Message in a Marmite* jar

THE WRITER’S LIFE

00cat_marmite-780x439

As the middle generation of my living family, I’m the filling in the sandwich. Since my benefits were cut (my human rights taken away) by the government, my parents have helped with the humanitarian cause of visits to see my children. With my war on the Department of Work and Pensions looking to last at least another year, my days out with the kids are likely to become less frequent; and with dad’s health not improving (he has a Parkinson’s-related condition), getting all three generations together in one place will be a rare event.

I usually update the mothership with personal news during our weekly phone summit, and she relays highlights to dad, which of course he has trouble remembering. So I thought it might be quite nice if the sandwich filling wrote a letter to one slice of bread from the other; something for mum to read to dad, to keep the moment, and to read again when dad needs reminding of who everyone is and where they are.

Marmite2

THE MARMITE REPORT

I was out with the kids in London on Sunday. They said to say hello and back atcha with the love.

The day started well, when I got to my local rail station (West Malling) and the ticket office was closed. There were three other people there already who’d taken the seating area, so I stood like a hat stand at the ticket window. Eventually the curtain went up, and ever aware of people in the same space and their perception of me, I felt I should ask if I’d jumped the queue (if so I’d surrender the window, but I hadn’t). I was rewarded by a splendidly distinguished-looking headmistress of a lady, who simply smiled at me and said, “Well done.” Rather than increase my paranoia of being followed, studied, monitored and reported on, I felt a little self-satisfied with this approval.

The spirits continued to favour me when I thought to ask if I could buy the kids’ London Travelcards at the same time as my own ticket, gaining a 1/3 discount with my Network Railcard. Usually I buy the kids’ wheels tickets in London and they’re £5.60 each. It turns out, if the kids are travelling with me, I can buy their tickets on some grey market on the other side of that curtain behind the Perspex. I pointed out my lack of children as proof that they wouldn’t be travelling to London with me, just meeting me there. “No problem,” said the wizard, “Your ticket doesn’t say they’re travelling with you, only theirs do.” And that little bit of out-of-the-box thinking, that small piece of human logic, meant I got to ferry the kids around London for £2.50 each.

We went to Spoons for lunch, as it’s always nice to sit down with the next generation and have time to talk (I continued the value day out by not eating or drinking; I was there for conversation and decoration). Both are doing well at school and applying themselves in their respective areas of personal interest. One is taller than all of us, and the other is almost as tall as our shortest.

The eldest is enjoying media studies, especially journalism and screen-writing. He’s looking forward to some upcoming modules, including one where he has to watch science fiction films. Naturally this makes me happy. The littlest is quite the accomplished artist, and has a thirst for language. As well as the three European ones she’s learning already, she has a fascination with all things South Korean, so she’s thinking about learning their lingo as well. This also makes me proud, while I myself can just about hold a conversation in British Sign Language. Handy when standing in front of a mirror.

The littlest’s linguistic timing skills were demonstrated over lunch, when she unexpectedly emerged from one of her existential trances (she stops talking when she’s eating, and switches to deep thought mode): “You know what really pisses me off?” my 12-year-old daughter asked.

The kids’ mum and second dad are fairly liberal when it comes to personal expression, and neither of the young people use expletives for their own sakes, nor because they lack vocabulary; they use syntax appropriate to the prevailing environment, reserving their more colourful language for deserving causes, and often to great comic effect. Anyway, what was pissing the littlest off was lost in the moment and buried in the subsequent outpouring of thoughts from trance mode. At various moments, we were transported in retrospect to North Korea, Japan, and Trumpland.

Both kids have a keen interest in world politics, far greater than I did at their age. They’re much more aware than I was in their technological age. We talk about the planet, about science, the future, and inappropriate humour. I envy the choices they have in education now, but they question its validity when there might be no tomorrow with freedom of choice. I’ve apologised on behalf of preceding generations for everything we’ve lumped on them. But as our sans Les Deux Magots intellectual debate concluded, we all need to work together and bear no grudges for the past.

The younger’s hunger for all things Asia was fed by a visit to a new South Korean food market which has popped up on Tottenham Court Road, then we were off to a Manga exhibition at The British Museum. It was less extensive than I’d expected, but it added to our collective knowledge of art and culture.

Wandering around the West End and Soho, the elder demonstrated something I hadn’t previously been aware of: an encyclopaedic knowledge of cars. Several times he ran down the Top Trumps scores of the various supercars we saw (Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren…) and pointed out the many electric vehicles in central London (including police cars), while reeling off their stat sheets. I was impressed, and once again proud.

Like all days out with the kids, it finished with a heavy heart as all good things must end. I made it like that, but I can never stop being their dad. They’re a credit to their mum and other dad, which is why we enjoy such engaging, intelligent and witty conversation on the odd day out. What makes me most proud, is that both of the kids ask me questions, about life, the universe and everything, and they note my answers. They bear a great burden, but they don’t begrudge it. Our children, and their children’s children, can teach us a lot. I have a faith, not in some human construction of a false deity, but that the next generation will see their own grandchildren, in a world which we’ve repaired. We can never stop being parents.

They send their love (again), but still refuse to pose for anything other than school photos. I admire their freedom of choice, as I know how much I hated having my photo taken as a teenager. Now we have social media. 

Times change and people change, but we’re all in this together and grateful of the past, when we wrote letters and closed personal sentiment in an envelope.

Marmite leafMarmite on toast recipe on BBC Good Food

So there we all (and you) are. Just as my parents used to read bedtime stories to me, and me to my children, now I’m writing stories for mum to read to dad. An occasional budget travel and social culture dispatch, whenever the reporters are free to roam, The Marmite Report binds the sandwich.

*Other yeast extract products are available.

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The invention of the pencil case

If it wasn’t for humans, other people would have the time and space to write

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.

So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”

Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.

It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Simon Fry first meets Doctor Hannah Jones in Cyrus Song, where this story was born.

Buy me a coffee one off

How do we sleep in burning beds?

FLASH FICTION

Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” (Greta Thunberg)

As a science fiction writer who imagines future scenarios both near and far, I always keep on top of the news to see if I’m right and to get further ideas. I wrote this story late last year, when a delayed train interrupted my automation and I imagined a moment when factions might put differences aside to face a common cause. 

Next I predict water cannon, and with Trump’s planned visit imminent, curfews and martial law.

ER arrestOnly rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse, George Monbiot (Guardian)

“Had we put as much effort into preventing environmental catastrophe as we’ve spent on making excuses for inaction, we would have solved it by now. Everywhere I look, I see people engaged in furious attempts to fend off the moral challenge it presents.

“The commonest current excuse is this: “I bet those protesters have phones/go on holiday/wear leather shoes.” In other words, we won’t listen to anyone who is not living naked in a barrel, subsisting only on murky water. Of course, if you are living naked in a barrel we will dismiss you too, because you’re a hippy weirdo. Every messenger, and every message they bear, is disqualified on the grounds of either impurity or purity.”

THE EXTINCTION OF THE VICTORIANS

People remember where they were when big news events unfolded. When one strands you in a place, it’s impossible to forget where you were. I’d finished work for the week and I was at London Victoria when something changed.

It started like many evening commutes, with my train delayed, but no indication of by how long. Gradually more services were delayed, and the station concourse filled with shoppers and commuters unable to get home. I stared at the indicator boards as more and more trains were cancelled, and the station became uncomfortably crowded.

Eventually there was an announcement: There were trespassers on the line. A mixture of thoughts competed in my head: Just run them over, let them electrocute themselves, the needs of the many… But then I realised they’re human, and that it might not be a prank, but a cry for help. Unable to assist, I grew claustrophobic and decided to find a nearby bar where I could kill some time.

Blinking in the dark outside, the indicator boards were etched onto my retina: delayed, cancelled. I hoped the lives on the line wouldn’t be.

I found a pub not far from the station, where it seemed quite a few people had the same idea as me. It was a curious juxtaposition, as people who’d just been staring forlornly up at indicator boards watched a TV mounted high on the wall, captive. The news was on, and Victoria wasn’t alone.

All London termini were closing, as they became dangerously overcrowded. No trains were coming in or out of London. Outside King’s Cross, a lone man sat on a railway bridge, dangling his legs over the track. There was a single girl on a bridge outside Waterloo, and reports were coming in of others. Was this coordinated?

The question of organisation wasn’t part of the TV coverage, but I couldn’t help wondering if this might be some sort of protest. The alternative was far too fanciful, ghoulish, romantic and far-fetched to consider. But I’m a writer, so I considered it.

This was the time of Brexit, a homeless crisis, a Conservative government committing economic murder; of Trump, and the rise of the right. As a benefits claimant myself, I’d been abused by the government’s social cleansing agenda. I felt an empathy with these people on the bridges, and I couldn’t help wondering what might happen if they all jumped. Perhaps then an ignorant ruling dictatorship might listen. Too late for the jumpers, but they’d die martyrs.

The evening rolled on and the atmosphere in the pub wasn’t what I might have expected. People weren’t cursing impatiently at the inconvenience they’d been caused, they were phoning home to loved ones and finding places to stay the night. They were resigned to what was happening, and there was a feeling of togetherness about the place. For a moment, I felt humanity.

Road bridges were next, as jumpers sat above key motorways. No-one had seen this coming. The police didn’t have time to close bridges to prevent them being occupied, as the jumpers all came at once. Britain’s transport infrastructure was crippled. The number of lives threatening cancellation was estimated at around 900 up and down the country, and the situation was at a stalemate. The police had suspended most other operations to concentrate on the gridlock and the jumpers.

#WeWantOurLivesBack was on a banner draped over a bridge on the M25 between two jumpers, and the strangest thing: apart from one guy telling them to just jump and let him get home (he may have had pressing reasons), the stranded motorists below started getting out of their cars and slow-clapping. Others were sounding their horns, and still more were blasting music from their cars. Down there on the road, these people had become as resigned as we had in the pub. It wasn’t so much join them if you can’t beat them, but genuine empathy and support.

There’d been no response from Downing Street.

The pub was growing restless, but it didn’t make me anxious. Outside with the smokers, people clearly the worse for drink weren’t fighting each other, but chanting. There were no police on the streets. “Vive la Révolution.” The peasants were really quite revolting. Someone pointed out that Parliament Square was just around the corner.

Walking together through the streets of London at night, with no police, there was no looting, no criminal damage. It was anarchy, peace and freedom. This is what I’d dreamed of. We needed to make the most of it before the government sent the army in under the martial law which was surely coming. We’d made our point though. Something touched us that night, and captured us together.

Those martyrs were detained, delayed but not cancelled. They will not be forgotten. 

Liberté, égalité, fraternité was still far away (in France). But we’d made a start, sitting in the garden of the gated community, Anarchie au Royaume-Uni.

.

Extinction Rebellion banner

© Steve Laker, 2018

Take time off from work, bunk off of school. The Government says we’re damaging our future. But unless they act, we don’t have one. This is about all of us, and we’re camping out in their garden.

The cat thinks it wants to go out

POETRY

Where you’re from doesn’t have to be where you were born. Your heart can come to life many years after you’d merely breathed to find belonging. Where you’re from is where your heart beats, and for me that resides in an ode to London SE13, and especially SE6. It’s a world where nature prevails, word on the street is the jungle book, and cats wear murder mittens…

catford se6 cat poem

One better day in Soho Square

FICTION

Kirsty Bench

CAMDEN TOWN TO SOHO SQUARE

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, by Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

He tossed his cigarette end through a drain cover, a portcullis to London’s intestines below. As he rose to his feet, a younger man walked almost alongside him, then boarded the same train at Camden Town, southbound on the Northern Line. At Euston, the young man wrote in a journal.

The old boy opposite doesn’t look so good. He’s wearing an LU uniform: Kinda hope he’s not gonna drive a train. Doesn’t matter to me, I’m off soon. He’s fallen asleep.

No-one knows I’m meeting her tonight. I don’t want to be a part of someone else’s Christmas, when at home I’m just a memorial, an empty chair at the dining table, with silver cutlery and a bone dry glass laid out for a ghost.

We’ve stopped just outside Warren Street. Above me, there life walks, and the city breathes, like a heavy smoker.

Old girl, new girl;
mother, daughter, Seven Sisters.
Roaming your many ways:
Shakespeare’s.

Saviour, black heart;
Angel, Bermondsey, Moorgate.
All that’s precious:
China.

Tears, laughter;
West End, Soho, Arnos Grove.
Where my heart is:
Push.

We’re on the move. I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk to Soho Square…

The old man was stirred by an on-train announcement:

Ladies and gentlemen, due to an incident, this train will terminate here. All change please. All change.”

He spotted the notebook, open on the seat opposite.

I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and I’ll walk to Soho Square, where I hope to see you. No empty bench, but my London, my life.

We met and we clicked,
like Bonnie and Clyde.
So similar:
Jekyll and Hyde.

We went out,
like Mickey and Mallory.
Why don’t you come on over,
Valerie.

We done stuff,
like Courtney and Kurt.
Laughed then slept:
Ernie and Bert.

Holding throats, not hands.
Necromancy.
Over there:
Sid and Nancy.

See you soon,

A man on the underground.

Emerging from beneath Tottenham Court Road, a young man blinked in the lights and mizzle, on the way to Soho Square. He sniffed, and snow fell in the back of his throat. He waited on the bench.

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, outside Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

© Steve Laker, 2014.

Kirsty MacColl

Kirsty MacColl, 10.10.1959 – 18.12.2000

Anxiety and despair in 3 words

POETRY

A 45 RPM I wrote, which spins for about 14 seconds. It’s about stumbling back into life in Tonbridge after ten years in London, and all that’s meant over the last five years. I made it black and orange, as a kind of reflection of a one-way train ticket. Off the rails and onto the streets, but from where I live now, there’s a direct ThamesLink train line straight back to Catford…

Tonbridge Station Poem 6

If I’m eating my dessert with a teaspoon, please don’t give me a big spoon. I’m having a great time and I know what I’m doing.

The mended heart of Catford

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Where you’re from is not necessarily where you were born or spent your childhood, but where your heart is, and where you feel at home. Despite a comfortable upbringing in the country, I feel I’m more from London, specifically the borough of Lewisham, and Catford, SE6. That’s where my heart misses a beat…

catford-cat-702x336The Catford Cat (from LoveCatford)

At my recent benefits assessment, I was asked when my depression was originally diagnosed. That would be in 2011, after I was robbed at knifepoint in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a place otherwise full of pleasant memories. And in a way, even the attack wasn’t all bad. It was the start of everything going wrong and me losing all I had, but it redistributed people to where they better belonged.

A lot has happened in the last seven years and much has changed, most of all me. The last few weeks have been hectic, as I’ve been assessed by life and dealt with more changes, while making peace with where I am.

The benefits assessor asked me many probing questions, including what fuels my depression now. Mainly it’s guilt. I feel guilty about being a drunken, abusive, narcissistic sociopathic monster, and all the upset I caused so many people, during and after; most of all my long-suffering ex-wife and my children, but also my parents, forced to kick me out on the streets when I became unmanageable at the last chance saloon. That was the greatest act of bravery on their part, but the world didn’t want me the way I was. On the streets I’d either die like that or get better. As it was, I was a Tory. But as some of my more liberal friends have observed, I was very sick.

Mum stopped watching Pointless when I was on the streets, because we used to watch it together. When I stayed at my parents’ last week, after helping them around London for dad’s latest assessment, we watched Pointless together again. Dad’s doing well, so much so that I can write about it now that we’re seeing an improvement.

Long story short, he had suspected hydrocephalus, requiring a surgical drain of fluid which had built up around his cerebellum. He ended up with a severe infection which hospitalised him for three weeks, then had intravenous antibiotics administered by a district nurse at home for three months. He was very sick indeed.

When I met mum and dad for lunch before our trip to London, the first thing which struck me was how dad’s face matched his jumper. It was light brown in colour, where before there was nothing but grey. The last time I saw him, he was confined – physically and mentally – to his armchair. Even though he’s still largely confined to a wheelchair, he’s getting his mind back and he’s starting to walk short distances. He says he wakes up now and looks forward to the day, where before he was waking up and not knowing where he was, only to realise he wasn’t dead and that another day threatened.

After a day of trundling then watching TV together, my dad said it was great to have me around, because he knew that I was now. It was great to be there, spending time with my parents now that so much has changed for all of us (and brought all but my obstinate sister closer). Before I went to bed that night, I apologised about all that had gone before, when I was a Tory. “That’s all in the past,” mum said. If only they were.

The last time I saw the kids, I made a heartfelt apology to my ex-wife. “What for?” She knows of course, but she’s speaking from an over-it position, where I can’t get over it. I don’t swan around in life, happy with where I’ve got to. I spend every day feeling guilty about everything I did when I was drunk, looking at the little I have but glad to be here (alive), and glad that everyone else is in a better place. Except me.

Which ought to be enough for my remaining detractors (friends who are very much no longer, or still Tories), but they won’t rest until I’m gone. Even then I’m familiar with the technique of haunting. While I’m still here, I’ve changed into something those people don’t recognise.

Now I’m a left-wing liberal socialist, embracing diversity and all the colour and variety of life, music, art, culture, history, and personal identity you find in the kind of place where I’m at home. I’m an ageing punk, but from the days when Carnaby Street was all independent clothes, records and accessories shops. Now I’m a bit queer.

Home was once a country to be proud of, when the London Olympics showed the world what the UK could be. Now we’re a nation divided by fascist politicians, but the resistance is coming soon, on the streets where my heart beats.

I’m squared with the people who matter in my life, my family and the friends who stuck around and forgave me, even if I can’t. As for the rest, I don’t care if they love or hate me: If they love me, I have a place in their heart. If they hate me, I trouble their mind.

I’m from Catford after all.

peace-rainbow
‘I love my hands!’ (Academy of Ancient Reflexology)