Gray

Laid by an Archangel

I just had to get that phrase in, for Muriel.

My story, the one in which, to Muriel’s dismay, a lady gets laid by an Archangel – was written earlier this year. I happened to catch the repeat of one of the initial End of Story programmes on BBC2. Eight well-known authors, Ian Rankin, Sue Townsend, Fay Weldon, Marian Keyes, Joanna Harris, Shaun Hutson, Ed McBain and Alexei Sayle, had each contributed the first half of a short story. Amateur writers were being asked to get hold of a copy of the little orange and white EOS book – a kind of treasure hunt – or download the half-stories from the website, select one and send in an ending for it.

I must admit I didn’t read the small print, either on the website or in the orange and white book. Had I done so I might not have spent that warm Saturday afternoon out on my weedy little patio, scribbling, a mug of cooling tea beside me on the roof of the cat-kennel, my A4 paper and my pot of pencils (it’s a writer thing – buying pencils, and then more pencils, and then the pencils not being quite the right pencils because somehow they’re not new enough or sharp enough pencils – or maybe it’s just my private little fetish!) I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I couldn’t resist. A half-finished story is an abomination, like a cut without a plaster or a half-eaten bar of chocolate.

I decided on the Sue Townsend story, The Angel, in which a rather sad shoe-shop manageress – in Sue’s story she doesn’t have a name, but I call her Dorothy – decides she’d rather not live to be sixty. It’s her fifty-ninth birthday and nobody knows or cares; she’s grey and fat, her husband has long since deserted her, her pension has been stolen by Robert Maxwell. That sort of stuff.

A man comes into her shop just before closing time and tries on a pair of shoes. He seems unwell; she only wants to get rid of him. But in the course of their conversation he mentions a contract killing he has witnessed, and how much such an execution would be likely to cost, for an unimportant person, in the provinces. Dorothy realises that she has the price of her own death. Not exactly a joyous beginning, but the only one I felt I could do something with.

There is a pub called The Angel in Sue’s part of the story but I decided that, rather than go for the obvious, the angel would in fact be the poor chap who bought the brogues from our heroine. Not a contract killer as she initially assumes, but Azrael, the Angel of Death, whom she has unwittingly summoned. After all, once an Archangel gets into the mix, the sky’s the limit!

If the above sounds ridiculous to you now, you should try explaining it to the unblinking eye of a TV camera, and then repeating it, take after take. By the seventh or eighth repetition it sounds like gibberish. Add to that the fact that the TV camera and other equipment is crammed into your tiny ‘galley-style’ kitchen, and crouched behind the camera are the lady director and a cameraman, their bottoms squashed against the gas cooker, instructing you to ‘include the question in your answer’ and ‘talk to the hand’ (yes, people really do say that). They dragged a blue potted hydrangea through the house to the front, where it was to lend a sort of country house air to my bijou mid-terrace. When they had gone I dragged it back again, hoovered up the trail of dirt and leaves and spent some time dismantling elaborate spirals of well-thumbed intellectual-looking paperbacks and returning them to the bookcase.

(I’m afraid that last bit was me – I just thought it’d look a bit more, you know, J K Rowling.)

I thought that was it, but no. Some weeks later I was whisked up to London in what seemed to me like a chauffeur-driven limousine – but then I can’t tell a Mini from a Mercedes. We, the six finalists, were about to be made up for the first time. As the afternoon progressed I became increasingly sweaty and beige as layer after layer of the stuff was trowelled on. My hair, so carefully tied up and smoothed, began to fall down. I looked like a bird’s nest – twigs all over the place.

The film crew were being mysterious about what was going to happen next. We tried nobbling a nice young research assistant. ‘Can’t say,’ she said, ‘more than my job’s worth.’ Eventually we were driven across London to a film studio. I imagined Hollywood, or at any rate Pebble Mill, but the studio turned out to be on an industrial estate. You might have mistaken it for a carpet warehouse, or something to do with plumbing. Inside it was black, all black. We marched in, single file, with numbers One to Six pinned to our chests. Of course I had to be number One, so whatever was going to happen would happen to me first.

The mystery was soon solved. We found ourselves being filmed, sitting in a semi-circle, in the dark, watching a film of the judges – a panel of celebrities. I regret to say that the only celebrity I actually recognised was Muriel Gray, who used to be a presenter on The Tube back in the eighties. They discussed our stories, one at a time. Mine first.

The camera people seemed to be doing close-ups on our faces. I was determined not to cry, whatever the judges said, and I didn’t. But they were so horrible – not just about my precious story but about everyone else’s in turn. And they laughed, they mocked, they crowed – or that’s how it seemed at the time. They were just so enjoying pulling our poor little efforts to pieces.

Of course, in the overall scheme of things it wasn’t important. ‘Only a game show.’ Constructive criticism, as they kept reminding us, is part of a professional author’s life. My reactions were strange, though. As the lights went up I seemed to have regressed. I was nine, or ten. I never asked to be a professional writer; I just finished a stupid story off one sunny afternoon. Why are they picking on me?

They seemed to keep harping on about one particular sentence. A fifty-nine year old woman, they said, would definitely not have said, as my heroine did:

‘And that’s how it happened, in a roundabout way, that I got laid by an Archangel, his new black brogues under the bed.’

This one sentence was to haunt me through the rest of the filming. It was pontificated on by the panel of experts in London (oh yes, there was even more excruciating stuff to come) and even disapproved of by Sue Townsend when we went to Leicester to meet her. Sue was nice; very funny and helpful in spite of not liking – well, you know.

I argued for ‘get laid by an Archangel’ all the way through. I became obsessed, paranoid even. I liked that phrase. Was I going to reach a point soon when I could no longer think, or write, ‘laid by’? Was I going to become all homemade-scones-and-knitting-patterns?

But I capitulated in the end. Ground down, defeated and afraid of being seen on national TV as an arrogant spoilsport, unable to accept the constructive criticism that all professional writers must expect, etc, I finally conceded to Sue that ‘laid by’ had to be wrong, if so many people thought so. As it happened, I needn’t have worn myself out in defence of middle-aged ladies, gutter slang, archangels, Alice Cooper or whatever it was that I was wittering on about, because the whole lot disappeared in the edit.

I didn’t win. Fortunately there wasn’t a second and third place. ‘You’re all winners,’ they said, ‘for having got this far out of over 17,000 entries.’ Rubbish. I can tell you that not winning still feels exactly like losing, even if you are one of 6 in 17,000.

Postscript:

A few days  BBC Scotland very kindly sent me a Writers & Artists Yearbook 2005 together with a copy of the original reader’s report by a lady called Paula Johnson – the report that got me onto the shortlist in the first place. And Paula Johnson – the lovely Paula Johnson – actually approved of ‘laid by an archangel’. She even quoted it to illustrate the fact that my heroine’s voice is ‘well established throughout’.

So yah-boo-sucks to you, Muriel Gray.

[An abridgement of an article about the writing of The Angel and what it was like to be a TV finalist, first published in the January/February 2005 issue of New Books Magazine. Competition entrants were asked to finish a story, the first half of which had been written by a famous author. I had chosen to write an ending to a first-half provided by the late Sue Townsend, of ‘Adrian Mole’ fame.

Only recently did I realise that, with a couple of minor adjustments, my half-story was in fact a short story in its own right. If you desperately want to read it, it’s called The Angel and it’s here. I might write it differently now, and it might be better. Then again, I probably wouldn’t, and it might not.]

 

 

The Absolute End: tribesmen

BUT something about this place continued to haunt me. Something had been there, but it had eluded me. I thought hard about it as my husband negotiated the car-choked streets of Marazion (we were planning to visit St Michael’s Mount that afternoon) and came to the conclusion that what Land’s End harbours is not so much the Meaning of Life as the ghost of its own long history.

The Land’s End peninsula was formed 270 million years ago when molten granite forced its way up through the Earth’s softer surface. The very notion of it as The End is artificial, a convenient man’s-eye-view. It is merely the second nobble on Cornwall’s rocky backbone, which extends all the way down from Bodmin Moor to the Isles of Scilly. The earliest inhabitants of Cornwall are often referred to as Celts but in fact the Celts arrived only a few hundred years before the Romans. Before this, tribe after ancient tribe must have inhabited the area. They left no monuments, no clues as to their way of life, but were probably wanderers, hunters, gatherers and fishermen. Cornish legends tell of Giants, and it is possible that these really existed – a race of very tall men who lived in the Old Stone Age and hunted the mammoth.

What is known is that later, in the New Stone Age when Britain had been made into an island by the retreating glaciers, settlers arrived from Europe in primitive boats with leather sails, somehow managing to negotiate the treacherous Land’s End peninsula. The flints and tools they used have been found on the cliffs, but they seem to have been a peaceful people, since no weapons have been found. Their religion was the mysterious megalithic cult of the dead and they left, among the many other delights to the archaeologically-minded that pepper the area, ‘quoits – the roofs of megalithic graves – and ‘carns’ – stone burial chambers. These people would have been farmers, makers of tools, pottery and cloth.

Following the gentle Stone Agers, from Europe came wave after wave of Celts; fair- or red-headed, tall, superior in their knowledge of metals, their crafts, their arts and their social organisation – an aristocracy which, by the year 600 BC, had become the dominant race. These men of the early Bronze Age made stone circles, of which there are more than twenty in Cornwall, for use in their gatherings and rituals. Nearly all of them are to be found on either the Land’s End peninsula or Bodmin Moor. One of the peninsula rings at St Buryan – Boscawen Un, or Nine Maidens, may even be a Gorsedd, one of the three main sites of druid worship, along with Stonehenge and Bryn Gwiddon. Perhaps I wasn’t so far wrong about the ancient magic.

The natives of the peninsula were fiercely protective of their Celtic heritage, which included the Cornish language, last spoken in Cornwall in the mid sixteenth century. In 1497 there was a Yorkist plot to install upon the throne of England one Perkin Warbeck, who was actually an imposter masquerading as the younger of the Princes in the Tower. When he landed at Land’s End six thousand Cornishmen decided to march with him to London, but it all went wrong. He deserted his forces at Exeter, and was executed.

There were other rebellions, equally unsuccessful, and ‘the foreigners’, which meant everyone east of the Tamar River, continued to demand higher and higher taxes from what they saw as the ‘barbarians’ in the far west. The people were poor, disaffected and desperate. They took to smuggling and piracy, and to scavenging anything they could lay their hands on from ships wrecked along their coast. Sometimes they would even ‘encourage’ wrecks to take place by lighting lamps on the clifftops, which lured luckless mariners onto the rocks.

Throughout the history of the area runs this thread of expediency, of doing whatever has to be done for survival. Cornwall has never been able to offer its inhabitants a great deal in the way of natural advantages – only tin, which failed to make them rich, and copper, which was destroyed by foreign competition. But it is beautiful and, in spite of increasing commercialisation, continues to attract large numbers of tourists. And it does possess Land’s End – the most south-westerly point in England.

The Cornish know that the average holidaymaker would be disappointed if, having made the longish drive from ‘civilisation’ to this remote and not especially scenic section of clifftop; he was to find – nothing. People have become more and more accustomed to the idea of a tourist attraction as a noisy, crowded place where one can buy souvenirs, eat unhealthy food and take snaps. The Cornish have simply supplied the demand. I for one would rather have seen it as it must once have been, bleak and remote, a home for seabirds and the occasional cottager, blasted by sea winds all winter and parched a delicate brown in summer. But Land’s End itself, I suspect, couldn’t care less.

Perhaps it is one of those odd little bits of Britain where ghosts seem to accumulate. What I think I sensed there was an invisible multitude of mammoth-hunters, berry-gatherers, stone circle-makers, druid priest, fishermen, pirates, smugglers, tin miners and their womenfolk, watching all the razzmatazz in quiet amusement. Just as the land fails to end at Land’s End, merely submerging itself until it’s time to pop up again in the Scillies, so the spirit of Land’s End lives on beneath a crawling carpet of visitors. Eventually, inevitably, these ghosts will be joined by those of the car-park attendants, the ice-cream eaters and the ice-cream vendors, the German band and the makers of leather key-rings. And in the silence, Land’s End will still be there.

The Absolute End: tourists

(First published in The Lady, February 1988)

I ALWAYS wanted to go to Land’s End. Even as a small child I had been fascinated by the name; it had a ring of finality and desolation about it, of the ultimate secret to be disclosed, of ancient magic. Fanciful? Yes of course, but I’m not alone in such fancies. People have been making pilgrimages to Land’s End ever since the seventeenth century, when the round trip of ‘neere six hundred miles’ from London would surely have been as great an adventure as a present-day trek across the Sahara. The Methodist preacher John Wesley went there twice and Turner made a painting of it. With the opening of the London to Penzance railway in 1859 Land’s End became a tourist attraction on a much grander scale. The souvenir guide shows photos of Victorians posing outside the First and Last House, smiling sombrely in black and white, clinging to their parasols – rather hoping, one suspects, that the Ultimate Secret wouldn’t choose to leap out at them.

I must admit it didn’t leap out at us either. Our first encounter was with queues of cars, their occupants sizzling gently in the dry summer heat, with men in dusty blazers demanding money for the car park and coaches decanting wave after wave of Japanese tourists. Still, we were at The End of England, practically.

We bought all the brochures and launched a determined assault upon the various shops and exhibitions. We attempted to be fascinated by fuzzy blown-up pictures of a lifeboat rescue in 1917 but couldn’t help being more taken by those of a nude marathon bicycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1965. We watched a man making glass ornaments, an ex-flower person carving lions and tigers and alphabet letters out of wood, and another making belts, bookmarks and key-rings out of leather.

We browsed around the seashell jewellery, the cane furniture, the wicker birdcages and the dangly stained-glass butterfly sun-catchers, and then decided it was high time for an ice cream.

The couple running the café were arguing in ferocious whispers, between customers, as to whose fault it was that the freezer had ceased to work and whose task it was to be to clear up the mess. Sneaking a look over the counter I saw that the linoleum was awash with ice cream which stuck to the soles of their sandals each time they moved. My heart went out to them.

It was time to go and look for the End – the real end. Perhaps it would be less crowded down there. Perhaps we would be able to recapture what the very first men and women felt as they stood on these same cliffs gazing out at the vast, and at that time nameless, ocean. There were plenty of little rocky prominences, just right for perching on and viewing the Atlantic. Sadly, there were also lots and lots of people perching, and taking photographs of one another pretending to view. Which of the prominences was the End? Perhaps none of them were. Suddenly we were dispirited, and finding that the End did not seem nearly as important as finding some lunch, we went away.

In defence of sleazy pubs

Imagine you have been banished. You are whiling away your expatriate existence in some far-flung emirate among the air-conditioned apartment blocks and mathematically-spaced palms. You have a swimming pool, you have servants, you have everything you want except a ticket home. You lie awake listening to the roulette wheel spinning in the casino next door, and the gentle belching of camels, thinking of England, thinking particularly of your own county, Kent.

What do you see? I see cherry blossoms, almond blossom, windmills, black and white cows, wet sunlit orchards seen through train windows, mounds of snow on motorway verges, spangled with grit from passing juggernauts – and some shabby old men sitting in a pub. Inevitably, they are discussing sheep, cesspools, roofing tiles or the cultivation of monster vegetables.

Our “local” was once a place where evening sun shrivelled the potted plants on the windowsill, where the door stood open all night to admit a breeze carrying the scent of nettles and roses, and motorbike exhausts. Where there was a girlie calendar, but you weren’t allowed to lift the page and sneak a look at next month. Where there was a piano but, mercifully, no one able to play it – and anyway, the key had been lost centuries ago. A place where malodorous dogs slumbered heavily across their owners’ feet, or monitored their every move with pessimistic eyes.

It was a place where you could eat whelks (pron: wilks) and could purchase a pickled egg from a large jar to dunk in your bag of crisps. The landlord would roll his sleeve back to the elbow and plunge a great greasy hand down into the vinegar to capture one for you. It was a place for tall stories. Each one was so lengthy, so complex, so elegantly inconsequential that you might well have gone away believing every word – if you hadn’t been forced to hear it at least a hundred times already. Sadly, this last ingredient for my whimsical Essence of Kent is becoming harder and harder to find. I watched it fading in our own local pub – saw the gleam in the storyteller’s eye out-glittered by fairy lights, his audience mesmerised by the manic whirlings of blackcurrants and lemons in the fruit-machine. The fruit-machine and the pool table attracted a new kind of customer – the wafer-thin, cynical variety of teenager that makes a lot of noise.

Nowadays the old men are truly old. They shuffle in and hunch themselves over their beer. They mumble at one another. Once upon a time such a man would have swaggered into the room, knocked his pipe out on his heel and announced his latest Thought to the entire company. Now the place has been done up. It has springy armchairs, fake horse-brasses and a cheese-plant in a ceramic pot. It’s all in the best possible taste. No more Thoughts. No more ancient jokes. No more tall stories, ever.

A public house needs to be shabbier and in every way less salubrious than your own home. It should be a familiar, restful place full of all the things you’re not supposed to like – emerald green flock wallpaper; bendy cardboard Babycham ladies; candles in bottles; those coloured glass ball things with which fishermen were supposed once to have kept their nets afloat; piano-stools full of sheet music for unheard-of ’50s hits; insanitary toilets with spiders in the corners and unshaded light-bulbs. A pub is the kind of lady a man quite likes to spend an evening with but would never aspire to marry. She is Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna. In a pub a person should be able to relax – in other words behave worse than he would at home.

If you were beamed down in the middle of a supermarket or fast-food outlet you would be hard put to it to say whether you were in Dartford or Dumfries. Could the same soon become true of pubs? Hopefully not just yet. At least few strange, murky hostelries still lurk in the back streets of Kentish towns and villages.

However odd or uncomfortable they are, one remembers them. They are part of the area, its colour and its character. This is why foreign tourists head straight to our little inns – they are looking for the real Britain and real Britons – people, not dummies over-awed by plastic décor.

If your town or village is lucky enough still to have an untampered-with sleazy pub, look after it. Don’t let anyone suck down your cobwebs and paint everything eau-de-nil. Don’t let them install Hawaiian Muzak, bamboo furniture, potted creepers and a ceiling fan and rename your Pig & Whistle the Paradise Lost. If they suggest it just narrow your eyes, put on your best rural accent and tell them, with a sinister hint of a threat:

‘We likes our pubs sleazy!’

First published in Kent Life, November 1987

ANTS AND ANACONDAS

IN the early 1950s Gallipoli Street was a dead end. A makeshift metal barrier – ideal for doing head-over-heelses – separated the street from a brief, muddy slope – ideal for sliding) which lead down to an expanse of wasteland. Every morning I would set off for the junior school, just visible on the far side of the wasteland, except in spring, when all vegetation was thriving, and the wasteland turned into a jungle. To a seven year-old it seemed like a very long journey indeed. I had been reading about anacondas in Odhams Encyclopaedia. The stuck-together ae in the middle of Encyclopaedia, which I have since learned is a beastie known as a ‘typographic ligature’) fascinated me almost as much as the anacondas. I was convinced I would come face to face with one – an anaconda not a ligature – but never caught sight of so much as a grass snake. By the time I got to school the hem of my green pleated skirt would be soggy with dew or prickly with burrs. In summer, creamy cabbage white butterflies flew up as I passed through. In winter I would hobble through frosted thistles, chilblains itching and burning in spite of stout lace-up shoes and the grey, knee-length socks which elastic garters failed to sustain. Nan-knitted fair isle mittens dangled from my raincoat sleeves on yet more elastic.

In the 1960s they dug up the wasteland at the end of our street and built a housing estate. It was, and remains, the ugliest collection of houses I have ever seen. The building work unearthed no anacondas but did produce king-size muddy puddles for jumping in. I lost a wellington boot in a particularly deep puddle. Rather than fishing it out, which would have been the sensible thing to do, I left it and lolloped home one-wellied.

We didn’t really appreciate the advantages of living in a dead-end street until the metal barricades were removed, the street having been extended into the new estate. Until that time there had been few cars anyway, and the few that did venture along Gallipoli Street were looked upon as minor interruptions to our roller-skating and tennis. We stood aside and waited for the exotic creatures to pass. All cars were black in those days. Instead of flashing lights they had little orange arms for indicators, which popped out unexpectedly.

Even if there were no other children about one could still amuse oneself. On dry days I used to sit on the hot pavement and watch the ants swarming over a discarded boiled street, trying to guess what they were thinking. On one particularly hot day I overheard a passer-by saying it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement. I wanted to try it out, and asked my mother for an egg, but it was not forthcoming. On rainy days I used to stare into the gutter, mesmerised by the twigs and leaves eddying along towards the drain. As a child, I read voluminously and indiscriminately but never happened across Winnie the Pooh, so didn’t realise that what I was playing was called Pooh-Sticks.

There was always something or someone to see, somebody passing through. Often there would be tramps, or men who looked as if they might latterly have been soldiers, trudging along the gutters in grey raincoats collecting cigarette butts. They emptied out all the little odd bits of tobacco into the tobacco tins they carried, and later made roll-ups out of Rizzla papers.

Then there was the knife-grinder, with his bicycle-powered knife-sharpening equipment. As soon as he arrived the housewives would appear from houses up and down the street – some radar alerting them to his presence, for he made no call – brandishing blunt kitchen knives for him to sharpen, which he did by working some kind of leather strop arrangement with his feet. Perhaps it was attached to a pedal!

Most Sundays the rag-and-bone man would come along with his horse and cart shouting something unintelligible which I later realised was ‘Rag’nBone’ distorted through much use. And out would come the housewives again, in their frilly pinnies, this time brandishing buckets and coal-shovels, since the steaming horse-droppings were much prized as rose fertiliser.

Best of all, the shrimp man. Nan would despatch me back down the street with a pint jug and enough money to fill it with shrimps for our Sunday tea. I savoured the fresh, briny smell of the shrimps but for eating purposes they were more trouble than they were worth; so much de-whiskering and de-tailing for so little greyish meat.

Gallipoli Street was best of all when it snowed. We would walk along from our house to Nan and Grandad’s at the other end, for Christmas Dinner. The snow was thick and slippery and the houses had changed from unexceptional suburban semi’s with names like Fernlea and Foxholme to story-book houses with lighted windows with paper-chains, tinsel and Christmas Trees. We would hang on to the low front walls so as not to slip over, anticipating beef and roast potatoes and a long somnolent afternoon in a roaring hot front room, wheezing a little in the thick cloud of second-hand St Bruno Flake from Grandad’s pipe and listening to the snoring of their fat, honey-coloured labrador.

In later years – or maybe it was just our later years – Gallipoli Street seemed to become a different place altogether. Now there were high-heeled, beehived girls clattering along it under the evening streetlights, the streetlights reflected blue in the puddles after rain. It became a place where courting happened, just out of range of parental surveillance. Later still it became a bus route, though there wasn’t really room for the buses, and a place where commuters left their cars all day because they could park for free and leg it the rest of the way to the station. A few extra houses and bungalows got built, plugging the remaining gaps. Strangers came; people with pushchairs, boys on mountain bicycles.

Now when I visit Gallipoli Street I sometimes think I see the ghosts of roller-skating 1950s kids mingling with the bicycling boy-racers. The shrimp man, the knife grinder, the rag-and-bone man and the old soldiers are no longer to be seen and I notice the ‘ae’ has mysteriously disappeared from encyclopaedia, but one thing hasn’t changed: there are still no anacondas in Gallipoli Street. At least, as far as I know.