The Current UK Cabinet: Part 3/3

You may also be interested in Parts One and Two.

The Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP: Leader of the House of Commons, Lord President of the Council
Grayling has two jobs here, and they’re both internal governmental things that most of us never need to think about much: Lord President of the Privy Council means that he’s in charge of arranging a monthly meeting wherever the Queen happens to be and telling her what’s going on, and Leader of the House of Commons means that he’s one of Cameron’s three principal cat-herders (the others being, of course, the Speaker and the Whip). This means that he is massively important and influential if you happen to be an MP and largely irrelevant to most of the rest of us. Which is probably for the best, as he was so bad at his last job that a High Court Judge had to overrule his policies as unlawful not once, not twice, but three times, not counting all the times they got pissed off with him without ruling that he was actively trying to break the law. For what it’s worth, his own party don’t seem to like him all that much either.

The Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP: Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Alright, so dear Lancaster, why the fuck should we care. It’s a tiny job, a one-day-a-week deal that gets a little pro-rata salary, and it’s usually given to someone who works in one of the ministerial departments but whom the PM would like to have a seat in the Cabinet anyway. I’m vaguely concerned about this in Letwin’s case, because his other job is looking after the Cabinet Office from an administrative and managerial perspective – a role that specifically doesn’t entitle you to be a member of said Cabinet. Letwin himself has the dubious honour of having been the man whose bright idea it was to use Scotland as a kind of guinea pig for the Poll Tax, and he appears to remain a devoted Thatcherite and austerity peddler to this day. Austerity does not begin at home, though: it seems that on the four days a week he’s not worrying about Lancaster he still works as a merchant banker. Additionally, he has really weird eyebrows.

Mark Harper: Chief Whip (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury)
Ahh, yes, the Chief Whip: the man whose job it is to make sure that everyone else in the House is toeing the party line as is good and proper. I can’t quite help but be endeared by the fact that he once broke his foot by falling off a table on which he had been dancing in a pub in Soho, but that doesn’t exactly put the lie to his long history of hypocrisy. So far he’s been an Immigration Minister who employed an illegal immigrant to clean his house and a Disability Minister whose office wasn’t even remotely accessible – with a bit of luck he’ll have the whole Conservative party voting to the left by Christmas.

The Rt Hon Matthew Hancock MP: Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General
Hancock is likely to find the second half of his job becoming less and less onerous as time passes, because looking after the bank accounts of centralised services is lot easier when all the centralised services have been sold off. Hancock is a proper Tory’s Tory: he did PPE at Oxford and then Economics at Cambridge, he lives in Suffolk, and his hobbies include cricket, horseracing and writing books about how capitalism turns him on. His voting record backs all this up: the man in charge of most of the public money wants to increase the taxes that disproportionately affect the poor and leave those that would hit the rich instead untouched. He’s also predictably harsh about the welfare state, toeing the party line that benefits should be crushed and pensions should be ringfenced. The role of the Paymaster General is not as influential as those held by Osborne or IDS, but rest assured his voice will be heard.

The Rt Hon Jeremy Wright QC: Attorney General
Wright was first appointed to the post of Attorney General last summer, and back then it was a bit of a surprise. Prior to his promotion, he’d just sort of pootled around the House doing a bit of this and a bit of that. He got a bit caught up in the so-called Expenses Scandal, which is a shame because it’s mostly his job to rule on that sort of thing, but there were no duck ponds involved and I’ve never been able to find it in myself to get too exercised about that anyway. Presumably he’s spent most of his time over the past couple of years trying to keep Chris Grayling from pissing off any more High Court judges.

Priti Patel MP: Minister of State for Employment
The only woman of colour in the current Cabinet is the daughter of two Ugandan-Asian refugees, and I really really want to like her. She doesn’t make it easy, though: she’s a major spearheader of the idea that destroying the benefits system and tidying people away into zero-hours contracts is the same thing as fixing the unemployment rate, and she seems to be a supporter of the death penalty.

The Rt Hon Greg Hands: Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Ostensibly, Hands is here to play Bursar – but the truth seems to be that Cameron wants him on-side for dealing with the EU referendum. He apparently speaks German, French, Slovak and Czech, as well as having “working knowledge of three other Slavonic languages”, and he has close ties with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. His website makes it clear that he will be “backing the Prime Minister’s commitment to change the basis of Britain’s EU membership”. Presumably he’ll do something with some money or whatever as well? I dunno. I expect so.

The Rt Hon Baroness Anelay of St Johns DBE: Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office
The F&C Office is the one in charge of Migration, and on the surface of it she seems like one of the good guys: she’s a staunch advocate for religious freedoms, and she seems to have some alright things to say about the UN Human Rights Council. She has a rather patchy and inconsistent voting record, though; the left will be pleased to note that she comes down “moderately against a stricter asylum system” and “very strongly against introducing ID cards”, but sadly she is also “very strongly against equal gay rights”. Does she give a shit about GBLT asylum seekers fleeing persecution in the countries they were born in? Why on earth does Cameron, who seems himself to be pretty much on the side of light about this, think it is acceptable to flood his cabinet with so many bloody homophobes?

Robert Halfon: Minister without Portfolio
We’re nearly at the end here, and you might have noticed that I haven’t listed a Minister for Disabilities – because there isn’t one. Halfon, though, is our current Minister Without Portfolio (“Do take a vote, old chap! What’s that you say? You expected an important job to do? Never mind, never mind…”) and is also the only serving Cabinet member who has a disability himself. You’d be forgiven for thinking that he might therefore stick up for the rights of the disabled in a parliament that seems to want to forget that those people exist – but sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. He has voted “very strongly against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability”, and in general his voting record is pretty contemptible – he’s definitely to the right of the party line. This is kind of weird, because it’s not at all what he sounds like – he’s been quoted as saying this: “In many ways Ukip have done us an enormous favour because they’re cleansing people from the Tory party that had these kinds of views, which is great because I don’t want people who have those kinds of views in my party. So good luck to them, really.” Such a sentiment is all well and good, but I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get a fag paper between his politics and most of theirs anyway. The one saving grace is that he does seem to back an increase in the minimum wage, which he might get a chance to make some noise about now that he’s comfortably installed within the Cabinet.

Anna Soubry MP: Minister of State for Business and Enterprise
Soubry is probably most famous for that one time she might have called Ed Milliband a ‘sanctimonious cunt’ and that other time she most certainly did say that Nigel Farage “looks like somebody put their finger up his bottom”. Interestingly, however, she seems to be somewhat to the left of her party: she’s excellent on GBLT issues and decent on equality and human rights in general, and she’s not at all a frothing right-winger about migration or the EU. She’s shit about benefits, of course, but find me a Tory who isn’t?

So there we have it, folks: thirty cabinet members, thirty Tories, thirty voices unanimous on the subject of crushing the welfare state and selling off huge chunks of the NHS. There’s also a distinctly concerning anti-GBLT sentiment amongst these politicians, presumably as part of Cameron’s desire to sew together the split he made in his party by not being completely evil on the subject. It’s not quite all bad – I have some hope for Amber Rudd and Anna Soubry, and I remain fond of Baroness Stowell – but I’m not going to tell you it’s particularly optimistic either.

This post contains public sector information, including images, that is licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

The Current UK Cabinet: Part 2/3

You might also like to look at Part One.

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP: Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Clark actually wasn’t a bad choice for this job: he’s been a member of the ministry looking after cities for a while now, and he’s certainly a great deal milder and less objectionable than his predecessor Eric Pickles. The Tories as a whole have some pretty terrible policies about housing and local communities (mostly thanks to their peculiar conviction that the way to deal with poor people not having enough places to live is to sell all their houses to the ‘aspirational’ middle classes, or something), but Clark himself…he’s a Tory and he clearly votes in a Tory way, but I have no particular reason to hate him yet. I suppose I shall just have to wait and see which bits of the family silver he decides to sell off, as part of his bag is ‘localised decentralisation’.

The Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP: Secretary of State for Education, Minister for Women and Equalities
The best thing I can say about Nicky Morgan is that she isn’t Esther McVey, who was touted for the position but thankfully lost her seat before she could get it. Morgan’s oft-cited homophobia is a serious problem: she is effectively now Minister for Straight Women, and I’m not sure how much use there is for one of those. Just as worrying is her determination to tighten restrictions on access to abortion – precisely the sort of thing we have a Minister for Women to prevent. Thank heavens for small mercies, though: this is the first time since Cameron has been PM that he’s bothered to have a dedicated Minister for Women at all, having previously just lumped it in with something else. Once he gave it to the Home Secretary. I mean, this girly stuff can’t possibly need much time or attention, right?

The Rt Hon Justine Greening: Secretary of State for International Development
International Development deals not only with foreign aid but also with a variety of other international concerns, and is one of those weird Ministries that nobody entirely understands. Amongst the people who don’t appear to entirely understand it is Justine Greening, who once “reportedly told the prime minister she had not come into government to distribute money to poor people”. She’s a former accountant, and seems to quite enjoy being compared to Thatcher – neither of which are traits likely to endear me to her. The real problem, though, is that she is effectively a colonialist: she’s heavily invested in the privitisation of aid in all manner of scary ways, and her whole approach smacks of white saviorism.

Amber Rudd MP: Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Given our anti-abortion Women’s Minister and our pro-capital-punishment Justice Minister, I was half expecting this one to turn out to be a climate change denialist or something. Thankfully, though, we’re not quite in America just yet. Rudd’s not bad, actually, as Tories go – she’s said some pretty dreadful things about benefits claimants, but she at least has some sensible opinions on sex education in schools. Honestly, I think she’d be a good choice for Women’s Minister herself in an all-Conservative cabinet – but she does at least appear to be highly qualified for the job she’s got, which is more than I can say about several of the ministers here. Both The Guardian and the Solar Trade Association seem to think so, anyway, and I’m prepared to take their word for it.

The Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP: Secretary of State for Transport
McLoughlin is now the boss of the Ministry he worked in for Thatcher’s government, which makes him one of the clearest indicators of Cameron’s belowdecks Thatcherism. He’s not a new appointment – he’s been in this job since 2012 – and he took over from Greening (who you may remember from such shitshows as “our current Minister for International Development). It’s been widely speculated that he was given the role because Greening is vehemently opposed to the new runway at Heathrow, which McLoughlin is not. Honestly, though, transport is not one of the things I’m particularly worried about the Tories buggering up: that blow was dealt back in 1993 (the year after McLoughlin left the Ministry, though I don’t suppose that means anything) by the previous Conservative majority government, with the privatisation of the railways. The H2S thing is a bit of a clusterfuck, but in general the Tories are being relatively unobjectionable about transport infrastructure.

The Rt Hon David Mundell: Secretary of State for Scotland
Oh, here we go. Mundell bravely battled his way to the top of a shortlist of one to be made Scottish Minister, but you’d be mistaken to think that’s as a result of the SNP: he’s actually been the only Tory MP in Scotland since 2005. So far as I can tell, he’s hung on to his job mostly by not being a very good Tory: he’s emphatically not a Thatcherite, having defected from the Conservative party to join the SDP for most of the eighties and nineties as a direct result of his opposition to her, and he served as MSP in Edinburgh for a bloody long time before shunting over to Westminster instead. He criticises the Tories frequently, and his occasional flashes of soft leftiness have earned him the nickname ‘Fluffy’ amongst his colleagues. The biggest problem I have with him is his apparent conviction that Scotland should join England in scrapping the Bill of Human Rights – which, what the fuck, frankly. Mundell is as Scottish as they come, though, which is apparently saying something given several other appointments on this list.

The Rt Hon Theresa Villiers: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
I should make a confession about these next two: I know bugger all about Ireland or Wales. I’ve lived in Scotland and I visit friends and family there frequently, but the rest of the Union has far fewer links for me. Northern Ireland is, of course, a special case – there’s still a feeling of touchpaper about it, and I imagine that many of the politicians who work there have very difficult jobs to do that the rest of Parliament cannot truly understand. My main problem with Villiers, then, is that she isn’t even remotely Irish: she’s never lived in Irelend, she’s never worked in government for Ireland before, and she is in fact a solidly blue-blooded member of the English aristocracy whose constituency is in one of the most suburban-London-fringe places imaginable. I do not have the slightest clue what qualifies her for this job. Alright, so there isn’t a single Tory MP anywhere in Ireland, as it happens – but even George Osborne has better Irish roots than Villiers, for god’s sake.

The Rt Hon Stephen Crabb: Secretary of State for Wales
Crabb is a Welsh MP who grew up in Wales, which is a start, but it’s not really backed up by the fact that he apparently “doesn’t appear to believe in devolution at all and thinks his new job is empty and meaningless”. There are plenty of ways that working-class Wales can identify with him, but it seems he’s all mouth and no trousers when it comes to actually changing the things he clearly got into politics to fight. There’s a bit on his campaign website that says “Click here to tell Stephen your voting for him” and that made me wince, but maybe all the best proofreaders are on the left or something.

John Whittingdale: Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
The big news about his guy is that he’s a homophobe, which obviously doesn’t matter because there are no GBLT people in media and the arts, right? I can’t put it better than Ashley Cowburn did in the The Independent yesterday: “But what’s much harder to deal with is when brutal homophobia isn’t just at the bottom of society, but also at the top. Having a straight male in control of the UK’s Culture Department, who once expressed that same-sex marriage would bring “distress for many”, is hardly filling me with confidence that the Tories are willing to undertake the hefty task of tackling homophobia in all other areas.” As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also got it in for the BBC – another great British institution near and dear to my heart – and, in a fantastic display of Thatcherite insensitivity, has been widely quoted as saying that the licence fee is “worse than the poll tax”. With this “free market” capitalist at the helm, it’s not looking good for Aunty Beeb.

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss: Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Truss is an advocate of the repeal of the fox hunting ban, because of course she is: so is David Cameron, so he was hardly going to give Rural Affairs to someone who didn’t agree with him. I’m sure none of you will be surprised to learn that she’d also like to murderise the badgers, promising that “we will not let up, whatever complaints we get from protesters groups. We are in it for the long haul and we will not walk away”. At least she’s not a climate change denialist, I suppose – the bloke she took the role over from was.

This post contains public sector information, including images, that is licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

The Current UK Cabinet: Part 1/3

I should maybe subtitle this “in which I spend an entire evening obsessing about how scary our current cabinet ministers are so that you don’t have to”. There are thirty of the buggers, so you’re getting ten per post. Enjoy?

The Rt Hon David Cameron MP: Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Civil Service
I am increasingly concerned that our esteemed Prime Minister is in fact turning into a Marvel supervillain. You’ve all seen that image of a recent quote of his Photoshopped into a couple of frames of Dr. Doom, right? I saw it before I read about Cameron’s remarks, and my initial assumption was that it was a real Dr. Doom comic that someone was comparing to Cameron’s remarks as a sort of entertaining allegory. Sadly, I was wrong. I fear that Call-Me-Dave’s transformation will soon be complete. Just look at this glare+fists combo.

The Rt Hon George Osborne: First Secretary of State, Chancellor of the Exchequer
I’m not sure how much I need to say about Osborne, either; this is a familiar face and his is a familiar evil. His politics are responsible for so many illnesses, mental health crises and suicide attempts that even the Daily Mail admits it. Cameron has left him in charge of the money, which strikes fear into my heart, and let him have William Hague’s shiny honorary title to boot.

The Rt Hon Baroness Stowell of Beeston MBE: Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Privy Seal
Privy Seal is an honorary position these days; it’s pretty much the same kind of deal as a Minister Without Portfolio, which basically means “we’re not putting you in charge of anything but you can still have a special Cabinetty vote”. She’s…alright, actually. I mean, maybe there’s just something I don’t know, but I really quite like her; she was a proper northern working class girl who joined the Civil Service in a general making-the-tea sort of capacity and rose up right from the bottom to be literally the leader of the House of Lords. She’s never been married or linked to any kind of relationship, and quite often says things I’d call “feminist”. She’s also a huge supporter of GBLT rights, and was *highly* influential in successfully getting the equal marriage bill through the Lords. If I was ever going to fangirl a Tory peer, it would be her. I have no idea why she is a Tory at all, really. I expect she currently feels a bit like her entire party have suddenly turned as one to face her while hissing “WE HAVE ALL LAID ASIDE DISGUISE BUT YOU”.

The Rt Hon Theresa May: Secretary of State for the Home Department
Fuck Theresa May. Her entire job as Home Secretary seems set to be devoted to metaphorically waving around brushes loaded with bright red paint while screaming GO HOME at random passers-by. Her immediate reaction to finally shaking off those pesky Liberals was to immediately revive the massively unpopular Snooper’s Charter they squashed. I’m also a bit worried that she’s currently trying to sneak in the introduction of thoughtcrime through the back door created by Islamophobia. This woman is an old-fashioned Nasty Party-style Tory of the highest order, and I can barely even summon enough of a sense of sisterhood towards her to be pleased that she’s boosting the number of women in this Cabinet.

The Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP: Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Blah blah Foreign Secretary blah blah “the promotion of British interests abroad” blah: basically, this is the dude who is in charge of all the spies. That’s what’s cool about this job, right? I wish it was all he did, actually, because he’s a determined Eurosceptic whose job it is to look after our relations with Europe, and that does not ring hopeful to me. To make matters worse, he has a massively homophobic voting record – he voted against equal marriage, against adoption by same-sex couples and against equal age of consent. He was in the news a while back for saying that he was “disappointed” the Conservative party were discussing equal marriage, because it is “too controversial” and would be “damaging” to the party’s values. The Shadow Foreign Secretary put it best in the Pink News last summer, but the last paragraph of that article makes me so sad: there she was hoping this man would uphold basic human rights, and little did any of us know he’d be part of a shock movement to scrap them.

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP: Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Having noted that Gove has done everything in his power to fuck up our schools, Cameron has clearly now decided he should be set to the task of fucking up our courts and prisons instead. He was honestly probably the worst Education Secretary this country has ever had: he was eventually given a vote of no confidence by every single teachers’ union, something that is I believe utterly unprecedented. Interestingly, he seems to have been a real human being once – I have no idea what changed. My assumption is that he plans to bring the sense of corporatisation, red tape, bullying and fear with which he flooded the nation’s schools into the penal system, though this has yet to be proven. Here’s a fun fact, though: he is genuinely in favour of the death penalty, which is a remarkable extreme even for a Tory. Yes, folks, you read that right. The minister in charge of the justice system is pro-capital-punishment. Well done, everybody.

The Rt Hon Michael Fallon: Secretary of State for Defence
Interestingly, Cameron has picked someone for Defence Secretary who has a strong history of being all for the European integration of the UK – which could give those of us who would like to remain within the EU a faint glimmer of hope. He has, however, never made a single vote that would be of help to a poor person, seems to be alarmingly pro-our-soldiers-hitting-stuff and is generally kind of a dick. So, you know, there’s that.

The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP: Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade
This guy is the local MP for a friend of mine who is generally a bit left of centre, and this mate told me he was one of the good guys. I was all set to have some time for him, then, only for him to completely fuck the unions over within three minutes of being given his job. I feel somehow betrayed. I suspect that we’re reaching the point where unions are going to need to start instigating mass illegal strike action just to remind the bastards that the balance of power is not as squarely with them as they seem to think it is.

The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP: Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
Oh, Iain: I doubt that I would piss on you if you were on fire, and I’m usually the sort of person who tries to be vaguely nice to almost everybody. I’m not convinced it would be all that hyperbolic to call IDS a murderer. Cameron has seen fit to let this particularly nasty piece of work continue his reign of terror over the DWP, for some reason that nobody can work out. It’s not just that his policies are evil, it’s worse than that – they’re also incompetent. Universal Credit is a fucking shambles and it’s apparently now looking like it was rolled out so cack-handedly that they might not be able to implement it properly after all – thank heavens for small mercies, I suppose. I’m still baffled and appalled by his vile assertion that another £12bn can somehow be cut from the welfare system – not even the Financial Times understands where he’s going to find all of it. Both The Mirror and The Independent have put together terrifying run-downs of why there is such a lot to loathe about this man, and I suggest you read them if you fancy a good scare. Not even his own party’s supporters like him.

The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP: Secretary of State for Health
Take a good look at that photo, people, because you might very well be staring at the face of the man who is going to systematically undermine and destroy this country’s single greatest asset. As far as I can tell, Jeremy Hunt basically hates the NHS or something? This is a subject particularly near and dear to my heart because I adore our NHS: I have often said that I am “actually very patriotic, in my way” and the National Health Service is the first thing I’ll mention if you press me to talk about that more. Hunt is particularly bad when it comes to mental health, which he seems to mostly think isn’t a real thing. That’s not even the scariest thing about him, though: he seems to want to reduce the abortion time limit to twelve weeks, a point at which many women don’t yet even know they’re pregnant. His are not a safe pair of hands in which to leave something as precious as our healthcare provisions.

This post contains public sector information, including images, that is licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

coverWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is one of those books that’s difficult to review because you don’t want to ruin the twist. It doesn’t have the slow, sneaking-up reveal of MR Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, which I probably won’t review here as I read it last year, but which was probably the best book I read in 2014 and is well worth a look. It’s nothing like as earth-shattering as the sudden about-turn of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, either (have you not read Fingersmith? Go and do it now, please, immediately). It’s still an intriguing moment that it would be a shame to ruin, however. I was certainly surprised, having thought up to that point that I’d cracked it and then finding myself proved entirely wrong.

The central character and narrator (though not, I suspect, the protagonist), Rosemary Cooke, is a particularly well-realised and vivid portrait of someone who instantly feels real. We have things in common, she and I – particularly a shared experience of having been the kind of irritating small child who never shuts up and who is surrounded by adults who tire of listening to endless tall tales.

As I say, she’s not a protagonist. Her sister Fern is, though indirectly; her friend Harlow moves the events of the novel forward in all manner of engaging ways. Her brother, Lowell, is the protagonist of his story even if not of this one. Rose, though? Rose reacts. A tendency to be reactive rather than proactive is something I struggle with myself – but in fiction it can lead to dull, two-dimensional characters, and Fowler has done an excellent job of avoiding that fate here.

If this book is about anything, it’s about family. They fuck you up, your mum and dad – and Rose’s parents certainly seem to have fucked up all three of their children, to varying degrees and in different ways. It’s part coming-of-age novel, part fictional autobiography, part psychological study of the effects of an unusual childhood. I was also very drawn to Rose’s mother – who reminded me of myself as well, though in a different way. “I wanted you to have an extraordinary life”, she says at one point, by way of an explanation for the decisions she’s made – a desire for which I have a lot of sympathy. It doesn’t always work out, though; Rose may have had an extraordinary life, but has that actually made her into an extraordinary person?

It’s not perfect. The book’s timeline is a bit jumbled and occasionally hard to follow; the whole thing is a flashback, and there are other flashbacks within it. It’s possible to lose track of when you are, and end up slightly out of the loop. It’s made an effort to deal with some very difficult issues in a highly personal way, and that can at times come off as perhaps not taking them quite seriously enough. All that said though it’s still well worth a read; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a touching and compelling book, one that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes true-to-life fiction with a bit of a twist.

Dead Men’s Bones

A photo I took as I was writing this post.

A photo I took as I was writing this post.

Brighton is my second favourite of the train stations I know, and this from someone who is more than a little romantic about train stations. My favourite thing about it, of course, is the smell, and so I step excitedly off my train and take a deep breath and fill my lungs with –

– nothing. At first I think I’m imagining it, and then I wonder if I haven’t got a blocked nose without noticing it. Neither of these things seem to be the case, however, and eventually I have to admit it: I can’t smell the sea. I keep trying with increased concern all the way down West Street, telling myself that once I’m past the first townie bit – once I get to the Clocktower – once I’m out on the front it will be alright. And yet, somehow, it isn’t. I get all the way to the Albion without catching more than the barest whiff of what was always such a robust, heady scent.

My hotel room is like Brighton itself: shabby, peeling, a half-ghostly memory of past grandeur. I don’t know what the window looks out onto because the glass is so thickly frosted it’s impossible to tell, but it certainly isn’t the sea. The room is big, though, and comfortable enough, and I never minded a bit of run-down luxury. I put down my bag and unpack my pyjamas for later and charge my phone for a bit and go to the loo and then, when I’m ready, strike out across the road to the waiting pier.

Palace Pier never changes. I look straight down as I walk to watch glimpses of the teal sea flash past as the boards bend and give under my footsteps. I remember the photograph of me and my stepfather on the helter-skelter, my aunt being the only person who would agree to go with me on the waltzer, my mother dropping a prawn through the gaps in the floor, my Nana patiently changing stack after stack of her own loose change into tokens for me to feed the flashing machines. I wonder which booth my friend Liz used to sit in to read the Tarot and try to imagine what it would be like to come to a wedding here, blustered about after listening to an exchange of vows in Victoria’s Bar. But I still can’t smell the sea.

I go shopping after that, navigate through streets that I once knew a great deal better than I do today. The grass in the Pavilion Gardens is not as lush as I remember it from picnics with Nana. It’s only been a year since I was last in Brighton and it’s not like I’ve ever gone any longer than that without a visit – as a child I was here at least one weekend nearly every month for many years – but it feels in a way a great deal longer. My favourite cafe, one that opened not too long after the war when my Nana was still a teenager, has disappeared. My favourite shop from when I was fourteen has vanished, too. The best alternative jewellers in the Lanes has gone all silvery mainstream and I can’t find the headshop where I bought my first everything.

Other things, thankfully, are comfortingly right. The Brighton Bead Shop is just as it ought to be, and the friendly women behind the counter sell me earring hooks and foiled beads with the kind of knowledgeable pleasantness everyone working there has always had. I buy some fantastic shoes and a matching bag from an almost ludicrously lovely and helpful woman a few doors down from Komedia. I have a run-in with a tobacconist on Jubilee Street who seems to think it’s still 1953 and women should smoke super-slims if anything at all.

In the evening, I wind through the dusk to the little pub that was my father’s local when he was in his teens and early twenties. I’m there to meet my cousin and her aunt, old family friends I’ve never quite been able to believe I’m not related to by blood, and we talk about how our fathers – well, mine and Claire’s fathers and Debbie’s brother, both dead this spring – sat here with their other closest friend, the man who is now my Uncle Pete, and gradually become the men we knew all our lives. We’re in the corner booth they used to claim as their own, and Claire at least drinks the ales they always favoured even if Deb and I prefer white wine and gin respectively.

Afterwards we walk past houses on Ditchling Road and Cat’s Corner, and Debbie points out where our fathers used to walk and talk and play and sit and read. We all tear up a little. What injustice, that this has come to us both at once.

Walking back through the Laines with a cone of chips in one hand and an illicit bottle of cider in the other, I realise all of a sudden that I can at last smell the sea. Once I take my leave of Claire I head straight for the beach rather than my hotel, and stand alone in the darkness squinting at the horizon past the shimmer of moonlight on ocean. The sea after midnight is intensely personal no matter how many people you share it with; there’s an entire nightclub not fifty yards behind me, but the stone-on-stone rushing of the waves drowns out its noise and nobody is paying attention to me as I talk to the water.

Earlier, disconsolate, I had texted my mother upset at how things weren’t quite right here. She wasn’t sympathetic at all, being as she is quite thoroughly disillusioned with the town she grew up in already; “remember”, she said, “that the place is a whited sepulchre. You are finally getting a glimpse behind the veil.” I think to myself then, feet sinking into shingle at almost one in the morning, that despite it all she was wrong. Salt water runs in my veins as deeply as ink, and there could be no veil between me and this ocean.

Yes, I was there too.

Reflective baby blue is so not my colour.

In which I discover that there’s nowhere to clip a radio to an evening dress.

Nine years ago, at the 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow, someone who went on to become incredibly influential in my life who I had only met that weekend for the first time gave me a slightly aghast look and said, “what do you mean you’ve never even heard of LiveJournal?” We weren’t always carting around three different little magically internet-connected devices then (the first person I knew who got anything on a network a bit like the 3G we all now use was her husband a year or so later, and back then we all teased him a bit for his dedication being as such that he now had the internet in his pocket at all times) and so she dragged me bodily over to one of the laptops set up in the fan lounge and opened my first blog of any kind.

I was sixteen years old and that weekend changed my life forever. From there I was taken to goth clubs, introduced to people who were bisexual and polyamorous and who liked the same music as I liked and read the same books as I read. The first fanzine article I ever wrote was published in the fanzine that had won the Hugo that year; I was pleased with this in the way that only a sixteen year old trying very hard to be impressive can be. Nearly everyone I now count as a friend is someone I met because of a chain of events that started at that convention; the vast majority of all the people I’ve slept with or dated, the two close friends I’ve been living with for the past two years, practically everyone I know. I was in my late teens, looking for a life to be launched into, and the one I ended up shooting towards has been shaped by where it started in a thousand different ways.

I sort-of left fandom for a bit a few years ago. It was never supposed to be permanent, but it was a time when I needed to take a step back – I’d joined a roleplaying group whose own events pretty much ate the money I’d have spent on going to conventions, for long and complicated reasons I was concerned that a couple of people I liked very much indeed didn’t want me around and I hated the idea of causing awkwardness, once you’re out of the habit of doing something it gets easier and easier to stay away and harder and harder to go back, that sort of thing. There was never any question, however, that Dad and I would go to the London Worldcon. They were having a Worldcon in London, for god’s sake: why wouldn’t we be there?

Of course, the truth of it is that there is at least one reason we wouldn’t be there, and as a result of that very thing one of us wasn’t. We none of us expected my father to go as soon as he did, and while I briefly wondered when he bought my membership if he might not be too ill to enjoy it properly it hadn’t occurred to me in the least that he might have been dead for three months by the time the convention started.

This has been a strange weekend: simultaneously energising of spirit and knackering of body, filled with friends both old and new yet often remarkably lonely, an event that has made me feel like I’ve come back home but also one that made it clear to me I really have been away longer than I maybe should have gone. I’ve never been any good at actually writing proper conreps – I think the only one I ever did properly was the one that was printed in Plokta a decade ago – so in lieu of something that I’m still pretending to myself I might actually sit down and write later, have a series of bullet points.

Thursday

  • I was actually genuinely nervous as I arrived at the con early on Thursday morning; Dad wasn’t with me and I wasn’t entirely certain of the reception my return might receive and there was one moment when I almost bailed. By mid-afternoon however it had been shown that none of the social awkwardness I was worried about was in any way a thing and I’d actually been being stupid, I’d been to two panels and the opening ceremony, I’d caught up with a whole load of people, I’d drunk three pints and I was immensely relieved I hadn’t wussed out.
  • The Retro Hugo Awards, for which I wore the closest thing I own to a vaguely 30s-ish dress and looked (if I may say so myself) rather elegant although not at all historically accurate, were actually really very good fun. The metaplot worked well and the note from Beatrice Welles brought a tear to my eye.
  • There was no gin! This was a disaster! Except it wasn’t, because as soon as I mentioned the convention’s inherent ginlessness to bohemiancoast she went and fixed it. Which was excellent.

Friday

  • By this point in the con it was becoming painfully clear that the hard parts were mealtimes and the big staged Auditorium events. There were enough friends around that I could reliably just amble around the fan village till I saw someone I knew well enough to go over and join, but I wasn’t at the con *with* anyone and that was, at times, really very hard indeed.
  • I’m glad I sat in on the open rehearsal for a bit with dougs, even if I did cry a bit at Jupiter and then get embarrassed about bursting randomly into tears. Dad loved the Planets Suite, as do I. The orchestral performance itself was very impressive indeed, and probably the major highlight of my convention – the 86-piece orchestra was made up of members of the Royal Philharmonic and various other orchestras of that calibre, and there were several moments when I cried more just because they were so good. I particularly enjoyed the Haydn (there’s something incredibly restrained about The Representation of Chaos, isn’t there; it sits for so long on the brink of an outburst that never quite seems to come), the Doctor Who theme tune (that theremin player was so beautiful, and he seemed so very pleased to be there – it was lovely just to watch his face, not to mention the arrangement they played was a lot of fun), the soprano they had for Song to the Moon, the Holst again, and The Unanswered Question – which seemed to me to be both about humanity reaching out into the universe looking for life elsewhere and also about the ways in which we all do that to each other on a smaller scale – sometimes life feels like we’re all trapped inside our own heads, trying to reach out and see if there are really other real people who are just as complex and deep as we feel ourselves to be. Part of the human condition is in never being able to reach anyone else entirely, nor to be entirely reached.
  • Oh my god, the late Party Maven shift was exhausting. At least nothing went too wrong! Design flaw: there’s no useful way to clip a walkie talkie radio to an evening dress. Someone should get on that.

Saturday

  • I only made it to one panel on Saturday, and I was unceremoniously evicted from it a third of the way through because the room was overcrowded. What I was there for was really very interesting, though.
  • This was my big dressing-up-and-dancing night. I wore stockings and a corset and everything. The Barfleet party, with its star turn from d_floorlandmine and its terrifying shots, was the social/partying highlight of my con – I had an excellent time. Also, I went to bed at 6am. Whoops.

Sunday

  • Sunday morning was a hungover washout, but the afternoon was a success – two very interesting panels, a lovely conversation with someone I’ve known a bit for years but have never spoken to one-on-one or at length before and now feel like I know much better, and some excellent carrot cake.
  • I wholeheartedly enjoyed livetweeting the Hugo awards, and it was also pretty successful; I was the first person to post most of the results to Twitter, an author whose books I really like but who I’ve never met retweeted me a few times, and it made sitting there alone feel a lot less lonely. I was incredibly touched by the fact that Dad was listed and remembered during the memorial section, though I hadn’t thought to expect it and I did cry a lot.

Monday

  • Raising a memorial toast to my dad at the Literary Beers table on the last night was someone else’s idea, as it hadn’t occurred to me that it was something I could do – but a very good one it was too. I was so touched by the fact that people turned up, and I was immensely glad that I had the ability to buy everyone who did a pint on him. Dad’s pre-printed con badge was there too, as I’d picked it up from Registration earlier in the day. I hated the thought that after all those decades of convention-going his last ever membership would just get thrown away, so I brought it home with me.
  • I really like Dead Dog parties at cons – they’re often one of the best nights. This one was no exception, and it gave me a chance to properly catch up with people I’d barely spoken to all weekend because they were so busy and Worldcons are so big.

The problem with bullet-pointed lists is that they don’t reach nice conclusions, and now I feel like this post is just going to be left hanging…

…so I’ll just say again how this weekend was both excellent and difficult by turns (sometimes simultaneously), and how although I was keenly aware right through of the fact that Dad wasn’t there it was made a lot easier by how readily other people and the convention itself remembered him and called him to mind and listened to me when I talked about him. So thank you, for that: thank you all.

Anything So Magnificent

(c) Allie Whiteley, 2011

(c) Allie Whiteley, 2011

Virginia Woolf once said that nothing has ever really happened until it has been written down. Ever since I first came across that quote at the age of twelve or thirteen I’ve lived under the shadow of all the things that never really happened to me: not just the the parties nobody will ever remember in perfect clarity or the the startling three AM thoughts that slipped away, but also the nothings. The days when nothing happened.

What do we do with our lost days? My mother once bought me a little book called A Thought A Day, with a short space to write a sentence in every evening for five years. I wasn’t very good at keeping up with it, and so sometimes I’d find myself going back and writing up a week or a fortnight at a time, pretending to my future self that I’d developed the habit properly. I’d get to a certain point and realise I didn’t have anything to say because I couldn’t remember a single notable moment from the day in question. What did I do last Tuesday, I’d ask myself, What ever did I do, and then I’d start to panic because I’d got so keenly aware of how tiny and insignificant my life was and how much of it I was wasting on days I couldn’t even remember a single thing about. The past is a memory, and the future is a daydream, and all we actually have for real is this here – this exact moment, the one that will have fled even by the time I finish hitting the next key on the keyboard.

My father is a part of the past now, and he has been since early Monday morning. He is a memory kept alive by our scrabbling minds, a whisper fading inside an echo chamber. All I can do – as a writer, and a rememberer, and a daughter, and a mourner – is shout as loudly as I can till the urge to keep it going lessens.

*****

At about half past ten on Sunday morning, I was woken up by a phone call from the hospital. “He’s not doing so well”, the nurse said. “You should come.” I threw on some clothes and ran downstairs to where my housemate, my best friend, was sitting at the computer in the living room. “The hospital rang”, I said. She went to pick up her car keys.

When I got there, nothing seemed very dramatic at all; much as I’d left it when I went home the evening before. I sat with him and talked to him – to him, not with him, because by that point he couldn’t speak. He hadn’t really been able to since Wednesday. I don’t know if he could even hear me by then but I talked and talked, and other people came and went and they all talked too, until eventually they’d all gone and night was falling and I sat down in a chair by the hospital bed – we were in a private room by then, which was a blessing – and I thought to myself how this could be the last time I ever sat alone with my dad while he was still alive. I didn’t know what else to say or what more to do so I pulled out the copy of The Hobbit I had in my handbag for this very purpose and I started to read it to him.

My father and I have a special relationship with The Hobbit. He’s read it to me, and I’ve read it to him, and it was the first proper novel I read all by myself as a child, and it’s of most vital importance to us both. Dad and I can and often do both recite the first paragraph:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

For the rest of my life whenever I see those words I will hear my own voice quaking and breaking at my father’s bedside, and remember how I recited Misty Mountains almost from memory because my eyes were so thick with tears I could barely see the page. I didn’t leave the hospital till after ten PM that night and when I did, I stayed with friends who live nearby. I slept poorly and fitfully on their sofa, my phone clutched in my hand and a set of clothes laid out by the coffee table just in case. When it rang I wasn’t at all surprised. I was at the hospital well inside fifteen minutes after they woke me to tell me they thought he’d stopped breathing.

*****

The hospital lay sleeping, the ward a dimmed silence far removed from all the hustle I’d got used to being there amongst. It was a little after four in the morning and the nurses gave me a cup of tea and showed me silently into his room. He was lain flat on his back, straightened out, not in a position he could have been in during the few weeks that went before. He looked small and peaceful and very, very still. I felt myself wracked by a silent sob. “Oh, Dad”, I think I said. “Oh dad, oh dad, oh dad.”

“I love you so much. Fuck. I love you so, so much. How could you do this to me? No, I don’t mean that. I’m sorry. How could you – don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I love you so much. I’m sorry. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Did I ever say that? I don’t think I ever said that. How could I possibly have never said that? I love you so much.”

When it had passed, I moved to stand by his bed and I googled Psalm 23 and started reading it over him, but I was reading the wrong one – it was the NIV and you never use the NIV for Psalm 23, it’s the KJV everyone means when they think about it, but by the time I realised I’d already started and you can’t just stop and regoogle and go again, can you, talk about ruining the moment. So I read the wrong Psalm 23 and then I said the Lord’s Prayer and a collect and the Glory Be and some other things, and then I realised that I’d run out of prayers I knew off by heart and was saying the Hail Mary which is about the least Calvinist thing ever and while Dad wouldn’t have minded it wouldn’t have meant anything to him either, so I shut up for a moment and phoned his brother. “He’s gone. It’s over.”

Chris had to start getting everyone up and out and into the car, and I phoned my boyfriend and said it all over again and he started mobilising, and then I made the sign of the cross of my father’s forehead and left the room and had a word with the nurses and got back in the lift and went outside and rolled a cigarette. This was when it got bad. I phoned the vicar first – I got the poor man out of bed before five in the morning for not a lot, but he was lovely about it – and then my mother, at least in part because she and her husband get up that early most weekdays anyway so I knew I wouldn’t wake them, and then I tried to go back inside but it was so hot in the hospital that every time I started walking down the corridor I felt like I couldn’t continue. I knew I was going to throw up but I didn’t know when and I had to get it over and done with and I couldn’t bear the heat and I just felt sicker and sicker and worse and worse, and I wanted to sit and talk to the vicar on the phone for a bit and he would have done just that but I couldn’t speak I felt so sick, and all I could do was pace around the hospital grounds like a madwoman until eventually I vomited horribly in the most discreet outdoor corner I could find, horribly, over and over till there was nothing of me left.

After that I could go back inside. I sat for another forty-five minutes or so in the chair next to my father’s bed, the same chair I’d read The Hobbit to him from just the day before, with my hand on his shoulder and my forehead resting against the metal bed-frame, and I talked and talked till everyone else arrived. Dead bodies are strange. His is the second I’ve seen, and the first had been embalmed and that does make a big difference – my dad still looked mostly like himself, but his mouth and eyes were both frozen in this strange half-open way that nobody would ever stay like were they alive and I kept thinking I could see the bedclothes rising and falling with his breaths but I knew it was just an illusion – just my eyes seeing what my brain expected them to see.

I don’t suppose I need to write down all the things that happened next. They happened to other people, too, and so they’re in much less danger of fading from reality.

I will say, though, that I didn’t spend that night in my own home either, and when I got back there the next night I went upstairs to go directly to sleep and there on the foot of my bed were my father’s bags, all the stuff of his I’d brought home from the hospital. I’d forgotten they were there and I fell to my knees with the weight of the blow. When I’d recovered a little I picked up his iPad and it was still on, still charged. I glanced through some things and I found a letter, a piece of writing not unlike this one in spirit, written by the daughters of a close friend of my Dad’s who had died only a few short weeks previously. I don’t have the iPad here with me and I couldn’t quote the context, but there was a line in it that just said As if anything as magnificent as our father’s brain could possibly die!

As if indeed. As if.

More cookery

A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted to Facebook that she had a couple of free Abel & Cole codes going. I had been lamenting that very day that I missed fresh vegetables and loved the idea of having an organic box delivery but could by no means afford one, so I jumped at the chance. I then ordered a far larger and more expensive box than I would have gone with if it hadn’t been entirely free, and eagerly anticipated its arrival. It came on Wednesday, and with its blue potatoes and British chard did not at all disappoint. For dinner that night I made chili chard rice with buttered nuts and feta cheese, and it was reasonably delicious.

Thanks to a string of dates with various people* I didn’t get to cook again till yesterday afternoon, when the three of us lunched on spiced tomato soup and soda bread. This was excellent for several reasons: firstly because we were all in the house at once and I got to cook for us (I really, really love cooking for my two housemates, but we rarely want to eat all at the same time), secondly because it was completely delicious despite the fact that I’m not generally a big soup-eater, thirdly because it meant I actually ate a real meal before going to a party (I am usually too disorganised) and fourthly because I got to show off beautifully and I still love showing off. There is something immensely satisfying about seeing the looks of ‘oh god we might die of hunger we shall not eat till next week’ on people’s faces when you announce that you have on a whim decided to make a fresh loaf to go with lunch, and then forty minutes later presenting them with light, airy fresh bread, still warm from the oven in no time at all. Thank you, Jack Monroe.

I’m essentially trying to use things up in the order I think they’ll go off in – chard first because fresh and leafy, then the tomatoes – so I suspect that the broccoli needs to be next and I shall use it tomorrow. What is your favourite thing to do with broccoli? I am tempted to simply fry slices of it in butter and serve it with macaroni cheese. I make pretty decent macaroni cheese (the trick is to make a good roux, which I have quite the knack for these days) and I haven’t done so in an age.  I’m very open to suggestions, though. I might then turn the other head into pesto, if I get round to picking up some nuts.

* Thereby making my life sound a great deal more exciting than it probably is

In which I am not a very good mythological being

Today, I had a small timing accident at Surrey Quays overground station. It’s happened to everyone who lives in London: the person in front of you has some kind of problem with their ticket but you don’t notice in time to fall out of rhythm, so you swipe your Oyster card anyway and then they go through on it, thinking the problem is solved, and you’re stuck on the other side unable to get out. Resigned to a dull conversation, I went to explain my predicament to the nearest guard.

“I can let you through”, he says, “but first you have to answer three questions. You answer my questions, I let you through. Okay?”

Oh god, I think, I’ve found a jobsworth. I sigh internally and prepare myself to justify my entire journey to him so he knows I’m not trying to jump.

“First question: why are you so beautiful?”

My heart sinks even further. Not this again, for fuck’s sake. I muster a smile and shine it at him brightly. “Thank you”, I reply. “That’s very sweet.”

“No, no! Don’t just say ‘thank you’. Answer my question: why are you so beautiful?”

“Um. Good genes, I guess.” I wonder if I should be telling him how inappropriate this is, but the truth is I just want to get through the barrier and go home. My bag is uncomfortably heavy and my boots are hurting my feet. He would, technically, be well within his rights to make a fuss: check the CCTV, go through my Oyster card history, blame me for not paying enough attention at the barriers.

He laughs. “So you get good genes and I get bad ones, is that what you mean?”

“No! Aha. Oh. No. Um.” My heart is hammering a little because I feel trapped, obliged, and I don’t like it. The balance of power here is not in my favour, and not just because he’s clearly stronger than I am.

“And your eyebrows. I love your eyebrows. Do you shave them off?”

They always talk about my eyebrows, for some reason. I nod. “Yes. Yeah, I draw them on.”

He grins broadly at me and leans in closer. Our faces are far nearer to each other than I want them to be, now. “Next question: how many boyfriends have you had? I am sure you must have had…a thousand.”
Somewhat against my better judgement I seem to be playing his game, so I answer without thinking: “Oh, five or six.” This is bullshit, of course – the true answer to that question is a hell of a lot more complicated, but I don’t fancy getting into a debate about the definitions of a relationship with this man. Nor do I fancy coming out and having to explain that some of them were girlfriends instead.

“You are lying! A woman as beautiful as you, she must have had a hundred boyfriends. So then, my last question.”

I briefly contemplate pointing out that he’s had three already, but come to the conclusion that it would probably just prolong the experience even further. I’m feeling deeply uncomfortable at this point. But I nod anyway, and wait for him to continue.

“How many boyfriends do you have right now?”

I laugh, a little nervously. “Just the one”, I say.

“How long have you been with him?”

Are follow-up questions fair game? This man has clearly not read very much mythology. I kind of wish I was a dragon or a sphinx or something so that I could actually do something useful about this. All I say, though, is the truth: “A year. It was our first anniversary yesterday.”

He shakes his head. “I want to kill him so I can be with you”, he says. He’s smiling to show that it’s a joke. The only think that surprises me about this ‘joke’ is that it is by no means the first time someone has made it to me.

“On balance, I’d rather you didn’t”, I say. “I’m rather fond of him.”

“I could buy you so many more beautiful dresses, so much more jewellery than he does! I would treat you so well.”

Unconsciously I find myself checking my ears for earrings: the ones he gave me for our anniversary yesterday, the ones he gave me for my birthday last summer, the ones he gave me for Valentine’s Day this year. I adore all three pairs, and am forever obsessively checking to make sure they’re secure and aren’t going to fall out. I consider making some kind of slightly underhanded joke about how I’m quite sure that TfL doesn’t pay him more than my boyfriend earns, but it’s both irrelevant and bitchy so I refrain. “I’m very happy where I am, actually”, is what I say out loud, “and I’d quite like to go home.”

He leans in again, thwarting my attempt to take a step or two toward the barrier. “Can I come with you?”

I twitch a little. He’s actually getting slightly sinister now. “I’m sure that’s at least six questions”, I blurt out. “You said three, remember?”

There’s a horrible pause where I try not to think about all the things he might be about to do, and then he laughs loudly in my face. “Funny and beautiful!”, he says, and finally swipes the nearest barrier to let me through.
I stammer out a thanks and try to leave the station as quickly as possible. “I will see you again soon!”, he calls after me, and unfortunately he’s right – we’re at the station I use the most often.

This broad category of thing happens to me at least once a week, but it only gets this bizarre on about an annual basis. Sadly, today I didn’t manage to acquit myself quite as well as I feel like I did with the creepy Tesco employee back in 2010, but you can’t win them all.

They’re slightly radioactive, you know.

This was a LiveJournal post that I made all the way back in 2010. But I wanted to link to it from a post I’m about to make to this blog – and really, who uses LJ these days? – so here it is, for your edification &c. I promise you that my father doesn’t pay my bills any more [grin]


“Excuse me, ma’am”, says a cheery voice in a navy blue uniform, “but do you have a Tesco Clubcard?”

“Yes,” I reply, trying not to break my stride. “I do.” I’m distinctly relieved that for once they’re touting something I can truthfully say I already use.

“Do you use Clubcard Vouchers to pay your gas and electric bills?”

Reluctantly, I give in and stop walking. “I don’t, no.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t pay the gas and electric.” This is also true, but I know as soon as I say it that I should have gone with ‘I don’t spend enough in Tesco to cover them’ instead. Which is no less true, and would have ended the conversation faster.

“Who does?”, he asks. “Your husband?”

“My father”, I tell him. This too is a mistake. I’ve shared a personal detail. There’s no going back now: we’re in this for the long haul.

“Lucky you!”

“Yes”, I agree, hurriedly. I fear I am in for a jovial ‘youth of today’ rant. “I’m a student.” This detail usually ameliorates some of the embarrassment of the previous revelation. Everybody knows students are broke.

“Oh! What are you studying?”

“English Literature and Creative Writing”, I reply. I know what’s coming next.

“Are you a writer, then?”

“Well – I write, yes.”

“Novels?”

“Sometimes.”

“How many have you got published?”

“Er. None. Yet.”

“Oh. You’re not very good, then?”

I stammer something nonsensical with a lot of ‘um, er, ah’-ing.

“I’m only joking with you!”, he laughs. “What sort of novels?”

“Fantasy, mostly.”

He looks shocked. “What, like” – and here his voice drops to a whisper. “Dirty books?”

“No, no”, I smile. “Magic. Time travel. That sort of thing.”

“Oh!” He looks a little disappointed. “Like Harry Potter?”

“Er. Um. A little bit like that, I suppose. But for grown-ups.” I avoid the word ‘adult’. That way madness lies.

“You look a bit Harry Potterish.”

I smile again, feigning ignorance of his point.

“I knew a gothic once. He had a coffin instead of a bed. I thought, that’s a bit weird, innit? Isn’t that a bit weird?”

“I have a normal bed”, I assure him, and instantly wish I hadn’t.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Yes”, I reply, with ringing certainty. It’s the first out-and-out lie I’ve told him, but I refuse to break the golden rule of women conversing with strange men. When that question comes – which it inevitably does – always, always say ‘yes’.

“Alright, alright!” He throws his hands up in mock surrender. “I weren’t offering.” There is an awkward pause.

“I really must be going,” I say. “I need to find the baked beans.”

“Black ones?”, he asks, grinning broadly. I don’t get it for a second. “Is everything you eat black?”

My basket is full of brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables. “Um. No, I just eat…you know. Normal food.”

“Why do you draw your eyebrows on like that?”

“I like the way it looks.”

“Why not just pluck them really thin?”

“Er. Um. I like them like this.”

“Do you need help finding the baked beans?”

“Oh, er, no, thank you. I know where they are. Thank you.”

And then comes Inevitable Question #2: “What’s all them scars on your arms?”

I look down with an expression of surprise, as though I’d forgotten they were there. Which I do, most of the time. “Oh, those”, I say. “It’s a very long story, and it involves a porcupine and a banana.” He looks at me as though I’ve gone utterly barmy. “Trust me”, I continue in darkly confidential tones. “Porcupines really don’t like bananas. They’re slightly radioactive, you know. The bananas, not the porcupines. Not unless they’ve been eating bananas. And then…” I gesture to my forearms with my eyebrows raised ruefully.

In the ensuing confusion I smile apologetically and take my leave, to spend the rest of my time in the supermarket carefully taking circuitous routes through aisles so as to stay out of his line of sight.