As I am writing, a dragonfly is hovering nearby; alternatively, it could be a very small, very quiet drone, which is more likely given the location: Park Royal industrial estate, where I’m sitting by the Grand Union Canal, waiting for my car to be mended (it’s broken). London parks are thick with men and these ultimate boys-toys, practising their manoeuvres. My ambition is to bring one down with the dogs’ ball-chucker.
I was shocked to find that John Lewis offers over 20 different kinds of drone for sale on their website: what is happening? This just doesn’t fit with the stereotype of the typical JL customer: instead of whiling away the weekend with Crispin & Mollie, (re-arranging alphabet fridge magnets, so that solving anagrams in the Guardian Crossword can later be outsourced to the children), they have apparently turned to crime, retailing cell-phones, drugs and porn to underprivileged prisoners in Holloway and The Scrubs. You may wonder where they find the time: though now that shopping has been devolved to Ocado, a whole time-vacuum has opened up, which nature abhors, as we know. They would be well-advised to handle their pesky little machines with rubber gloves: DNA gives ownership proof-positive, and when the little choppers come home to roost, their location is highlighted like GPS.
The Canal is lovely in a sleazy way. It’s polluted, of course, so it would be a stomach-pump job if you fell in, but most of it seems to be scummy green stuff, so it’s nature’s effluent, not ours. Canals are very peaceful places, the water is still, but not that deep, so not that profound or unfathomable. Although I love driving I loathe traffic congestion and the canals present (in theory) this wonderful escape route from the cities: the liquid version of Joni Mitchell’s frozen River, that she could ‘skate away on’. They are out of sight, most of the time, and something like a strip of countryside that penetrates the cities, surviving the surrounding concrete like moss between paving stones.
25 years ago I was on the brink of buying a narrow-boat, but pulled out of the deal when a bizarre but attractive alternative appeared, that didn’t involve emptying lavatory buckets or navigating locks. More fool me. It was a beautiful boat, dark blue, fully wood-panelled inside, with a wood-burning stove, and appropriately moored near The Narrow Boat pub in Islington. It was called Ceres (either after the mythological goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships; or the dwarf planet of the same name, with the magic mountain that UFO-watchers believe to be home to ET-like creatures. They may visit us (again?) but don’t hold your breath. But there’s an equally plausible option - that the young John McEnroe, a keen amateur astronomer, had great difficulty in locating the planet with his telescope, even though it is the largest in the asteroid belt, and was frequently heard to say “You cannot be Ceres”. Sorry.
The USP, the touch of magic which should have been the clincher on the boat-deal, was the bedroom: two neat doors opened off the main cabin to reveal a bed which occupied the whole space where the sides of the boat ran forward and came together in the bow. It was the shape of a bishop’s mitre; it was heavenly. And it had one porthole on either side, brass-rimmed, aged but shiny which threw light onto the bed like stage lighting in a very small theatre. At this time I was still labouring under the naïve misapprehension that when Ella Fitzgerald sang “With a Song in my Heart’ she sang “Heaven opens its portholes to me”. Who’d ever heard of portals, then? I felt this boat was made for me....
Fifteen minutes from work, by bike, along the towpath into Regent’s Park; 15 minutes from Finsbury Park and my children and friends there. And the price: £14000, probably around a quarter of what a one-bedroom flat would cost in N4, then. This was truly a gift horse which did not need further oral inspection.
It’s an ill wind: the boat would now be worth about £40k. The flat that I ultimately bought instead doubled its value in 4 years and provided about half the capital to buy the family house I still occupy, which in turn has more than doubled its value in 10 years. These are ridiculous figures, the more unlikely in light of the fact that around that time, I was starting again from a financial Ground Zero: I had just been relieved of 70% of my assets overnight in a robbery (disguised as a divorce case)which would have made Dick Turpin proud , and actually spent a couple of nights sleeping in my car, though not very well. Oh yes, and the 30% that was left of mine was unusable: it lived in the house that I had bought and housed the family, and could not be redeemed until the children completed their (disguised as a divorce case) education, full-time however many years hence.
My secondary school headmaster, Dr J H Walters, a saintly man who appeared to glide along the corridors like a hovercraft as his academic gown completely obscured the movement of his legs and feet, told me two things that left a deep impression on me. The first was that he and his wife sat down between Christmas and the New Year, every year, and subtracted from his salary basic living costs, plus the cost of a holiday and one or two treats, like theatre or opera, and gave the rest away to charity. This only emerged when I had rather sanctimoniously pressed him for an Oxfam donation. Who had ever thought of doing such a thing? The second was when I considered dropping out of school during A-level years because I had become allergic to the science subjects I was going through the motions of studying: “David,” he said, “it ennobles one to suffer”. I came to conclusion that he had suffered a great deal, somehow, for he was indeed a noble person; and that I was heading for a similar level of nobility given what I felt about my life-threatening levels of suffering at the time. There is no evidence that either of these conclusions were correct.
When we encounter acute suffering, even when it is at one remove and vicarious, we get a better perspective. The last month or so has seen tragedies of almost unprecedented scale at Westminster Bridge/Manchester Arena/London Bridge/Borough Market and now Grenfell Tower and Finsbury Park. They were not quite unimaginable, as some commentators said. Even a glimpse through burning oneself badly, and the disproportionate pain and shock, sample something of what it must be like to perish in fire: some small thing. As a husband and father, it was not very clever of me to douse a damp unlit bonfire in petrol to ignite it. In bending towards it to set it off I produced a near explosion of flame as high as the house, but lost only my eyelashes, eyebrows and the front of my hair. The rush of scorching air is easily brought to mind: I hardly dared look in the mirror in case I had lost my face.
We are used to people framing these outrages in terms of terrorism, religious ideologies, even racism of a kind. What is unusual about Grenfell is framing a catastrophe in terms of social class. Not solely, and given the ethnic mix of North Kensington, scene of the Notting Hill riots in the late 50s, there are other interpretations, but in this country race and social class interact, even correlate. This is not a crude conspiracy theory – or anything like it. It is simply to say that race and relative poverty relegate people to the most neglected and poorly resourced parts of our cities, and that neglect reduce people’s quality of life – in this case to the point of life no more.
How very revealing it is to see how people respond to crises and human events of this magnitude. This is not a political issue, it is a matter of personality. Theresa May behaved so badly this week it was scarcely credible; fear and inhibition held her back from visiting Grenfell, rationalized by security concerns, that the Queen ignored. Stung into action by social media outrage, she visits victims in hospital, snubbing a junior doctor detailed to accompany her, on the way in. Finally visiting Grenfell, she snubs the community, and talks to officials and the emergency services, because these were ‘priorities’. Why not talk to both? Jeremy Corbyn visits the survivors at Grenfell and in hospital, unbidden or pressured by social media, and dispenses unscripted encouragement, hugs, one or two cuddles in his naturally warm and encouraging way. Likewise, in Finsbury Park, within his own constituency, which May scurried to, having had some good PR advice at last. May has always seemed like a ‘cold fish’ but now ‘out of water’, flapping around desperately but with her fate inevitably sealed.
Time flies. As Marx (G) reminds us: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”.
May-flies, on the other hand have a very short lifespan. I wish her no harm, in fact we all wish her a long and happy retirement, if it starts now. This has probably been the worst month of her political life. She should move on before it gets worse. Time’s up. Go now while you still have a little dignity.
The last few weeks has stirred up so many human emotions and qualities: anguish, anger, loss and bereavement, fear & courage, empathy and altruism, unity and solidarity, amongst others. Listening again to Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song' it strikes a chord, not because the words are appropriate but because the music goes backwards and forwards between exultation and despair as those who have lost loved ones must have done when hopes of survival were raised, or extinguished. Somehow the sound of the music catches the prevailing moods:
MISHEARD, MIS-SPELT, OR SIMPLY MISTAKEN
On the Jubilee Line, young woman talking to her mother: “I think Evita was my favourite musical: I never saw it but I loved that theme song “Don’t Cry for me Auntie Tina”
From a plumber (before I did my own) when I queried his French-sounding surname: “Oh yeah, I can trace my ancestry all the way back to Norman the Conqueror…’
At Canary Wharf, changing from The Jubilee to the DLR, asking directions from a policeman:
“Sure, it’s easy, you just go down here and turn sharp left when you come to Prêt Manager”
(Novel promotion? Free CEO with every latte?)