The Nerve to suggest

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Russia stockpiles chemical weapons. Boris Johnson tells us this is true but those of us with the ability to see the micro-muscle movements even in a face as bloated with wealth as his could read the braille. The real essence of the message was not that every major country (and some minor Jungle-based ones too) own at least a phial or two of nerve agent, but that he was caught out for being paid £160,000 by a Russian for a game of tennis. Soak that one in for a moment. That fat oaf received (on behalf of the Conservative party) £160,000 from the wife of one of Putin’s ex-Ministers, ostensibly so she could watch him sweat like a trained dancing hog in an Alabama summer circus spectacular. According to reports, the same woman also paid £30,000 at the same charity event for a ‘Guided Tour by the current UK Defence Secretary around Churchill’s war rooms, followed by a Gala Dinner’ hosted by the same.

Rich pickings for the Charities these days, and the Conservative party. Not every charity worker is raping prostitutes in disaster zones, just like most politicians aren’t lining their own pockets or preparing to when the hammer drops and retirement looms. There is much good work still to do. And if that tennis game provided a key networking environment with a well-connected member of Putin’s inner circle then we were all, as British voters, truly blessed.

Boris levelled his dead black piggy eyes at the interviewer (Andrew Marr) and I leaned forward on the sofa. Was he the best we had to offer – the sum total of all we are worth when our country is dealing with the rest of the World? He spoke again but I couldn’t hear above the rushing noise in my head as if something, some grain of truth and goodness passed down from the cosmos, was trying to escape and laser beam out of my eyes and down the Sky satellite network, right up through the dirty cables laying on the floor in the studio and out of any one of the four or five cameras within striking distance of Boris. I turned off the television. It was safer for all of us. Even the cosmos can get angry, and none of us would refuse a ringside seat in the VIP section when that show comes to town. Be there, or ….err….fry in your own atomic juices.

Porton Down is the UK’s chemical research laboratory facility. They don’t deal in lasers there, or paranoid fantasies about burning the face from politicians, but they love death and the juices it creates all the same. They store death in little glass tubes and research ways to make it more sophisticated and, ultimately, simply better at killing people for less reason than Oppenheimer had when he worked on Fat Boy. I know little more than you do about Porton Down, so here’s what the UK MP, and Chair of the UK Government Defence Committee – Bruce George – said in 1999 about the facility:

“I would not say that the Defence Committee is micro-managing either DERA or Porton Down. We visit it, but, with eleven members of Parliament and five staff covering a labyrinthine department like the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces, it would be quite erroneous of me and misleading for me to say that we know everything that’s going on in Porton Down. It’s too big for us to know, and secondly, there are many things happening there that I’m not even certain Ministers are fully aware of, let alone Parliamentarians.” 

How does that feel? We’re talking about a military complex with the capability to kill anyone, in probably any numbers conceivable, in the World. This could happen by design, or accident. You choose your poison, if you’ll pardon the pun. And nobody who represents ‘The People’ knows really what it does or to what extent. If you told an American hillbilly the above they’d laugh and point you to Area 51 and a scar on their ass. Only, Porton Down and its contents aren’t as funny as being probed up the anus by Mork. As that poor ex-Russian Colonel (sent to the UK as part of a Spy-swap deal with Russia years ago) and his daughter found out last week.

The Russian Ambassador to the UK appeared on the same show as Boris this morning and he reminded us all that the Colonel and his daughter were administered the almost fatal dose of nerve agent – codename: ‘Novichok’, but it might as well have been ‘Rasputin’, or ‘The Russians Done It, Mister’ – barely eight miles from………yep, you guessed it……Porton Down. Why? Who? Add the rest of the four ‘W’s’ yourself. There are no good answers the likes of you or I will ever receive. Not if you don’t want to be choking on the fluid seeping into your heart quietly five minutes after sipping at a cup of coffee you had…..

Love. A little goes a long way. Always. Just like a nerve agent.


The Diamond Business

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“Black diamond.”

The thing was massive, she said. I saw the ring it was set in as I walked through the train carriage. The misty jewel with gaudy gold was sitting on small weighing scales – chrome with an electric display and buttons providing measurements in ways only the pickiest and meanest drug dealer would care for. She was grey – grey hair, grey face – talking loudly into a phone on the lurching Matlock train, repeating the words over and over again: “It’s massive.”

Her partner – same sallow bloodless skin – wore a dirty baseball cap. He kept picking the ring from the scales and eyeing it through a jeweler’s eyepiece which looked like it’d come out of a Christmas cracker. If the pair of them had been in the diamond business long they hid it well, or had been so unsuccessful that a last desperate lead had taken them out to here on a half hunch. The two carriage train clanked, cold, grabbing at the treeless scenery and clawing towards the city. The ring was passed back and forwards and the volume of her voice rose and rose. “Huge find!”

I watched her hawkish features sneer with the kind of rapture only a treasure hunter can feel when they’ve duped some poor local hick out of an inheritance. True passion and pleasure. The sweet taste of the steal. Nose bent over and cutting across her thin lips like a razorback. Eyes moving laser-fast from the diamond to him, to the other passengers.

I googled ‘Black Diamond’ on my phone, wondering if the value of one could make the couple a street robbery risk, if not by me then someone else within earshot. I expected a long list of pirate treasures, crowns, and stories about sweating men in African slave mines. I was wrong. The first page of results were for pornography. Sweat, but not much in the way of riches; not by the look of the women and men on the screen anyhow. Fake sex. Fake love. Low returns on something polished up to look like it was worth the appearance at first glance.

I left the train at Derby and missed my connection by two seconds; shouted at by a platform guard to ‘Get away from the tracks at once!’ I cursed the UK train network and stood back watching laughing faces pull away towards Sheffield. Windy platform. Cold. Standing and standing, unsure if I’d make it on time, but certain the sandwich I was eating wasn’t worth the £3 I’d paid for it. I was going to see my Woman. Knowledge is power. I was rich indeed.


Move on

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The garbage men worked slowly in the rain over by the interred ashes of Scunthorpe residents who never expected it to come to this. Industrial waste bins were full of decomposing flowers and water-smudged cards saying things like ‘God Bless,’ and ‘Rest in Peace.’

Nobody was resting here.

The overflow car park filled up while I sat in the car on my own fiddling with a chewing gum wrapper and watching the dirty white bin lorry and the orange men tending it like a fat silk worm. No-one looked happy to be here, not the garbage men, and not the mourners. From morning toast and into the only suit you’d need for years: orange or black. Dusted off and now here in this clinically manicured garden. The mainly elderly people in the other cars looked bored staring out from rainy windows towards where the funeral would take place. Waiting for the unscripted right moment. Short walk over at a respectable pace, men jingling keys and change in suit pockets. Heads slightly bowed as if they were afraid to look up.

At the building the tall brick chimney feathered out white smoke. Some gaps, then big clouds. Someone was being burned down in there somewhere. You hardly ever get to see this and you can’t take your eyes from it easily. Another service had just finished. Rain beat down the cloud until I thought it would cover the latest smear of black-clad mourners waiting under an asphalt roof in a kind of ‘Now what?’ moment outside of the exit. Awkward handshakes, the compulsion to smile and shrug. Grey and white hair and tottering footsteps. The only chance some of them got to see each other until next time, but somebody would be the one in the box with the fake brass plastic handles when this same crowd met next time. Bye. Bye.

The Hearse arrived on time but the flower tribute had fallen against the window and I couldn’t read it until the scruffy funeral guy slammed it back against the coffin. “Nan.” Not my Nan. My friend’s mother. I was there because I owed him. Some kind of tied respect that told me this would be the right thing to do. I felt out of place; detached. Like everyone else I’d seen that day knew a secret I didn’t. The smoke from the last cremation flowed out up into the Scunthorpe air. There were no birds. No weeping either.

The service was fast. Dumb prayers and pauses in the right practised places. The Vicar told us stupid lies about the woman. I stood at the back thinking she must have been worth more than the fact she used a computer and liked The Archers. What a life. What an end. No-one left quickly. We were log-jammed by the fear of appearing to leave too soon. Like the group before us, we lingered under the asphalt roof as the rain came in on the breeze.

Afterwards I hugged my friend. I knew he missed her. She’d gotten him out of more shit than anyone would ever know. Now she was dead I feared for him. The last safety net was gone. ‘Take care of yourself please mate,’ I said.

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘I’ll get some resin and we’ll get blasted, eh.’ He laughed hard, too hard for the rain and the crowd.

As I drove away the white cloud billowed heavily, bulging into the sky. That’s all.

Leave a mark


Grim faces stepping from the train in Cromford. Angled into the cold. One woman has a face and the lean of an Easter Island statue.

Station worker stops to tell me that he’s sick of litter. “Next station along, all I end up doing is picking up needles, used condoms, drugs, used nappies. And there are loads of bins from them to shove this stuff into. How would they like it if I just curled a shit out on their front lawn?”

Not much, I guess. You can’t really argue with that sort of logic. I mean, we’re talking about biohazards. Fight fire with fire.

“See you mate,” he laughs, as he walks off down the platform sprinkling white salt crystals onto stomped out cigarette ends and sweet wrappers. It’s cold.


Cardinal Pignose moved slowly down the staircase. Below him from the reception area came the sound of laughter. He was drunk. A bead of sweat hung for a moment on his temple then ran down past his grinning mouth and along the flabby line of his jowl. This was perfect, he thought. Flabby folds and pillows of bulging flesh strained under thin summer dresses on the twenty or so female guests whilst, on most of the men, balloon guts tore at the seams of hired cream brocade waistcoats.

Pignose’s entrance pierced the chip fat atmosphere as the sound of his segs clack-clack-pinged off of the proudly displayed Roman mosaic – dug up from a grand villa nearby and now, two thousand years after its construction, destined to spend the rest of its existence right underneath a fake glass sign reading “Welcome to North Lincolnshire Council.”

The reception area was buzzing with post-wedding excitement. Bride and Groom took long pulls on a hip flask. She winced every time. He swigged, and his eyes moved slower in his vast bearded head. Fixed alcohol grin. Backs of his rented trousers dragging on the polished floor, tugging even further down under pointy-shoe heels.

The Bride’s face looked like meat fat in a hot room. She asked a friend if her hair was still up in its arrangement. Her friend took a look; reached a hand gingerly up to cup the unraveling  dark curls; lied ‘Yeah, it’s still perfect.’

The photographer asked everyone to go outside into the municipal park for photographs. No-one seemed dressed for the sub zero wind. The park was bare – just muddied grass, leafless trees, memories of me being stoned in it many times many years ago – the wedding party huddled and interwove in awkwardness. People tried unsuccessfully to look pleased to talk to each other. A baby was huddled in tight to the bosom of a mother who looked like she wanted to be anywhere else, even back in childbirth. Bride and Groom stood motionless looking right into the lens. Completely still.




Human Condition for all

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Station Schizophrenic. Cold. Middle-aged hipsters in the the ‘Real Ale’ platform pub at the train station. Richard Branson’s slick Virgin company trains look old and second-hand. They are dirty, too. Homeless men, two of them. One sits on his hands in the station right by a piano where an old guy is playing beautifully to no-one else stopping to listen. The other walks along the windy platform in electrician trousers. Ragged. Big grey dirty beard. I thought I was cold, but he knows it’s nothing.

Two Estate Agents. First one a piggy woman. Ogling the ticket inspector. Facebook messenger ringing out to the sound of false nails tapping on the glass screen. ‘Do you know what I mean?’ at the end of every sentence. Smoker-voiced woman; loud voice, carries like a sonic boom down the length of the train carriage as it pulls away from Sheffield.

Liverpudlian criminal. Thin and cross-eyed. Moving his lips as he reads the Liverpool Echo in front of him on the dirty train table. He picks out pictures of friends – they’ve done a series of armed robberies. Talks into a throwaway phone ‘Well, he’s a fucking grass anyhow. How did you fucking get caught like that?’ Laughter.

Young African man sits behind me. Piissshhh of Fosters lager. Takes long pulls on the tall cans. He’s wearing Hip-Hop black and red. Staring out of the window into the freezing grey rain of a North Lincolnshire winter afternoon.

I get back home. My eighty-five year old neighbour has died. It was, age aside, a surprise. A fall. Overnight in hospital. Dead the next morning. Her son told me the news as I was unlocking my door, trying to hold on to my baggage in the rain and get inside. He usually has a bad stutter, but not this time.

Inside it’s dark. Turn on the heating. Sit in a chair at my desk. Slump and weep for a moment.

Steady Employment

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I’d been with the Barrister for a little over an hour. I’d like to say the conversation had drifted to its natural end, but I can’t. The coffee shop was full of rich people: footballers, agents, silicone-infused young women with long nails and the mean streak required to fight for a better life, even if it meant sucking off an ugly sportsman on a regular basis. I found the foulness of the little wealthy town provided a grimly perfect backdrop to the horror I was listening to. I kept checking that we couldn’t be heard, but the place was noisy with excited talk about little dogs and earrings and of transfer moves. Big phones were being shouted into, watched, pawed at and poured over. Now, as we were finishing up, he was looking at me for a reaction. I didn’t give him the satisfaction. I guessed he wanted me to be impressed.

There were at least five murders. Someone had been burned to death in a disused quarry. Another, finally gutted with a sword, had begged for his life in the boot of a car while they’d gone through a McDonald’s drive-in. A guy was shot to death in his Mercedes at a traffic intersection. Some poor sap had been thrown out of a helicopter. The last had been put in a bag and then thrown into the sea. Fun times.. And those were the murders I was allowed to know about. There were almost certainly many more.

I was told my phone would be bugged, my email was no longer private, and to check periodically that I wasn’t being followed. And I was not to talk to the press or, in fact, anyone about all this. It was the price you paid for knowing the man we were discussing, a man who counted me now as a ‘good friend’. A friendship I was now, more than ever, intending to keep on an even keel.

The arms shipment had been a surprise. So, too, had been the scale of the organisation – Worldwide. It was hard to comprehend in the same way it’s hard to look up at a clear night sky and think about the size of the galaxy with any real grasp of spatial awareness; just the vague sense that you’re very small in the grand scheme of cosmic truths. Small enough to be stomped on with ease.

The snow is falling outside. I’m sitting at the dining room table in my partner’s house. There’s some good music on. It’s warm. I feel warm inside, too. That conversation, and the accompanying reality, are very far away right now. I like that fact. And, despite what my Therapist says, it’s not always good to talk. I’ll leave this one here. Go and hug my woman.

Ghosts of Christmas

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Santa weaved past the boarded-up remnants of a chip shop at the top of the high street. ‘The Buccaneer’ was finished with swashbuckling and selling shitty chips and gravy in a cob. Glory days. Stained shirts before a night on the town. Battered sausages thrown like airborne torpedoes into the traffic. Someone with a perm taking the impact on his Fred Perry t-shirt. Shouting and laughter into the early evening, everyone pickled within an hour of food, then up to “Henry Africa’s” for the desperate sexual hunt brought down through the centuries and now refined and distilled into a couple of hours of bad music under the grim neon lights of a Scunthorpe nightclub. A flat, a bench, a dark wall behind a solicitors office – ‘Criminal Defenders. Legal Aid Welcome. Phone for Bail’. Groping drunkenly, humping someone in the dark. The realisation of something half-hoped for when those chips were going down.

Christmas Eve. Santa was alone on streets that used to be full. He was feeling his way along the steel shutters, keeping himself upright against the sway of cheap afternoon drink. He’d gone too hard too soon and now the booze was tugging at one side of his brain, trying to make him walk in an ever decreasing circle until he was pulled down to the ground by the weight of his mistake. He looked confused. This wasn’t the Christmas sleigh ride he’d hoped for when the first Jagermeister was knocked back in a bar at the bottom of Town. Things had deteriorated quickly, obviously. It was 4pm, and now the knees were dirty on his red trousers and the fluffy white end had been ripped off of his red felt hat.

I turned the corner and drove up to the supermarket that stands on the old football ground. The place was almost empty. Grim panicked faces chuffed trolleys up and down the aisles. Christmas music pumped with beige blandness from unseen speakers. A drunk sang the Twelve Days of Christmas good and loud in the cheese section, gripping a chunk of red cheese tightly in one red-clawed hand, the other wagging along to the beat above her blonde wig. Kids threw sticky treats against the long windows by the checkout. Two security guards, old and out of shape, stood idly against the CCTV screens and chewed lazily on chocolate bars.

To the sound of silence, the quickening cold wind, and the feel of despair, Christmas approached like a Motown band – barely remembered, a whisper of its former self. Worn out, badly fitting, drunk, getting through the show in a medicated stupor that freezes the face and makes limbs hard to move to the rhythm. A half-remembered song in a steel town.





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It was 2am and now he was singing about Dwarf Porn. ‘Dwarf Porn, Dwarf Porn, it’s deep down in my soul. Dwarf Porn, Dwarf Porn, that’s my ultimate goal.’

The window was open. Reefer smoke drifted out onto the hillside. He was eight pints of snakebite into the night. I watched him sitting there in my cheap armchair, singing, laughing to himself, older. He’d talked almost without a breath for over an hour. Rambling, laughing, trying his best earnest dissection of the latest problems in both of our lives. The trouble lines on his face had eased from earlier in the night. I was glad to see the change. He’d swerved responsibility again – we both had – for the zillionth time. Just a few hours back in the good old bubble. Two old hands at this now, slowed down and world-weary, going over the same things we’d been chewing up for the past thirty years. Same, same, same. Someone told me it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become really good at something. We had those sorts of hours under our belts for sure. And the bruises.

He went to sleep on the sofa. I don’t know what time, because I was in bed while he was crashing around cursing, looking for ways to open the window again for one last bedtime smoke. Scared to sleep.

In the morning I cleared up the cans. Little ground particles of weed had worked into the rug by the low table we’d been using to roll joints on. I had a train to catch. He was mumbling about bus times and trying to help his brain through the ice of post-blow-out emotional deadness. If his head felt anything like mine then he’d need a couple of days to get back to some form of equilibrium. But we knew all this. You either accept the brain reset or you go hard against it and keep the momentum going. I knew what I’d be doing: the former. A post-binge hangover is a personal thing. You’re on your own. There is no guiding light and no patron Saint to calm the fractured synapses.

I hugged him goodbye at a lonely bus stop in the middle of nowhere – never seen anyone use it, let alone a bus drive past – and walked on to the train station. He sparked up a cigarette and stood leaning against the wind, eyes on the little road.


Walk with me

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At half past two in the morning, on this hill, there is only you and the council gritter lorry moving about. The orange warning light blinks into the living room as the scatter of rock salt seasons the asphalt.

Robert Redford and someone who looked a lot like Nick Nolte – I don’t know for sure, it could have been a barely reanimated corpse – were murdering a film on the tv. Bill Bryson must have been star struck or demented to sign off his book on the bullshit I was watching. ‘A walk in the woods’ (well, the book anyhow) was all about loneliness, getting older, the disintegration of a friendship, nature, and displayed a sense of beauty. It was a journey in many senses. The film adaptation was so bad that it looked like Redford and Nolte never had to move more than ten feet during the whole filming process. They must have had to shoot Redford full of amphetamines just to get him to move his mouth against the frozen strain of all that face-lift scar tissue. Even the rocks looked fake. And the plot strayed so far from the book that I kept expecting Paul Newman to appear, sensing the disaster, before jumping off of a cliff into a foaming river shouting ‘Old actors never die!’ or ‘Thanks for the cheque.’

Three in the morning is the dead land. Completely fucking empty. Just you and your thoughts, and whatever shitty film is on. I thought about taking meds to get some enforced sleep, but the plumber was due at nine and I wanted to approach the situation with a clear head. It’s now eleven am and he hasn’t showed, the lousy bastard. I knew when I rang last week that he wasn’t concentrating during our conversation. When it gets to twelve I’m going to ring him and remind him that wasted time is wasted time, no matter when. He won’t understand, but if you’ve ever stayed up through the night for no good reason, you will.

The Almighty King of the Universe


A kid was crying across from me in the narrow aisle. His sister sat and kicked the seat in front, throwing a plastic bottle repeatedly down onto the dirty plastic table, then looking up towards her mother who was too tired to do anything other than stare grimly at the young girl and nod her head in sleepy post-holiday travel tiredness. Dad still had his holiday clothes on and his fat tanned legs bristled with almost hairless goosebumps in the poorly heated railway carriage. He was dozing, cradling a third child and waking up with every rattle of the train as it slogged across the flat lands towards the coast.

The guy with the tattoo had got on the train in some featureless shit-hole where the houses seemed to barely keep above the water table, low and squat, hugging close like shipwreck victims. It was a place you left. Thankful for every mile of distance. I guessed nobody ever looked over their shoulder back towards the ditches and dykes and loneliness, no matter where they headed or whom they left behind.

He was young – maybe twenty – but his light ginger hair was thinning and he’d started to comb it forward in kiss curls that looked like the frayed edges of a threadbare mop. He’d grown a beard. Straggles of hair hugged over his top lip and into his mouth. He sucked on the mat of it from time to time. Hands flicked and pressed at a large phone. He was occasionally smiling, staring at the screen, fiddling with his Nintendo wallet. Black headphones jammed deep into small ears which seemed to be chiseled close to his head like a sculptor’s afterthought.

I watched him – taking a covert photo of the tattoo – while the train crawled past the rows of windmills, never seeming to make any progress. He adjusted his Tom Clancy “Ghost Recon” grey top, glanced around the carriage, then went back to stabbing and swiping at the phone, still smiling. Content. I wondered where he was going? If he even knew, or if he cared? I suppose it was unimportant. He was exactly where he should be. For that brief moment he was indeed the Almighty King of the Universe.