By the banks of the river Darenth that skirts through a far corner of Dartford municipal park, Jonah sat on a bench and gazed at the weeping willows. There was sadness in his heart. Things had gone pear-shaped with Anna-Belle and she was no longer talking to him, said she never wanted to see him again in her life. Never, jamais, ever, she’d shouted. And he’d had such high hopes for a future with her ever since the day he’d chanced upon her, after an absence of thirty years or more, sitting in the King’s Head in Bexley Village reading War and Peace. But no. Nothing had gone according to plan. Would it ever?
It was a beautiful early autumn afternoon, and the park was virtually empty except for clusters here and there of school children who had bunked off for the day. Young boys and girls chatting and smoking and struggling to act cool under the fierce impact of their impetuous adolescent hormones.
And in Jonah’s head, that tune that had been haunting him ever since he’d woken earlier that morning. You can’t always get what you want, no you can’t always get what you want, you can’t always get what you want, but you just might get what you need. The voice of Mick Jagger, the voice of Jonah’s adolescence. He’d grown up with the Stones’ music, every party he’d ever gone to, back in the days, the same old songs blasting out of the stereo, you can’t always get what you want. No satisfaction!
Raising his head, Jonah looked across the river and spotted through a narrow clearing in the forest, perched on a tall palisade, a large heron. At first he thought it was a statue, the bird was so still. But then it moved its beak. What, he wondered, was going through the heron’s mind? Pointless speculation. The heron knew nothing of Anna-Belle, knew nothing of his troubles, lived in a parallel universe in which instinct ruled the day, not love. Herons always got what they wanted, he mused.
On his way into the park, Jonah had stopped off at the Library to enquire about the location of the no-expenses-spared monument to Mick Jagger. He’d often heard of the existence of this tribute to a local hero, but had never managed to locate it. He spoke to Chris, a volunteer librarian and was told that the Brancusi-inspired art work dedicated to Jagger was at the far end of the park, where it tapered off into woodland, close to the Brooklands lake. Why had it been sited in such a remote spot, Jonah asked. That would be because the council wanted to discourage Japanese tourists from trampling all over the flower beds, Chris explained. Some things are logical and some things are not, Jonah thought to himself.
Nevertheless, the sun was out and the air in his lungs was fresh and wholesome, so he picked himself up and sticking close to the mighty river, he trudged off in the direction he had been told to follow. And sure enough, after a good thirty minutes trek, with sweat breaking out across his brow, there it was, Mick Jagger in all his glory, beautifully captured, microphone in hand, in an exhilarating dance pose, craftily wrought in wrought iron. The thick crust of rust on the iron merely conspired to enhance the natural quality of the sculpture which would not have been out of place on the sea front in Cannes, where the Stones had spent some of their time in tax exile in years gone by and best forgotten now. There it was finally! And next to it a monument to Vox amplifiers, a product manufactured in Dartford in the fifties and which had helped fuel the rock and roll revolution, delivering decibels to the millions. Thoughtfully, a narrow bench had been provided for those whose knees felt a little weak at the sight of this magnificent, astonishingly lifelike representation of their idol. Jonah stood in contemplative silence. He thought of Anna-Belle for a moment and muttered a silent prayer. You can’t always get what you want.
Despondently, he resumed his long march by the riverside until he came to a long long tunnel. He paused at the mouth of this cavernous construction. Suddenly there was music, sweet music, the celestial sound of Handel’s Water Music, emanating from this vast, brick-lined vault. He could not believe his ears; music, the food of love! And in the background the gushing sound of rushing water merrily tipping over the weir. And as he advanced into the dark tunnel, right there before his eyes, at the very end, as though an epiphany, a message from the gods, at the far end, a brilliant patch of light appeared: at last there was hope and there was light. Something inside Jonah trembled and for a moment his vision blurred and his head began to spin. Was he about to swoon? Was this his footpath to Damascus? It was as though his whole life had been building up to this moment of revelation. All the bitterness, all the hurt he had suffered at the heartless hands of Anna-Belle, just slipped away, dropped from his shoulders like a hairshirt he was no longer obliged to wear. His soul was naked and pure and bright. Here before him, life was renewed. He was free, free at last. Free of Anna-Belle, free from the past, free from the endless pillow-pounding sleepless nights, free from the grey drudgery of loveless days. Nothing would ever be the same. He had found it. Eldorado. Nirvana. The grail. Now nothing but the untrammelled future lay before him. Fresh pastures green. New love. He had found it. Just what he needed. Sweet, soft music to his ears. The light. The light at the end of the tunnel.
World Exclusive from the cutting edge of journalism
Shanks’s pony. That’s the appropriate name for the means of transport favoured by our intrepid blogsworth as he travels ceaselessly across the great metropolis of London Town and beyond, to bring exclusive reports and features to our valued readership. But does he secretly have a convertible Audi TT hidden away in the garage to be used on rainy days or to swank it up and down the King’s Road on sunny Sunday afternoons with the roof off, you may ask? He does not! Ecological to the core, our man insists, come rain or high water, on putting the footwork in wherever he goes. No stranger to the demands of fashion and colour coordination, the observant reader will note from the accompanying photo that the boots are always selected to combine with whatever means of transportation they are partnering with on any particular occasion. In the case illustrated, the boot was chosen in order to match the luscious celestial blue upholstery of Southeastern Railways’ carriages. The assignment, on this occasion? A trip to the mediaeval town of Dartford to check out the checkout operation at the relatively new branch of Aldi. Working undercover he purchased three rib-eye steaks and a bag of mixed, prewashed salad leaves and some mashed potato, all destined for an afternoon barbecue at the brother’s house. But the opportunity was used to interrogate Sharon on the second till from the left as you enter the store.
“So, Sharon,” he asked, as his purchases whizzed past the barcode reader, “are you the fastest girl in the store, I mean fastest checkout operative, I should say, forgive me.”
And he blushed.
Sharon, turns out, is British, (twenty-seven years and nine months old, born in Wilmington, will be twenty-eight on the third of December), and she thus gives the lie to the rumour that all the discounter’s employees are sourced in Eastern Europe. Around 5’ 2”, blonde hair, worn short, nails with fashionably clear varnish but for the tips which are white; and as she answered you could hear that she was a proud custodian and practitioner of the Queen’s English, with just a hint of the delightful Dartford Loop twang.
“No,” she said. “That would be Stanislaus. He’s loads faster than me.”
“But how do you know?”
“The tills record our times, see, and calculate how many customers and how many items we process per hour. So they always know who is the fastest and who is dragging their fingers.”
“And is there a reward for the fastest?”
Sharon pauses and looks at him, conscious that he’s wrecking her chances, but unable to avoid a grimace of sheer disbelief. She has deep brown eyes, suggesting that the blonde hair may not be natural, and beautiful lashes. No wedding ring but wrong time to ask her for a date, he judges
“No. No rewards. No prizes. But we do get a right telling off [she used a more colloquial expression here] if we’re too slow.”
Niceties over, he paid quickly, marshalled his goods and left the store in a flash.
But back to the oil fat acid petrol and alkali resistant soles on the stylish DM boots. The famous Dr Martens air soles, to be precise. Rumour has it that a customized version of the same celestial blue boot (size 13) was provided by the company to Pope John Paul II, a celebrated advocate of the footwear. It seems that not content with splashing himself every day with Lourdes holy water as soon as he stepped out of his Vatican bath, the pontiff requested that some of his own supply of bottled Lourdes holy air be surgically inserted into the cushioned soles of his boots, and the manufacturer was only too willing to oblige this distinguished Eastern European customer. Whether there is any truth in this rumour, we’ll never know since the purveyors of boots to the papal feet were sworn on the Holy Bible to secrecy. So a leak? Cobblers, you might say, raising your eyebrows. Not to be trusted with the affairs of state.
All my life I have been a voracious reader and I will read anything anywhere, whether it’s words on a passing T-shirt, graffiti on buildings, anything: as soon as my eyes light on text, I’ll read it. As a youngster, one of the great joys of Christmas was the knowledge that I would receive five or six new books as presents, particularly from the parents of family friends. Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne was one of my favourites: I loved the descriptions of the tropics and the exotic names of the different fruits and vegetables, yams, breadfruit, papayas, and so forth. Published in 1857, it was a text that William Golding drew on quite heavily when writing The Lord of the Flies.
Naturally these Christmas books did not last forever: they were soon devoured and I would be off in search of more. So I have always been a big fan and a great user of the public library system in this country. I grew up visiting the libraries, particularly in Bexley Village, and I got to know all the librarians immediately, or should I say, they got to know me as I pestered them week after week for new books.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, while others were off sunning themselves in foreign climes and enjoying the local vintages, I found myself with time on my hands in the mediaeval town of Dartford. The sun was out and the beautiful displays of flowers in the park were in full bloom, so I sat there and topped up my tan for about thirty minutes. But being a busy busy busy sort of person, I couldn’t sit there all afternoon, so I decided to enter the pubic library which is adjacent to the park. I love to peruse the shelves in these libraries to see what sort of selection they have, whether any of my favourite authors are included or excluded. Dartford is, after all, a funny old town: there you can cross paths with a Chinese man with long straggly dreadlocks wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and take it completely in your stride.
Anyway, into the library I go and I run my eyes across several shelves until I come across a book of poetry, Armada, by Brian Patten, not a poet I usually have had much time for in the past. Truth is, in the early days of the famed Liverpool poets, I went to hear him read in a small venue in Oxford, and he was so shy that after reading one poem he stood up and stumbled out (he’d clearly had one or two pints) leaving his audience mystified and disappointed. Poor man! I’m more sympathetic these days but back then, I thought it was the end. Still, always prepared to give him another chance, I take the slim volume to a desk and sit down and start to read the poems. Five minutes into the process, a man comes up to me and leans on the desk so I get the full benefit of his 40 per cent breath (this is 3.30 in the afternoon). He tells me he’s a local historian and is going to give a lecture on the history of the area on the following afternoon, would I like to go. There was, of course, only one answer to that.
Back to the poetry. Not a fan of the jokey Liverpool stuff, I am pleasantly surprised by what I am reading and I plough on and I’m genuinely moved by the unsentimental nostalgia that Patten evokes for the vanished neighbourhood where he grew up. With my loyal readers in mind, I jotted down a couple of quotations from the text to give a taste, but I would highly recommend the book to anyone who spots it in their local library.
By the time I got to where I had no intention of going
Half a lifetime had been passed.
I’d sleepwalked so long. While I dozed
Houses outside which gas-lamps had spluttered
were pulled down and replaced,
And my background was wiped from the face of the earth.
One by one the souls of these houses and their tenants
have been undone by the fingers of bankers.
Among the debris where the religion lady wept
now only a sprinkler weeps.
So Jonah the ancient mariner, who’s been marinating on dry land for the past two years, has his kid sister over for lunch and to give her a good “chin-up” talking to. Duck confit with salad (urrrrgh!). Salad’s on account of the extra kilos that living on dry land has saddled around his equator. Grin and bear, and no beer for a month, at least. He’s lost 2 kilos already, and dropped one belt size with just one more to go before bingo!
Anyway, being of a literary disposition, before the sister arrives he’s been reading Julius Caesar and he’s reached that famous line about the stars and thinks: “So, verrry interesting! Against the prevailing mood of the times, friend William did not believe in astrology either, and he was a genius.”
His reading at this point is interrupted by a knock at the door, and lo and behold, there she is, in all her glory. Turns out she’s on a calorie count too, and looking good, so they’re all square for lunch; and what ensues is a real heart to heart with a few detours into the memory lanes of happy days.
Following lunch there’s coffee, and more talk before he accompanies her down to the railway track. After waving goodbye, he takes a train in the opposite direction, heading for the partially walled medieval town of Dartford, famous for the old Wat Tyler pub (pictured above) and the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. His mission there, you guessed, is to replenish his stock of sundry salad stuffs!
But isn’t life funny! As fate would have it, he no sooner steps onto the train and takes a seat when he spies with one little eye on the seat opposite him, a copy of the Metro free newspaper, open at the astrological page. Some bright spark has even gone to the trouble of taking a biro to draw a box around the day’s star for Sagittarius. Shakespeare’s immortal line comes roaring back into Jonah’s brain. “I don’t believe it,” he mutters under his breath, “I really don’t believe it!” Nevertheless, curiosity gets the better and he picks up the paper and reads the following:
A bona fide break is what you really need, Archer—not another cocktail party or night on the town. Today’s sleepy twelfth house moon forms a tough square with agitator Mars, interrupting your need for rest! Those tempting offers will keep rolling in, but if you keep saying “yes” you’ll simply be too burnt out to actually enjoy them! Respect your limits and take a rain check. You may also need to set a high-maintenance energy vampire straight today. Establishing and enforcing boundaries will be a sanity-saver. Trust us.
“Whoah,” Jonah wonders, scratching his head, “who the hell is us?” He has plans that evening to attend a performance of Euripedes’ Women of Troy at The Scoop open air theatre by London Bridge, in the company of the apostles Peter and Paul, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to miss it on account of a load of tosh! “Your need for a rest? Poppycock! Balderdash! Nonsense! Tripe!”