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.”


“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.


A Wedding; an Exorcism

Going into the church for the wedding of my lovely daughter three I noticed the dog – who was a page boy – shiver down the entire length of his body. Although the more extreme signs of his Satanism had abated over the last few days, he was clearly not right. I had heard nothing from Uncle Edgerton. Maybe the bad spirit was lying low. More likely the dog, who is very fond of daughter three, had made a supreme effort for her.

He lay there quietly, talking sotto voce with the grand-daughter. Only at two points were there signs of real distress. The first was when my brother and I played appropriate wedding music, and his disquiet may have had less to do with his spiritual allegiance than with his acuteness, as a dog, of pitch. But the second was when Father J stressed that this was not a secular occasion but a sacrament, and then he shivered again.

Afterwards we went on to the venue chosen for the reception, from which he was barred on the grounds of health and safety – barred as a dog, curiously, rather than as a creature possessed by a devil. The venue, to give credit where due, was The Canonbury in Islington, and they do a good spread, with lovely surroundings and food far above the normal standard of bulk catering.

Everything went very well, few people sat there swallowing their lips, and the only really sad thing was when the grand-daughter’s red balloon became detached from its attractively decorated string and set off for Germany. For a bit she was inconsolable.

Daughter two was a bridesmaid, without Parrott on this occasion but with her boyfriend Dan, another treasure-hunter. She whispered to me that she was standing by to be summoned whenever she was needed.

The time came for me to make a speech as the bride’s father. I stood up clutching my notes and surveying the sea of rubicund faces with some dismay. Would they be quiet? Just as I was about to embark on my first well-rounded aphorism a woman lurched into me. It was my brutal cousin Ella, from Denmark.

But – you weren’t invited…

Saved from speaking in the nick of time, said P2, and The Canonbury in Islington faded away.

You’ve been busy, said my Uncle Edgerton admiringly to P2, as the dog, daughter two and Parrot arrived a moment later. Daughter two and Parrot were soaking wet, daughter two in a wetsuit. I noticed that P2 was also wet through. Presumably she had had to venture under water to fetch daughter two and Parrot.

Whisked away just as we were closing in on treasure, said daughter two. Good wedding though last week. Enjoyed every minute.

Pieces of eight, said Parrot.

‘Last week…’. When did the dog come from, I wondered. He seemed anyway to be taking to the 1930s with his usual aplomb.

Only then did I notice another figure in the room, a vague tweeded man in middle age with a clerical collar.

Did you ever meet my brother Winthrop?

Uncle Winthrop! Of course I remembered him from my childhood. In the 1950s he was what is now called a person with Alzheimer’s and then senile. Retired early from the priesthood, he was kept impeccably tweeded and dog-collared by his wife but was incapable of getting a coherent sentence out. We loved to torment him. A real adult was a rare victim in those days. But Winthrop survived the War and Edgerton didn’t. That was not a discussion that I wanted to get into and I suspect that Edgerton didn’t either. I said nothing.

Can do it without a priest, but best with.

Uncle Winthrop squatted down by the dog and whispered to him in Latin. The dog responded in the same language. Both spoke in reasonable measured tones, sizing each other up.

If you have read the exorcism scene in Stella Gibbons’ masterpiece Starlight you would expect as I did to be in for the long haul; a trial of strength; the priest trying patiently to coax the spirit out, the spirit cornered and resisting. I settled back to watch. My second concern was whether good would triumph; my main one was whether the dog would survive.

As it turned out, it wasn’t like that.

Uncle Winthrop ran his hands over the dog’s coat. The dog bridled.

I say, he said, in English. What’s this here, under his skin?

I felt where he indicated.

It’s a little transmitter. Or receiver. Where he was indentichipped. By Battersea.

No, no. That’s on his shoulder. (In the weeks that followed I often wondered about that remark.) This one.

It felt exactly the same to me.

It’s no spirit, said Uncle Winthrop. He’s being controlled remotely through this. Satanists do that, especially in the Twenty-first Century.

Guessed as much, said Uncle Edgerton.

The liar.

With a speed surprising in one so vague, Uncle Winthrop, pulled a pen-knife from one of his pockets, nicked the dog’s fur and pulled out the tiny bug. With a speed surprising in one so mangy, Parrot seized it, swallowed it and flew away into the 1930s – a seabird possessed.

The dog turned on Uncle Winthrop a face briefly full of love, and the scenery vanished.

Half-way through an aphorism is no place to re-enter, and, as last time, I staggered slightly.

Give the old bugger another drink, shouted a raucous cousin.

I swallowed hard and returned to my theme: meditations on the institution of marriage illustrated by anecdotes from daughter three’s earlier life. I noticed daughter two, her face perfectly innocent. She still had the trip to look forward to.

I had wondered when the dog had been summoned from. When we got home it was apparent that it was not yet. He had chewed two plugs, one of them in situ, and vomited on my favourite Belochistani rug. When I entered the room he belched loudly and declaimed the last few verses of the Lord’s Prayer, backwards and in rather approximate Latin.

The denouement came a couple of days later. We were walking round the block when he staggered, and then looked at me with the look of love the start of which I had seen addressed to Uncle Winthrop. I squatted down by him and kissed his furry forehead.

He whispered to me, When I was under the control of Satan I was a bad dog, but now I’m a good dog again.

You are a good dog again.

And so he was.

Three days later daughter two rang me.

You owe me an otter, she said.

Confidence in Young Bradman

Daughter two came round to see us. She brought Polish fudge for the dog. It is sold in yellow packaging with a smiling cow on it, and it has always been his favourite. For some reason they have stopped selling it in Sainsbury’s in London but it is still available in Southampton, where she lives.

She is an underwater explorer. Sometimes she does this in her guise as an archaeologist and hands over the goodies that she discovers to the University where she works, but at other times she is a treasure hunter and then she keeps what she finds. It is rather like doctors. You go and see them on the NHS and they bounce around enthusiastically on their beds, sing about Voldemort and take six months to send you the letter that says, yes, you do have cancer; so you go private and, just like in Hammer Horror films, it’s the same man sitting grinning across the desk, deadly efficient now and clocking up the charges like a manic runaway taxi.

She had on her shoulder a rather mangy bird.

What’s that bird, I asked.

It’s my Parrot.

It’s not a parrot.

I know it’s not a parrot. Parrots can’t swim. It’s called Parrot.

Is it one of those birds that swim on David Attenborough?

It’s very good when I’m treasure hunting under water.

You’d be better off with an otter.

Why she needs anything on her shoulder I can’t think and didn’t ask. Probably she’s jealous of her brother, the privateer, who often sports an exotic bird or two when at the wheel of The Jolly Thought and, less acceptably, when visiting his family in England.

Anyway the dog was the point of her visit and she was saddened to see him. He was listless and took little notice of his fudge. Previously he has always been delighted when she visits, but not today; he lay on his rug muttering and from time to time his head turned three hundred and sixty degrees.

Do stop that, I said whenever he did it, but to no avail. He fixed me with his new diabolical stare and said something in Latin.

I walked daughter two to the station. Something will have to be done she said, and I agreed.

I’m hoping that your great great uncle can help, I said.


Never mind. I’ll tell you if anything comes of it.

No sooner had daughter two descended into the Underground than it did. I was walking back along the pavement when someone barged into me.

My God, it’s Jessica Ennis, I cried. I’m such a fan of yours.

Stow it, said P2.

P2’s slang sometimes betrays her pre-War origins.

Much better than your Victoria Beckham, I said, recovering my dignity.

Pft, said P2, and disappeared, as did the whole King’s Cross mise-en-scene.

Just a quick one, said Uncle Edgerton. On my lunch break. From the insurance. What’s all this about exorcism?

I explained about the dog. I’m at my wits’ end, I said. Can you help? I can’t think of anyone else who can.

Uncle Edgerton stroked his chin, in a way no longer fashionable.

Yes. I probably can. Won’t be easy. Won’t be cheap.

He fell silent.


Two things. It’s a bad spirit. We’ll need to drive it out.

It says it’s Satan himself.

Pft. They all say that. Satan wouldn’t waste his time on a pet dog.

I bridled. The dog is a much-loved Staffordshire bull terrier of good parentage. He wrote The Ride of the Valkyrie by Wagner.

It’s a bad spirit. We’ll need to drive it out and we’ll need something to drive it out into.

A person? A Z person?

No, for a dog it’ll have to be another animal. You fix that and await the call. You, the dog, the receptacle and we’ll do our best. Never certain, these things, but we’ll do our best.

Two things, you said, Uncle E. The other one?

Ah yes. We have a test series this summer.

Yes I know, I said, the 1934 Australians. Bent on avenging the Bodyline tour.

Tell me something I can use. You can use the shaving mirror again.

I smiled.

I don’t need to. The second Test is at Lords.

Of course, he said irritably. The second Test is always at Lords.

I smiled again.

Hedley Verity takes fifteen wickets in the match. Seven for sixty-one in the first innings and an astonishing eight for forty-three when Australia follow on. England win. The last time in a Lords test against Australia in the century – not that that helps you.

And the rubber?

Australia win two to one.

And young Bradman. Does he come good?

Oh yes, very good. Though not at Lords. The greatest batsman ever.

He looked at me sideways.

Looks like a busted flush to me. All right, all right. My people will be in touch.

Your P2?

Of course.

I staggered slightly as I reconnected with my body at King’s Cross in 2012.

Behave yourself, sir, said a nearby policemen. A Paralympian ® might see you….

I rang daughter two on my mobile.

How do you fancy meeting your great great uncle Edgerton in 1934?


She’s a brave girl.

The only thing…


Parrot. He needs to come. And he needs to be very brave.

She was silent.

I’ll get you an otter…

OK then.

We arranged to await developments.

When I got home the dog had embarked on learning the Lord’s Prayer backwards, in Latin. I tested him on it. Whatever the outcome it might come in useful.

Tinkerbell Towne and a Brush with Hell

It is clear that exorcising the dog won’t wait till after the wedding. Indeed I had a brief word about his problem with Father J and I didn’t get the impression that the priest relished getting his bell, book and candle out, wedding or no wedding. He was fretting about the vows and whether daughter three would ‘obey’ her Alex.

Fat chance, I thought; and anyway whether she does or not will not depend on what Our Mother the Church tells her.

It came to a head on Saturday when I went to Rye. Rye is one of my favourite places. I discovered it through the Mapp & Lucia books and then got to love the place anyway. It gets more and more precious, every retail outlet is either a second-hand bookshop or organic tearooms, but it’s still wonderful.

The painter Edward Burra, a hero of mine, lived there all his life. He wrote, “Ducky little Tinkerbell towne is like an itsy bitsy morgue quayte DEAD.’ (Orthography was not a passion for him.) Its centre was given over to ‘gyfterie and other forms of perversion’. But he never left; and I can see why.

I went by myself as the better half was away. She had been urgently summoned to Paris in connection with some important research that she is involved with into the effect on the taste of risotto of being liberally sprinkled with gold leaf.

I thought of taking the dog with me to Rye. Then I imagined a lovely country pub, a pie and a pint for my lunch, and in my mind’s eye I saw the notice on the pub wall:

No Smoking
No Fat People
No Dogs
Please Drink in Moderation
Foreigners admitted at Management’s Discretion
May contain Nuts

The dog is not welcome in Rye anyway since he once ran onto the village cricket pitch there during a match and shat on the wicket. Unfortunately it was just where the visiting team’s off-spinner was pitching the ball. Even after the dog’s deposit had been cleared away the residue still gave the bowler unpredictable turn and the home team lost. There was discussion at Council level of a dog exclusion order. It never came to anything but he is still given a wide berth in Mermaid Street.

So I left him behind.

It was a lovely late-Summer day. The sun shone mildly on fields and trees that, after all the rain, were still as green as Spring. The Marsh Train stopped to gather its strength by a field of young horses. They were gambolling as only young horses can. I watched them through the window and considered their future: French gastronomy perhaps; pulling the coffin at a mobster’s funeral with a silly black plume on the head; the moral cesspit of the Turf. There was no point upsetting them, but I thought it:

You’re living in a foals’ paradise!

I never got to the pub, as I received an angry text from the better half. She had learnt from her iPhone that there was thunder in London, thunder brought out the worst in the dog, and I was to go back at once. She had had to break off in mid-research and was not pleased.

The thunder was over when I got home but the consequences were there to see. The dog had eaten the television. And shat.

It may be remembered that thunder had earlier brought on the dog’s alcoholism, from which he had at length recovered, but this was of a different order. He stared at me, the remains of a mangled SCART plug hanging from his foul lips and said in an unnaturally deep voice, I am the Eater of Televisions and Destroyer of Worlds.

I looked at him straight. That was harder than one might expect. His irises were crimson and you could descry scenes reflected in them of abomination and filth: music, men dancing with women, people making free with the private parts of goats, and so on – or possibly not; it’s hard to tell with his cataracts.

Is that you talking, I asked him, or has your body been taken over by forces stronger than your own?

I am Lord Satan, he replied.

Well in that case you won’t want taking out again, I said, putting back his lead and plastic bag, and I cleared away his mess. He was reluctant to part with the SCART plug.

I affected nonchalance but I was uneasy nonetheless. What would the better half say if she came back from Paris girlishly enthusiastic to share her scientific discoveries and found the family home transformed into an outpost of Hell?

Something had to be done, but what? I locked the dog in and walked up to the presbytery. Surely Father J would have something to suggest? There was a notice on the door:

At tambourine practice. Back some time, whatever. God bless!

Isn’t that just the Church of England of today for you, I thought angrily, as I stumped back to the house. Through the living room door I could hear the dog chanting to himself in his new basso profundo:

Biscuits! Virgins! Cheese! Sodomy! Shitting on the hall floor!

There was only thing left that I could do. If anyone could help it was my doughty zombie-fighting Uncle Edgerton. I went straight to the bathroom, squeezed a little shaving foam onto the palm of my hand and wrote on the shaving mirror:

Do you know anything about exorcisms at all?

We would see what we would see.


The better half likes to sleep late when she can. I will be working away in the morning, preparing Notes for the director of one of our successful TV series perhaps, just in earshot, and I will hear her lovely voice:


This morning I was working on another new project, Bunanza! This is an exciting one. Someone pointed out to us that there was a gap in the television schedules. There are no series that are competitions for members of the public who like to bake: cakes, buns, bread and so on. There is Masterchef, of course, but that’s for cooking generally; there’s nothing just for baking. I see two judges, they said, and someone to introduce it, bond with the competitors and so on; I see a lesbian comedian, to make to edgy, less WI. The judges throw out the useless ones and the lesbian comedian sympathises with them.

And that was when I had my brainwave. Not a lesbian comedian, I said, but Dame Jenni ™ Murray. You can’t get more cutting edge than Dame Jenni ™ Murray. Everyone of course agreed at once and the lawyers are in touch. Bunanza! is already fast-tracked to the nation’s heart.

I was engrossed in annotating the script for a ‘rap’ which Dame Jenni ™ is, lawyers permitting, to make about gender bias in baking, and I’m afraid to say that the better half had to shout twice:

Is anyone making my tea?

This was a rhetorical question. There is only me and the dog, and the dog for all his very positive and indeed inspirational qualities cannot make tea, not having an opposable thumb.

She has it black and I wait to have my first cup of the day with her; mine is green. I hurried up the staircase with two steaming cups, some dried fruit for her and two pickled eggs for me. I was still excited about Dame Jenni ™ and the buns and I started to tell the better half about it all as I entered the bedroom. She was on the phone, however, so I sat on the bed and waited for her.

It was one of her regular callers.

The better half is slightly hard of hearing at present, a persistent niggle with her sinuses, and the caller was having to speak up, to the point that he was quite audible from the other side of the matrimonial pillow.

Are you wearing a bra?


A bra. Are you wearing a bra?

What! I can’t hear a word you say.

Are … you … wearing … a … bra?

Don’t be so silly, Thumper. Of course not. I’m in bed.

A little sigh escaped him and he hung up.

Why do you call him Thumper, I asked once, or is that his real name?

There are such strange noises on the line whenever he calls me, she said. It must be his phone. I think he needs a new contract.

Of course the better half knows perfectly well what Thumper is up to. Where we differ is whether it is right for him to do it in our bed.

It’s good for him, she says, not answering my point and moreover taking a diametrically opposed view to that generally held not so long ago, when it was thought to lead to insanity, blindness and an early grave. Of course in those days there were no mobiles and that may make a difference.

Who is he, I persist. Have you met him?

Not so far as I know.

Why don’t you just hang up then?

She looked at me in disbelief.

That would be rude.

I changed the subject gracefully.

Are these pickled eggs Waitrose? They don’t half repeat.

She gave me to understand that she pickled my breakfast eggs herself. She said a little sharply that she was surprised that I hadn’t noticed her doing so in our kitchen, so I changed the subject again.

The dog is much improved. He has finished his course of anti-biotics and we now mix his ‘intestinal’ hard bits judiciously with regular hard bits. He no longer pauses to catch his breath on the stairs. However, the stress of his illness seems to have taken its toll on his mental powers.

In the bedroom, we have a wooden figure of Christ on the cross. It is Sixteenth Century from Spain and I inherited it from the painter Carel Weight. At some point in its long life it has become scorched, and another friend guessed, fancifully or not, that someone condemned to be burnt at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition was clutching it at the moment of his death. So it is an object full of resonance even to sceptics who question the literal truth of the Resurrection.

Yesterday I came across the dog standing over this piece and growling.

So, I said to the better half, changing the subject again, the dog has always, like you, been inclined to question the literal truth of the Resurrection, but this is a step change. I see the hand of our Great Enemy here.


The same. I think he’s been turned to the Dark Side.

She thought for a moment.

The vet will be no help, spiritually.

No. I’ll have a word with Father J. He may be able to exorcise the dog.

Not before the daughter’s wedding though.

No. One thing at a time.