Chalky

The better half, Bella and I went for a week in Cornwall. We stayed in a cottage near Falmouth. It was on a farm with pigs, some of which we ate; it was all entirely satisfactory. I had not been to Cornwall for some forty-five years and the other two had not at all. Nevertheless the county was a large part of my upbringing. My mother’s maternal family were all Cornish and she herself was born in Millbrook, just in Cornwall on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from the rest of the World. Her father was from Devon, but he was a mild man and his ancestry tended to be discounted.

We would drive down the A303 (motorways not yet having been invented) at Christmas and for our summer holidays. My parents decided that, traffic being what it was, they should drive through the night. We children slept in the back of the car but when it was the summer holidays we would be woken up at about five o’clock for breakfast at Stonehenge. We would lean with our backs to the great stones at dawn drinking my mother’s Everything Soup and eating cold sausages. The great stones, I am glad to report, survived all this, as presumably now they wouldn’t. We would visit venerable and sometimes terrifying relations in Fowey, Polruan, Falmouth and Mousehole, and, in the down time, rush with the family dog around the beaches in our Aertex shirts and discover caves.

We were never in any doubt that Cornwall was separate, one of the five great Celtic nations: not in England; not in the West Country.

In between being a child and becoming grown up I went back without my family. I discovered the folk clubs of the Sixties. I heard Ralph McTell when he was unknown, Clive Palmer after his first, and authentic, outing with the Incredible String Band, Barbara Wootton – so majestic live and so disappointing now on CD – Henry the Jug and John the Fish. I sat unfocused on St Ives beach, while ethereal girls drifted this way and that, dressed in Laura Ashley.

I found love, after a fashion, though not with a Laura Ashley girl. Then, having fallen out with my inamorata and with my best Cornish friend, who thought that she was his inamorata, I left and didn’t go back: until last week.

Cornwall is still separate. There are deep mysterious lanes, hedgerows with flowers unseen elsewhere in our island since the 1950s, and at the end, sticking out into the Atlantic beyond St Ives, is West Penwith, the ‘headland of slaughter’ as Daphne du Maurier translates it, possibly fancifully. The better half, who has a more practical approach to these things, noted that the sea was never far away and you could swim and kayak in the estuaries. Our local estuary was called Carrick Roads, which sounds like an American poet, and she did indeed kayak on it and then run home.

(By the way: what a waste of space Tate St Ives is. I had naively thought that it would show the work of the great St Ives artists of the 50s, Feiler, Lanyon, Hilton, Frost, Nicholson and so on, who challenged the abstract expressionists of New York gesture for gesture. But no. There is no permanent display. There was a paying show of dazzling vacuousness, the usual café and shop and a lot of unused space.)

When we had crossed the Tamar and left England behind, Bella, smelling the sea, took on her avatar as Swims Like Seals and prepared herself to surf. This turned out not to be straight forward. There were signs at the entrances to the beaches as follows:

No Dogs.
No Aertex.

The ban on Aertex could be coped with, as most cafés on the beaches sold PODLARK®-themed smocks and billowy shirts, which you could slip on over the top, but the ban on dogs was a real problem. Finally we found a bit of industrial waste abutting the sea in Penzance, where, to judge by the detritus as well as the absence of a sign, nothing was forbidden. The better half threw a strand of seaweed with a rock attached as far as she could throw it. Bella plunged in, disappeared for a minute or so, broke surface and swam to shore bearing the seaweed and rock, whose neck she proceeded to break. A small crowd built up on the esplanade, mainly guest-workers of the Cherokee diaspora. Word had spread. They muttered appreciatively, in their own language.

We also had problems with Bella at Rick Stein’s restaurant. The Rick Stein empire has spread out from Padstow and reached Falmouth. There are two entrances, the take-away and the restaurant. Dogs are admitted through neither. We had fish and chips from the take-away. The fish tasted so fresh that it can only have been frozen, and the chips were so-so, but the better half had conceived a desire to cover herself with chilli crab, so we went back the next night to the restaurant, having arranged a dog-sitter.

We both got food-poisoning. I don’t complain about that; any restaurant can serve fish that is off. What upset me was the shandy that they sell. This is branded as ‘Chalky’. Chalky was Rick Stein’s dog. In the early television series before he died, peacefully I hope, he could be seen gambolling on fishing boats, riverboats, in galleys, generally getting under the feet of the celebrity chef. I do not recall the line: ‘In the name of health and safety, Chalky, begone.’ This is rank hypocrisy. If I can’t have my dog by my feet don’t put yours on the soda bottles.

I don’t blame Stein. Like Stalin, he loves us and is unaware of what is done in his name. If the television is anything to go by, he is anyway on a beach in Australia cooking termites on hot rocks.

But I think he should be told.

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Apostrophising a Turd

Have you noticed how real things eventually turn into musicals? Billy Elliot started life as an indictment of the cruelty and small-mindedness of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain and is now a musical. The last musical that I actually attended was also a Billy, decades ago. It had started life as Billy Liar, a lovely sad film about dashed hopes and chances not grasped. The young Michael Crawford was mugging for all he was worth, which was less in those days. I remember his apostrophising a turd, (‘Sink, you bugger!’), which my Aunty Sheila, with whom I saw the performance, thought de trop. (Actually the last musical I saw, I now remember, was Salad Days, because my godson was performing in it. Thankfully, Salad Days has absolutely no dark antecedents at all – and no turds.) Now we have Made in Dagenham, the struggle for sexual equality in the workplace rendered in song, dance and nostalgic frocks.

Not to mention Carmen on Ice.

It leads you to wonder, as you make your way through life, how your immediate experience might in twenty years’ time be rendered on the Shaftesbury Avenue stage. (I say ‘make your way through life’, although most of the time in my experience life happens to you whether you are making your way through it or not. In principle I like the positive approach taken by the weather-casters who are always ‘heading into Tuesday’ – though when Tuesday arrives one often wishes it hadn’t.)

This thought occurred to me the other day. I had been invited to a preview of a sale to be held by one of the great auction houses. It was of Russian art. Most of my fellow invitees seemed to come either from Russia or the countries formerly nestling contentedly in the Soviet bosom which Mr Putin now WANTS BACK. Most of them were women and they were beautifully made up and dressed – if possibly intimidatingly so, given that it was quite early in the morning. One of them – she was most attractive, in perhaps her early thirties and with extremely large earrings – kept giving me a meaningful look. I was intrigued. Then I noticed that she was giving the same meaningful look to everyone else and indeed to the exhibits. It must have been the first time that some of the dour representations in oils of endless birch forests had been subjected to such a look. But there it was: her face was immutable. The placidity with which she and her fellows drifted around the rooms (or ‘the Rooms’, as they are called in the great auction houses), their extreme elegance and the mask-like beauty of their features suggested a dance – a masque in fact. I thought back to the way Cecil Beaton had dressed My Fair Lady, even more decades ago than Billy, when I was a child and taken for a treat. It was towards the end of that musical’s very long run and it looked, frankly, tatty. But when Beaton’s frocks were new they might have merited comparison with these glorious creatures.

I thought about their husbands. They were much too busy to attend the preview but would no doubt, on the recommendation of their wives and with suggestions from their consultants as to desirable lots and cunning bargains, be at the sale itself. They would be less elegant. Their uniform was newly laundered Levis, open-necked white shirts and blazers. They would hold paddles and thrust them into the air with their stocky little arms. They did not recall Cecil Beaton. They did however suggest a dance. I imagined them stomping round the stage in Indian file. They are chanting sotto voce:

Russian Art and
Works of Art
Fabergé and
ICONS!

The last word is shouted and they all wave their paddles in the air; then sotto voce again for the reprise.

There are the makings of something really positive here. I’ll ask Christies to provide some seed money. Maybe Michael Crawford could be tempted out of his gilded retirement to shout ‘Sink, you bugger!’ at a piece by Chris Ofili.

But to go back to my original point, what on earth do Fabergé and icons have in common, except their lowest common denominator as trophies?

Anyway, I was taking the dog for her walk in West Ham Park the other day and thinking of this. I may even have been muttering under my breath:

Russian Art and
Works of Art
Fabergé and
ICONS!

People do mutter there. It’s all right. Though I should probably have avoided shouting out the ‘ICONS!’ bit at the end. That did raise eyebrows. However, something more noteworthy was taking place and it involved the tai chi man – and music too. For most of last week when sunset came there have been the most ominous sounds and lurid flashes coming from over the Park. Then suddenly they stopped. The next day I inspected the landing strip. It had been erased. All that remained were some scorch marks. The tai chi man had seen off the hordes of Hell.

No one had actually said anything about this. No one was admitting anything. But there as I went past was the tai chi man, surrounded by children. He was not en pointe but standing naturally, with a demeanour of quiet pride. As before, he had one trouser leg rolled up and from time to time a toddler, with its mother’s encouragement, would totter forward to touch his wounded shin, to partake of the virtue that was in him. Someone started to sing and the children took up the refrain. It was Jonathan Richman’s immortal anthem Ice Cream Man, but with new words.

Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
We know so well
Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
Beating down the Gates of Hell
Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
Hear my plea
Going to do the same for me!

The men don’t know, I reflected, but the little girls [and of course boys] understand.

The Table

When my father was demobbed after the end of the War my parents married. They bought a house and furnished it. Some of the furniture was from one side or other of the family and some my parents bought in antique shops or sales; but some was new. One of the new items was a dining table. It had been made in accordance with Utility standards. The top was (as I recall) veneered.

I was born a couple of years later. As a small child I did not like the dining table. I took the pessimistic view then – and I have rarely had occasion to change it since – that the main function of veneer is to come adrift – not, I believe, that on this article it did. Maybe it wasn’t veneered. But it was flimsy and a rather down-at-heel mahogany colour.

About 1965 – fifty years ago – my parents moved house. My father thought that it was time for a new dining table. When the first table had been bought there was nothing to be found from Europe, where in the phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of Nazism furniture was not a priority, and the good stuff made in England was exclusively for export. There were no such limitations in the early 60s, but, as with food, if you wanted the best you had to look for it. My father discovered that in Denmark they were making stylish, simple but sturdy furniture and from the photographs he liked the look of it. He decided to buy a Danish table. There was no internet then, but there were public libraries and in his lunch hour he identified the table that he wanted and sent a letter placing an order, using an airmail stamp, because we were not then in the European Union.

He was notified that the table had arrived by ship. He drove to St Katherine’s Dock, which was then still a dock, paid the Customs duty, because we were not then in the European Union, and drove home with his purchase. I was away at school but my sister and my mother assisted in this adventure.

When I came home I didn’t like this table either. This was for completely different reasons. I was then in my teens and I despised my parents’ taste in absolutely everything. At this distance I’m not sure what I would have preferred. Ten years later it would have been something made of hairy stripped pine, but that was yet to come. I remember that we all then hated the architecture of my school, which now seems ravishingly mid-Victorian Gothic, so it wouldn’t have been the desire for decoration. Probably I was just being bloody-minded.

Actually my father went overboard with 60s design. My bedroom for example was orange and black. The living room, where the new table stood, had one wall papered. The design was bold and abstract. My father was delighted with the effect until about a month after finishing the papering. He said to me, ‘Do you see that big purple mass? I’ve just noticed that it’s a fat female opera singer. She’s singing. You can see her tonsils.’

He never really liked it again, and I wish that he hadn’t pointed out the opera singer to me, because nor did I. I might never have noticed. And, being wallpaper, the tonsils repeated every few feet.

Early in the 70s my father died. My mother moved house, and ten years or so ago moved again, taking the table with her. It sat in her home in Yorkshire, perpetually covered with a table cloth. On very special occasions, when the family was there in force, the extensions were pulled out. They were a more pristine colour than the main section of the table. By now it had become Mid-Century and rather fashionable, but in my mother’s house it was surrounded by furniture and other bits and pieces in a miscellany of styles and it didn’t look fashionable.

And the sad thing is that one has one’s taste influenced by articles on design and trendy shops in places like Clerkenwell and Stoke Newington, and I realised that I liked it after all, quite apart from the respect due to age, and I would give it an affectionate pat when staying there.

In March my mother died. After the obsequies there has been the melancholy business of disposing of the goods and chattels around the family: the immensely distinguished dinner set that no one would actually give house room to; the modern sofas, DFS’s finest, newish, destined for landfill. One thing that quite a lot of people competed for was a brass owl; it has mysterious and inexplicable innards but a certain presence and a history going back to our childhood. No one else wanted the table, to my surprise, so I have it. Fortuitously the table that we had recently bought had cracked, in the manner remarked upon by the Lady of Shallot, from side to side and has been returned to its manufacturers, so there is room for this one. Last night we assembled it. The better half applied hot soapy water to it, as is her way with things she encounters. It is the same as tom cats pissing on them, a way of taking ownership – but much more hygienic.

It looks very stylish in our living room. At each end there are my Eighteenth-Century Chinese yoke chairs: something my father never aspired to. Tables bear the traces of family histories. I know one (inherited by one fine painter from another and then bequeathed to a third) that has a large gash where one member of the second painter’s household went for another with a kitchen knife. Ours has had a more bourgeois life. There are traces of spilt wine, ghosts of tea cups, small gouges where scissors slipped when Christmas presents were being wrapped. I hope that they will not all disappear under the better half’s soapy water.

An Unusual Use for Tai Chi

Our neighbour Matt goes to West Ham Park to work out. I have seen him twice when he has been at it and I keep my distance, because the social implications of approaching an acquaintance, when one of you is exercising, and, worse, in shorts, and the other isn’t, are too much for me. It’s all right to talk about it when one is away from the scene, however, and when chatting at his gate I referred facetiously to his practice of tai chi. He was indignant.

“It’s cardio,” he said. “Not tai chi.”

“Ah,” I said.

“Today I achieved a personal best.”

“Congratulations.”

“Though I believe that tai chi can have positive benefits.”

“I don’t. It looks silly and it involves mysterious and possibly malign Oriental magic.”

“I have a friend who does tai chi,” said Matt, “and…”

And he described some improvement to the friend’s physique in terms that I didn’t understand; so we agreed to leave it at that.

When I was younger it was safe to assume that someone talking to themselves in the street was either preoccupied to the point of unsociability or mad. These days, the assumption is that they are talking on their mobiles, using the ear attachment with the little microphone. A genuinely mad person, these days, could escape detection for years by raving into one of these things – but with it turned off. The practice of tai chi has raised this problem to a new level of complexity. It looks from a distance indistinguishable from insanity, and even close up it is often impossible to tell – because of the absence of a tell-tale wire coming out of the ear. We live in challenging times.

There is a man who does tai chi in the Park. That is undoubtedly what he does, and he does it for hours. I take Bella, the dog, for her walk at widely different times of the day and as often as not he is there, scowling into the middle distance and hanging his wrist out in a manner that in less enlightened times people used to designate members of the male gay community. Once he was accompanied by a tiny Chinese man who was observing him closely. The man doing the tai chi was wearing the appropriate tunic and baggy leggings, but the tiny Chinese man had a navy blue suit and he kept his arms to his sides. I didn’t hear him speak but I assume that he was there to tell the first man if he was doing it properly, to critique his performance as we are encouraged to say these days. But maybe I caught the observation phase and the feedback phase was to come later: possibly in private.

One day, as I turned on to the path beside which the performer of tai chi was to be found I noticed that one of the man’s leggings was rolled up to the knee.

“Aha, a Mason,” I thought to myself. “He is a practitioner of tai chi and he is also on the Square.”

I congratulated myself on my cosmopolitan level of knowledge, whilst immediately becoming aware that this would be a most unusual combination of belief systems. As we came level, I slowed to the extent compatible with good manners and, from a distance of twenty yards or so, casually examined his shin. It was hideous, covered with angry red marks. At first I thought that they were sores, but as I came closer I could see that they were gashes, imperfectly healed. It was as if he had been savaged by a dog, or maybe a small demon.

Bella of course made straight for the bloody shin and I had to call her away, which rather spoilt my attempt at discrete observation. The man looked balefully at me and raised the damaged leg into the air, where it hung for a moment.

But I did wonder why he left his wounds uncovered. Was it a sign, and if so was it to all those who shared the Park with him, or was it something more arcane? Was it to whoever had caused the injury? Was it merely to heal his wounds through the medium of fresh air?

There are developments in the Park even more worrying than tai chi. Now that Spring is here various sporting and philanthropic organisations have secured permission from the Corporation of London, who own the Park, to mark out pitches in white on the grass. There is a baseball diamond (as I believe they’re called) and a four hundred metre running track, marked to show one hundred and two hundred metre lengths as well. When I was watching the other day I saw several young people achieve personal bests.

Tucked away in a relatively unvisited corner of the Park, there is another device marked out in white. It bears no relation to any known sport.

One can imagine the application process:

Corporation of London: Your device bears no relation to any known sport. It would bring no Amenity to the Park.

First Applicant: But it is our culture.

Corporation of London: That’s all right then.

Second Applicant (later): The fools! They were soft in your hands, like soft-boiled eggs. But Ashtoreth will be satisfied – when She comes.

First Applicant: A little more white on that top pentangle I think…

If my fears are right it is a landing-strip for Hell. It explains the tai chi man’s wounds. It was demons: a dry run. And his exposure of his wounds is a gesture of defiance to the Queen of Darkness: you may have the powers of Hades but I stand in your way and I am clothed with the power of – with whatever power it is that tai chi imbues you with: I must ask Amy.

We must pray that when the Horned One comes it is during the Corporation’s Opening Hours and the tai chi man is in position to save us all.

Rex (Extra) Sectioned

I tried one of the websites that offer unwanted furniture and personal services – where you are. Using Boolean magic I excluded the furniture and refined ‘personal services’ by entering the word ‘domination’. The results were graphic. Photographs of scenes were provided at which, if they were encountered in real life, I felt that Bella would take fright. I didn’t feel brave enough to telephone the women offering these services. Maria was well-connected. I’d ask her if she knew anyone; a personal recommendation often eases things.

“The fact that I am Romanian,” said Maria, “does not mean that I am a prostitute and a thief.”

“Of course not. But I thought that you might know someone. It’s complicated, you see. It’s not for me personally…”

“Pft,” said Maria. “I know no such one.”

“No worries,” I said, and made for the door.

“Just a moment. I speak to my friend Lavinia.”

She called on her mobile, and talked for a minute in Romanian.

“Lavinia is upstairs. She is busy. She says call this number. They are understanding. Say to them her name.”

I was no further forward, but it was the best I could do. I went home, rang the number, made an appointment and set out with Bella to the address that I was given.

A man answered the door. He put a finger to his lips.

“Neighbours,” he whispered. “Come in, sir, come in.”

He led me downstairs.

“Well, sir,” he said. “Is it to be the bedroom or the dungeon? Is it to the left or to the right?”

“The dungeon, please,” I said. “It’s not me. It’s my dog. She needs acclimatising. Whips etc.”

“No need to explain, sir. Tell it to Mistress Mary. She’ll be along soon. She’s understanding.”

He named a price, which I paid him.

“I should ask,” he said, “Do you need the dog: Rex the dog? You have yours, so I suspect not. Rex is extra.”

The walls of the dungeon were deep red and shiny. There was a bed with rings to which handcuffs would presumably be attached. There was a frame to which a man could be strapped, legs and arms apart in an X shape. The rooms smelt not of bodily secretions but as if an effective household detergent had recently been used to remove bodily secretions. Mistress Mary came in. She was dressed entirely in black leather. She wore no mask but a jaunty peaked cap, also of black leather. She was neither young nor slim and had a friendly face. Bella took to her at once.

“I have a request that you’ll probably find strange,” I said.

“Oh, no, dear, there’s very little that I haven’t been asked. Nothing shocks me.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s my dog. I need to make sure that she isn’t frightened by, ah, people of your sort. I need to acclimatise her.”

“That is quite strange. Shall I try to frighten her and see what happens?”

“Go on then.”

“Grr,” said Mistress Mary.

Bella wagged her tail.

“Try it with a mask on.”

She donned a mask and said ‘Grr’ again. Bella jumped up and licked Mistress Mary’s gauntlets.

“She isn’t very frightened. Why did you think she might be, dear?”

“Well, I didn’t, but AERSIP did. You know, Action for the Elimination of Racism and Sexism in Pets…”

Mistress Mary became animated for the first time. “I know them. Wankers! They had a go at Rex.”

“Rex who is extra?”

“It was so unfair. I had a client. He asked for Rex too. He wanted me to beat him – the client, not Rex. That was all right. Then he said, ‘Abuse me!’

“’Worm!’ I said and give him a whack.

“’No,’ he said. ‘Abuse me with discrimination!’

“I didn’t like the sound of that. Me, as black as…”

“…the ace of spades,” I said.

“That’s the one. “‘I’ll do no such thing,’ I said.

“But he insisted. I shouted, ‘Worm from the Indian sub-continent!’ and caught him a good one across his arse.

“’No,’ he shouted. ‘Give me the red meat! Give me the real bad words!’

“So I did. I shouted them all, dear. I won’t repeat them. Rex, he howled along. And I beat him till the blood ran. He left a happy man.

“But he had regrets: as so often. Two days later I got a complaint from AERSIP.”

I nodded sympathetically.

“Compulsory training?”

“And the rest. Well, dear, I don’t think doggy needs more acclimatising, do you? Is there anything I can help you with? I do the regular as well, you know, and you have twenty minutes left.”

“That’s very nice of you, and you’ve been enormously helpful. But no, thank you. Pas devant la chienne, you know.”

“Oh well. Might have been nice. Tea, then?”

“Lovely.”

She returned a minute or so later.

“Should I have tried doggy with the whip?” she said.

I looked round. “I’m not sure that you have the whip you did.”

Bella was in the corner chewing it.

“I’m so sorry.”

She inspected it.

“Don’t worry dear. Doggy’s raised the surface in a few places. They like that.”

I left sure that Bella would not let me down; now I needed to find out when the rally was to be, so that she and I could lend our moral support. I rang the Corporation of London.

They laughed at me.

Newham Council likewise.

I told the story to Ijaz a few days later.

‘All acclimatised and nowhere to go,’ I said. “A practical joke, I suppose.”

Ijaz scowled.

“No joke. Is Thoughtcrime Audit. Thoughtcrime. Your Mr Orwell. Your 1984. They are testing to see if you are having discrimination thoughts. I was audited. I said, ‘I am permitted because of my religion.’”

“Newham Council,” I said. “Who’d have thought? With the cuts.”

“Not Newham Council. Much more serious.”

“Who?”

But he wouldn’t be drawn, and when he’d finished his cigarette he went inside and slammed the door.

Whiplash Girlchild in the Park

I had a phone call from a man at Newham Council. It was not Mr Singh, who had been so helpful when Mr Putin got stuck in my chimney: it was another.

“You are the owner of the dog Bella?”

I agreed.

“Are you aware,” he said, “of the LBGTQ rally to be held in West Ham Park on – April?”

“No,” I said, “but what does West Ham Park have to do with Newham Council? It’s not owned by Newham Council. It’s the Corporation of London.”

I was teasing. This is a sore point. A friend once worked on the magazine published by Newham Council and she told me that the two subjects that they were never allowed to mention were Boris Johnson and West Ham Park. They were the twin elephants in the municipal room.

He sighed.

“Newham Council and the Corporation of London are joint-venturing on the LBGTQ rally. ‘Working Together to Amenitise Newham Folk.’”

“I’m sorry.”

“’Working together to amenitise Newham Folk’. It’s our joint-venture strapline.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to ask someone who knows about straplines. ‘Working together’: is that a participle or a gerund? Do you mean, ‘We are working together …’, or ‘Working together would be nice…’? The Police used to say on the sides of their cars ‘Working together for a Safer London’. Did that mean they were, or was it like ‘Working together for a Safer London: Don’t Make Me Laugh’? ”

“Your dog…”

“And ‘amenitise’: what sort of word is that?”

“Obviously it means providing amenities, or, as we say here, providing amenity: a singular, wholesome and ultimately indivisible concept; a civic concept. But I want to talk about your dog.”

“I’m pretty sure that, if it means anything, it means turning something into amenities, or, as you say there, amenity.”

“Your dog is on our Register.”

“What register?”

“Our register with regards to racism awareness around pets.”

“She was cleared of all charges,” I shouted.

“Nonetheless she is on our Register.”

“I’ll sue,” I said.

He sighed.

“Mr Alablague,” he said, “your attitude is inappropriate. We are talking softly softly here. A softly softly approach is the order of the day. Question marks have been raised with regards to your dog’s – ah, Bella’s – attitude with regards to racism awareness. I say no more about that now, it is a closed book, it is dead. What my concern is at this moment in time is does she also have a negative attitude as regards the LBGTQ community. We have seen that you visit West Ham Park every day with her …”

“What do you mean, you’ve seen that I visit West Ham Park every day with her?”

He sighed.

“Mr Alablague, surely you’re familiar with our ‘If You’re Doing Nothing Wrong, You Won’t Mind Being Snooped On’ programme?”

“Are you joint-venturing that too?”

“Oh yes. And we have sponsorship. From News International. They have first call on any juicy pictures, know what I mean? Does she – ah, Bella – harbour negative or inappropriate feelings for members of the LBGTQ community in any way, shape or form?”

“I can’t speak for her feelings. We don’t discuss them.”

“But does she growl?”

“She treats our gay and lesbian friends in exactly the same way as she treats anyone else.”

The man from Newham Council’s voice was getting raised.

“And the members of the transgender community? The trannies! When they come to your house! As if!”

“You’re right,” I said. “Our friends who are members of the transgender community rarely visit us in our home. We found that they tended to fight with the lesbians. An unfortunate phrase, ‘cis-gendered scum’, was once used. So instead we meet them in a café nearby.”

“A café! In Plaistow! As if!”

“You’re right, of course. There’s few of them. We tend to go to Fat Chaps in Plaistow Road. Do you know Fat Chaps? They’re excellent. We and the transsexuals buy a kebab each and eat it at the bus stop. My point is that Bella is not allowed with us in Fat Chaps, being, as a dog, a health and safety issue. But she’d be fine. Why not?”

The man from Newham Council lowered his voice again.

“The point is, Mr Alablague, that the particular rally to be held in West Ham Park will be rather specialised. They will be celebrating not the culture of the LBGTQ community as a whole but the values of the BDSM community.”

“Come again.”

“BDSM. Leather chaps. Spanking. May not of course have anything to with the LBGTQ community at all.”

“And you want to be sure that Bella will not take fright at the leather masks…”

“You’ve got it: the masks, the whips.”

“She is sensitive.”

“Oh yes. Jumps at her own shadow.”

“How…? Oh…”

“Yes. ‘If You’re Doing Nothing Wrong, You Won’t Mind Being Snooped On.’ You see my point?”

I had to agree. It is hard enough to proclaim your sexual values in West Ham Park without risking the teeth of a frightened medium-sized terrier puncturing your latex.

“I could keep her away for the day…”

“Oh, Mr Alablague, you’re too good, but no, no. Acclimatise her, that’s my advice; acclimatise her to BDSM values.”

“And clothes.”

“Yes, clothes mainly, and whips and so on. Those little things that go under the chin and fit so snugly. The tight trousers and those cruel, cruel zips.”

“Come again.”

“Never mind.”

“Do Newham Council by any chance offer training?”

“Ah, Mr Alablague, the cuts, the cuts: we did until fiscal 2012/2013. But there are practitioners in the private sector who can help and assist. Try one of the websites that offer unwanted furniture and personal services, where you are. As a search term I recommend ‘domination’.”

“And ‘dog’?”

“Oh, no, Mr Alablague, that would in my judgment be most imprudent.”

I promised that one way or another we would not spoil his rally.

“A word to the wise, eh?” said the man from Newham Council.

My Mother 2

When you die, there is a process by which all the public authorities and utility companies are informed, so that existing arrangements can be brought to an end and all that is necessary is done to tie up any loose ends. I am the named point of contact in my mother’s case.

Two letters arrived in this morning’s post. In one, HMRC commiserated with me on my own death. They said that they recognised that it was a difficult time for me. More dramatic was the letter from British Gas. It starts:

Dear The Estate of Mrs J B-

We’re sorry to see that you have cancelled your HomeCare® agreement. But of course we understand that you have your reasons.

We’re still there for you.

If I believed in an afterlife, I would find the idea that I would have to share it with British Gas particularly chilling.