Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The shock of the new.

Early on a Sunday morning, before the birds or car-booters have woken, is a great time to see London. A few weeks ago, when the volcano did for all the 'planes, the view across Peckham Rye from the heights of Forest Hill was particularly spectacular.

The sky was a rich indigo canvas on this day, being peculiarly void of all vapour trails, smoke and noise. Through the van windscreen, as I crept over the precipice of the hill to begin the slow descent towards the heart of London, I could see the whole city spread out before me. It was quite some picture: St Paul's Cathedral, a handful of churches, a bridge or two, Parliament maybe, Monument certainly. These brick and stone relics from time glowed warmly under the young sun. The breaking day seemed warm and inviting to my tired eyes - but for one detail.

Overshadowing it all was the stamp of modern man. The Gherkin, the towers of banking commerce, the wire and glass around Liverpool Street all glowered over these lesser buildings like bullish older brothers. The littler constructs seemed like an irritant to their larger neighbours: they were getting in the way. Of progress. The low, fat moon added insult to injury. Nature and history - elegant, important history - were being swamped by this newness.

My rose-scented image of fresh London parkland grass was wiped from my mind's nose by a fog of diesel pumps, burning rubber and pollution. London suddenly turned ugly and damaged. But then, just as quickly, the scene flipped and these super-modern buildings took on a beauty of their own. The swollen, sunlit satellite glowing behind their walkways, elevations and mobile phone masts served to illustrate a unique, modern geometric beauty. Not so bad after all, eh?

And so, in different lights, London declares differing interests. I've no doubt that these historic buildings, in their original context, would have been surrounded by the ugliest of squalor, smog and disease-ridden streets. So this modern world must surely be better? Right? No?

That's the dichotomy of it all. As I look and wonder at London in the early morning, with its futuristic buildings towering over the landmarks like an opening scene from a far out 1960s sci-fi film, I have to wonder hard: which do I prefer? The here and now or the there and then?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The devil in the detail.

When Gordon Brown fell on his sword this week, he did so with a great deal of dignity. It's a shame that his odious successors do not share the same quality.

Clegg is this century's first national traitor. He took the king's shilling and sold his centre-left party and electorate out to the right wing. Rubbish. 24 hours after this sickening cow-tow, he was warming his feet in Cameron's cast-off slippers and making perverse u-turns on Trident and immigration policy. More misery will surely follow.

What do you think? If the polls had returned a radically different result, would Labour have sold their souls to the Tories for the chance - any chance - to co-govern? Of course not. In matters of basic political ideology, it's apparent that Brown has his principles and will stick to them. Clegg, to his eternal disgrace, will not. That's basic schoolboy rule number one broken, right there: he should have asked his mate from Eton about that.

Brown delivered his retirement speech with a great deal of humility and perhaps a whiff of relief that his shift was through. For perhaps the first time since he'd been elected PM he was able to slip back into the role of card-carrying Labour man: and it suited him.

There was no such dignity surrounding Clegg or Cameron. Guilt and shame shrouded the former, a desperate cluelessness the latter. Cameron's opening address showed a man strikingly out of his depth, still spouting party political rhetoric when the time for all that was over. He sees the country, I think, as little more than a bloody big council. He struck me as a winger; a conman who somehow managed to swindle his way into the country's top job. He knows he doesn't really belong at No 10, but he'll pop the champagne anyway and do his best to shuffle through. Our American friends have been here before. Hail to the thief.

Brown made his way to Buck House in a blue Daimler. Cameron was in a silver Jaguar. Am I alone in finding this vehicular choice a little insidious? They're very similar cars, yet the Daimler has always borne a sedate, British, gentlemanly distinction... while the Jag seems representative of either East End gangsters or the 1960s cop cars that chase after them. And the silver paintwork is synonymous of the garish USAF Mustang fighter planes of WW2 - rather more gung-ho than the Spitfires and Hurricanes in their camouflage colours.

Brown retired from the hot seat with great decorum and dignity. Cameron came swaggering in with just a little too much pride in himself. Luckily, perhaps, we all know what pride comes before.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Annexe

Cartwright, Mackey, 'Chalkie' White, Pearson, 'Bummer' Bob Staddon and other teachers (whose names I stand little chance of remembering) would always do their best to impress the same notion onto all of us Hele's School boys: that the years we spent in their classrooms would be the happiest of our lives.

Of course, as rebellious urchins with snot-stained blazer sleeves, scuffed shoes and heads full of mischief, we would never accept such a fanciful notion. And, a few heart-warming episodes aside, I still don't. I think the best years came later. But I have a certain fondness for these formative times - and I still recall some of the more enjoyable details as well as the moral lessons I learned way back then.

The first two years of 'big school' were spent on a semi-derelict former POW camp on the edge of the city of Exeter. I was in form 22B in 1976, aged 12. It evolved into 32B after a year. Our first home-base was a once-portable temporary wood cabin in a square of grass between the more permanent 1940s brick blocks on the old military barracks. All of these huts surrounded in a typically random arrangement (to confuse would-be Luftwaffe pattern bombers) a large quad, where we would run around, play football or terrorise each other with tales of invading fourth or fifth form bullies.

At lunchtimes and breaks, a few pence could be made through a rudimentary shove ha'penny game, up against the wall of the block where Cartwright took woodwork. And once a week or so, all these pennies could be blown at the Tuck Shop, or Chalkie White's stamp auctions.

We had a school hall which abutted onto a canteen where paper dinner tokens pinched off a roll like bus tickets were exchanged for meals on small plastic plates, laid out on semi-hexagonal, yellow formica-topped tables. We had a metalwork room that smelled of oil and allegedly had a wild mouse in residence, and there were a couple of science blocks where we frequently ran amok with stolen chemicals. Away from the main drag was a music room where inappropriate records with naughty words were brought in to spin on the cumbersome school gramophone whenever Chalkie couldn't be arsed to try to teach us anything.

We behaved horrendously around our science teacher, Mr Urry, who drove a three-wheeler car and had not even the slenderest inkling of how to control us. Poor sod. And we were constantly reminded by one particular teacher - I don't remember his name but can picture him now, plain as day - that there were kids in Papua New Guinea who would 'cut off their right hands' (his words) for a chance of the sort of education which we were permanently so flippant about. Well, whoopee doo...

I remember my first (and last) after-school detention, but I don't remember what it was for. I remember getting into HUGE trouble for stealing exercise books and other bits and pieces, and I remember the alternating piping hot/ice cold showers in the grit-covered games block next to the quad.

Once I'd left, I never expected to ever have cause to return. But for shits and giggles I went back to the annexe a few years ago and took a cautionary look around. The site, under development according to a large wooden sign, was fenced off from the roadside but I was able to crawl through a gap in the hedge, a 40-something intruder with no plausible alibi if I were to be nicked by security. The whole place was protected by guard dogs, according to the warning sign, but once through the hedge I could see or hear none. And I could see or hear nothing particularly worth protecting, either.

All the brick-block buildings had already been torn down to their foundations. Grass and even a few young trees were growing in tufts through wide chasms in the long-abandoned concrete floor of what had been the school hall. With a little effort, I was able to work out my old routes from science block to English class... past the pathway where I was (quite justifiably) given a bloodied nose in front of a gaggle of 20 or so baying boys by Paul Hooper in 1976. I'd called him a 'turd'. Sorry Paul.

I found deep track marks where 22B's home classroom had once stood, and recalled setting off a load of fireworks there (brought back from family hols in Sweden). I walked up and down steps to a maths block that I'd last walked up and down 30 or so years before - with the obvious difference that these now went nowhere. And I identified the path to the gateway towards the main road, which led to Top Field, down Wood Water Lane and to my home - where in the 1970s my dad would have been waiting in his armchair, having finished his super-early shift delivering bread, to hear my adventures or misadventures of the day.

I also found part of the floor of the shower block with broken water pipes still sticking out of the drains like a mini ground zero; a perverse shrine to bad, bad rugby matches on turf which seemed to always be intercut with razor-sharp granules of sand. Not good on the knees. I picked up a piece of floor tiling and twisted it between my fingers, letting boyhood feelings, memories and ghostly voices slip through the decades towards me. I stood in the quad and had a good look around, feeling guilty and a little angry with myself for getting so nostalgic and almost tearful. "They're just the remains of buildings," I sort of reassured myself. "What am I thinking? That this place should be kept as a permanent memorial to my youth, just in case I one day want to have another look around? Ha."

I put the tile fragment on the dashboard of my car and drove away. The annexe has since been completely remodelled into housing blocks and bears zero resemblance to its past life. I caught it just before it completely lost its shape. In time, the souvenir shard of tile that I took back with me to London disappeared somewhere too - as all keepsakes must, eventually. It's time to say goodbye to the old Annexe. Goodbye.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Last Stop: This Town

The Thames. Its clippers, the Victorian bridge lit by street lamps, moonlight and Venus. The voices of drinkers and foreign students drifting upwards towards the modern skyscrapers and wharves. London at night, beside the river, is so beautiful it gives me a huge ache inside.

I find it easy to picture my soul released and flying over this fairytale scene, on its last stop to this town, delighting in the hubbub while mourning each passing second of its final flight a few metres above the lapping waves.

I am invisible. As I rise gently through the air the drinkers keep drinking, the tourists keep tourist-ing. They are unaware that a life snuffed-out is singing its swansong above their heads. What a beautiful way to go!

I so hope that this is the way we all get to leave the party. Dramatically, quietly and in a special and personal way. Like holidaymakers at the end of a season, packing bags and heading for home after an exhilarating trip to sunny climes, richer from the experience. How tantalising it is to dream that a surreal final fly-past could be waiting at the end of it all. And how preferable to the gloomy reality. Box. Earth. Fire.

What a shame, though! To have to say goodbye to all this, for all eternity. How great it would be to pop in, from time to time, to check in on this ever-evolving planet. Perhaps we do. In the meantime, I try to appreciate it for what it is - but in so doing I am forced to also accept that one day my carnival will be over. Sooner or later, it will be time to shuffle off. No lingering goodbyes, no postcards, no 'phone calls. Just goodnight Irene. And thanks for all the shoes.

Living in and for the moment is the best that one can hope for. And what a blessing it must be to be able to fully appreciate that.