The Weeping Wall


“I’ve got something to tell you,” said my mother, on the phone, “you remember my Auntie Shirley? She was at Nanna’s funeral.”

I remembered: a little woman, wrapped around in trailing layers of black drapery. Above her pinched face, a shabby fur pillbox hat, brownish and sparse around the edges. When I took her hand, it laid passively within mine; it was curiously clammy, as though she’d been wearing wet gloves. Close up, there was a wood-litter smell of damp.

“Yes, I remember,” I said.
“She’s died.”
“Oh.. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. I didn’t know her very well. But there’s good news for you. Auntie Sylvia says she’s left the house to you.”

“What?” I looked around our tiny kitchen, with bills and junk mail and half-empty packets of biscuits piled on every surface, and the pans that had to live on the draining-board because there was nowhere else to put them. Janine said, once, “We can’t stay here. We need more space for the baby,” and I said, “Ok, short of winning the Lottery, you got any great ideas?”

“But doesn’t anyone else want it?” I said.
“Stephen, there isn’t anyone else. There was only Shirley and Nanna. Shirley didn’t have any children herself, of course. Then there was only me and Sylvia. And Shirley wouldn’t have left anything much to Sylvia. She was jealous of her.”

Auntie Sylvia spent the 1980s building up a modest cosmetics business whose value multiplied after the A-list discovered her Wonderfull Instant Lip Lift; she sold it to L’Oreal and bought an estate in the Cotswolds. You still sometimes see adverts for Wonderfull in airports.

“I dare say there’ll be some money to pay,” said my mother, “what-do-you-call-it, death duties or whatever. But anyway.. it’s not even very far from where you are now, so.. well, talk to Janine..”
“She’ll be over the moon,” I said.
“You don’t sound it yourself!”
“No.. it’s great news. Amazing. Totally. Just all a bit of a surprise. Might need a while to get my head round it.”

Am I making it up, or did I have an idea, even then, that it wasn’t as great news as all that? If I did, I couldn’t bring myself to admit it. I’d already shaken Janine out of her little cocoon on our bed, and I was telling her, wake up, listen, we’re moving house!

It wasn’t quite as simple as that, of course. There were legal hurdles to leap over, and things to sign, but eventually we got the keys to the house. Janine would have been about six months gone by then. We drove straight over, giggling.

It had been a wet summer and the street, with its trees in full leaf, had a dank, halflit air about it. The end house, with its slightly flaking olive-green door, was ours.

The first thing that struck me, once we’d got through the resisting door, was the cold smell of neglect. I remembered it from last time we were flat-hunting: the places where the previous tenant had flitted, or the owner had let it stand empty. Sometimes it’s masked by cleaning products, but it’s always there.

In the hallway, a snail trail snaked across the tiled floor. The once-floral wallpaper was beginning to peel away from the walls; one corner hung down like a dog-ear in a mistreated book.

“Needs a bit of an airing,” I said, “it’ll be fine when we’ve got the heating on.”
But there wasn’t any heating. There was one of those old-fashioned gas fires in the living-room, with jets in a grubby whitish matrix. After a bit of fiddling around it lurched into life, but only half of it came on.

Mum and Sylvia had removed anything they wanted themselves, and anything that was beyond use, so the place was sparsely-furnished. There was a sagging brown sofa in the living-room; an empty bookcase and a wobbly wooden bedstead in one bedroom; a tall, dark, coffin-like wardrobe and an iron bedstead, its springs deeply hammocked, in another. On the second floor, there were two more rooms under the eaves. In one, there was a bent-wood rocking chair, and a child’s bedstead with a painted motif on the headboard: a little boy, cartoonishly drawn with goggling eyes and two hot red spots on his cheeks, offering a bunch of lilies to a little golden-haired girl, who turned away, smirking.

“This can be the baby’s room!” Janine said.
“You reckon?” I looked around it. There were tangled clots of cobwebs on the window, and fingers of ivy reaching up to it on the outside, so that the room was half-lit. I tried to open the window, but it was stuck fast.

In the next room there was nothing but cardboard boxes, trunks and suitcases, piled high upon one another. They seemed to be full of books and loose papers, yellowing round the edges; a musty reek hung in the air.

“Let’s have a look,” said Janine. She’s a beachcomber; she looks under rocks, not because she necessarily thinks there’s going to be treasure underneath, but because it would be such a shame if there were, and she hadn’t thought to look. She was already on her knees, leafing through the first box.

“Gas bills.. boring. Christ, they go back years. Why do people keep all this rubbish? ‘Leccy bills.. she kept them down, didn’t she? Oh, God, she was one of those people who never gets rid of a receipt. I mean, who could be bothered? They just.. expand. Oh! Look, photos.”

She was holding up a dusty album, dark brown in colour, with black corners, and the word “PHOTOGRAPHS” embossed on the front. Over her shoulder, I caught glimpses of tall-haired women standing rather stiffly in formal clothes, next to vases of flowers; wedding parties with the bride, centre-left, a ghostly presence among her black-clad family. There was an ornate shop front, bearing the words “W.WRIGHT, GROCER”; before the window, a moustached paterfamilias, his wife with a baby in her arms, and men and girls in long white aprons. Nanna’s father’s shop.

Janine flicked on for a bit. “Oh!” she said,”is that your mum?”

She was pointing at a picture of two little girls, their bobbed hair rather severely parted and secured with hairbands of ribbon. The younger was smiling broadly into the camera; the older one looked sternly into the middle distance.

“Erm.. no, can’t be,” I said, “looks too early. Maybe it’s Nanna and Shirley.”

The next page showed a surprised-looking baby, perhaps a few months old. It had been propped into a high chair for the photo, but didn’t look comfortable. It was slumped over sideways, as old people in nursing homes sometimes sit.

“One of them?” asked Janine.
“Must be,” I said, “I bet it’s Shirley. She doesn’t look happy.”

There weren’t very many more photos in the album: a few more of the girls, carefully brushed and dressed; and then a picture of the shopkeeper, in the uniform we know from the films: Nanna’s father on his way to war.

“I don’t think he came back,” I said.

After that, there were a few blank pages before the end.

We moved in properly a couple of weeks later, when the lease on our flat expired. We bought a mattress and put it in the iron bedstead, but it dipped in so badly in the middle that Janine and her bump kept on rolling into me in the night, and we would wake up stiff and squashed, each of us trying to push the other uphill; so we put the mattress on the floor.

One morning, soon after we’d moved in, I woke up to hear the rain battering against the windows. They rattled in their frames. Janine, curled next to me, muttered “Nooooo!” and huddled within it again. A few minutes later, when she’d had to come up for air, she said,

“Look! The wall’s weeping.”
“What do you mean?”
“Weeping. Like a graze. Look -” she pointed over to the bottom of the wall, underneath the windowsill. In among the faded rosebuds on the wallpaper, there was a rough band of glistening droplets; as we watched,they seemed to grow fatter and heavier, like tears welling up, and two of them merged together and slipped away to the skirting-board.

“We’re going to have to do something about that,” said Janine. “If it’s like that now..”

She gets things done, does Janine, when she’s on form. She did a bit of googling and a bit of ringing-round, and that afternoon she’d got someone to look at it.

His name was Aaron. He was one of those men who looks like they’ve been stretched, and haven’t enjoyed the experience: all bones and knuckles, with dark lugubrious eyes gazing out of a long, semi-shaven face. Christopher Ecclestone painted by El Greco. Without explaining himself, he paced through the house, tapping on walls, and at times pulling aside the wallpaper to inspect the plaster behind. When he did so, a crumbly whitish substance fell off the back of the paper and scattered on the ground.

“Just bought it?” he said.
“Inherited. From my great-aunt.”
“Ah.” He went on his way without speaking – tapping, probing, feeling – up to the attic floor. We stood on the landing, wondering if we should follow him and potentially look mistrustful, or stay behind and look witless.

Eventually he reappeared. “Well,” he said, “it’s difficult to tell.”
“Tell what?” said Janine.”
“What’s the root of the problem. It might be rising damp; but depends if there’s a damp-proof course. If there is it’s probably not that. First thing is to see if there is. But the plaster’s damp throughout the house, so there’ll be work to do on it whatever. Might be coming through the walls or the roof or the windows. Won’t be cavity-wall insulation, this age of house.”

Change began quickly. Aaron returned with instruments which he stuck into the walls at various heights; he returned with a whole team of men and started stripping the plaster away from the walls on the ground floor. It fell away from the walls in slabs, and crumbled like stale biscuits. If anything, the house felt even damper.

“Soaked through,” said Aaron. “Probably been like that for years. No central heating. You want to get someone to look at that gas fire. Might be dangerous.”
He arranged for someone he knew to inspect the fire, who condemned it. Now, as the nights closed in, we shuffled from room to room, toting electric heaters. Our bed felt clammy, so we slept in tracksuits. We were slow and melancholy, and trailed blankets. We were turning into Shirley.

“That’s the thing about houses,” said my mother. “They stay the way they are as long as you don’t poke around in them. Then things come out of the woodwork.”

Things weren’t just coming out of the woodwork. Rain was weeping through the walls; ivy was pushing through the windows.

Janine developed a persistent cough; when she was struck by a particularly violent paroxysm her bump shook. “It’s making the baby jump,” she said. At night, her breathing was heavy and rasping.

The very next week, she went into labour. She managed very well, with much less swearing than you would have thought justified.

“Can we call him Peter?” she said. The two of them had been cleaned up a bit and were lying wrapped in fresh sheets; the baby looked more exhausted than she did.
“Don’t see why not,” I said, “any particular reason?”
“Oh, he just looked like a Peter to me. Don’t you think?”
“Peter,” said a passing nurse, “aah, that’s my dad’s name. You’ll be looking forward to getting home, won’t you?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Janine.

Within a couple of days of our return to Auntie Shirley’s, the place was full of washing. Tiny jumpers and sleep-suits and muslins hung over the banisters and the backs of chairs. Alongside its usual smell of mould, the house took on an extra reek of milk and urine.

Peter wouldn’t sleep; at night one or the other of us would walk him round the house. “This is going to be a nice, warm, tidy house when you’re bigger,” I told him, “and this” – pushing open the door of the attic bedroom with my foot – is going to be your room. Look at that funny bed with that silly boy on it! And this “ – taking him into the box-room – “is full of boring old paperwork, which you can’t read anyway, but it’s really boring if you can. But there’s some pictures in this book which you can look at. Look, here’s your great-Nanna and her sister –”

Peter howled as loudly as I’d ever heard him, and deafeningly close to my ear. “Ok, ok,” I said, “no need for that. No need at all. Let’s go back downstairs.” In trying to close the album, one-handed, I dislodged the baby photo, which landed face down. I picked it up and read, in pencil on the reverse, “Peter, 1938.”

For some reason – sleep deprivation, anxiety, whatever – this terrified me; I shoved the photo roughly back between the pages of the album, and then I took Peter, our Peter, downstairs, and to my relief he stopped crying almost as soon as we had left the boxroom.

The wall continued to weep. “If it was just the DPC you’d expect it to be getting a bit better by now,” said Aaron. “Might want to have a look at the windows. Could be leaking from the outside.”

So the plaster around the windows came off, too; beneath the ones in the attic room and our room, there were narrow gaps, only the breadth of a little finger, through which a cold draught ran. “I’ll have to have a look at that for you,” said Aaron. He looked mournfully at Peter, momentarily silent in Janine’s arms. “I’ll try to get it sorted quickly’s I can,” he said.

We moved our mattress to the other bedroom; when we lifted it, its underside was deeply stained with concentric patterns of damp, like sickly flowers.

That night Peter started to cough, too. It kept him awake, so it kept us awake, too. I found that he was calmer when held upright, so I sat in the bent-wood rocking chair in the attic room with him slumped on my shoulder, breathing heavily into my neck.

How was the water getting in, I wondered? Was something actually funnelling it through? Or was it slipping around the window-frame, somehow?

Clutching Peter to me with my left hand, I leant forward and reached into the gap below the windowsill. There was something there that wasn’t bricks, I could feel it: something smooth and flattish, pushed into the gap. I fumbled around for a bit and eventually pulled it out.

It was a little hardbacked notebook, its cover as damp as everything around it. Opening it, however, I saw that its pages were relatively undamaged, except at the edges. It was full of writing in a messy, childish hand. On the page where it fell open, I read:

“27th August 1938
Today Mummy took me and Martha to the park and we played on the swings.”

It was Shirley’s diary.
I sat back down in the rocking-chair, Peter gently snoring in my ear, and continued to read.

It was an angry little book. Some entries, like the first one I read, were dutiful accounts of family life, but they were short and sporadic: Shirley’s heart just wasn’t in it. What she really wanted to write about was conflict.

“6th June
Martha made us both late for school today because she woudnt put her shoes on. Mummy scolded us both. I said it was her fault but Mummy said I shoud have helped her because I’m bigger. So I must just be bad without having done anything bad because I didnt make Martha PERFECT.

9th July
I heard Mummy and Daddy quareling in their room after we were in bed. Daddy said Mummy was spending too much money on clothes. Mummy said but Ive got to look nice and Daddy said Well you can mend things carnt you? She dosent look nice in her new hat the bits on the side look like fruit salad.”

When she was particularly angry, Shirley would press harder with her pen and underline various words multiple times. Towards the end of the year, the focus of her anger shifted dramatically.

“29th September
I dont like Peter. All he does is CRY.”

Christ, I thought, hugging my child to myself.

“And he smells funny and we always have to be quiet when hes asleep even though he cries all nihgt.

15th October
Mummy dosent take us to the park any more she says its getting cold. I bet she takes Peter when were at school. Its not fair. And he wont even like it all he does is cry.

28th October
Peter always gets a fire in his room. Mummy says he’s delicate. All he does is cry and he wont stop coffing. I hate him.”

I didn’t quite have the heart to read any more. I carried my Peter, who had fallen asleep, thank goodness, back to our room, and managed to put him back in his carry-cot without waking him up.

The next day, Friday, was filthy. As I returned to our street at the end of the day, the wind was stripping half-dead leaves from the street trees and whipping them against my face.

Janine met me at the door, Peter in her arms.

“All he does is cry,” she said, “and he won’t stop coughing. He needs a doctor.”
“Can you get him an appointment tomorrow?” I said, keeping my voice as calm as possible. “If it isn’t better by then.”

It didn’t get better. We ate a takeaway in shifts in the kitchen, taking turns to hold him upright. Then we bathed him in the sink, thinking that might help; it didn’t. We finally got him to sleep, propped up a little, at about midnight, and Janine and I fell into exhausted, but fitful, sleep.

I was chipping away at the plaster upstairs, trying to find the source of the damp. But every layer that I peeled off revealed another one behind it. There were flat-bodied centipedes and worms between the layers, which slipped away like quicksilver. Each layer was darker and damper than the last; they overlapped like Auntie Shirley’s mismatching layers of black drapery. Some of them had writing on, and it said, “All he does is cry and he wont stop coffing.” I could hear the coughing close at hand. It would never stop.

I snapped awake; but I could still hear the coughing. Of course, Peter, my Peter, really was ill, right now. I slipped out of bed and picked him up; so as not to wake Janine, I took him upstairs to the attic room, and sat down in the rocking-chair, patting and shushing him until he calmed down a bit.

Some awful fascination led me to pick up Shirley’s diary again, even though its malevolence repelled me. I felt, I suppose, that a bit of the story was missing, and that I had to know what it was, however awful it might be.

“29th October
I heard Mummy and Daddy quareling agian. Mummy said But im so tired so tired and I carnt sleep for two hours together. Daddy said well why dont you take one of your pills then you never used to find that difficult. I know wich pills he means their the ones in the red box.

30th October
I took one of Mummys pills out of the box erlier and hid it. If Peter wakes me up crying tonihgt I know how to make him go to sleep agian.”

The rest of the page below that was scribbled all over with heavy black pencil, as though Shirley had written something else and then worked really hard to cover it from view. She had pressed down hard, so that the page was deeply scored and cockled.

The next page said:

“8th November
Since I did that bad thing Mummy wont stop crying. Nobody knows I did it. I want to tell Peter Im sorry but Mummy says dead peopole are in heaven and we carnt talk to them. I want to tell God Im sorry but I dont think he woud lissen because Im bad as bad.”

That was the last thing in the book; the other pages were blank apart from damp stains and foxing. I shut it and sat listening to Peter’s laboured breathing and the rain throwing itself against the window.

I heard footsteps; Janine was standing in the doorway, her hair dishevelled around her shadowed face.

“Give him to me,” she said, “you shouldn’t bring him in here. It’s too cold. And it’s – nasty. And there’s a hole in the wall.”

I passed him over. As I did so he coughed again, feebly. Janine put her ear to his mouth; then looked up, fear written deeply into her face.

“Didn’t you notice?” she half-yelled, ”he’s hardly breathing. And you just – sitting here – I’m going to call an ambulance.”

She disappeared next door, and I heard her panicky tones on the phone: “my baby’s hardly breathing.. been coughing a lot.. four weeks.. hasn’t been feeding.. just get someone here..”

Shirley’s book lay in a pool of light cast by the street-lamp outside. All else was dark, and the wind rattled the window-frame as if a frenzied intruder were trying to get in.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Shirley,” I said aloud. “You didn’t know what you were doing. You do now. You don’t have to do it again.”

There was a fresh assault on the window; it sounded like handfuls of gravel flung at the pane.

“You aren’t bad as bad, Shirley,” I said. “Nobody is. It’s just easier for you to believe you are, isn’t it?” The trees outside lurched and bucked in the gale, and the wind, passing through the gap under the windowsill, set up a low, unearthly note, like a groan of pain.

“You think that if you’re so bad you’re bound to kill Peter, my Peter, now,” I said, wildly, “that it means you didn’t have a choice about killing Peter, the other Peter, back then. Then neither’s really your fault. But I tell you, you always have a choice. You did and you do. And if you hurt my baby –”

God knows what threat I was going to make, but at that moment, the sound of sirens approaching, followed by flashes of blue light on the ceiling, told me that the ambulance had arrived.

It was bronchiolitis, they said; quite a common illness in children, but it might have been made worse by the damp. So, once Peter was better, we went to stay with Janine’s parents for a bit. Perhaps we stayed there longer than they’d have liked. But I had a dread of the place that could not be shifted until it had been exorcised – that is, when the musty papers were gone, and all the windows repaired, and the dark-spotted wallpaper and crumbling plaster replaced with dry, smooth walls, pink like sandstone in the sun.


On Punching Nazis

Many people expressed delight when footage emerged, a few days ago, of the American white supremacist and Trump sympathiser, Richard Spencer, being punched by a passer-by during an on-street interview. In some quarters, it’s been suggested that a failure to show sufficient jubilation at the incident is tantamount to expressing sympathy with his repellent views.

I say the opposite is true: that rejecting violence wherever possible is, in itself, a rejection of all that Spencer stands for.

Let’s be clear about what this was not. It was not an act of war in an existing armed conflict. Without going too far into the debate about whether there ever can be a “just war”, when George Orwell and Laurie Lee volunteered to fight Franco, and when my grandfathers fought Hitler, no other tactic but armed opposition seemed to have a chance of preventing totalitarian regimes from expanding their territory. Punching Spencer was not like that. It was not an act of self-defence nor a necessary response to a threat faced by another person, because, on this occasion, nobody was being physically threatened. The violence was instigated by the puncher.

Which begs the question of what the assailant hoped to achieve by his actions. One very natural human reaction is to say, “He deserved it, the bastard.” But the idea of retribution, and “paying someone back,” is problematic. It is a truism that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” No amount of punching can make Spencer’s repellent utterances unsaid. If he has initiated violence, that violence will always have occurred, even if he suffers as well. Additional violence heals nothing; it only adds to the total amount of pain and anger in this world.

Moreover, what the notion of retribution says is that the violence committed by A, while reprehensible in itself, is justifiable if perpetrated by B upon A. That just doesn’t make sense. If Spencer’s opponents were to retaliate by visiting upon him the same sort of prejudiced and hateful comments that he has dished out himself, then they would, I hope, be censured for it.

If the aim of the punch is not so much to punish Spencer, but to silence him, that’s even more problematic. Silencing by force, or the threat of it, has been a favourite tactic of totalitarian regimes throughout history. It means that the viewpoints that are heard are not the most defensible, but the ones expressed by the strongest.

What’s more, we shouldn’t need to silence people who are manifestly wrong. It ought, even in this difficult and dangerous political environment, to be more effective to refute them, and a desire to silence someone indicates a lack of confidence about doing so. Heretics weren’t laughed at as madmen, but burnt as threats. Trump isn’t silencing the scientists of the EPA and the National Parks because he can refute the science of climate change. He hates them, because he can’t.

Of course, it is more than possible that a Nazi, on being punched, might not accept it either as justified retribution or a warning to amend his ways. Being, himself, fond of violence and his own views, he might be less likely to say “It’s a fair cop, guv” (did anyone ever say that, in real life?) as to punch the assailant back. On a practical level, this could lead to an escalation of violence – street fights and worse. It also means that violence, whether to punish or to silence, will generally only be initiated by those who believe they are likely to win – that is, by and large, by strong men in their prime. A man (and it mostly has been men) saying how wonderful it is to punch Nazis is unconsciously demonstrating the privilege of his own physical strength.

I’m a woman in my 40s; I’m a shade under 5’4″, eight-and-a-half stone or so. Insurance statistics show that women are more risk-averse than men, and crime statistics show that we are less inclined to violence. In any philosophical debate whose outcome is determined by a physical fight, people like me will lose.

That, in fact, has been one of the most significant factors shaping the opportunities and rights of women throughout much of humanity’s history – and the way in which they have been regarded. Where it is possible for one group to subjugate another by force, the aggressors justify it to themselves by developing a concept of the natural, and global, inferiority of the oppressed. Thus, the class system, in part, developed because of mediaeval barons’ ability to suppress the underfed and outgunned peasantry; and white-on-black racism is a consequence of the fact that European traders, happening to possess, as Jared Diamond puts it, “guns, germs and steel,” were able to suppress native Americans and Africans. Societies which use violence beget prejudice, because they need it in order to justify themselves.

And, though etymology isn’t meaning, isn’t the term “fascist” a deliberate reference to the fasces, the rods of authority held by Roman magistrates? The symbol of exerting authority by force? Violence to control what is said isn’t just “what fascists do.” It’s what they believe.

The Suffragettes, who were being systematically discriminated against at every point, did not, by and large, punch people in the street. They acted by making their cause as visible as possible. They shouted, and marched, and smashed windows. They suffered assault, imprisonment, and forcible feeding, but eventually they prevailed. They prevailed not because men were scared, but because they were both the product and the beneficiaries of a society that had at last begun to distinguish might from right.

We should march, as women did on Saturday, against Spencer and all of his kind. We should refute his arguments wherever we see them. And, of course, we should leap to the defence of anyone who is physically attacked by anyone like him. But, if we really mean to oppose fascism, that cannot be done by espousing its tactics and attitudes. Punching Spencer may well be the only language he understands; but it shouldn’t be the language the rest of us sink to.

The Other Way of Seeing: a spooky story

Susanna could remember, very vaguely, a time when she thought she was normal, but the memories were fragmentary.

Once, she thought, she had been somewhere green and spacious – probably nothing more exotic than the local park. She was conscious of the unfamiliar feel of her new shoes – emerald green, with a little leather flower opposite each buckle. Enjoying the novelty of it, she skipped alongside the wheels of her brother’s pushchair, running ahead to jump into puddles.

“Stop that, now,” her mother said, “you’ll spoil Millie’s lovely shoes.”
Susanna desisted – she was a good child – and returned to her mother’s side. She didn’t even ask why they were Millie’s shoes when they’d been given to her. As it happened, at that moment she saw Millie herself, just ahead of her, holding her mother’s hand.

“Look,” she said, pointing, “there’s Millie, there.”
To her surprise, instead of rushing to greet Millie’s mother, her own mother laughed and said, “Silly billy! She’ll be at school, now.”

More dreadful was the time when Susanna told her mother that she could see Grandma in a box. She expected some sort of approval, of the kind she got when she drew a picture of Grandma or made her a birthday card. But her mother’s face twisted so that it looked angrier and sadder than Susanna had ever seen it, and she said, in an odd sort of voice, “You must never – never say things like that again.”

Things like what? Things about Grandma, or about people being in boxes? Only a little while later, Susanna’s mother took her to a place where everyone was dressed in black, and they all stood around a box with Grandma in it, so it couldn’t be that. But Susanna could tell that the – way she’d seen Grandma in the box, and Millie in the park, and things like that, was different to the way she saw other things. It was like your reflection in a window compared with the view through it. You could talk about reflections but it must be really, really naughty to talk about the sort-of-reflected people that you sometimes saw. So Susanna never did again.

As she grew older, she came to realise that this other way of seeing wasn’t something that everyone shared. But, since she had learnt early on not to speak of it, she made quite a good show of being normal; and, as her teens progressed, she became, rather to her surprise, accepted as such. It turned out that if she pretended to be like everyone else then they would let her hang around with them in the schoolyard, and if she told her mother that she was going to watch a film at her friend Christina’s that she would be allowed to stay out late, even though they were actually going to join the others in the park.

What were they doing there? Not much. It was the days before smartphones. They didn’t play games. They didn’t so much converse as issue verbal nudges. They were young animals who simply needed to herd together. And they watched each other: the boys watched Chris, who always looked so sleek; and Susanna watched Duncan Fraser.

He was the year above her; they weren’t in the same group at school. In subsequent years she could only remember him in shadow. His hair, cropped short, might have been anything from dark blonde to dark brown. Perhaps he was a little taller and broader than average. She remembered snapshots: the angles of his nose and cheekbone lit up by a cigarette lighter as he leant into it; his broad-shouldered silhouette disappearing into the darkness at the end of the night. He lived near to her, but they never walked home together.

It was an evening in June, and it barely felt late, because the air, smelling of grass-clippings, was so warm, and because it had only just got dark. However, there was school tomorrow and people had begun to slip away homewards.

As Susanna reached the park gates, the ones with “1882” in cast-iron, a voice said, “Susie!” And there, as if he’d been waiting, was Duncan – the lit end of his cigarette glowing. She had no need to see his face to know it was him.
“I’ve come in the car,” he said, “I’ll give you a lift home.”

“Thanks!” she said, unable to stop the grin from spreading across her face. “It’s just round the corner,” he said, and they walked on together. Presently he put his arm, heavy in his coat, around her shoulders, and she settled into the side of his body. Their feet fell into step.

A few yards further on, there was a high, stone-pillared gateway, set back slightly from the road – the entrance to a Victorian Gentleman’s Residence. They paused; then Duncan half lifted, half pushed her into the gateway, and kissed her.

For an instant there was nothing but the warmth of his arms around her body, and his lips on her cold face, and his smell of boy and Lynx and cigarettes.

And then. She saw hands on a steering wheel, tense and knuckly under street-lights, and his body in the driver’s seat, braced against the brake pedal. She heard a scream and a sickening crunch of scraping metal, and saw it crumpling and lurching like geological strata.

“‘C’mon,” he said, “it’s just round here.”
“Let’s walk!”
“It’s getting cold. C’mon.” And she followed.

As they crossed the road to the car-park, Susanna heard her own name again: “Susie! Soo-seeee!” She turned; it was Chris, almost trotting to catch them up.

“Hi, Chris,” said Duncan, as if nothing had happened. “Fancy a lift?”
“Don’t!” cried Susanna, caught off-guard.
The others looked at her. “Why not?” said Duncan, and Chris’s eyes said, “I know why not.”
“We can walk,” said Susanna, “it’s a nice night.”
You can walk!” said Chris.
“What’s wrong? C’mon!” said Duncan again, keys at the ready.
“Don’t!” repeated Susanna. “I can’t explain, just..”

But she had already lost them, she knew. They were high on the midsummer night and on their youth and beauty and their sense of endless possibility. She had no more right to ask them not to go, and no more hope of being obeyed, than if she’d asked Duncan not to smoke. And she couldn’t go with them: she tried stepping nearer to the car and it made her stomach lurch and her head spin, as if she were standing on a clifftop looking down at rough seas.

The next morning, her anxious eyes scanned the schoolyard for him; but she knew, first of all, that this was nothing but habit, retained after it could be any use; and, secondly, that it was delusional – seeking a refutation of something that she knew to be true.

Miss Bryant entered the classroom, her face set into a mask of noble suffering. Sit down, she said, be quiet, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. But Susanna barely listened while the others heard that Duncan and Chris were dead, because we don’t want to hear bad news twice. As some of the other girls cried and hugged one another, their hair entangling, she held herself poised in her grief, as she had done throughout the whole of the previous, dreadful night.

Straw Establishments

Like many people, I have a great respect for David Attenborough. However, I was surprised to read his opinion that the BBC should have kept Jeremy Clarkson, citing a need for his “profoundly anti-establishment” voice.

To me, Clarkson seems the very epitome of a certain kind of Establishment. He is a middle-aged, privately-educated white man whose career has been built on driving powerful cars very fast, like Toad of Toad Hall; who thought that public sector workers on strike should be killed in front of their families; and who was eventually sacked for hitting an underling who failed to bring him a steak. A breaker of rules, yes; but only of those rules (road safety legislation, the right to go on strike, and constraints on violence and the treatment of employees) that curtail the powerful.

Attenborough’s comments reveal, I think, the belief we still have that there is a homogeneous, powerful elite that make all the rules, and that those rules serve “them” and not “us”. As part of the Establishment himself, Attenborough believes, democratically, that it should be challenged and questioned; but because he believes that it is homogeneous, he believes that anyone who breaks rules must be anti-Establishment.

Perhaps it was like that, in the past. There is a good case for saying that the legal system and social mores in the pre-modern era were set up to protect the powerful. Draconian penalties were carried out against those who undermined these mechanisms by stealing, or by failing to work, while the wealthy oppressors went free – hence the bitter little Enclosure-era rhyme:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common;
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

Forging money, as a particularly direct attack on the distribution of wealth, was treason; as late as the eighteenth century, female coiners were still being burnt at the stake. The Church, meanwhile, the other element of the Establishment, provided “parish relief” to prevent outright destitution – always a cause of unrest – but otherwise acted as a cheerleader of whatever government was in power:

And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

Perhaps at this point you are shaking your head and saying “But really, what’s changed?” To which I would reply: not everything, but much. I would not argue that society is completely fair, or that inherited wealth and privilege have had their day. I would, however, argue that alongside the rules which protect the wealthy and powerful, we have developed structures and rules which protect the rest of society: those which support taxation for public services, protect employees’ rights, enforce environmental protection, and criminalise violence.

It seems to me that there are two different concepts of “Establishment” prevalent in our society. One is the old Establishment of wealth, inherited privilege and exploitation of the less powerful; the other is the new Establishment of “red tape”, taxation, and controls on what people may do or say. It is the latter which Clarkson is against.

We all wish to liberate ourselves from whichever Establishment we feel is controlling us. But “liberty” is as slippery a word as “Establishment”. The Political Compass Organisation has been arguing for decades that the traditional division between “left” and “right” is inadequate and that it is necessary to consider an individual or organisation’s position, first, with regard to economics (redistributive or not) and secondly, with regard to society (authoritarian versus libertarian). Traditionally, the Left stood for more redistribution and more social liberties. However, in recent years the less redistributive Right has been less concerned than, perhaps, it used to be with controlling sexual and social behaviour, and, since it favours light-touch regulation, has come to position itself as libertarian.

But there is a distinction to be drawn between regulating behaviour for the preservation of the social status quo, and regulating behaviour to mitigate the power of the powerful. In truth, there can be no liberty for all without rules. In a lawless society the powerful always become more so, and the weaker always have their rights curtailed. This is true when common criminals, wife-beaters and muggers and dangerous drivers, are allowed to carry on, and it’s true when employers are allowed to bully their staff, or when companies are allowed to damage the environment, or when landlords are allowed to let out sub-standard dwellings for astronomical prices.

But the belief that regulation is the Establishment and therefore to be resisted is irritatingly prevalent. It was present in the “Brexit” campaign, in which the “Out” campaigners presented themselves as rebels wanting to break free from the shackles of an overweening and ponderous super-state. Britain in Europe was presented as a subject rather than a participant – an impression which was not helped by the equivocal attitude towards the EU from both the main party leaders.

This week, Gina Miller won a court case in which she argued that the Government could not start the formal process of leaving the EU without consulting Parliament. That is, she argued that significant constitutional changes could not be made without the approval of the country’s elected representatives. “We do not live in a tinpot dictatorship,” she said, “we live in a country that has a sovereign Parliament.” The tabloid press described the judges who agreed with her as “Enemies of the People.”

It’s the eve of the US election; Donald Trump has just described his desired victory as “Brexit plus, plus, plus.” Again, an older, wealthy white man – this time with a repellent attitude towards women and immigrants, and a track record of bullying weaker people – is, to some extent, portrayed as an anti-Establishment figure – despite his authoritarian attitude to law and order, abortion and immigration. According to the Washington Post, his supporters believe: “He’s not a politician and not part of the corrupt system. He’s honest and speaks his mind, even if it gets him in trouble.”

Recently, Trump said that he would not accept defeat in the election if it occurred, and claimed that he is the victim of a rigged system. He, at any rate, seems to think he is not of the Establishment. Like a big, greedy toddler likely (let’s hope!) to lose a game, he pleads, “It’s not fair!”

Perhaps this is the big problem with our construction of Straw Establishments: it’s not quite grown-up. In a properly functioning civic society we should all have the right and the ability to participate in governance. As for social mores, we all contribute to establishing and shaping them, whether we do so consciously or not.

Authority, John Humphrys said recently, should always be questioned. But it is not the concept of authority, or of a system of rules, that should be questioned, but how that authority is made up, who contributes to it, and in whose interest its rules are made.

If we insist on defining ourselves as political children who must always either submit to an Establishment, or rebel against it, we fail to participate in it. Then the risk is that, rather than giving ourselves liberty, we throw off the control of the teachers and deliver ourselves into the hands of the school bullies.

Staying Alive in the Supermarket


The modern supermarket is designed to appeal to three of humanity’s baser instincts: firstly, to gather as much food as possible in the shortest possible time; secondly, to minimise effort; thirdly, to avoid contact with strangers.

It wasn’t always that way. A few years ago, when people recognised that town centres were effectively being killed off by supermarkets and started to speak in wistful terms about human contact and being able to choose your own food, the supermarkets responded by pretending they were just the same as a high street, only with all the shops under one roof. Morrisons called its meat, cheese and food counters “Market Street” and publicised it with pictures of beaming apron-clad staff welcoming customers to an Elysium of retail.

But very soon after that, supermarkets began to offer Internet shopping. And then, perhaps, they realised that engaging socially with strangers is never entirely comfortable. It makes our caveman minds apprehensive, nervous of those outside our tribe. It is an effort – as anyone who has gone to any social gathering with a group of friends or colleagues will appreciate: we tend to cling to our gang, and, if we make forays away from it, gravitate back towards them.

Once this was recognised, supermarkets knew which way to go. Maximising ease, and minimising effort, including that human contact which represents wasted effort in our atomised society, determines every aspect of the modern supermarket trip. There is the smooth drive though the spacious car-park, where there are always spaces free and where the shortest destination from your car is always the brightly-lit door of the store itself. Once inside, there are wide aisles, where you need never move from your path to avoid another person; “Deli Express” fridges where cheese and ham are neatly sliced for you to take without pausing or asking; and a soothing mash of unremarkable music so that nobody feels that the silence ought to be broken.

Normally it’s unremarkable. But occasionally they slip up.

The other night I was wandering round Morrisons, wondering if intensive care would feel a bit like this, when “Stayin’ Alive” struck up over the sound system. Now, I don’t listen to the Bee Gees by choice when I’m feeling sad or philosophical, or when I wish to generate an atmosphere of quiet study. But I do have a massive affection for them. When we were teenagers I and my siblings used to celebrate them by dressing up in a parody of 1970s disco – mocking what we really loved, as teenagers do. For me, they still represent a dream of a brighter and lighter-hearted age, in which three oddly-coiffured men in garish suits could conquer the world with their enthusiasm and falsetto.

So I was smiling to myself as I rounded the end of the drinks aisle. And then I saw – or rather heard – someone whistling along, under his breath. It was a man, fortysomething, shabbily-dressed – and I swear he was strutting slightly in his grubby trainers. In his head, surely, he was dressed in sky-blue diamante-studded flares, and any minute now he was going to spin on the heel of his platform shoes and strike a pose.

He saw me smile and looked away, embarrassed.

Of course he was embarrassed: isn’t it transgressive to wander round the supermarket whistling along to the Bee Gees? You’re making a noise, for one thing, which is only permitted to children. And you’re revealing some degree of emotion or inclination beside mere acquisition, within that atmosphere of enforced apathy. And above all, you’re demonstrating human contact – with the absent Barry Gibb and his brothers and with anyone else who might notice the tune on your lips and the spring in your step.

Which just goes to show that being transgressive can sometimes be a good thing. When you are in an environment which effectively forbids so much of what makes us human, it’s good to have a chance event that assists us with – stayin’ alive.





Charmaine Sings “The House Carpenter”.

The Cumberland Arms Come-all-Ye is both remarkably predictable in terms of its format and remarkably unpredictable in terms of its atmosphere. Once a month, a collection of people assemble in the pub’s back room to sing songs at each other, working strictly round the room, with an air of decorum and ceremony.

There are nights when it almost approaches Outsider Art. Those are the nights when everyone forgets their words, or not enough people turn up, or those who do just aren’t that up for it. Then the back room – battered panelling, friezes of torn flyers, and rips in the seats – loses all its chic and becomes merely shabby.

The Come-all-Ye’s best nights are those where people are able to genuinely enjoy each others’ singing, and the gathering coalesces into a good-tempered gang, safe in the Cumberland’s unadorned Arms. Occasionally, then, something magical happens.

When Charmaine started to sing “The House Carpenter”, the semi-occult account of a wayward wife’s comeuppance, I almost resented it in her. For I love everything about that song, in every version I’ve ever heard of it. I love its plaintive and unsettled melody, and the sense of inexorable doom which is present in the lovers’ first parley and ends with their sight of the Hills of Hell. It’s also, oddly enough, the only song that my husband has ever actually told me I ought to sing. Like a good father who hates the thought of a boy pawing his daughter, I didn’t want to hear anyone else carelessly taking possession of and sullying something that I thought belonged to me by virtue of my love for it.

What I had forgotten was that when Charmaine sings it is as though a certain self-protective layer that most of us keep on all the time has been stripped away like orange peel, leaving the tender flesh underneath entirely visible and, for the same reason, entirely bruisable. So, without any apparent modulation of her voice in terms of volume or timbre, she lays the pathos of the tale at our feet. Through her we hear the demon lover’s insistent desire, the wife’s despair when she realises she has left her child for ever, and the quiet horror of her fate.

Perhaps it struck me more because I know that it isn’t just an act. Charmaine’s had serious emotional turmoil in her life. Despair, and sinking, and losing contact with children, are remembered, not imagined, by her.

Now, I’m wary of any critic who puts too much value on “authenticity” in art. It’s a problematic ideology, one which, taken to extremes, can establish a series of barriers to participation – wishing to control people’s access to particular songs, or whole genres of music, on the grounds of their background or life experiences; judging the performer’s fitness to perform rather than the performance; and tending to disdain practice and learning in favour of the more romantic “inspiration”. All art has an element of artifice, and we wouldn’t expect actors only to speak the lines they felt – because then they wouldn’t be acting. Didn’t Laurence Olivier sigh at a method actor, “Why not try acting, dear boy?” And of course, if authenticity implies truth, then it can’t possibly apply to a legend about a demon lover.

Besides, it doesn’t even follow that you sound like you feel. Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is so polished it’s almost inhuman. Comparing it to the original, people muttered, “Ah, but you can hear that Dolly Parton really meant it.” Which, I understand, she may well have done; but it turned out that the self-abasing vulnerability which the song expresses may have haunted Whitney much more.

All the same, Charmaine’s performance stands out as an example of how no state of mind, however dreadful, is entirely without consolation if some inspiration can be drawn from it. Her singing has a liminal quality – part performance, and part entering for real into the trauma of the ballad and living it again. It is almost painful to hear it, and I don’t think it is easy to live it; but it gives her a touch of genius.

The Beliefs we Don’t Know we Have

I believe that the sky, on a sunny day, is blue.

Of course, in a way, that’s indisputable; the way that light behaves as it passes through the atmosphere causes the sky to appear to human eyes in a shade which, in English, we call “blue.”

But I also believe that the sea on a sunny day is blue – that it’s the same sort of colour as the sky. If you showed me pictures of the sea, the sky, and a glass of red wine, and asked me to choose the odd one out, I’d pick the wine (I often do.) So would you, probably, since you are reading this in English in the twenty-first century.

If you are a classicist, you’ll know where I’m going with this – Homer wouldn’t. He famously referred to “the wine-dark sea.” It’s an odd and striking phrase to us – did he set off at night? Was the sea red with blood? Or was Homer actually colour-blind?

According to Guy Deutscher’s fascinating book “Through the Language Glass”, the phrase made perfect sense to Homer because the form of Ancient Greek which he spoke had a poorer colour vocabulary than English, in which the principal distinction was between “light” and “dark”. Relatively speaking, the sea is dark, almost as dark as wine. The sky is light. They are nothing like one another.

From our birth, we learn how to see the world; and we learn what to think about it, too. And, just as our perception of the colour of the sea seems indisputable, it’s the assumptions about culture that we don’t know we’re making that can sometimes have the deepest roots, because we don’t know they can be questioned. When we observe other cultures, we are more likely to notice the attitudes and behaviours which we do not share.

Perhaps that’s why, lately, it’s seemed to me that every film from the USA that I’ve seen ends with an endorsement of the American Dream and, in particular, the version of it which ends with a hard-working man getting his just deserts in the form of a country farmstead that he can pass on to his children. This even applies to narratives which entail an explicit or implicit criticism of mainstream lifestyles and attitudes, and encourage us to sympathise with those who challenge them.

In Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic”, the titular character has brought up his children off-grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. They learn self-sufficiency and political theory, celebrate “Uncle Noam” Chomsky’s birthday in lieu of Christmas, and despise wealth. However, when a crisis forces them to re-engage with the outside world, the patriarch comes to question the rigidity of his position. The compromise reached at the end of the firm is that the family settle down in a sunlit smallholding. The eldest boy joins the Ivy League and his siblings go to school.

In David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water”, two bickering brothers rob banks, pursued across the dusty and dilapidated Texas landscape by two bickering cops. The picaresque tale takes a nasty turn when a heist goes wrong. People are killed – including one of the cops and one of the robbers – and it looks as if the game is up.

But there’s a twist. The surviving brother’s motivation for his crime spree is to pay off the mortgage on his family ranch with the money he’s just stolen from the lender. Having done so, he’s able to install his sons and ex-wife, and the discovery of oil beneath the land further ensures their prosperity. The surviving cop works out the full story, but takes pity on the survivor and allows him to escape.

Both films are excellent. They are funny, nuanced, insightful, and deftly evoke a spirit of place. But in both cases, the ostensibly bohemian protagonists end up living the American Dream in its most fully realised form. The patriarch of “Captain Fantastic” has taught his children libertarian socialism, but nothing in either his original isolated establishment, nor his more sedate farmstead, indicates co-operation or redistribution involving anyone apart from his own progeny. The ending of “Hell or High Water” at least seems to imply that if you are working hard for your family’s benefit, then it is only right that you should become rich – even if becoming rich involves robbing banks. (The surviving robber rails against the bank’s extortionate practices, but his eventual solution is not really to challenge them, but to work within them.)

Why does this matter? There is a lot that is good about the American Dream. A belief in potential, in equality of opportunity, and in working towards desired goals, are all good things.

Well, firstly, a philosophy that believes too firmly that the relationship between effort and destiny is predictable – that people create their own destiny by how hard they work – and that any right-thinking person’s desired destiny must entail the accumulation of wealth, is likely to end up socially stratified. Those who are not born to money, and aren’t fortunate enough to make it, will be left behind by a society that doesn’t feel it has to cater for them – and then despised as people who obviously haven’t made the effort.The belief that the individual’s primary responsibility is to his or her own household doesn’t lend itself to helping those who are outside it

But I think an even more significant problem, in this age of climate change, may be the American Dream’s impact upon efforts to bring about a more sustainable society.

Individualism is a poor philosophical framework for dealing with shared assets. Without a sense of collective possession and responsibility, the “tragedy of the commons” results – that which is available to everyone (land, fish stocks, the atmosphere) becomes used to excess so that it is less useful to everyone. In “Hell or High Water” the surviving robber will become rich due to his oil reserves. That’s wonderful for him. But, even in the sweaty, arid Texan setting, the idea that burning his oil might have undesirable impacts is never mentioned. Too much of a belief in individual liberties doesn’t sit comfortably with environmental protection, which requires regulation of resource consumption and waste disposal.

The belief that a family ought to aspire to a ranch, or, at least, a large house with grounds, isn’t compatible with sustainable patterns of development. Lower-density development – many detached houses set apart from one another in mass-produced individualism – is greedy of land. First World cities sprawl across the landscape, replacing habitats, farmland and carbon sinks. It is hard or impossible to serve low-density suburbs with public transport, and walking routes are often absent; the distances involved are too great. So everyone drives, wherever they go, with consequences in terms of carbon emissions and land-take for roads and parking.

It might be seen as foolish or arrogant of me to criticise a culture other than my own as particularly socially and environmentally damaging. However, we are talking about global threats here, and the culture of the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2 can’t be ignored.

Furthermore, the culture of the UK interacts with that of the US – and always has done. I think it would be stretching a point to argue that there is an English Dream which is entirely like the American one, but we still believe in the figure of the “local boy made good” and one of the signs of his having made good is the house in the country. The higher prices developers can command for detached houses – even if their detachment is achieved only by inserting a narrow and functionless gully in between each house and its neighbour – shows that this country, too, puts a high value on individualism. So does our appetite for narratives berating “benefit scroungers” and our recent decision not to co-operate with Europe.

Bringing about behavioural, institutional, and political change, which is required for carbon emissions to be reduced, requires attitudinal change. When a set of beliefs inimical to environmental protection run so deep within a culture that even such adept film-makers as Ross, Mackenzie and Sheridan don’t notice them, and attribute them even to their counter-cultural characters, it seems to me that we have got a long way to go.