Saturday, October 27, 2012

Doors Open by Ian Rankin (Orion 2008)

Mike saw it happen. There were two doors next to one another. One of them seemed to be permanently ajar by about an inch, except when someone pushed at its neighbour. As each liveried waiter brought trays of canapés into the salesroom, the effect was the same. One door would swing open, and the other would slowly close. It said a lot about the quality of the paintings, Mike thought, that he was paying more attention to a pair of doors. But he knew he was wrong: it was saying nothing about the actual artworks on display, and everything about him.

Mike Mackenzie was thirty-seven years old, rich and bored. According to the business pages of various newspapers, he remained a “self-made software “mogul’, except that he was no longer a mogul of anything. His company had been sold outright to a venture capital consortium. Rumour had it that he was a burn-out, and maybe he was. He’d started the software business fresh from university with a friend called Gerry Pearson. Gerry had been the real brains of the operation, a genius programmer, but shy with it, so that Mike quickly became the public face of the company. After the sale, they’d split the proceeds fifty-fifty and Gerry then surprised Mike by announcing that he was off to start a new life in Sydney. His emails from Australia extolled the virtues of nightclubs, city life and surfing (and not, for once, the computer kind). He would also send Mike JPEGs and mobile-phone snaps of the ladies he encountered along the way. The quiet, reserved Gerry of old had disappeared, replaced by a rambunctious playboy—which didn’t stop Mike from feeling like a bit of a fraud. He knew that without Gerry, he’d have failed to make the grade in his chosen field.

Friday, October 26, 2012

To Glasgow and back: the view from the road by Ian Walker (New Society 21 May 1981)

To Glasgow and back: the view from the road
 Ian Walker talked to the out-of-work, the students and the lorry men. Daniel Meadows took the pictures
The road begins at Brent Cross, gateway to the M1. Five people have got lifts in the last hour. There are twelve of us still waiting, this windy Monday. Mostly they are students. But there are two down-and-outs who say they don't mind where they go. One of them bums a cigarette off me. He says he left a whole carton on a French truck last night and now he's clean out.

A tall thin boy walks up to ask if I would mind him hitching in front of me? He is going back home to Sheffield after a weekend spent camping in the New Forest, an extended interview for a job as courier on a big camp site in the south of France. He has been out of work since Christmas. He says it's bad in Sheffield. And it rained a lot in the New Forest.

He worked in a travel agent's for two years. He learnt to speak French by listening to French radio stations, taping the news broadcasts and learning them off by heart. If he gest a left, he says, he'll ask if the driver will take me, too. I say I'll do the same.

A police Range-Rover pulls up, and we are all told to move down from the hard shoulder. This happens every 20 minutes or so. We pick up our bags and walk down to stand in a cluster right on the edge of the roundabout. When the police have gone, we walk back up again.

I've been here now an hour and a half. A red BMW stops for the boy from Sheffield and, after a ten-second conversation, he beckons me over. The driver, a fruit farmer from Kent, is going to Leeds and he can drop me at Watford gap services. I get in the back seat.

The fruit farmer has to be at Leeds market at five tomorrow morning. He hasn't got anything to sell, but he's going to chat up a few of the wholesalers who will maybe put a bit of business his way. The recession, he goes on, has hit the fruit business. He used to sell a lot of strawberries to Germany, but now the pound is so weak against the mark it just isn't worth the effort. He's avoided laying off any staff so far. He is, he tells us, a great believer in expansion.

It starts raining hard about ten miles from Watford Gap, by which time I know that the fruit farmer's daughter is doing sciences at Oxford, that he knows the editor of the Telegraph, that he is a governor of Wye College (the agricultural branch of London University down in Kent), and that he is very concerned about the cuts in higher education. The BMW drops me right outside the service station cafe.

"Is your back still playing up, love?" one of the cleaners inquires of another, moppig the floor here in the cafe. Travellers sit silent on the wet-look blue seats, and look out of the window at the premature grey afternoon. I walk out, past the exclamations of the Space Invaders, and find another cafe, for transport workers, round the back. Here they serve the tea in mugs, and with two spoons of sugar, unless you speak up fast.

Paul Smith, a truck driver from Bristol, is depressed. He flicks through the Sun, the Mirror and the Star in turn. "It's my birthday and my wedding anniversary today," he says. "You picked a good time to talk to me. I was just sitting about and trying to read these papers, and wondering what she's thinking."

He said goodbye to his wife and three children this morning at 4.15, and drove from Bristol to London, where he had to start work at eight. Paul only gets home at weekends. During the week he sleeps either in the cab, or in his London digs. Today he has to pick up a load in Northampton and drive it to Carlisle. He'll finish tonight at around nine.

"Thirty seven today," he says.

I talk to Paul for almost two hours. He always wanted to be a journalist when he was at school. He went to see the editor of the local paper, who told him to go away and write a composition.

"I wrote this fabulous composition on football, 'A Day at the Match.' I didn't hear anything; then a month later, it was the day we were moving house, a letter came saying. 'You got the job.' The old man wouldn't have it, wouldn't let me take the job. 'You're not stopping,' he said. I was 16 and this was 21 years ago. Wasn't the thing to leave home young. Time I did leave home I was 21. I needed a job, and I didn't have any qualifications. Here I am. A lorry driver. I get very angry when I think about it now."

He goes up for his second mug of tea, comes back, offers me a Woodbine. "I was talking about this with a bloke the other day," he says. "I mean I did English GCE, used to be great with pen and paper. But now . . . Other day I had to write a letter to a firm. Had a job to even put the letter together. I doubt if I write more than three letters a year, and you lose it."

It's getting dark outside, and busier in here. A continuous procession of drivers coming in and having a laugh with the women behind the counter, supping their tea and walking out. I ask Paul if he wants to get back on the road. He says not.

His kids bought him a pair of size eleven training shoes for his birthday. He takes size nine. He runs a hand through his thick brown hair. You got me on a bad day. Do you think I should be home?"

I suppose it would be nice. But these are hard times, and I expect he needs the money. He nods. Without overtime, the money's crap, 80 quid a week, and who can raise a family on that? He needs all the overtime he can get, he says, but there are so many regulations these days. He can only do 60 hours' driving a week; that is a ministry ruling. And not more than 281 miles in any one day.

By January next year, all trucks will have to be fitted with a tachograph (the equivalent of an aircraft's black box). It records time spent driving and idle, speeds kept, total mileage done. Tachographs will replace logbooks, which are too easy to cheat on. To Paul, the tachograph is a mechanical spy. "No trust," he says.

"It's to do with the EEC. Everything's to do with the EEC. Only thing that's not on a par with the EEC is the wages."

Two more teas, 19p a mug: all the drivers hate the motorway services. A big clock hangs from the cafe ceiling. Paul glances at it now and again.

"Where you going?" he asks me.


He winces, and tells ne about the juvenile protection rackets that operate in places like Glasgow and Liverpool. "Kids come up and say they'll look after your cab for a half a quid. If you say no, then you get your tyres slashed and everything. If you hand over the ten bob, it gets looked after okay. If it wasn't so funny, it'd be sad. Kids of nine and ten years of age."

I say I've heard stories, too, about prostitutes who operate on the road.

"I don't bother with 'em. It's as simple as that. On this firm you get sacked for carrying your wife in the cab."

His firm is Laing's, the builders. He drives an artic. "I don't like rigids. Can't drive the bloody things." He says he would like a job "driving continental," but they're few and far between. "The good jobs, there's a waiting list as long as your arm. And the cowboy jobs aren't worth a light anyway."

Paul keeps saying he has to go. It's almost 8 pm. But he carries on talking. He tells me about a bad accident he had once, involving a motorcyclist.

"He locked his front wheel and dived off. They say he was dead before he hit me. But I didn't want to drive then. I packed it in for about a month, looked for another job. But if you haven't got a skill, it's very hard. So I went back to work. You don't forget those sort of things. But it's things that happen. On the road all day. More chance of things happening."

He looks up at the big clock.

"Christ. It's gone eight. I'm stopping here now for something to eat." He returns with sausage, egg and chips. I sit with him till he's done. And then he has to go south, and me north. We shake hands and wish each other luck. I walk out, my hand going into the canvas bag for the M6 sign.

But it's too dark to use it. Drivers can hardly see me, let alone the pathetic sign. Three other men are hitching. Two of them, travelling together, carrying big rucksacks, don't look too friendly. The third works at the Walker's Crisps factory in Leicester. He comes from Luton, but he had to move a few months ago to find work. He's been back home for the weekend to see his parents. He couldn't afford the train.

I get the first lift, at about nine, in a rigid truck. I avoid the eyes of the other hitchers on the way out. This driver is short and fat and embittered. "Were those two blokes hitching together?" he asks me. I say they were.

"Fucking comedians."

Everyone on the road, apart from himself, is a "fucking comedian." He uses the phrase a dozen times in the first ten minutes. It's pouring with rain, and the "fucking wind" is blowing us all over the lanes like a bit of paper. The short fat driver from Woburn Sands, who hates driving nights and hates this stretch of the M6, bounces up and down in his seat, wrestling with the non-power-assisted steering.

It's an old truck. You have to shout to make yourself heard above the din of the engine and the trad folk music on Radio Two and the tea-making Primus rattling in the glove compartment. The Primus belongs to his mate, the driver says, who is "too fucking mean to buy his tea." He tells me to stuff a rag in there to muffle the noise.

He has to drop his load of rubber windscreen parts in Liverpool, doss down in the cab for a few hours, and drive home early tomorrow morning. He takes home 88 a week. I ask him what he thought of the budget?

"Not a fucking lot."

His head is already nodding a bit. He says he got no sleep today and watched the late film on TV. So I have to keep him talking. Hobbies? Crown-green bowling and darts and reading, he says. Reading what?

"Every fucking thing. Got millions of fucking books."

Unaccompanied warblings on Radio Two about tragic love and war and bright spring mornings. A strange soundtrack to this bumpy grind along a windswept M6 at night.

About ten miles before Sandbach in Cheshire, the driver suddenly looks almost content. "This is how I like the motorway," he says. "Nothing in front and nothing behind either."

At 9.45 in the Roadchef cafe, Sandbach services, 20 truck drivers sit watching a repeat of The Sweeney. It's a bad night for hitching now. I try it for ten minutes then call up an uncle who lives in nearby Congleton. He works as a rep for BP. He comes over to pick me up. At his home we drink half a bottle of scotch. We talk about the Social Democrats and nuclear war.

Day two

A nightmare. Get back to Sandbach at 10 am. Wander round the car park, trying to get a lift. A truck driver sits reading the Sun in his cab. I rap on his door, and shout that I'd like a quick chat. He stares at me pityingly, then a minute or so later he slides across his seat and slowly winds down the window. "Nothing left to say," he says, winding the window back up and returning to the Sun. It starts raining. I go inside, and gets a 28p cup of coffee.

I wait an hour and a half, thumb hanging out, till a lorry driver from West Bromwich pulls up. He is going to Bury to get loaded with Ford parts. He can take me as far as Knutsford, the next services up the M6. Anything for a change of scenery.

A big man with a big beard, this driver looks like a rock climber. He's been driving over 20 years, and he's had this Atkinson truck (he calls it "an Akky") for three. It's a modern cab. Sprung seats and large wrap-around windows.

"The British lorries only started getting comfortable, with decent seats and power steering, when the continentals came in, the Scanias and the Volvos and everything. If they hadn't, I'm sure British lorries would be the same as they always were. Cold and uncomfortable."

He asks me where I'm bound. I tell him. "I used to do the Scotland run twice a week," he says. "Very tedious." He tugs on his beard, his eyes swivelling from road to wing mirrors and back.

Knutsford is desolate. On a sunny day it's ugly enough. This grey Tuesday lunchtime I walk across the litter-strewn car park and join the ten other hitchers, who all look glazed, as if they've been standing here a week. I get my pitch, in front of the Fiat billboard, shiny and red. HANDBUILT BY ROBOTS.

A Rolls-Royce glides past, and the glazing breaks for a moment as the hitchers turn to smile at each other. Every hitchhiker has heard "The Day I Got a Lift in a Rolls" story. Not this time.

A man in a tartan scarf, carrying a red guitar case and a rucksack, arrives after an hour. He's a mature student at Kent University, and he is on a visit to his home in Glasgow. Kent has gone right downhill, he says. They've even got British Movement skinheads on the campus. And the union is dominated by the Federation of Conservative Students. "I don't go to student union meetings any more. Waste of time."

After two hours of thumbing, I need a break. The Quasar and Astro Wars machines are right there in the middle of the self-service. Ping. Crash. Shakooh. Pish. A fat middle-aged couple tuck into their microwave pizzas, beans and chips. Girls in white Top Rank dungarees and caps rush round clearing the formica tables.

Back on the road, the only people getting lifts are those men carrying red-and-white tradeplates. They deliver new cars. The deal is that they buy the truck drivers a meal. Or something. It's starting to get dark. I've been here four hours. The sweet smell of diesel, as the trucks rev up down the slip road, has got almost pleasant.

The boy who slouches across the car park to the slip road has scared eyes and carries no possessions. He looked about 15. He's wearing a dirty blue anorak. I try talking to him, but he runs off. I remember Paul Smith, at Watford Gap, telling me about kids you got on the road these days. They just live on the motorway, not going anywhere in particular. Bumming coffee, meals and cigarettes from the drivers. Paul said he'd given one of them a lift just last week.

A blue Transit, with a TRUCKS ARE BEAUTIFUL windscreen sticker, sweeps past. The Glaswegian student says he's had enough. He's going to cross over to the other side of the M6, try and get back to Sandbach services, and then see if he can catch a lift going up north from there. He says if either of us ever make it to Glasgow, he'll see me at a pub on North Street called the Bonne Accorde.

Half an hour later, a buddhist monk stops. But he's not going my way. I have been here nearly five hours when I get out of wretched Knutsford in a beaten-up Cortina. The driver is a Manchester University student, on his way home to Wigan after a job interview with a firm of financial investigators based in Yeovil. "Nice place to work," he says brightly.

He thinks the interview went pretty well, and the starting pay is six thousand something, so he's pretty pleased about it all. He used to be a regular at the Wigan Casino northern soul all-nighter. We talk about northern soul for the half hour or so it takes to get to Charnock Richard services, near Lancaster, where a big coach party of suntanned schoolchildren are all nicking stuff from the shop, and flirting with each other.

I get sausage, egg and chips in the transport cafe, and sit reading Truck magazine, which is a flashily designed job packed with full-colour pics of masculine new trucks.

Charnock Richard at 9 pm. I've been on the road all day, and so far I've travelled two service stations up the motorway, about 40 miles. There are a few other people wandering round the dark car parks, who look like hitch-hikers, wearing backpacks. But they don't seem to be bothering to try and hitch.

After ten minutes I'm joined by a British Rail guard called Justin, who works in Stratford-on-Avon and is going up to see his parents in Kendal. I thought British Rail staff got free travel?

"They do. But I lost my pass."

Justin wears John Lennon spectacles and baggy frayed jeans. He has a red star on a circular badge pinned to his navy greatcoat. It is a poorly-lit slip road. Drivers can hardly see us, and we can't see inside the vehicles either. But Justin can't understand why the truck drivers parked right next to us, who've watched us waiting here 20 minutes, don't take pity on us.

Finally, we both get a lift in a white Transit, driven by two students, who say they've just been down to the midlands and bought this van for 3,000 for Sunderland students. Their story sounds a bit odd. I say they can drop me at Buton West services, and five minutes later Justin says he'll get dropped there, too. When we get out, he says he didn't fancy being on his own with those two. You develop an instinct, or a paranoia, about these things when you're hitching, particularly at nighttime. 

"I never said it was scampi," says the woman behind the counter, in the small cafe at Buton West, just before Kendal. "I said it was like scampis. I don't know. I'm not sure what scampis are." The man taking his food back must be some kind of nut, to expect scampi in a late-night motorway cafe. Justin goes off to phone his mother.

Justin's mother was fed up, he says. She's watching When the Boat Comes In. She told him to try hitching for half an hour, and she'd come out if he had no luck. "It's pretty rainy and empty out there," he says. We have another coffee.

Two truck drivers sit talking on the next table. I ask if either of them are going to Scotland. "I've broken down, And he's finished for the night," the Cockney driver says, winking at his mate as he gets up to go. A French couple come in, and the serving woman speaks to them slow and loud. Blobs of rain are dripping down the windows, blurring the headlights.

Justin says he has been working on the railways for two years now, and he's had enough. He was very excited, he says, when he was made NUR branch secretary. But it was depressing because no one ever showed up to meetings. He thinks he might go to college, and try to get some A levels. I get a lift into Kendal with his mother, who runs an antique shop, and check into a hotel. I get a drink in the cocktail bar.

A Geordie businessman expounds his theory of life. "Only one reason I work. Is that." He rubs his thumb on his index finger to indicate money. "That's all there is, isn't there? It'd be a great society of it wasn't. But it will never be. So why bother?" The businessmen at the bar nod in stolid agreement, and pull on their pints. 
21 May 1981

The second part of Ian Walker's journey to Glasgow and back will appear next week

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Under Contract by Liza Cody (Charles Scribner's Sons 1986)

"Think of the overtime. I dunno," Anna sighed, "why does everyone slag everyone off so much? I've never come across such a slagging match."

"You've never been security on one of these tours before, have you?" Dave looked down his nose at her. "You'll learn. It's because there's a lot of vultures on only the one carcass - not enough to go round and everyone's hungry."

There was some truth in that, she mused on her reluctant way back to the dressing rooms. Only who were the vultures and what was the carcass? Fame and fortune was the simple answer. But what about Shona who had achieved it? She had stood in front of thousands of screaming, applauding fans and yet she still needed Anna's few distracted words. And now the fans themselves needed to be noticed. Look at me, look at me, no - look at me, seemed to be the cry in every throat. I could look like that if I had the right make-up . . . I could do that, if only someone'd notice me. Fame and fortune were only by-products in the universal need to be seen.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (Penguin Books 2009)

When Ros stopped by to find out whether they’d made any progress with the photographs, Annie still had the website up on her computer.

“Tucker Crowe,” said Ros. “Wow. My college boyfriend used to like him,” she said. “I didn’t know he was still going.”

“He’s not, really. You had a college boyfriend?”

“Yes. He was gay, too, it turned out. Can’t imagine why we broke up. But I don’t understand: Tucker Crowe has his own website?”

“Everyone has their own website.”

“Is that true?”

“I think so. Nobody gets forgotten anymore. Seven fans in Australia team up with three Canadians, nine Brits and a couple of dozen Americans, and somebody who hasn’t recorded in twenty years gets talked about every day. It’s what the Internet’s for. That and pornography. Do you want to know which songs he played in Portland, Oregon, in 1985?”

“Not really.”

“Then this website isn’t for you.”

“How come you know so much about it? Are you one of the nine Brits?”

“No. There are no women who bother. My, you know, Duncan is.”

What was she supposed to call him? Not being married to him was becoming every bit as irritating as she imagined marriage to him might be. She wasn’t going to call him her boyfriend. He was forty-something, for God’s sake. Partner? Life partner? Friend? None of these words and phrases seemed adequately to define their relationship, an inadequacy particularly poignant when it came to the word “friend.” And she hated it when people just launched in and started talking about Peter or Jane when you had no idea who Peter and Jane were. Perhaps she just wouldn’t ever mention him at all.

“And he’s just written a million words of gibberish and posted them up for the world to see. If the world were interested, that is.”

She invited Ros to inspect Duncan’s piece, and Ros read the first few lines.

“Aaah. Sweet.”

Annie made a face.

“Don’t knock people with passions,” said Ros. “Especially passions for the arts. They’re always the most interesting people.”

Everyone had succumbed to that particular myth, it seemed.

“Right. Next time you’re in the West End, go and hang out by the stage door of a theater showing a musical and make friends with one of those sad bastards waiting for an autograph. See how interesting you find them.”

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Crying Out Loud by Cath Staincliffe (Severn House Publishers 2011)

Strangeways is just north of the city centre, a couple of minutes’ drive from Victoria train station. The tall watchtower is Italianate in style, a landmark I could see as I drove closer. It’s a familiar feature of the city skyline. The building is Victorian Gothic – red and cream brick, and the main entrance boasts two rounded towers and steeply pitched roofs. The prison was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the same man who had done Manchester’s town hall. Strangeways is a panopticon design: the wings run off from the central vantage point – like spokes from a wheel.

They don’t actually call it Strangeways any more; it was renamed HMP Manchester in the wake of the riots that destroyed most of the original buildings. The worst riots in the history of the penal system. On April Fool’s Day, 1990 it all kicked off. A group of prisoners had decided to accelerate their protest against inhuman conditions: the rotten food, men held three to a cell (cells twelve foot by eight and built for one), the degrading business of slopping out, the lack of visits, of free association, the racism and brutality of many guards. The ringleader, Paul Taylor, spoke after Sunday morning’s chapel service and when guards intervened, the prisoners got hold of some keys. Taylor escorted the chaplain to safety and then declared it was time for some free association. It lasted for twenty-five days. The leaders of the riot spent much of the time up on the high rooftops, communicating with the press and waving clenched fists for the photographers on board the helicopters swooping above them. Iconic images.

I remember the sense of dread and panic as the early reports came in: stories of prisoners being torn apart, of twenty dead, of people burnt alive, of hundreds of inmates breaking into the segregation unit where the paedophiles and informers were held, hauling them into kangaroo courts where summary justice was doled out, victims castrated and dismembered in orgies of operatic violence. The men on the roof had hung out a home-made banner: a sheet with the words No Dead daubed on it. Among the clamour of moral outrage and lurid speculation one or two more measured accounts were heard; the local journalists built up a rapport with the protesters and made every effort to give an accurate account of events. There was great sympathy for the prisoners’ cause in the city and beyond. And the eventual truth was that two men had died. Both in hospital, not in the prison: a prison warder who had suffered a heart attack and a man on remand for sex offences who had been beaten. No one ever stood trial in either case. The prison was effectively destroyed and when it was rebuilt along with the new name there was a change in conditions.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Ghost by Robert Harris (Simon & Schuster 2007)

I opened the envelope and took out the photocopies of Lang’s membership card and the articles about the London elections. I slid them across to her. She crossed her legs at the ankles, leaned forward to read, and I found myself staring into the surprisingly deep and shadowy valley of her cleavage.

“Well, there’s no arguing with that,” she said, putting the membership card to one side. “That’s his signature, all right.” She tapped the report on the canvassers in 1977. “And I recognize some of these faces. I must have been off that night, or campaigning with a different group. Otherwise I would have been in the picture with him.” She looked up. “What else have you got there?”

There didn’t seem much point in hiding anything, so I passed over the whole package. She inspected the name and address, and then the postmark, and then glanced across at me. “What was Mike up to, then?”

She opened the neck of the envelope and held it apart with her thumb and forefinger, and peered inside cautiously, as if there might be something in the padded interior that could bite her. Then she upended it and tipped the contents out over the table. I watched her intently, as she sorted through the photographs and programs, studied her pale, clever face for any clue as to why this might have been so important to McAra. I saw the hard lines soften as she picked out a photograph of Lang in his striped blazer on a dappled riverbank.

“Oh, look at him,” she said. “Isn’t he pretty?” She held it up next to her cheek.

“Irresistible,” I said.

She inspected the picture more closely. “My God, look at them. Look at his hair. It was another world, wasn’t it? I mean, what was happening while this was being taken? Vietnam. The cold war. The first miners’ strike in Britain since 1926. The military coup in Chile. And what do they do? They get a bottle of champagne and they go punting!”

“I’ll drink to that.”

Monday, October 08, 2012

Maigret at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon (Penguin Books 1931)

When Maigret came back into the kitchen, Monsieur Oscar was ostentatiously rubbing his hands.

‘You know, I must say that I’m enjoying this… Because I know the ropes, of course. Something happens at the crossroads …There are only three sets of people living here… Naturally you suspect all three… Yes, you do! Don’t play the innocent… I saw straight away that you didn’t trust me and that you weren’t keen on having a drink with me… Three houses… The insurance agent looks too stupid to be capable of committing a crime… The lord of the manor is a real gent…So there’s nobody left but yours truly, a poor devil of a workman who’s managed to become his own boss but doesn’t know how to behave in polite society… A former boxer!… If you ask them about me at the Police Headquarters, they’ll tell you that I’ve been picked up two or three times in raids, because I used to enjoy going to the rue de Lappe to dance a Java, especially in the days when I was a boxer… Another time I gave a poke in the kisser to a copper who was annoying me…Bottoms up, Chief-Inspector!’

‘No, thanks.’

‘You aren’t going to refuse! A blackcurrant liqueur never hurt anybody… You know, I like to put my cards on the table… It got on my nerves seeing you snooping round my garage and looking at me on the sly… That’s right isn’t it, ducks? Didn’t I say as much to you last night?… The Chief-Inspector’s there! Well, let him come in! Let him rummage around all over the place!… Let him search me! And then he’ll have to admit that I’m a good chap as honest as the day is long… What fascinates me about this story is the motors… Because when all’s said and done, it’s all a matter of motors…’

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Pet Shop Boys, Literally by Chris Heath (Da Capo Press 1990)

Someone mentions the reviews. Neil says it was stupid to invite the press to an added, unsold-out show. 'They all had to gleefully mention it wasn't full, but no matter. It was a major PR mistake but to be honest,' he laughs, 'tough bananas.'

'A lot of people went home very happy and that's what counts,' says Carroll. 'It's very expensive. They make a choice sometimes between buying the tickets and paying their bills. It's a great honour.'

This is said with such honesty and feeling that you can sense everyone present drawing breath, taking stock, storing this away.

Neil reflects on the Daily Telegraph's comments. 'It was written from Olympian heights. It was so patronizing. They're jealous. And of course the reason is because I'm a journalist . . .'

'Tossbag,' mutters Danny, succinctly.

Carroll begins once more. She says that these people are stupid, that they've no idea why people do these things. They're always looking for stupid motives. 'They think you do it for the money or something. The reasons are obvious,' she declares. 'You do it for entertainment and self-expression.'

This statement, casually tossed out to a half-drunk, back-of-the-bus rabble, makes a lasting impression.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Maigret and the Yellow Dog by Georges Simenon (Harcourt Brace 1931)

“Yes. We have to go around the harbor. It should take half an hour.”

The fishermen were less interested than the townsfolk in the drama going on around the Admiral Café. A dozen boats were making the most of the lull in the storm and sculling out to the harbor mouth to pick up the wind.

The policeman kept looking at Maigret like a pupil eager to please his teacher. “You know, the mayor played cards with the doctor at least twice a week. This must have given him a shock.”

“What are people saying?”

“That depends. Ordinary folks—workers, fishermen aren’t too upset… In a way, they’re even kind of glad about what’s happening. The doctor, Monsieur Le Pommeret, and Monsieur Servières aren’t very well thought of around here. Of course, they’re important people, and nobody would dare say anything to them. Still, they overdid it, corrupting the girls from the cannery. And in the summer it was worse, with their Paris friends. They were always drinking, making a racket in the streets at two in the morning, as if the town belonged to them. We got a lot of complaints. Especially about Monsieur Le Pommeret, who couldn’t see anything in a skirt without getting carried away… It’s sad to say, but things are slow at the cannery. There’s a lot of unemployment. So, if you’ve got a little money… all those girls…”

“Well, in that case, who’s upset?”

“The middle class. And the businessmen who rubbed shoulders with that bunch at the Admiral Café… That was like the center of town, you know. Even the mayor went there…”

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Favourite quote of yesterday . . .

A day late but worth taking the blog out of the mothballs for:

"So Ed Miliband wants a return to the ideas of an influential mid-Victorian political thinker, based in London in the 1840s, who came from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity? OK, but at least he could pick the right one ..."

Dave O over at Facebook reflecting on Ed Miliband's Labour Conference speech yesterday when Red Ed invoked the spirit of Disraeli's One Nation Toryism (in all but name).


Dave O expands on his pithy comment in a blog post here.

Back for Good

Just drenched the computer screen with spittle after reading this.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Old Dark House by J. B. Priestley (Harper and Brothers Publishers 1928)

'Why, am I bitter?'

'I think you are,' she told him. She appealed to the Wavertons.

'I know what you mean,' said Margaret. 'It's not perhaps the exact word but it will do.' Then she addressed herself to Penderel: 'Yes, you are bitter, you know.'

'Of course you are, Penderel,' said Philip heartily. 'You're one of the worst post-War cases I know, a thundering sight worse than I am. Come on, admit it. You're the sort of bloke they denounce in little talks in Bright Sunday Evening Services.' He grinned and pointed his pipe stem across the table. 'Stand up to your question and explain the wormwood.'

Penderel made a little comical grimace. 'Well, I never knew I was so obvious. I suppose I shall have to explain myself. I went into the War when I was seventeen, ran away from school to do it, enlisting as a Tommy and telling them I was nineteen. I'm not going to talk about the War. You know all about that. It killed my father, who died from over-work. It killed my elder brother, Jim, who was blown to pieces up at Passchendaele. He was the best fellow in the world, and I idolised him. It was always fellows like him, the salt of the earth, who got done in, whether they were British or French or German or American. People wonder what's the matter with the world these days. They forget that all the best fellows, the men who'd have been in their prime now, who'd have been giving us a lead in everything, are dead. If you could bring 'em all back, fellows like Jim, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of 'em, you'd soon see the difference they'd make in the place. But they're dead, and a lot of other people, very different sort of people, are alive and kicking. Well, I saw all this, took an honours course in it, you might say, for it was the only education I got after the fifth form.