#8 Murder and death

I wove my path between the cows, feeling like a farmer, swinging my aluminium water bottle like a miniature milk canister. People are crushed by cows all the time, not continually, but several, annually. Sometimes cows will crowd a timid walker, slowly squeezing him to death with warm, suffocating curiosity. Occasionally, one lone cow will go berserk and charge, utterly out of character. These cows were calm.
They have large heads and walk like heavy horses, their brains must be of a significant size. We often hear that our brains go 90% unused, what if the cow uses all of its mango-sized one? The herd were gathered on my side of the valley in clearly defined groups that faced the same direction, with one or two loners mooching about, doing their own thing (mainly eating). The sinking sun illuminated the opposite hill, about a quarter of a mile away, and I saw instinct more clearly at work. A semi-circle facing a possible threat, a line grazing the best grass. Perhaps they use their brains for sustained empathy. Imagine continual, mindful understanding of the others in your herd, shared parenting, companionship and security. Or perhaps they move instinctively, ancient patterns woven into double-helices.
I eat the dead flesh of these gentle beasts. I can convince myself that I know how to hunt and gather, I should be able to kill and butcher one myself, that makes it okay. Cows are relatively easy to round-up and kill. Meat producers have made the process more pleasant for the animals, kindly designing the abattoir route so that the final bolt through the skull is a real surprise. I don’t dwell on the cow holocaust. I try to eat ethically.

Death comes to us all, the cows are murdered. Whether I’m murdered or reach the end of my allotted time, one day I will surely die. Natural death may be considerably more prolonged and painful than a quick gutting. People have probably been murdered in this field on a hillside over the past few hundred years. There is an enticing view into the soft Somerset hills along the valley, it would be a gentle place to bleed.
I have had a tiring and depressing week. The animals and the plants, the mushrooms and the trees have lived and died in the same week. They make no choices in life other than to follow the most direct path toward survival. Do their lives lack meaning? Wouldn’t our Earth be more wondrous if every trace of humans was suddenly removed? What is our great architecture, our invention, our fractured society to a willow by a river? A fox trotting? An owl.
Meaning in life is in its living. Somewhere, death sits and waits and will make it quick or slow, kind or cruel. Life is a cow grazing under a lavender sky. It is me lying under the same sky, staring upward, the seeing of it as relaxing as having my eyes closed.

#4 Breakfast

I’m naturally lazy and, given the chance, I think most people probably are. It may just be lazy thinking, but I find work hard work. As a supply teacher, I both rejoice in and bemoan days without work. These are days in which I can almost feel myself slipping further into debt, and yet they are also a gift, six hours of my own.

The preparation of a leisurely breakfast is something to savour. Unhurried by the school run, there is the chance to actually observe coffee percolate, toast toast and an egg coddle. The eating of it (inside/outside? Radio/tv? In bed?!) is the domestic equivalent of matins. Each unhurried mouthful of food a moment of meditation and unity.

#7 Noel Edmonds and me

Noel Edmonds lives behind my daughter’s school. He lives in a large Georgian-style house with a recently landscaped lake near the Avon. If I’m not working and take my daughter to school at a normal time, we often pass him on the A4175 between Keynsham and Bitton. Oddly, he drives an anonymous-looking old black cab.

Everyone at school knows Noel lives around the corner. I think we’re all quite proud of it. He lives here because it’s a nice, rural spot, but easily commutable to the Endemol studios in Bristol, where he records Deal or No Deal. I have memories of all his programmes:
  Noel’s Multi-Coloured Swap-Shop – lurid and psychedelic,
  Telly Addicts – an array of giant tellies and Eighties graphics 
  Mr Blobby – the giant pink bell-end of a mascot from Noel’s House Party.
But I also remember something bad had happened along the way, somebody had died.

There was another programme, The Late, Late Breakfast Show, which was on in the evening. It featured the Whirly Wheel which a member of the public would spin, randomly selecting a stunt which they would then have a week to train for, before performing live the following week. It turns out the Whirly Wheel wasn’t really random, there was a technician behind it who fixed the result. One week, a man called Michael Lush span the Whirly Wheel and got bungee-jumping from an exploding box suspended from a 120 foot crane. The following week, on the 13th November, 1986, he fell to his death and died from multiple injuries. 

Noel resigned from the show which was instantly terminated by the BBC, who paid Mr Lush’s family compensation equivalent to £285, 600 in today’s money. At the inquest, the jury heard of many failings by the production team, not least that the carabiner securing Mr Lush to his only rope was insufficient to support the weight of a bag of sugar.

Sometimes things linger in the mind. This association between Noel Edmonds and a pointless, embarrassing death has stayed with me. I saw Noel a few Sunday’s back. I had gone to the farm which adjoins his house to buy some chickens. As I left, Noel was stood at a back gate in a t-shirt, smiling, friendly and looking like anyone else on a Sunday morning. Our eyes briefly met. The death wasn’t his fault, it was a long time ago, and despite having lived my entire life familiar with his face, I don’t know Noel. Yet somehow my brain has formed subtle connections. I have not become a stalker, but I now have an inkling where they come from.

#6 Poor

Being skint, it’s hard to be able to say thank-you properly. My daughter was given two bags crammed full of excellent clothes by her school-mate today. I wanted to buy a card, or some flowers for the mum, but have no money. Absolutely none.
I will have worked four days this week, but have nowhere near the money I need to pay rent, bills, or buy food and petrol. If I get called in to work tomorrow, I may not be able to go because the car is empty. I don’t have £3.98 to print a photograph from an online shop for my mum’s birthday. It’s proving hard to remain chirpy on the school drop-off, to maintain a professional demeanour where I work, or even to remain patient with my daughter.
Despite education and an innoculation of middle-class expectations, poor choices and naiive optimism have lead me to this point of bankruptcy. The picture of a modest house, tasteful living and a comfortable pension has receded beyond view. What remains is a bit bleak:
a pokey flat, not enough food, shabby clothes, constant reminders of money owed, well-meaning condescension in the playground and a daughter with limited opportunities.
Can I go on this trip? No.
Can I have a guinea-pig? No.
Can I have music lessons? No.
Can I buy something? No.
Rent is the hardest bill to meet. I won’t go into how much it is etc., but should explain that in order to move into a cheaper property, my landlord is charging me extra. Despite working hard, looking after my daughter and being honest, I cannot meet my obligations and am sinking rapidly further into debt.
I have no idea what to do. My parents have already lent me five hundred pounds, which I cannot repay. My girlfriend has offered to give me a loan, but how can I borrow more from loved ones when there is no clear way to repay? Tomorrow, I will go to the council and see what can be done. My bank statements and bills will spell out exactly how bad it is. I have a feeling that my case will not be unusual or surprising; there’s a lot of it about.
Look at a piece of archive footage from the Seventies, or the Eighties and there’s a familiar tattiness about this country: a lot of litter about, a lot of queues. Men wearing unbranded blue jeans and thin t-shirts, sheepskin coats and Farahs. People smoking more, eating less nutritiously and exercising less. Most cars are second-hand and the paint-work is faded. Banks spent little on corporate branding, lending was frugal and greengrocers still existed. It didn’t seem shameful, but it was clear that most people didn’t have much money to spend.
We’re heading back to that place, or at least, I am.
When I consider the society I inhabit, where do I belong? The school-run, working as a supply teacher, driving in my car, food-shopping, holidays, in each of these, no money leads to difficulties. Most of my precious time seems to be spent swimming against the tide. Many people profit from my labour and it is hard to bring them all to mind. The letting agent that rents my house makes a tidy sum for little discernable work. The teaching agency that sends me to schools to cover sick teachers makes a lot for very little. The phone/ electricity/ gas/ water/ television companies all make their percentage. Once everyone else has been satisfied, there is little left.
I want my family to benefit from my work, not those who contractually oblige me to put them first. I want to buy unnecessary food sometimes, an occasional change of clothes, a book whilst out. I want to take my children to the seaside, camping, to the cinema and do what I consider to be normal things that people like me ought to do, but without excess money, it’s hard to join in.
It feels melodramatic to write something like the water is rising and the current is getting stronger, but, right now, it does feel as if I’m going under.