Hail, Sturgeonia!

We are staying in the People’s Republic of Sturgeonia. We meant to enter through Berwick-on-Tweed, with its bridges celebrated in art, but apparently the A1 was shut; the satnav took us through deserted valleys and past uninterested sheep and lonely peaks. It was so deserted that I wondered whether we would spot the Border; there are no machine gun posts yet. In fact there was a cairn, with ‘Scotland’ on it and a boy vomiting against the side. He was vomiting on the Scottish side. I don’t know if it was a gesture – for all I know the other side of the cairn says ‘England’. We did not investigate but drove on towards Edinburgh and arrived at midnight.

Edinburgh strives bravely to please the tourist but its heart is not in it. We had booked a self-catering flat. It was the meanest bit of space that I have encountered since I was in New York and people there would boast of similarly exiguous and cabbage-smelling accommodation. In each case the excuse was location, and indeed we could look out of the barred windows onto at least one murder site from the novels of Ian Rankin. On the table was the book of rules. After perfunctorily welcoming us to the great city in which we were privileged to be resting our heads, it told us at length what we were not permitted to do. ‘PENALTY: £100’, it would say, or, in one case, ‘PENALTY: £500’. That I think that was for spilling Irn Bru on the carpet.

Bella, the dog, needed to relieve herself before retiring. She has a foible about this: she will only do it on grass, unless she is in Portugal. Portugal is an exception as there is very little grass there. It is like Buddhists being allowed to eat meat in Tibet. There is grass in Edinburgh but it is locked up at night. We wandered the streets looking for a blade or two on which she could deposit one of her small and elegant effusions. It was all put away behind iron railings. She became embarrassed. Finally we broke into the National Gallery and found a patch there: in the grounds, obviously, not inside, in front of the Reverend whatever skating, or any of their other masterpieces.

Edinburgh is the subject of an interesting social experiment. The aim is that fifty per cent of the population should be traffic wardens. If you look around you, you will see that they are well on the way to achieving this exciting target. Furthermore, there is a new law to the effect that it is an offence to block the view between a traffic warden and any car in which the warden might reasonably be considered to be taking a professional interest. As a result the roads are occupied by the much-admired new trams and by Americans in kilts trudging glumly up to the Castle, while the pavements are full of traffic wardens, preening themselves and lovely in yellow.

On we drove, past the wonderful Forth rail bridge and the site of yet another road bridge in the process of being built, and onto the A9. This is the road that takes you out of the Central Belt north from Perth and on as far as you want: even as far as John O’Groats. The A9 is a difficult road. It has two lanes for most of its length and you get stuck behind lorries and caravans. The radio signal goes and Radio 4 turns to white noise. There is money for another road bridge for the Central Belt, but not for communications in the Highlands.

The view of the Cairngorms is stupendous – or was. These days it is difficult to see the Cairngorms as the roadside is littered with official signs. These announce enterprising new traffic-calming projects, remind you of the speed limit and inform you that policemen are operating in unmarked cars. (Operating? On whom?) There are endless speed cameras.

And now we are in the Highlands and there is a problem with rubbish. I wish that there was an agreed standard about what could be put into which bin. There are two bins. There is a sign on one of them that tells you that various things are not welcome, and another sign to the effect that if you put the wrong things in the wrong bin they won’t take them away: on a second offence they would throw it all through your bedroom window with a foul cry. We put the bottles (there had been family merriment) in the bin that did not say that bottles were forbidden. Half an hour later the neighbour deposited the bottles back on our doorstep with a note. It was in capitals and underlined, like the anonymous notes that one gets accusing one of sodomising the vicar’s cat. It was to the effect that bottles were not welcome at all. They were to be taken to the supermarket.

I resisted the temptation to shove them, open end dripping, through the neighbour’s bedroom window with a foul cry. This was wise, as half an hour later she set out up the hill with a wheelbarrow containing, I am fairly certain, her murdered lover. Certainly she trudged glumly back with wheelbarrow empty and the lover has not been seen since. What might I have seen if I had looked in!

Instead, we drove with the bottles the twelve-mile trip to the supermarket and back, thus solving climate change at a stroke.

I am sitting with the sun setting over the western mountains. (I am writing but not posting, as there is no broadband.) There is little human between us and Canada. The landscape is immense. It ruminates as it settles into the night. Otherwise it is absolutely silent. I hope that they let us continue to come here. I love it and it feels like home. And I hope that they grow out of their current mood of institutional bossiness.


An Inspector Calls

An Inspector called. He wanted to talk about what he called ‘alleged inappropriate sexual approaches concerning your good self at the premises known as ‘Shallow Assets’’’. I invited him in and made him some green tea.

“An Inspector?” I said. “I’m honoured. I would have expected a Detective Constable or a Sergeant at best, if anyone at all. Being an Inspector is after all the summit of the achievement of John Rebus, in spite of his having been at the centre of nineteen much garlanded crime novels.”

“Rebus is imaginary,” said the Inspector. “Sir.”

“Whereas you…”

A glint came into the Inspector’s eye that can only be described as Pirandellian.

“Point taken,” he said. “Sir.”

Pleasantries over, he took a notebook from his pocket and a pencil, the end of which he licked.

“The bedroom door opened,” he said.

“Are you putting words into my mouth, Inspector?”

He put his pencil down and sighed.

“In your own. Sir.”

“The first thing that I noticed was that he was dressed as an Edwardian washerwoman. I was expecting that, you see.”


“Don’t you read my blog? Don’t you do any research?”

“The internet connection, Sir, at the Station. Not reliable. We have to use BT, unfortunately: our service provider. Wheels within wheels.”

“Then I knew that he wasn’t who I was expecting, and thirdly I knew I’d seen him on the television.”

“So this figure from the television: he made you touch his male member?”

“One thing at a time. He advanced on me. With one hand he held up his skirting and with the other he grasped…”

“His male member, yes. And was it erect and proud? Was it glistening, with one drop of moisture on what we call the glans penis?”

“It was erect. More I can’t tell you, as it was inside his washerwoman’s calico drawers.”

“But you could see it through the calico? He was touching himself through his calico?”

The Inspector licked his pencil again: excessively, it seemed, as he then wiped it on his trousers, which were not, since he was a detective rather than in the uniformed branch, of serge.

“Then,” I said, “he got entangled in the rug and fell.”


“A Konya, I would guess. Certainly Anatolian. It was not in the best state of repair.”

“Ah. I thought you meant toupée. Sir.”

“He landed painfully…”

“On his nob end, eh, Sir, eh?”

“..which enabled me to get away.”


“And of course he spoke to me.”

The Inspector put his pencil aside again.

“You see my problem. Sir. How can we accord you victim status as regards inappropriate touching, when you are undeniably a member of what we call the Patriarchy? We have a list of minority groups which are pre-approved for victim status, and you don’t appear to be on it. ”

He gestured at the green tea and my small but obviously valuable etching by Odilon Redon.

“I was mentally frail, at the time.”

“There is that…”

I put down my cup, for fear of damaging it.

“That man, that man,” I said, and I gesticulated as I did so, “he ruined my life. He stole from me my late middle age.”

I was briefly in tears.

(I love that sentence. It’s borrowed from the great novelist Anthony Powell [The Military Philosophers, published by Heinemann, 1968, p 158]. The narrator is in liberated France towards the end of the Second World War. Peace is in sight. ‘For some reason it was all too much.’ He is ‘briefly in tears’. That is dignified. That is as it should be: not like our debased age where no encounter, particularly if televised, is complete without a lengthy recital of one’s feelings and recourse to the waterworks.

Just now, of course, I was teasing.)

The Inspector advanced on me, caring in his eyes. Maybe they have an afternoon on ‘counselling training’ at Staff College these days. He laid his hand on my knee. It was a meaty thing, and I speculated about where it had been as he fought his way up through the ranks.

“I so understand. But we have to be careful,” he said, “Sir. Some of the people who come to us, not victim status at all. Slags, most of them. Filth. White trash. Little whores. You should hear the stories the young police officers tell. Forcing themselves on the lads…”

He mouthed the phrase “BJ” silently and primly.

“… as young as ten, some of them.”

The Inspector removed his hand from my knee and mopped his chin with a tissue that he found in his clothing. He put his notebook in his pocket, wiped his still slobbery pencil with a dry bit of the tissue and placed that in another pocket.

“I think we’ve got enough here to have our friend bang to rights.”

“Have you identified him?” I said.

“A great pity that no one came forward in his lifetime: like you, Sir, someone with courage.”

“What do you mean, his lifetime? He’s not dead.”

“Dead these two years, Sir, and more…”

“It’s not Savile, you silly Inspector, it’s not a ghost, it’s one of the other ones, and he’s very much alive, and apparently still preying on the mentally frail.”

The Inspector took out his notepad and pencil again, but seemed at a loss for words.

“What in earth would be the point of building a case against Savile’s ghost?” I said. “Isn’t it a bit late for that? You missed the boat with him, I’d say.”

“It would send a very clear message,” said the Inspector.

“Who to? The undead?”

The inspector looked at me with dignity. Now I had put myself in the wrong. He put his notebook away for the last time.

“You’ll be hearing from us,” he said.

He stood at the door of the room, hesitating. Clearly there was something more.

“I suppose you want a blow job,” I said.

He smiled broadly.

“Well, go and find a Sergeant.”


Some years ago the better half was in a very minor traffic accident. She was standing still at a red light and a car that had drawn alongside pulled across and scraped her car’s wing. It was a very little scrape, partly because her car was standing still and the other one was travelling at substantially less than walking speed. Even the Jaguar-approved garage – and they are not modest in their charges – quoted only £200 to put it right.

The other driver was a Nigerian man. They pulled over to exchange details. A minute or so later a police car pulled up. The better half called me. Two things, I said: photograph the damage on your mobile, and grovel to the policeman. She forgot the first and it turned out to be too late for the second. I could hear the policeman in the background. He was saying:

“Speak to me with respect, or I’ll say that I saw it and that it was your fault.”

Apparently she hadn’t addressed him as ‘Officer’, which they like.

The policeman had not seen the accident, of course. He had been hundreds of yards away at the time driving his car.

Months later our insurance company told us that the Nigerian driver had claimed that his car had had to be written off, and, worse, he had spent six months immobilised as a result of a whiplash injury sustained in the accident.

Presumably, we said to our insurance company, you will not be prepared to be ripped off in this way. They said that on the whole they thought that that would be best. We persuaded them however to defend the claim in court.

Various very strange things happened when we got there.

The first was that the Nigerian man giving evidence as to his injuries was not the Nigerian man who had been driving the car. No doubt the fraudsters banked on the fact that Justice is blind, certainly when it comes to telling one black man from another.

The second was that we were told by the judge and our own barrister that the one thing that we couldn’t do was to challenge the evidence of the policeman. Policemen don’t lie, they said. You are not even to suggest that they might.

The policeman swept in late. He had been promoted and was now busy protecting Her Majesty, he said, something that visibly impressed the judge. As we now know, the police protecting Her Majesty were also busy selling private stories about her to the newspapers.

He proceeded to perjure himself. Yes, he said, he had seen it all. It had been a vicious attack by the better half on an innocent black man.

We lost, of course. Our insurance company shelled out a small fortune for non-existent car damage and fictitious injuries. It all left a sour taste, as if all concerned, including the judge, were part of a nasty scheme to enrich the claimant and the lawyers; the motorists whose premiums fund the whole circus could afford it.

There was nothing financial in it, however, for the policeman. He was motivated by malice. He took against the better half and he thought that she should have treated him with the respect to which his blue serge entitled him. He lied under oath out of pure spite, and we were denied the opportunity of saying so.

This all came to mind with the news yesterday of ‘Plebgate’ and its cover-up. There are striking similarities.

The Downing Street policemen lied about Mr Mitchell. Their lies were substantial. They said that he said things that he didn’t and they invented an audience that wasn’t there. They did it out of spite in order to damage his career, and they succeeded. He lost his job.

The police authorities, comprising, apparently, three Chief Constables, considered the matter over many months. Their conclusion is that the police officers may have acted wrongly, but they did nothing to warrant disciplinary action.

If that doesn’t “warrant disciplinary action” I can’t imagine what does. In any other walk of life they would have been sacked.

The three Chief Constables whose conclusion this is (and jokes about the three little pigs are quite out of order: this is a serious matter) would no doubt solemnly inform me, if they were with me here, that if the police are content to operate with standards that low that is a matter for them and none of my business: we get the checks and balances that we pay for.

That may well be; but I hope that next time in an ordinary modest court a policeman crudely perjures himself and everyone in the room stares at their feet in embarrassment, a barrister will rise to his feet and say to the judge, “Plebgate, Your Honour.”

trouble with the olympics

Amy came to see me. I wanted to talk to her about the dog’s addiction, immersed as she is in the world of drugs that take you by the throat and never let you go. I myself have learnt the hard way to take kefir one week on and one off, although, as she says now, she could have told me that, had I not been so damnably insistent.

She didn’t put it in those words, but I could see that that was what she meant.

The dog was going though a maudlin phase that day. He lay with his head in her lap, gazing at her with his soft brown eyes. Amy has the limited tolerance for dogs often to be found in those who can read those parts of the menu not translated into English. She eyed him critically, with particular attention I thought to the areas of muscle. He sloped off, with his tail between his legs.

He tail between legs, she laughed. Usually metaphor. Not now.

Her remedy was simple.

Place whisky on top shelf.

But what about his underlying anxieties?

He very old. Underlying anxieties not matter.

It was a harsh judgment, but she has troubles of her own, and they all arise from the Olympics. The district in which she has her business (I’d better not tell you where it is) has been infested with police. They are trying to make it nice for the Olympics and they are busy trying to stop people doing whatever it is that they are doing. I have seen them myself in Soho, walking in twos like lovely bees in their yellow stripy things, and uttering inhuman cries from machines hidden about their chests.

(Bees not yellow, said Amy when I told her the story. Wasps yellow.

(Yes, I said, falling into her vernacular, but wasps not lovely.)

It so happened that I was proceeding peacefully in a northerly direction along the pavement on Wardour Street when I was addressed by three attractive Afro-Caribbean ladies, who asked me with great hilarity if I would like ‘business’.

I was taken aback.

With all of you?

More hilarity ensued.

It was partly the numbers but more so the jollity (it’s not called ‘business’ for nothing) that convinced me that it was all a good-natured joke. I turned to make some appropriate riposte, but suddenly they’d entirely disappeared, melted into some dark courtyard. There instead were two rozzers, squawking without moving their lips.

So maybe the ladies were serious after all.

Anyway, Amy too has had threatening visits from the police. When she maintains that selling kefir is not so far against the law, they mutter darkly about the Border Agency and knowing what’s good for you.

Why a sports-lover from Ukraine, say, staying in our capital city as our guest, should be hindered in satisfying his desire for good-quality dreams I can’t think – or indeed his desire for sex with three attractive West Indian ladies at the same time.

Amy says bitterly that of course Mr Lee has not been troubled.

Limehouse has been much redeveloped, I suggested. Maybe the police maps aren’t up to date and they can’t find him.

She laughed shortly. Apparently Mr Lee not only has local protection but also that of an Olympic potentate, a big cheese in some anti-doping agency.

Every month he come to London on fact-finding mission. Olympics pay. After he one pipe he no find no more facts.

Mr Lee, she said, makes him leave his blazer at the door of the opium den, so as not to frighten the others.

Apparently this personage has provided Mr Lee with a ticket to attend the final of the 100 metres. Amy suggested that she could take or leave the 100 metres but that she did resent Mr Lee’s immunity, compared with herself, from police interference.

Even Aubergine Small no help.

Don’t give up, I said.

After she left, the dog had his inevitable relapse. One minute I was the only one who could save him. The next he was saying the most hurtful things he could. (With dogs, that’s not actually very hurtful.) I reflected that addiction was OK if, like the man from the Olympics, you had power and could control your habit and the world around you. The dog, for all the love that we lavish on him, is at the bottom of the social heap. He controls nothing. I resolved to increase his pocket money, as from the end of the month.

the dog has become an alcoholic

The dog has become an alcoholic. As always, I blame myself.

When he is left in charge of the house, he often reclines in the front room. It is always a problem if thunder or gunfire occurs when we are out, because they frighten him. When he is frightened he likes to take the bottles of spirits from their shelf and play skittles with them. It relieves his feelings of panic.

These feelings are entirely natural, going back to an occasion when we took him with my mother for a walk in the grounds of a stately home in Yorkshire, and were caught up in a real hunt. The gentry hurtled by on their slavering horses (or ‘steeds’ as horses are often called once they start slavering). Horns and small arms rang out. Of course they were after strays and not well-behaved pets accompanied by National Trust members, but he wasn’t to know that.

Recently the police were anxious to have a little chat with a neighbour of ours, a barrister. We are still picking lead out of the exterior woodwork and the dog’s nerves are shot completely.

Some time after that there was another incident. This time it was not gunfire but a thunder storm that unexpectedly interrupted our placid and balmy June weather. He manhandled a bottle of Famous Grouse and another of vodka to the floor with such anxious force that the tops came off. He greeted us as usual when we came home – and promptly keeled over to one side, like a bit-part-player in a Western who has taken a blow to the head from the hero. He had clearly had at the contents.

We comforted him, put him to bed with his blanket, disinfected the front room so as not to stir memories for him, and hoped that that would be that. But it wasn’t. Next time we went out, the placid and balmy June weather was affected by showers, but there was no thunder; nor, unless the civil authorities are lying to me, had they indulged in gunplay in the area.

Again he greeted us on our return, affectionately as always, but when he tried to jump up to demonstrate his affection it all went very badly wrong as regards his legs.

Since then it has only taken one of us to open a bottle of Sainsbury’s White for him to barge in and try to intercept the contents between bottle and glass, or, which to me is even less acceptable, between glass and lips.

Tough love was required, and one-to-one tough love – an alcohol-free week, where he could let it all out and we could try to heal. After all, as I told him, Famous Grouse is one thing, but have a go at any of the malts and you’re for the taxidermist. The better half has selflessly taken herself off to a beach in Tuscany, and together the dog and I have wrestled with his addiction.

It’s been an emotional roller-coaster!

(That’s a horrid expression, by the way. From a roller-coaster the last thing you want is feelings: you want it to work.)

One minute he’s been crying, I love you, Dad, his tongue lolling over his broken teeth. The next he’s at your ankles. The hardest thing to take is the mood swings. At times he can analyse his issues with merciless clarity (as he himself puts it when in that state of mind); the next moment he’s slipping his lead and savaging a postman’s bottom.

Then he goes all analytical again. He said last night, I’m only fulfilled when I express my feelings and my anger, and I can only do that when I’m drunk. I’m only really happy when I’m drunk.

That cut through me, I can tell you, after all that the better half and I have done for him. The complimentary castration was just the start.

The postman’s bottom is only symbolic, he explains smugly.

Not to the postman, I muttered.

He explained that this wasn’t all about the postman, it was about him.

His personal hygiene has suffered too.

I’m not sure how much more I can take.