#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.

#5 My friend’s grandfather’s funeral.

My friend’s grandfather’s funeral
 
The funeral went like this:
 
When everyone was gathered in the chapel, the vicar began the service. Generally, it went off well, although it was difficult for the assembled to sing the hymns, as the hymn books had been forgotten. For the first few hymns, the vicar had looked cross as he sang them from memory and the audience stood mute. The vicar gave a good sermon, the service itself was reverent and sombre. The whole ceremony would have been fine, had not the vicar insisted on referring to the departed as Henry, which wasn’t his name. The dead man’s name was William J. Samson. This muddle affected the depth of sentiment that the mourners were able to reach. It’s hard to rightly hold the memory of a dear one in mind when someone resolutely refers to them as Henry, when their name is William.
 
After the service, the congregation moved outside to the graveyard. The grave had been freshly dug and there was six foot’s worth of earth piled high beside the hole. On the opposite side of the hole, some synthetic turf had been specially laid. It was autumn and it had been raining; the grass had become rather slippy. With this in mind, the friends and family of William J Samson naturally chose the astro-turf to stand on for the final part of the ceremony. The vicar walked out of the church and joined them by the graveside. In his hand was a plastic Tesco’s carrier bag. In the bag was a plastic bottle of holywater. The pall-bearers walked towards the grave. The pall-bearers had been supposed to walk to the astro-turf so that they could easily (and with a sure foothold) lower the coffin into the grave. But now, they didn’t ask the mourners to move aside, for fear of disrespectfulness, fear of ruining the moment. Instead, they anxiously  edged their way to the far side of the grave by the mound of soil, slipping and slithering, threatening to fall to the ground at any moment. After considerable effort, they made it to the edge with the casket intact and managed to commit it to the grave with composure.
 
The vicar took out his bottle and sloshed some holywater down onto the coffin. He hadn’t held onto his carrier bag, but had placed it absent-mindedly on the grass beside him. Because it was autumn, the wind was strong. It blew the bag into the hole on top of the coffin. There it sat and no-one moved. Everyone could see it, of course. It was a white, crinkly bag with bold blue and red stripes, like a jumbled Union Jack. Set against the light grain of varnished wood, it looked up at everyone pathetically. No-one did anything, and it’s not hard to see why. 


Were you going to climb down and get it? 
What if you fell and came clattering down, mud everywhere, on top of your friend’s coffin? 


So, nothing was done. The vicar and everyone stood silently, seeing but only half-looking as the men returned six foot’s worth of earth onto the coffin and the carrier bag.
 
At the wake, people talked about William. Many fine things he had done. He had been a solid man. The incidents of the day were spoken of. Very slowly, like the emerging warmth of the sun, gentle laughter began to glimmer among the people, small embers of mirth that heightened the golden evening. This was in keeping with the life of William, who had always kept a ready laugh. The vicar seemed pleased with how it had all gone, and ate, and drank to his heart’s content.

#3 Keynsham


In the near future, my town is about to change. The concrete council buildings, its gloomy row of precinct shops, the library, all will be demolished before the end of the year. When I cycle past, or lock my bike nearby, and walk around this place, there is a sensation that something has already gone. When it was constructed, with the considered approval of the council, the town-planners and the townsfolk, perhaps everyone felt optimistic; everyone watched the concrete being poured, the metal insides forming and suspended ceilings being hung and imagined that this was to be something special and new.
 
Now, where the windows of some of the condemned shops used to be, there are colour panels that show glossy computer images of the next generation of shopping centre. It will be wooden-clad, none of that miserable concrete on show. There will be many more shops. There will be spaces designed for people to gather in and they will probably behave just how the computer supposed they would.

In the computer image, lots of people relax on the imaginary steps outside, have future conversations before or after they have shopped. Now, in the present moment, there is a small café/kiosk next to the doomed precinct, where a huddle of those who are also on the way out drink tea and gossip.. Some are old, some are unemployed, some of the teenagers there are yet to witness the full extent of their insignificance. The computer’s vision has not rendered the people with faces, they are empty avatars and they look nothing like the people here. Commerce requires not that we have souls, merely that we spend our time and money at its altar.

 
So where will the new spenders come from?
In the south of the town, a brownfield, derelict industrial estate is being torn down to make way for a new Taylor Wimpey housing development for 350+homes.
In the north, the iconic 87 year old Somerdale chocolate factory is now classified as greyfield and due for demolition to make way for a new Taylor Wimpey housing development for 700 homes (which is the same number of jobs lost by the factory’s closure). The money and employment created by the factory has moved to Poland. The buyers of these new houses will certainly add meat to the numbers of shoppers that the shopping precinct requires, but where will the money come from?
Not from Keynsham itself. Despite its grand programme of reinvention and expansion, the town itself provides few jobs outside of those running the shops. It is clear that Taylor Wimpey will make money here, but with Britain in a financial crisis, it seems unlikely that Keynsham will be a source of economic regeneration.
 
Making boxes for people to live in and shops for them to shop in is not enough. What defines a town? What about this place makes it worth spending a precious lifetime in? Will what is changing make us love it more?
What makes me care about the place is that, although it is sandwiched between Bristol and Bath, it has not yet been assimilated. The River Avon and the River Chew surround and run through Keynsham and link it to the hills and valleys of Somerset and Lansdown. Fields, woods and footpaths connect us to the countryside that insulates us from urban sprawl and subtly add to its dated, market-town charm. The greatest asset that Keynsham possesses is its surprising park that follows the River Chew and the slopes of the valley through the heart of the town. It is the one place where you can genuinely see people of all generations relaxing in the town.

Keynsham doesn’t need more shops and the most of the people here won’t be able to afford the new houses. What would be of fundamental value and bring lasting benefit here would be employment that actually benefited its residents.  Willmott Dixon’s new £34m regeneration of the town hall and shopping precinct will improve the architectural appearance of the place, Taylor Wimpey’s thousand new homes will be places for people from somewhere to live in, and both will substantially swell the contract winners’ pockets, but neither will do anything at all to actually benefit the quality of life for the people that already live here. 

 
In another land where the breeze and the
And the grass grew high and the feathers floated by
I stood and held your hand.
And nobody else’s hand will ever do
Nobody else will do
Then I awoke
Was this some kind of joke?
In another land, The Rolling Stones
I stood and held your hand.

#2 Cars

Is it possible that most cars on the road are new or, at least, look like they’re fresh from a showroom? A uniformity of unbleached colour and gleaming chrome. Is it real? An ever-flowing affirmation of our need to keep up appearances whatever the state of the economy.
 
This wasn’t always the case.
 
Look back at an episode of Casualty or Morse from ten years ago and witness the variety of vehicles (and poor haircuts) on show. How did Britain’s road community become so homogenised? Some cars strike me as particularly brash in their perfection, radiating superiority, distinctly belonging higher up the food chain. I’m not just thinking of the predatory SUVs with names like Warrior or Shogun with their implied mess with us and we’ll mess you up-ness. But also the more recent hybrid-style cars with names that scream enigma: Juke, Toureg or Qashqai (a Q not followed by a U?! A name sure to set the English pulse racing).
 
I notice all this because I have felt increasing shameful about my own car. There is tangible hostility directed by the majority shiny car owner population at those shabby or- avert your eyes- poor enough to foul the roads with their jalopies. Moreover, if you happen to be a neighbour of someone who parks one of these eye-sores close at hand, you’ll probably experience a jolt of nausea each time it assaults your view.
 
I own a white Golf. It is now twenty years old, has a dent over each rear wheel arch and is missing a piece of black trim on the right side. The wheels are not alloys and are pitted with rust. It has journeyed just shy of ninety thousand miles.
 
The fact that it starts every time and has never- touch wood- broken down, matters not.
 
The interior is often messy with kids’ detritus: happy meal toys, car seats, school bags, Megamind stickers over the glove box. The car seats have to be there, even though they clutter the interior space. The stickers are there because my son wanted to put them there. Even as he applied them to the black plastic, I knew I was allowing something wrong to happen. I have sellotaped the words DRIVE SLOWER on the top right of the windscreen. This is not because I want to make things worse, just that I need to economise on fuel. I view my car as my own and am glad to have it. The mess inside of it is my family’s mess, it is not dirt, though there is some mud on the dust-mats. When we get into the car, we have often been walking outside, in the real world and, disgustingly, mud from this outside world gets on our shoes and is brought into the car. I know, the horror.
 
The shame I feel about my car does not go away. As I have described, not only is the exterior of my car deficient, but the interior also does not match up. The situation is appalling. Look around you. If you’re not reading this while actually driving, look out the window. How many of the cars surrounding you look new? Clean, even pure? How many are likely to have been professionally valeted in the last week? This puritanical trend in motoring is not something I always remember. Our Morris Marina in the Seventies often had comics and bags strewn over the back seat. Several plastic badges in the windscreen (and not just the tasteful National Trust one). The same was true of the Austin Allegro in the Eighties. No doubt, you have construed that ours was not a wealthy family and you would be right. My parents cars were not as nice as my friends’ parents. The knowledge of this had me suitably embarrassed about our car from an early age. Strange to think that this socially imposed shame continues to haunt me.
 
Those of us with the gall to travel about in unsightly vehicles should know, at least, not meet the gaze of our betters and to park somewhere out of sight, preferably somewhere shadowy. After receiving the most recent dent to the left side of my Golf, the insurance company asked me to drive it to an approved garage for inspection. The place was huge, a nationwide motor repair and bodywork business surrounded with security cameras and, incredibly, electrified fencing (the only time I’ve seen it off agricultural land). About a week later, I received a letter informing me that my car was a write-off and should be scrapped. It wasn’t. There is no structural or mechanical issue. I still drive it. Apparently, this is commonplace not just for my heap of junk, but for most cars over 3-5 years old with scarcely a dent to the bodywork. Thousands of perfectly drive-able cars are dumped in this way every year, their only discernible fault: unsightliness.
 
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a clean car, don’t get me wrong. Although the Sunday car-wash seems a dreary cultural trend, there is something respectable about keeping your car presentable. I get it. What I do not get is the degenerate obsession in ensuring that your car is as new as you can possibly obtain, regardless of crippling debt, re-mortgaging of the house, foregoing family holidays- whatever it takes. We will have the shiny thing regardless of the personal sacrifice. What people think of us is more important than who we are. Not only this, but I want to denounce the dark, unspoken pact that we will be judged by our cars; the understanding that they are, essentially, another layer of branding with which to embellish our sinfully ugly bodies in a desperate effort to look like something off the telly.
 
For what cars essentially tell us about each other is this: we are all ensnared by consumerism, infatuated by what we are told to desire, caught snugly in the grip of vanity and paranoia. Our economic future depends upon it. Buy or die. We must judge each other by what we have, what we wear and what cars we drive.  

#1 Coppice with standards

 
The earth fell away behind me. In the rear-view mirror, I caught a glint of the Avon’s meanders. The road that climbs towards Upton Cheyney sits on an outcrop of the Lansdown Hills, a few miles west of Bath. It is submerged under over-arching boughs of trees that lean from high banked hedgerows. Ascending through the greenness amplified the feeling that I was leaving the everyday behind, entering a realm on an entirely separate plane to that of the nearby city.
 
I passed a pub, then an old red telephone box with a rambling rose beside. An inviting courtyard of an ancient farm passed by with its sign for a farm shop, then the road forked right and steepened. To my left, through the occasional gateway, I glimpsed a huge vista that lead the eye across both Severn bridges towards Wales, Bristol merely a smudge in the middle-distance. The view to the right fell away into a valley and towards North Stoke, a picturesque hamlet of stout parish church and period buildings.
 
I parked in a small turning and got out. Until now, I hadn’t realised the strength of the wind. The whole hill was in turmoil; the fields of young wheat were harried and flattened by a thousand zephyrs while ranks of nettles stood motionless, harboured by the field’s margin hedges. The purpose of my journey, a small wood, seethed anxiously behind me, its very architecture in flux. This threshing noise that poured through the porous edges electrified the air; that I was here as a thief, made the sense of anticipation even stronger.
 
I took the old Sandvik saw, still in its yellow and orange cardboard sleeve, opened the gate, and entered. The path was wet and pocked with deep, muddy footfall. I had to skip from edge to edge and pivot under branches to avoid slipping. I ducked under a natural archway of elder and penetrated the interior of the wood. Inside, it was calmer. The wind still fretted the crowns of the trees, making the sun dapple through the shifting canopy, but at trunk-level, it seemed as though I were in the eye of a storm. Windfall covered the ground: long, sinewy arms of ash, thousands of pieces of oak and hazel shrapnel. These were the dominant trees of the wood.
 
All about me were stands of neglected hazel coppice, their pale branches shining through the shifting gloom. Many rose over twenty feet, their inverted triangles grown like wiccan altars. That they had been forgotten was clear; in years past, their straight, pliant branches would have been harvested every six or seven years. This would have maintained a uniform crop of the right width for use in fencing, hedging, thatching, even river flow management. Such quaint materials are now much less valued and coppice woods are not often viewed as commercially viable. The hazels here had grown literally out of hand, their shapes and diameters no longer the right cut that the old coppicers would have desired. I could see many that would fit my purpose, however.
 

I wanted twenty or so thin, straight poles that I could make a gypsy bender with. A bender is a simple round-framed tent covered in canvas or tarpaulin that was favoured by travellers for its ease of construction and the ready availability of whippy hazel, ash or even willow branches with which to make one. I cut my poles near the base (or stool) and at an angle to reduce the chance of damp/infection getting into the plant. The sawing rasped at a lower frequency to the wind and pierced the wood, alerting anyone that might be about to my business. I could hear nothing other than the wind and the saw, and so cast my eye about continually in case the owner of the wood chanced to wander nearby.

 
As I worked, the dark, bloated oaks and more graceful ashes imposed their presence into my peripheral vision. These were the standards, the larger, slower, overstorey trees originally planted alongside the coppice hazel to provide a more valuable, but less regular source of wood. Where the hazel would have been cut every seven years or so, these guardians of the wood were kept a hundred years before felling; they were the long-term investment of the woodlander. These specimens had been spared the executioner’s axe, but neglect meant that they now cast far too much shadow over the lower trees, causing them to twist and contort, which made the task of selecting suitable poles difficult. In less than an hour, though, I had a good crop which I dragged to the edge of the wood for a covert and hopefully quick loading of the car.
 
I left the wood reluctantly. It had invigorated me and given me sanctuary, inspiration and purpose. Not one other person had disturbed me, despite being within a few miles of two cities with half a million people between them. The wind blew and the trees remained insentient, but I took more than just sticks.