Past senses

The Andover Estate is situated at the crossing of Hornsey Road and Seven Sisters Road. I lived there when I was seven years old and attended Montem Primary School on Hornsey Road next to “Hornsey Swimming Pool and Laundry” with the illuminated figure of a diving woman, which I vividly remember.

On this sunny afternoon the estate looked idyllic. It’s red-brick buildings are neat; the estate is laid out in cul-de-sacs and little clusters of flats/maisonettes/terraces called “walks”, with plenty of small playgrounds, trees and little squares. It is light, quiet, clean and well cared for – one bloc, or island, of flats was in the process of being renovated. Some kids were playing on the enclosed football pitch on which I once played, a car was being fixed in one of the cul-de-sacs, there was some dog and toddler walking, a little corner shop….

I went up to the raised walkway on which our flat was located. Walking past my flat I was struck, out of the blue, by an exact and unique odour from over 30 years ago. I always thought it was cat piss. Today I thought it might be old cooking oil. But that’s not relevant here. The thing is, I only smelt that smell as I walked past my flatnot along the rest of the walkway, nor anywhere else on the estate.

The usual insight is that odour arouses the memory of the other senses; but unusually in this case the other senses had aroused odour.





Enlightenment at Kew Gardens

It was two days into the Summer holidays, a mild and sunny day with big soft clouds and tumbling breezes.

We visited the Palm House first and then explored the quiter paths behind it, where the gardens become more wooded. I asked which tree we should sit under for our picnic.

“That one.”

She had picked a small tree which stood not quite in the middle of the lawn, but rather just inside the line of large trees which gave the opening its space. It seemed too small to me and its branches began low to the ground so we could not really sit under it. We sat next to it then, on the side to which it cast shade, towards the centre of the lawn and away from the path, which partially concealed us from the path and gave us a small sense of privacy and the freedom of the lawn.

Conscientiously, and lazily, I looked at the tree’s label – being at Kew – skitted over the name, noting only that it was Japanese. It was a funny tree: fine, small, low to the ground; a dark-silvery bark; its foliage was neither sparse nor dense, each leaf was distinct, neither petit nor rough, its green neither vibrant light nor swarthy dark.

After having our snack, she began to practise cartwheels. I lay back, rested my eyes and listened to her chattering to herself, to the breeze in the trees, and to other voices strumming cheerfully in the distance.



Swimming with porpoises

Camping at the coast last year, I went for a run and swim every morning. It was a cold, wet summer, and the beach was deserted in the early morning. On its east side stood a solid headland, a half mile into the sea; to the west of the beach, a mile long, low black cliffs.  Like the cold wind and clouds, the sea rocked and butted and streamed aggressively into the bay; its spray clashed into strewn rain showers; seabirds wheeled menacingly in their sea-air elements. I make my way in, a boxer, braced and sinewy, alert.

I dive into the thick dark middle of a breaking wave, and surface; and again, and swimming against them, bob, weave, throwing crawls, going out deeper, where the swell no longer punches but keeps you in hold and pushes you onto the ropes.

A distance out, I float, pointed to the horizon. Then, arching high above me, half-serpent, half-mountain, a silent black fish; its swift slick solid power, a body of the sea’s depth, rises out and sweeps back in, a smooth black sea bull. Then I feel the gulf between my feet and the seafloor, two white legs below a tiny string body, hanging in a vast sea a thousand miles wide; and I sense this great fish coursing beneath me in the cold infinity. I am too lost to panic, I move myself slowly backwards towards the shore – and see it again, now farther: turn, a frantic crawl to land, I touch ground and sprint onto the beach, overawed.


I’m telling you Johnnie, I’ve got a feeling about this horse, have I ever given you a tip before? I swear to God this horse will win.

He had been looking for one big bet with his inheritance. This horse he had spotted in January. He worked out his big race would be in April. Odds were 20-1, and he put £1000 on.

Do me a favour and just put a hundred on him will you? I haven’t given the tip to anyone else, just do it will you, one hundred.

He didn’t know how much a hundred quid was to me. I hardly had work, we had just moved. What does he know about the costs of having a bloody family anyway?

The day before the race he rung up. Don’t think about it, just do it, Johnnie, £100.

Angela says a hundred, that’s too much.

I go to the bookies. The odds have lengthened from 7 to 9-1. Has someone noticed something? I enter and exit the betting shop – Just do it: £100 is too much – a few times before putting £50 on and hurrying home to watch it on TV.

Penzance explodes at the start and takes a huge lead; four, five, six lengths. It’s a shoe-in! But slowly Paul’s Pardon starts to catch him. A furlong to go and he’s only half a head behind. Our faces just inches from the TV screen now and we are screaming for our lives: “And Penzance takes it by a nose!”

£450 is £450.

Naturally seeded

A whole fucking day, half a fucking tank of petrol, a bottle of single fucking malt whiskey and a fucking birthday cake. All four of us. Me, Angela, the girls. One and a half hours, same back, Saturday fucking traffic. For what? For a fucking “father” who contributed fuck-all to my childhood – not a fucking penny – turned up every couple of fucking years and freaked the fucking shit out of me with his vicious turns in temper, or phoned up pissed making loud pally jokes which I did not get. As I got older, his questioning of my studies, my values, my marriage, my temperament on the fucking golf course, my whole spineless existence. But now, in his decrepitude, his nagging need that we visit – he has no other family, none – him in the shitty flat he inherited from his shite mother, which he shares with his latest woman-devotee, and hear again about his miserable childhood, his New York rock-and-roll-man crazy glories, his unavoidable failures, about which he is truly sorry but what can you do? Now his fucked-up cancer operation, his colostomy bag, how he nearly died in hospital.

Later, after tea and cake, we are sitting together at the bottom of the garden in front of the large naturally-seeded bed, a tall elegant jungle, with sea-fresh May sun on our backs. Now his death is the topic, but the moment is one I’ve known intermittently, only and fully with him since my earliest years: belonging.

XX – “I alone am different from the others”

Exterminate learning and there will no longer be worries.

Between yea and nay

How much difference is there?

Between good and evil

How great is the distance?

What others fear

One must also fear.

And wax without having reached the limit.

The multitude are joyous

As if partaking of the t’ai lao offering

Or going up to a terrace in spring.

Like a baby that has not yet learnt to smile,

Listless as though with no home to go back to.

The multitude all have more than enough.

I alone seem to be in want.

My mind is that of the fool – how blank!

Vulgar people are clear.

I alone am drowsy.

Vulgar people are alert.

I alone am muddled.

Calm like the sea;

Like a high wind that never ceases.

The multitude all have a purpose.

I alone am foolish and uncouth.

I alone am different from others

And value being fed by the mother.


The season had left me behind today.


Moss Side Story

Moss Side in the early 90s was scary at night: streets lined with dark, hooded figures, eyes glaring out through scarf-wrapped faces; blacked-out BMWs cruising around with menace, growling and buzzing on jungle basslines. In off-licences and late night petrol stations, the till and goods were kept behind multiple layers of bullet-proof perspex; the customer simply stood in this perspex corridor waiting to give their orders to stoic shopkeepers. Armed robberies were frequent. Frankly, it was terrifying; I was almost permanently terrified living there.

As students, we stayed in and smoked weed. Sky Sports, PGA golf, FIFA and turntables kept us amused; Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Pringles and Dairy Milk satiated the munchies. However, some nights we would run out, and one of us, in a heightened state of marijuana-induced paranoia, would need to go to the garage.

Once, it was my unavoidable turn to go with £20 for sweets, crisps, fags and rizlas.

I clicked the door softly behind me and swiftly made down the street, thinking myself into invisibility. It was a quiet night, no-one on the streets, nor in the garage.

I went in and with embarrassment ordered my £20 worth of different confectionary items.

As I was leaving, a BMW came screeching into the garage and two hooded men jumped out. One walked straight up to me. His eyes blazed out red from under his hood and he looked down at what I was carrying. “Munchieeeeees!” he yelled gleefully, and was off to make his own purchase.