Disembarking from the tube this morning, I looked down the train and saw six yellow-jacketed police officers pop their heads out of the door almost as one. They exchanged some silly grins as they acknowledged this curious version of peekaboo.
At the exit of the tube station, six more yellow-jackets were busy checking passengers about to go through the ticket barriers. A white man is having his holdall searched. An asian lad is waved to a stop by a WPC before she clocks that he’s carrying no bag whatsoever.
The parades of sirens bugling down the streets are too common now to even raise prickles on the neck. The low panic of life in London at the moment becomes indistinguishable from a kind of black festivity.
Albert Camus, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Vladimir Nabokov, Pope John Paul II, all linked by one important characteristic: they were goalkeepers.
We have talked of goalkeepers before, and we will again, perhaps in comparison to wicket-keepers.
To this short list, of famous net-minders, I’m pleased to note that we can add Niels Bohr, Nobel prize for physics and all.
What are ex-prime ministers for? Last week, Sir Edward Heath (AKA The Grocer, The Incredible Sulk), prime minister from 1970 to 1974 left us, soon after finally retiring from the backbenches, where he had done very little for thirty years.
This morning, ex-prime minister John Major (AKA The Grey Man) was heard making a typically Majorish intervention into the debate over the awful killing of an innocent Brazilian electrician last week by armed police. Major is not one of those politicians with a knack for the happy turn of phrase or the heady soundbite, as anyone who recalls the Citizen’s Charter or the Cones Hotline will readily affirm. His political tin ear has something of the painful resonance of a misshapen steel drum. He was being asked whether there is a shoot-to-kill policy in operation, and if so, is this right.
Major, clearly with an eye on shaping the debate, offered that he didn’t like to think of it as ’shoot-to-kill’ but rather, dramatic pause, ’shoot-to-protect’.
Did we really squirm through six years of this man’s benign and thoughtful guidance?
What are ex-prime ministers for? To remind us why the hell we voted for the other idiot.
Crikey, strike a light, cor blimey and all that.
There I was, about to write up the standard (and surely well-anticipated, if you know me at all) Ashes welcome: best English team in a generation vs. best team in the world, fire in the belly, the old enemy (well, one of them; everyone loathes the English as any fule kno), the old guard of the Aussies against the Young Turks of England. And on. And on. As you can already tell, it would all be a little breathless and confused.
Then, hats in the air, we see that, on the first morning of the Ashes at least, it’s the Aussies who are breathless and confused. They’re not beaten, far from it, but it’s the perfect set-up for the rest of the series.
Word reaches us of the most Oulipan project imaginable: a novel consisting entirely of punctuation. Woops are heard from the direction of the last resting places of Calvino and Perec.
On closer examination, the ‘novel’ by Hu Wenliang consists of 14 Chinese punctuation marks. Barely a novella, you would feel, but I suspect that the standards in word-free writing are rather different. There is one stunning advantage to this brevity, of course, news reports can carry the novel in full:
Hm. Really. Hm.
Hu is offering a prize to anyone who can get the novel (which, he says, has character descriptions and a proper plot - a love story) 80% right. So, leaving aside the fact that we’re looking at an English transliteration of punctuation in one or other Chinese script, let’s give it a crack:
Colin says ‘Well?’
Coleen says ‘Well really!”
He talks, she talks, he talks. Once inside, sex, full, stops. Gradually they fall silent.
Her parent(hese)s are com(ma)ing back with a bullet - she(v)runs one way, she(v)runs the other.
See my Colin? He too dashes.
[Translators note: I can’t guarantee that the characters will represent properly on this page. Please refer to the China Daily news article for the definitive English punctuation. By far the most difficult line was the third. I was determined that I could get something like ‘everything points to sex(six)’ from six full stops in a row, but it proved intractable. So I fell back on a cheap pun, sexual frisson and some poetic license. Who would have thought punctuation could get so explicit? For the fourth line, I couldn’t determine the correct name for “、”, so I lazily went for ‘comma back’. I knew you wouldn’t mind. Improvements most welcome. For what it’s worth, this could well be a hoax. The China Daily hack’s name, you will have noted, is Ng Ting Ting. For that on its own, I hope this is real.]
There’ll be more than the usual amount of looking to the skies today. Rain on St. Swithin’s Day threatens forty more days of rain to follow. It also, let us remember, promises forty more days of sun if, as today, it shines.
For me, the day brings to mind perhaps the most beautiful of the Bard of Barking’s songs. Billy Bragg’s St. Swithin’s Day:
Thinking back now,
I suppose you were just stating your views
What was it all for
For the weather or the Battle of Agincourt
And the times that we all hoped would last
Like a train they have gone by so fast
And though we stood together
At the edge of the platform
We were not moved by them
With my own hands
When I make love to your memory
It’s not the same
I miss the thunder
I miss the rain
And the fact that you don’t understand
Casts a shadow over this land
But the sun still shines from behind it.
Thanks all the same
But I just can’t bring myself to answer your letters
It’s not your fault
But your honesty touches me like a fire
The Polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love that we spoke of forever
On St Swithin’s Day
Songs are difficult, and often embarrassing, to discuss. How to explain why I find the clunking metaphor of the train charming in its ungainliness? Looking at the lyrics, there’s something to gloss over in each of the three verses. So why do I love it?
First, it’s one of those rare pop songs that does without a chorus. Instead, we have the awkwardly long final line of each verse, jutting out like a painful memory at the end of each act of reminiscence. These lead with a tremulous logic to that exquisite introduction of the light final line: “On St Swithin’s Day”. Incidentally, the penultimate line, “Like the love that we spoke of forever”, is perfect, machined to millimetric precision. Clever lad, that Billy.
Then, naturally, the question of what it’s all got to do with St. Swithin’s Day. Sunshine and rain; very good. More interesting by far is the way the song is canted backwards, always backwards. Everything is angled towards that last line, all the spent passion, regret and pain tightly bound up in that one day, kept back until the end of the song.
Most beautiful of all, this careful unfurling of the song is reflected in the music. Dig it out now and give it a listen. Remind yourself. The song is built on such a simple chord sequence that, as so often with Mr Bragg, you pretty much ignore it at first as you pay more attention to the words. But you’re wrong, as you discover in one of those neck-shivering moments as the song lilts to a close. The song was built from those simple harmonics outwards, not from the words inwards. What’s more, the chord sequence, which gently reveals itself to be church bells pealing in the distance, is completely and devastatingly the emotional heart of the thing.
Dammit, Bragg, this gets me every time, and it carries with it a disarmingly deep truth: it’s not just looking back to intense feelings that carries emotional power, the very act of looking back itself is emotionally loaded. This isn’t a beautiful song about looking back, it’s a song about the beauty of looking back.
Notable posters on the Underground, No. 1.
The advert for Iain M. Banks’ new novel, The Algebraist:
Have your mind blown to smithereens.
Thanks for the offer but, right now, probably not.
After the mysterious, brilliant surprise of London winning the 2012 Olympics, the hangover hurt all the more.
There were a couple of close shaves, but I don’t know anyone hurt in the bombings on Thursday.
Funny how terms just pop up to fill a void.
In the lead-up to the G8 summit, suddenly I’m hearing a neologism all over the place: the officials given the task of clearing the path to the summit are ’sherpas’. Very good.
So good I’ve heard it independently on Channel 4 and BBC news, on the Today programme and in every paper I’ve read since Saturday (The Guardian online alone has seven references over the last three days. It’s as though it’s always been there.
But it hasn’t.
In the meantime the more foolish among us have been dragged thoughtlessly into Kevan’s inevitable zombie-plague game Urban Dead. I’m insistently reminded of all those ancient computer games my friends and I would play, where the mental space left by the blocky graphics would be filled by our narratives of what was really going on.