On being abroad

“My socks don’t match, you say? My trousers are too bright? Or too short? My haircut unfashionable? My shoes – too fusty? Nonsense! It is quite the fashion where I’m from…don’t you know?”-

me, living overseas, all the time.

The problem with living in your country of birth is that you immediately find yourself both being placed and placing others on a social scale. Accents, dress-sense, job, car, choice of hot beverage…all these factors combine to form an overall assessment of your being, and you in turn subconsciously rank, judge and compare everyone you encounter. Don’t pretend otherwise.

Well, see, you can’t easily do that overseas. If they’re speaking Spanish, everyone sounds basically the same to me – be they the President or the guy fixing the washing machine. I miss all but the crudest differences in accent and pronounciation, and all my effort is channelled into trying to understand what they’re saying rather than to their personal attributes. I assume the same goes for them. They might have an idea of what an Englishman looks like, but it’s vanishingly unlikely that they know enough to compare me with them. I am simply Meester Eenglish to them – and any eye-rolling is simply a reflection of their general impressions of my compatriots en masse, rather than relating to me personally.

This is liberating in its own way. People have no specific expectations of what I should be like, other than ones which I can safely discard as comic stereotypes. Nobody knows whether people like me drive cars like this or that, or go to this restaurant or that. I get to move through this foreign society largely immune from local snobberies – I can eat where I like, shop where I like, and socialise with whoever I jolly well choose.

And better yet, it can also be applied in reverse. Have I seen *insert topical UK cultural reference point here*? Why no, for I have been overseas for some time, you see. Only that, rather than my wholesale lack of cool-ness, has prevented me from keeping pace with the zeitgeist. My clothes? Well they’re from overseas too. And my haircut. Very fashionable where I live…

The Sensible Ones

Photo by Joshua Miranda from Pexels

Growing up in a vicarage, there were always things that couldn’t be discussed outside the family – village gossip, people’s personal problems, dad’s views on members of his congregation, and most sensitive of all, his own future plans. I remember being taken out of school for the day aged 5 or 6 to go and visit another parish on the other side of the country, and being told not to tell anyone (not even the teachers) where I had been. “No comment” I must have said in the playground the next day.

Occasionally dad would come home and say that he had ‘put his foot in it’ about something – by which he usually meant that his views on some topic had become known in the parish, or he had mixed up the names of someone’s mother (whom he had buried) with their daughter (whom he had baptised). Many people came to the house, in all states of mind, (a vicarage is a bit like a pub that only serves tea), and often I was tasked with letting them in and making small talk before dad was ready to see them. I learned not to ask questions about why they were there, nor to comment on their appearance, nor, on occasion, to ask why they were crying.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning to be discreet.

Aged 11, my own future was shrouded in discretion. The local comprehensive was, shall we say, somewhat lacking in OFSTED plaudits, and so I sat the tests for an assisted place at a small private school 20 miles away. These tests and the subsequent interview were conducted without the knowledge of my teachers or peers. If asked whether I was going to the local secondary school, I was simply to say that I didn’t yet know, but that all would become clear in the fullness of time.

And once at said private school, I had to be discreet when interacting with my friends who had gone on to the local comprehensive, being careful not to draw attention to the yawning chasm in life chances which had presumably opened up between us, nor to my school’s extensive sports facilities and wide range of extra-curricular activities, nor to my assisted place (without which my parents couldn’t have afforded the fees).

During my teenage years, topics requiring discretion included my mum’s work (in the local crown court), the location of our holidays (I remember dad once telling a taxi driver that we were going ‘further over’, in order to ward off burglars, he told us later), and the fact that one year, we were unable to afford a television licence. We were not a family prone to idle chit chat. Even around the house there was a need to maintain privacy – dad would always draw the curtains while we were eating to stop people “seeing straight into the kitchen”.

I soon found that with discretion comes trust, and with trust, responsibility. Aged 6 I was escorting the class trouble maker to the headmistress’s office (feeling his collar if he tried to flee en route). Throughout my pre-teen years I was the designated courier for teachers’ notes, the person designated to guard their things when they left the classroom, and the ever-reliable custodian of keys, cash, certificates, contraband or privileged inside information about casting ahead of the christmas play. I could be confident that if I was pulled aside after assembly it was only for the teacher to seek some informal advice on what had really been going on with the boys at the back. When a delegation of children disfigured by the Chernobyl accident came to visit for the day, guess who was the liaison between them and the rest of the class? Aged 10, I was tasked by the year 6 teacher with the job of discreetly double-checking the spellings of the words he wrote on the board. If the school had needed to conduct an internal leak investigation, flush out a cigarette selling operation, or secretly negotiate a treaty with France, there would only have been one name on their lips.

I think the word teachers would have most readily applied to me and my kind would have been ‘sensible’. “He’s always one of the sensible ones” they would tell my parents. But the control and reserve that word implies was really an offshoot of discretion. It wasn’t that I was I felt inhibited in how I could behave; rather that personal indiscipline and over-sharing of my own views would somehow have undermined my reputation as someone to be trusted – a reputation that felt valuable because it was clearly something which adults prized and children largely ignored (thus enabling me to lead a comparatively normal social life). I could play silly games with the other children while inwardly calculating the point at which an adult was likely to intervene if things got out of hand, and withdrawing before that moment came.

This trend continued as a teenager. I made a name for myself as the lead tour-guide for prospective parents and pupils – carefully selecting a route around the school which included the prestige areas but carefully skirted the delapidated ones, and fielding their questions about when the new sports hall might finally open with deft and carefully worded answers. I was the one chosen to front up an interview on local radio about the semi-successful visit of a Caribbean dance troupe, with the teachers correctly assessing that I could convey earnest and innocent enjoyment while also hitting key talking points.

My first holiday job, aged 17, was in a cathedral, where duties included monitoring the flow of visitors, conducting bag searches, and ensuring that people climbing to the top of the tower did so in an orderly and timely fashion (I had access to a tannoy system to enforce this). It was around the time of the Iraq War protests, and on the date of the key march, I could be found on duty outside the cathedral (walkie-talkie in hand), discreetly monitoring the assembled crowd – which I should add, included several people from my year in school – for signs of trouble that could threaten the safety or wellbeing of visitors or the cathedral structure itself. I was very much a law and order teenager.

By now it will not surprise you to learn that my informal role as part of the wider apparatus of state – what Max Weber might term an enforcer of the “monopoly of legitimate violence” – soon converted into a paid position in government. Not for me the post-university gap year (having served as Internal Affairs Officer on the student committee, I hardly need add), but instead a string of sensitive civil service roles. I won’t be giving away any details, but let’s just say that if you needed a note delivering to a former terrorist leader, a remote island supervising for a few weeks, or a delegation of war victims introducing to the Prime Minister at a summit, I was likely to be involved.

I’m far too discreet to say what I do now of course, but it’s fair to say that little has changed. I continue to be bound by a duty of impartiality and political neutrality, so if you overheard me talking down the pub you’d probably catch phrases like “Brexit? – well I can see arguments on both sides”; or “there are no easy answers for politicians at the moment” and “I’m sure everyone involved was doing their best in difficult circumstances”. My private life tends to reflect studied discretion and neutrality as well – I give fake phone numbers as a reflex when completing online registrations, never advertise my plans in advance or give away my location or opinions on social media, and never volunteer information to strangers. I occasionally visit Facebook, but only to review my privacy settings. I give fake names in Starbucks. The one time I went to a professional football match, I sat in the middle stands and if pressed during half-time would have volunteered that both sides had aquitted themselves well and that it remained anyone’s to play for. I provoke less of a reaction than water to litmus paper. I am the middle box on customer satisfaction surveys transposed into human form.

Can I change? Might I one day get into a fierce argument, express outrage, contempt, behave recklessly, swear freely, dance wildly, or indulge in casual gossip and rumour-mongering? Might I participate enthusiastically in local politics, or be able to travel on a train without wanting to check everyone’s tickets and keep them informed about any delays. Might I, in short, play the role of an ordinary human being going about his life, rather than feeling that to be present somewhere without an official role is barely to be there at all? I fear not. Don’t misunderstand me, all these traits are borne out of habit and instinct, rather than out of any sense of superiority or meglomania. I have to be in charge of things because I don’t know how not to be, and I have to be neutral and discreet on most subjects because it genuinely reflects my views. I suppose I should count myself lucky to have been born in the UK, rather than a country where my slavish underpinning of bureaucratic ideals might have taken me down more sinister roads.

But you know what? The world needs me and my kind. For while you are busy being you, we are busy not being us. We are duty, self-sacrifice, modesty, efficiency – bravely foregoing our right to have a personality of our own for the greater good. In a world where we are encouraged to be nothing more than ourselves, and to share all of ourselves all of the time, we need a band of faceless, wan administrators to provide a sensible counterweight to the mass of extrovert showboating which surrounds us. We are the neutral background against which your kookiness can be manifest. You won’t even notice us, but we are here, clearing up, overseeing, mediating and imposing order – the cricket scorers, community support officers, volunteer stewards, traffic monitors, school governors, treasurers, ticket-inspectors – The Sensible Ones.

Barrington Farquhar – A Life in Service (an excerpt)

Chapter 1: Delighted to Inform you:

The vacancy would be hard to fill.  Harder to fill than the impacted wisdom tooth of an angry gerbil.  Harder to fill than a woollen balloon.  It would, come to think of it, be like trying to fill a distant test tube by catapulting lumps of porridge from an old sock. 

The ideal candidate was, as ever in the Foreign Office, a leader with a broad-vision and a microscopic attention to detail.  A full-spectrum generalist with a number of deep specialisms. A gregarious introvert with a steely charm; a flexible and empowering overlord; an authentic and cunning operator with 30 years of experience as a youthful go-getter.

Opening the door to the candidates’ waiting room, Anne Hardcastle’s first thought was of the auditions for a minor eccentric character in a village pantomime.  But equally, it could have been the queue for the changing rooms in a Marks and Spencer’s men’s department on a wet Tuesday afternoon in Norwich.

On the upside, there had been a broad field.  Applications had been welcomed from candidates of all backgrounds, or indeed none.  Granted, for many of them, the background in question was beige, but that was not in itself a bad thing.  Faceless anonymity, coupled with a powerful personal magnetism, were also key requirements for the role. 

You see, you have to be careful about who you appoint to be Governor of Beagle Island.  There were many pitfalls awaiting the interview panel.   An inexpert observer might not spot the pattern in the applications, but a veteran like Anne could immediately file them into various categories:

The fugitive:  It is an inescapable reality that many people seeking to work on remote islands are running away from something.  Sometimes this can be a recently failed relationship or a bereavement.  On other occasions it can be the Metropolitan Police.

The Enthusiast:  The role of Governor offers significant potential for leaving a mark on the island and many incumbents had their pet projects.  Forest planting, election reform and pest eradication (most commonly goats, bats, rats or reindeer) were regular favourites. Cardinal Island had a half-built desalination plant (the bit that removed and piled up the salt worked perfectly; it was just the part that extracted the fresh water that was wanting), while rumours that the governor of Indigo Island had ordered a mineshaft to be drilled to test his theory that his Residence sat atop a lithium mine, remained unproven.  Some of the overseas territories were at risk of collapsing into the sea under the weight of unfulfilled gubernatorial ambition.

The repentant sinner:  accidents can happen.  And if you happen to have been there when they did, your next appointment could be less Ferrero Rocher and more Hobnob.  Among every field of applicants lurked those with the misfortune to have served a mouldy scone to a Duke, played the wrong national anthem during a state funeral, or to have accidentally included an original Constable from the government art collection in the Embassy bring-and-buy sale. 

The convalescent:  malaria in Malaysia? Armed assault in Abidjan?  Kidnapped in Cairo?  After the stresses associated with some of the places we send our people, it’s no wonder that some of those drawn to the comparative tranquility of the overseas territories are nursing some residual trauma from previous postings.   This doesn’t present any obstable to their appointment – but we usually recommend that they stay indoors during firework displays.

Anne was the HR representative on the panel. Her job was to explain to its other two members why their faith in their chosen candidate was misplaced, without either offending them or letting slip any of the highly confidential and personal information which informed her view. What she said carried much weight; it was well known that within the bowels of the personnel records department lay a treasure trove of reputational dynamite, privy only to her and to a handful of other staff. For here lay countless examples of that most hallowed and unusual government document – one telling the absolute truth. There were no niceties here – no ‘minor indiscretions’ or ‘suboptimal outcomes’; just brutal write-ups of what had actually happened, as recorded diligently by Anne and her team, based on their own crack detective work.

It had long ago been decided that such a resource was a necessity. In a network of nearly 300 missions, there was otherwise simply too much scope for misdeeds either to go un-noticed entirely, or else to be slipped delicately beneath the axminster in the Ambassador’s Residence and never seen again. After all, we trained these people to be cunning, smooth-talking fixers. Is it any wonder that they were less than forthcoming when it came to confessing their sins? Left unchecked, and with staff moving around the world and to and from London, it would be chaos – there would be no way of keeping tabs on who was a prize performer with occasional strokes of bad luck, and who was a prize idiot with occasional strokes of good luck. Hence Anne and her team; who sat apart from the main HR team in a separate annex, under the benign sounding title of ‘Reports Department’. Through a combination of wit, skill, a network of moles around the world which was the envy of Mi6, the team diligently built up as complete a picture as possible of the entire complement of staff, and recorded their findings in hundreds of blue ring-binders, each bearing the name of an employee.

This particular afternoon, Anne’s expertise would be much in demand. The initial filtering stage had removed the self-evidently terrible candidates. What was left was the far more dangerous category of the superficially plausible ones; candidates whom, without her eagle eye, were at serious risk of being appointed.

The first was Henry Goodenham. A diminutive, red faced fellow, with a penchant for silvery grey suits which matched his hair, the trousers of which would often overhang his shoes in a frequently fulfilled ambition to reach the ground. He had served 6 times previously overseas, not without distinction. Unlike many of his generation, he had avoided gout (which is to the diplomat as trenchfoot is to the soldier), and was a teetotaller (thereby dodging suspicions about the cause of his ruddy features). But decades of service had nonetheless taken their toll (well, can you imagine being sober at that many receptions?). In Henry’s case this took the form of an explosive temper, which had become legendary within the chanceries of sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, the violence which accompanied his outbursts tended to target material rather than human resources, but it was a problem nonetheless. In Addis Ababa, a few broken bits of crockery had been easy enough to explain away, but the snapped ornamental elephant tusk had to be put down to a freak gust of wind (which wasn’t entirely plausible, given that it had been in a glass display cabinet at the time). Things had worsened in Lagos, with a cracked oak table (upon learning of the cancellation of a Ministerial visit), a severed banister (upon learning that it had been re-arranged), and a plantpot through one of the side windows of the Residence (upon the departure of the Minister, who had made him miss his weekly round of golf). And they had got out of hand entirely when he was Ambassador in Ghana – with a near-atomised greenhouse, the puncturing of a exclusive papier mache art installation, and – an act which led to his eventual recall to London – the unfortunate union of the flag-car with the carp-pond.

Goodenham, but not good-enough.

The next candidate was one of those unfortunate people who, were it not for one flaw, could easily have the world at their feet. Hardworking, intelligent, and universally liked by staff, Sebastian Falls would have been a shoe-in for Paris or Washington. Only one thing retarded his career.

It was a curious business, first manifesting itself at the Japanese Ambassador’s welcome reception in Khartoum a few years ago. He had been standing on the grand staircase which led from the main entrance of the Foreign Ministry up to the ceremonial rooms, waiting in line to be received by the new envoy. Ahead and behind him, other members of the diplomatic corps lined the stairs. Without any warning, he had fainted, toppling backwards and starting a domino reaction which had begun harmlessly enough with the diminutive Chilean behind him, but which quickly gained momentum when the elephantine form of the Serbian defence attache toppled like a tombstone, sending a huddle of Gulf states scattering in three different directions. The next few seconds saw closer diplomatic ties formed between some unlikely allies. Iran and Israel could be seen embracing. India and Pakistan were entangled together on the floor for some seconds, and Armenia and Azerbaijan seemed to merge into one borderless mass. Only a sturdy collection of Ambassadors from the ‘stans brough an end to the chain reaction.

Doctors were never able to find anything wrong with Fall – scans and tests invariably found him to be in the peak of health. He never fainted anywhere other than at diplomatic gatherings, leading experts to conclude that it was a combination of claustraophobia and social anxiety. But whatever the root cause, it kept happening. His head narrowly missed the podium as he swooned at the opening of Parliament, and guests at the Queen’s Birthday Party were surprised to find him lying full stretch on the lawn shortly after greeting the Prime Minister. But the most unfortunate fainting of all came at the unveiling of a portrait of the President of Sudan at the national museum. It wasn’t really Fall’s fault – he had learned by now to stand with his back to the nearest wall at events like this, and to lean backwards – slumping discreetly onto the floor rather than toppling forwards, in the event that he felt woozy. But a cluster of late arriving guests had pushed everyone forwards and Fall became dislodged from his perch between two reassuringly sturdy stone lions, and thrust towards the front. When the inevitable happened, he was positioned about 5 feet from the recently-uncurtained portrait, which was propped up on a low stand just off the floor. Being 6 foot 3, his own head, rapidly gathering momentum as it traced a long arc towards the floor, coincided almost exactly with the unsmiling features of the President on the canvas. On the plus side, the thickly-piled carpet underneath the portrait prevented him from suffering anything worse than a bruised temple. On the down-side, the actual President was left smiling even less than he had been in his picture, and there had been a mutual decision that Fall should return discreetly to London.

If the first candidate tended to break things deliberately, and the second accidentally, the third had never broken anything in her life. Emma Frome was the model of propriety and even the deepest dive into the personnel files failed to dredge up anything adverse. She interviewed confidently and even the battle-worn face of Anne Hardcastle broke into a smile during her enthusiastic concluding statement.

All the more of a shame therefore that she turned down the job offer and left the department for a job in No.10 a few days later.

Normally in such circumstances a second candidate would be held in reserve. But neither of the other two finalists were judged appointable, and so the HR department had the inenviable task of finding someone who could be ‘laterally transferred’ into the slot. Time was short, as the previous Governor had left the island in a hurry having first married and then divorced one of the islanders (who had shown their appreciation for him on departure by spelling out the words ‘Go home, immoral charlatan!’ in large letters on the windows of the airport departure lounge.

Alone at her desk afterwards, Anne considered the options. Names passed through her head, and occasionally she would wander into her inner sanctum to peruse one of the files. Thomas Bassingthwaite? No, he’d just gone to Bogota. Ralph Deighton? Blacklisted after forgetting to pick up a minor Royal from the airport. Jonathan Sarl? Ah, no. Retired last year after overdoing it in Kuwait. Barrington Farquhar? Barrington….Farquahar….

4000 miles away, a middle aged man with bushy hair was trying unsuccessfully to eat a pancake. It was a take-away pancake, which arrived in a rapidly deteriorating cardboard cone. The ice cream and chocolate filling had already seeped through the hole in the bottom and thence through the flimsy cardboard underneath. More icecream leaked from the top and sides. Whichever way Barrington turned it, the filling dribbled out onto his hands. His main concern was his linen suit. He tried using the small ice-cream spoon which the vender had thoughtfully provided, but he couldn’t eat fast enough to stop the dripping. His wife Sarah and their two children watched on ruefully as he abandoned his stool and instead adopted a wicket-keeper stance – legs wide apart and bent over forwards to allow the drips an uninterrupted passage to the concrete floor, without going via his suit, trousers or shoes. His hands were now covered in sticky melted filling, and his grip on the cone started to slip. He concluded that the best way to bring matters to a conclusion was simply to stuff as much of the pancake as possible into his mouth. Burying his face in the cone, he took most of the remaining ice-cream into his mouth, together with a generous amount of the pancake. An intense brain-freeze followed, and he looked around for a bin into which to deposit both the smouldering ruins of his late-morning snack, and the half-chewed contents of his mouth. Seeing one on the other side of the terrace, he waddled – legs still cowboy-wide – past the perplexed glances of tourists. 10 metres away…he felt the cardboard turning upside down and slipping through his hands at the same time. 5 metres…he broke into an abrupt trot – arms now stretched far in front of him like an athlete handing over a baton. And at two metres he used his findertips to propel the mass of fat, cream, chocolate, and sodden cardboard hopefully towards the centre of the bin, crouching low as though releasing a bowling ball. It missed, hitting half-way up the plastic receptacle with a slimy thud, and disintegrating dramatically on impact like a missile hitting a nuclear bunker. The splatter damage was extensive – the floor was peppered with black chocolate and white ice-cream splodges. The people at the two tables either side of the bin had a similar dalmatian coating.

Barrington himself, having gathered a kind of desperate momentum in his concluding dive towards the bin, now struggled to stop himself. Having first lunged forward, he instinctively tried to correct himself and lean the other way. But the floor was slippery and the closer he got to the bin, the slipperier it got. As usual, he was wearing shoes which offered more in elegance than they did in grip, and he felt the soles slide forward, a cushion of melted ice-cream between them the smooth floor. He scrabbled desperately around for grip. For a moment he found himself running on the spot, like a cartoon character preparing to dash forward. But he didnt dash forward, and instead toppled onto his back. The impact winded him somewhat, and his cheeks puffed out and expelled the mouthful he had taken seconds earlier first up into the air, and then down onto the middle of his white shirt.

‘Loyal, presentable, but somewhat accident prone’ said the record in Anne Hardcastle’s office. Not a bad report, even if could apply equally to a labrador puppy as to a senior diplomat, she mused. ‘Vienna, 2nd Secretary Political; London (Archive Department); Ankara (1st Secretary Trade); London (Estates Management Division); Lisbon (Deputy Ambassador); London (Accounts Division)’. Hmm, a distinct pattern – a relatively prestigious posting overseas followed by a more lowly job in London. Not a good sign, and the dates indicated that at least one of his postings had been cut short. More research was needed. She wandered across the corridor, past the typing pool and into another office. Her colleague Theodore was behind his desk, his fingers covered in ink as he tried to refill his pen. He was a squat, dishevelled man with a friendly round face, renowned only just behind Anne herself for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the organisation’s staff.

“I’m going to say a name and I want to see how you react” she said.

“Very well, I shall duly set my face to neutral” he responded, aimiably.

“Barrington Farquhar”

Theodore rolled his eyes theatrically, wailed and pretended to tear at his hair.

Anne smiled wrily. “That bad?”

“No, not at all – I was only playing. Barrington’s alright. Well, in so far as there’s nothing medically wrong with him.”

“Well that’s a start. Unfortunately the requirements for becoming a head of post are slightly more exacting than ‘may pass medical'” she replied, making quotation gestures with her hands. “What’s he really like, tell me?”

“Like I said, fine. Good egg. His heart’s in the right place” said Theodore, using a heavily inkstained handkerchief to clean his fingers.

“Yes, I think we’ve established that he’s healthy” Anne snorted, “But why was he short-toured from Vienna?”

“I think he was struggling with the language.”

“But he had German training, surely?”

“No I mean he couldn’t stop swearing. He’s got some kind of tourettes apparently. Had a bit of an outburst in the UN Chamber once while reading out a prepared statement. One of the translators had to have counselling, I gather”.

“I bet that took some smoothing over”

“Well quite, hence the short tour. But that was years ago. All treated now – he’s been clean for 15 years. You could send him to the Vatican”.

“Fortunately we’re only sending him to Beagle Island” said Anne.

“Aha, he’s going up in the world then?”

“Well, not so much up as across – you know how far away it is. 7 days in a fishing boat from Valparaiso”.

“Out of harm’s way. He could say anything he likes there and nobody would hear a thing”

“I thought you said he was cured?”

“He is, he is. The perfect man for the job. Were there many other candidates?” said Theodore, replacing his handkerchief in his breast-pocket, trying to hide the ink-marks.

“He didn’t apply actually. He’s due a move though. We had Emma Frome all lined up and then she got head-hunted by thems across the courtyard” said Anne, tossing her head moodily in the direction of Downing Street.

“It’s like they know when we’ve just appointed someone good” mused Theodore. “I swear there’s a mole in here feeding them information about appointments. Three times in the last month we’ve had candidates mysteriously drop out after interview. Someone’s waylaying them on Whitehall and luring them in”.

“Someone’s been reading too many Le Carre novels” said Anne with a chuckle, turning away from Theodore’s desk, “I’d better give Mr Farquhar the good news”.

Phone calls were made to the relevant departmental head, and by the end of the day, she was typing up a letter for him to find on his return from Crete, inviting him to make his preparations to take up the post of Governor of Beagle Island with immediate effect.

On London

I lived in London for eight years but never felt in the least bit at home there.

On visits during my childhood,  it was a place of almost uncontrollable excitement.  Somewhere you long looked forward to going, got up early for (dragged out of bed by mum and fed cold toast wrapped in tin foil on the train).  Somewhere you had to hold someone’s hand at all times.  Somewhere you stood, unable to believe that you were looking at the actual Big Ben, the real Buckingham Palace.  Where there were more people than you’d ever seen – important people doing important things.  Where you went all day without sitting down and then flopped back into bed 18 hours later, your ears still ringing and your head throbbing.

It was like a theme park – there was never enough time to have a go on everything.  We could either go to the Tower of London or to the British Museum, but not both.  Harrods or Hamleys?  See the river or walk down Oxford Street?  It wasn’t a place you could ever stand still, or stop and think about anything, or remember any of your cares.  You could only exist in the moment, trying in vain to take everything in.  Nothing was connected – it existed as a series of scenes from a postcard, somehow connected by the Wonderful Underground Railway, but not in a way which was possible to understand.

London was a place where things happened.  A source of strange comfort on rainy Tuesday afternoons that however boring things were in East Yorkshire, something was bound to be going on in London.

At university, I again became the London day-tripper, catching coaches occasionally to glide through mumsy Notting Hill via an unaccountably depressing Hillingdon.  London retained all its metropolitan bustle but somehow became less overwhelming.  It was still exciting to go there for the day but it felt like a bigger version of Leeds or Manchester.  Some of its London-ness had worn off.  I stopped getting headaches.

And as we finished university, London became a badge of honour – it was where you went if you had a job.  You could talk nonchalantly about renting in Clapham or Kennington, trying to sound as though you had the least idea about where such places were, while quietly worrying about being stabbed or having to live in some sort of fetid, maggot ridden hovel – which is what most houses in London seemed to look like from the outside.   Finding a house, the gritty, uncomfortable process of lifting London’s skirts aloft and inspecting what lay underneath, represented the first stage of formally becoming a Londoner.  Oh the thrill, the excitement of giving my SW2 postcode!

But, the  novelty soon dissipated.  Having drawn me in, London saw fit to show me its unappealing side, like a lousy partner shortly after the wedding.  Oh, so you have very expensive habits?  And you smell of wee in unforeseen places?  And large parts of you aren’t safe to be explored at night?  I see.  You’re not the London I thought you were.

I became conscious that  huge numbers of people wanted to be there, but couldn’t understand why.   Oxford Street was a curious example of this.  Far too many people, pushing to get into slightly larger branches of the same shops which can be found in any British city.  Queuing for ages to buy a sandwich which looks remarkably like one sold in Sheffield, but for some reason costs £2 more.  Spending an hour on tubes and buses travelling what later turns out to be easy walking distance.  London’s appeal, once so obvious, now retreats into places where one hardly ever goes – to the museums, the tourist attractions, the London which you only see as a visitor rather than a resident.   Any sense of wonder becomes reliant on the presumed exoticism of the unknown – the light behind the curtain.  Plenty of unknown still left of course, but the same kinds of unknown.

And then, London took me back to my childhood briefly, when I spent a year doing a weekly commute by plane, getting a taxi to Heathrow at 5am each Monday morning from Brixton.  We are all children at that time of the morning.   No cold toast this time, but the same, weary sense of wonder and distraction.  Whisked, too fast, down Brixton Hill and down the surprisingly-busy-at-that-time high street, populated mainly by stop-out drinkers and the people clearing up after them.  A case study in the inequalities of society.   Towards Stockwell, passing with reassuring speed past looming blocks of flats, rising from an indeterminate point out of the ground and curtained away out of sight, apart from a single light here and there.  Some poor lady getting up early for a cleaning job on the other side of the river, perhaps.  Whizzing past hooded figures crouching in doorways or disappearing down alleyways, always turning their backs to our approaching lights.  Through Vauxhall past a club where people were still queuing up to get in at 0600 on a Monday morning, doggedly pursuing what was presumably a powerfully sick beat.

Across the river, misty like a meadow, then through Chelsea – all tall houses with a lamp left on downstairs showing a flash of fine art here, a mezzanine floor there.  I wondered who lived there as my head knocked dozily against the window of the taxi.  Important people doing important things, no doubt.  The streets were empty here, still slumbering apart from the occasional super-keen jogger padding silently along the river, puffing out steam and dazzling in their reflective lycra.  Then into Fulham and down narrow, one way streets with cars packed into the spaces at either side as tightly as new shoes.   Faded, Georgian frontage, cracked and coated in grey dust and pigeon feathers, converted within an inch of their lives – from their darkened basement flats with sticking plaster holding the door-bell together, to their soaring loft conversions with pot plants drooling over tiny balconies.  Onto the A4, past shabbier houses, still with porches, teetering steeply onto narrow pavements.  Who would choose to live on so busy a road?  Past the Three Famous Kings pub, the headlights of passing cars manipulating ghostly silhouettes of stools up on the tables.  Never anyone inside the downstairs but always a light on the first floor. Landlord gets up early.

Then onto the Hammersmith Flyover – perhaps the part of the UK which feels most like America – as though created to make Texans arriving at Heathrow feel more at home.  The road rears up like a rollercoaster and rises proudly past old factories, car showrooms and huge advertising hoardings promising faster broadband.  Someone was always working in the SEGA building.  For some reason this amused me – I thought of some poor developer whose boss had shouted at him the previous night “You WILL come up with 3 more moves for Sonic by tomorrow morning”.

The scene changed again when I began working in London full-time.  The London of my late 20s was characterised by night-buses, ever reliable steeds which trundled us ponderously, but reliably, to within yards of our homes from almost anywhere.  The N87 was my usual transport – all the way from Whitehall  (I instinctively seemed to end up there somehow at the end of every drunken night out, like a homing device), to Wimbledon.  With what tender care we wended our way through Battersea and Clapham, along a mysterious and lengthy route, clutching a MacDonalds I didn’t really need, chatting to friends in a too-loud voice if I was with them, or else reading a rolled up copy of Private Eye while listening to music too loud if not.  Late night London is always better with music; DJ Shadow, Leftfield, Crystal Castles.  All around me are couples or groups, swinging around on the straps and almost falling over whenever the bus drove into steep corners.  The noise is like a nightclub, except the lights are too bright, revealing stained teeth, puckered skin, dandruff.  On the opposite side of the bus is a young man reading a Paul Theyroux paperback very seriously, and in front of him a petite, pretty young woman who looks as though she has been crying.  I feel sorry for her as she dismounts and disappears up a dark street in Battersea.  Hope she has a better night next time.

“Look – it’s green! And it’s in a city! Well look at us having it all”, the smug faces of joggers in Battersea Park seemed to say, as they pause to take a picture of a brown horse-chestnut leaf which will subsequently be tagged ‘Isn’t Battersea Awesome!!!’ on Facebook.

But whilst night-time London never lost its intrigue,  my queasiness about daytime London quickly resurfaced, often in unforeseen ways.  For instance, I never quite understood people’s raving about its parks.  “Look – it’s green! And it’s in a city! Well look at us having it all”, the smug faces of joggers in Battersea Park seemed to say, as they pause to take a picture of a brown horse-chestnut leaf which will subsequently be tagged ‘Isn’t Battersea Awesome!!!’ on Facebook.  I wanted to stop them and say – “excuse me, but you’re not under the impression that this is somehow ‘the countryside’ are you?”  Granted, grass is definitely better than no-grass – and I appreciate that not all cities are endowed with so much open space as London,  but for me there’s a limit to how far you can feel like you’re wallowing in rural bliss when you can read the logos on the planes flying into Heathrow, and at any given time mentally triangulate the locations of at least three sirens coming from various directions.  Indeed it’s frustrating to have some of the teasing indicators of countryside, in the form of trees, lakes and butterflies, so starkly removed from their accompanying forests, waterfalls and meadows.  I’d love to move Battersea Park to North Yorkshire and see if anyone ever came.  Bet they bloody wouldn’t.

And, worse, London seemed during that period to be inhabited by a series of social-stereotypes, none of which I could squeeze myself into.  There was the London of Brixton market and Shoreditch high-street; edgy, cool, buzzing – always overflowing from too-noisy, stuffed bars into the street with a late night belch of some subversively named craft beer, ‘Streaker’; ‘Nun’s Nipple’, etc.   Then there was the London of Herne Hill, Clapham North, Dulwich; redolent with £1000 prams and shops selling organic hemp-wheat quinoa crackers to women called Tiffany who worked as account managers in ad agencies and did bikram yoga.  Then there were the really posh areas – Belgravia, South Kensington, Sloane Square, where as far as I could tell, you weren’t even allowed in most of the shops without proof of earnings.   The problem with trying to locate yourself among the inhabitants of these areas is that none of them exists in most cities, and certainly not in the northern towns of my childhood.

As such, I found it very hard to feel at home in a London which was either looming council estates, daring you to wander into their labyrinthine insides, so complex they have their own little map by the entrance, or vast town-houses with Bentleys hunched outside.  Where are all the people in between?  Where are all the people like me?  Where are the Ford Mondeos?

The last phase of my London life was in Pimlico with my fiancée – our first home together.  A better London experience overall, not least because Pimlico is actually in London, rather than being a town several miles away which happens to have enough rows of terraced houses connecting it to London to make it  – technically – a part of the same city.   In Pimlico you can walk everywhere, and at weekends it takes on a glorious solitude, free from the bustle of neighbouring Victoria and Vauxhall.  Pimlico is verdant, resplendent in Georgian townhouses, effortlessly plush and yet also somehow concealed and understated – our friends never quite knew how to get there or where it was.  Its confusing grid of not-quite-parallel streets makes navigation a challenge.

Our neighbours were eccentric in various ways.  The woman who had the first floor flat next to ours never spoke to us, other than once when there were fire-engines at the front in the middle of the night, and we both came out to see what was going on.  “It’s your building”  she said, accusingly.  I thought this an odd thing to say in a long row of terraced Georgian houses.  “These houses go up in about 3 minutes you know” she said, dramatically.  “mmm, I know”, I replied, absently.   “Oh you know that do you?” she countered, aggressively, disappearing inside again.  I tended to avoid her after that.  She was sometimes to be heard shouting advice to rowing couples on the road outside, late at night.  “Don’t react!” she screamed once, to a woman shooing a rejected lover away from her doorway.

The house on the other side was even more interesting.  In the basement lived a very thin young man who I only ever saw going to and from the corner shop.  He always looked as though it was the first time he had seen daylight in weeks, and walked with a head-down, purposeful gait, always close to the inside of the pavement .  Once, I happened to be walking  closer to the inside of the pavement than he was, and he paused as we approached each other and made hand gestures to indicate that I should move outwards.  As we were packing up the car for the last time to leave the house, he stood next to me and cackled loudly for about 10 seconds.

 He had the air of an insurance salesman down on his luck.  Really down on it, like after some natural disaster, the insurance against which had formed the mainstay of his career.

But it was the other floors of the house next door which really intrigued me.  The ground floor flat always seemed to be occupied, with a filthy net curtain which fluttered thanks to a tiny gap always left at the bottom of the sash window. Inside was what looked like an old-fashioned standard lamp, creating the faintest of orange glows by night.  Mr Normal from the basement was occasionally to be seen entering or leaving, sometimes accompanied by a man who somehow managed to look exactly as though he had stepped out of a betting shop in the 1970s.  Overweight and perpetually glistening, he wore a ragged old grey suit, always had a fag hanging out of his mouth, and walked in a lop-sided, pained way.  He had the air of an insurance salesman down on his luck.  Really down on it, like after some natural disaster, the insurance against which had formed the mainstay of his career.

I assumed that the house was some sort of squat or drug den.  I pictured fatty and Mr Normal weighing out huge blocks of cannabis inside, or making crystal meth in their kitchen wearing only their underwear.  There were other strange comings and goings – women who looked like nurses or cleaners, others who appeared more like prostitutes.  Several deliveries were made to the house each day – including what looked like a meals- on -wheels service.  I never saw anyone else coming in or out, making me wonder whether the house had not been fully converted into flats in the way that all the others in the street had.  Perhaps Fatty and Normal had the run of a huge Georgian mansion, collapsing on chaise-longes in their drug addled confusion.  Who owned it?  Had one of them inherited the place from a relative and now chose to use it in this way, smoking away the family fortune?  Were they there legally?  Who keeps a house in super-prime London in such a lousy condition, when it could be rented or sold on for millions?  Certainly nobody had painted it or cleaned the windows for a Very Long Time.

But for all its peculiar charm, Pimlico’s captivation was only temporary.  The part where we lived was more starkly divided between rich and poor than anywhere I have ever lived.  The Bentleys were literally across the road from the entrance to Churchill Gardens – one of those estates with a map outside.  One Sunday evening, a minute’s walk from our flat, a teenager was brutally stabbed to death as he ran out of the estate while trying to escape his killers,  bleeding to death beneath the hanging baskets and scrubbed limestone of the houses on the other side of the road.   The juxtaposition of his world and the world to which he had tried to escape somehow seemed so raw, so obscene, that I could never quite see Pimlico in the same way afterwards.

We left London just before my wife gave birth – escaping, like so many before us, to the area just outside London’s ever-expanding mushroom cloud of rising house prices.  Our tiny, rented, one -bedroom flat in Pimlico had increased in value during our 3 year tenancy from around £350k to £650k.

You will never be bored in London – there are simply too many variables, too many crazy people, too much money, too many comings and goings and gangs and criminals and saints and sinners and beggars and millionaires.   You don’t get that in Milton Keynes.

And so I am no longer a Londoner.  But while profoundly alienating, this absurd, endlessly interesting city developed a hold over me, and I kicked myself for not realising why.   London doesn’t necessarily offer happiness or belongership, but it does offer interest and unpredictability, which can sometimes amount to the same thing.  Famously, you will never be bored in London – there are simply too many variables, too many crazy people, too much money, too many comings and goings and gangs and criminals and saints and sinners and beggars and millionaires.   You don’t get that in Milton Keynes.  Which is why, despite everything, you end up coming back there.    I would never live there anymore – you would have to be crazy to try and make a life there with a modest income and two kids – but I will always be a keen visitor.

And now, living overseas, I feel it more than ever.  It remains distinctly enticing and unknowable – you will never know London as you know a small town or even a small city; your brain will never fully de-mythologise it into a collection of buildings and people – it remains inscrutable, changing shape, quietly upgrading and rebuilding itself.  It retains just enough familiarity to comfort you as you step off a plane from Dubai or Ankara, but also keeps you at arm’s length.   And talking to people overseas, you realise that on rainy days, they too are confident that something exciting is happening in London.

How to Remove Stains

No questions asked

Have you spilt blueberry juice on your antimacassar?  Honey on your briefcase?  De-icer on your cat?  Fear not – the solution to all your stain related woes lie herein.  If you can knock if over, spray it, or drip it from anything, onto anything, then it’s probably covered in here.  Let’s pick a couple of random examples:  what about melted rubber from a hot water bottle?  Easy, says page 51. Hold an absorbent pad below the mark and rub with liquid lighter fuel.  Launder as usual”.   How about a rain spot on a calf leather coat?  “Why, just wipe with a clean cloth and allow to dry naturally.”

It strikes me that one of the main audiences for this book must be serial killers, who very quickly turn to page 25 – the blood page.  Carpet?   “Flush out fresh stains with a squirt from a soda syphon”.  Here the book warns that “Professional cleaning may be necessary to remove dried stains”.  But you won’t want to do that in case they get suspicious, right? –  “Another nosebleed Mr Ripper?”  It also advises that blood stains on upholstery should be treated with an ammonia solution – although it doesn’t specify whether you can use the same ammonia solution which is currently dissolving your latest victim in the bath.  Other blood stains will require washing or dry cleaning – over and over and over again…

This book almost made me want to spray the contents of my kitchen and bathroom all over the flat just to test out all the various solutions.  I could have invited some friends round for a  ‘Stain Party’, where various stains are first created, and then – if there’s time – removed.  Almost, but not quite.  I decided to look up wee and poo instead…it seemed like the right thing to do.

The Drinking Man’s Diet

Brilliant book.  Old diet books can often be depressing, especially second hand ones with teeth marks in the margins and doodles of cupcakes in every blank space.  They’re often accompanied in the bags of donations we get by books about sumptuous French cuisine and Port, with the owner offering both up to charity presumably in order to give up food altogether.

This was a corker – clearly the author had neatly cornered the market in middle aged men who were willing to try anything – absolutely  anything –  to lose weight, as long as it wouldn’t interfere with their drinking.  The author offers early reassurance on the inside cover:

“Did you ever hear of a diet that was fun to follow? A diet which would let you have two martinis before lunch, a thick steak generously spread with Sauce Bearnaise,[…] A diet which allows you to take your favourite girl for a dinner of pheasant and broccoli, with Hollandaise Sauce and Chateau Lafite, to be followed by an evening of rapture and champagne?”  Ding dong!

You can almost hear the conversation in the London club which surely inspired the author:

Gentleman 1: “No thirds for me thanks chap – I’m trying to shed a few pounds”.

Gentleman 2: “Dangerous business this dieting, old bean.  Hope you’re not going to let it put you off the sauce.  Knew a chap once who started trying to ease back – stopped having a second martini at lunch, that sort of thing.  He wasted away to nothing in a matter of weeks.”

Gentleman 1: “How ghastly.  No, I certainly won’t let it affect my drinking.  Trouble is, how does a man about town such as myself set about getting into shape without compromising on rapture and champagne.”

Gentleman 2: “I don’t know George, but just remember – you are a Drinking Man, first and foremost”.

Perhaps there are a series – “The Smoking Man’s Workout”; “The Gambling Man’s Savings”?