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.

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An Eyeful

Some weeks ago Ijaz was explaining to me about the restrictions placed on the devout during Ramadan. I had said that I understood that it was not just an injunction against food and drink passing the lips during daylight but anything doing so. I knew this because a friend of mine, living in an Arab country, had told me. Normally accommodating boys, he had said, ceased to be so during this time. It was one of those little pieces of information that one stores away in case it comes in useful. Sodomy, I suppose, would have been acceptable, but a man of taste and manners proceeds to sodomy only by stages.

Of course I did not mention any of this to Ijaz. He, however, took the point, almost with vigour.

“No, no; no sex,” he said. “But it’s more than the mouth, it’s the eyes too. During Ramadan we may not see anything impure with our eyes either.”

“See,” I said, “or dwell on?”

I had in mind the distinction observed by the poet Blake between having an unacted desire and ‘nursing’ it. But Ijaz dismissed this.

“We are men of will,” he said. “It is the same thing.”

I was glad that Ijaz lived across the road from me and therefore had had no chance, as he would have had, some days before, if he lived on our side of encountering a sight that he might well have regarded as impure. It was then still at the very end of the summer. I was idly looking out of an upstairs window. Some doors down there is a house occupied by eastern Europeans. Although we smile and say hello when we encounter each other in the street I have not really met them to talk to, but someone who was coming to see us once got directions from one of them at the nearest Tube station and they walked up the street together. Our neighbour informed our guest that the end of the world was imminent. They based this prediction on signs and portents and also written authority.

Anyway, my eye was caught by the sight of two of them, a young man and a young woman, walking in the garden. He was clad in a shell suit. She was wearing a loose and rather short dress. A flower took her attention and she bent over it and as she did so her dress rode up.

“Goodness,” I thought, “a naked bottom.”

It was round and flat and with all the unmistakeable features of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It could not have been a bottom of a member of what we are encouraged in the London Borough of Newham to call the UK host community. It was a bottom that one would not be surprised to encounter in a drawing by Egon Schiele; one could imagine such a bottom – seen, remembered or imagined – taking pride of place in feverish disclosures on Dr Freud’s couch in the Vienna of a hundred years ago. In those days, of course, it would have emerged from elaborate petticoating rather than, as now, out of something bought at Primark.

I looked for a moment in admiration. I then saw that it was not in fact naked. The merest piece of cloth disappeared between the cheeks and re-emerged below, preserving modesty. I moved back from the window. The entire incident had taken a couple of seconds.

I wondered what Ijaz would have done. As a man of will he probably just wouldn’t have seen it. But if it had been, as it were, thrust into his attention, what would his reaction have been?

I hope that it wouldn’t have been laddish. I don’t think so.

Would he have regarded it as no more impure than any other of the female attributes that he thinks it best to be covered up: hair, shoulders, bottoms – all much the same. Ijaz is no fundamentalist and he accepts that whilst he has certain standards he cannot insist on their being upheld by the non-believers among whom he happily lives. Perhaps he would regard the innocent flashing of a Bulgarian or Polish bottom as par for the course in a pluralistic society, to be faced and tolerated in others although spurned for oneself, just as he smiles indulgently when I take out the empty wine bottles as he stands across the road having a cigarette (except of course during Ramadan).

Would he have regarded it as one more innocent example of divine munificence, no more or less beautiful than the flower that our neighbour bent to look at? Again, no I don’t think so.

I suspect that as a man of will Ijaz would not have seen the bottom unless he had absolutely had to, and then he would have been at pains, like Blake, not to have nursed it, Ramadan or not.

And me? Well I suppose that writing about naked bottoms is nursing them if anything is, but then, no harm done, and anyway it isn’t Ramadan and moreover I’m not a Muslim.

Meanwhile, still on our side of the street but to the left rather than to the right, they have erected a tabernacle in the garden. Well, it’s a marquee, but it glows softly at night, and voices can be heard indistinctly like the songs of birds. I listen out for music but there isn’t any – yet. Maybe it is an early stage of some ceremony, a wedding probably, taking place over an extended period. They have hung the front of the house with what we in the UK host community might call Christmas lights, and thank goodness that Ijaz can see for himself, across the street, such a wholesome sight. Maybe on the appointed day people will arrive, magnificently dressed, in rented Bentleys and the sound of the oud will ring out in the autumn air. Maybe it will but I’ll miss it.

The things you see!

Peripheral Vision

Bella and I were on our way to West Ham Park and were blamelessly employing a zebra crossing. When we were half way across a 4×4 roared up and didn’t stop. We both leapt back towards the pavement that we had recently left. Fortunately Bella, with her childhood in Chelsea, has experience in avoiding these large and unnecessary cars. During this incident two things struck me. The first was that the vehicle was a Cayenne, and I remember wondering, not for the first time, why anyone would name a car after a type of pepper – and then thinking that this might be my last thought of all. Then, when I realised that it wasn’t, I noticed the driver. She was a young, modestly dressed Moslem woman. Even after the incident she seemed not to have noticed what had happened. There were none of the obscene gestures on the part of the driver or, more commonly, cyclist, that usually follow incidents of this nature, let alone (God forbid with a modest Moslem woman) the cry of ‘Cunt!’ that generally accompanies them; she sailed serenely on. Probably, I reflected, her view of us had been restricted by the decent black cloth that covered all her face except the area immediately in front of her eyes. She had eliminated her peripheral vision and we were the victims of her doing so.

I know that in the Holy Quran, the Prophet enjoins the faithful to look out for the wayfarer, but possibly this is a requirement at a lower level of importance than that to restrict your peripheral vision with black cloth; I am not an expert and I don’t know. For the rest of the walk to West Ham Park I thought about these things and wondered if they had more general significance. Peripheral vision: importance of … the essential things being those glimpsed out of the tail of the eye: c.f. Carlos Castaneda … the importance of subtlety, of contradiction: c.f Gerard Manley Hopkins … that sort of thing. It might, I thought, make a satisfactory theme for a sermon, until I remembered that I was not a priest.

When we got there, there was organised running to avoid. Men, women and children hurried past us in various states of wheeziness. Many of them had earphones, so that a voice supplied by some app – I imagine – could tell them whether a Personal Best was out of the question. I mused, still thinking along the lines for a good sermon (I have been reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography of her uncles, The Knox Brothers, where people deliver sermons of one sort or another all the time) about the relationship, as regards one’s aspirations to a Personal Best, between the voice of the app in your ear (modern) and the still, small voice of conscience (eternal).

The great Tessa Sanderson, who I believe comes from our part of the world and helps to organise these communal runs, jogged up and down in a spotless track suit shouting supportive things, like ‘Hey! You can do it!’ and ‘Call that running?’

And then curiously it happened all over again. A woman hurtled towards us. She was dressed in full Islamic costume. I have a lot of respect for this: engaging with one’s traditional values and at the same time joining in with the community at large, not to mention giving credit to the secular values of personal fitness. Anyway, she too had issues around peripheral vision. She failed to anticipate Bella’s stocky form, sauntering at foot level, and tripped forwards, landing on the grass a short and fortunate distance from where Bella had just laid her morning tribute, which I had imperfectly gathered in a specially designed plastic bag.

‘Fuck me,’ she said.

That was a first.

She declined assistance, stood up and directed a look of pure hatred at Bella. Then she was off again, her heart high but her hopes of a Personal Best on this occasion shattered.

We struck off away from the runners. Soon we got to a game of cricket. Bella likes cricket without pretending to understand it and without sharing her predecessor’s desire to participate in the game by running onto the wicket and laying one’s morning tribute at precisely the point at which a good off-break bites. When he did this once, in Rye as it happens, he was lucky to escape with his life. We stopped to watch. It was boys of eleven or twelve. They were doing it properly, dressed in whites, applauding good shots and good fielding and changing ends briskly between overs. There was a tiny spin bowler with a Sikh turban like an aspiring Bishan Bedi.

Taking a wide circle we made for the exit from the park. We passed the finishing post for the communal run. Tessa Sanderson, who had been having a bit of a jog up and down, was fussing over the paraphernalia on the table by the finishing post. The leading runners, cross-eyed with lust for their Personal Best and trying to discern the siren voices of the apps in their ears above the rushing sound of their own blood, now came into view. Since I didn’t care who won, or whether any Personal Bests were achieved, we didn’t break stride: it was past the ornamental garden and the tai chiers and out into the street.

Goodness, I like it here.

My Gore-Tex Boots

Many years ago, before we had eCommerce or iPhones, when we still occasionally referred to women as ‘girls’, in short in about the year 1990, I found myself in a small bar in the city of Cork with my then friend B. The bar had literary pretensions and by a fire in a corner of the room, seated on a chesterfield of venerable age, two poets – tweeded, chain-smoking Majors, nursing pints of Murphy’s – were giving each other a tongue lashing. The only other person there was the proprietor, who was called Brian; he pronounced it the English way.

‘You’re from London,’ he said.

I admitted this.

‘Are you familiar with a landlord in London by the name of Norman Balon: his pub The Coach and Horses?’

‘I am, to be sure,’ I said. ‘Do you know him?’

‘I have not met him,’ said Brian. ‘But I am told that he is the rudest landlord in London.’

‘He has that reputation,’ I said, ‘but he’s never been rude to me. In fact on one occasion he showed a degree of kindness. I’ve known many ruder.’

Brian ignored this.

‘I’ve had a card made,’ he said, and he presented it. Under his name and that of his pub it read: ‘The rudest landlord in Cork’.

‘You don’t seem particularly rude to me either.’

‘Aha,’ said Brian.

In those days I had a small house on the west coast, about a hundred miles away.

‘You’ll be going into the west, after?’ Brian said. ‘I wish I were going to the west. I’ve not been out of Cork City for twenty years.’

‘Come too,’ we said.

‘Ah, I couldn’t.’

‘Throw those two deadbeats out, close the bar, put up a sign and head for the coast with us.’

‘I think I will,’ Brian said, eventually. ‘There’s the landlady of a certain pub, who’s been in my thoughts these many years.’

‘Pack a bag then and we’ll be off.’

Brian shuffled away and returned with a small sports bag. It appeared to be entirely full of cassettes (this was 1990) of opera.

‘Tooth brush? Spare pants?’

‘Ah,’ said Brian, and shuffled off again.

‘You’ll need stout shoes,’ we said, eyeing his slippers, ‘for the country.’

But he had none so we set off anyway. We stopped at a number of pubs on the way. Brian appraised them proprietorially and looked down with distaste on the tarmacked car parks as he shuffled across them in his slippers. Eventually we got to my house. He looked out of the car window as we came to a stop.

‘Mud,’ he said. ‘I won’t walk on that.’

‘Not really.’

But it was not tarmac either.

‘You’ll have to carry me in.’

So I did, like a bride.

He paid court to his landlady, plying her with Tosca and fine words, and when he got fed up with the silliness with the slippers he bought a pair of loafers at Wiseman’s in the High Street. Soon he disappeared altogether, although I believe that his suit was not ultimately successful. With her, suits rarely were.

Musing when I returned to London on the footwear required in the far west, I went to a shop where they sell gear for mountaineers and explorers and bought a pair of stout mountaineering boots made of Gore-Tex. They may even have offered a facility for attaching crampons, but if they did I went without. I became extravagantly fond of them and when I went to Ireland I wore them everywhere. I was even surprised to find them the most comfortable shoes to drive in.

Time went by and I lost my house in the west of Ireland. The boots however hung around, as footwear does. They were of little use when I lived in Clerkenwell and less now that I am in Plaistow. The geography of the London Borough of Newham never falls below the picturesque and frequently aspires to the sublime, but mountains are few and far between here, and mountaineering boots are rarely needed. I had thought little of them for some long time when one day last week I went out leaving Bella, the dog, alone in the house. When I got back she had done little damage but she had found and chewed the boots. The Gore-Tex, even after all these years, had proved dog-resistant but she had removed the insoles and demolished one. She was starting on the second when I returned but it was still usable.

I was unable to summon the rage that I would have felt all those years ago. My Irish adventure was long over: the boots a sentimental relic. I replaced them in the shoe and coat cupboard, a feature of the new house on which the better half had wisely insisted. Bella received from me nothing worse than a complementary pet product. After all, she wasn’t to know.

Curiously enough they emerged again shortly afterwards. My parents-in-law, who live in St. Petersburg, are staying with us, and at the weekend daughter three and her husband Alex were here too. My father-in-law has a Brian-like attitude to outdoors. If he goes there he dresses appropriately but while indoors he dresses for comfort. I suppose that in Russia the difference between indoors and outdoors, particularly in the winter, is that much more marked: thirty degrees below in the streets and indoors sweaty with subsidised heating. Anyway, the better half was reorganising the garden and he kindly helped. The rich Plaistow loam precluded his venturing out in his socks, and the better half had given him my Gore-Tex boots to wear. There he was manfully struggling with unwanted branches with his pyjama bottoms tucked into them.

‘OMG,’ I said to Alex. ‘Bella has eaten one of the insoles. One of the boots has no insole.’

Alex, who has a capability in Physics, considered this.

‘Grandfather will inevitably walk round in circles,’ he said, ‘but the garden is not so large as to make that a practical problem.’

The Stocks

A few days later I received a letter on AERSIP notepaper. I knew before I opened the envelope. On the back there is a stylised representation of a Labrador gazing kindly at a little girl. Because it is one of those cartoon likenesses that have to stand for all races and none it is a very stylised representation, though the Labrador is more lifelike than the girl. Inside, they couldn’t bring themselves to refer to Bella by name and used her tagging number instead, after which they call her ‘the dog under investigation’.

The dog under investigation was subject to an assessment under the Race Relations (Racism and Sexism Issues Around Pets) Regulations 2013 dated so and so and held at so and so, Facilitator the fierce woman, presumably and has been determined non-compliant having regards to the said Regulations. Accordingly it is required that the dog under investigation and its owner attend at so and so for remedial action taken and a determination having regards to the disposal of the dog under investigation.

So I telephoned the number on the letter.

‘AERSIP here,’ said a cheerful if recorded voice. ‘Working together against racism and sexism around pets,’ and there followed a series of options, one of which I took.

‘Dogs,’ he barked.

He didn’t ask how he could help me but I went ahead anyway. I told him about the letter. He said that he was ‘retrieving’ it, but as far as I could see I still had it in my hand.

‘What is all this nonsense?’ I said.

‘It’s a very serious matter. I suggest that you take it very seriously.’

‘What are we talking about?’

‘I,’ he said, ‘am talking about the reprocessing of the dog under investigation. I don’t know what you’re talking about. And if he/she fails, the dog under investigation, I’m talking about an ASBO or in the last resort AERSIP has delegated powers to adapt or terminate non-compliant pets.’

‘An ASBO…’

‘Not to proceed within fifty metres of any member of a designated faith or ethnic community.’

‘That would be difficult in Plaistow. What about Jews? Are they to be protected from Bella too? She has some good Jewish friends.’

‘Say again.’

‘Jews.’

‘Bear with me,’ said the man. ‘I’m retrieving the Regs.

‘No,’ he said eventually, ‘nothing about Jews. Not a designated faith or ethnic community.’

‘I’ll make it my citizen’s duty to preserve her from anti-Semitism,’ I said. ‘Rest assured.’

‘Say again.’

And so we found ourselves in another municipal office, Bella and I. There were some depressed dogs with their owners.

‘I hope this is good,’ I said to one of them. ‘I didn’t realise till we got here that we have to pay for this circus.’

Indeed, they had presented me with a bill. He cast a fishy glance at me but said nothing. He was probably afraid that I might be an informer.

On the wall was a banner announcing that the University of East Anglia was proud to be partnering with AERSIP in this important initiative, and indeed the man who then bounded into the room wore a sweater bearing the insignia of that academic institution.

He was anxious to gain our trust. He assured us that we were all, humans and canines both, dedicated to the elimination of racism and sexism around pets. It was just, he said, that sometimes clouds got in the way. It was our job today to burn away those clouds. He wrote this on a flip chart, making a sun-like gesture as he did so. Then he tore off his University of East Anglia woolly and rolled up his sleeves.

‘Now how,’ he demanded, ‘do we eliminate racism and sexism around our pets?’

And on his flip chart he wrote two things: Top Down and then Bottom Up.

That was a silly question. When so posed the answer is always Bottom Up.

I put up my hand. He pointed at me forcefully.

‘What if you don’t burn them away?’ I said.

‘Is that Top Down or Bottom Up?’ said the man.

‘Never mind that. Let’s cut to the chase. What are you threatening us with?’

‘It’s Bottom Up,’ he cried. ‘There are certain penalties. ASBOs,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Electric shock treatment. The stocks. Ultimately termination.’

‘You put our dogs into the stocks and then you kill them?’

‘Only if they remain noncompliant.’

‘God almighty! And how do the stocks work?’

His eyes lit up.

‘We tie their front paws, humanely, to a length of wood in a public place. Over their head is a banner saying ‘This Dog is Racist’ and people are encouraged to throw things at them and to reprimand them, calling, ‘Bad Dog!’ and ‘Racist Dog!’ It can be transformative.’

‘And who decides all this? The University of East Anglia? AERSIP?’

‘In consultation, yes.’

I was struck dumb. Fortunately at that moment there was a commotion. The sash windows into the street were thrust up and a figure, female, clad entirely in black and covered as to her face, leapt into the room. It was the Jibjab Woman. I’d know those eyes anywhere.

‘JJ!’ I said.

‘Bella!’ she said.

Bella had met the Jibjab Woman a week or so back at Great Secret Miss, and was overjoyed to see her again. She rushed over, jumping up, licking her and leaving, I am afraid, paw marks on her spotless jibjab.

‘Oh, Bella,’ said the Jibjab Woman, I love you too.’

Giving her a gentle fondle to the ears she turned to the man from the University of East Anglia.

‘And what is this shit?’ she said.

He was stuck for words, so I answered.

‘Bella avoided some women at a bus stop and then didn’t avoid some schoolboys in a park. And now we are in a kangaroo court with her accused of racism and sexism around pets.’

I didn’t mention the medieval punishment in case the Jibjab Woman approved of that sort of thing.

‘Kangaroo?’

‘Dog. Sorry.’

‘Have you no shame?’ she said to the man from the University of East Anglia. I thought how much more scornful she would have been if she had seen his woolly. ‘Is this a racist dog?’ Bella was attempting to climb into her arms. ‘Is this a sexist dog? Come with me’ – this was to Bella and me – ‘we’ll leave them to their wanking’.

Being a modest Moslem woman she refrained from the gesture that usually accompanies that remark.

‘You’re a star, JJ,’ I said when we got outside.

‘You won’t hear any more from them.’

And off she went – about her work, as always. She turned.

‘Shall I fix the teacher for you?’

‘The teacher?’

‘The informer.’

‘Oh, no, thanks,’ I said. ‘It’s a hard life, being a teacher.’

Bow Bells

One of the few builders on our house who is not from central Europe is Pete the carpenter, who is from Plaistow. He no longer lives in Plaistow but he was brought up a block away. His family moved out to Essex some years ago to make room for the likes of me. He told me of his apprenticeship as a carpenter. (If he had been talking to the Gentle Author his eyes would have been shining but he wasn’t and they didn’t. They were fine eyes for all that: dulled by alcohol, but subtly so.)

We used to go down to the River, he said, where they brought in the timber. It was just down on the quay in Silvertown. They would unload it in a state that it still needed to be seasoned. Magnificent boles presided over the quayside, sometimes for years, pickling gently in the London fogs.

Was it wet from the sea, I asked.

Yes, sometimes the wood had been hauled behind the ships, through the sea.

It stood on the quayside often for years until it was ready to be used for building. Some of the offcuts Pete and his fellow apprentices were allowed to practise on, to learn their trade.

I asked if Silvertown was then still Chinese. It had, I knew, been London’s original Chinatown.

Not really, he said. Most of the Chinese had moved west by then. Driven out by people like you, he said. (Had I been the Gentle Author he would have said it with a twinkle.) There were some food emporia, and behind closed doors there was still opium to be smoked and congenial company to smoke it in.

Not for us apprentices, that, of course, he said.

I thought of Mr Lee and I smiled to myself. Not everything had changed.

Pete the carpenter and the landfall for his timber would have been up-river from the mouth of the Lea, though I suppose that in their day shipments of timber could have come ashore at the old East India Dock. Nowadays containers of MDF are craned over the ship’s rail in Felixstowe.

Musing on this I took the track from the East India Dock to Trinity Buoy Wharf and the mouth of the Lea, which at that point is called Bow Creek. As I say there were signs of Hacknification: a phenomenon still mercifully rare in our part of East London; there is wall art, a giant fish, and when I got to the wharf itself an enclave where young people were enjoying a decent merlot.

This used to be an area of unparalleled squalor, even by the standards to which the Victorian poor submitted. There was a tragedy there, which gives some idea. A pleasure boat was run into by a steamer and seven hundred people were killed: many on impact, but most died because, when they entered the water, so, by a bad chance, did a discharge from a local sewer and they died suffocated by human shit.

There was of course a similar disaster, not so many years ago and further upstream. The Marchioness, another pleasure boat, was struck by a dredger, the Bowbelle, and many people were killed. Because of Health & Safety, however, they died shit-free.

Both stories have great emotional resonance. They disturb the even flow of time. I remember a story of a man watching the Thames and remarking to a friend: “Isn’t this where that pleasure boat sank and all those people were killed?” And the friend looked bemused, because the Marchioness tragedy was to take place a week later.

At the end of the quay there is a lighthouse. This in itself is startling: lighthouses are rare in London, to say the least. It presides over the expanse of the river – considerably greater here than in central London – and the O2, baleful on the opposite bank. I could see people walking on the roof of the O2. Lucky people to be doing so!

Lighthouses too have great emotional resonance.

The door was open and I went in. It turned out to be the home of the Longplayer project. Jem Finer, who created the music for most of the Pogues’ best songs – Shane McGowan wrote the words – has created a very long piece of music. Its performance started with the start of the Millennium and will persist until its end. The sound comes from metal bowls, as used by the Tibetans. You can see them there and they are very elegant. The sequences are created by computers in accordance with Jem Finer’s program. They say that it never repeats, but I’m not sure what that means; obviously some short combinations must repeat. There are strategies to cope with the failure of individual computers or of the electric supply. Sometimes people take over for a bit. You can read about it here.

This might have been a conceptual adventure where what mattered was the persistence of the piece over such a long period, rather than the experience of the sound. I went up to the listening area. This is in the top of the lighthouse where once the lamp was. Through the latticed window you can see the O2 and Docklands and you can imagine the music continuing on its placid way when the O2 has flapped away in unseasonably high winds and Canary Wharf has ivy growing up it. And the music itself is beguiling. It needn’t have been but it is. I sat there until the sun started to go down. Then I went home and played it from the website.

I have no idea why a sequence of notes generated by a computer should be so affecting. Maybe it was the lighthouse and the dead pleasure-seekers separated by a hundred years or more. Maybe it’s simply Jem Finer’s musical genius. After all, Fairytale of New York has great emotional resonance too.

Anthony Powell: a Neighbour Speaks

The better half and I were coming back from the shops when we fell in with our neighbour Ijaz. He was coming back from prayers. It was Friday and he was dressed, not in the Lands End fleece that he tends to sport, but, as were others of our neighbours – the men, of course – in the white cotton outfits that they have for prayers. Very nice they look in them too. Some of the younger ones spoil the effect a little by completing the ensemble at ground level with exposed shins, grubby socks and trainers. I cannot believe that there is any religious injunction as regards trainers, the invention of which after all post-dated the death of the Prophet by some time. Anyway, Ijaz doesn’t wear trainers.

He indicated that the better half should go ahead. He wanted to speak to me man to man.

“Your blog. I speak for the Street, you understand. Some concern…”

“My goodness,” I said. “I never would have thought that I had Followers so close to home.”

“Very much so. The pirates, Amy, very good.”

“Thank you. Amy is currently helping her mother with the New Year,” I said. “In China. Or Kettering.”

“The Street likes Amy very much. Very good.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “And Uncle Edgerton..”

“No, the Street doesn’t like Uncle Edgerton…”

“Very few people do…”

“But that’s not the point,” said Ijaz. “Last month. Two posts only. Both smutty.”

“No, no.”

“Smutty,” Ijaz said in a tone that did not admit of contradiction. “Normally I encourage my unmarried daughters to read alablague, and the staff too on their one day a week off, but how can I do so if there is to be a relentless tide of smut?”

“I’m sorry. As you’ve seen from across the road I have been confined to the house with flu and then Ukrainian carpenters. I suppose that they must have that effect. No accounting. What would you prefer?”

“The Street likes it when, inshallah, you write about Anthony Powell, the novelist.”

Again, I was most surprised.

“Mm, Powell. He could be smutty, of course, in an oblique way. One thinks of Glober’s cushion, stuffed with the pubic hair of the women he sleeps with. And his little pair of scissors.”

“Couldn’t do that these days,” said Ijaz. “Brazilians. My goodness! We speak man to man, you understand.”

“Curiously,” I said, “I have been thinking about Powell particularly over the last few days. One of the things that has always bothered me is that Nick, the narrator and the author’s alter ego, is the ultimate cool operator. Nothing fazes him. He’s funny. He copes with monsters and they don’t realise that they’re being coped with. He flirts with Pamela Flitton and is, uniquely, unscathed. I always dreamt of meeting Powell. I thought he’d be great company.

“Then I read the Journals, which he wrote towards the end of his life. They’re not very Nick-like at all. Powell is frequently querulous – which Nick never is – even to the point of harrumphing. I realised that it was lucky that no meeting had never taken place, because he would probably not have liked me. Moreover – and this is a terrible indictment for a novelist – he would have disliked me because I fell into some large category that he had come to condemn without further thought, like having long hair or not voting Conservative. Nick never did that.”

“Mm,” said Ijaz. “Ng.”

“But recently I have been reading the Memoirs – To Keep the Ball Rolling. You’ll remember that he wrote them after the last volume of Dance was published but before the Journals and the two final novels.

“And here’s what’s strange.”

“Vrm…,” said Ijaz.

“The first three volumes are funny, digressive: cool like Nick. Then in the fourth volume he starts going on about his holidays. I don’t think they’re Saga Tours, but that sort of thing, and he starts harrumphing. He calls long hair among men ‘Absolomism’, which is not funny, it’s not clever and it’s only to show off. You can see exactly the point where he starts harrumphing.”

“Mmmn,” said Ijaz. “Your wife…”

“Is it just old age? What is it, old neighbour, old fellow-ratepayer? Give me counsel.”

“No,” said Ijaz. “Pay no rates. Disability. Leg. Pain. Uurgh! Chest. No rates.”

“I am sorry,” I said, “to broach unwittingly a sensitive subject. Of course no rates. But à nos moutons! Is it anno domini? Do you feel, as you count your life out in weekly prayer meetings, an increasing impulse to harrumph? I know I do.”

“No, yes,” said Ijaz. “The Prophet …”

“Another thing. Still Powell. People talk about the unreliable narrator. People say, ‘Yes but imagine what Widmerpool would have said. Imagine his take on the same facts. Very different. Not stupid. Not by any means. An alternative approach to the same circumstances. Less imaginative but not entirely unacceptable. Trying to get a mountain of work done and Nick, who was supposed – paid – to help, is mooning on about the boyhood of some Persian notability. Right to be irritated. Imagine Dance written by Widmerpool.’”

“There,” said Ijaz, more firmly, “I can help you. This book, it exists. This is another novel in a series: Strangers & Brothers by one C Snow. Narrator Lewis Eliot. He is Widmerpool! He is fat and lives to work. He is humourless and pompous. He deals with charming people but he only tells us that they are charming because he can’t make charm in his book any more than he can make humour. You can see the characters like Nick, the cool, allusive ones. You can see that Mr Lewis Eliot, although it’s his book, has no idea what’s going on, for all his relentless analysing. There you are my friend, Strangers & Brothers, by C Snow: Widmerpool’s Dance!”

I stared at Ijaz in disbelief.

“You cunning old bibliophile,” I said. “You took the words out of my mouth.

“Anyway,” I said. “Cut to the chase. I thought of doing a post along just those lines. What do you say?”

“The Street likes it very much when you write about Anthony Powell, the novelist. Not smut. Your wife, I believe has reached your front door and is shouting.”