THANK YOU...

A word of genuine thanks to all my readers – especially those who have stuck with me since the winter of 1862, when first I moved into my cheesy wedge-shaped warehouse flat. Newcomers will find a plentiful archive of ‘this’, ‘that’ and ‘the other’ within the boundless confines of this mechanical journal’s archives (managed by my literary executors Herewith & Thither Ltd.) Finally, I invite you to follow the example of Ms Thelma Rave – a beauty brought to you here at no extra cost – and, in her own very fine words ...RAVE ON!!

Saturday 3 July

Well, this must almost be it then. Or is it? I remember my 30th birthday feeling a bit like it. But then watching Growler and Magz tonight splitting the difference of their 60+ years, amongst friends old and new, you suspect that it unquestionably isn’t (or at least not until the morning after). I’m quite convinced that my 40th will feel like it (though Smokeless Uncle Bargreaves recently had his 50th and tells me even that didn’t feel like it – or not much of it anyway). But the going away to America – did I tell you? Well, that feels like it at the moment. A new chapter, a new book; a new mechanical journal to shed light upon that famously underexposed realm (I have a mad fancy to locate this one in the past – perhaps long before the civil war even started over there). But by far and away the most important reason why this feels like it is it is because I began to relate my tales to you as single, lonely (occasionally moany), bachelor-to-the-stars Batson Bargreaves and yesterday Licky Shazhorn accepted my proposal of marriage. I could not be happier.

Saturday 19 June 1865

To a happy midsummer’s evening in and out of Cleggy & Martina Watts-Amis’ new manor outside Hebden Bridge is added a delicious hint of gothic. As friends we sit in and amongst history – not only as a diversely employed and scattered grouping, many of whom are either at momentous times of their lives, or so fed up momentous things happening that they’re indulging in just one more momentum and then waiting for the grandkids; but also quite literally – the garden terrace having been built upon, and of, a graveyard. If the adults are unnerved they do not show it. Or at least not until it’s their turn to ‘get them in’ and they are forced to descend the stone slabs that connect the liberally-peopled upper world with the unnervingly cold and empty cellar. For it’s within these cheerfully whitewashed walls that the communal ales are stored – right beside the sacrificial slab, of which more later. The kids, as well as being universally charming (of which scrub earlier), are fearless in spite of being utterly self-possessed – none more so that robust Rosie Watts-Amis, who leads me down the garden path, quite literally, on a quest for ghosts and fairies. The boys are old enough to bash each other around but not yet to note the significance of the finite dates and fading dedications on which we rest our modern bottoms. In that aspect, as of many, all is as it should be. Those of us without look onto irrepressible life unfolding. All creatures great and....still. For one mammal amongst us hasn’t stirred since his arrival – Clarky the dog. Neither mayflies nor the meaty smells upon which they swoon can distract the minor traffic offence-solving sheepdog from looking straight down dead at the lawn.

‘Clarky, what are you looking at?’ asks Melinda, his mistress.

He shifts his head from side-to-side.

‘What’s that?’ asks Jefferson, his master.

Tilts it coquettishly.

‘I say old boy,’ I butt in, ‘what you up to?’

And then, simultaneously, a semi-circle of us realize what he’s doing –trying to work out which of the bodies to dig up first. Never has a hound been fed so much barbecued food so quickly by so many. The children look on enviously, and I swear I see young Rosie going into her playhouse to fetch a bucket and spade.

A night has passed in good voice, with Franco Kestrel’s lute supporting the moonlit howling of half-a-dozen amateurs more naturally than any organ grinder, Ploy Stanchion or sarcastic ‘Oui?’ ever could. The next morning, due to leave with Erick & Thelma, Cleggy calls us back, seconds before we can jump into the bugger’s buggy. Seems that a solid onyx larder belonging to the previous owners needs moving out of the cellar so that the local council can collect it (along with some cheap jibes about being run by ‘kaftans’ instead of ‘suits’).Needless to say, BB is not the strapping fellow he was just 8 hours earlier, and is almost pinned to the stone ‘altar’ down there for time immemorial. As Licky later comments, it wouldn’t be the first time any of us had sacrificed ourselves for the sake of a young lady’s appetites. And when Rosie wants a new larder for her iced treats, who on earth, or under it, could possibly say no?
Thursday 17 June

I ‘sign on’ and for the second time in my brief career as unemployed hear someone desperately trying to come off benefits, despite having no job to go to. Yes, Manchester once again finds itself testing a new system for the new century, or the one after that (you will recall how the recent trialling of ID cards belly-flopped so spectacularly in the sensible North West). When it comes to ‘Jobseeker’s Allowance’ the mechanics can be so complicated, so baffling and/or terrifying that some genuine claimants rather despairingly believe they’d rather do without. ‘Fair play, release ‘em; leave ‘em to it!’ the cash-strapped government may say. ‘If only it was that easy,’ the advisor advises each want-away, mournfully, ‘but to relinquish your non-salary requires you to navigate a series of obstacles more challenging than many work-based tribulations. And it’s not like I can guide you through them. You need to speak to the rather terrifying Mr X, in Lytham-St-Anne’s, long-distance.’

In contrast, I appear to be one of the luckier few. There is a social security category for ‘author’ (my advisor seems as stunned as I by this) and any jobs they come across in that sphere (proofreader, copywriter etc) will be tossed my way. Most grateful and all the more if they can be home- (or USA-) based. I doff my cap and leave to rapturous applause. As ever I am stunned by the power of language to affect everyday lives. Those who panic in the face of bureaucratic questions get caught out by or caught up in the system, while others need only chuck out a long word or two, to see their status instantly elevated. While I myself am not immune to somewhat verbose and self-indulgent prose, I dread the day when an educated murderer charms himself out of trouble in the dock, while an inarticulate innocent is sent down for the crime of miscommunication, having been labelled as irredeemably word-shy.
Something’s Afoot

Or why would I be sending an intricately-worded letter to Licky’s father, Dr Shazhorn? And spending so much time with Sir Dempson Makepeace; our lunchtime walks becoming far more intense than the mid-noons we used to spend perusing last year’s designer stockings, ahead of Dempson’s inevitable failure to avoid eating a grilled cow sandwich. I can almost see the old Batson looking at the new Batson looking in the windows of jewellers’ shops, and hear him whispering across to his regenerated self: ‘Go on, chuck a brick through that. Then run like the wind laddie!’ until a kind of intermediate Batson (who for some reason looks like a transvestite Peeler) says ‘Allo, allo, allo’ and tells the old Batson to ‘Clear ‘orf now. You’ve ‘ad your fun – nuffin’ more to see ‘ere, nuffin’ more to see...’
My Salford Heritage

They are easily scorned every couple of years: the St George’s flags and red-and-white bunting dripping from the thin-walled homes of the poor, glimpsed whenever you’re short-cutting through their neighbourhoods, safely tucked up in your carriage; hinting at the cheap beer and expansive beer bellies that lie behind closed doors or – now that summer’s here – the other side of lopsided garden gates. It is only when you tread the streets of such an enclave that you realize what a footerball tournament at which England attend really means to those with no work and little hope. This glorious diversion can be watched at home, with family joshing and heckling all about, and will be witnessed throughout this housing estate with more passion than ever could throb within the VIPs, on comfy seats, inside the stadia themselves. Despite my love for their game and empathy for the people, I will always be an outsider here, and treated as such (politely, contrary to popular belief – an old chap delights in telling me how there were once fields as far as the eye...) I can point to ancestors who worked and died here in the mills; to generations of United fans; to my 11 years in Manchester (plus one in Salford itself) but no – I will be judged upon my unfortunate habit of talking the same way that I write. Fair enough. Or, as they say in Salford, ‘furry muff’ (an indigenous breed of jackrabbit, or bush hare, I believe).
Tuesday 18 May

We nearly lost him. And now we’ve found him again it’s easy to thank your chosen deity, leave him in the care of his good woman and neglect to go and press the flesh; or hug the man, as often as you should. It’s left to Brandon Blaque himself to call on me directly. He favours a team of crow messengers, over the traditional pigeons, but nothing is lost in translation. Sanchez flutters down to my desk where I sit surrounded by countless little bits of myself in word form, before discretely revealing just two: Visitors Welcome! That means today; that means leaving petty thoughts of an unpublished nature far behind and hopping a tram to Salford to see someone who has genuine challenges at this time in his life. We thought we’d lost Brandon when he went into a coma. He has come through the other side, practically uninvited. A genius on matters electronic Brandon hides his short-term memory problems by zapping holes in any arguments that dare stray too close, with a characteristic cool we’ve been familiar with for years. But that doesn’t mean all is as it was. In this perfectly clean, perfectly friendly, perfectly dull convalescence home Brandon is regularly checked and injected with insulin. He stares straight ahead, takes it, then goes for another cigarette. The smokes are what remain of Brandon’s freedom right now. Cause of much friction they are more than the filthy, soot-flavoured sum of their parts: IF YOU WANT TO GO FOR A CIGARETTE, JUST ASK A NURSE is pinned above Brandon’s sideboard; the block capitals suggesting that my friend hasn’t been institutionalized quite yet. I escape into a summer’s day. No consolation that Brandon would rather have the night. He walked almost to his flat under cover of darkness last week before they sent a carriage to pick him up, bring him back: IF YOU WANT ME TO START BEHAVING, DON’T ASK.
Saturday 15 May

DH’s birthday celebrations at Beach Bar and a chance to catch up with brother Sydney, Lady Bron, Larry and friends. Later we’re entertained by a ‘youth of today’ who no-one will admit to having hired. While initially amusing for his feral wit and interactive ‘guess what I’m on?’ game, the lad turns out to be somewhere to the right of Wagner – and not even half as tuneful. Deidre, regularly found to the left of Rousseau, today unites both wings of our sofa; the price for initiating the breakfast beers that see Licky and I stagger home early.
Friday 14 May

Momentous events – at least for Licky and myself; she has her job in Washington DC. Provided the weather is set fair over there (can you imagine your humble narrator operating while drenched in Americanisms, or getting burnt to a crisp by potato chips?) there should be nothing in our move to stop me furthering the dream of becoming a full-time writer. My better half (there, I’ve said it) will have a more public and prestigious role at the Embassy (no less) so I better get used to the idea of being the lemon outside the limelight. The small apartment you’ve come to know so well (please return the keys before our departure) tonight plays host to one of its famous parties. Dylan is all smiles and plans to visit; Godiva Grappenhall, our running mate, is in a fine state; so it’s left Deidre Darknight and I to o’er balance the Puppet Show machine, in a final act of anarchy (the Americans don’t approve I hear). Fortunately we wake to find no bridges burning – just a few bumps and bruises evident around the flat. We’ll clean them up before a sitter is identified; July the likely month of our escape: but to what? It’s clear to us we have the presence of mind but what if the US President minds us? We’ll be living mere miles away and I bet he has a team of (better) gag writers...
Thursday 6 May

Having seen neither (greying) hide nor (leathery) hair of Swarthy Erick in Chorlton on the day of Clark and Rita’s wedding last weekend (highlight: the funnier of two Catholic fathers scanning the room for three signs of Rita’s future intentions before settling on ‘aisle’, ‘alter’, and – spreading hands forth as if to capture the congregation – ‘you’) I determine to track him down on a dark and brooding election night. Working on a hunch I hire a wagon and head up to Lancaster, managing to stay on it during this visit to the only pretty grey town left in England (see previous here)

My first point of enquiry is, naturally enough, the Pope Street residence of Jefferson and Melinda Cake, the former being a close school-friend of both myself and Erick. How strange to think that last time I was here, for a party, I inadvertently exposed an illicit love affair – opening myself up to poker-hot agonies, where today I chuck Licky’s name around like it were yesterday’s tripe, rather than tomorrow’s gold dust. In spite of the small talk Melinda will not divulge Jefferson’s whereabouts and likewise claims to have set neither fair eye on the third scruffy Arbuckle of our shambolic trio. Draining my cup of tea I request the use of their back garden for a pre-departure cheroot, and in doing so inadvertently stumble upon a gold mine. Or more accurately, I find Jefferson’s disproportionately loyal black & white pooch, Anubus, growling at me – to his wagging backside a mountain of slag more suited to a non-PC Detective-Inspector’s lexicon. In fact it is the entirety of the stolen coal, and rather than some stereotypical overweight, alcoholic cop who has his problems but who finds his heart in the right place every second Tuesday when it isn’t being operated upon because of all the chips, it is Porthole who is suddenly at my side, out of nowhere. Hurrah!

‘Be gone now, foul hound!’ he explodes, sending a Thai fighter spinning into a ginnel.

But Anubus won’t take things lying down and is soon diving into our favourite water-based detective; doggy logic suggesting that if the human will throw himself around suggestively, the canine has no choice but to fetch both balls. While battle rages I turn to Melinda.

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Because the poor need this loot more than your cotton and coal traders ever will!’

Melinda takes time out from cooking with flour, eggs and milk to hit Porthole over head with the Little Book of Conscientious Living. Already tickled into unconsciousness it is with horror that I watch my closest ally nibbled to death with a good quiche entree. He loved a pipe after a meal but now there isn’t one bit of him left to smoke it. We watch his smoking implement fall to the ground and rotate to a standstill in the gutter.

‘This...’ I tell Melinda gravely, ‘...has got serious.’

‘There will be occasional victims in the struggle to free the people.’

‘Try explaining that to a Lancaster Peeler.’

‘Okay,’ her eyes flash, ‘what do you want?’

Forever putting my friends first, it takes me milliseconds to request enough of the coal to support the Voluntary Early Death of Dylan, DH, Deidre Darknight, Bateman and myself. The rest of the profits can go to the hellish other ‘people’ as far as I’m concerned. Ourselves provided for, there is only one question left for Melinda,

‘Just how long have Jefferson Cake and Swarthy Erick been members of the People’s Liberation Front of Hoylake and West Kirby, and what exactly are they planning for tonight?’

‘It was the A-level politics,’ Melinda admits, shame-faced, ‘back at Coldly Strange. Jefferson never recovered from getting a B, while you...somehow...’

(Edited for purposes of modesty, but yes – I did get a slightly higher grade)


Election night, London – Late...too late. Hundreds of British Broadsiding Corporation journalists have taken every decent horse in the country meaning the only method of transport left open to me is time travel, a sadly imperfect ‘modus operandi’ that sees me overshooting somewhat to a future time of hatless heathens. I’m assured the technology will have been perfected soon after my lifetime but that does me no good today as Erick and Jefferson have long since put their plan into operation. There they are, up in the inky-stinky sky, easing their air balloon between clouds of soot and black-lunged seagulls; sprinkling the populace with their specially-developed dust of indecision (the Wirral and Switzerland being the only two known places where apathy and existential panic can be mined in equal quantities). By daybreak it has become all-too-clear that their plan was never to blow up Parliament – but to hang it.

‘Agitators! Anarchists! Antipodeans!’ I yell upwards, shaking both fists violently, until fairly quickly I find my knuckles relaxing as I begin to think that they probably weren’t so bad after all...and in fact if they were running for government I might even...

A storm beginning, Melinda goes out back to scold Anubus and as she does so is one of the first to observe the brand new Frankenstein coalition emerging from behind the castle walls. Surely it won’t take long to tip him over; his last act to take the economy down with him? And then the real fun can begin.
Friday 30 April 1865

And so it arrives at last...my final day at the Cotton Exchange. I’m struck by such a narrow range of emotions as I hop, skip and jump into work this morning (calmness mixed with serenity mixed with relief mixed with gratitude) that it’s a not insignificant battle to decide whether I’m walking on air or pushing gently through candyfloss cobwebs; though once I’ve trodden deep into some worm-filled poodle poop (where do my neighbours think they live? Monaco?) I’m quickly reminded that some loose ends are yet to be tied up. While Porthole Drift (the water-based detective) has confirmed the arrest of the agitator Swarthy Erick, we have no guarantee that the stolen coal now recovered has been fully counted and accounted for. The result could be that our long-promised Voluntary Early Death Allowance is held up for a day or two. Not interminable, but a man has debts...and not only to society.

Recall the Male Eagle soars overhead. Why? Last time I used him I was a single man; his job to hunt down pigeons I’d sent out late at night with amorous messages for unsuitable women – I hadn’t employed him in months. Then Sanchez flutters down beside me and starts pecking at my squirming soles.

‘Get off! What you doing?’ I counter, my day quickly unravelling.

‘Eagle try to kill Sanchez,’ he mimes.

‘But why?’

‘Message from that Afthole.’

‘Porthole’

‘Whatever.’

‘Saying..?’

And then suddenly there arrives the pungent smell of the sea, mixed with the iron tang of blood – a combination that takes me back to Demspon’s stag do in Whitby when we mistook the cliff-top graveyard for the club, The Cliff-top Graveyard. Will I ever get to work today? It’s Porthole, his breath as unholy as what comes out of it is full of them.

‘Batson, I didn’t want to ruin your last day. But alas, your premier witness, Tom Fatbottom, has been struck down.’

‘The cause?’

‘An inappropriate response to excessive politeness.’

‘The effect?’

‘We have nothing on Erick or Patterson – they will simply revert to their story of having found the coke on top of a toilet cistern.’

‘And the payout?’

‘You may have to wait a while...’

‘Your expenses?’

‘Expensive.’

A darn and blast it has to be for now – though the latter works well in summing up the after-work festivities. One forgets the generosity of friends (‘workmates’ – what a horrible word) when one of their number departs and not only am I lavished with gifts while still on the warehouse floor (World Cuppa ’65 collectamungo, plus dozens of cards portraying foreign types; art books; a bottle of beautiful Talisker) but innumerable whiskies at the Briton’s Protectorate thereafter are thrust into my hoary paw. I don’t have to spend a penny I don’t already have – save for the developing costs of the daguerreotype images that Dylan and I partake in as we hand in our passes, say goodbye to security and bid our lives in cotton and coal farewell forever.
Wednesday 7 April

There are several reasons for the explosive, port-fuelled rant that will leave a craterous impression in Licky’s impressionable mind-field come 11pm tonight. Latterly it is the launch of almost identical general election campaigns by the Westminster equivalents of the Jocks and Geordies. Both say we need to save money; neither wish to significantly cut the defence (or as it’s become known more recently: attack!) budget, and I conclude – with a vitriolic demeanour that more than makes up for my blatant lack of strategy – that as my Uncle is a famous musician he is bound to be able to obtain firearms, from which point the revolution can begin! It’s been a long night. Between them Licky and Miss Jordan manage to put me to bed, but not before I’ve reminisced with Sanchez (my only pigeon ever to have seen ‘action’) about his experiences in the Mexican-American war (guerra del ‘47)

Why so wound up? Surely a commentator with BB’s legendary maturity has seen enough elections to know that they are always a thoroughly frustrating business, even when we’re not being sold a pack of lies by a white-smiling bloke with the kind of gravitas – and sinister power-lusts – normally associated with unemployed underpant models. Okay, so I admit there was more than one wooden spoon stirring my melancholy mood: despite my pro-European leanings, I simply hate to see Manchester Unitered being beaten by a smaller club (and let’s face it there are no bigger) in the League of Champions, as they are this evening.

So that’s it then? Hardly going to stand up in court as I lay down in bed. Hold on, just one more thing in me defence m’lud – the unsettling events that unfolded by day. Yes, something had been nagging at me more than the mothers of countless UK politicians (i.e. of invitation) or the entire Unitered team (i.e. of the disappeared). Why would someone with Swarthy Erick’s proven background in school cross-country (one way of briefly escaping Coldly Strange Grammar School) be attempting to conceal a race result surely no more than half as bad as mine? I thought back to the glimpse of paper attained within that Mersey Paradise. More like architect’s plans now I came to think about it. Just what had he and Patterson been doing there? Lunchtime I’m quizzing Tom Fatbottom, the eyewitness from the Jawed Rabbit who’d seen the two queer coves/rum sorts (please delete one, if not both, of these ‘amusing’ anachronisms) those weeks ago.

‘So these two chaps fighting by the side of the canal. Definitely out-of-towners were they Tom?’

‘Aye, but...’

‘But what?’

‘Ye’er an oot-of-tooner t’ me n’all BB’

I’m sorely tempted to whack the fella. There’s nothing worse than having to explain my proud Manchester heritage to strangers who believe me an imposter, just because I don’t say ‘arrighht?’ every five minutes.

‘So you’re saying the men ascertain the same level of recognition factor in your eyes as I, the Mankiest Manc in the village?’

‘Y’whaa?’ (yes, that too)

‘Thank you. You’ve answered my question, Tom, and now I must go brood and chin-stroke for a while.’

‘Winker.’ (I think he said)

And so whatever the result had been tonight, however startlingly reformed the political classes, I would still have been left with a problem, for how do you solve a problem like Swarthy Erick: how do you make him ‘sing’?
Wednesday 31 March

A certain amount of trust in Porthole drifts away today, because despite his extensive detective work (revealing the competition to be somewhat loose-flaked, if not downright organic) Licky has failed to get the new job in Bangladesh which would have changed both our lives and – more importantly – the very fundamentals of this mechanical journal forever. Can you imagine me writing from a boat on the Bay of Bengal, while wrestling with saltwater crocodiles or the socio-economic issues facing an overpopulated and poverty-stricken nation? Well don’t bother, because our barnacle-brained sub-mariner has underestimated the competition, informing us that there was no need to poison the potatoes of Licky’s biggest rival. It could be that other international opportunities arise, but in order to be able to scoot away with the tastiest, cleverest morsel since certain kinds of cheese were discovered to be sensitive to atmospheric changes, I must ensure that the Voluntary Early Death funds are recovered speedily. I am not one to rely on a woman, or rather I am one to rely on a woman for everything but monetary recompense.*

*Please note that due to technical problems, former girlfriends are unable to leave comments following this particular post.
Sunday 28 March

The Liverpool half-marathon ends mercifully: a decent stretch of exposed Mersey sloppy-kissing us towards the finishing line after several sunlit laps of Sefton Park during which my breath and boyhood anecdotes are both in danger of running out, to Licky’s simultaneous worry and relief. I record a time of just over two hours, Licky is four minutes behind me; PJ runs here for army charities, having swapped his performance-enhancing backpack and slinky running leggings for a Busby and some bell-bottoms, while ‘over the border’ Astrid is powering around the Wilmslow course. Yet it’s as refreshing as the sometime sea breeze to report that all of our training paid off and we finish with similar times, so equating the incredulous expectations of our sofa-softened friends to monies raised.

With customary anti-authoritarianism a local scouseman has extended our stay here by loaning us his residential parking pass to paste upon Licky’s horse and carriage. Warming down in a nearby hostelry I’m surprised to spy Swarthy Erick at the bar, accompanied by someone who looks just like yours truly, but who you suspect might have finished the race in 1:59, such is his slim advantage in years and the additional confidence naturally bestowed upon those with slightly more hair than me. Yes, that’s right – it’s Erick’s new companion, Patterson – someone who flatters to deceive in all the right ways; for who could resist a man of such overlapping charms?

‘Ahoy Erick,’ I offer up, along with a frothing beer, ‘do the race n’ all did thee?’

Surprisingly, his reaction isn’t that expected of one so near and dear. Before acknowledging us he seems keen to hide some paperwork beneath their table, and I can only imagine that this is evidence of a shockingly bad finish time.

‘Ah Batson – you know Patterson,’ he manages.

‘And what the Dickens happened to you two?’ I enquire, seeing now that both have cuts and bruises around their faces.

‘Pantomime horse trick, came a cropper,’ explains Patterson hurriedly.

‘I see,’ I say, though I don’t particularly.

‘Any clues on who stole the Sludger yet?’ Erick enquires, as we advance the session.

‘An out-of-towner, so reckons Porthole,’ I confide, ‘and I have my eye upon a certain Rendell Pifflewax.’

‘Good, good,’ and Swarthy seems to brighten, ‘let’s get another round in then.’
Saturday 27 March

Sir Dempson’s first speaking role with his new company (Chorlton Love-Es) is typically farcical, yet he is ably mentored throughout by our good friend Franco Kestrel, who strolls through In Through the Out Door! with a casual insouciance well-suited to his role as a prospective MP. Such a house-bound scenario, while occasionally repetitive, beats having to learn lots of fancy lines straight after the mute commitment that was ‘1965’; instead inviting Makepeace to move, and occasionally rock, his body – diving behind sofas whenever indiscrete pairings venture forth into the pristine drawing rooms of the creator’s tawdry mind, or flashing the audience with his miniature private eye’s camera. Early nerves settled we must now wait and see how far my good friend can travel on the road to Puppet Show stardom. Myself, and my several dozen uncommissioned stage-plays, wish him very well indeed.
Saturday 20 March

What a performance! What a palaver! No sooner have I had my first acting experience than I’ve had my first drunken acting experience. The fault – like an erroneously-delivered Tory rag, for which the paperboy must be flogged – is at the door of Sir Dempson Makepeace QC (‘queer chap’). It is Dempson who with characteristic camaraderie assembles the ensemble between today’s matinee (shuffle across stage in chains: 21 seconds on and off) and the evening (what can go wrong?) showing of this jaw-dropping (pant-dropping? I shudder to think) production. The venue for more than several powerful IPAs is the Watership, down near the Town Hall, and while it is good to have Licky join us (in fellow ‘lifer’ and eternal student Reith she meets a friend of mine younger than herself for the first time since Erick had years taken off him by that kindly magistrate/hairdresser) it is Porthole to whom many of us are eager to direct our loose tongues.

Why?

Without wishing to in any way prejudice our man’s ongoing investigation into the theft of the coal barge, and with it our hopes for Voluntary Early Death payouts, it must be said that there is a certain member of the cast who perfectly fits the description of his prime suspect: ‘the outsider’...



...Rendell Pifflewax is less cool than even the least cool amongst us (and in this sub-group I must include myself and the two other readily-identifiable seniors; funky as we very well might be). While most of us retain an air of ironic detachment befitting the least paid, least appreciated members of the cast & crew (no matter how secretly thrilled we are at tripping the light fandango), Pifflewax is always at the theatre hours ahead of our call, dressed and chained and ready for those intense 21 seconds (to go). He appears to be a simple soul – innocently doting on the lead actress and calling Dempson’s Liverpool-based footerball team ‘scum’, with a heartening lack of ambivalence. But the fact remains: he is not one of us. The lad looks like he can barely afford to smoke, let alone purloin white bread. And with the links now proven between poor diet, lack of nicotine, and acts of irascibility, can we really doubt that it is Pifflewax who is the backstage miscreant responsible for repeatedly flooding the toilets and smearing the walls with our mud-effect make-up?

Fortunately, tonight the ‘us’ that is ‘we’ get away with it. Despite stage manager Mugs raising an eyebrow, and a troupe of us raising an illicit glass of wine back stage, no ‘breathalyser’ ever invented could stop a determined actor going about his craft. We may have won extra plaudits for looking a little worse than usual for our years of captivity. We may have tripped over each others’ chains, careered into the audience and inadvertently strangled the Mail’s theatre critic. None of us can remember. Yet one thing is certain – Pifflewax was missing from our number tonight, yet still bears the signs of some injury upon his crown – perhaps evidence of an earlier, and more serious, misdemeanour? I must tell Porthole at once; if you catch my drift, please tell him yourself.
Thursday 19 March

How times change. It must seem like only yesterday that Licky Shazhorn walked into your life through these very pages; how she charmed and seduced you with that irrepressible attitude until – eventually – you asked whether she’d move into your one(big)-roomed flat with the chez longue and the stone floor and the pigeons manning the rafters playing ‘Why Are We Waiting?’ on the tin buckets lined up below. Well I’ve got news for you, pal, she’s changed her mind – she’s moving in with me. At least for a few months. And please, no comments about me going soft in my old age (not that this mechanical journal has had a comment since records began). To all intents and purposes this ongoing yet consistently overdue account will remain that of a bachelor going about his and other peoples’ business in Manchester. It’s just that there won’t be any dilly-dallying or shenanigans from now on, if you know what I mean (not there’s been any dilly-dallying or shenanigans in this mechanical journal since records began) (nor a fantastic record of people knowing what I mean).

I digress. But not for much longer, because this week sees the delivery of a brand new Puppet Show Box for the apartment, in advance of Licky’s relocation – a gift from anxious parents understandably fearful for her sanity chez Batson. It’s some years since I watched any significant amount of domestic puppeteering, though I do catch up on the occasional cookery show via Pie-Player. As when attending a lengthy school reunion, what most disturbs me most about goggleboxing for seven hours straight is not so much the dire nature of the scheduling, nor the fact that no-one seems to wear a damned tie anymore, but the fact that the show-offs and the jokers you remember from your student days have aged so preternaturally in the decades since you last laid eyes. How long has Pete O’ Phyle, once an unlined face in favourites such as Little Horse/Old Man and the Children’s Jelly-vision Workshop: Late, had those unsightly bars in front of his eyes? Or John Carrion – presenting the perennially hardy Get Off My Land (And Stay Off) – that badger’s hair and brown bear’s belly? It’s as much as I can do to avert my eyes from once-sprightly 1840s newsreader Bryan Parody’s agonising, there-before-the-grace-go-I, double bags and toothless smile, and listen to another report of grim mischief from the People’s Front of Hoylake & West Kirby – the hijacking of the Mersey ferry by suicide bomber. While it first appears there is no porpoise to the attack, one is later retrieved from the underside of the smoking hulk; the only other casualty being the further demise of my childhood innocence. Where is the world that once stood still for me?
Wednesday 17 March

‘Do you know what I think?’ asked Porthole, as we sat surrounded by posters of great performances in the Exchange green room.

‘That you need a new conditioner?’ I asked, with tact, noticing tiny freshwater crabs side-winding between the famous detective’s well-known ear and greatly-respected forescalp.

Porthole flung a thick dreadlock – size of a baby’s arm – huffily over his shoulder, and in the process sent a miniature crustacean plopping neatly into each of our coffees. On first meeting him, I recall how Mr Drift-to-you would often use one of his famous natural dreads when mooring up for the night, clamping his feet into ‘barge stirrups’ to retain the status quo. But after particularly unsettled nights, when the black water was full of discord, and the second guitarist full of that chord, found he could often awake in Grappenhall with his fine, dry but extraordinarily strong hair stretched all the way back to his aquatic parking space in Latchford. At this point, as men of a certain age should, he decided to get shorn, or at least keep it in his trousers. But back it grew, and out it spilt – like his far from rock-solid family trees of information.

‘I think,’ he continued, ignoring me and the crabs, ‘that this was a job perpetrated by an outsider.’

‘Ye gad man,’ I smiled tightly, screening the room for fellow thesps or ungodly hacks, ‘I’ve warned you about the racism. It’s simply not done here. And if I’m to make myself a future in this...’

‘Bargreaves!’ and Porthole’s barnacle-enforced fist slammed down onto the naturally sourced wooden table, ‘you’re a bloody idiot. This world – it’s not for you. You’re a cotton trader and writer of blarney, and if we don’t track down this missing coal, you’re gonna be out on your ear without a farthing to your name.’

There was a polite knock on the green room door and we looked up to see a cigarette-thin figure danced nervously behind it.

‘Everything all right in here?’ he asked.

‘Fine,’ I smiled sweetly, crunching on the remnants of my drink.

‘Okay Bargreaves, love, if you’re sure – on in five, okay?’ the assistant narrowed his eyes at my companion, then promptly disappeared.

Porthole harrumphed.

‘You want to know what I’ve found out, or not?’

‘Please – fire away,’ but my gaze had returned to the brave stocking and turtle-neck combos of those great players upon the walls.

‘You recall that the only clue we have so far is the silhouettes of two men fighting upon the towpath, as the barge driver lay unconscious nearby?’

‘Mmm-hmm.’

‘Well, if young Tom Fatbottom didn’t see two scatched and suffr’d men enter the Jawed Rabbit, night of the wobbery, and ask for brandy to cure their internal woundings.’

‘Fascinating,’ – Othello (1849)

‘Funny thing is – and you know Tom – ‘kens every face in the city thanks to what happened to him, and him sitting outside the pub on that trolley all day long.’

‘Yes,’ – The Taming of the Shrew (1826)

‘Said he never seen neither face before – newcomers.’

And I thought the thought; then bashfully swatted it away – for surely I had no chance of winning best newcomer (1865)? Yet if by some misguided fortune the prize was destined for my outstretched hand...then who would need coal, and Voluntary Early Death Allowance? Who could ask for more than the stage, the flowers; the applause resounding around a life equipped for all seasons – and with convincing reactions to stereotypical seasonal weather conditions to match?

‘THIS IS YOUR FINAL CALL – GENTLEMEN OF THE ENSEMBLE, PLEASE,’ came tinnily over the tannoy.

Indulging our Fantasies...legally!!

Sir Dempson and I in Milton Beefheart's '1965', at the Royal Exchange, Manchester
Monday 1 March

Of which more on. A mixed bag are we. Most of us appear to be budding young actors fresh out of these Drama Schools we hear of. But standards at such institutions have recently risen to such a degree that we can’t always judge by appearances when it comes looking their alumni in the eye. A perfectly charming creature may approach us, claiming to have studied at Bolton College of Mime (incorporating Whitehaven Wind Farm), only for a closer inspection (fingernails, dah-link) to reveal him to be an attendee of Oldham’s working Mineshaft Theatre of the Blacking-up. Likewise, a sturdy lad who claims he’s here only for ‘a pie and a laugh and another pie if chance be upon us’ might in fact be a recruit of the new school of Espionage and Spycraft that hasn't just opened up near the city council’s Ministry of Love.

One or two older chaps (if older can be applied to a late-blooming 29 or 30) have clearly sneaked in so that they may network with the more established members of the cast; their acting careers already having something of the stale bun about them. It is these fellows who may be seen lounging around in the corners of our dressing room (yes, our VERILY OWN dressing room – with twenty names upon the door in black and white!), trying not to stimulate their invisible wrinkles while reading of ‘that bastard’s’ success in second-hand editions of Stage. You’d be too polite to say it, but as an amateur hack I perchance complain more than you’d like about this writing business; yet to see these chaps is to realize that time remains – remarkably enough – upon my side. It is these boys who must thrust themselves, pelvis-first, into the limelight when given half-the-chance; they who must pay their agents a quarter of their wages (a bit rich even given the convenience of maintaining one outside of London town). The knockbacks suffered in their short careers weigh heavy on their stooped shoulders; highlight the irony that an actor’s body must be kept upright and nimble for eternity and they will give you a look so withering that it almost melts your make-up.

So it may not surprise you to learn that Dempson and I stick with the marginally older crowd, backstage at the Exchange, where boiler-suits hang and chains await us beside fake muck for our feet – those who, perhaps surprisingly, have least to lose and so get most excited about this great big dressing up adventure. By day we may be full-time dads or social workers or council bigwigs – by night we play out together. It is all in the game, as they say. It is a four-star triumph, say the Manchester Guardian, after ‘our’ press night performance this evening. We supernumeraries hang out after our shuffling feet have done their business, but the glamorous 'after-show' appears limited to some crisped potatoes and a selection of celebrities too local for my taste, while the free booze appears to have been taken by those schemers at the Ministry of (drunk men speaketh the) Truth.
Saturday 20 February

With not a sniff of the stolen coal to be had it could be that I’m relying on my nascent acting career to keep me in short shorts and ‘cowboy’ denim this coming season (see the new ‘Home on the...’ range at Post-Colonial Apparel). Certainly our formidable foreman believes that the untouchable mill owners and retired ministers of labour who struggle to steer our NGO (Nnngg Grrrr Organisation) will have no hesitation in recovering the price of their lost investment from our Voluntary Early Death settlements. And while five pounds per performance isn’t quite slave labour, as it might prove to be in 1965, or 2065, it is close enough to the mark for our Stage Manager to give careful instruction on how to stash it – deep within the ruffles of our costume to avoid anyone in the audience getting the slightest idea of our salary. Ironically enough, it is as prisoners – in chains – that we will perform our honest work over the weeks to come. Today, at the final run-through, Makepeace and I get a decent Exchange – a couple of sashays (tomato-based..? or will we cut the mustard..?) up and down the stage and the Director, Milton Beefheart, appears well-satisfied, giving the shuffling rabble a thumbs up and crisp round of applause as the SM raises an eyebrow. First round to the condemned Eurasian hordes!
Sunday 14 February

Desiring to clear my mind of a writhing barrel-full of red herrings I take to London with Licky to celebrate another of her twenty-esque birthdays (them were days) on a sticky Hackney dancefloor. Sadly the playing surface isn’t quite adhesive enough for Mimi Pixel who takes a tumble while promoting her new release: Single Mother on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdance (Penguin, £7 0s 99d). Mimi is fine and a credit to the small Manchester contingent we have introduced to a crowd only anything less than friendly when disappearing into the smallest room in their 30s (don’t we all – the old wine sack fills up quick these days). A bearded, beatific beardy – on the other hand – causes us some concern on the way back to our hotel. Lying several degrees below a Californian horizon he’s read about in an irresponsible novella, and with his white-toothed smile and glassy pork pies staring on up to heaven, this chap could be the opening shot of an artsy, indie Puppet Show of the American type or, strap an electric cello to the lad, and – behold – a wholesome alternative to Seattle-based ‘cringe.’ Fortunately, trained tooth fairy Astrid is with us and able to gently persuade the floppy young man into the recovery position or ‘whatever’ as would have called it, had he been able to speak.

Today it’s cross-country to visit the smallest member of Licky’s tribe – the tiniest of heartbeats soon quietly insistent that the throbbing bpms of last night exit our fragile headspace. And so to the tribe, and my ingratiation into it; if it’s not Ozzie Sheryl rampaging through Chorlton over New Year, it’s Licky’s birthmate Xah, and her partner Barthe, helping us live it up in London. All welcome to and welcoming of my world, but now – unaccountably – it’s time to smell the nappies and work beyond my core hours at the Warehouse...

...for not content with his fortune and good fortune the inestimable Dempson Makepeace has decided to try his hand at acting, and earlier this month we both cat-walked through an audition for parts in ‘1965’ at the Cotton Exchange Theatre. This week we learn that our names will indeed be up in lights – or at least somewhere towards the back of the program, near the small ads for used stockings, ageing muses etc. So now cometh the time to prepare for the stage, with not a little nervousness, nor – you know me too well – disproportionate pretention. The last time I trod the boards was with Swarthy Erick in an off-Broadstairs production of the ‘Tempest’, and we all know what happened then... (or do if we retain a copy of Coldly Strange Grammar School Ragmag No. VIIIII, and are prepared to wade through the small ads for cocaine-based revision pomades, after-hours tuition from desperate chemistry teachers etc).

Tonight I have mere minutes to check in with Porthole on his badly-moored boat and it’s just as well he has no words for me, which – on closer examination – neither does the somewhat bedazzling script for ‘1965.’
February 1865



Imagine my surprise to find the disgraced Chelsea captain and City’s unleashed pitbull amongst the 'criminal types' identified by the irascible Porthole Drift.

(with thanks to Cesare Lombroso)
Tuesday 9 February

To meet Porthole Drift at the semi-submerged, Half-Drowned Water Rat, a quaint little place on a natural island of compacted skulls, just outside Manchester’s inner city limits. This is one location I avoid when on my canal-side run, lest I be tempted across this very gangplank for something capable of putting hairs upon the hoariest sailor’s chest. Incidentally, you may wish to know that Licky and myself are training for Liverpool’s half-marathon next month; Porthole certainly doesn’t. While I explain how runners are traditionally chased down streets thonged with scousers by a healthy mix of locals insisting they buy you a drink and locals insisting you buy them a drink, Porthole simply looks at me down his pipe, catatonically unable to register interest, even through his non-lazy eye.

‘The marrar in ‘and,’ he wheezes, producing a lethal-looking fountain pen while Muff, his dog, slobber-mouths an ancient cracked black ledger across the wonky table towards us.

‘Of course,’ I sup my nettle rum, grateful for my newt-skinned tongue protector, ‘your investigations, how – erm – go they?’

‘Ruled a few out,’ he sighs, screwing up his supremely weathered, turtle-shaped face into something approaching that of everyone’s favourite Jersey-based detective, ‘But tha’ dunt mean I canna rule ‘em back in igin, innit?’ he cackles, youth flooding back to his face, stopping just short of the tidemark round his craggy, saggy neck.

Drift goes on to explain, accompanied by both expansive gestures and intricately explained and annotated expenses claims, how he first suspected that the coal barge had been stolen by one of the criminal underworld, perhaps as a valentine’s gift for Betsy Belpas of Blackburn – a notorious coke fiend. His one clue so far – a sketch from a canal-side speed monitor revealing two men struggling on the towpath next to an unattended vessel – suggested that competing overlords may have fought over their prize, perhaps allowing the tug to schlep on unattended. However a trip to Blackburn (an incredible £1 4s 6d) allowed Porthole to slam shut this particular avenue. Following a recent binge it was confirmed that Betsy’s nose had dropped clean off and its wooden replacement – though beautifully polished – was doing nothing for the local boys. Back to square one (by bus – an infinitely more satisfying £0 0s 3d).

‘Could there be a political aspect to all this?’ I ask the famed investigator, trying to ignore an alligator-faced man sipping tequila opposite.

‘Poritikal eh?’

‘Yes – though I pronounce it: political. But that’s fine. Cool, in fact.’

Though I’m anything but; Drift considers this.

‘Strangest thing,’ he says, finally, ‘found a little book next to the body of the navigator – Marx it were writ by. Yet it weren’t funny at all. Maybe cos they can’t writ down what the dumb bloke does in them Puppet Shows, like.’

‘Not Karl Marx, by any chance?’ I venture.

‘Knows him do you?’

‘No,’ I answer, humbly, ‘though poritikal he certainly – erm – be. Bumped into his friend Engels some years back. Told me the working class was deprived of all pleasure except sexual indulgence and intoxicating liquors.’

‘Talking of which,’ and Porthole shuffles to his feet, ‘I best be off to see Mrs Porthole, if you catch my drift?’

‘Of course,’ and I hand him a small sack of money lent to me by warehouse management in lieu of my Voluntary Early Death, ‘but do keep me updated.’

‘I will that,’ he promises, with as much significance as he can be bothered to summon, ‘I will that.’

I watch him go. Finish my drink as slowly the luminosity of his genius fades from a place unworthy of his awe-inspiring company.

TO BE CONTINUED...
Thursday 4 February – The Thievery Corporation, a Case for Porthole Drift

With all the birthdays flying around at this time of year – Sir Dempson’s celebrated last weekend by way of deer stalking at Denham Massey; Miss Shazhorn’s within touching distance (not that I will until our impending anniversary) – it’s easy for a man (that’s what I am) to take his eye off the ball, especially if that ball is sat in premature retirement above the boiler, as deflated as Miss Jordan’s chest before that suspicious trip to Switzerland. Or perhaps it was the daydreaming of Voluntary Early Death that led me to mislay an entire barge full of coal last Tuesday. Now I’ve lost the odd bit of coke in the past, you won’t be surprised to learn, and I once lent a chunk of our finest ‘black gold’ to a tinker who carved it into a slightly racist likeness of me before selling it back to me for thrupence, but honestly – a whole barge of the stuff?

Having spent this long with me, in this deliciously seedy corner of The One Great Northern City (voted top ironic tourist destination north of the Cotswolds by readers of Country Life for the last sixteen seasons), you will no doubt have some suspects in mind for the theft of all this dusty goodness. And theft it must be, for the good ship Sludger is nowhere to be seen the length and breadth of this canal – or at least nowhere between here and Old Trafford, at which point my morning run gets painful and I have to return home to wash my feet in iced rum. But while Shifty McQuiggin has indeed been redeployed at the Warehouse he is serving his multiple debts to society by wearing diamante shackles and a distressed rat-skin coat. With a balloon glued to his forehead, a pencil and some extremely thin paper, he can now be traced almost anywhere with ease. Swarthy Erick? How dare you! Thanks to the papers, we’re all aware of my childhood friend’s arrest in Morocco for terror wrist offences, but it later transpired that the distended muscle was caused by one-armed press-ups – something to take the mind of the monotony of his summer job in the steam rooms.

No, no and no – and don’t even remind me of the Russians. Last time I implicated them (and their talking cat) in crimes against the Batson body, fifteen of my carriers disappeared over St Petersburg (long-distance chat-line), my worldwidewotsit connection was hacked into, and I found a mysterious pipeline in the wall of the flat through which my ‘special shag’ was fast disappearing. Yes, the trail was cold, and the clues were few and far-between – but I knew it was a challenge that Porthole Drift would rise to, while scratching his great hairy sea legs. I blew on the special whistle he’d given me as a boy and soon I saw his barge, Gypsy Lady, racing towards me at a rate of knots. An extremely slow rate of knots. But he got there. In the end. But it was five-fifteen by then. And I was really tired after a day at work twiddling my gums. So I said I’d speak to him later in the week.

TO BE CONTINUED....
Friday 22nd January – A Winter Ghost Story

So are ghosts as we understand them truly spirits trapped in limbo, betwixt heaven and hell, or merely the frozen pictorial ‘footprints’ of lives gone by – ever to be replayed in one particular location, like that dodgy puppet show that got jammed in your mechanical puppet show player at your college halls of residence (since demolished)? I for one never really paid such a long and convoluted question any mind, until one evening (this evening) when I became inadvertently trapped with the, and to some extent, my past. The day had started and ended reasonably enough – I ‘logged off’ at five, sending the carriers home to roost and telling Tim Talooly to write up the day’s trading at his leisure (‘be off now Tim, enjoy the weekend, and steer clear of my arch-rival Sedmond Divuck’s fantasy novels – you know how they play with one’s mind!’) It was then just myself and Delia Doogood remaining in the open plan, she immersed in a cauldron of filth brewed up by our supposed colleagues in the immigration service (‘I be off now Delia, I’ll enjoy my weekend, be sure to log off soon, lest reality subsume a fantastical weekend’). Imagine my surprise to be at the kitchenette – regurgitating my packed lunch into something resembling dinner – when the warehouse was suddenly plunged into DARKNESS.

‘Tim?’ I enquired. No answer.

‘Delia?’ I pined. Not a sausage.

‘Stephen?’ I hazarded. Nothing. Alone.

Without carriers I had no hope of attracting Licky (at the gymnasium), nor Bateman (packing for America), nor Sir Dempson (breaking into his own house), nor Pekalowski (picture-framing maids on their commute home), nor that girl I really fancied at primary school (even though I now have a deep voice and an apartment with two toilets). There was nothing for it but to ‘man up’ (a request so often at Licky’s lips), ‘get on with it’ (likewise) and see what was amiss in the workplace I hope to escape in mere months.

As regular readers will know I have worked at this particular cotton warehouse for almost ten years – hence the generous payout I anticipate for Voluntary Early Death – and it has always been a most comfortable environment, give or take the odd Shifty McQuiggin or Simon Slimon. Tonight things are very different. The doors are all locked tight, the heating off, the only light is from my lighter (a mémoire morte to a long-doomed Clipper); the only sound my own breathing. Until it stops. There in the corner, bending over the facts machine – his bald head as luminescent as the moon ricocheting off an icy lake wearing mink, is my former boss Marcus Kamp.

‘Morning Batson!’ he cries.

‘But it’s...’ I butt in – the tension, like my change of tenses, irredeemably tense.

‘Those figures ready for Sierra Leone?’

‘Oh yes,’ I lie, and am suddenly with myself eight years before – a smelly young upstart and no mistake. Yet there is with the figures, and I know it. I have failed to take account of the cost of the horse-drawn required to take the emergency cotton to the semi-clothed civilians in Kenema. Disaster. And while Marcus himself seems unperturbed what is this rising from his bald spot? A ghostly vision and no mistake – Mistress Guilt in all her glory – torn nightdress, fangs bared. Terrified I yell:

‘I’m sorry!’

And she vanishes in a puff of smoke. Alone again, patrolling the corridors.

‘Licky?’ Nothing.

‘Bateman?’ Nowt.

‘Pekalowski?’ ‘Shaddap, I’m sketching this.’

I venture onwards, upstairs or downstairs – my feet feeling no distinction in the pitched darkness. Suddenly a woman in white, bent over the cast-iron printer.

‘Hello?’ I address her bonnet, ‘Hello?’

When she finally turns I both recognise her and don’t. ‘Give her a kiss,’ urges my twenty-five year old self out of nowhere, but when I look at her eyes (a vivid blue but sad and old before her time) I see now that this is the last thing she needs. Where have I seen her before? I search within myself until all is clear: buoyant and happy at the start of a work’s night out; guilty and remorseful in the morning – she is every maiden I have ever harmed, who has ever made the mistake of sacrificing herself to me. ‘Kiss her,’ is the urge from within. But then that pretty face begins to distort – Mistress Guilt pulsates beneath the perfectly made-up skin.

‘I’m sorry!’ I yell, and while no sound comes out I am ultimately, inexplicably back at my flat, Miss Jordan’s suspiciously tanned arms all about me.

‘I’m sorry,’ I mutter, exhausted – so glad to be in familiar surroundings, and good company.

‘No need to apologise to me love,’ Miss Jordan oozes reassuringly, ‘just give us a cut of your Voluntary Death Allowance.’

Like ravens in the rafters my pigeons squawk agreement.
Monday 4 January 1865

A slipshod slide back to work after holidays branded by the extreme temperatures therein – from the warm welcome extended by our families in the Lakes and Hull to the frozen groans of my apartment back in Manchester; an icebreaker on so many occasions it now sits trapped in sub-dinner party temperatures. With Voluntary Early Death and its accompanying payout pending in April will this be the year that I finally get to write professionally, or will I career off the tracks like that milk float sliding towards the Exchange on a dirty great sheet of polar paving? I rescue a Health Shake from the burning wreckage and thank the stars that such a confusing ’65 is starting soberly – Licky and I having been worn down by such saucy seasonal merriment as cigars (inhale) and bagpipes (exhale) at Dr and Mrs Shazhorns’, intoxicating puddings at the Bargreaves’ residence, and a party dans l’apartment that saw Bateman first go Dutch with Spike upon the love seat (actually a second chaise longue, a wonderful present from Licky), then Greek in a generous attempt to purge me of all unnecessary glassware. Such hangovers I will not miss this month, yet I sense your need for insight more intoxicating than how to mix a perfect lime and soda. Very well – the Gentleman’s Annual Tupperware party, 23rd December, The Peaky Peveril. High marks all round (a 9 from me, for the soulful journeys made in ’64); the pool won by Sir Dempson (who took out an innocent maid in the half-time snowball fight) and Charlton of Chorlton; Swarthy Erick talks of his moving plans (opening an orphanage?) while the rest of us talk children like naughty ones in the corner. Just as last year I’d struggle to eat a whole one but there’s no doubt they continue to fascinate such whisky-seared hearts as ours; Ted and Arnold explaining how closely they follow a healthy man’s bathroom habits enough to put most of us off for now.
Saturday 26 December

At this time of year it is a Bargreaves’ family tradition to ensure everything is nailed down in our idyllic, snow-covered cottage and to group-canter to Ambleside where my parents’ friends Derek and Sandy host the Boxing Day hunt from their beautiful five-bedroom house. What makes this year extra-special is that accompanying Barton, myself and the perfectly-matched parenthesis, are Marny and Licky, the former better-half soon to have the better brother over in Canadia for a turn – perhaps a five year turn; the latter recovering from the journey from her own folks’ home in Hull, during which she had to carry her little pony over the Pennines when it got tangled up in the Snakeskin Pass.

As long-standing philanthropists Derek and Sandy have been busy organising their Christmas Soap Kitsch Hen in which Derek dresses as a hen and distributes eggs to the region’s homeless while Sandy provides all-manner of scrubbers with a decent all-over wash before dressing them in retro styles. Sadly, due to the face-freezingly cold conditions this winter their plans have snowballed, as has Derek, slipping on an unwanted puddle outside the poor house – children are so wasteful – and ending up on the banks of Derwent Water fifteen times his own body size. With all their eggs in one basket, and the ‘40s style clothing irredeemably crumpled, this year they must think of new ways of helping those living on or in the streets, woodlands, badly converted barns or new-builds of Cumbria. So it is that sons Packer and Frisby arrange the mob into teams of modestly-paid beaters as the two families saddle up their hunting reindeer after a preternatural feast of overlapping meats.

A word about Lakeland hunting traditions – such is the perfect isolation to be found in these parts that many small tribes of former invaders continue to grow fat in tiny, bespoke enclaves, despite having been happily trounced by native armies as long ago as 1864 BC. Last year saw an unforgettable battle against a band of Vikings whose removal and collection of Modern Warfare books from Kendal library were both significantly overdue. Never has an axe been so skilfully applied than by Mrs Bargreaves in giving several fleeing Olafs a dangerously dapper short back and sides. And who could forget Derek and Batson Snr, at nearby Sweden Bridge, fending off a vastly superior enemy with a merciless string of ancient one-liners and rehashed cracker jokes – the enemy contorted with pain, then deported to Spain.

This year, prompted by a bloody campaign in the Westmorland Gazette, our chosen targets are lingering Legionaries, left over from the anti-Scotch DIY boom of AD 122, and now reliant on their dwindling supplies of dented tagliatelli. Always a healthy competition between the lads of the two families (despite a unifying appreciation of Man:United) it is with concern that I note that my nose appears redder than my reindeer’s – is 1864 to be remembered as the year my body finally went to port? Will I really be able to compete with Packer, fresh from the Ozzie sunshine, where he lives on a press-up farm with his charming wife Inspira? First blood to Barton who, as a lapsed vegetarian, is best placed to sniff out the wild boar being roasted round the back of Boots by two unsuspecting Roman footmen. Only able to run in straight lines it takes our baby rhino just minutes to wallop them over the border to face a tardy dose of Caledonian hospitality. Frisby weighs in by tying together the shoelaces of an entire garrison of tortoise-forming mincers, then pouring himself a dry sherry atop his steed while watching them slowly topple over. Packer has collected five helmets to my three with just ten minutes to the supper gong when I spot a quivering cohort behind a nearby hedge. Tall, angular, full of Christmas pudding and supremely generous, it is then that I notice Licky at my side, quickly forming herself into a menhir that I can fling at the fleeing soldiers, flattening half-a-dozen of them. With such teamwork I can only see Miss Shazhorn and myself conquering the world next year, perhaps following an overdue detox.
10 December 1864

The green-eyed monster is not only a free gift that has seen an unprecedented rise in the popularity of Sawdust Melts from 1856 – present, but also a ‘yours-for-nothing’ emotion that comes with every human package, and one that if used liberally can lead to more discomfort and heartache than a 180g serving of nobody’s favourite breakfast cereal. So how can one treat such a beast – starve him, as a foreman in the Sawdust Melts factory might isolate a nut ferret in a particularly dank and fruitless corner? It is a noble idea and one I grow increasingly tempted to try. But in the meantime, using a method I can trace back to my first sip of noggin at 15, I have concentrated on the opposite approach – feeding the cute little bitey thing with as much liquor as I can lay my hands on. Reader, I am not sure of your own experiences, but to me this has been an experimental treatment which has failed time after time. For whenever a new love enters my life, it is the Jolly Green Dragon that they are soon shaking hands with, not long after Mr Trousersnake.

In many aspects of my life I am fortune to be seemingly immune to jealousy. Professional jealousy? It would seem churlish to complain as others catch the wave generated by a notoriously fickle publishing industry. I am nearby on the beach in any case, sipping G&Ts in my skimpy briefs, braced to re-enter the Medlock with my stiff homemade board at a moment’s notice and – who knows – maybe ride the next ‘big thing’. No, there be no monsters here, nor on the issue of money, for as we approach the good season all I can ask present-wise is: what do I really need? (Okay, my bed – constructed one dim and distant night while Bateman helpfully fed me beers – has finally fallen to bits, but where am I going to find a stocking even big enough for a single?) Hierarchical office jealousy? I don’t even know what that means. Stagecoach riding jealousy? I have no case to answer. In matters of the heart, however, I am regularly an uncharitable nightmare record of disaster. So let’s try and find out why.

Autumn 1845: a gang of friends – of (thrillingly) both sexes are out for the night in Liverpool. The airborne sexual tension is palpable and merges with the cheap and ineffective sweat preventatives of the lads; the ‘trog oil’ of the more gothic ladies amongst us; vinegar from the nearest chippy, and the exotic aroma of rotting mangoes, cast asunder by drunken dockside porters. Gretna Gallweather and I are getting on famously – as was meant to be, as was written in the stars. We watch a friend’s nascent string band die on stage, the schadenfreude just one more bond between us (turns out we both like history, boiled eggs and repression). Then, returning smiling from a piddle, disaster strikes – my apparent best friend Jaz Funkpantz (long since off the devil juice but charmingly louche at the time) and Gretna are hand-in-hand, smiling at me like I’m the celibate priest about to marry them, not simply a vessel for the heady brew of impotency that marks the beginning of my adult life.

Of course as the years flew by I had my fair share of fortune and misfortune in love, before finally reaching the point where I could have no tangible regrets. But despite this there were always times when I lashed out jealously; more-often-than-not this took the form of an unwarranted outburst, always about as helpful to the situation as a chocolate teapot at an orgy (has yelling at someone ever sapped them of their Sapphic tendencies? I don’t think so). At other times I have used incitement to jealousy as my weapon of choice – more rewarding (in an empty kind of way) when used on those girlfriends who have driven me to a rage with their incessant flirting or pander-free use of my ego (if you haven’t fallen out of love with me yet, dear reader, you can imagine how others may have done so).

So who’s to blame when I find myself once again up to the ears in green-hued monster dung? Greta? Jaz? Coldly Strange Grammar School (‘turning boys into men into boys since 1636’)? It’s very easy to blame the past, in whatever form, except that I suspect mine is not much different from any other man’s, unless they are blessed with the fatal magnetism of a Henry VIII, or the saint-like demeanour of a Thomas More. So when it comes to the work Christmas meal this week, well before my humble pie, I intend to crunch on Sawdust Melts, having poured my remaining whisky down the drain, and placed the green-eyed monster (collector’s issue/product recall pending) at the bottom of my waste (of time) bin. We’ll see how long it stays there.

A beautiful painting inspired by yesterday's events
By Batson Bargreaves
Monday 2 November

How strange it will be to leave the flat; to step outside the soothing machinations of the cotton warehouse, to stumble beyond the slippery trading house floor. Locked into these worlds you presume I am, and until today I could not countenance meeting you elsewhere but meandering down Oxford Road, looking for the nearest grog trough when your pounds and pennies would be better spent on fixing those gangrenous teeth; could think of nowhere but the handy Bar That Twas a Bog when it came to taking you aside and thrusting a temperance pamphlet into your gnarly old paws while standing you ‘one last drink.’ Yet all that may change, my fair-weather friend, for today – in the time that it takes you to adjust your corset, apply your lippy, and career blinking back out into the street – a communiqué rustles its way round work; a fresh breeze that prompts amongst my colleagues a mixture of airless gasps and prolonged heavy breathing. For we are to be offered Voluntary Early Death (VED), a scheme dreamt up by the uber-bosses in London to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yes, short-term riches may be (y)ours, in exchange for lifelong unemployment and a pauper’s grave.

Short-term riches!! Seconds before the wind of hope is deoxygenated by the guff of indecision, I have applied for release. There is no guarantee that it will be granted. You more than anyone know how my financial skills have come to be relied upon (when, sated, you told me that the dimpled ceiling of the Rochdale Ritz was ‘as of the stars an’ heavens an’ that’, remember how quick I was to use said imperfections to demonstrate basic tax law?) Nevertheless, I live in hope of a new beginning – a chance to write, a chance to sing, a chance to dance, a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to buy a solid gold bong encrusted with images of semi-precious stoners. Never has impending doom given me quite as light a head. Walking home along the canal, wondering what career a man could pursue after 12 months bitter struggle with the page, who should I spy but my old friend Porthole Drift, the famous detective, coming my way on his crimson barge ‘Gypsy Lady’, enjoying a pipe while Muff the dog hunts out some tea for the tillerman?

‘Ahoy Porthole!’ I harangue.

‘What-ho,’ he replies with added pith.

No doubt in town to solve one of his cases with a leisurely disregard for the mounting death toll, I see a future beyond the piles of rejected manuscripts with which I’ll insulate myself next winter, if only in penning the unpublishable biography of this distinctly peculiar fellow.
Monday 5 October

The beginning of my birthday week and like Mr Scruff, my tailor (who presents me with a brand new DJ to mark my 36th) I determine to keep it real. Although off work, I go about my chores as usual – anything but face the (real/metaphorical) blank page/blank cheque that represent my much-delayed literary career. However, when Miss Jordan reminds me that I have an optician’s appointment at lunchtime I get a stomach-based feeling not dissimilar to that encountered on my 6th birthday when a giant horse-fat jelly was delivered to my boarding school, fresh from Uncle Horace’s glue factory. Yes, an appointment with the eye people is always a lot more exciting than it should be to someone of increasingly blinkered vision.

11.30am I finding myself huffing and puffing about Cross Street. Am I propositioned in the Patagonian Poultry Parlour? No. Am I Lothario’d in Larry’s ‘Laser Finish’ Laundrette (aka Pekalowski’s new ‘Dirty Clothes in Public’ Company)? Rarely. Then why must I always be salaciously seduced in Superspex? Should this read like a complaint then you too require an eye test – the ladies here are for the most part twinkling goddesses and if one or two are a little blurry round the edges then that’s probably for the best. Here, as in no other part of my existence, there are no awkward silences, no askance glances while I complete life’s necessary forms, try to read mixed messages or the writing on the wall; here soothing voices gently stroke what remains of my ego – telling me what a treat for the staff it is for me to appear in person when collecting my latest patent leather eyewear.

A TRAP, dear Reader, we’ve seen them on these pages before. A WOMAN is no doubt behind it, we can safely assume. With Licky sent to Australia in diamond chains (a desperate attempt by her family to wean her off effeminate men) I can only think this an arrangement she has made to test my undying, eternal faithfulness to her. By good fortune I have my hip flask about me and, taking an almighty swig, I proceed to smash up Superspex – at one point flinging a two-for-one Top Hat and periscope combo at a wall-sized display of wire-and-crystal kitten glasses. Back home, having presented Miss Jordan with the almighty bill, I proceed to bash seven shades out of the opposition in two rounds of footerball tonight. Yes, I am dealing with Licky’s absence fine, thank you for asking.
Wednesday 9 September

To Chorlton Village, sitting within Strangest Bar, though it’s never too odd to have Jill’s company over several yards of ale, or metres of wine in her case. But while old times would normally be danced around, tonight there is no skirting from the present and the recent loss of her Mum, Sandy. An independent, strongly-humoured woman, living alone in the ferocious Welsh borderlands, it is with heavy pen that I note down the songs she chose for her service, enabling me to remember her via a host of heroines on phonograph later this week; but it is with pride and a smile, and no disrespect to my own family’s choice of path, that I listen to how Jill and her siblings arranged for Sandy the first humanist funeral conducted in Llangollen that anyone can remember, to the chagrin of the local Vicar. As ever tragedy and comedy aren’t too far apart and the evening ends with my fingers jammed into Jill’s shell-likes while she swallows iced water backwards – the only known cure for her indiscriminate hiccups, and my sincere helplessness.
Friday 28 August – Paris

Much excitement today as our trip coincides with a decree from Emperor Napoleon III that a great/grande Exposition Universelle is to be held in Paris come 1867 (should the world still be in one piece b’then!) Exhibits will include a giant Iced Bun on which schoolchildren are to recreate famous battles from the Russian front, a violin concerto performed by a child prodigy inside a special crystal in which he is to be incubated and raised from next Thursday, not to mention – for the nature lovers amongst you – a man dressed as a bear fighting a bear dressed as a man, to the death! It is sure to be spectacular but in the meanwhile it is exciting to hear that a band once local to our beloved Manchester – Pastis (pronounced ‘Past it’) – will play in celebration of this massive indulgence on the festival site tonight.

THE EXPOSITION ARENA: TO BE MADE ENTIRELY OF CHEESE BY AN ENTHUSIASTIC TEAM OF NORTH AFRICAN VOLUNTEERS

After a day of sightseeing, buying miniature Eifel Towers in anticipation of forthcoming erections, we arrive at the riverside venue. Excitement ripples through the crowd like flatulence at a bean factory. The facilities are impeccable, the queues for beer significantly less, and less violent than their English equivalent. What Licky and I cannot find anywhere are the tobacco tubes that would allow us at least a frisson of bad behavior. We decide to split up and pursue the most attractive smokers, of the appropriate sex, available within our immediate circumference. Needless to say, while I charm several young lady models into submission, Licky makes a right exposition of herself. Speaking French – or even English – is so ‘last season’ the lady models have already told me (with their eyes), something Licky doesn’t seem to appreciate. However unfashionable, and having missed the Afro-chirrup of Vladimir’s Weekday, we reunite in anticipation of Pastis – their famous ‘dirge’ nothing if not momentous in its attitude. Alas, the emotions have already spilled over, and a trembling announcer comes on stage to tell us that the famously blue brothers have argued backstage and split. Such is the size of the ensuing Gallic shrug that I fear the lads will have seen it from their private hot air balloon home. We disperse to paint the town (a very united) red, and over several ‘giraffes’ of wine talk about the old days, of which the music was only ever a background to the irreplaceable friendship and love.
Thursday 27 August - Paris

Due to the collapse of so many notable institutions this year the summer bank holiday has been specially extended, ‘And Don’t Come Back’ was the rather specific message unfurled at Dover to anyone playing the markets, such as yours almost-completely-truly, and I was only too happy to obey my public and whisk Licky away to Paris. It is our first holiday abroad as it’s long and abreast of Brest, but its planning was by no means down to my huge romantic bone, more the combined funny bones of several friends from Chorlton Village days, most especially the teasing tibias of Cameron (no relation) and Carmona who these days spend their days in and around Grenoble. Swarthy Erick and Swervy Thelma; Jefferson and Melinda Cake make up the numbers with us – much fun spending this year’s modest bonus, plus the best-in-show award that Sanchez picked up at Blackpool Birdz (he’ll never know); later the gold doubloons Miss Jordan has sewn into my chest hair, in this wonderful metropolis. Cheap the Frenchies, nor their city, ain’t – whatever you may read in the papers or cheerily racist periodicals I’ve brought along in a last, ultimately fruitless attempt to stereotype Cameron. A Kiwi friend of the ‘big man’ takes us to a dark and dingy eatery off Rue Oberkampf tonight where we tuck into three courses of the most delicious five star cliché.
Wednesday 12 August

The Hatbox Project is finally yours, having been ours for far too long. Admittedly you will have to fork out 20 shillings for a mixed bag (box) of work squeezed, shaken, or gamely extracted from a range of Manchester artists; price being just one of the issues that has sustained its three ‘masterminds’ on a journey of self and mutual discovery (as literary editors Spike and I clashed over Petra Couture’s contribution – there being no casting vote we were forced to undertake a dual, lost by me – Ouch! – while Dylan, as the sole artistic editor, had double the work, if only half the arguments; something he was compelled to raise with us aggressively). I have nothing but respect for creatives who collaborate more than occasionally – perhaps it’s no coincidence that these pairings are usually writers of Puppet Show comedies situationale, and that the characters therein are almost always catatonically dysfunctional. Certainly it’s no surprise to learn that my inviting Larry Pekalowski and his sixteen-man, four-carrier, and one- monkey strong crew to record tonight’s launch in As Muck bar is seen as a distraction rather than a boon by my partners. In the event it is Bateman and Licky who take on most of the photographic duties, though the anticipation is clearly for them both to be more drinking/violent than shrinking violet.

Even after all, the fussing and fighting – the numbering of the little blighters under the shadow of Bateman’s giant concentrating tongue and oversized colouring book – the launch proves well-populated and, eventually, relaxing. 100+ people turn up, not in any way swayed by the free drink on offer, and as well as the literary circle/female cycle of Mimi, Tattetta, Mandy Candeur, and Amy-Lou (who brings along her famous, and friendly, fella, Gisbo Gibson, from folk band Tennyson) it is great to have Sir Dempson and Swarthy Erick amongst a scattering of near life-long supporters/hecklers – likewise DH selecting the tunes; Daisy making an appearance – so rare I see her these days – before the whole night comes under threat from an impromptu reading, inspired by this very (quite..) mechanical journal. Shuddering in the toilets – not for the first time – Bateman struggles to affix his false moustache while I admire my real McCoy; sweats over his lines while mine are firmly pressed into the old grey spongy matter, yet on stage, frustratingly, it is the young pretender who gets all the laughs (not that there’s many) precisely because of his well-rehearsed ineptitude! Spike comes up to run the bingo and order is restored, until the same lucky lady wins two boxes in a row – and promptly faints with surprise, gratitude or fear. Three of us at least knowing just how she may feel.
Saturday 8 August

Having produced a Batson’s Guide to Manchester some (ahem) months back – to a high personal standard yet in the company of friends who exceeded expectations (Tattetta’s beautiful pen-and-inks of contemporary tankard, footerball and monographed water closet; Jill and Conrad’s expert use of ‘daguerreotype shoppe’ to aid presentation), it is of great relief to be preparing it for the world today, albeit in leafy Didsbury – a barely lukewarm hotbed of radical pamphleteering. If the language within the Guide is occasionally fruity it is as nothing compared to the five-a-day that tumble from Licky’s raspberry-prone lips as we sit at opposite ends of her dining table – she folding the things together, me thinking of a line or two to make each one unique. The cause of her unrest? 100% jealousy (with added juicy bits). As the creative within the couple, it is up (or down) to me to sit at the typewriter, smoking, thinking, as I ape the portraitbook status bar in creating a label for every last guide, i.e. ‘Batson is…a troubled genius.’ Some of Licky’s suggestions, tossed like whizz-bombs in my direction, suggest that she may have a future in print – albeit in a future world of filth and insult in which I will play no part (‘Baston is….a twook’, ‘a wazpants’, ‘a misguided old fool’, ‘cruising for a bruising’, ‘single’, ‘probably the worst writer in the world’, ‘sic’, ‘hairy chicken thighs cod breath’, ‘baboon off-day face’, ‘conclusively unpublished’ etc). Roll on the Hatbox launch on Wednesday, at which Spike, Dylan and I will have VINDICATION written all over our faces (unless we can think of a better idea).
Tuesday 21 July

For some years now we have been warned of the imminence of a worldwide attack of Wine Flu – a robust kind of a virus that threatens to floor around 40% of the planet’s pop. Well finally it has hit us where it hurts – in the loved ones. Readers will know there are few things Licky likes more than a drop of cab sauv or pin noir and it seems despite regular use of the alcoholic hand rub at work (which when combined with extra strong perfume/aftershave offers decent cover should you have over-indulged the night before) the beastly germs have at last found a way through her defences.

A pigeon flutters in through the skylight, then plunges like a stone onto the sofa, folds her wings and demands a cup of tea before parting with her news. Yes, dear readers, her – the very strain apparent in the very italics – the agency having insisted that I take on my first ever female carrier, Bacha. I finish off my sausages and absinthe (all that’s left safe to consume these days?) with feigned casuality but eventually can wait no longer, “How is she?” The good news: Licky is recovering, bedbound yet in high spirits, though I cannot visit. The bad news: her doctor ex can, being a doctor and all that; but being a man, undoubtedly wanting Miss Shazhorn’s return to his life by way of a tip. It is with mixed emotions that I retire restlessly:

Will the distinctions between the sexes, that birds like Bacha have pecked apart, re-form like so much cheap meat in the wake of this outbreak? Is it not to be expected that the weaker sex should look to the more robust components of the stronger at times like this? What good a part-time pamphleteer to a maiden amongst all this? The latest bulletins via the worldwidewotsit do little to settle the mind. Apparently a second wave of flu will snaffle us over winter so perhaps it’s best to glug it down first time round. Colloquially, in any case, it seems that infected friends and friends-of-friends are collectively riding things out – something I seek to confirm with Bacha once she gets down from that sanctimonious perch in the rafters she insisted on building herself.
Sunday 19 July

To those confused by my recital at the desperately damp Manchester Book Fair today (a majority of the 20-30 good souls huddled in Tent A as I read from Tent B – a vision behind a waterfall – all of whom appeared to sense that something fishy was up, and that the something fishy was quite possibly swimming upstream, occasionally floundering, all the while inexplicably wearing a top hat) I offer this self-indulgent, self-published interview by way of introduction and enlightenment.

BARGREAVES EXPOSED
When were you happiest? Cotton and coal shares hit new highs, I learn from my favourite carrier, while in bed with my favourite gal.
What is your greatest fear? Missing out on future gossip due to irritating mortality.
What is your earliest memory? Desperately pulling the cord in the steam pram while bearing down on Great Aunt V.
What is the trait you most deplore in others? Duplicity.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Being scrupulously honest, at the expense of good punch-lines.
Your most embarrassing moment? Manchester Book Fair, Chorlton Poetry Festival etc etc.
What is your most treasured possession? Daguerreotypes of ancestors, diaries.
What do you dislike about your appearance? My blue-white ‘plates of meat’ appear to have given up the ghost several years ago.
Who would play you in a Puppet Show of your life? Oscar Wilde’s butch sister.
What is your guiltiest pleasure? Non-British wine.
What is your most unappealing habit? French cigarettes (consumed anally).
Where would you like to live? By the sea (Miss Jordan insists on running me consecutive baths after my morning dip in the Rochdale Canal).
What does love feel like? Coming up for air/repeal of pro-smog laws (1862).
What was the best kiss of your life? Swarthy Erick side-stubble on countless birthdays.
Worst job? Pot washing is hard work, but there are perks (if you don’t mind a soapy aftertaste to your half-eaten pie).
If you could edit your past, what would you change? A history degree somewhere posh and dusty may have aided projects past and present.
How do you relax? Like every man alive and a surprisingly large amount of women.
What single thing would most improve the quality of your life? Better class of pigeon.
Greatest achievement? Writing a novel (the unpublished Blaggard, 1860)
What keeps you awake at night? Fear of insomnia.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Seize the day, wrestle it to the ground, and give it a good, firm beating.
Where would you like to be right now? Pretending to fish in turquoise waters while contemplating world domination/belly button fluff (mine the latter to achieve the former?)
Tell us a secret: I am ¾ Ponce but rarely visit my homeland.

Sterling (not literally) support today comes from long-time Hatbox collaborators Spike and Dylan and it is to the latter’s chuckling form that I direct much of my reading (a pseudo footerball commentary that simultaneously describes a date with Daisy). Meanwhile Licky feeds the crowd cans of imported larger and homegrown smiles. In genuine news from the world of literature, Mimi Pixel celebrated the launch of her (published) book on the 2nd July while I was in Spain. I raise a can to her, then hurl it towards a funky young poet half my age and trouser size.
Monday 29 June – Friday 10 July

Since qualifying in Teaching Manners to People Unfortunate Enough to be Born Non-British (TEMPUEBN) I have had few opportunities to test my mettle in this most challenging of arenas. Chance would be a fine thing – especially when one requires a new steam mangle for the apartment – and here it comes, hair all piled up like a Dockside dame, in the form of co-worker Barry, whose former roommate at the University of Life, Sunderland, is running classes in even more isolated Aragon, Spain. I am invited to be the extra pair of hands, though as we’re teaching youngsters, the extra (pleading) voice, or pair of legs (to catch up with/flee from the little ones) may both be more appropriate expressions.

My going away party is an elongated affair (though as nothing compared to the apparently lifelong relationship we enjoy/endure with the pricey and ever-so-easy Crow 2 at which it’s staged) and someone forgets to set the alarm correctly for tomorrow; the same someone who insists on one more drink with the gang; the same someone I resolve to leave firmly behind here in the UK. No, not darling Licky (who kindly transports me to the balloon-port where I get the second flight of the day to Barcelona) but the BB who was relaxed, and chilled and ever so English over here, and hadn’t seen a child since…

Teaching English in Spain? More like teaching aliens on the less-populated, treeless and unshaded side of Mars
, I pen to Licky in desperation. The temperature hovers around the mid-30s and although the ale (‘lager’, the Spaniards pronounce it – mispronouncing our ‘larger’ while ironically serving it in smaller glasses) and (chin-dribblingly succulent) fruits of our labour taste infinitely better after long days in the classroom and racketball court, it is clear why Steve and his partner, Brucinda, run this two-week summer school only once a year (usually in summer). Yet the location is undeniably stunning – Abenfigo is a cactus and elderly senora-strewn village on the edge of nowhere, accessible from sleepy Alcaniz only on the school donkey, which I am forced to ride in and out each day, to the amusement of the children.


Perhaps the most memorable, and saddest, incident I came across while Englishing out here was the almost inevitable rivalry and subsequent scrap between two of my charges. If Barton is my ‘baby rhino’ then Steed was my ‘baby bull’. A strapping lad of around 13 he possessed both an intelligence that gave him little patience with his classmates and a wild, unwilled, and (essentially) ‘uncool’ unruliness that gave them little patience with him. I would eat my packed lunch on a step with Steed each day, discussing the latest news from Pamplona’s occasionally fatal bull runs. Yet anyone who has ever seen the children’s puppet show ‘Grunge Hill’ will know how this particular story ends – with Steed finally cracking on the penultimate day of school, scrapping in the yard with popular wind-up merchant Paulo, until Steve and myself are able to separate them with a well-placed ‘Riiiiiiggggghhhhhhtttttt!’ or two. Steed misses the last day – of water-fights, pantomimes and tuck – and I can only hope he remembers my salami-stained words: ‘it gets better,’ and hope they come true for him as they did, eventually, for me.
Saturday 20 June

Smokeless Uncle Bargreaves has been a professional musician since he was half my age, but tonight will admit to being nervous on stage for the first time in years. At a full Phil’s Harmonica Hall in Liverpool, he and long-time cohort Hovis McSilkut, are backed by a full orchestra – a twitching mass of highly-strung egos – which is nothing if not an intimidating tribute to their near-30 years of tunes. Used to bashing it out at 11, the musos later admit to sneaking clockwork amplifiers beneath the feet of the string players, the better to pump up the volume. Sure enough, around halfway through, the audience – including Licky, the Bargreaves family, and Uncle’s partner Hana – rise for an indiscrete, but very enjoyable, dance. Currently working with Desmond Cakeland, author of the groundbreaking Generation K, Smokeless Unc later agrees to show this grand old/neu man of letters/worldwidewotsitting some of my own craft. I can’t help but wonder whether the cutting-edge contemporariness of my/your mechanical journal may be overshadowed by the quant, very English nature of my befuddling novellas.