June 28, 2006

Des res

George Monbiot was writing about second homes in the Guardian the other day and the following passage caught my eye:
Two weeks ago the Sunday Times revealed that the Labour MP Barbara Follett, who owns a £2m house in her constituency (in Stevenage), a flat in Soho and homes in Antigua and Cape Town, has claimed £76,357 in Commons expenses over the past four years for her London pad.
My eyes popped out. Not at the expenses, extensive though they were, nor at the overseas possessions, superfluous though they be. Nor even at the West End flat, which would seem to render unnecessary the expenses at least. My eyes popped out at the suggestion that Mrs Follett might own a place in Stevenage worth two million pounds. Mrs Follett, or anybody. I was brought up in Stevenage: I spent my teenage years there. How can there possibly be a house in Stevenage worth two million quid?

I know the town well. Or I did when I was younger, ten years going round the cycle paths and roundabouts which form its skeleton, getting to know the place: a task both easy and difficult to accomplish. Easy, because it all looks the same, being composed of a number of large - and largely identical - estates, which earned it the nickname of Legoland. Difficult, for the same reason: when everywhere looks the same, it is hard to remember exactly where you are, except insofar as you are in Stevenage. The landscape is always familar. Like knowing you are in the desert because of the proliferation of sand. Stevenage is bigger now than it was when I was young and so there must be parts of it I do not know. But there can be no parts of it that I would not recognise, because how can something alter when it is always the same?

So where, in the name of God, might one find a house in Stevenage worth two million pounds? Most of the houses there were built as council houses after the war and were not therefore actually supposed to be worth anything. Even since their transformation into property, they're still not worth anything, not by Mrs Follett's standards. You'd have to own a dozen of them to get close to the two million mark. Perhaps she does own a dozen or so and knocked them through to make one big one. It's not as if it would damage their architectural integrity.

I don't know. House prices have reached such ridiculous levels in the UK that I've been saying for years that they might as well add on a nought or two just for a laugh. Perhaps they did.

June 12, 2006

Run, rabbit, run

The other day my rabbit shook hands with the mayor of Huesca. It was La Fería del Libro: for a week at the end of May, all the bookshops in the town go and set up shop in huts in the park and sell as many books on a Sunday morning as we'd normally sell in a month. The mayor came round to talk to the stallholders, much in the manner of Her Majesty the Queen: I was wearing the rabbit at the time and so we touched paws. (I probably would not, I imagine, have touched paws with Her Majesty. If he'd got within a hundred yards of her, the rabbit would have had to be searched.)

Rincón, I call him: the shop is called Menuto Rincón, half-Spanish, half-Aragonese, and from that he takes his name. He has a manic look in his eyes and his ears flap when I wave him at the passing children. My little finger fits inside his paw and when I wiggle it, he waves too. He waves at kids, adults, policemen: anybody passing the shop, anybody who passed the hut during the book fair. He waves at parents - they stop their children and turn them round to look, saying "¡Mira! Un conjeito!".

Sometimes they laugh: sometimes they stand there, wide-mouthed and open-eyed, not sure whether or not the rabbit is real. Sometimes they run and hide behind their parents' legs and when they do, the rabbit hides as well, scooting behind my head orbehind a pile of books before creeping out again to see if the scary child is still there. If they are, we look at one another and say "Mira! Un niño!" (or una niña!) and he waves his way towards them, stopping and beckoning with my thumb in his left paw, and if he is lucky, resolving all their fears with a hug and a kiss. If he is unlucky, they grab at his ears and he has to be rescued by the parents; when they extricate him from their loved one's grip I scrunch his head into my palm and move thumb and little finger to his eyes, imitating tears. But if a child is crying and the sight of Rincón stems the tears, he dances: up and down with paws aloft to celebrate the happiness of los pequeños.

I have been extending his repertoire. He bows: thumb across my palm, over he goes with ears hanging down in a show of humility. He plays air guitar (finger pats my palm with thumb outstretched) or flicks one ear amusingly in front of his head while leaving the other behind (turn hand swiftly with slight rolling motion, almost as if bowling a leg-break). Adults enjoy him almost as much as children: and if they do not, and glare disapprovingly or walk on stony-faced pretending they haven't seen him, I assume that they're Franquistas and if I am so minded, Rincón, with a swivel of the hand led by my little finger, can make a rude gesture behind their backs.

But most people like to see him, and respond to him: and they respond to him all the more when he hands out free slices of carrot, as he did a few weeks ago when we operated a stall, in the marketplace, directly outside the shop. It was too hot for carrots at the book fair (too hot for the carrots, I mean, rather than for the eating of them: when evening temperatures get up to the mid-thirties and beyond, the carrots wilt quickly and the flies do not).

So we handed out cerezas de Bolea instead and Rincón swept up behind us, offering the customers a plastic cup for the stalks and stones. He worked hard, Rincón, and deserved his sleep, which he took in a box of books, nestled against a copy of Adivina Cuando Te Quiero.

I took him to school, to read a story, in English, to the children. They are taught in English but, as yet, can't really follow it, any more than I can follow Spanish spoken at normal speed - but they can understand a rabbit waving about and doing silly things.

Rincón played the lead, as Flop-Ear: we had another rabbit on the sidelines, to represent Flop-Ear's friends, who laugh at him, and a series of props to tie to Flop-Ear's right ear (which he does to try and make it stand up properly). We propped it up with a carrot, with a pencil, and tied a balloon to it: we even hid his ears under a hat.

We inspected his ears using a toy doctor's kit and when we had finished, and decided - as does the doctor in the story - that there was nothing wrong with the ear, we tied another carrot to his ear in celebration, but letting it hang down rather than prop it up to show we didn't care what it looked like. To prove the point, we tied a carrot to the other rabbit's ear as well, and to mine: and Rincón and I took our bow with carrots hanging on strings from our ears. After that, we all sang Run, Rabbit, Run and In A Cottage In The Wood with all the gestures, and handed out carrots to the children, one for everyone, before they left.

I know he is a resource, Rincón, an advertising tool. He attracts the notice of the children, they wander over and then the adults come and buy them books. He is a Unique Selling Point: we become la libreria con el conejito and hope as a result that the kids pester their parents to go to the rabbit's shop rather than somewhere else. He looks after them in order to look after us.

But at the same time, there is no other reason, no other agenda, other than the one the children see, other than a rabbit reaching out to them and wanting to be their friend. Because it was with no conscious thought that I picked him up and began to wave him at the passing children, lest it be something else, something else I read a very long time ago, when I was closer to their age than to the age that I am now. Something that I read, and half-forgot, and had not entirely forgotten.
Old Phoebe said something then, but I couldn't hear her. She had the side of her mouth right smack on the pillow, and I couldn't hear her.

"What?" I said. "Take your mouth away. I can't hear you with your mouth that way."

"You don't like anything that's happening."

It made me even more depressed when she said that. "Yes I do. Yes I do. Sure I do. Don't say that. Why the hell do you say that?"

"Because you don't. You don't like any schools. You don't like a million things. You don't."

"I do! That's where you're wrong--that's exactly where you're wrong! Why the hell do you have to say that?" I said. Boy, was she depressing me.

"Because you don't," she said. "Name one thing."

"One thing? One thing I like?" I said.

"Okay." The trouble was, I couldn't concentrate too hot. Sometimes it's hard to concentrate.

"One thing I like a lot you mean?" I asked her. She didn't answer me, though. She was in a cockeyed position way the hell over the other side of the bed. She was about a thousand miles away. "C'mon answer me," I said. "One thing I like a lot, or one thing I just like?"

"You like a lot."

"All right," I said.........

......"anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."

Old Phoebe didn't say anything for a long time. Then, when she said something, all she said was, "Daddy's going to kill you."

"I don't give a damn if he does," I said.