Monday, June 22, 2015

Three Little Vines

Death by the seaside. I didn't see the ambulance or, later, the hearse that came to take him away. The first sign something was amiss was the letting agent and the young woman, shaking hands on the street outside. No wake, no period of grace in a cut-throat lettings market. Speaking of throats, that's what got him in the end. Cancer of the oesophagus, said Myrtle. She'd lived in the house next door for sixty years and had seen it all. The old man, who'd had neither a phone nor much a voice (but for a chesty rasping sound) used to call on her for help. Help to call a doctor, or a taxi. There was nobody else - no family, no friends - he could have asked for help. "This used to be such a nice street," said Myrtle. "Everyone knew each other back in the day."

When they found him he was slumped at his desk, whisky tumbler half empty. A five bedroom house with five separate lives. Make that four. On the top floor the fat bald man who walks around in his underwear, who hasn't turned off either the loudly blaring TV set or the incandescent light bulb - even for a moment - in the two years since we've lived opposite. Then there is the shifty young bloke, whose hoodie friends, if that's what they are, come and go at all hours of the day and night. Just for balance, let me mention the clean-cut man with the steady job who leaves each morning wearing a high-vis jacket and sparks up a rollie on his way out the door. There must be one or two others living there too, including the one who likes to blast out rave music on a weekend, but none of them thought to check on the old man until a few days after his room had fallen silent.

I never spoke to him, didn't know his name or his story. Sometimes, whilst sitting at my computer, if I peered out the window and through the unruly rose bush with its nodding flower heads, I could just make out the ghost of his face behind the net curtains. He lived and died on the downstairs floor. Witnesses pieced together his last moves. Had he known that this was the day? What had caused him to tidy his few belongings together that evening? To put on his best clothes and to set off on a steady shuffling walk out of the house, through the day-warm streets past walls dripping in purple valerian, Mexican flea bane and Dalmatians, and down to the seafront where the gulls endlessly wheel and the dinghies sit lop-sided in the mud. How long did he contemplate the ocean, knowing that now, after such a long period of waiting, it was his time to embark. And then, when the sun set, to make the return trip, stopping at the off license to buy the bottle of cheap whisky to ease his passage.

On that evening, as he left, had we not yet pulled the curtains on our own lives? Would he have seen us in our illuminated living room, eating our dinner together, talking, laughing and enjoying our lives? Or had we already pulled the curtains and all he could see was a chink of light escaping from the shut-out world within?


Wasted. I knock on the door, a woman with orange skin answers. She is wearing a gold lamé top, has green lipochemicals smeared around her eyes and wants to know what the hell I want. I am here to clean the apartment, I inform her, and point out that checkout time is 10 even though it is now 11.  She gives a silly little giggle and tells me she isn't going anywhere soon in broad Estuary English. Her baby is sleeping - do I know how hard it is to get a baby to sleep? - and she's paid a lot of money to stay there and the last thing she needs is me telling her to leave. Who do I think I am? I tell her that someone else will shortly be arriving and I have only so long to get everything ready. "Your problem not mine," she says, and shuts the door on me.

Fine, I think. Make the best of this situation. I wander down to the beach and fill several plastic bags with seaweed that has washed up on the shore. These sea plants are marvellous - some have great rubbery bodies with octopus-like suckers, others are luminescent green fronds that look like they could grow on Venus, and I never get tired of the slithering bladdery perfection of kelp. I go back to the car and place my stash of alien sea treasures it in the boot next to the bags of clean laundry that smell of Ocean Breeze detergent. The seaweed is for my pollytunnel, I am turning it into food. I hope it understands and doesn't mind. Cornish people have done the exact same thing for millennia, but I recently discovered that most beaches, and all the seaweed lying on them, are owned by the Queen and that what I am doing is illegal without a license.  Oh well.

An hour has passed and I head back to the apartment. All the lights are on, the windows are open and the big flat-screen is blaring loudly. The BMW 3 series with the child seat has gone. I knock tentatively on the door. No answer. I put in the key and let myself in. Inside, it is trashed. For a moment I think there has been a violent break-in and that the woman and her child are tied up in a closet. But no.

Drawers are pulled out and thrown around haphazardly, the floor is covered in toys - dozens of cheap plastic toys with the price tags still on them - as well as supermarket carrier bags, half-full and empty bottles of Evian mineral water and used nappies that exude a sickly sweet smell. In the kitchen there is a week of washing up. Burned strips of bacon are stuck inside the oven - clearly the aborted aftermath of an attempt at 'cooking' - and the fridge is full of half-eaten steaks, baby food and more water bottles. Every surface is covered with bits of junk: more toys, gossip magazines, colouring crayons, used batteries. In the bathroom there are piles of discarded beauty products, feminine razors galore, and the stash of clean white fluffy towels I left in one of the closets are tossed around and smeared with baby excrement. The evidence of clothes shopping frenzy is there, with price tags, plastic hangers and Next bags all over the place.

Outside there are ten large bin bags filled with trash. I rip one of them open to see what's inside. It's mostly more empty water bottles, dirty clothes and used nappies. I ponder how can one person generate so much waste. Our family struggles to fill a single bag in a week, but this woman has filled one and a half a day. I sigh and get down to work. It takes me until the evening, but luckily the next guests don't arrive until late. They are coming from Germany, so I know that when they leave in a week's time the apartment will be spotless.

The next day and I am onto the next property. It's an idyllic old cottage overlooking the bay in a small photogenic village of the kind you see in lifestyle magazines. A young couple and their small child have stayed there for two weeks. The previous week they had locked themselves out and I had driven over to let them in again. The man had been genial and appreciative but said his wife was 'freaking out' over the matter. This is bad. Whenever I hear that female guests are freaking out over some small matter it usually means the place will be left in a kind of 'fuck you' mess. I wasn't too far wrong.

I hoover up all the sand, clean all the smears off the extensive glass windows and rummage through the bins for food. I always do this. Sometimes there is very little, but on this occasion the bins are liberally overflowing with fresh food. I find packets of organic baby tomatoes from Spain, mange touts from Zimbabwe, Waitrose carrots, packets of butter and bacon, entire unopened litre bottles of Innocent apple juice, chocolate puddings, the cream tea I had placed for them on their arrival. All in all I estimate there to be about £50 worth of unopened and uneaten food. There is more down near the bottom of a black bag but it's covered in a viscous liquid that looks like whale bile, but I leave it alone.

As I drive home I listen to the news on the radio. The man at the BBC says we are officially entering the sixth great extinction. It is the third thing he mentions, after something about David Cameron proposing something or other about reforming some institution, or something, and another item about corruption in the world of football. I slip in a CD. It's a new one I bought. Gravenhurst. There's a song called Black Holes in the Sand. I listen as I drive along the A394, heading back to Penzance.

in the small hours I realise what I have done 
in the small hours I realise what I have done 
I held the hand that threw the stone that killed the bird that woke the city 

in the small hours I realise what I have done
in the small hours I realise what I have done


Solstice. A still evening. The mist hovers around the shore, clearing every now and again to reveal St Michael's Mount out in the bay. Feeble waves are plopping on the sand a few feet away from the pile of wooden pallets stacked up as an offering for the goddess. The smells of roasting meat and roasting veggie burgers suffuse the still air, and although it is getting late children weave around the groups of adults sitting on the sand. Looking forwards, out to sea, very little in the way of human creation is evident. Turning 180 degrees, back to the land, it is all supermarkets, busy roads and car dealerships. The sodium lights from the rail marshalling yard light up a faint mizzle as we stand around on this patch of unloved strand (known locally as Dogshit Beach) waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon and the journey towards winter to begin.

There are maybe a hundred of us, ranging in age from the just-born right up to the about-to-be-born-again. There are probably more than the statistical average number of greybeards and women with flowers in their hair. One girl had realistic prosthetic pointed ears that I discreetly have to study quite closely to look for the join. A few tourists hold up iPhones to film it all.

Simon, holding bunches of flowers and a can of accelerant, is leaping around like a pyro, and Ned - who at other points on the calendar can be seen dressed as a giant crow or a tree - is walking around with a shiny new axe that looks suspiciously like the ones they sell in Jim's Discount Store for £3. "Who will be the first to bury the hatchet?" he cries out.

A largeish log had been placed on the sand as a receptacle of absorption. On this midsummer night one is urged to let go of any animosities and frustrations one holds, striking the log with the hatchet and expelling the negativity with a blood-curdling scream - or whimper, as the case may be. People step forwards and strike the log with the axe. One woman, clearly unused to handling the tool, misses and almost cuts off her toes instead. Simon steps forwards with the flowers, calling forth the females. Children, some excited and some bemused, are handed red roses, purple sea mallow and yellow St Johns wort, which they place atop the pile of shipping pallets ready for cremation.

Simon squirts the fuel and touches the bonfire with his flaming torch. Whoomph! The evil spirits of elf n' safety have not been invited tonight. All of a sudden the flames go up and everyone cheers. Fiddles and drums are pulled out and the celebrants begin to dance around the flames as black smoke pours into the sky. Ned comes forward with the hate-filled log and tosses it into the inferno. Another cheer. Cups of cider are refilled, some fire dancing happens and the mizzle comes on a bit stronger but fails to dampen the spirits.

And so another turning point of the year is marked in proper fashion, hatreds and animosities are  cleansed by fire and the days begin to grow shorter. It seems strange to consider that in only six months we will all be on the far side of the sun in our solar system - almost 200 million miles away - celebrating the lengthening of the days and the return to summer, and all that can and will happen in our little earthling lives between now and then.


  1. 'Most beaches, and all the seaweed lying on them, are owned by the Queen and that what I am doing is illegal without a license' - actually that isn't right, in Cornwall all beaches (between high and low tide) are owned by the Duke of Cornwall, when you look into this it opens a whole great can of worms.

    1. Well, he is the Queen's son (currently), so that's close enough IMO.

    2. Doesn't matter too much, just the entire legitimacy of the UK government (that is, the Crown) in Cornwall is at stake.

      I am just pointing out that the traditions of the (unwritten*) British constitution, are not based necessarily on ancient truths but made up as they go along.

      * some would argue that most of it is written, just not all in one document

  2. Well said, well juxtaposed. What people have done, with the abundance of the economy!


    1. Indeed. I know I've painted this woman as a caricature, but that's exactly what she was. No exaggeration needed - it puzzles me, really.

  3. Thanks Jason. This post re-enforces the feeling of detachment for me. The detachment we have from the cycle of life and death, from our communities, and from the heartbeat of the planet. Glad you have found people who care about those things.

    And the detached view of the crazy other beings who blindly continue their selfish lives. Were we once one of them?

    I am guessing we will see more beard growth from you in the coming years ;-)

    1. I's like to think I've never been a 'mad consumer' - my father instilled too much of the conservation ethic in me. That said, as a westerner I'm sure I've used up many times my fair share of the planet's resources during my lifetime, so in other words I'm complicit in the destruction of the biosphere, even if I am now trying to make amends.

      Hence the Gravenhurst lyrics I reproduced.

      As for the beard - actually it's received quite a trim. I've an important interview coming up in a couple of days and need to look smart for it. ;-)

  4. And here's a little video of the bonfire ...

  5. Hi Jason,

    Lovely to read about your summer solstice celebrations and they sound like a lot of fun. There is nothing quite like a bonfire around which everyone can huddle and enjoy the warmth. It is burn off season down here up until about November or maybe even December so burn-offs are quite common and very occasionally quite frighteningly large! I'm glad that you have found "your people" and also watch out for that axe wielder.

    The winter solstice passed here and was marked and celebrated. The days seem to slowly be getting longer as the chooks are in bed now by about 5.30pm - they mark the movement of the sun across the sky and there is no fooling them if they're in natural light conditions.

    Cheers. Chris

  6. Nice snapshot vignettes of the human condition. Reflections on sense of community, or lack thereof. I think one of the central causes of Western civilization's declining prospects has been the loss of community and shared sense of responsibility for the commons.

    As we end the fossil fuel era, I actually see a positive being that we will all be returning to local communities. ( Some willingly and quickly, some kicking and screaming) Over the next couple generations, hopefully we will recognize what we had been missing, and embrace community as a good trade for the isolation and consumerism the ff energy blip enabled.

    Since our move to our farm, we are strengthening connections to the local community, but since we live near a large concentration of Amish , we see how far we still have to go. While even they are partially connected to the matrix, it's amazing to see how they make do, or do without, but thrive nonetheless.

  7. Thanks for the post. You painted with words. Beautiful music by Gravenhurst.


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