Traffic, thank you hats and Mussolini on a lamp post.

At the bottom of Buck Lane, as the steep slope inclines ever steeper, one of the many motoring dickheads who express their social distancing frustrations by driving too fast and revving their engines, making a lot of noise and not caring who hears it, explodes up the hill in a cacophony of straining motor without a backward look, leaving a dense blueish cloud of exhaust behind for a heavily built and wheezing mother to laboriously wheel her heavily laden push chair through. The small child in front in the seat sits bolt upright and looks offended; as well he might.

Down by the shops, the traffic has built up in recent weeks, and a driver honks his horn in frustration at the car in front, which has stopped, waiting for another driver to vacate a parking space and causing an instant tail back. The horn, meant to be used in emergencies not as a sign of minor irritation, is loud and nerve jangling, obliterating all other sounds while it blasts and putting everyone else almost as on edge as the driver. Sharing is caring. A hefty sort of guy walking in front of me stares across at the driver, whose window is open, makes eye contact and calls “calm down”. In doing that, he is speaking for many of us, but gets the inevitable reaction of someone who is already angry and has just made a status gesture in front of his family – all gathered around and overheated in his car – and can’t afford to take a rebuke without losing face; so he escalates, leans out of his window all red faced and shouts back, honking his horn again. This is repeated ritualistically – and slightly comically now we are used to it -as the traffic queue slowly edges forward again, roughly at walking pace; so the argument keeps pace all the way down to the station.

In some ways I’m sorry for drivers. On the way down to the shops I get to walk through the Park. Nothing like walking to get your thoughts in order. And this time of year we have the wildflowers that the council has put in to encourage the bees. Right now there is an exhilarating flash of scarlet poppies. Its like an Impressionist painting but better, because its what would have inspired an impressionist painting. Manet live. Or, like stodgy old Wordsworth, your heart can’t help but “leap up”. People driving past miss all that. How much do you lose with the freedom of the not so open road? Invest in a shopping trolley and you get a walk in the Park, time to think and a bit of exercise too.

In the deep shade of a spreading Oak tree, the Roe Green Park Moot is meeting. A dozen or so elderly Gujerati guys – who now seem to be in permanent session -sitting in a circle, several on little camp stools brought for the occasion, two propping up black iron bicycles like props from a Satyajit Ray film, several of them talking at once and waving their hands. Further on, the open air exercise class is back. Mostly legs in the air like they are practicing for the synchronised swimming at the Olympics.

A little bit of implied violence from the sort of people who think that a high level of COVID infections is the same thing as being “free”. All the council posters urging people to have vaccines and take care have had pots of paint thrown at them.

By contrast, down in Grays at the weekend, someone has crocheted a thank you hat for the NHS to put on top of the post box outside the library.

As the NHS comes under pressure from the rise in cases, it is perhaps appropriate that some of these figures show they have been pushed a bit beyond their limits.

On the way up Cromwell road, just opposite Mumford and Sons (the former fish and chip shop and Covid victim now being gutted, windows black and gaping like a corpse whose eyes have been eaten by crows) two youths walking past me. The smaller, meaner looking one tweaks the chest of the taller – who looks a bit like a browner version of Sideshow Bob – saying “I’ll flick your nipples if you keep chatting shit”. On the way back down in search of chips – having developed a habit of smiling at passers by during the pandemic as a sort of mutual affirmation (we’re still here then) – I pass a couple sweating their way up the hill and smile at them. A few steps on and behind my back I hear the bloke mutter “Fucking smiling! Ooo’s e fink he’s fucking smiling at?” and I realise that I’d almost forgotten that old reflex of keeping safe by keeping neutral. Like the safety advice on the New York Subway. “Avoid eye contact with anyone over three years old”. The motto of every Council in South Essex should probably be Qui tibi vultus (oo, you lookin at?)

One of the butchers in Orsett Road is now Halal and offers “real goat”. Makes you wonder what the unreal goat is and who sells it.

When I hang out my laundry on the whirly drier in the backyard, the sight of my trousers hanging upside down to dry is reminiscent of Mussolini suspended from that lamp post by the Partisans after they shot him in Mezzagra in 1945.

Out of the window

  • a young guy on an electric scooter swishes past; like the ghost of a future that we might already be too late to build. You can’t help noting that the police in London have confiscated 500 of these in the last couple of months – pending the Highway Code updating itself to cope with them – while the gas guzzlers that poison our air and are helping overheat our planet rev happily along with complete impunity.
  • a sound of hooves and a glass carriage pulled by two horses with huge pink plumes driven by men in top hats and full of tiny Asian girls in fluffy pink dresses appropriate for princesses but looking a bit bored and apprehensive trots by up past the castle flats; their parents driving behind in a nervous convoy, leaning forward over their steering wheels.

1966 and all that.

The open rift between the England Football team and 10 Downing Street, with the team refusing to allow the Prime Minister to cash in on their popularity after his failure to condemn the “fans” who booed them when they took the knee, is a challenge to the government’s monopoly hold on notions of “Englishness”. A diverse team full of people whose families come from all over the world, and often from poverty, whose members have campaigned for free school meals, and who collectively turn the previously one dimensionally retro patriotic pre match ceremonials (national anthems) into a challenge to racism as well; have refused to be used as window dressing by the most reactionary government of my lifetime.

Suddenly, there’s a price to be paid for blowing racist dog whistles, especially if you do it on trombones. When even the Sun prints photos of the three black players who were abused with the slogan, “we got your back”, the same slogan used by Stand up to Racism, you know where the popular sentiment lies. People look at the team, then they look at the government, and think who is more like they are. Boris Johnson has 1.4 million Twitter followers. Marcus Rashford has 11.4 million. This is not a competition thats going to penalties.

Like the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, a Conservative government finds itself a bit beyond the right wing fringe of popular sensibility about what’s good about the country they are trying to lead. As do the tiny minority of bitter and twisted racist fans who did the booing, abused fans from other countries, including children, and sent the racist tweets. The PM was slim enough to formally condemn this once he realised how strongly the wind was blowing- rather than saying they were “very fine people” – but this was too little, too late. People are starting to know who he is and what he’s about. The Teflon is looking scraped.

This is also challenge to the worst aspects of football fan culture for the last half century or so.

If you look up at the statue of Bobby Moore standing in splendid isolation outside Wembley stadium – in memory of a time when men were men and balls were made of leather in more ways than one – the epic treatment of it shows that there is something going on that’s not just about football. The heroic but modest man of destiny posture, half Roy of the Rovers, half Alexander the Great, head slightly bowed by the weight of responsibility, the ball under his foot not going anywhere without his say so.

“Community Shield 64 – Sir Bobby Moore statue” by Ronnie Macdonald is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The only time England ever won the World Cup – at home at Wem-ber-lee – was in 1966, at a point of turmoil and ferment in which all that had previously seemed solid was melting into air.

The preceding 20 years saw the British Empire shrink from direct rule over a quarter of the world to a residual global archipelago of tax havens and military bases – the Falklands, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and so on – with a series of brutal late colonial anti insurgency campaigns in Kenya, Malaya and Aden to add a bitter late coda to its passing. These would also be “coming home” to the North of Ireland – the weakest link of the UK’s ramshackle constitution- soon enough.

A sense of bewildered loss of status – along with a nervous sense that the countries that had lost the Second World War were – terribly unfairly – doing rather better economically than Britain was – was widespread. Morris and Austin were losing out to Volkswagen, and BSA was going under because Honda made better motor bikes. The last of the big ships were being launched and the slipways would lie empty within ten years. The obsessive concern with “the balance of payments” was not so much an economic consideration as one of standing and prestige. The phrase “who won the bloody war anyway?” was quite common, and carried with it the presumption that having done that, other countries should know their place. After all we did for them too.

At the time, this went along with a mockery for the upper class, and the old, who had lost all our places in the sun and could therefore no longer be respected, and a desire for modernity; to simultaneously erase the loss of past status while maintaining the benefits of it. The Satire wave lampooned old and feeble politicians, while films like Oh What a Lovely War and Charge of the Light Brigade sent up the ruling class as useless, incompetent, carelessly murderous, rather dense and possibly inbred chinless wonders; certain of the little they knew and oblivious to all else in a world that had moved beyond them and out of their time. This was double edged. A negation of the negative, but was not able to look much beyond it.

Winning the World Cup in the middle of all this came as a sort of compensation for it – still top of the world in something – which gave it a weight and significance that it could hardly bear. The world was no longer under our boot, but a ball was. The losses ever since confirm that even this is out of reach, but this has, if anything, deepened its hold in a manner that is almost masochistic. “We’re shit…and we know we are!”

When you look at the newspaper headlines, the phrase “55 years of hurt” from Skinner and Baddiel’s “Three Lions” song, is featured again and again. There is something so self pitying about this phrase that it is faintly nauseating. The “hurt” comes from not winning. That is the common experience of every team in every competition bar one. The notion that not being that one team is particularly hurtful implies a view of national standing that assumes that “we” are somehow better by birth. It also underlies the rather previous habit of the Newspapers of running headlines and graphics on the day of the big match that simply presume a win. The montage of the current teams heads on the photo of Moore and his team mates holding the World Cup – “Jules Rimet’s still gleaming” -is a classic in its way.

The blending with World War Two themes – “Two World Wars and One World Cup – do-da do-da” – is a mixture that is toxic for those that take it too seriously; as it locks them into a frozen narrative of who they are capable of being and a state of suspended childhood. “Achtung! Surrender!” a headline from Euro 96 was obviously written by editors who had read too many copies of the Victor and Valiant at an impressionable age. But this reflects the overall national mythology that World War 2 – with its themes of fighting Nazism and being the good guys – was our defining historical experience. This is the dominant view here. The Washington Post pointed out a couple of years ago that no other country has that impression. The view in every other country in the world is that the defining experience of British History was the Empire. Not the good guys. Hard to think that we’re the only ones in step. Britain is, after all, the country that forced a war on China so that our merchants could sell their people Opium. The promise of what Billy Bragg called a “New England” can only be realised by coming to terms with all that and rejecting it – which means internationalism, recompense, reparations and repair; and treating football as a game not a metaphor for national triumphalism. It will probably be more enjoyable that way.

On Monday morning my neighbour, who was still wearing his face paint from the night before – called out from the steps outside his flat about how well they’d done and how much they were in with a shout at the World Cup next year. Hope springs eternal. Maybe Bobby Moore will get some company. Maybe it’ll be Marcus Rashford. It won’t be Boris Johnson.

Two points on terminology. The confusion between “Britain” and “England” – reflecting the dominance of the latter within the UK -was common enough for England fans to wave Union Jacks at international football matches until Euro 96. The self conscious wallowing in WW2 themes is peculiar to England fans. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish fans don’t spend a lot of time singing “10 German bombers”.

When I write “we” this does not imply equal culpability for historic imperial crimes. The ruling class were – and are – in charge and are therefore directly responsible. The guilt or otherwise of subordinate classes reflects the extent to which they challenged or colluded.

Tales from the Edgware Road

Down by the Edgware Road, on a tiny oasis of unmown grass about a metre square, amid a desert of concrete and asphalt, bright wild flowers play host to a bee and a butterfly as the traffic grinds past. It looks like a tiny sliver of hope.


The rewilding of our back lot, and that of many others along here, where the grass is now as high as a doberman’s eye, has led to a local insect revival. A few years ago I’d have cursed the miasma of aphids tickling my face, but now `I see it as a blessing. 


Outside Asda, a newly erected sign points Westwards to “The Nordic Quarter”. This is vaguely in the direction of Queensbury which, last time I looked, was completely bereft of Vikings. 


As a result of one of our downstairs neighbours moving out, the front hedges, handsome beech ones, well over head height, have began to grow across the front path, narrowing the way in and out and I find myself thinking that I wouldn’t mond too much if it just kept going and sealed us off from the main road, with the only way in and out via the overgorwn alleyway at the back. 


Down by Sainsbury’s a pimped up Ford Focus, Kermit the frog green with red hub caps, low slung body and tinted windows, speeds towards the turn in towards Halfords and blasts its horn at a guy already half way across it – hoping he would jump back or forward, or at any rate get out of its way. He does neither. Instead, he just stands stock still and looks witheringly at the car; holding his ground and forcing it to slow and go round him. It revs up and speeds through the car park, farting a backfire of annoyance as it does.


Just as I am sitting on the bus thinking that the rapidly accelerating gentrification of West Hendon -old tutti putti social housing cleared for solid expensive flats built like fortresses, a smattering of cleaner neater shops and restaurents weeding out the old dusty jumble of plumbers, old fashioned looking hairdressers, boarded up supermarkets, grocery places with tired looking veg and filthy signage – will have done for the Martens that have roosted in the eaves of the above shop flats on the North side, they come screaming gloriously into view and your heart can’t help but leap and soar with them. 


Along Roe Green there is now an electronic sign that monitors traffic speed. The limit is 20mph. As vehicles approach their speed is flashed back at them. Those within the limit are shown their speed in green and given a “Thank You”. Those going above 20, get it in red. Above 25mph and they get a “Slow Down” message. There is no enforcement, just a nudge to doing the right thing. What I’ve noticed is that cars tend to follow the example of the car in front. To some extent this is a physical as much as a psychological thing. If a car in front of you is doing 18mph, you can’t really go faster without crashing into it or overtaking. So, you get a string of vehicles all doing the right thing and all getting a thank you. Then you get one that zaps past at 22mph, gets flashed red and ignores it. Cars behind tend to follow on, red, red, red. Some particulary cussed souls actually accelerate, just because they can; and doubtless congratulate themselves on how free and rebelious they are being. 


In the Park, as an acknowledgement of the heating climate, people now go out and shade bathe.


I’m not sure how spooked to be that the neatly arranged van parked up by the builders working on the house vacated by our local Kippers, who have presumably moved on to a whiter place and taken their spray cans and flags with them, has an upright fire extinguisher between the seats in the cab, topped be a decapitated dolls head. It looks like it is pretending not to be alive.

Muddy Waters

The Bronx Jewish Blues singer and Rev Gary Davies acolyte Stefan Grossman (1) – who I saw at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1970 (the first and last time I have ever seen anyone choosing to eat cold baked beans) – had a voice like sandpaper. It was in tune, but so dry and rasping as to be the antagonist of anything so settled, complacent and smug as melody; the sworn enemy of the lullaby harmonies exemplified by the BBC’s acapella Sing Something Simple programme. These were not songs for people wanting to be reassured that life was harmonious, if you kept your head down, prioritised cosiness and put away all thoughts of life beyond the privet hedge, or your pink half of the drainpipe (2). This was a voice sung over broken pavements and burnt out car lots. He was nevertheless something of a smartarse; with a such a good joke about the “Surrey White trash blues revival” and how he picked up a track while staying in “a Delta in Basingstoke”, that he told it every time he performed. He got away with it because so many of us listening felt complicit. Not so much a joke as a catch phrase.

I grew up on a Delta without realising it. Travel out of London on the C2C line towards Southend and Shoeburyness, and once you pass Barking the river broadens and the land on either side becomes flatter, waterlogged, marshy, indistinct. A jumble of factories – some derelict, lots of extraordinarily ill advised new housing developments built by Planning Departments which have seen the news about the rapidly collapsing ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica and concluded that building on land barely above current sea level, and down river of the Thames barrier, is a really good idea – punctuate wide stretches of half flooded flood plain, grazed slowly by somnolent horses, criss-crossed by the A13 and the HS1 line slicing overhead on stilts and the spectacular QE2 bridge, an Estuarine Golden Gate. Random wind turbines rotate gently. At a time when there were fewer housing developments but far more factories, cement works with immense chimneys belching smoke, and chemical storage sites, vast drums of oil and warehouses stretching for miles, this journey was described by a friend who came to see me from up North as “ a bit like visiting Mordor”; but it feels like home to me.

An attachment to bucolic landscapes is a much played upon trope of lazy nationalists, whose eyes well up at scenes that are green and pleasant. Film of marshland, mud flats scattered with dark green seaweed, a river khaki with silt and sludge and sewer runoffs, discharge from shipping and everything that flows from having been London’s cloaca for centuries, is never played as an accompaniment to Jerusalem. Those feet in ancient time didn’t walk upon Rainham marshes. The aesthetic doesn’t fit with the upper class self pretence that their beautifully preserved landscapes and comfortable way of life – which everything else must be sacrificed to preserve -are somehow an organic natural order and didn’t and don’t require the blood, sweat and tears of the working class black dwarves (3) (at home and abroad in the Empire) to sustain it. The Britain (or, more often England) we are set up to worship, turns its back on us as a dirty embarrassing secret that spoils the view; only sometimes half acknowledged so long as it is posed as a conspicuous demonstration that we know our place; especially in armed service. “Ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die”(4).

And we are meant to play – and sing – along, celebrate “our successes”, as Jacob Rees Mogg puts it, and never count the cost; neither to ourselves, nor those we have imposed on others.

The character of this part of the river is determined by the tide. All the freshwater flowing down towards the sea meets the sea pushing back twice a day. The combination of the two creates a tidal range that makes the river level as far West as Westminster rise and fall by as much as 2 to 4 meters between low and high tides. In the context of rising sea levels brought on by climate breakdown, this is an increasing threat. The last time there was our current level of CO2 in the atmosphere, sea levels were 23 metres above what they are now (5). Unless we get that level down, it’s just a matter of time before the estuary starts at Windsor, the solid looking river walls and gates notwithstanding.

These photographs are a study in Essex estuary bleak. The odd enclosed crows nest on the mast on two of them was from a lightship that was built in the late nineteenth century and anchored around various treacherous sandbanks in the North Sea to keep other ships at a safe distance; with mixed success. It was sank twice by freighters that obliviously ploughed into it without noticing its light and had to be resurrected from the shallow depths as salvage for a second lease on life. After being strafed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War and put out of action, it was salvaged again and bought by the Grays Yacht Club to be used as their clubhouse until 2002. What is disturbing about it to me is the angle it is at, and the way it stands bolt upright and alone on the jetty. All through my childhood it loomed above the rest of the boat, drawn up and beached on dry land, but still recognisably a boat and at a jaunty angle, the boat having been fixed with a definite list to port and pointing vaguely towards London. It also looks clean. It never used to. There was always something mysterious about it. On the other side of the sea wall; beyond a boundary. Private property. The sort of place you’d have been in danger or trouble if you’d climbed over to explore. Taboo. The plaque that lists all this information also notes that many of the people who joined the yacht club weren’t very interested in yachts; which begs the question of what they got up to in there. The body of the boat was destroyed by an arson attack in 2002. This is attributed to “vandals” on the plaque; but suggests a plot line for a story of rivalry and murder in the small, enclosed world of a yacht club with fewer yachts than passions. Today there are yachts, calmly resting at anchor close in shore out of the shipping lanes, like sleeping gulls bobbing gently.

If you look east towards Tilbury Docks, the twin grain terminals rise indistinctly in the mist like two skeletal ships of the line locked together and about to fire broadsides. “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful”. Gratitude for the grain brought in from elsewhere is maybe something we should feel more than we do. When it rains, the distinction between the air and the water and the water and the mud blurs in the same way as the visibility does. The occasional passing freighter looms spray misted and indistinct high above the river wall and the buildings alongside it.

The dead boat, beached and abandoned, sinking and rotting into the mud, looks like the fossil of a trilobite. A relic of a time when Grays was a centre for Thames barges and Seabrooks Brewery was still making beer. In the early 1970’s there was an edition of the long lost Radio 4 – indeed Home Service – programme Down Your Way in which the presenter, Franklin Engleman, painted a picture of Grays that was almost completely nostalgic and time expired. Anyone listening would have gained a vivid impression of a place of small wharves, red sailed barges and riverside inns; a picture that might have been partly true fifty to a hundred years previously, but a long, long time dead; and completely missing the industry, the council estates, the docks. In some ways it was a lovely picture; but a fiction. Lovelier than the reality. Perhaps that was the point. Why the BBC put effort into projecting that kind of image of the country, while eliding the reality, implies that it was a necessary fiction for the national self-image at the time. I’m not sure much has changed there.

As the river turns past Tilbury, the Estuary broadens, with the Essex bank curving North and the Kent side easing South. At this point the estuary is more sea than river. Parts of the land are actually below sea level; like New Orleans. New Orleans gave the world Jazz. Canvey Island gave it Dr Feelgood. (6)

The River is shallow. The mud flats stretch for miles, sometimes submerged, sometimes not. The mud is full of river and the river is full of mud. All that is solid melts to air, via a misty, sludgy no man’s ground and silt –laden waters laying down barely submerged islands that make the waters treacherous and impel commercial interests to dredge navigable channels for the big ships on their way up to the Thames Gateway.

This colossal development is on the site of the old Shell Haven refinery and storage where my old friend Nick used to live in a small row of company houses. He built himself a car using the chassis and engine of a BMW bubble car and scrap bits of metal from storage tanks. It looked like a home made Bugatti and he more or less taught himself to drive on the deserted company roads that weren’t subject to the Highway Code – or any Police supervision. All these spaces are being filled in in the last spasm of hyper capitalist expansion before the ecological reckoning comes in and the rising floodwaters break the banks – in more ways than one (and not in a good way for either).

1 b.1945. In this relatively recent film of how to play Candyman he seems to have mellowed, as you do, but the voice is the same, as is the jaunty guitar style. It’s worth listening to the end to hear a recording of Rev Gary Davies himself playing a version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOQZEQAgcA0&t=67s

2. From the song by the Bonzo Dog Do-Da Band.

3. The Black Dwarf was the name of a satirical radical newspaper published 1817-24; named as a screw you re-appropriation of a description of the emergent industrial working class as Black Dwarves, because their work covered them in filth and their poverty stunted their growth. 150 years later, it was adopted by Tariq Ali and others to name one of the iconic revolutionary newspapers of the late 1960’s. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3816-we-shall-fight-we-will-win-on-the-black-dwarf-and-1968

4. Tennyson. Charge of the Light Brigade.

5. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/08/190830150751.htm

6. Dartford of course, produced half of the Rolling Stones. But this is higher ground – and definitely the wrong side of the river.

Startling Statistics. US arms vs Green transition to 2030.

A recent report on climate change from the US military – commissioned by General Mark Milley- argued that the impact of climate change could, within the next three decades,

  • overwhelm the US energy grid,
  • lead to a spread of epidemic diseases, water shortages and crises in food production,
  • with a third of the world living in “water stressed” regions within ten years, lead to societal collapse in more vulnerable countries – such as Bangladesh overwhelmed by sea level rises –
  • all of which would require military interventions that would be too great for them to cope with – posing the very serious possibility that the military itself could collapse under the strain.

What is mind boggling about this report is that it takes climate breakdown as a given – something to be responded to, not stopped.

This is particularly stark in the section on the melting of Arctic sea ice. The imperative here is for the US military to be prepared to project US power into the area so it can fight off competitors and help itself to the fossil fuel reserves uncovered as the ice melts. That burning these resources leads directly to the societal collapse outlined in the rest of the report does not seem to have occurred to the authors.

This Report was published while Trump was still President, but the figures above are those projected by Biden and shows they are putting the Cold War above climate breakdown. The scale of the expenditure should reflect the scale of the threat. You can’t deploy the Marines against rising sea levels or nuke a spreading desert.

Jesus!

In the Halal butchers down by Kingsbury Circle, there are large faded black and white framed photos of two men from another time and place. Mohamed Ali Jinnah, staring straight at you, intense and cancer thin in his Astrakhan hat and Sherbani. Qaid i Azam (Father of the Nation), whose saintly status was assured by dying so soon after Pakistan was founded, so he couldn’t carry the can for anything that actually happened after it was. Alongside him, and staring in a profile like a head on a coin, somehow deferential but distant, and – with his whip sharp moustache – looking like Omar Sharif’s even more glamorous grandfather, no less than two pictures of a man we didn’t know. A friendly butcher, meat cleaver in one hand, bright Union Jack mask across his face, catches our curiosity and tells us that this is “Dr Iqbal. Dr Iqbal” – so good they named him twice – poet and early advocate of Pakistan as a separate state; who died nine years before it was set up in the horrors of Partition and therefore even more saintly. I remember this butchers at the time of the 2011 riots. Although nothing had kicked off locally, most shops were shuttered, some that remained open had their staff nervously hovering at the door, waiting for the images from their TV screens to roll down the High Street; which they never did. In the butchers there was none of that. Just a dozen or so of them all lined up hacking lamb into chops with machetes; reasonably confident that no one would be bothering them.

A sign on the Wembley Gospel Church – just opposite VBs cash and carry – “Toilets are for use of worshippers only”. One definition of heaven. Relief for the elect.

All along the main drag in Alperton, the shops and cafes are stuttering back into life. The smart masked young woman at Masala Bowl takes down J’s details when we drop in for some Papri Chaat and Masala Tea, but not mine. I guess we look like a couple. Outside they have strings of tiny lights which must look magical at night when you can’t see the rest of the street.

All the Sari shops have crowded displays using an eclectic collection of macabre looking second or third hand mannikins. The contrast between the gorgeous fabrics – all bold, fresh colours, striking designs and rich decoration – and the washed out, oddly bewigged and battered figures wearing them is disturbing; as if these are display windows full of beautifully dressed corpses.

In the Medical Centre in Chaplin Road, seats are carefully spaced two metres apart and – to keep them there – a square of black and yellow hazard tape marks them off from each other in splendid isolation. On patient one box. It feels like a mental force field. Like one of those games you play as a child. Step over the tape and you fall into a lake of lava. The spaces in between are for official use only.

Looking out of the window of the 204 bus on the way back home, and in the front window of a standard suburban semi is a startlingly larger than life size statue of Jesus – presumably retrieved from a Catholic Church close down sale – everything must go! The curtains are drawn behind him, so he has no contemporary hinterland. He looks serious, as well he might, and holds his hand up in a benediction that also looks like someone shy giving a half hearted wave. His view of the sign at the Gospel Church remains unspoken.

Mourning in America. Reflections on Nomadland.


This is a film about coming to terms with loss. It is hard to imagine it being made in a time of optimism.


It opens with central character, Fern, sifting through a pile of possessions, randomly junked in storage, for a few to pack into her small camper van. The wreck of a life reflected in the wreck of a community, with the main employer, a gypsum mine, closing and creating a ghost town. The death of the mine reflected in the death of Fern’s partner Beau. She has hung on for a year in the wreckage – seemingly numb – but now feel compelled to move. Staying in a place suffused with loss and loneliness no longer bearable. 


It closes with Fern’s return, and the donation of all the remaining stuff in storage to goodwill, and her returning to her former home, an empty bungalow on an empty street, wandering through, then out the back door into a vast Mid Western emptiness, leaving it open and letting it go, then back on the road that goes ever, ever on; en route a des aventures nouvelles (in a rather downbeat way). 


In between, there is a Road Movie, Jim, but not as we know it. This is a long way from getting your kicks on Route 66 (or even the A13). This is not kicking over the traces of a comfortable life to fix a relationship or sort your head out before reaffirming its limitations by fitting right back in; even in Jack Kerouac’s sense of being “like the prophet who has walked across the land to bring back the dark word, and the only word I had was “Wow!” Its not a journey with an end, just a journey. Moments of epiphany come through nature. Reaching the ocean and walking over the rocks in a howling wind spattered by spray – utterly wild and unforgiving – floating naked in a mountain pool – a moment of exhilarating transcendence beneath a vast explosion of swallows; all symbolising the need to live before you die.


As the journey from here to there and back again unfolds, music starts up. A review in Counterpunch argues that this is to make us – the audience – feel something (or be aware that we are supposed to). I’m not so sure. I think its meant to show that Fern is beginning to feel something. The first shots of the journeying are silent. Numb. Then there’s a musical stirring that I think is meant to convey that Fern’s buried feelings are starting to wake up. If this also serves as an emotional manipulation of the audience – as film music always does – this is a kind of supportive collateral damage. The style of the music, Einaudi’s plinky plink piano noodlings with a side order of cello soul is dark side new agey, soul as commodity in a minor key.


The fleeting connections and solidarities built up between people trying to survive an mobile homes, moving down the road, making do and mending, are sometimes more profound than would be the case if settled, because it can be easier to be vulnerable with someone you may or may not see again than with a neighbour who is always there, keeping account and, sometimes score. “See you down the road” may or may not come to pass. Its serendipitous, so you might as well say what you have to say now. But, there’s a distance. Things can only go so far. The one guy that gets a bit close to Fern bails out to become a live-in Grandad and, despite an offer to stay, she moves on without too much regret.Nearly everyone is in their own van, travelling alone; though there is one unexplored echo of Ken Kesey’s magic bus that appears but is not explored. The prospect of all travelling together appears as a fantasy in an RV showroom, where a spanking new ocean liner of the road dazzles them with its swish facilities and whale like majesty. Fern sits in the driving seat and fantasises about cruising, making the brrm brrm noises that a child would in a rare moment of playfulness. 


None of the characters in this film are Hollywood glam. None of the fake plastic Stepford cosmetic finishes and faultless hairdos – Fern looks like she cuts her own hair with a knife and fork without a mirror – or vast, well furnished mansions that are passed off as average homes in romcoms. Many of the people in it are people who live on the road more or less playing themselves. Nevertheless, hard though they have it, they are people with resources. The vans for a start. The woman who is dying of cancer has visited a hospital and got diagnosed. She is not without access to medical insurance. When Fern’s van breaks down she has access to a sister who lends her the money to fix it. The van is the one settled thing she won’t and can’t give up. Its now home.


Where the Counterpunch review hits hard is that the film risks romanticising the gig economy and transient, insecure work. A couple of scenes shot inside a vast Amazon warehouse show Fern ambling slowly around, smiling at co-workers and exchanging quips and smiles; not harassed and rushing, driven by her monitor or pissing in a bottle because there’s no time to get to the toilet if she’s to fulfill her quota. Her comment about working for Amazon, when asked, is “good money”. $15 an hour. Aspirational as a minimum wage, but hardly “good money”. Other jobs always come along when needed. Hard to imagine that it always works out like that.

Sirens scream through opening up.

On the side of a bus, an advert for “PeterRabbit 2″. I wonder why Beatrix Potter never thought of a snappy title like that? Others come to mind. Crime and Punishment 2 – this time its personal!” ;”The Bible – you’ll believe a man can fly!”; “1984 – the romcom”…
The buses are now filling up. Jammed at rush hour. By the bus stop, a neat row of three PCR COVID tests left on the wall as a warning.

Outside Hendon Magistrates Court a huge bloke with a red angry face and the quickly flicking eyes of a minder looks montaged into a tight fitting electric blue suit as he walks towards his date with nemesis. A nervously harassed looking lawyer in dusty grey trundles a wheely suitcase full of Court documents, looking to right and left as though he thinks someone might jump out of the bushes and hit him.
The Vaccination Centre on Sunday night, as J went in for her second jab, was heaving. The euphoric vibe of the first wave replaced by a quick walking jerky nervousness. Alarm in eyes. Cars jammed and cutting each other up. Quick recourse to jarring horn blasts and angry glares. No longer the celebration of rare human company; contentment with any social contact at all, but a sense of others as potential threat; a society stretched to its nerve endings.
A similar disturbance among the crows in the park opposite, floating and tacking up and around each other like black ash from a fire; away from a slowy plodding old Labrador, all golden heavy jowels, too tired to bother having fun scattering them, just proceding on its way at the regulation 2 miles per hour in a way that can only be described as “dogged”.