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Authors: Gordon Burn

Born Yesterday

BOOK: Born Yesterday
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Born Yesterday

the news as a novel

Carol Gorner

Man is separated from the past (even from the past only
a few seconds old) by two forces that go instantly to work
and cooperate: the force of forgetting (which erases) and
the force of memory (which transforms) …

Beyond the slender margin of the incontestable (there
is no doubt that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo),
stretches an infinite realm: the realm of the approximate,
the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the
exaggerated, the misinformed, an infinite realm of non-
truths that copulate, multiply like rats, and become


Milan Kundera,
The Curtain

The professional dog-walkers make up a loose, slightly uneasy, and yet clearly defined community within the broader community of the park. Some of them go there three and even four times a day, with up to seven or eight dogs in tow (although this contravenes a bye-law and can result in them being pulled over and given a casual warning by the parks’ police who cruise the three wide carriage-drives that run parallel to the river, as well as the popular cottaging areas adjacent to the public toilets and the athletics track).

Most ‘civilian’ dog-walkers keep to the permanent paths which are mapped on a series of prominent, theatrical-looking, lectern-style boards which came in as part of a Lottery-funded facelift the park was given a few years ago; there are similar boards illustrating the breeds of bird in the aviary, and the varieties of trees and shrubs in the Sub-Tropical and ‘English’ gardens.

But because they have packs of dogs to clean up after, and most dogs prefer to do their business on a soft rather than a hard surface, the professionals tend to gravitate
towards the football fields and the other open grassy areas where, in their muddy boots and slightly eccentric headgear and greasy, saliva-slicked all-weather wear, they are as familiar a sight as the seagulls that bicker around the stud-pitted centre-circles – dark fungal pools in these days of torrential rain and summer floods – and the crows that lurk on the bare woodwork of the goals.

The dog-walkers stand around chatting in small groups which are permanently distracted by dogs that want balls thrown for them, or a food reward, or just a show of affection. They are as habitual in their behaviour as the people with them, and the sound of their barking carries across the park.

It is difficult to say exactly why, but the dog-walkers always convey a sense of being reluctantly – even resentfully – pushed into each other’s company. Perhaps it is because the park is a place of work for them instead of the recreational space it is for everybody else; another day at the office. Or maybe it is because they are too similar – middle-aged, white, well-informed, well-spoken – and see their own failings and private sadnesses reflected in each other. What pass in their lives has brought them here, to a pleasant but not particularly salubrious park in south London (a park extremely popular, it has to be said, with location units for films and television), with tersely tied supermarket bags of dogs’ ‘poo’, as they call it, in their pockets and business cards with ‘Doggy Daycare’ printed on them or a van with ‘Happy Tails’ painted along the side?

James is the only one of the dog-walkers I know by name, and the only one whose story I know anything about. James is small and compact, with an unruly head of curly blond hair and a countryman’s face, and probably grew up with the expectation of being something in the City. But something has gone wrong.

How wrong became clear when he was chosen as a subject for the television programme
How Clean Is Your
, whose presenting team of Kim and Aggie had become unlikely celebrities, appearing as guests on chat-shows and putting out a bestselling book of household cleaning hints. Aggie is snooty and small and disapproving; she is the straight-feed for Kim (the star of the show), who is camp and blonde and cartoon-like with her big hair and big bosoms and her marabou feather-trimmed rubber gloves, like a Dick Emery-era pantomime dame.

Both of them went into what appeared to be an unfeigned overdrive of shock and revulsion at the start of the show, which followed them as they tried to bring some sense of order to James’s hole of a flat above a newsagent’s in Brixton. The squalor was genuinely disturbing, almost heroic in a way. It must have been an eye-opener to his well-to-do Chelsea regulars on the other side of the river: blackened bath, dirt-encrusted kitchen sink, the furniture in the living room buried under stiffened grey drifts of used tissues, like the piles of wipe-rags that form the backdrop of certain Lucian Freud paintings. It made you wonder why he continues to carry a video copy of the programme around the park with him which he is happy
to dig out of the backpack filled with his dog-walking paraphernalia and lend to anybody who expresses an interest in seeing it. And yet he seems better for the experience; purged, in a way, with a new spring in his step, a new swagger. And, as he likes to point out, he got a virtually new flat out of it.

Slightly older than James, more melancholic and more of a loner, is a man whose dogs all have a red plastic disc saying ‘Houndbound’, the name of his dog-sitting service, attached to their collars. Aitch, as I have come to think of him, once told me it had taken him two days to think the name up. ‘I used to be stuck at home at night waiting for people to pick their dogs up’, he said, ‘then the landlord found out about it – after twelve years – and I had to start working out of the back of the car. Whacked the prices straight up fifty per cent.’

I once saw Mrs Thatcher, who comes to the park occasionally, stop by one of Aitch’s mid-morning dawdlers – Harry, an exceptionally sweet-natured but easily distracted black brindle-coated cocker spaniel – and discreetly let the plastic ‘Houndbound’ tag run through her second and third fingers without comment. This is one of the techniques she has developed to protect her identity: whenever she feels she may have been spotted by a member of the public – maybe she has a sixth sense for detecting the little jump at the heart that many people experience when they run up against somebody as absurdly famous as she clearly understands herself to be, a jump that can trigger unpredictable and out-of-character responses – she looks
around for a dog to pet, bending almost double so that only the crown of her head or the sheen of her scarf remain visible; failing that, she brings to her companions’ attention a leaf or a flower in bud or a squirrel clinging to the trunk of a tree that she has suddenly found irresistibly interesting.

Mrs Thatcher’s appearances in the park started quite soon after the official announcement of her withdrawal from public life on the advice of her doctors. Security considerations, I suppose, determine the timing and frequency of her visits and also which of the two main car parks, the one on the north side of the park or the one on the south, both of them narrow and gravelled and half a mile long, her detectives decide to use.

But on those first early sightings she was always in the part of the park closest to the river and directly opposite the area of Chelsea where she had lived for many years until she became prime minister, and where she brought up her children. On the first occasion I saw her, I remember she was standing by the rail overlooking the river and pointing with her finger in the direction of the Royal Hospital and Flood Street and the black-and-white, half-timbered, suburban-looking house which seemed to belong to a different world to the primary-coloured, energetically dissolute world of Chelsea and the King’s Road going on barely fifty yards away.

The companion gazing politely across in the direction in which she was pointing that morning was somebody I took to be a nurse or a professional carer; she was wearing
ordinary street clothes but she had the deferential attitude tinged with boredom of the paid listener.

Denis Thatcher, Mrs – by then, of course,
– Thatcher’s husband, had recently died (he died in 2003). The twins, Mark and Carol, were living abroad, in exile from the force-field of their mother’s fearsome Boadicea qualities of power, purpose, and defiant determination. (When she won
I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!
in 2005 and was asked to guess what her mother’s reaction would be, Carol Thatcher replied that her mother probably didn’t even know she was there. Then she added: ‘I don’t even have her phone number.’)

So she was alone, and committed to the care of agency nurses and her close-protection officers from the Special Branch. Eventually, in the course of talking to the women who run the tea kiosk in the park, I worked out that the route the Thatcher party settled on sometimes depended less on operational considerations than more mundane ones: in the summer months a mobile van operates on the edge of the car park running alongside the river, and Mrs T’s detectives occasionally can’t resist the lure of a bacon sandwich. ‘“I know is not real bacon,” he tell me, “but I can’t resist smell.”’ Irina is a recent arrival from Lithuania; she can’t do the upper-class (to her ears) English accent she would like, so she puts on a toffee-nosed expression instead. ‘Well, yes’, she says, ‘what he especk? At this price is not organic!’

Irina and her tea-kiosk colleague, Klavdia, a Ukrainian, have had an interesting introduction to British life. The
man they work for supplies vans to pop festivals and various tourist attractions and, in between their usual duties in the park, in the high season of 2007 they are attending some of the landmark events of a water-logged English summer. Two days before, it had been the Concert for Diana organised by the young princes in memory of their mother at Wembley. A week earlier, Klavdia and Irina had been part of the mud-bath at Glastonbury, where they say they worked for seventy-two hours virtually without a break. ‘All the drug faces,’ Klavdia remembered. ‘Drug faces in long line and the rolls of the bread. Is all I see. I sleep in tent except I no sleep. Mud and noise. All different musics coming from around. Is horrible.’

‘For two days I lie in bed,’ Irina said. ‘For two days I sleep. Then I shout my husband: Vladimir! Bring me food! I need drink! Cigarettes … My legs, my back. Oh! As I stand here still they hurt.’

On the one occasion when I was the next customer after the officers of Mrs Thatcher’s protection squad at their counter, I asked the women when I was sure the detectives were out of earshot whether they had recognised the lady accompanying the men as our former great leader. They rose on their toes and craned their necks to take a look at the slightly crook-shouldered woman who by then was lavishing her attention on an orange Pomeranian dog that I knew went by the name ‘Galliano’. They just shrugged. They were more exercised by the implied slur on the quality of the bacon – ‘At this price is not organic!’ – that they were putting in their sandwiches.

Her casual acquaintance with Aitch, the dog-walker, and his dogs; her association, at one remove, with the grunge and mud and drug culture of Glastonbury; her bacon-sandwich-savouring minders. All of this gave Mrs Thatcher a more human dimension. This was also the effect of course of the clothes she chose – or were chosen for her – to wear for her trips to the park. They were anonymous to the point of invisibility: a full-length camel-hair coat, a headscarf in windy weather, flat suede lace-up shoes of the kind you see advertised in the backs of the colour supplements and that at a first glance I mistook for trainers.

Gone was the heightened reality of the ‘Iron Lady’, scourge of the trade unions, victor of the Falklands War, the best man in the Cabinet. These were old ladies’ clothes. And her hair now – on these walks at least – was nearly an old lady’s hair: not grey (it still had a kind of honeyed glow), but worn close to the head with little of the volume blown and lacquered into it for her appearances in public. (It reminded me of my own mother’s hair in her final years, in fact, when she would wear a transparent nylon ‘snood’ to bed in an attempt – increasingly futile as the week wore on – to preserve a little of the fullness of the shampoo-and-set which, sticking to a lifetime’s habit, she had been given at the start of the weekend.)

On the morning I first saw Mrs Thatcher standing by the railing near the Peace Pagoda, pointing in the general direction of the place where she had lived with her husband and children (a loose gold bracelet set with cloudy
garnet and other coloured stones, familiar from press photographs and her appearances on television over many years, caught the light and mingled with the strong light on the water; it was the only thing connecting this older, failing woman with the vigorous younger one) – that first sighting of the powerful world leader now looking vulnerable and frail brought back something Mrs Thatcher’s former foreign-affairs private secretary Charles Powell had said after her eviction from Downing Street, in November 1990, seventeen years ago now.

With Denis, and in visible distress, tears smudging her make-up, she had been driven straight from Number 10 to the house in the unpromising-looking gated development in Dulwich which was meant to be their new home. It was from there that Mrs Thatcher called Powell after she had been out of office for a few days: she had a plumbing problem and didn’t know what to do. ‘Try the Yellow Pages,’ is what Powell is said to have told her.

Tony Blair’s boast was that he never touched a computer during his years as prime minister. He didn’t own a mobile phone. He didn’t need one; he was surrounded by aides with phones and pagers – battalions of people with personalised ringtones dashing about, staring into BlackBerrys and do-everything mobile devices. ‘Who r u?’, the reply he received to the first text he sent on the mobile he was equipped with when he stepped down as prime minister, he said was typical of his uselessness with any kind of new technology.

That was less than a week ago. Today – 3 July 2007 –
Blair has been out of office for just six days. On 24 June, at a set-piece rally in Manchester, he had finally passed the Labour leadership on to Gordon Brown. On 27 June, Brown had at last settled his craving to become prime minister. Blair had arrived at Buckingham Palace in the official armour-plated car shortly after one to tender his resignation to the Queen; he left the palace in a plain Vauxhall. A few hours later the car that picked him up at Darlington station, for the last leg of the journey to his constituency, was a rusted-out Vauxhall Omega with 42,000 miles on the clock – details that few papers failed to mention.

(A new car – bullet-proof, top-of-the-range – was currently on order from BMW in Munich. The order had been placed by the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism command. To ensure that its security remained uncompromised, in late September it would be delivered by transporter straight from the docks to a police garage in Vauxhall in south London, where, when the locks were thrown, it would be found to contain four illegal migrants who, like their predecessors in the nineteenth century, stepping off the boat in Liverpool believing it to be Manhattan, must have briefly, dismayingly mistaken this way-station with its prefabricated walls and oily rags for their arrival in the New World. The irony of this for Tony Blair, the man who had invested such energy in the issue of national security, the introduction of identity cards, of biometric screening and so on, was also made much of by commentators.)

BOOK: Born Yesterday
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