July 31, 2005

The usual Standard

Veronica Wadley
Evening Standard
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 2TT

Dear Ms Wadley

I wonder whether I could express my concern about a couple of headlines that the Standard has run in the last few days.

On the morning of Friday 22 July a young man, Jean Charles de Menezes, was shot dead at Stockwell Tube station. Later that day, on newsstands all across London, hoardings for your newspaper read as follows:


At the time this headline appeared nobody was in a position to say that Mr de Menezes was a bomber. He might reasonably have been described as "a suspected bomber", since that was (one assumes) the reason why he was shot, but there was surely no justification for calling him, definitely, a "bomber". This was made starkly clear the following day when it transpired that Mr de Menezes was an entirely innocent man, in no sense a "bomber" of any sort. Nevertheless, not only had your headline already stated otherwise, but your claim that he was a "bomber" remained visible all over the city until the hoardings were replaced on Monday. I cannot have been alone in finding this thoroughly distasteful. In all likelihood those close to Mr de Menezes will have found it added to their distress.

Even before the revelation of Mr de Menezes' innocence I found it hard to believe that you had run the headline. I did however feel sure that you would realise your error and refrain from repeating it. However, exactly one week later, on Friday 29 July, following the arrest of a suspect for the failing bombings of 21 July, you ran the following headline:


You also, I believe, ran a headline 2 BOMBERS ARRESTED in a later edition. Neither headline was qualified by any adjective such as "alleged" or suspected", nor even were the words bomber and bombers allotted quotation marks. It was simply stated as a matter of fact that those arrested were guilty of being bombers.

This is surely unacceptable on a number of grounds. The first is that it is not right to state that somebody suspected or accused of an offence is guilty when there is likely to be a criminal trial, on exceedingly serious charges, in the future. The second is that do so is liable to be prejudicial to the conduct of that trial. The third is that, having run the first headline about Mr de Menezes that turned out to be wholly incorrect and wrong, to run another headline of similar kind just a week later seems, to me, to validate, to approve, the headline you wrote about Mr de Menezes.

What worries me most about this is that you must, surely, be aware of the legal and journalistic issues involved, but chose to go ahead anyway.

I would appreciate it if you could find time to answer the following specific questions:

1. Why did you run a headline referring unconditionally to Mr de Menezes as a bomber?

2. Do you now regret this, and have you apologised to his family for doing so?

3. Why did you run headlines referring unconditionally to the suspects arrested last week as "bombers"? Why did you not qualify the term, as most other newspapers did? What was your attitude to the problem that reporting of that kind could be considered prejudicial to a future trial? If you do not consider it prejudicial, why not?

Many thanks for taking the time to read this letter, to which I would hope to read a reply.



July 26, 2005

Fattest of cats

Alfred is dead. I knew he was dead as soon as I saw bad news was the email's subject line. The news was worse than bad. A few nights ago, while he was sleeping outside the front door, he was attacked by a Staffordshire terrier. Though the neighbours pulled the dog away, it was too late. Alfred's sternum was broken and his thorax punctured. The injuries were too bad to give any real hope of recovery and it was agreed not to make the attempt. I was shocked to hear the news, shocked and shaken up. Alfie was a friend of mine. He was my favourite cat.

For two and a half years I looked forward to coming home each night because I would see him when I got back. Often - generally if no-one was home before me, so he was hungry for his dinner - he'd be waiting along the road, emerging from the garden or from behind a stationary car. At one point there were three cats in the house and each of them would be waiting along the road, all at different points, until all three were scurrying along behind me as I walked. (At such times, especially if it was growing dark, I was half-inclined to cry "my cheeldren of the night!!" for the benefit of the rest of the street.)

When I turned from the street towards the front door, the cats, without any apparent increase in exertion, would accelerate and appear in front of me, all unwilling to be any slower getting inside, all unwilling to be any further from their bowls, than was absolutely necessary. None more unwilling than Alfie. For it was the prospect of dinner in the evening that gave meaning to his afternoon.

I have a photo of him at my desk, crouching by a pot in the garden, showing off his white front, his black back and his little pink nose. I have a lot of photos of him, though I never got the pose I really wanted. I wanted a snap of Alfie sitting back, with his front paws in the air, much in the manner of a teddy bear: a pose the feline form is not designed to allow unless a lot of weight has been added to the bottom. But Alfie had added plenty of weight to the bottom.

The last time he was weighed, the scales reached 5.9 kilogrammes, which was half a kilogramme more, in the opinion of the vet, than was Alfie's proper weight. The opinion of the vet and the opinion of Alfie himself were somewhat at odds on this question, since Alfie felt his proper weight was always approximately one breakfast more than he had already eaten. Perhaps he just wanted to stock up for fear of missing it the next day, since when breakfast was actually being prepared he would crawl as far up the front of the dishwasher as he could, clawing for the bowl lest I change my mind at the last minute and give his food to someone else.

Clawing, mewing, pleading, stretching, wishing that the extra inches he had added to his width had been added to his length instead. While I spooned the Whiskas into his bowl I would sympathise: oh, no! what's going to happen Alfie? suppose he changes his mind? and then, relieving him from his agonies, lower the bowl to ground level with the promise: we shall not let poor Alfie starve.

He would eat with an enthusiasm, with a will, that I have never seen elsewhere in beast nor man. He didn't eat so much as shovel. He approached his food not from the top of the pile, as any normal cat would do, but from the side, with an action like a JCB, pushing into it, scooping from below while munching from above. No morsel could escape, except by being pushed over the edge of his bowl and falling to the floor. He attacked it, he harrassed it, he demolished it. He forced his food to flee. The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, but the Assyrian was no match for Alfie falling on his breakfast. In no other activity did he demonstrate such energy and determination: indeed, in no other activity did he very often demonstrate any energy or determination. But breakfast was the making of him, and it made a lot of him. He loved his breakfast, and I loved to watch him eat.

Nor was he sated once breakfast had been consumed, for he would immediately start on a second breakfast and never mind that it belonged to another cat. Had they been unwise and unfortunate enough to eat more slowly than he had - which they would, for that was true of any cat, not just his housemates - they would simply be muscled out of their place on the principle that his need (and his capacity to muscle) was greater than theirs. If they were to get their share it was necessary to intervene, to pick up Alfie and deposit him outside, and lock the intervening door. Against which he would press himself, suffering at the thought and sound of breakfast being present, yet being eaten by another cat than him.

Guthrum, however, was usually too picky to eat her breakfast at one go and would usually walk off and leave half of it (oh Alfie, look, she doesn't even want it, it's so unfair) meaning that her bowl had to be placed on the work surface, another bowl put on top of it, and hopefully the cat and her breakfast would be reconciled later on. Alfie knew about this and occasionally, later, the bowl would be found empty, like an Egyptian tomb plundered by thieves. Sometimes it was even possible to catch him at it, or nearly catch him at it: one would walk into the hallway and hear a thud from the kitchen, which involved Alfie having dropped to the floor on thinking he'd been overheard. He was not light on his feet: one often saw him thinking very carefully before he made a jump. He was, as I have said, a heavy cat. A very heavy cat.

Attached to the front of the fridge was a photograph of Alfie, in which he was to be seen investigating the contents of the fridge. To think of Alfie was to think of food. Come to that, to think of food was to think of Alfie. From this love of food he acquired nearly all his nicknames, the exception being Alfredo, which I occasionally rendered as in Antoine de Caunes' Rapido (Alf! Alf! Alf! Alf-re-do!) or sometimes introduced for colour when I was maundering to the cats in French. (Ici, Guthrum, le chat qui marche. Et ici, Alfredo, le chat qui mange. Il est gros, Alfredo.) But other than that I created many nicknames deriving from his love of food. Mr Creosote. Alfred the Weight. Captain Fat. Supersize Me. Two Breakfasts. Two breakfasts? He'd have liked to have a breakfast for each separate nickname.

I also sang to him, making use of the happy circumstance that in English, cat is a rhyme for fat. I did Rodgers and Hammerstein:

There is nothing like a cat
Nothing quite so fat
There is nothing quite so fat
That is anything like a cat!

and Harburg and Allen:

We're off to see the kitty
The wonderful kitty the cat
He really is a bit of a kit
Although he's extremely fat.

I sang of his waistline as the poet sings of the courage of the King. Of Alfie's courage I sang but little, for he was not a brave cat, unless by "brave" one means merely the absence of fear. He was not disturbed by Guy Fawkes' night. While other cats, at the first explosion, will scuttle to the cellar and refuse to come out till morning, Alfie would take no interest in the racket, however long it lasted. It took him no time at all to establish that the bangs were nothing that he wanted to eat, and little more time to establish that they were not going to eat him. Consequently they were little more than an irrelevance, affecting him only in so far as they affected his sleep.

They did not, on the whole. Once he settled down he was not the sort of cat who sleeps with one eye open. He was, rather, the sort of cat who shuts down for the duration. In fact, he was the sort of cat who often looks half asleep when awake and walking around - his was not the alertness of the tiger - and when he walked around it was usually only to move from one sleeping-place to another. This, he did more rarely than many other cats do, but he was more amenable than many other cats to being moved from one sleeping-place to another. It was, for instance, entirely possible, should the settee be required, to scoop him up from his place on the cushion, take him outside and deposit him on his favourite stair instead. As long as he maintained much the same shape throughout, he was perfectly happy with the new arrangement.

Guthrum, in contrast, would scream and howl, and scratch, and bite, and thrash about, and squirm, and if you tried to tip her off the computer chair, would hang on to it even at a vertical angle as if she was on the deck of the Titanic. Alfie exhibited no such desperation. Most of the time, one sleeping-place was quite as good as another. But he did possess his species' habitual innovation when it comes to finding new and attractive places to sleep. He was, for instance, once discovered in a hammock that he had created from a sheet that was draped over a clothes-horse.

He was not overfond of staring. Cats, on the whole, are formidable starers. Many of the houses further down my street are like those New York houses which have a row of stone steps leading up to a raised front door: I went past one the other night and there were three cats, positioned on the top two steps, staring at me.

It was hypnotically beautiful. Three piercing pairs of eyes tracking me from the gloom. Cats have power in their stare, and they like to exert it. In pursuit of that occupation they are formidable sitters. Nobody sits like a cat does. Nobody spends quite so much time selecting the place, position and angle of their sit. More often than not, this is so that they may take the high ground and look down on you physically, to match they way they look at you metaphorically.

Alfred did this but rarely. He more than once leapt onto my chest of drawers in order to stare down at me when I was lying on my bed, but as leaping was an activity which he preferred to avoid (indeed, he tried to avoid activity as such) he preferred the lower to the higher ground, eschewing fences and walls for chairs and floors. He liked tables, too, not because of the vantage point they gave but because of the flat surface and the generosity of spread. Once he settled on a flat surface he would spread out, encroaching little by little on the slowly disappearing space around him. If you let him sit next to the PC as you typed, before long you would be typing round and over him as he began to envelope the keyboard.

Newspapers he was attached to like a comfort blanket. If one was unfolded on the table he would summon, not only sufficient energy to jump up and appropriate it for a rug, but sufficient energy to do so several more times, seeing if he could wear out your willingness to remove him before his ability to keep on jumping ran out. If you had breakfast on the table, that willingness was redoubled or even trebled. No plate could be left unattended lest it be licked.

I said that he was not a brave cat. He was not, at any rate, a hunter. It was too much effort. Alfie had a fine sense of what was, or was not, worth his while, and as a matter of principle his inclination was to not. In the matter of chasing other creatures, there were very few that were neither faster, nor more nimble than he was, nor able to escape by either climbing or being able to fly. This left very little by way of game, save slugs. These, when they infiltrated the kitchen, he would stalk, and subsequently eat. (Unless, that is, there were several of them together near his bowl, when he would get scared and nervous and try to keep away from them. I said that he was not a brave cat.)

It is rare for the domestic cat to hunt with any intention of eating its prey, and Alfie was not wise to go against his nature, since he would usually be sick, leaving the entrails of the slug in the resulting pile. Alfie was sick often, as the habitual overeater is wont to be, but he was curiously considerate in his vomiting, preferring, almost always, to make his deposit on a smooth floor that could be cleaned up much more easily than if he had puked up on the carpet. But Alfie knew who his friends were. They were the people who fed him and cleaned up after he was sick. He was a friendly cat.

He was not often friendly to Guthrum, and they lived up to the historical record (without, of course, the reconciliation) of the warring parties after which they were named, by fighting each other through the whole of their disputed domain. Occasionally they would grab each other and roll around scratching and screeching to such an extent that it resembled a fight in a cartoon, with claws and teeth emerging out of a cloud of confusion.

Remarkably, nobody ever seemed to get hurt in these fights, though Alfred got the better of them, having an enormous advantage in weight and bulk, if not in the sheer aggression which was Guthrum's speciality and her inevitable response. Sometimes, in fact, he would simply jump on top of her to make his weight advantage count. But whatever the tale of the tape, it was usually Guthrum who did most of the running away, which she did with speed and ease, often running out of the back door, through the garden and over the fence.

As a rule, no sooner had she done so, and Alfie had returned to the house to claim it for his very own, than she would come back to have another go. In that house, therefore, there was a lot of separating cats, a lot of carrying them off to separate rooms and a lot of shutting doors to keep them in for as long as we could stand the scratching. But they were a wonderful double-act, as different as two cats could be, one fat, one thin, one placid, one aggressive, one friendly, one ferocious, one trying to be a teddy bear, one trying to be a tiger. They were balanced, more equally matched than the immediate result of their close-range battles tended to suggest.

Besides, Guthrum, even if she was denied her chance for immediate revenge, would choose to take it cold instead. After a fight she would let time elapse, until Alfred had long forgotten it. She would then hurry up to him and punch him on the nose, as many as three times in rapid succession, before running away as if she had knocked off a policeman's helmet. Alfie would put on a puzzled expression, before, undamaged, sloping off for another period of sleep.

He had relatively little contact with other cats, unlike Guthrum who would traverse several gardens for the chance to take on two at once. Out the back, Alfie rarely went much further than the garden next door, the fence on that side being full of holes, the house being full of people (and therefore full of people to whom he could plead an unlikely hunger) and the sound of tin on bowl, or of somebody opening a cupboard, or of somebody looking at a cupboard, still being close enough to hear. His territory was the kitchen and he needed little else.

He had a doppleganger though, or at least a close match, a tom of similar size, colour and pattern, but one who unlike Alfie roamed as far as he could go. He seemed to wish, Alexander-like, to claim territory from one end of the street to the other and across both sides of the street, front gardens and back, an entire empire. He even came in the back door one night and marked the kitchen as his own, something which provoked a cacophony of howling, uniting Alf and Guthrum in mutual protection against a common enemy.

The doppleganger came into the back garden on a few occasions, to which I was alerted, at various late hours of the night, by the keening that Alfie began, as he and the doppleganger faced each other across the garden while I struggled into my shoes. I would then go out and saw off the intruder, shooing him off while Alfred stayed close to my side for safety.

Out the front, Alfie usually kept quite close to the house, rarely going much further than immediately across the road. The exception came when I was off to work. He would follow me down the street, ignoring all my pleas for him to turn around until I would, inevitably, have to pick him up and carry him home, regardless of how late I might be running. I didn't want him following me so far that he lost track of where I was, because I feared that if he did, he wouldn't be there to chase me home when I came back in the evening.

I loved to pick him up, though. He had no problem with being picked up, or held, or turned over on his back and tickled till his dignity was lost entirely. He could be carried round all day, and probably would have been if he could have made that happen. He would simply pop out his paws and place them on my chest as I carried him about. He would let me carry him while I sat, settling in the cradle of my arms and, when he knew me well enough, stretching out a paw a few affectionate inches. How I beamed. And sometimes, when I was laid out on the settee, when he came and plonked himself, with the heaviest of plonks, on my chest, he would stretch out as he settled into sleep and put his paw all the way up to my neck. So I would hug him, gently, back, and we would nod off in mutual harmony, man and cat together. He was so good for me.

He was measurably good for me. In times that have been difficult, in times that sometimes have been desperately difficult, to share affections with a cat, especially with a cat that one could pick up and hug, kept me both sane and human. He was there. He was always there, cuddly, unchanging and reliable. For thirty months I loved to watch him, to listen to him, to separate him from Guthrum, to have him on my chest, to sing to him, to make sure he was fed. But most of all I loved to pick him up, to come down to the hallway or come in from outside, to pick him up with one swift movement and rest him on top of my arms and to tell him: Alfie! Alfredo! You cat! You fat cat! Fattest of cats! FATTEST OF CATS!

Well, you cannot hold someone so often in your arms and then fail to know the pain they feel. So I know pain. I know Alfie's pain, and I know mine. For Alfie is dead, and dead in such a dreadful way, attacked while sleeping, when he loved to sleep, by the front door where he felt so safe. Unable to escape, unable probably to understand what was happening or why. I am devastated to hear about his end, when he was such a cat, such a fantastic cat, my favourite cat of all the cats that I have ever known. He should have lived to be a hundred, slowly plodding between eating-place and sleeping-place, hammocking in the washing, puking in the hallway, brawling with Guthrum, clawing his way up the dishwasher, shovelling up his breakfast.

If he could not have the hundred years that he deserved, he should at least have had his natural span, another ten years or a dozen. But he did not, and while I am angry at the world for many reasons, just now - even while bombs are going off in my city, while the police are assassinating innocent strangers from abroad - I am angry about this. He was my friend, my fat and lovely friend, he was fabulous, he was the fattest of cats. He was Alfred and I loved him and I'm angry that he's dead.

July 16, 2005

Eeyore moment

"Tomorrow", said the bloke on the weather forecast earlier, "is likely to be much the same as today".

"Tomorrow's always the bloody same as today", I thought.

July 14, 2005

Unlikely to resume

Whenever somebody's applying for a job, and other people are advising them as to how to fill out the application form or how to conduct themselves in the interview ("when they ask if you have any faults, say you're too much of a perfectionist") I tend to reflect that this is one of these subjects on which everybody is an expert despite the fact that nobody actually knows anything.

After all, how would one become an expert on performing well in job interviews? Surely only by experience, by having many, many interviews. And how would one come to have many, many interviews? Surely only by failing them. If you were an expert, if you knew what it took to succeed in the interview, you'd have got the job, wouldn't you? The only way you gain experience in job interviews is by proving you're no good at them. And the best you can ever get at them would be adequate.

I had a similar thought when watching Newsnight yesterday evening and hearing Mark Urban refer to the London suicide bombers as "relatively inexperienced". Relatively compared to whom? Experienced suicide bombers? And how would one possibly gain any experience of a job like that?

July 13, 2005

Thank you Captain Librarian, you've saved the city

There were two girls using the PC behind me in the internet café where I'm writing. One said to the other:

"How many s's in 'desert'?"

"Two", said her friend. "One", I said, speaking up in lieu of a dictionary.

July 12, 2005

Full house

Yesterday I found myself a B&B in Swansea. I booked it in the tourist information centre next to the bus station and having done so, walked down Oystermouth Road, a short way west of the city centre, to collect the key. On my way there I noticed signs for a theatre, and coming back a few minutes later, after dropping off my bags, I passed a large, squarish building, with British and Welsh flags flying outside it. I took it, at first, to be the same.

There was even a small queue of people outside what I imagined was the box office, a small hut-like structure at the front. Nearly all of them seemed to be women, in their twenties and thirties, of working-class appearance, some of them with children. I looked around to see if I could see any advertising posters to tell me what act had attracted their interest. After I had looked in vain for a short time it occurred to me that this was because the building was, in fact, Swansea Prison.

July 11, 2005

Bring on the empty houses

I stayed the last two nights in a guest house in Newport in South Wales (I am supposed to be in a chess tournament this week, but am not well enough to play). I have never been sure what the distinction is between a "guest house" and a "bed and breakfast" but this cannot have been the latter, as there was no breakfast this morning.

I thought there was something odd when my room went uncleaned on Sunday. The bed went unmade (except by me) and the rubbish bin unemptied. I was in nearly all day but I heard no knock on the door. How strange, I thought. But it didn't matter very much. I can make my own bed well enough and the rubbish wasn't overflowing. I was only there for two nights and I no more needed my room cleaned than I needed the plug that was missing from the basin.

Then, this morning, I got up on the alarm - the alarm of my mobile phone, having forgotten to bring an alarm clock - watched the news headlines, shaved and showered, left my room and walked across the lobby to the dining room. It was locked. It was definitely locked, as I tried the handle this way and that several times before giving up.

It was half-past eight, the same time I had eaten the day before. I had gathered that the place was less than packed. In all likelihood I was the only person staying, as the only other people at breakfast the previous morning had paid off the landlady while I was there. Still ,I might have been the only person staying, but I didn't expect to be, apparently, the only person in.

I once went, or tried to go, to a showing of Face at a cinema in Ilfracombe. But when I was the only one who showed up, they cancelled the showing on the ground that it wasn't worth it for an audience of one. I had not, however, ever expected breakfast at a guest house to be cancelled on the same grounds. Or if it was, you'd think they might let me know. Or allow me access to the kitchen.

I could have rung the bell, but to be honest I was tired and fed up - I have been monumentally tired and fed up of late - and I really didn't feel like an argument or even like waiting around for an apologetic breakfast. (I actually felt like cancelling my cheque for the two nights, but when I called the Nat West they told me it couldn't be done. Instead I left the keys on the front desk with a note saying WHAT HAPPENED TO BREAKFAST?)

What was more, when I peered through the darkened window into the office and kitchen area, I was sure I could see someone there - a figure standing in the kitchen. However, the lights were off and I couldn't make out more than an outline. I conjectured that it might actually be the landlady, who had presumably forgotten I was there and thought she had an empty house and that there was therefore no need to cook breakfast. She must have then heard me get up, seen me out in the lobby, saw me look at her and freeze, expecting me to say something, or ring the bell. So probably she looked back at me and hoped that I would decide (as I did) that she might well be an optical illusion, and go away.

Or perhaps I am an optical illusion. Perhaps I am invisible (or something like that) and I can pass unseen, not at my will but at the will of the rest of the world. I am not really here. It would explain a lot. It would explain more than I can possibly say.

July 09, 2005

At least let me see your faces

In The Man Who Fell To Earth, Rip Torn is thrown to his death, from his apartment many floors up from the street, by men wearing motorcyle helmets. Just before they throw him through the window, he screams at them:

At least let me see your faces!

The last request goes unfulfilled. At the count of three, he is thrown through the window to his death.

I haven't seen the film in maybe twenty years - possibly I saw it too often, as a student - but I still remember the line. Possibly it stuck in my mind, when I was younger, because I didn't understand why it would matter whether he saw their faces or not. Or possibly it stuck in my mind because it does make a difference, and I realised this. Whatever people do, they must do to your face. I think this is what bothers me, particularly, about the bombs that went off yesterday.

I don't much like bombs going off in my home city. I don't much like them going off anywhere. If somebody feels they have to destroy as many innocent civilians as they can, I wish at least they would do it on the American model. I wish that they would take a gun - for if they can make a bomb they must surely be anle to obtain a gun - and having taken that gun, shoot as many of us as they can until they get gunned down themselves. Sometimes suicide bombers (if that, in London, is what they were) are called cowardly. It is a stupid suggestion, for there is nothing cowardly in going to your death. But there are degrees of courage nonetheless. It would be rather more courageous to pick up a gun than it was to let off a bomb.

I think I have a fear of bombs that I do not have of guns. Easy for me to say, when I have never, to my knowledge, seen a loaded gun. But I think there is a fear of being maimed, of a bomb going off and losing a leg, an arm, or half my face, and some sort of idea that at least if they shoot you, then at least you're safely dead.

Rationally, it must be nonsense. Guns fire pieces of metal that rip through your flesh at extraordinary speed. bullets are maiming machines. Soldiers lose legs and arms to bullets just as they do to mines and mortars. The wounded outnumber the dead. But for all that, the irrational thought persists. At least, it goes, the man with a gun would try to kill me. They wouldn't just let a blast maim, wound and kill in actuarial ratios. They would look me in the eye and try to kill me, specifically me, even if the only reason to pick on me was that I was the person they looked at next, after they shot the person they looked at before. But they would look at you. You would see their face.

There is something incredibly treacherous about a bomb, whether it be a bomb on a bus in Tavistock Square or a bomb dropped out of a plane in Afghanistan. You cannot see the face of the man who dropped it. You may see the face of the man who carried it on board the bus - but the treachery remains, because you do not know what they are doing. They are keeping a hurtful secret from you.

Nor, for that matter, when they are in their plane, or even when they carry the bomb themselves, do they see you. And while the suicide bomber sees you - sees you very well - they need make no explanation afterwards. One will tell you nothing: the other one (or the men who sent them) will tell you lies and tell them when it is too late. The bomb kills those who it was not intended to kill? It is not their fault. The bomb let them down, it didn't do its job, it didn't hit the target it was meant to hit. I didn't mean to hurt you, says the betrayer. I'm sorry, it wasn't meant to be that way. The bomber either has nothing to say, or he says the same - it wasn't meant to be that way. And you answer - what way was it supposed to be? What did you imagine was going to happen other than my being hurt?

At least let me see your faces! At least they would have had to look you in the eye, and decide, knowing that you were watching them decide, whether you were to live or whether you should die. Because the people who take those decisions take them when you cannot see them. Later, if they are cornered, they will tell you that they didn't realise what those decisions meant. But they did, of course. They did. That was why they took them when they did. They took them when they didn't have to look at you. The gunman at least is better than the betrayer. He looks at you, and shoots you even though you looked back at him. Much rather him, much better him, than those who, though they may let you live, speak kindness to your face and then do harm behind your back.

I don't like betrayers, liars, moral cowardice. It's personal - and being personal, therefore hits home, therefore evokes fear and loathing, in a way that simple moral disapproval, even absolute contempt, could never do. You fear some things - in, say, much the same way as I fear the Catholic Church - above and beyond the way you would, or could, dislike them purely by dint of ethics and of reason. I fear betrayal more than anything else in the world. I fear people doing things behind my back to hurt me. And I think, when I wonder what it is that shakes me up about the bombs, whether it is not that same aspect that I fear the most. (Or maybe I just see betrayal, and the fear of betrayal, in everything. But the effect is much the same.)

At least let me see your faces! I don't like bombs, be they big or small. I don't like bombs by the roadside, bombs in restaurants, bombs in trains, bombs that fall on fields and hospitals and houses. And I don't like betrayals, lies sweet-sounding, things that people say because they can get away with saying them. It is the maiming that is the problem. Bombs have no faces, and the people who let them off keep their faces hidden. Bombs are betrayers: they go off behind your back. Bombs go off and people lie. And other people end up maimed.

July 04, 2005

An offer I declined

I often feel the lack of countryside in London. I felt it today, this afternoon, at almost five o'clock, too late to do a great deal about it. When I used to live in Oxford, I could be in the countryside within a few minutes of the craving so to do, a short cycle off the estate taking me outside the city. It was possible, in fact, to walk out of the front door and find myself, within a few minutes, lost in the dark in a rape field and hemmed in by cows while trying to find a short cut to a village pub before last orders.

In London, no such thing is possible. Even finding anything that can be described - be properly described - as countryside is hard enough. It always amazes and exasperates me, how many people are able to respond to my complaint by recommending Hampstead Heath. The Heath is nice, but it is not and cannot be the countryside. The countryside is not a tiny patch surrounded by the city. It is the larger part which itself surrounds the city and in doing so, makes that city seem small. It is not the countryside if one goes over the brow of a hill and sees just below one's feet the largest city in the continent of Europe. Hampstead Heath is no more the countryside than is Tooting Bec Common. Or Clapham Common, for that matter. One may as well claim that London gives access to the sea, by pointing at the Thames and claiming that it represents an estuary.

At least in South London one feels a little less hemmed in by the city. For some reason the buildings do not seem quite so high, the roads a little wider, the sky therefore a little more visible than it is on the other side. One feels the promise of countryside, even if it is only an illusion caused by an absence of building. I was struck, not long after moving down here, when on a bus journey that took me into Mitcham the clutter of buildings suddenly disappeared: between Mitcham and Croydon, looking south, there was suddenly a horizon, a view of fields with no housing at the other side. There was suddenly a gap, an end, an edge. I cherished that, and felt much more at home in South London than I had ever done in the North London where I was born.

But, even then, it is not countryside. To see that requires a train, and time enough to travel. The most that one can do with a couple of buses at five on a Sunday afternoon is the Kent suburbia. There are places that look as though they ought to be countryside, just by their names on the map: Elmers End, for instance, or West Wickham to which, eventually, I took a bus. But they are, alas, simply suburban outposts - villages, if they call themselves that, in name alone, no more bucolic in character than a pelican crossing.

Even on the map they betray their real nature by comparison with the much more impressive names that lie just south-east of the grille of the A-Z, like Pratts' Bottom and Badgers Mount, whose absence of apostrophe indicates, presumably, a verb. One imagines that life in these places is no more rural than it is in Pimlico, but if one is rather more likely to see a stockbroker than a scythe one is, at least, equally unlikely to set eyes on Canary Wharf. You need to feel that all that is gone. You will not see it. You will not hear it. You will not come upon it suddenly, by accident. And you will be able to look around you and see nothing that you recognise. I need that, often, in London. I need it because London will not let me have it.

Eventually I got as far as Hayes, by way of a couple of buses and a train ride from the penultimate stop on the commuter line to the final one. (I almost said, on the branch line, but the nature of a branch line is that it branches off a main line, and this line goes directly in to Charing Cross.) Beyond there was Hayes Common, and beyond that there is, at least, some sort of countryside, or at least some space, some Green Belt before Biggin Hill. The other side of the space one leaves the area of the A-Z entirely, which would seem remote enough for most inhabitants of London, even those who think that the city stops at the southern fringe of the Underground network.

I might have gone further, had I had the time, but it was already close to seven when I arrived on the common. There were few people about, mostly walking their dogs, and one cycling couple of whom the lagging, female half complained: "this is a really pleasant bit and you insist on going fast!" to her speeding partner. Probably to get away from you, I misanthropically responded, probably loud enough for her to hear but not quite loud enough for her to be sure what I'd said. After that there was barely time to find a comfortable log to sit on, in the wooded area, and read a couple of articles in the London Review of Books, before the air became perceptibly blurred - more the anticipation of twilight than the twilight itself - and I decided to plod my weary way back to the station. Not, very much, a day out in the country. But not, at least, an evening in front of the television.

Besides, I had had my genuinely bucolic moment earlier in the day, in Penge, after getting off my first bus and walking to the bus stop for my second. Four young lads, probably none of them eleven, were gathered in a group, one of them holding something in his hand, the others looking at it. When I went past them it transpired that the object of their attention was a frog, just as it might have been if they had been spending all day fishing about in the village pond, wading about and seeing what they could find and what they could do with it.

I paused to wonder what Orwell might have written about them, in Coming Up For Air or one of the letters he wrote during the period when he wrote that novel, while he was keeping a friend's village shop in Hertfordshire and, though not to the extent of going to live in Jura, leaving the metropolis to its own unadmired devices. Perhaps he night have imagined them letting the frog loose in the village church during a service, or putting it down the neck of some persecuted girl.

I may, I realise now, be mixing Orwell up with Richmal Crompton, but at any rate the idyll didn't last for long, for this was still the city and city children have very different ideas. Before I had gone very far past the boys, one of them called out to me:

"Hey mister, if you give him ten pence he'll put the frog down his trousers." The bus took twenty minutes to arrive - they were still making the offer to passers-by when it arrived. As far as I could tell, there had been no takers.