Proud to be British. Hate the BNP.

The view from my bedroom window is quite beautiful this morning: a uniform blue sky, flickering leaves reflecting the milky dawn sun, a warmth despite of the early hour. It’s fate happily allowing candidates and canvassers an early start to the final days before polling day, potentially a day in history for British democracy.

There are few ways to describe how good Preston has grown as a city without sounding like the archetypal Guardian reader. Our covered market has traditional butchers next to Caribbean fruits and Indian spices, while the walk home through town is a journey similar to many living in university cities and places of arrival for immigrants over the generations. Groups of people outside places of worship can be as commonly Catholics outside St Ignatius’ church as they could be Muslims at the copper-domed Mosque on St Paul’s Road. Of course Preston is not a shining example of multiculturalism, but nor is it torn by strife on the verge of Oldham-style race riots. The division between people here is no more unusual than anywhere else you could identify, a fact supporters of the far-right British National Party tend to ignore. In the country occupied by the BNP, every town is as strictly divided as Baghdad.

History shows that the extreme prejudice espoused by the BNP has been rejected by Prestonians at every opportunity. The 2000 parliamentary by-election saw the appearance of their first candidate on a Preston ballot paper. Result – 1.1% of the valid votes cast, “NAZI SCUM” shouted by members of what was then the Socialist Alliance. Local candidates from them and the similarly far-right England First Party have been thrown out without hesitation. This encourages me; the shadows of their policies are dark and frightening and cold.

The BNP do not represent anything like the best intentions of the country. Their party election broadcasts are confused – sounding over-eager to underline how far away they are from racism while underlining their ignorance on asylum and immigration with every assurance to the contrary. Repatriation of “non-Britons” is a recipe for economic disaster, while nothing is said about the cost of forcing hitherto “oppressed” underclass Britons into work. However else you describe their policies, I suppose the BNP clearly want work to set us free.

Nick Griffin, their current leader, wants to stress how much the party have changed, but the truth is not hard to find. Just scratch the skin to find the racism beneath. Candidates for them who find the truth are even asking voters not to vote for them.

The North West region elects on June 4th. There will be eight seats elected, the final most likely to be the tight, close fight between BNP, UKIP, Green, and Liberal Democrat. When all votes are counted across Europe, I hope with all sense and reason that the BNP have been defeated.

My country is a proud island nation, its language formed by immigrants and international influences, its people as accepting of fish ‘n’ chips as lamb bhuna, as likely to sprinkle through their language words from black America or Hindi as they are the Oxford English Dictionary. The United Kingdom is a nation which helped defeat the kind of enemy who slaughtered millions of people, including their own, for reasons of extreme and absolute prejudice and hatred. We can be a nation which defeats such bile again. On June 4th, I hope any other choice is made to help defeat the British National Party. The good of the nation will come from the defeat of their reckless and offensive racism.

It’s a very British revolution

David Cameron has clearly been swotting up on his Liberal Democrat policy documents!

The MPs expenses scandal quite obviously throws open the doors of Westminster with the most foul smell coming out: our elected representatives took what they could “within the rules” without regard to morals or consequences. From so many levels, “consequences”, always the killer. That said, my observations focused on the other hard “c” – “conventions”. For anyone who watches, say, an hour of BBC Parliament without any prior understanding of how Parliament actually conducts business would die from bemusement if boredom does not strike first.

Convention seeped in the system when ideology died. For many years now the British party system has been without much ideology – blame the end of the Cold War, blame the Clinton agenda, blame Tony Blair. What choice exists does so only along the fractured lines of the extremes. On the right, UKIP begot UKFP, BNP begot EFP: on the left, SWP begot RESPECT begot LL begot NO2EU: and students of contemporary politics saw all this, and it was good. The centre ground is really where there is stability but also (quite fittingly in these days of moat cleaning) deep stagnant water. Politics has lost its way; party politics totally so.

Blogs and “citizen journalism” are starting to lead the news agenda in the United Kingdom now, far more than even last year. Guido Fawkes you may know as the blogger who ‘broke’ the Damian McBride email scandal; throughout the expenses scandal, MPs have used their own blogs to comment on, or refute, the claims in the Daily Telegraph. The mainstream media – television especially so – are showing signs of fatigue. Blogs and message boards can continue these stories for months; TV gets fidgety and bored. After ten days BBC and SKY reports pushed MPs expenses down the running order, doubtlessly to ensure viewing figures did not drop further. This is a shame, but proof that newspapers can still command an audience and lead a story; proof too that the Internet can provide far more depth than even television “in the good old days”.

But “citizen journalism” – what is that? Alas some blogs and websites cannot break free from their walled gardens. I fear it will take years before the UK blogosphere has as much power and influence as their US cousins. The whole McBride affair proved that – the Internet has enough slanderous gossip without civil servants having a go.

Two weeks – is it three? – since the beginning of this scandal, and now things are changing. Not in the “Colour Revolution” shown on the news. This is the UK, so things happen slowly, and correctly, and with order, regulation, politeness. Everyone says “sorry” in new and inventive ways. MPs resign or stand down, rather than the continental option of being shot or jailed. Party leaders climb over each other in a desperate race to be seen as the more eager to sort out “the system”, to shake up “convention”. A population remain to be convinced. How we elect our MPs is an important topic for me, I am a geek after all, but one who knows the deep flaws within our system – BUT (and it is a BUT) who I feel as though the focus has been deliberately taken off those MPs whose receipts have yet to be scrutinised? How is an important question, yes, although its asking should perhaps wait.

David Cameron would like more ordinary people to become Conservative MPs – more women, more black or minority ethnic, younger, older, more ginger, less fat. Before you ask, “black or minority ethnic” is not my phrase, it is the current agreed title amongst those who name such labels. Both Cameron and Nick Clegg want to reduce the number of MPs – although the former does not equate larger constituencies with a need for a representative and proportionate voting system. Throughout all this, those on the extremes – the British National Party in particular – enjoy the fruits of the establishment finally proving that money talks in the corridors of power. “Ordinary” people only have one choice, they say, and that is the extreme and prejudiced hatred of the far-right. Sadly it appears the next elections will wake us all up on this judgement. The mainstream “convention” of whipping up fear will be repaid.

“Convention” has to be shaken up. We don’t protest with flag-burning or guns in this country. There will be no Red White Blue Revolution. The Palace will not be stormed. Instead the suits are either stepping down from office or stepping up their rhetoric. “Convention” suggests and indicates. Our leaders were once expected to offer clarity. I cannot predict quite what form of politics will exist this time next year, in the run-up to the 2010 general election; I just hope it runs against all expectation and, importantly, contradicts convention. Britons were renown for their patience and politeness even in the face of establishment piss-taking – the aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997 changed that one assumption. What will completely alter the convention….

6flashbacks : Jamais vu

Mud as a carpet, the excited chatter of birdsong, light scattered through trip switch branches. He strained and stretched from a heavy sleep shaking the biting sparks of pins-and-needles from his hands. Dense quiet surrounded him, the silence preceding the heavy chorus of a storm. In the dissolving instant recollection of dreams faces and voices entwined into silence, uncertainty melting through the certainty.

===

The man who looked like Sean jogged over the three lanes of traffic, raising a hand at the driver who sounded his horn. Sean opened the newsagent door to allow someone pass; the electronic signal meeting the car-horn with opposing pitches. Sean flicked through the stack of magazines and newspapers with non-committal routine. There was a plan in this, a reason, something entered into his mind by the whispered voices of fate and predestination. He smiled an awkward greeting to the squat, balding Indian man sitting behind the counter, who reached to the bottles behind him without turnout around, shrill female voices on a hidden tape-recorder. The man who looked like Sean patted his trouser pockets to feel for the precious papers: Sean bought a lottery ticket

===

You thought it was logic? What the Hell are you talking about?
Can’t you just let me finish, please, honestly…
Oh don’t ‘honestly’, you’re unbelievable
But, please…I thought it made sense, I just…
Don’t say anymore, please, look my Dad is coming
to pick me up and he doesn’t really want to see you, really,
so let me pack and…
I just want to explain!
You have! And you’re talking rubbish, so I’m not listening anymore.

===

Cooksy was confused by the man who looked like Sean boarding a train to Manchester Airport. He tapped out a text message which Sean would never receive, having long since had his mobile phone contract disconnected. The man who looked like Sean flicked through the tickets and papers in his hand, each as valuable as the next.

Sean hated the quiet of his room, the silence amplified by his wariness to breathe too deeply, a childhood fear related to somehow blanking out the sound of growls or sneers from under-the-bed monsters. Held out in the emptiness a translucent frozen image from recent dreams; the pouring of honey-coloured liquid into misshapen bottles, faces from strangers distorted with voices stolen from distant memories. The morning dragged itself like a petulant child desperate to stay away from a parent. Sean padded from his bed to pee, shaking bottles on the way to find one with liquid swishing in the bottom; voices from arguments swam through the chilled air, her voice and his voice, his argument and her reasoning. Honesty and embellishments unbalanced in a failed gamble.

===

Fate inhaled the fumes, sharing the joint and straight whisky with Sean in generous gulps. Sharp claws nipped his skin in the attempted friendly embrace. Warm encouragement in every word, the spiced cinnamon smoke warming the lungs. Love has no definition, said Fate, make of it what you will. She will understand, she will “get it”, you know she will. Sacrifice, the ultimate showcase of devotion. Everything is perfect now, you know that, why ruin everything? Think of this is a greater test of your relationship that anything obvious like another man or moving away or any of that shit. She will understand if this all works out.

Sean caught his reflection in the far mirror. Shirtless, sitting cross-legged, studying the pieces of paper in his hand. His chest had relaxed its muscles and toning, his biceps seemed disproportionate now, inappropriate. Her hands ran across his body, she kissed his neck, asked “Ya’rite?” in the chippy, cheery manner of hers. This was the memory he cherished: the ordinary, the usual. When logic was linear, when thoughts were of love, and devotion, and caring. No games to be played in the twisted uncertainty of love. He swigged another mouthful of whisky, the heat pounding his chest and burning through his thoughts. The piece of paper in front of him was embalmed in heat, flames consuming it without hesitation. Lines drawn from his room into and through the clouds and sky, lines of past and present and future, diverted and diverged, memories wrapped into fantasies, worries into thoughts.

====

Sean, my Dad’s here. You okay?
Yeah, yeah, cheers, just…
Yeah, cool…Well….
I don’t know what to say. Sorry?
Look…I’ll catch you later, I really have to go. You’ve got the numbers
of some people, there’s help out there, Sean.
Thanks…Would you accept “thank you” ?
See you around.

====


Fate watched the dreams and fantasies of a future filter through Sean’s dream. Smashed light of flashbulb memories turned roads into airport runways, faces into distorted masks, sunshine into dark. Noise confused and contrived sucked out the meaning from individual words, the grand cacophony reduced to the hiss of a detuned television at the bottom of a drain. Sean saw reason in the logic, in testing the perfection of his affair. A woman with too little make-up and fading tan called out the first number; “Twenty-three!”. The ticket in Sean’s hand said “32”. Well done, well done, good work, keep going. “Seven! Lucky for some, maybe for you?” Sean’s ticket read “35”. He slugged more drink down his throat, smiled at the dancing, morphing numbers in front of him. Logic was dictating, reason and decision. This made sense; she would accept the clarity in his words. She would have too. They loved each other, he was absolutely sure of that, he would raise a glass to them at any invitation.

===

Sean stumbled out from the woods adjacent to the park. Dawn smeared grey-silver clouds across the sky, reflected in the still river below. He recognised her face, hidden partially behind her hair; she was smiling.

You did sleptwalk, silly.
Ugh, right, what happened?
I saw you though the window, good on me for
not putting curtains up yet.
I could have slept on your sofa!
My Dad…Look, I spotted that copper who knows you,
he kept an eye on things. You okay?
Confused.
You phoned Greg? He’s looking forward to seeing you again.
No I…My mouth is dry, you got any water?
Just water, yea. No mixers, sorry
Harhar. I can’t remember what I drank…I mean…
Don’t worry about it, look, as long as you’re okay…
Are you…?
Yea, yea, I’m fine. Just look after yourself, keep smiling.

====

The man who looked like Sean took of his shirt, sat cross-legged, span the empty bottle in absent minded fidgeting. He caught his reflection in his mirror, his aging body and worn face. A smile stretched the skin, he hated the wobble in the chin. He tapped her letter against his hand; he knew what it would say, there was no point in opening the envelope. Something about the dreams, both real and those drawn in lazy picnics on beaches. Something about the drink, no doubt. Taking too much of a gamble, too many liberties, only so many times you can expect help. The man who looked like Sean took his cigarette lighter to the letter, consumed by the black-silver tiger-stripe skin of heat, eaten by flames. Lines drawn through the histories invented in his deep thoughts crossed and twisted, flew in circles and circled the sky. All the dreams and nightmares had been invented by his imagination, fueled by flame and drink. The man who looked like Sean had lost but he had learned, that was something to concede, he knew that. Gambles rear their head but rarely win.

Love and loss and all that is obvious. I didn’t know what I was doing. Just invented something to be worried about, and took the chance. My head can be held high, the dreams and all that keep it balance, they’re like ballast, I suppose. Here’s to keeping my head high!


The man who looked like Sean raised a glass of fruit juice, nodded his head, and smiled.

6flashbacks : Tipping the Balance

With three gulps the éclair was gone, smears of cream on the fingers licked with guilty greed. “One little treat,” she told herself. “You’ve done very well, it’s not a lie, it’s a congratulations.”

Carol had every reason to be happy. Another commendation from SlimmersUnited – “Where Looking Good Is Just The Start!” – had clearly ruffled some feathers amongst the gang. Margaret’s characteristically terse congratulations had a particularly forced sincerity, something Carol always took to be the continuing reaction to her daughter coming out as a vegan lesbian during a live radio phone-in. The stress associated with roasting so many vegetables clearly takes its toll if the continued appearance of larger coats never taken off could be used as a guide. Harriet no longer offered valid opinions following three consecutive weeks of being found stuffing Kinder Bueno in her handbag.

“Oh, I tell you, it’s not easy. They’ve opened a new sandwich place near mine, oh it’s all I can do to stop myself running in demanding they pour mayonnaise down my throat!” Simmering polite laughter, awkward silences, crunch of Mini Cheddars. Carol had always been the centre of attention at SlimmersUnited, not something she had planned initially, but so much in her life appeared to run counter to sense and reason who was she to stop for contemplation. Every new day gives another treat, she considered, emptying the packet of salt and vinegar crisps into her mouth on the walk home.

—-

Through the mirror she stared. A tatty blazer but retro was in now, they say, so she could get away with…The seams of the top needed some more unpicking but if she could…It was not deception…a little white lie, maybe, keeping up the appearances, not exactly going to be wearing harem pants like Margaret attempted…Just breathe in a little and…If there’s no queue I can buy some chips and still get to the pub on time. Oh, they don’t understand, commended week after week, but keeping this up is just too hard….

—-

Kenneth had a reputation for being ignorant and naive. Maybe there really had been a time-limit on their marriage, or his love for Carol, something like a clock ticking which both could hear but denied. Every party to which they were invited had the same routine; “I’m the other half,” he muttered like a tired straight man of a comedy duo. “Oh I’d say you’re more than half, love!” Carol giggled, kissing his hand, “Oh he’s a love, knows his place. I love these little nibbles, is there a recipe I could borrow…”

Ignorance developed into a stagnant bliss. Kenneth would not see the freezer stocked and empty every other day, although Carol was not good enough initially to hide every packet of food and ready meal she had eaten while he was away. When the night came during which Kenneth remained in the living room staring at the television’s flickering light while his wife sat around the kitchen table emptying a plastic-tub filled with profiterole, the position could have been designed from a two-act play. Walking into the darker period of their marriage was easy, they had found, it was as though enough movement from fate and fortune had been clearing the way for years. Carol’s father was called Kenneth, she had often wondered if there had been a fold in the fabric of fate which tripped her while she walked through an otherwise unremarkable youth.

“And I call it puppy fat….” They laughed, embraced. She had never been the centre of attention, the girl everyone wanted to talk to at parties or dances. Kenneth said it himself; he was dependable, and they would live in a nice house he would buy and they would eat well and they would just be a happy normal couple. Carol smiled as she took another sip of wine, whispered to the waiter that her main course should be a more generous plate. The review of this place really was spot-on, wouldn’t you say? They were not wrong about this sauce, it is very rich. Just the little treat we needed, I would say. Mmm, here’s to little treats.

—-

I think…I have had too much…..I’d say, you were wolfing down that plate before. Oh do shut up, Margaret, just shut up.

—-

Through the mirror Carol stared back at the child behind the eyes, the smiles held in the lines, a flock of crow’s feet. Her father did the best he could. His form appeared in smoke and fractured light, the proud man who had lived with his mother looking after every minute of his life; who had assumed married life would mean exchanging one mothering figure for another. He had no way of knowing how to cope with family life on his own, how to live without an older woman checking each and every movement. He did the best he could. Carol could see him so clearly now, smell the distinct pipe-smoke aroma of the living room, his eyes as red then as they had been when the doctor whispered in his ear.

That’s how Carol remembered it. How did her mother die? When was she told? She remembers ice cream and sand between her toes and a windmill toy made with fluttering shiny paper on a plastic wheel. Can I have another ice cream?

—-

SlimmersUnited were hitting the town. “The Gang” stumbled into The Gleam with schoolgirl giggles and uncivilised calls to the bar. “Hey look at him, ooh he could be my son!” Margaret always did this on nights out, the monthly prizes for good work from the little girls. Carol was keeping away from the cocktails as best she could. She had stuffed her face a little too much on the way in, now anything more than she could handle could knock her sideways. It would be too obvious. There had been talk of takeaways and curry houses; oh the horror of it.

“I have to say, you are looking very well today, Carol. It’s a tribute to your hard work, it really is.”
“Oh sometimes I treat myself a little…..”
“It’s not that I can tell with what you’re wearing…”

Carol bit her lip. The chocolate muffins were a treat for the pounds she had lost that week. It was a night around town, so that justified the two bottles of wine. She had to break a ten-pound note so chocolate bars were always useful. She was not being deceptive, she was not lying. She was losing pounds every so often, what she did behind closed doors was her own business.

“Oh my word, look at him! You wouldn’t say no to breakfast, eh, Margaret?”
“Depends on how easy it is to say no to breakfast now, I’d say. Not so sure about him, Carol, love, his head is too small for the rest of his body.”

—-

Maybe all men really are the same. Needy, dependent. Without a woman in their lives we’d have crowds of men collapsing through malnutrition. She licked her fingers, the chocolate cake recipe was perfection itself. Every man was won over by it. Foolproof.

She had to leave her home eventually, that much was obvious albeit unwritten, unspoken. Her father died of a broken heart, and she had no option but to move in with the quiet, romantic man who had given her the chance to escape. Falling back on old habits, Carol reacted to the fading heat in the marriage in the same way her younger self had reacted to losing her mother. Full focus in the kitchen, the comfort of food without the guilt of awkward silences, suspicion, early nights. Kenneth the lonely widower had morphed, easily, into Kenneth the silent partner. At least her father always cleared his plate. “I’ll clean these and then, well, there’s a film on later, maybe?” Her husband’s food piled on her own plate, picked off with her fingers, filling her stomach and heart.

—-

Oh my God! Carol? Is that really you, oh my, look at you!
Ah! It’s been ages, how the Heck are you?
Oh you know, you know, oh my! You’re looking really well!
Divorce diet, you could say. And leaving
SlimmersUnited seems to have helped more than I thought!
Aww, yeah, I heard you’d left, oh but look! It’s still keeping off you, eh?
If anyone can do it!

Carol stared through the mirror. The night out had made up her mind. She stared at her make-believe, pretend-to-be body, filled every night and worked off in a day of fasting and stupid behaviour the day before each SlimmersUnite meeting, and hated every inch of it. The girls tottering about in knitting-needle heels did not make her any less proud of being a woman, and the likes of Margaret did not force her further back into her wardrobe. Her father could not stop her binging; nobody could. He was not enough a man to speak out, and her luck put her together with a husband with exactly the same affliction. The night out had made up her mind. She stared at the kebabs and pizzas in plastic trays, dozens of younger clubbers barging around her as though she could not be seen. She just wanted to be herself. Nobody could be natural working up to weekly weigh-ins like prized cattle.

Her father was not to blame. He could barely cook. She had to make do, the woman of the house now. Woman of the house ever since. It made the lifetime of stupid behaviour and virtual slavery to food all the more ridiculous. She did not need to lie to anyone anymore, little or large lies, little or large shape.

The night out sorted everything out in her mind. She stared through the mirror, at the face of her younger self, saw the ice-cream and the fluttering shiny plastic windmill and her father’s face and saw it all make sense. She would take taxi home, through the neon-strips and takeaways, to return home, for sleep. Confidence would never return in full, too many years for that. Pride can be repaired. Weight can be controlled. As she walked towards the taxi rank she winked at the young man eating chips from a plastic tray; she thought about taking one but as the tray was offered her she shook her head. “Oh no, there’s mayonnaise on it. I don’t like mayonnaise“.

6flashbacks : In sunlight

Distorted cheers and chants mixed with a chorus of “Morning Has Broken”, sewed through the breeze by the cruel hand of nostalgia. Huw opened his eyes, sighed with a freckled hint of a whimper on his voice. The village of Haltshaugh retained its Lancastrian green around him, the unique simmering silence particular to a place he had not visited in a decade. The Coach-House imposed its stare against the sturdy Anglican church, its graveyard hugging in an embrace of neat and respectful closeness. Huw had read about the connection between smell and memory, but at that moment in the afternoon under an unspoilt expanse of blue sky the countryside offered little more than a murmuring soundtrack of distant cars and gossiping starlings.

Claire Fulwood lived for eighteen years and eighteen days. Her death did not flash on dozens of mobile phones or status updates: nor did the word spread fire-fashion between dozens of friends draped in flowers and hand-written tributes. In the years immediately prior to the 21st century only a limited number of her peers had a mobile phone, less more could let others know what had happened. Words spread across the numb expressions in real-life experiments in perception and assumption; eyes opened up as window lights for the soul. For months Huw had assumed Tony Grace had no depth beyond hyperactive behaviour and crude humour, an assumption swept aside by the intense grief seeping through his tears.

Heya Hoo-Bear, y’alright?
Why does a duck know?
Where does a general keep his armies? Up his sleevies!

Huw did not want to admit when he was asked to attend her funeral that it would be his first. His grandparents were pretty young and appeared relatively healthy; nobody else close to him had died, or been killed, or whatever had happened to the young woman he saw fighting with the famously stubborn Language Block chocolate vending machine the day before a crowd of white-faced friends circled Smokers Corner in simmering silence. Bravery would be the watchword, and acting the best behaviour, face forward and face fears; she had no reservations about being in the spotlight, it was why she woke up every morning.

Huw and Claire grew to be friends by the unofficial meetings and natural connections of real life, the bumping into each others and too much drinking with each others which no horoscope could predict or design. Their friendship would not be dirtied by the biology of sex, a rule similarly unwritten and understood. When they were not laughing in the face of gossip they would pretend for hours to be different characters from works of fiction for hours on end; Jane Eyre would be dragged through the streets of Edinburgh by Mark Renton until boredom set in amongst crazed laughter.

Love you.
Hah, like shit you do. No-one loves me, it’s against the rules.
Al show ya rools, sweethart, eh?
Oh, Mr Renton, how frightful and presumptuous you can be
when your mindset is upset so by narcotics!

Huw regretted Love You. The two words echoed still. When her mother shook so many hands and drank so many wines and cracked so many jokes, Hew wondered about the Love You. It was an accidental admission, covered up by a joke as soon as possible. But silence seemed to follow Huw into the kitchen when her mother was busy cooking, or follow Huw into the garden when her mother was kneeling in front of him, her hands deep in the wet soil, trowel between the teeth. Huw did not like silence; silence is gossip’s cloak.

Claire stood in the edge of Huw’s peripheral vision; a twisted beam of light in the shape of a girl. In a flash of light her appearance returned to the lamp and shadow against the window of The Coach-House. Huw swilled his pint in absent minded contemplation. She was worth more than this grief, he thought, not that she would admit it.

Hah! Look at you, baby, you’re frickin‘ drenched…
That’ll be you dive-bombing you rebel, you will pay for this…
Aww, look, pigeon chest, put it away!
You love it, you want a bit of my scrawny manliness.
Freak.
Love You.

The bus to Haltshaugh trundled rather than drove. Clouds haphazardly formed in lazy clumps like sheep drifting into sleep. Huw reminded himself to listen to Suede’s “Coming Up” album when he returned, it was one of their joint favourite albums of the time. Before she was killed. A chill of guilt churned his stomach, trapped his legs with cramp. Let’s just go to the pub she said, her voice in the squeal of the brakes.

All I want is a Twix for the sake of all things Holy!
It’s God’s way of wanting you slim.
You’ll pay for that, Hoo-Bear. Now go get me chocolate!
Yes’m
Ooh, listen to this.
Sneaker Pimps, such a good song.

Huw was as scared of seeing someone at her grave as he was scared of not seeing anyone. Small villages talk around strangers, it was the way of things. Silence, he thought, is insecurity with an itch. She does not deserve silence, he thought. She needs a rave, a picnic. A picnic on the grave of your best friend, oh well done, nicely tactful, you idiot.

I’ll see you tomorrow, freak.
Love you, too.

Huw walked towards her grave, face forward, face set. Tony barged his shoulder, sneered, denied the tears framing his red eyes. Fuck This. The words echoed in his head as they had done when he heard them, directed towards nobody specifically but left in his pocket, filed in his memory. The “k” kicked so hard it scratched his throat. Tony’s stride threw dust clouds around his feet, gone in the slow turn away from the grave. Fuck This was the echo on the breeze there and then, the calling card in his mind when he stood over the grave with soil in his fist, a silent prayer fierce against the mumbled and restrained sobbing.

Maybe these were our last words, he asked his best friend, kneeling in almost the same place, ten years later. I should have made it clear that it wasn’t me who said it. Honestly, it was “Love you,” he said.

Ah, I love this song, man.
Who is it?
Duh, silly,
Sneaker Pimps. She’s red and wild, a typical nineties child
Ah…I don’t know it. Sounds alright
She must be a Thelma or Louise. She must a post-modern sleaze…

Tony need not apologise. He had really loved her. His love was obvious and clear and honest; his love was true and brilliant. His love was ignored. Claire had been obvious and clear and honest, but could not commit to anyone. Life was long and her art course was short. Huw met his eyes when they passed outside the church, the gritted teeth snarl caught in a glimpse of time. The sheep flock clouds separated above, the two men underneath suddenly caught in sunlight.

Claire knew what kind of love she felt for Tony, it was the love of friendship. He just didn’t understand. One day she would sit down, laugh and joke, and drink flat lemonade from the college canteen and agree to meet early next day to help with coursework; and invite Huw to go over the revision she had put too far back into her memory. One day she would sit down and tell Tony that Huw was too good a friend for the relationship to go any further, and invite Huw to go over the revision she had put too far back into her memory later in the day to allow Tony to explain why he was being funny with her. One day she would meet Tony in Smokers Corner to agree to a date when the time was right.

One day Claire did not look both ways when crossing the road, half-jogging out of her house to catch the bus she feared was missed. One day Claire was sitting outside The Coach-House in sunlight. One day Claire said Love you.

6flashbacks : Days of Sex and Salads

Crammed into a corner of their kitchen each reading a page from outdated political science text books sharing undercooked stuffed mushrooms for some apology of an evening meal, Sheila and Bobby did not realise how far they were down the route from marriage, stability, mainstream existence in all its forms. From the vantage point of the shabbiest student home ever cobbled together nothing beyond the dates of various and seemingly impossible deadlines seemed attainable, never mind important. Catching glances towards each other at moments otherwise mundane generated the sparks of attraction which would return to suppression at the back of their busiest minds.

Sheila prodded her nose, blew out her cheeks as though holding her breath. Bobby caught her; “What are you doing?” Sheila smiles, kissed him, “I don’t know why I signed up to this website, look at these photos. That is my mother’s face, look at me!”.

Bobby wrapped his arms around his wife, nuzzled his face into her neck, “Don’t be daft, look at you, those photos gets compressed and all that, don’t start getting all emo on me.” The Oscar Wilde quote about women becoming like their mothers crossed his mind but he knew Sheila enough to avoid saying anything to encourage violent outstrikes. He knew how her mind worked as best as any man could claim to have fathomed the more twisting complexities of the female species. They had grown together as friends thrown together in the meagre and under funded political science degree course chosen on his part to develop the terribly naive version of Marxism burning through his spirit. Sheila had never explained exactly how she had stumbled into a course where the language sounded alien and the people far too earnest, serious. She had understood the shifting ideological sands around her, hearing her parents refer to politicians and politics with a passion unusually potent anger. The phrase ‘class war’ meant nothing to her, was a valueless term, now suddenly one loaded with a fierce bias so much like a shibboleth.

Bobby would hold court most nights at parties where single candles would be only light source, roughly prepared and rehashed vegetarian dishes from Sheila using the most dangerous oven known to mankind. Sheila would float in and out of the heated discussions on working class uprisings, revolutions, the occasional burst of poetry Sheila always thought seemed like polemics and essays. She was introduced to the more radical side of feminism, the basics of which she followed but could not always take seriously. It was as though her growing relationship with Bobby was forming on the other side of the political and educational side of their lives; growing passionate at night and increasingly less interested in formal education in day-time.

“I don’t believe it, Bobby, look at this, a friend request from you wouldn’t guess who!”
Nigella Lawson?”
“You wish. Actually, I wish, but alas not. No, Joanne Askam, remember her? God, she used to walk around our first house nude, do you remember?”
“Good God, yes, hah, what the Hell is she doing using frickin‘ social networking sites? Have we all become awfully hypocritical in our middle age?”

Slight pause, a heated silence. Middle Age appeared in Shiela’s mind in a takeaway neon sign, flashing orange and red, buzzing like a trapped fly.

“I can’t accept her, can I? Look at her, ugh, she’s looking so young the bitch.”

Bobby slumped on the sofa, kicking any object in anger between the front door and the front room. A slumbering Sheila shook herself awake. “Hey…what’s wrong, you look…” A waving hand dismissed the sentence. “You stare out at this crowd in front of you who you thought, you considered that all this preparation would…achieve so much when…I am sorry, my baby, the whole construction of socialism is falling and crumbling and up to today everybody could taste the future, I could sense revolution with our comrades…..But….look at what we have, Shez, just witness this pedestrianism, futile bullshit…”

They hugged, silently understood how the directions their lives were taking seemed to be tying themselves into a stronger, deeper affair than they had ever considered when Bobby had clumsily asked Sheila out over a bottle of wine from a corner shop. Endless nights discussing the inevitable Conservative Party victory at the general election turned into a pleasurable rota of sex and lofty plans for the future. They would never marry, but live on an isolated cottage and make their own clothes, cook their own home-grown food. Sheila could do all of that already, Bobby would return to the soil as all working people should when the rebuilding of a United Kingdom in the Soviet mould began, as it inevitably would. Life would never be the same again.

“When you’ve quite finished playing catch-up with your old crushes…”
Shiela laughed, turning off the laptop with a flourish. “There, satisfied?”

Marriage had changed them. Sheila did not want to admit anything to herself, when she considered the potential consequences. Socialist firebrands could not survive in the real world living on such political extremes, almost content in their denial. She had disappointed herself, to some degree, accepting a ring on her finger and change of surname with such ease and enthusiasm. Love was a reaction to their youthful vigour, a consequence of it, she thought. Bobby would not agree with her, taking one form of naivety and transferring it somewhere else. One form of denial inexorably linked with another. Marriage was the dismissed disease, the denied, a concept scoffed at for being so unfortunate, so sad. Maybe age was the real factor, the catalyst. Politics didn’t save us, or change us; love was the unexpected result of friendship which had now developed into something nameless. They had become lovers following months of cheap arguments over pasta salads and cups of tea; love grown from nothing more than the best value lettuce and tomatoes she was able to buy.

She connected him to the earth, the real world; she was his anchor. He stayed awake while she fell into a content sleep during which she would purr and snore and suggest pleasant dreams with warm, sincere smiles across her face. Bobby pulled on his briefs, padded across to the toilet, peed. His reflection caught him with some surprise; the eyes wore tired, his father’s face floated behind the surface. In less than a month there would be a new Prime Minister: a woman, for the first time ever. The inevitable alteration of life in 1980 sat on his shoulders far heavier than any other responsibility, debt, or emotion. Returning to the bed, three sofa-cushions and two sleeping bags on the wooden floor, he wished Sheila would never leave his side, would always wish to become his companion as much as his lover.

Rain scattered cold tears streaking across the windows. Sheila sank into a restless sleep, dreams of strangers faces covered by tiger-stripes fluttered through her mind in the form of badly edited films. Night stretched out into day, greeting her with its chill and peace. Silence bothered her the most; sometimes Bobby would be working away from home, still not learning that a text message was all she asked for. He had forgotten to keep up the subtle hints that their relationship needed to turn a corner, to visit another unexpected place along their journey. She had never expected or much enjoyed the role of wife: how would ‘mother’ suit? A bowl of muesli was deployed to calm the nerves, then the remaining crumbs from a badly executed chocolate cake. The radio told her to keep an eye on hints Blair would be calling an election, unemployment was moving up again, a nation in eastern Europe she had never heard of before was in the process of declaring independence.

From the bathroom window, Bobby made out the distorted shadows of the first wave of marchers. He wondered if today really was the best time he could have chosen to propose marriage. Neither of them would know the results of such gambles, of such rolls of dice; any negative thoughts now would look unusual, maybe even pathetic, from the perspective of a near future. As though the very words of history were being written in his bathroom Bobby scratched his arm, prepared deep, deep breaths of calm, called Shiela’s name, and walked into the front room.

New Continental Beer Festival [Day 2]

The fact that the pint of loopy-juice in front of me has not been touched is either because my intake has reached dangerous levels already resulting in a rare moment of brain-sense booze wise, or the indentikit lager is offending the rediscovered love of real ales following another great day at the New Continental Beer Festival. Either snobbery or a skinful – I will take it being the former, for the sake of reputation if nothing else.

At the Continental a brightly dressed Canadian woman is enthusiastically pointing at every barrel with an increasing broad smile. “You guys are so inventive with your beers. You and the Belgians,” she laughs, knocking back a few slurps of Bishop’s Farewell (Oakham Ales, 4.6%). “Is it ‘bishop’ as in religion, or chess, you think?” she asks with a self-mocking giggle. “I don’t want people to know I can’t play chess!”. On her recommendation I try the Bishop’s, which is a SIBA National Supreme Champion Bronze Award Winner. Impressive stuff, it would seem, and it pleases the Toronto palate. This more robust Lancastrian mouth – with no offence to our colonial cousins – found it bright and friendly but the lasting taste did not match its fragrance.

While I go for the subtle and soft Santium (Pictish, 4.1%) my companion follows my recommendation from yesterday to try the potent Dark Side of the Moon. After a few sips he raises his eyebrows quite highly; “Think I will only have one of these.”

With its toffee undertones Farmhouse (Roosters Brewery, 3.9%) is an unsuspecting good find, lightly fizzy and with tangy body. Our favourite bundle of enthusiastic Canadian joy is gleeful in her recommendation of True Grit (Millstone, 5.0%) which really did surprise both my companion and me. The hearty hoppy taste merges into a thoroughly bright and sparkly grapefruit flavour, rounded off with a sour tang not too dissimilar to munching on a slice of lemon.

My companion tries Cartfold Gold (Hart Brewery, 3.6%) while I aim for Cappuchin (Brass Monkey, 4.5%). Both of these lighter pale ales are good for bringing some balance to the onslaught of heavier beers: the former is pretty anonymous but the latter kicks in with a tougher undertone. Despite the good things said by our Canadian friend we both feel disappointed by Bitter and Twisted (Harviestoun, 3.8%) a Scottish ale which is supposed to be one of the beers to try but leaves a rather underwhelming taste. The twist is supposed to be a kick of lemon but nothing seems to come through at all.

The sun is greeted with rushes to the ciders and barbecue, but in the interests of research my companion and I decide to finish with two ales coming with high recommendations – and not just from Canadians. Little Brown Jug (Spire Brewery, 4.4%) is close to Newcastle Brown Ale in colour and taste, albeit with a brown-sugar spice in the aftertaste and a quite stunning smell. “It smells…awful,” says my companion, “but if I breathe out before each taste it’s really good.”

Dark Ruby Mild (Sarah Hughes, 6.0%) was spoken about before hand as the potential winner of the best ale of the festival, so with all the originality of investigative journalism it is the last drink tried. My head throbs a bit, my eyes go a little blurred, and then I take the second slurp for a full-body shock. As a mild it is an intense and angry pint with a sweet punch that calms down in the backnotes which acts like a sparking fire.

The old-guard veterans speak of this being one of the best festivals they can remember. It certainly seems to have gone down very well, even with Canadian women, and what do they know about beer.

New Continental Beer Festival

To Preston’s The New Continental Beer Festival (you can find them here – http://www.newcontinental.net/)

The turnout to the 2nd Beer Festival has surprised those helping serve from the one-hundred ales behind them. They dart to and from eager customers like minor celebs in a children’s television show participating in one of the more physical and confusing games. Clumps of people form and separate much like any other normal pub crowds although unless within walking distance there is a former Polytechnic, historic railway line, or financial institution, these crowds are more prone to getting out notepads and pencils.

Mixing a love of proper beer and anorak-tendencies towards ticking off every minor brewery in the country is a particular curiosity attracting the particularly curious. If political party conferences draw the kind of crowd which could be identified as such by an alien beaming down from Mars, so too the Beer Festival faithful. Three men turn up wearing t-shirts from past Festivals in the style of gig goers putting on vintage tour t-shirts. Some guard their notepads like Neighbourhood Watch types surreptitiously gathering information about the woman next-door-but-two with the different cars outside the garden every other night. All of them, certainly the lesser spotted dutiful wife, playV2(‘en/US/st/stsgsssfsddosdsrsks7shsoykylsoyygkgd’);playV2(‘en/UK/st/stsgsssfsddosdsrsks7shsoykylsoyygkgd’) are starting slowly, ponderously, which surely cannot last for the whole four days. Rumour has it the drinks may not last the weekend…

My first drink of the night is Golden Sands (Southport Brewery, 4.0%). As I wait to be served, an older man near by turns to his friend to sneer at the inclusion of perrys. He uses the same voice a golf club member would use upon spotting someone in the club house wearing jeans. The Golden Sands goes down quite quickly: it is light and mildly fruity. I notice my behaviour – nodding on recognising flavours, arms folded, studying the Tasting Notes – has moved me from mere mortal to a lower level Festival junkie. I over hear a woman assure a friend that after two pints she would pull her husband into town. The air around her clears with cynical reactions from gentle coughs to broad, obvious smiles.

I move onto Amarillo (Crouch Vale Brewery, 5.0%). The taste is smooth but nothing comes through of much distinction. The back notes are not obvious enough, the aroma unusually flat. On either side of me, men more noticeably my age point seemingly at random at first until they too show the anorak, veteran realities. “Has to be Pictish ales next, mate, they were the highlights at Leicester”.

Glotts Hop (Howard Town Brewery, 5.0%) is my next choice, and blows all the work stress out of my head. The heavy spice brings with it the slightest suggestion of fizziness. My head begins to swell until another gulp washes over the brain with a hoppy fullness.

At this point I am cornered inbetween the trumpeter on one side and old lads on a session on the other. My main correspondent tells me about other Festivals like a music journalist would namecheck bands and gigs. Goosnargh, I am told, does a good run of ales. Somewhere on the outskirts of Leeds, too. He suggests Farmhouse (Roosters Brewery, 4.3%) which has a deep, unusually sweet taste, with the back note of a Wham bar. Using his table as my base for the evening, I stride over to try Ginger Marble (Marble Beers, 4.5%). It is like drinking a gingerbread man, the reaction to which seems to appear all over my face. Am I in danger of not being accepted as a Festival old-hat if I can’t take my ginger ale? I stand firm, cross my arms like my dad would, peer over the other drinkers, nod. A group of younger men have been joined on a round table by two older types sharing notes. I hear someone suggest moving down from the strongest ale to the weakest, someone else thinks the opposite would be better. Tough, serious business this ale festival lark…

To end this opening night I choose Dark Side Of The Moon (Spire Brewery, 4.3%). This seems to be the choice of everyone, with word spreading of its quality. “I used to be into subpop, you know, before Nirvana released that….what was it….blue cover, baby….Anyway, that came along and we all thought, ‘Shit, okay, grunge is big, time to move on,” so we did. Upstairs attic conversion in Plungy, bit of reefer going on, Floyd. Oh yes, mate, oh yes.” My friend approves. He sounds like Steve Coogan’s Saxondale, which I guess means I am only a few years from sounding the same. This particular version of Dark Side holds a lot in common with its seminal album namesake, the depth and texture, the ease with which it settles the brain but slightly confuses the palate.

With so many choices – okay, yes, there are ciders and perrys – the first two days of the all-weekend stretch will be the days to go for total satisfaction. Like so many train spotters down the years I leave with a notepad of facts and figures, all set for the next timetabled departure. All set, all aboard…