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A Puzzle


A modern gastropub on a Sunday afternoon.  It could be anywhere, but isn’t.  It’s that place that used to be something else, though no one says so any more.  Rude, you see, especially of a Sunday.  But mention it to anyone of a certain vintage, and they’ll look at you quizzically, ask you for the co-ordinates, double-check it is that place.  And if you had anything about you, such details would matter, and you’d act accordingly.  If you had anything about you…

The couple sit on the leather sofa reading a selection of the Sunday papers.  They sit together but to look at them, you wouldn’t necessarily know that they were together.

Their manner is that of commuters sealing off the early morning ordeal with the help of what used to be Fleet Street; a seclusion so complete that only a significant jolt, something a little more pressing than ‘leaves on the line’, will break the self imposed reverie.

And that jolt arrives in the form of a casually dressed man whose own manner speaks to an elsewhere.  To a practiced eye this is obvious in the saloon bar entrance; in its foolishness, pre-empting another type of patron, nursing lukewarm pints and well meaning insults.  In the expectation of a ‘Millionaire’ fruit machine to spice up the Mock Tudor.  More than that it’s in the garb, all job lot leather, set off with statement bling, with the statement clearly being, ‘what a cunt’.  Behind the garishness, the seasoned trendspotter might suggest the look as ‘a certain level of remorse masquerading as neglect.’  Throw in something wittily postmodern about ‘hooky’ shirts and Beta Blockers.  Or as an amusing chaser to that winning combination of Davidoff and Ladbrokes.  To everyone else though he’s just a cunt.  They wish he’d fuck off back to Wetherspoons, but daren’t tell him.  The more astute among them also realize he lends the place a certain ‘authenticity’, an older flavour not on the tasteful menu, and so they largely turn a blind eye to that mouth, and those manners.  But of course you’d know all this in an instant, if you had anything about you.


He knows he’s played it all wrong, never cashed in with the others when he had the chance.  That brief streak which had seen the others right; which he’d missed of course, too busy making domestic repairs.  For all the good that achieved.  Oh he’d missed out alright and there’d be no ex-council bonanza for him.  So many things he should have taken care of when he had the chance. When the old manor was still catching the eye of a certain kind of hack or hooray or ‘developer’ who back then nearly always arrived bearing gifts.  Instead, this.  Paddy Power by day and by night sporting the sort of job lot castoffs he’d have laughed at as a young man.

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Most of the old crowd was gone now, many to the Kent coast, but one or two further afield.  Marbella, but also Thailand.

They’d lost touch, or rather they’d not kept in touch.  He suspected they were still in regular contact with one another though.  Could easily picture the scene: some sun-kissed villa hosting late afternoon drinks, tats stretching into the shadows with leathery skin, and laughs all round when his name cropped up, the ‘mug’ who stayed on because he was trying to save his marriage.  Silly cunt! She left him anyway.  Cue much merriment and more refills.

He has with him a large mutt, unmuzzled and from his enthusiasm, unused to being in such faux-genteel surroundings. There is also another man in attendance, smaller but bristling no less than the dog.

Two sets of eyes briefly wander from their broadsheeted bliss and settle upon this strange triumvirate.  But the comforting familiarity of their Sunday routine reminds them that this isn’t that sort of establishment.  There is nothing to fear here.  Most of the men drink expensively bottled foreign beers and some openly drink wine.  This, after all, is nappy valley, and there is a reason people pay over the odds to bring their children up here.

The eyes return to the witty paper trail, absorb whichever vignettes might loan an air of smarts to the next dinner party. They chide themselves for their over anxiousness even as the fetid breath of the mutt seems to draw closer.

Sunlight glints off something at eye level.

Only later would they learn that it was a sovereign ring neatly hugging a fat digit. Even now the commuter’s instinct to take refuge in the headlines overrides what ought to be very real concern.  If only these awful foreign dictators would stop killing their own people, there’d be no need for expensive bombing campaigns. Recession at home but always money to fight wars abroad. Truly a puzzle of modern life. But of course! Puzzles! Another highlighted feature of this pub. Just got to…

-Fetch the cunt’s puzzle!

Something registers, possibly concern but more likely confusion, a faint hope that maybe they’d misheard.  Or perhaps this was an example of estuarine wit, the fabled rhyming slang they’d heard so much about? More often than not though from brochures rather than people.  At any rate, not from the kind of people who might have been familiar with the older history of the area.

-Fetch the cunt a puzzle!

Fetid breath almost intimate. And no muzzle. Oh dear. A hangover from the past.


If there’s a cure for this…Oh no, Anadin! Another throwback to a bygone era – pebbledashing alleyways, getting chased by skins and then a quick kebab and a couple of night buses later crawl in just as the postie’s doing his rounds.  And though it was shit really, at least it was ours, as were the laughs, and the odd kicking, to be absorbed or dispensed along the way.  People say that’s just age talking.  Natural to feel that way, outpaced by the new breed.  Mid-life crisis, feelings of mortality, the shortening line ahead.  And it’s true, these days it all feels so much heavier, everyone weighed down by the trials of life; so many personal disappointments which sneer at the idea that things will work out.  Still, better that than the kind of smug, expensively coiffured ex-Home Counties, cargo trouser or faux-Americana or skinny-jean wearing wannabe currently clogging up the city’s arteries.  Every club, bar, restaurant, gastropub full of these sorts with their trendy ‘strollers’ and faux-leisure pastimes – boardgames, newspapers, an oh-so-ironic line in lifestyle banter, full of hip references and absolutely zero feeling.  You know the type, previously famous for ‘discovering’ football after those tears in Turin.  But their gifts aren’t limited to the ‘beautiful game’.  Oh how they love to rehabilitate the most fecal of former shitpits too.  So bandit country is now Bermondsey Street, and all roads lead to some kind of a ‘cultural quarter’.  They’re the champions of reclaimed natural materials and locally sourced produce.  But they’re not dry, you know.  Make a point of letting you know how much they also love Gene Hunt and Maurice Micklewhite for their retro value, though mention Southall ’79 or ‘miscarriage of justice’ and you’re suddenly a party pooper.

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But yeah, Turin and the Geordie man/child changed it all for them; opened the floodgates for a generation of shrieking, squawking metrosexuals.  Under whose auspices beats the heart of a new England.  Proud, but not overly so, no need for the sovvied histrionics of the knuckle scrapers.  Smart enough to keep their braying to a respectable minimum, limited to those shared national moments, brought to you/us/them by Sky/Murdoch – rugger preferably but at a push the cricket and the footie too.  No wait, what am I saying?  They love the footie, all those third-party, image rights’ deals, all that money, the endless merchandising, all those hair products.  And the histrionics, the ‘talking points’, the on-field shrieking and squawking, the sheer upmarket tribalism of it all.  And they love the fact that it’s all nations at the top table, think that says something about us, who we are, how we like our entertainment.  And in a way, I suppose, they’re right.  It’s not about the old tribal markers, not since everyone decided to talk the same, dress the same, even covet the same.  Twickers and the south-west their spiritual heartland, drinking games and candle-lit suppers the flip side of the same bountiful coin.  Sky blues and creams nicely offset by strictly non-service sector browns.  And whilst they might share plenty, in and out of the boardrooms, there’s never any doubt who’s really calling the shots.  Who’s staying in charge of the law firms and the corporate mergers, cosmopolitan credentials assured by the straight-haired Binas, or Minas, or Tinas, by their side.  The braying in the end clearly no barrier to having a punt at the swivel-eyed exotica in their midst: willing and useful alibis for whom the true service sector are either wife beaters or suicide bombers or hopelessly remote, to be shunned and feared and loathed. And controlled, with those orders, at home and at the airports, and on the streets.  Go Home Or Face Arrest! Just a Whitehall update of that old fave, ‘Why don’t you fuck off back to where you came from!’ With ‘Lewisham’ not the desired response.  So a smack in the mouth and then a scuffle, but no one’s really watching, least of all those who are supposed to be.  Too busy braying with the best of them at the tribal pastimes of millionaire sports ‘personalities’.  And after all of that, is it any wonder that some folk choose to emulate Harold Shand with a customized control order, an abbatoir of their own?  Some hooks on which to hang all that shame and remorse and anger and disgust.

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