Tag Archives: West Ham Park

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

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

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.

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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.

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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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Your Arse

I was walking with Bella, the dog, to West Ham Park for our daily constitutional. We passed a house from which we could clearly hear Fairytale of New York. This was not the recorded version. There were two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, exchanging the insults crafted all those years ago by Shane MacGowan when he wrote the song. They were accompanied by a piano. Their voices were live. From the street they sounded as if they might have originated in the Indian Subcontinent.

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

they sang.

Then there was the peremptory sound of someone tapping on a hard surface to attract the singers’ attention, so that they stopped singing, and then there was the sound of a third voice, also I would guess from the Indian Subcontinent, possibly the pianist’s:

“Not ‘Happy Christmas your arse’. Not ‘your arse’. ‘Yer arse.’ ‘Yer’. Again!”

As we passed on up the street, Bella and I, and out of range, I could hear improvement, a distinct MacGowanesque sneer. I wondered in what context the finished performance would take place. Would we be allowed to hear it?

I told the story to our neighbour Maria. I had dropped in on my way home from the park to apologise that Augustus Sly, who had been despatched to Vienna to investigate possible links between her bottom and that of the model who sat (‘sat’ is of course is absolutely the wrong word for what she did in this instance, but there is no other one) for Egon Schiele, seemed to have disappeared. He had not reported to me and he was no longer picking up calls to his mobile. In fact I was rather worried, and also cross, since I had paid for him to go to Vienna in the first place.

“Has he got your credit card details, there in Vienna?”

“No, he hasn’t, and anyway I trust him to that extent, but he’s quite capable of getting bored with your bottom and going off on a wild goose chase. When I first met him, as a matter of fact, he had taken himself to Montenegro to travel the length and breadth of that country, tracing the tracks – so he told me at the time: the forced marches, the triumphal processions – of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman. We met by coincidence when I was uploading a post to my blog from a café in Montenegro that had WiFi.”

“Ah, Apa’tman. He is my country too,” said Maria.

“Apa’tman was in Romania too?”

“Great bloodshed.”

“A great man, I think, in the end.”

“Great bloodshed.”

Actually I know little of the detail of the career of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman, so I changed the subject and told her, as I have related, the story of the performance, overheard from the street, of Fairytale of New York.

“’Yer arse!’”, she exclaimed.

“That’s what I call multiculturalism,” I said, “a song about America, written and recorded by Irish people living in London and now being redone by Indian people living in London. What a great city we live in!”

“No, that’s not multiculturalism,” said Maria, frowning. “Multiculturalism is when people say that because I am Romanian I am prostitute and a thief and I can complain about this, which is hate crime. I am told this by a person from the Council.”

“Multiculturalism has different aspects,” I said. “It is a subtle business, this multiculturalism.”

“I am not prostitute and a thief.”

“It never occurred to me that you were.”

“My good friend Lavinia is both, but I am not prostitute and a thief.”

I wondered whether to return conversationally to Apa’tman or to call it a day, and decided on the latter.

“I’ll be on my way. I just thought that you might be curious about what Augustus Sly might have discovered about a link between you and the woman in the Schiele picture.”

She drew the different conversational strands together:

Yer want to see my arse?”

We escaped.

“Aren’t people difficult?” I said to Bella.

Obviously, being a dog, she neither understood nor replied, but I suspect that she sympathises. When we are in West Ham Park she avoids the company of other dogs. I believe that she regards this as a sensible precaution since she was bitten there by a liver-coloured bitch, but I don’t think that she warms to other dogs in principle. People too she will accept if we introduce them to her but they are of no interest otherwise. When we stand outside food shops, which the better half enters alone since Bella would be a health and safety issue, and people come up to us and try to engage her attention, she regards them with contempt.

“Does he bite?” they say, shivering deliciously and prodding at her from arm’s length.

“Seldom,” I say, wondering yet again why cynophobes are usually so incapable of sexing the objects of their fear.

Augustus Sly has sometimes accused me of having imaginary friends. He believes that Amy is a metaphor and has often said so, though not to her face. Bella certainly has imaginary friends. Her favourite is Dead Rabbit, a constant bed-fellow and companion whom she always gathers up into her mouth at times of excitement. He has a limp and vestigial physical existence but his friendship is entirely imaginary.

Lest this sound cute, she then shakes him vigorously so as to break his neck, again. She is a terrier, after all.

Some people have said recently that the Jesus and the Rabbit sequence, on the restricted access part of this blog, is rather running out of steam. Perhaps I should introduce Dead Rabbit into it. That would beef it up as bit.

Actually if I am going to do that I should continue this whole discussion on the restricted access section. I’ll do that now, if you’ll excuse me.

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Ruminating on the Titanic

Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,” said Augustus Sly.

“Don’t you start,” I said.

“Well, why the rendezvous in West Ham Park? Do you have a concern that we might be overheard?”

I hesitated for a moment. The real reason for meeting outdoors was that, of the two most obvious indoor locations, my house was ruled out because the better half had taken to being vocally critical – in my view over-critical – of Augustus Sly’s dress sense, and the last time I had visited his flat it had been hard to talk, as the sound of the South African mouse in his wainscoting had become much worse: both as to the volume and as to the self-pity.

“It’s a lovely day,” I said. “And Bella needs an airing.”

It certainly was lovely. It was quite early in the morning and the sun shone on the dew that covered the grass. Indian women jogged past heavily encumbered by their saris. Pensioners with dogs called to each other and, with time, coalesced into quite large wagon trains that progressed in a stately fashion from one side of the park to another. At weekends the activity is more organised. There is running, with signposts and sponsored water, and groups of five or six women toning their muscles together; but this was a weekday and activity, such as there was, was individual. In the distance a man gestured with his arms. It might be tai chi; it might be insanity; at my distance it was impossible to tell.

“I love the Park,” I said. “I like the fact that everyone has their own little projects and everyone progresses at their own speed, and we can watch them in a detached way.”

“Like God,” said Augustus Sly.

“That’s true, I suppose. I was thinking, more like the opening sequence of the film Titanic. You remember that we see as if from an anachronistic helicopter the passengers promenading around the deck, each up to their own little schemes – all to be resolved in the course of the film – through the magic of recently invented CGI techniques. Unfortunately the CGI techniques were then so primitive that everyone walks at exactly the same speed, with their arms coordinated like soldiers’; in years to come we will all laugh at it for being so clumsy.

“I always wondered,” I said, “why the painter Carel Weight didn’t paint more pictures of people in parks. He often painted people progressing at their own speeds, up to their own little schemes, but rarely when he painted parks.”

“Were your wonderings crowned with a conclusion?”

“No. And he denied it. There’s a thesis for you: Social Interaction and Avoidance in Parks.”

“Where’s the colon in that? There has to be a colon if it’s a thesis.”

Parklife: Social interaction and Avoidance in Urban Recreation Space.”

“Anyway, I don’t need a thesis, I’ve got one: you,” said Augustus Sly. (Augustus Sly’s ongoing doctoral thesis is about this blog.) “And what have you been up to? You’ve been rather quiet.”

“Ah,” I said. “Two things. One was what I wanted to speak to you about.”

“Tell me the other one,” said Augustus Sly.



“It’s the Anthony Powell Society,” I said. “They have a competition. You have to write about Lady Molly’s secret life. I’m planning to submit.”

“I suspect she had none.”

“I suspect that’s the point. But I’m thinking along the lines of Lady Molly as gentleman detective.”

“Good idea,” said Augustus Sly. “Very golden age. She had the advantage that at any given time she could bring everyone in her drawing room to order and say, ‘And one of you is the murderer,’ and have a good chance of being right.

“And who will be her Dr Watson? Jenkins?”

“Too obvious. I’m toying with Brandreth.”


“Whenever there is a doctor in the novel it usually turns out to be Brandreth, who, indeed, was at School with the narrator.”

“I hope that you are not planning to put anything about it on your blog. Few of your readers know who Lady Molly is, let alone Dr Brandreth.”

“Of course not. Well, possibly just in the restricted access part.”

“And what’s the other thing?”

I produced my iPad with a flourish and showed him the two bottoms: Schiele’s and the photograph of Maria.

“Ah,” said Augustus Sly, scrutinising them. “Austro-Hungarian, obviously. Who is the painter?”


“Of course. Hang on. There was no colour photography in Schiele’s day. The painting must be a modern forgery.”

“Wrong way round. The photo and the painting are kosher. It’s different women.”

Augustus Sly looked more closely.

“I find it impossible to believe that. It’s the same bottom. I’d…”

“You’d put money on it?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly. “But it’s a staggering likeness.”

“The painting is in the Courtauld. I know nothing about the sitter. The photo is of my neighbour. I’m convinced there’s a connection. I want you to investigate it. Can you?”

“Intriguing. I’d probably need to go to Vienna.”

“You have a student card, don’t you?”


“Do you have an information pack?”

“I thought you’d ask,” I said, producing it from my pocket.

“And does your neighbour want to find herself linked to some demi-mondaine of the Viennese Secession?”

“She made it clear that notoriety would not be entirely unwelcome.”

Augustus Sly looked through the information pack, which had been painstakingly assembled.

“Elementary, my dear Brandreth,” he said with a smirk.

“No,” I said.

“No,” he said.

Unexpectedly a cloudburst started, and I regretted being out of doors. Even Augustus Sly’s sordid flat would have been better.

“How is your South African mouse? The one in the wainscoting?”

“Suddenly gone quiet,” said Augustus Sly. “No more self-pity, no more of his ramblings on about the toilet. Nothing at all. I rather miss it. He seems to have been removed elsewhere.”

“I think it shows a proper sense of shame,” I said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly.

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The Psychic Topography of West Ham Park

For those of us who know and love it, West Ham Park is not a single unity. Although you can see from end to end there are little passages (the metaphor is musical rather than a topographical) that are different from the rest. The most obvious is the Ornamental Garden. Another is the area reserved for nudists. Others we create ourselves.

Because Bella’s morning walk happens daily, and at a time when neither of us is always fully awake, we tend to follow the same route. When the better half is with us we go a longer way, so that she can satisfy herself by reference to her iPhone after the event (the better half, not Bella) that she has covered what she calls ‘3K’ [two miles or so]; but she usually isn’t with us on these occasions. So we turn right across the small lawn which Bella regards as particularly suitable for her daily offices. This enables us to pass and take advantage of the bin entitled ‘Dog Waste’ and strike out across a larger piece of grass.

A couple of weeks ago we had an encounter there. Out of nowhere a liver-coloured dog hurtled towards us. It rolled Bella over expertly onto her back and sank its teeth into her leg. I shouted. Two chavs wheezed up, who appeared to own this dog. (Is it all right to say ‘chavs’?) I shouted at them. They shouted at the liver-coloured dog, which eventually disengaged its jaw.

I said to the chavs that they should keep their unpleasant dog under control.

“Your dog started it,” said the woman.

“No, she didn’t,” I said.

“Oh. Sorry.”

At home, Bella got onto the sofa for a rest, and bled on it. It was a nasty wound. We took her to her vet, who gave her a not inexpensive jab.

The upshot is that now, when we get to that particular bit of the park, Bella ceases her gamboling and stays close to me, just like a dog that knows the meaning of the command: ‘Heel!’. Moreover she scans the horizon. I suppose that she wants to be alerted to the first signs of hurtling. It can’t be the liver colour, as, like all dogs, she is colour-blind. When we cross the path she starts to gambol again.

I am sorry that she was hurt. I am angry at people who have aggressive dogs, particularly if – as I suspect here – the dog was trained in its aggression for the amusement of its thuggish owners. There were no growls or other preliminaries at all: it was straight for the bite. But what I mind most is the loss of her innocence. West Ham Park has ceased to be a place of safety and joy for her – that bit anyway.

So when we cross the path Bella is still sticking closely to me. This is just as well because the other side of the path has become a place of physical training. As often as not when we pass it on our walk there is a couple. She is white (you will see in a second why this is relevant) and very fit: she is the sort of fit where the thighs are wider than the bottom. When she is not exerting herself she is usually running on the spot and her face has a keen expression very like Bella’s when one makes preparatory gestures towards her bowl. Bella’s keen expression is limited to a couple of occasions in the day but the fit woman always has it– or at least always when she is in the bit of the park devoted to her exercises.

The other one is a black man. He is a little overweight and he doesn’t – or when we first saw them he didn’t – waste his energy on running on the spot, or indeed anything else. Sometimes he would take yellow plastic things from his bag and put them on the ground. The woman would then run up and down and touch them as she went past. Bella would run up and down the line with her, encouragingly.

I wondered why a woman so obviously fit needed to be told what to do, but it was clear that this was not at all unusual. Scattered around the Park could usually be seen a number of fit young women, of all backgrounds but usually being told what to do by overweight male members of the Afro-Caribbean community.

I tell the story in the past. For one thing, since Bella’s encounter with the liver-coloured dog, she no longer has the joie de vivre required to help the woman with her yellow plastic things. Much more significantly, however, the relations between the woman and her trainer changed utterly.

One morning, there they were as usual. The woman was running on the spot, as always; as always she looked keen. The difference – and it was an essential difference – was that she was telling him what to do. He was shuffling around gracelessly, reaching up or, as it might be, down. His stomach wobbled. His facial expression was that of Biff in Back to the Future – the subservient Biff not the truculent version.

What could have happened between them? How had their roles been so comprehensively reversed? Was this Miss Julie Redux? What hideous passages (that word again) had taken place between them – and where? Had it happened on that very spot, once all nosy men with their mutts had shuffled past and were out of earshot? Was there a place of resort for them: the Soviet-style changing rooms by the larger cricket pitch, perhaps?

I was not displeased; at the same time was curiously humbled: great things had happened.

“Come on,” I said to Bella. She was showing renewed interest in the yellow plastic things and I thought that she might get under the man’s feet and have him over. She looked at me hopefully and set off for the nudist area.

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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.

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Racism Awareness Around Pets

Of course the teacher reported us. He had some sort of app on his iPhone and it had identified Bella through the chip placed into her fur by Battersea Home for Dogs. We received a recorded delivery letter from some organisation requiring to me to assist in the performance of what they called a ‘racism awareness assessment’ on her.

I called the number.

‘Is this Newham?’ I said.

They said that on the contrary they were an independent body engaged by central government.

‘Action for the Elimination of Racism and Sexism in Pets,’ they said. ‘AERSIP.’

‘More sense, Newham,’ I said under my breath.

The better half had advised me to ignore the whole thing, but I didn’t want to see Bella branded as a fugitive from justice, with all the consequences that that might have, so I made an appointment.

‘When,’ said a fierce woman wearing a jumper bearing the words: ‘Civil Enforcement Officer: Interspecies’, ‘did these racist tendencies first manifest themselves?’

‘What tendencies? I thought that this was to be an assessment.’

She sighed and wrote the word ‘Noncooperative’ on her pad.

‘We have two complaints. A,’ she said, ‘discriminatively avoiding the feet of modest Moslem women at bus stops, and B…’

‘That’s nonsense. It’s nothing to do with being Moslem…’

‘Or women, I suppose.’

There was an unmistakable note of sarcasm in her voice.

‘Indeed. It’s nothing to do with being Moslem or women. It’s to do with avoiding swinging feet, irrespective of colour, gender or creed.’

‘AERSIP will be the judge of that,’ said the fierce woman.

So a row of chairs was assembled in the corridor outside her office to resemble a bus stop, a variety of volunteers sat on it and I led Bella past each of them and the degree by which she deviated from a straight line was calibrated, not by the fierce woman but an assistant, as the fierce woman was taking what she called a ‘high-level view’ of the process. Islam was represented, of course, but in the interests of fairness there were also groups of Poles and members of the Afro-Caribbean community. The results appeared to be completely random. The fierce woman looked very stern.

‘The dog under investigation is obviously attempting to muddle the data.’

I suggested that my theory should be tested, and that each of the groups should be put through their paces both with and without feet swinging beneath clothes.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said to the volunteers, who were milling around at the side of the room. ‘It must be very boring for you, but my dog has been accused of racism and sexism among pets. Her reputation is at stake here.’

They said that that was fine by them: they were paid by the hour.

To cut a very long story short, my theory was born out. Bella was fine with feet that were visible, but avoided them where they were under clothing.

‘Inconclusive,’ said the fierce woman.

‘It’s not inconclusive at all…’

‘And, B, the complaint that the dog was aggressive towards members of the Afro-Caribbean student community.’

‘That’s nonsense. First of all they weren’t all black. They were all sorts. Secondly, she was goaded by them, and I was goaded by them too, and she responded entirely naturally, and I may say, entirely harmlessly. The boys didn’t mind and she didn’t mind. Only the teacher minded, and he was too far behind to see what happened.’

The fierce woman sighed, and put on a voice suitable for explaining things to an idiot.

‘The fact is,’ she said, ‘that the dog under examination behaved aggressively towards members of the Afro-Caribbean student community. Whether there were also present members of the student community who were not members of the Afro-Caribbean community is irrelevant. Any aggression directed towards you or the dog under investigation was due to you are both part of the ruling class and part of the patriarchy, so any action in response is justified.’

‘She’s dog, a female terrier,’ I said. ‘How can she be a member of either the ruling class or the patriarchy? She’s a bitch.’

The fierce woman looked horrified at me, and wrote ‘Said Bitch’ on her pad.

‘What do you mean?’

‘She’s female,’ I said. ‘If there’s a victim here, it’s her. She goes to West Ham Park, accompanying a pensioner in a caring and non-ageist fashion, and she is spoken to in an abusive and discriminatory manner by men: men with whom you, as an instrument of the state, are now acting collusively.’

‘What pensioner?’ she said, temporising.



‘How kind of you to say so.’

‘I didn’t mean ‘Nonsense, you’re not a pensioner’, I meant that irrespective of age you are a member of the white ruling class, a tool of the patriarchy, and that your dog is infected by that, whatever her gender or breed.’

‘Infected,’ she repeated.

‘That’s just silly,’ I said.

She wrote ‘Used abusive language’ on her pad.

‘I think I’ve had enough of this,’ I said. ‘I’m going home. Via West Ham Park. And I’m taking my bitch with me.’

And I gathered her up and we made for the exit.

‘I’ll return a negative assessment having regard to racism and sexism.’

‘Pft,’ I said.

‘You’ll be saying ‘Pft’ on the other side of your face when I enter a negative assessment,’ said the fierce woman. We had got to the door by this stage. ‘I’ll put in a recommendation for forcible retraining. You and your dog. And termination in the event of non-positive outcomes.’

Her voice had risen to a shriek. I was glad to hear ironic cheers from the multi-faith chorus of bus stop volunteers. We passed into the street.

‘Better lie low for a bit,’ I said to Bella.

She flopped onto the ground and looked up expectantly. Unlike the fierce woman, Bella is unable to take high-level views. I gave her a complementary pet product.

‘Savour it,’ I said.

She looked at me quizzically.

‘Let me put this in as positive a way as I can. Have you seen The Diary of Ann Frank? It’s under the floorboards for you.’

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Towards Barking

With a dog you meet all sorts of new people. When we had the old dog I used to stand with him outside supermarkets while the better half shopped for food. I would be approached mainly by people on the fringes of sanity. ‘Can I touch? Does he bite?’

‘Not always,’ I would say.

Now that we have Bella I am coming round to the idea that the old dog must have encouraged these unsavoury approaches with his surly nature. A much sunnier class of people want to touch Bella. The other day we were on the Tube. It was between strikes. An attractive young woman, Italian as it turned out, was standing on the platform and got in with us. After a stop or so she turned to me and said, ‘I’m in love. Can I touch?’

Bella looked away in disgust, but I said, ‘I think she means you.’

It was a sad story in a way. The woman had been sent to England to learn the language and had left her six Jack Russells in Florence. She missed them terribly.

‘Can’t you bring them here?’ I said. ‘All that quarantine business has changed.’

‘You don’t understand. My father, he will not let me and he will not let me come back to see them until I speak English perfectly.’

Anyway she got on well with Bella. She was affectionate with her without encouraging hysteria, which was good because when Bella gets overexcited she pees herself, even on the District Line. When we got to Bow, off she went.

Between Bow and Plaistow I mused on the relations between dogs and the people in our area from the different strands of multi-ethnic London. Italians are used to terriers as pets; other cultures are different. One must be wary of generalising. Amy took to Bella on sight but when I took her through Gerrard Street the crowd parted to each side of us. Chinese people are not all the same as regards dogs any more than anyone else is.

Of course the position is reciprocal. When we had the old dog and I was still taking Russian lessons my teacher was delighted by his aggression. I was taught to say in Russian, ‘My dog is racist. He hates both black people and Jews.’ I tried to explain that this was not the case: the only black people that he barked at were postmen and in that case it was the uniform, not the man. As for Jews, the one he knew best was my Russian teacher himself and how could he trust a man who made up such stories about him? Of course, with my limited command of the language, my teacher had gone off onto some other flight of fancy before I could fashion this into a laborious sentence and deliver it.

‘Ed Miliband, he is a Jew. Is he a Jew-hating Jew?’

My teacher’s mind was a snake-pit of fears and insecurities.

Nyet,’ I said.

Just as we have to be eternally on guard against signs of racism, along of course with gender bias, in ourselves, it is essential to check for equivalent inappropriate behaviour in our pets. Bella in general takes people as she finds them, but there has been a development that has worried me. Every morning we go for a walk together in West Ham Park. We have to pass a bus stop on our way there. For some reason the seat is always occupied by modest Muslim women waiting for the opportunity to proceed on their way towards Barking. Bella is terrified of them and plunges into the gutter rather than walk anywhere near them.

I lectured her on Islamophobia. She doesn’t understand many words. ‘Walk’, ‘dinner’, ‘no’ (optional), and ‘West Ham Park’ are about it: certainly not ‘Islamophobia’. But as they told us at Battersea Home for Dogs it’s the tone of voice that counts. I tried to get into this a conviction that all people are worthy of respect, regardless of race, gender or creed. My speech positively throbbed. In return she gave me her alert look. The following morning she dived into the gutter again.

Who can tell what goes on in a dog’s head? I try to be positive about it. One thing that did occur to me is that the dresses of the Muslim women, being modest, reach down to the ground. As we approached the bus stop on the way back I noticed that the younger ones were swinging their legs but that their shoes could not be seen. If I were at ground level I reckon that, never mind racism-awareness, I would want to keep a distance from wherever the feet might be, if kicking was in progress.

Curiously there was another incident the same morning. We got to the Park and skirted the various buggied mums, tai chiers and runners. The old dog would always consider it polite to join in with runners, an act that more than once delivered a Personal Best on the runner’s part. Bella is not that interested, although one enormous lady, struggling along with her stomach waving perilously in front, visibly intrigued her more than was tactful. We got to her favourite bit of grass and she addressed herself to her morning duty. She is shy about this and has only recently been persuaded that it is all right in public, as opposed to the hall floor where she is among friends. I had gathered the result into a plastic bag, and I was carrying it towards the bin marked ‘Dog Waste’ when a crowd of mainly black schoolboys enveloped us. They were going for a run and were delighted. ‘Old white man! Dog shit! Urggh!’ they shouted, and gave us a theatrically wide berth, even though that must in some cases have endangered their chances of a Personal Best.

Bella was furious, though whether it was their casual manners towards me or her I don’t know. She caught them up and passed among them, barking and showing her teeth until the boys scattered. Their teacher caught us up. ‘Your dog is racist,’ he said, making a note in his little book.

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An Evil Haunting

I took Bella to West Ham Park. It is extraordinarily good at this time of year: buds on the trees; furtive women in the formal gardens taking cuttings (one of them hid her haul in her jilbab when she saw us coming); nutters with huskies on leads. Bella ignores the other dogs; investigates vernal smells and runners at their sweaty windings-down; takes an intelligent if uninformed interest in such cricket as may be taking place. First thing in the morning is best. The nutter ratio is higher at a time when good sane people are either in bed or Tube-bound to their work place, and even the sane occupants of the park stride around purposefully in their various directions like yachts setting out, for who knows what purpose.

Ijaz was standing at one of the gates to the formal gardens. He was dressed not in the crisp white clothing that he puts on for prayers, nor his green-for-Islam M&S slipover, but something amorphous involving track suit bottoms. He had contorted his body into a shape that was as unlikely as it was undignified. I greeted him as neighbour to neighbour.

‘Is that tai chi, Ijaz, that you’re doing?’ I said.

Ijaz spat.

‘Not stupid Chinese thing,’ he said. ‘It is activity traditional to my home.’

‘Gujurat State,’ I said.

Ijaz inclined his head.

‘Like yoga, is it?’

He spat again. We smiled at each other in a friendly way. I was about to be on my way, when Ijaz said, ‘Your blog much better this month. No smut. No black women receiving oral pleasure. The Street likes when there is no smut. Augustus Sly. Much better. Augustus Sly is your amanuensis, your Boswell, as we put it in Gujurat State.’

‘I never said that she received oral pleasure. Nor did the local drug dealer say so, although he might have wanted you to think it. It was all in the eye of the beholder.’

Ijaz came closer.

‘I have found very good internet website,’ he said. ‘Many, many black women, with big bottoms, giving and indeed receiving oral pleasure. This is between us as men, you understand. I can give you URL, if you have a pencil.’

I said sniffily that if my capacity for imagining black women giving and indeed receiving oral pleasure ever needed supplementing audio-visually I would rely on the excellent service provided by Messrs Google, thank you. Immediately I regretted being sniffy. If Ijaz finds certain matters suitable for discussion between us men but not for a public site available to his wives, daughters and staff, that is a cultural matter and not for me to criticise. I should, as Dame Jenni™ Murray so often urges me – often on postcards sent second class from Salford where I believe she now works – ‘check my privilege’.

If I want to write about such questionable matters I could after all put it onto the restricted-access part of the site, which Ijaz could then disable on his house computer.

Curiously, Augustus Sly was going on about the restricted-access part of the blog at our last meeting.

‘Not everyone can find it,’ he said.

‘I don’t understand that,’ I said. ‘There’s something, as I say, that you click on, and then terms and conditions apply so you have to click through them too. You managed it, after all, since you asked me about Jesus and the Rabbit, which isn’t on the public part of the site. Maybe some networks just can’t. You have a tablet. Maybe that’s it.’

I was flattering him with my reference to his tablet. As an academic, Augustus Sly is immensely proud of it. Although slim it holds not only a transcript that he has taken of the whole of this blog, including the restricted access part, all the way back to the French roadside whores – still for some inexplicable reason my most searched post – but also his notes for and initial fumblings towards his thesis on it.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘they want the restricted access stuff, they get a tablet.’

We were silent for a moment. Into the silence came a tiny sound. It seemed to come from the skirting board.

‘Have you got mice?’ I said.

Augustus Sly gave a short laugh.

‘Listen. It’s a voice.’

It was indeed a voice: small, high and querulous.

‘It was in the toilet,’ said the voice.

‘Goodness!’ I said. ‘That sounds like a South African accent. Am I right? And what’s a ‘toilet’?’

‘It does, doesn’t it? I think that ‘toilet’ is an old Afrikaans word for ‘lavatory’.’

‘I thought that there was someone coming out of the toilet’,’ said the little voice.

‘Can you see it? Or him?’ I said.

‘No, frustratingly. Only reaction shots.’

‘Does it do anything else? Does it say anything else?’

‘Sometimes it weeps.’

And indeed at that point a gurgling sound commenced in the skirting board.

‘It’s a good strong sound, that gurgling, for such a little chap,’ I said, ‘if it is a little chap.’

‘I think it’s a haunting,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Many years ago there was a man in South Africa who shot his girlfriend several times with a gun in the lavatory. He said that it was a mistake.’

‘One that any of us might make.’

‘I think it might be something to do with that. I don’t really mind, except when I’m trying to concentrate on my thesis. And I got a bit off the rent as a result. One isn’t in a position to carp at a bit of the supernatural in one’s student accommodation. Different in your day of course.

‘Boomer,’ he added under his breath.

‘I thought there were people in the toilet,’ said the little voice.

‘It sounds evil to me,’ I said, ‘incredibly evil.’

‘I don’t know about evil,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘but I’m not sure that it has the ring of truth.’

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