The Quarry – by Iain Banks

Friday 20th September

This is his last book.  Well, the last which he has written with a view to be published; you never know what scribbles, half-finished scraps, or even self-rejected stuff there might be hanging around for his publishers to try to squeeze a few bucks out of.  It probably wasn’t his best book, but certainly up there as a contender.  It is a book where one of the main characters, Guy, and certainly the one around whom most of the story and the others spin is a man dying of cancer.  This in fact is a book written by a man dying of cancer about a man dying of cancer.  Mr. Banks explained this, just before dying himself, as some sort of a co-incidence.  Well, whether it was or not he has certainly gotten under the skin of Guy, the hero; the protagonist/agonist who rails against everything and everybody with remarkable black humour and an undignified lack of politeness.

It has made me think how I would be if I were diagnosed with terminal cancer, and, like winning the lottery, it is easy to talk about, but until it happens none of us knows just how we would react.

The real hero of the story is the narrator, young Kit, a bit autistic, but trying desperately to learn to both communicate and to empathise, who almost single-handedly looks after his dying father.

The story is about a long weekend where a group of what used to be close friends re-unites for maybe the last time.  Slowly the relationships are unfolded, and as well as being a great observational piece it is a brilliant dissection of a generation of maybe fifty-year-olds and how they have fared in the world.

The Quarry is behind the house, and it’s looming presence is always there, but maybe it is just a metaphor for the gaping void in most of these ‘friends’ lives.  It doesn’t really matter.  What matters is the love and the anger and the beauty of the writing.  And now, sadly I have read all, I think, of his books; though undoubtedly I may return later to read them again.   A great loss, but as Guy might have said, “Oh Fuck Off, will you.”

The Quarry

A Housing Bubble?

Thursday 19th September

There appears to be some discussion at the moment as to whether there is a housing bubble.  Or not? And the answer is that it depends where you live.  In London prices are rocketing at almost 10% a year, whereas the further you go from the capital the smaller the increase until you get to those two regions, the north East and the North West, where prices have in fact fallen back.   Undoubtedly one of the contributing factors to the financial crash in 2008 was rapid increases in the price of housing, mostly in America, but here also.  It was also because these ‘sub-prime’ debts which had funded the purchase of highly inflated houses were being bundled up in ever more complex financial loan deals.  Then when things started to go wrong it all fell down like a house of cards.

The price of property is a finely tuned transaction, between on the one hand what the buyer can afford to borrow, and what the seller thinks is a good price.  The problem Is that thrown into the mix is people’s perception of how much the property they are putting themselves so much into debt to buy will be worth in a few years time.   For years now people have not only bought houses as places to live and bring up their kids in, but as an investment.  And they are, individually, right.  I have benefited incredibly from my first house purchase at £35k, which I eventually sold 25 years later (or the next house I bought anyway) for ten times that amount.

I am now at the point where the two houses I own have been bought with the sole purpose of being nice places to live.

The present ‘bubble’ is being fed by cheaper mortgages (or deposit ratio), and by the Chancellors promise of a tax-payer guarantee of up to 20% of the value of a deposit.  A dangerous precedent.  Why should one group of buyers get help to buy, when the rest of us struggled.  True, those people will probably get into even more debt by installing new kitchens etc: – so creating employment.  But hang on a minute, wasn’t all that debt the main cause of the crash in the first place?  Or are we in danger of repeating the same stupid policies yet again?   We will see.

The Party Conference Season

Wednesday 18th September

And so boring.  These days anyway.  I can remember conferences of old, when real rows occurred, ex-leaders walking off the platform, there was real passion, blood on the Winter Gardens floor.  But now they are just one long, and boring, advert for each party.  The political commentators attempt to make slightly different emphasis into major splits, but even Vince Cable eventually falls into line and votes the right way.  And all this voting is complete nonsense.  The party leadership simply does what it wants to, despite, often in defiance of, and sometimes as some sort of victory over, conference itself.

Really these seaside gatherings are an anachronism.  With e-mail and video conferencing there is no need for them, however for the delegates it is a chance to do a bit of star-gazing rather than navel-gazing.  For once they are allowed up close to the big boys, well not too close of course.

Then there are the big TV interviews, Andrew Marr, Newsnight, all the news channels big guns, before the leader’s speeches; where some sort of clapometer is even employed, stupidly measuring the length of the standing ovation.  And these leaders speeches are awful, written now by a team of writers, and pored over endlessly.  Not to see how good they are, but in case there is any cock-up, any possible misinterpretation.

And the general public won’t give a fuck.  They mostly despise the lot of them; most will vote the same way they always do, and some are so fickle they will be swayed by a good TV performance debate.  Hardly anyone actually cares about the policies, the ideas, the direction the parties are taking.  And yet so much time, so much energy goes into presenting a perfect party conference.  For what?

A Road Sweeper

Tuesday 17th September

When I was a small boy, a very naughty boy I hasten to reassure you, my mother would despair of me and insist that if I carried on in this fashion (lying, cheating, generally being wicked) “A road sweeper I would become’ or ‘end up as.’   This was the very worst thing in her eyes.  Strange that ending up in prison or as a tramp were not held so lowly in her opinion as a road sweeper , but naughty boy that I was, it was the humble sweeper of roads I was destined to become.

Now, I have never seriously contemplated sweeping roads as a career, with or without my mother’s bleassing.  At times I have been ‘between jobs’, and considered being a Postman, or some other complete change of career, but have never sunk so low as to resort to the broom.

There was a very successful series on TV in the seventies, or maybe early eighties called ‘Bread’, where one of the characters, the father of the dysfunctional family, was a road sweeper.  He got lots of laughs as he pushed his trolley around the streets of Liverpool, so the general opinion was shared that of all jobs this must be the lowest.

I used to for a few years start work ridiculously early and would catch a bus before six in the morning.  There was a female road sweeper, about forty-something, thin and wiry, who swept the streets vigorously around the bus stop.  She knew us all, and would always be there with a happy ‘Good Morning.’  I used to think she must be a bit bonkers.

And now, when I walk the dogs there is a young black man who sweeps the streets.  He is polite, assiduous in his duties, smartly dressed and out in all weathers.  The thought strikes me that my mother was wrong.  This is a vitally important job, and we should look up to, and not down upon, these lucky sweepers of roads.  You are out in the fresh air, have a uniform, and really is pushing a broom any worse than pushing a pen, or the keys on a computer?

Normal Service is Resumed

Monday 16th September

After the truly wondrous summer we are slap bang back into our usual weather.  Cold, wet and miserable.  It was, of course hot in France – that was to be expected.  But once or twice arriving back in England I was pleasantly surprised  by the warm sunshine beaming down as I came down the plane steps.  It was the warmest summer here for many a year.  Depending on which statistics you read, for about a decade or so.  And why not?  Why should we not have good weather occasionally.

But here is the strange thing; it is almost as if we feel we do not deserve it.  Self-esteem is so low here in Britain at the moment.  Yes, we did splendidly well in the Olympics, and Andy Murray won Wimbeldon, but who amongst us was not surprised that he lost in New York.  Nobody expects or even thinks we might have a chance of winning the World Cup, not only soon, but ever.

Maybe it is our politician’s fault; telling us how we have overspent, underachieved, gotten ourselves into debt, and almost that we deserve Austerity.  Self denigration used to be an art-form, but lately it has just become another of our dirty little habits.

And so we aren’t at all surprised when storm clouds threaten, when those angry waves of white cloud come dashing in from the West, when we are warned of possibly hurricane force winds, when we reach into the wardrobe for our winter coats, wrap another scarf wround our necks, batten down the hatches and accept that all to soon normal service has been resumed.

Never-ending Wrapping of Presents

Sunday 15th September

Christmas is bad enough, but at least you are sort of prepared for it.  Well, you do have 365 days notice of the wretched event.  As children of course, you just cannot wait to tear open the paper and get to the present, with absolutely no consideration for the adult who has assiduously chosen the paper, and wrapped your presents.  Even as adults there is that anticipatory moment as you pick the parcel up, weighing it, a slight shake to see if it rattles, maybe a squeeze to see it is a jumper, (or the dreaded socks and scarf) before you open, what is invariably somewhat of a disappointment.

Life is complicated enough, dashing to Walton or France every few weeks, without birthdays.  In August I had three.  Yes, three lots of presents to source, to buy, to cart home and then to wrap.  And the cards to buy and write and post.

This month there are two more, and squeezing the birthday visit into my busy schedule is not easy either.  And again, here I am, two sheets of wrapping paper laid on the carpet and sellotaped precariously together to go around yet another big toy for yet another grandchild.  And then the tape sticks to the wrong bit of paper, and when you lift it ever so gingerly it still removes a bit of the pattern.  So you cut off little strips of sellotape and line them up half stuck to the edge of the glass-topped coffee table, but before you can retrieve them and stick all those awkward flaps down they have somehow curled up on themselves and are useless.  You reach for the roll and discover that the sellotape has now stuck itself down, and despite running your fingernail all the way around cannot find where it starts.  And when you do find it all you get is a thin strip a quarter of an inch wide.  In the end the parcel looks hopelessly badly wrapped, but at this point you simply couldn’t care less.

And it is all worth it, when you see little Sam’s eyes open with happiness as he rips the paper away to discover his toy.  Of course, I could just go down the lazy route and buy birthday bags, but where is the fun in that.  So, I end up seeming to spend an inordinate amount of my time endlessly wrapping presents.

People Decide to be Old

Saturday 14th September

I notice more and more that people decide to be old.  Ageing is as much in the mind as it is in the body.  Of course one cannot totally avoid the deterioration of the body, and actually despite the massive industry in ‘Age-Defiance’ would one really want to?   One does feel sorry for those who suffer from medical conditions, but again it is possible to treat many of these ailments with the contempt they deserve.   Most old people have put on quite a bit of weight; this is probably for a good reason as, in our hunter-gatherer development, extra layers of fat kept you warm without burning calories and by implication eating.  But there is thickening out a bit and simply being fat.  Do not people notice the fat going on, layer by layer?  I used to be a 28 inch waist, and have gradually gone up to a 34, but when my belt appears to be getting tight, I try not to eat so much.  You really don’t need second helpings, so ignore the desire to fill up your plate for a second time.  Likewise, eating between meals is unnecessary, and will make you fat.  Just don’t buy stuff.  It is that simple.

Work, too.  Or even when you are semi-retired like me, try to keep yourself busy.  Have an agenda for every day.  Oh, and do NOT watch daytime TV.  Nothing is designed to turn you into an old person quicker.   Try and keep up with new ideas, trends, technology, even if at times you feel it is all too much for you.  Have young children around you as much as possible.  I am now enjoying a round of five (or six – depends which way you count them) grandchildren, all under five.  They certainly keep you on your toes.

Last and most important of all, don’t keep telling yourself, and others, that you are getting old.  They will start believing it, and worst of all, so will you.

I didn’t mention sex, but it goes without saying that nothing ages you like stopping wanting or doing sex (just avoid mirrors).

I can’t see Diddly-Squat

Friday 13th September

“Pass me a tissue, I can’t see Diddly-Squat.”  On hearing this perfectly ordinary phrase this morning suddenly made me go all autistic and begin wondering why on earth my partner should want to see that famous old R’n’B singer Bo Diddely concertina his legs and assume the position, preparatory to, during or after defecating.

Why do we use such silly expressions, and where do they come from in the first place?  Language is constantly evolving, of course, and I am often torn between the two disciplines.  There is the ‘proper’ brigade, who insist that there is correct usage and nothing else should ever be allowed.  Though just pick up a novel from the thirties, Somerset Maugham for example, and you will see how in just eighty years what is considered correct usage now would not have been tolerated then.  Go even further back to the Victorians, and they were using turns of phrase which have either a completely different meaning or have fallen out of use today.  Then there is the modern lot who think that ‘pidgin’ English, facebook scribble, lack of punctuation and even text abbreviation all somehow add to our ever-expanding vocabulary, and eventually enrich us.  I am all for multi-culturalism.  Well, who isn’t?  Or is allowed to say they aren’t?  And many words from our colonial past have slipped into our language and roll off the tongue easily.  I have more difficulty with facebook and twitter, where instant response un-thought through words and symbols spill out often lacking both punctuation and meaning.

But anyway, my glasses are misting up too, and for the life of me I can’t see Diddly-Squat.

Strangely Uninterested in Football

Thursday 12th September

I used to be quite a football fan.  Never a fanatic, or a season ticket holder, but I followed the ebb and flow of the Premier League.  And as to international competitions, I loved them.  But now, somehow I have become uninterested.  England have recently played two games in their World Cup Qualifiers, and I haven’t bothered to watch either of them.

Is it the lackluster performances, though they did very well against Moldova.  But that is the point, isn’t it?   Moldova were never going to get through, there was only one other team in our group likely to succeed, and we could only draw against them. Twice.   But maybe my disillusion goes deeper.  Where is the manager to enthuse us?   Roy Hodgson hardly excites anyone, and his hand-wringing apologies are pathetic to watch.  At least Harry seemed to care.  The players too are boring in the extreme.   We have no out and out strikers, no goal-poachers even.  Where is the Lineker, the Shearer, the Beckham to give us belief.

But what is almost more depressing is that the competition itself will be held in Brazil.  So the result is almost guaranteed already.  And should a European side actually upset the Samba apple-cart it will be Spain or Italy or Germany, not us.  It will be shown late at night I expect too, as they are 6 hours behind us.  So, even if we limp over the qualifying line, I doubt we will even get out of our first group.  I can remember the excitement of only a few years ago, with Sven at the helm, and a super team, three lions on my shirt and all of that.  And for the life of me I can discern no excitement now at all.

The Rebirth of Porridge

Wednesday 11th September

As a child I took porridge for granted.  In the summer we had Corn Flakes, or Weetabix, and as soon as the chill winds of Autumn started to blow it would be porridge .  My mum taught me how to make it.  Two and a half (if you want it thick) or 3 cups of cold water, and one of porridge oats.  Put in a saucepan and stir constantly in a figure of eight with a wooden spoon until it starts thickening and then erupting like lava from a volcano.  Turn the heat down and continue stirring for five more minutes.   Pour into a bowl and stir in dark brown muscavado sugar until it is all melted.  Delicious.

I was horrified to discover that the Scots, who apparently invented porridge (though a variant is eaten in all parts of the globe) add salt and NEVER sugar.  Others apparently make it with milk.  YUCK.

I used to make porridge for my son too.  It was and still is the perfect start to those cold winter mornings.  I still have it occasionally, when time permits.

And now they have all manner of microwaveable junk that pretends to be porridge.  They even sell individual pots, (as Frank Zappa used to remark – just add hot water, it makes its own sauce) which look even more disgusting.  I have never tried this instant variety.  I am a stickler for the old school of real oats and water, and that secret ingredient, muscavado sugar, which if not stirred in completely leaves a dark slick of pure brown lusciousness at the bottom of the bowl.  Even better.

Nowadays I mostly have an almond croissant as my sugar-rush breakfast, but all around me I see the rebirth of porridge.  Young women and men too have suddenly discovered porridge, here they are on all sides of me, indulging in thick gloopy porridge with honey or sugar sprinkled on top.  Strangely I don’t fancy joining them.  Maybe I need the anticipation of cooking it for maximum enjoyment.