of birds in the air
millions of leaves on the pavement
John Betjeman, Poet Laureate; on the marriage of HRH Princess Anne to Capt. Mark
Phillips. November 14, 1973
Strikes. Prime Minister Edward Heath declares State of Emergency
London Times', November 14, 1973
toast, Major Chubb sat there with his flat, purple nose stuck in the Times,
muttering something. "Procession of the Garter," it sounded like. "Henley..."
-- as though listing dates on a calendar. "Ascot Week, Glyndebourne..."
It was my first breakfast at Sassoon House, his government-approved 'transition
home' in Brighton. June 1st, 1973. "Trooping the Colour. Derby Day..."
turned eighteen up north in a male detention centre called Blanchland. The twenty
month sentence (burglary) -- courtesy of a Birmingham magistrate, Mrs. Lennox
-- involved a final year here in Brighton; gradual re-entry into civilisation;
the finishing-school period of my life, which put me off England -- or detention
-- for good.
If only Mrs.
Lennox had known what Chubbsy gave us to read every night. First World War versifier
Siegfried fucking Sassoon! Diaries. Poems! Inmates should claim a rebate. Yet
somehow I couldn't forget the volumes Major Chubb thrust in our mugs; a voice
from Flanders trenches.
wide open, over the toast and Darjeeling, you could smell the sea from the Major's
halfway house; choked-up, Edwardian living room near Old Steine; a sea-fishermen
neighborhood. What sticks with me too, though -- and I can't figure it -- is the
corner of his newspaper hanging into the fancy china teacup. Classifieds.
I was taking a gander at the page facing me across the table - there was one dandy
of an advertisement. I thought at first it was a joke: "Lost, adored Grey
London Pigeon. Known as 'birdy.' Not ringed . . ."
two other "guests" -- that's what Major Chubb calls us -- Jeanie Williams
and Randy Crumm, sixteen, work at the Grand Hotel on the front: as chambermaid
and bellhop. Randy always hints at sparetime bombmaking. But he's mainly a bum
boy -- cash only. Pair of teenaged softies, this particular morning they weren't
saying 'owt; just scooping up the scrambled eggs and ketchup, sneaking the odd
look at me; fresh blood from reform school, north-east England moors.
am bound to get it in the neck sometime . . . And death is the best adventure
of all -- better than living in idleness and sinking into the groove again and
trying to be happy.
Sassoon, Diary, April 4, 1916
Chubb was supposed to be interviewing me, like Governor Forcett did at Blanchland
House up at Allendale. But "top of the pops," as Jeanie calls him, just
kept on chewing; the veins over his cheekbone slithering about like stocking seams.
made out some more of his backpage birdy: ". . . Flew off from Hingham, Norfolk,
7pm Saturday 26 May, 1973. Would be honing to London. Could easily fly into house
looking for food. Please keep and contact Amanda Fielding. 01 352 3224."
was in cheap denims and an orange, hand-knitted cardigan. I stared at her little
tits. Girls. All the time at Blanchland we talked about shagging bitch; then we'd
fuck each other.
chomp, chomp goes the Major, white headed, plump and smelling of men's perfume.
Dress shoes and pullover. Shirt, tie. I kind of liked his interviewing style.
And Jeanie's little tits.
OF STATE, HOME OFFICE, WHITEHALL
DETENTION CENTRES (BLANCHLAND HOUSE)
| ||8.|| -
(1) Every inmate shall be searched by an officer on reception at a Centre, and
at such subsequent times as may be directed, all unauthorized articles taken from
| || || -
(2) The searching of an inmate shall be conducted in as seemly a manner as is
consistent with the necessity of discovering any concealed article.|
months at Blanchland had turned me upside down: all those 6am cross-country runs,
physical training, handjobs in the shower block, kit inspections, parade, margarine
fuck-ins at the outhouse farm. On the double, lads. Break a ball. No visits from
Ma or Graham Dagg (who'd moved in with her), nor a peep from the old man in Dagenham.
Card on my birthday. Zippo. Suited me.
get girls -- or humping, generally -- off my mind, though. And not just goers
like our skinny Jeanie. Gonna bang her before I'm finished; resolved over breakfast,
day one. But she'd be the half of it.
stared and stared at the back of Chubbsy's page. It makes you want to give up.
Amanda Fielding has taken out a three inch bordered advertisement in a
national newspaper to track down a London pigeon! Bold print. A grey London pigeon.
Do I want to live in a country like this?
picture Amanda Fielding's pigeon as a young, spirited woman. Someone like the
Canadian Prime Minister's wife maybe, on page three of the Times, striding
towards a Commonwealth Day service in Westminster Abbey. Looking a bit far from
home, sleeves too long. White, snow white. How you wanted to follow her. Shoes
too new. Grey rosy-cheeked. Walking stiff in packed-to-the-gills London. But she
as Amanda would say.
Jones." Mattress shop, change clothes. Kitchen work, garden, change clothes
again. Carpentry, mailbags. "Two towels, Jones? On report." But Mr.
Malin, sir. Blunt razors. No slacking. Run, run, run. Keys at the warders' thighs,
like breaking glass. Cut your way out. Reminders, reminders. No, sir. Yes, Mr.
Wreay. Never, sir. Yes, sir. Right away. Scrub floors, sweep, mop. It's only a
lot of yelling, Enoch. Jump to it. Smell of carbolic soap, warm piss and bodies.
Hundred youths. Clip around the ear. Dwarves and devils. Can't last long, can
bullet and the bayonet are brother and sister. If you don't kill him, he'll kill
you. Stick him between the eyes, in the throat, in the chest or round the thighs.
If he's on the run, there's only one place; get your bayonet into his kidneys;
it'll go in as easy as butter. Don't waste good steel. Six inches are enough --
what's the use of a foot of steel sticking out of the back of a man's neck? Three
inches will do him, and when he coughs, go and find another.
Sassoon, Diary, April 25, 1916
worry, Mrs. Trudeau. There will always be an Amanda Fielding from Norfolk. We've
all got her number, if you know what I mean. England's an animal kingdom, no matter
where you hone. Just don't tell Amanda you're a dope-toking free spirit under
that Big White Hat, will you? She might change her ad. Then where would we be?
Unwanted, unringed pigeons, length and breadth.
bread, Jones? On report. Lose all privileges." Thank you, sir. Bunk inspection,
drill and slophouse. "Skip to it, sonny boy."
have been better off as Margaret Trudeau or a pigeon; someone classified. White
badge of courage, as the screws call it, dripping from my arse. Perched on a telegraph
Poppins, War and Peace, Godspell or Bridge on the River Kwai,
Jones?" said Major Chubb suddenly, from behind his paper. Tea rising
up the back page like bird poop through a ceiling. I wasn't sure what he meant.
Jeanie and Randy were mouthing something I couldn't make out.
Poppins it is then," he said rising to shake my hand. "Good work,
And he left;
DETENTION CENTRES (BLANCHLAND HOUSE)
REPORT - PRIOR TO DISCHARGE
ENOCH JONES NUMBER: 5678345
HE OBEY QUICKLY AND WILLINGLY?|
HE DISPLAY MAXIMUM EFFORT ALL THE TIME?|
HE RESPECTFUL AND CO-OPERATIVE?|
months later, Randy started to get on my wick.
second Friday was a private, completely illegal "Naked Night" at The
Briars, a fag guesthouse off Cannon Place. One of Randy's haunts; full of rich,
ugly London punters.
was September and we were into an Indian summer, as the Major called it: seven
airless, sticky days and nights. I was getting antsy so I went along with Randy.
"Gotta put yourself about a bit, Enoch," he told me after we'd stripped
down and walked into the saloon. We must have been the youngest there. Randy was
underage, anyway. "Look at Her Majesty," he said, oblivious to the stares
we were getting. "In Canada this summer with the Duke of Edinburgh."
I nodded and sat next to him at the bar. "Keeping the Commonwealth together.
Now they're off somewhere else. You gotta keep busy, mate. Lizzy Two ain't knitting
socks all day."
more nuts than Amanda Fielding. He gets all this regal shit from Major Chubb.
It's so infectious, this bigwig baloney; the kid actually thinks he's part of
I watched a scattering of gulls that followed the newly-turned furrows, their
harsh wrangle mingling with the faint creak and rattle of the plough, as they
swung and settled like enormous grey snow-flakes. While the team halted at the
hedge, and the man was turning, with a grumble at the wretchedness of the day,
they all sat like some cloaked, attentive congregation, yet their bills were busy
at the soil. Then the big steady horses moved forward again, with a confusion
of dull-silvery wings flickering in the wake of the toilers, as the queer procession
began another journey across the stubble.
Sassoon, Diary, January 23, 1917
I tried not to look but Randy was hung
like a mule; some black and green 'Love' tattoo sprawled from his groin.
Anne's in Kiev. They get around, the royals. And Ted Heath the Prime Minister.
Rushed all the way back from that big Ottawa conference to come in fifty-first
in the Admirals Cup."
week," I replied, aware of a room full of bare bodies, every age and shape,
knocking back beer.
Cloud's' his boat. Gotta get about, Enoch. Two pints of bitter, Jack. Or you go
flat on your bazookas."
I was a shut-away. Was that Randy's point? I met enough docile tourists at the
Royal Pavilion to keep me going for years. A part-time guide job the Major arranged,
after sixth-form college. And royal families, what monkeys' asses: George IV,
who built the palace I work in, was a classic. He was Prince of Wales and Prince
Regent when he built Brighton's Pavilion, waiting to take over from his dad. People
called him 'Prinny' -- dad-hater -- and he was big on style. Arabian Nights: a
massive, onion-turd palace in the middle of an English, "taking the cure"
seaside town. Turban roof, wonky windows and Taj Mahal towers. That's how mad
he was at his dad. And "Prinny" was a guy who fell in love with a giraffe,
remember; a camelopard, he called it.
Randy believed in these people. Kings, queens, princes and prime ministers. He
even sounded like the Major some days. Kid had been in Brighton and Sassoon House
for too long, following everything Chubbsy told him, hook, line and sinker. So
I wasn't surprised when Randy told me about his little bombmaking hobby, and his
plan for the autumn Conservative Party Conference at the Grand Hotel. A sign he
wasn't completely taken in.
WASHING, SHAVING AND HAIR-CUTTING|
shall be made for every inmate to wash at all proper times and to have a hot bath
at least once a week; and for male inmates (unless excused or prohibited on medical
grounds) to shave or be shaved when necessary; and to have their hair cut as required.|
Briars Guesthouse there were thirty or so men -- and only men -- in the saloon.
Even the two landlords were starkers; cockproud, leaning over the counter. I was
surprised at how natural everyone seemed. Birmingham was never like this. I pretended
to listen to Randy. Another barmy touch of his was Richard Nixon impersonations.
The American president was in the news a lot because he wouldn't hand over the
tapes, which drove Randy bananas. In retaliation for the guy's obstinacy, he'd
memorized some of Nixon's speeches to mock them. On Palace Pier or at breakfast
at Sassoon House, Randy'd launch into a tirade. Sometimes it was funny, clever
even, for a sociopath.
"Naked Night" made Randy nervous. Or I did. We'd fallen silent,
so off he went like he was on U.S. television: "I pledge to you tonight,
my fellow Americans and Enoch our novice, that I will do all I can to ensure that
one of the results of Watergate is a new level of political decency and integrity
in America . . ." at which point he slammed his hand on the counter and burst
out laughing. Not everyone knew how to take it. But the old-timers next to us
chuckled, ordering beer all round.
we walked to the dimly lit terrace out back. More bodies gathered in groups or
strolling solo under the trellises. I guessed there was action; it was a poofter
hangout, after all. And I knew Randy turned tricks for a fiver. How else could
he amass so much money in his room? The Major deposited all our "legal"
earnings in a trust account for when we "graduated." Randy's stash was
fruit loot: married men and pensionable fairies.
or so men were jacking each other off. And you sauntered past, under the coloured
lights, glad they were having such a hot time. I wondered if Randy really was
queer or just getting about, as he says. I couldn't work him out. He and Jeanie
seemed pretty tight, even if they had arguments like tonight. Randy hesitated,
then leaned against the wall. Looking quite different now; he seemed scared.
me, Enoch," he said.
we march eleven miles back to Morlancourt. Molyneux (my servant) was very communicative
last night; his tongue was slightly loosened by beer . . . He told me he loved
me like a brother -- very nice of him; he is a dear.
Sassoon, Diary, June 26, 1916
cock looked thicker than ever; he pulled the skin back so I could see. "Not
into it," I said, leaning against the wall. I knew the guy! Crazy
as he was, I liked him. Two fellas were nuzzling in on another man's armpits.
I tried to look confused.
notes," said Randy. "You've been in my room again."
His bombmaking notes, four typewritten pages, dangerous in the wrong hands.
wouldn't want Chubbsy to know," he added. "Stealing's a crime."
didn't take anything," I whispered.
or I talk." He slapped his hard-on against my leg, grabbed my shoulder.
to who, Randy?"
go back to Blanchland House?"
would I nick something like that?"
you're a criminal, Enoch."
grabbed my cropped head and pushed. I could smell the chip shop on him. It tasted
cheesy and sour. But I worked him over good. Randy started necking with one of
the blokes next to us. Maybe he is a sag-arse. Who knows. Or maybe it's just like
Blanchland: no bloody choice; your accuser's a judge and jury. Besides, I did
steal his sheaf of notes. I'd got the feeling he meant business with his explosives
recipe. And the British police aren't very nice to bombers. Even when it's Tories
shot to pieces in the sky. I was doing him a favour. Big brotherly. At Black Rock
swimming pool, I'd thrown the lot over a fence into the English Channel.
. . two mud-stained hands were sticking out of the wet ashen chalky soil, like
the roots of a shrub turned upside down. They might have been imploring aid; they
might have been groping and struggling for life and release, but the dead man
was hidden. He was buried, his hideous corpse was screened from the shame of those
who lay near him, their agony crying out to heaven.
Sassoon, Diary, April 22, 1917
the Brighton Pavilion, I don't say much to the tourists. I can't. I'd laugh. Every
now and again I answer some North American or Japanese stupidity along with all
the British thickness I face. People'll believe anything if it's packaged right.
I make it up half the time, say it's Regency style, baroque, romantic, roccoco,
picturesque -- anything to gloss over some awkward Polaroid-led "question
and answer" session. Admirers of British history are as dumb as dodos, really.
It's British civility that attracts the overseas brigade; shame at their home-country's
thin culture, longing for what they'll never have. And I'm ever so civil;
especially as I'm trying to get an education.
I point the Anglophiles to our Yellow Drawing-Room where they ooh and aah at Fum
and Hum, the Two Birds of Royalty. Oriental peacocks painted on the wall. I wonder
what Amanda Fielding would say? Birdies stuck in the wallpaper. She'd have to
bring her scraper all the way from Hingham . . . Ooh, aah. From the Music Room
they shuffle to a Banqueting Room where, for as long as their necks can take it,
they gaze up at the Flying Dragon Gasolier.
talk about the FDG at great length and in minute detail, pointing to this dragonly
feature and that, seeing how long the tourist head will endure. If only the lamp'd
burst into flames for once -- and the walls. Fum and Hum with North Sea energy
shooting out of their eyes and ears. I don't tell visitors that "Prinny"
spent most of his time in the kitchen downstairs because he preferred simplicity.
Or that he was in love with a giraffe. I tried truth once. People started grumbling,
turning away to the other objets d'art. And their fantasies. Next day,
my boss got a letter complaining about the guide (me) and "falling standards"
(mine). I lost a day's pay.
the (censored) tour, I stand by a portico holding out my hand; a tip for the Commonwealth,
loss of Empire, Margaret Thatcher's campaign for prime minister, Royal Doulton
china, Royal Mint, Royal Wedding in November. Whatever. Royal Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Royal Scotsman. Anything to get the bastards
bombs are easier. You need thermite first. Crush some rust and heat it red in
a cast iron pot. Mix it with aluminium bits, three parts to one . . .
ribs flickered above me. I gagged and spat the cum right into my fingers, smearing
it around my own cock. Kneeling at his feet, I wanked myself off while he was
still at the nipple of the fella next to him. It must have looked kind of religious.
Sacred. Randy didn't seem to notice he'd come. Like Blanchland House once more:
solemn, get-it-over-with jig-a-jig. But no lock-up or army rules afterwards; not
the same kind, anyway. "Let's get another pint," he said, pulling away
from the neighbours. Another tour of duty finished; tell the recruits it never
happened. I looked around at the busy terrace, wiped my hand on some ivy. "See
the stars?" Randy sang out, as we ducked under some branches toward the light
and man-chatter inside. "Now tell me, Jones," he said in the Major's
plummiest accent, "Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Last Tango
in Paris, O Lucky Man, or No Sex Please, We're British?
was pointing between my eyes.
Poppins it is then," he declared. "My notes back by Monday or I
only they would speak out and throw their medals in the faces of their masters,
and ask their women why it thrills them to know that they, the dauntless warriors,
have shed the blood of Germans. Do not the women gloat secretly over the wounds
of their lovers? Is there anything inwardly noble in savage sex instincts?
Sassoon, Diary, June 19, 1917
October, Sassoon House was in deep trouble. Randy's four typewritten pages had
hit pebble beach, not seawater; the tide was well out and I hadn't noticed. Some
civic-minded Brightonian had passed the bombmaking notes to a local police sergeant.
It didn't take long before ten officers with search warrant tore up the floorboards,
every nook and cranny of Major Chubb's halfway sanctuary, and spent hours questioning
us. "We're not Irish!" thundered Chubbsy up his stairs. "It's the
IRA you want, not hardworking patriots!" I never squealed on Randy, nor he
The police couldn't
nail us with anything. There wasn't a name on the notes, nor a typewriter in the
house. Besides, it's not illegal to know a bomb recipe. Randy lost his Grand Hotel
job though, as well as the part-timing at Black Rock swimming pool. Chubbsy got
a personal reprimand from the Home Secretary for "allowing us to fall under
suspicion"! Poor guy. You wondered what the fuss was about, really. Until
the national newspapers uncovered a plot to bomb the Conservative Party annual
conference at the end of the month.
bomb squad had discovered explosives in a Grand Hotel maintenance cupboard --
adjacent to "luxury suite" 39 -- which fuelled ideas that closet-case,
Tory prime minister Edward Heath was an assassination target. Major Chubb wasted
no time in fixing Randy -- suspected bombmaking accomplice?! -- a transfer to
his Edinburgh counterpart Captain Mackenzie; a former Sandhurst-turned-mercenary-commando,
known for his withering transformation of the reluctant young offender. Randy
would leave right after November's Royal Wedding, provided no bomb went off in
Brighton beforehand. Randy was non-bomberly to a tee; Edward Heath and the Tories
enjoyed their right-wing conference. The Major, Enoch, Randy and Jeanie took the
trip to London for Princess Anne's wedding to Mark Phillips; Dark Ages re-enactment
for the masses. But Randy hadn't finished with me yet. Not after I confessed to
him about the notes.
sir. Harder. Sir. Thank you.
early November, the wedding preparations were at fever pitch. On television last
night, three men with massive vacuum cleaners walked hurriedly up and down Westminster
Abbey -- "from the sacrarium steps to the west door," the man said --
as though they'd forgotten to pee. Blue carpets were unfurled, a vast ribbon over
those ancient, underfloor skeletons. Three men in white shirts hoovered like no
tomorrow. And in the outer aisles, more men, with giant, butterfly sweepers. It
was funny to imagine them preparing for Randy who, after the ceremony, would be
heading for a Scottish honeymoon with Captain Mackenzie, the bekilted one.
the following morning in London, Major Chubb found us a spot -- Randy, me, Jeanie
-- in Parliament Square, where Randy's Edinburgh escort was to meet us. Five hours
before anything was supposed to happen, you could barely see the road for people.
A young couple next to us -- Union Jack shirts and top-hats -- had this Danzig
radio broadcasting BBC's "Royal Wedding Special." I was glancing at
Jeanie and Randy -- who seemed to be enjoying our happy family's rehabilitation
day out -- when Larry the Raven appeared on the airwaves, stopping me in my tracks.
was it I kept hearing about birds?
the Major's broken blood vessels nodded out the sights: Big Ben, Houses of Parliament
and the new statue of Winston Churchill -- "Giant of a man. Giant. Dominating
his fellow man." -- I tuned in to a coastguard being interviewed about a
raven. Was this news? Next it'll be Amanda Fielding on her own phone-in. What
is it with the English? Pigeons, ravens, ceremonies every which way; poncing around
in robes and tiaras. I couldn't give a shite about any of it. Or am I the one
who's nuts, getting the priorities all screwed? Suddenly, it was one of the queen's
yeomen -- Warder J. Wilmington -- on the radio talk show with the coastguard.
Fuck. Yeoman Wilmington was the Tower of London's raven master! The Tower
of London has a raven master who takes in ravens who've been stuck in cliffs!
a nice padded envelope with double layers from W.H. Smith. Thermite goes in the
main bit with the letter. Magnesium powder in the outer layer. An explosive fuse
is next . . . Lay it like a baby on top of the powdered magnesium . . . Voila.
A love letter. (If it doesn't blow up, it'll burn the shit out of a letter-opener's
crowds further along Whitehall were cheering. Her Royal Highness and Captain Mark
Phillips were supposedly on their way but it was too difficult to see. "Queen's
Household Cavalry," someone bawled as though he'd sighted land. But still
nothing but backs of heads. "Long drive ahead of us, major," repeated
the Edinburgh escort for Randy, growing impatient with the royal display, and
Chubbsy's reluctance to hand the kid over. Spectators surged forward. The young
couple bundled their radio away and began waving. Major Chubb checked his watch.
The convoy was so very late. Impatient, the Scot picked up Randy's kitbag and
indicated they should depart, "See more on the telly, lad." Randy nodded,
said a hurried goodbye to Jeanie and me, shook Chubbsy's hand, and that was that.
the yelling and hollering increased all around us, I stared ahead at people's
craned necks, at the collars flecked in Union Jack red and blue. Jostling with
the crowd, we each stood on tiptoes to see something. Anything. But there were
so many flags, arms and heads. You didn't catch much. In the pandemonium, I felt
a tug on my shoulder but didn't turn around. Another tug, and another.
was Randy, tears flooding down his cheeks.
something I couldn't hear, he planted a kiss fair and square on my mouth, hurrying
off through the faces again. Union Jacks. As the cries and whistling rose to fever
pitch, people elbowing to see, I did get a glimpse -- like the frame in a movie
-- of pale skin amidst a neckful of jewels. Then the blackness of the road again,
hooves, carriage wheels, soldiers' boots.
all I saw was Randy's face. Did I love him? Or was I unnerved by his feelings?
It was like holding a Brighton pebble in my hand. Right off the beach. Unfathomable.
I've got a rock in my hand right now, I thought. Emotion uncontainable. A prince
built the Pavilion on less; painted birds into walls, all in fever at his dad.
So do I throw it high above the marchers in celebration? Rage? Amanda's Birdy
on a joyride? Or toss it down with the leaves in this gutter?
the morning papers, on television and radio: "Bombings. Strikes. Prime Minister
declares a State of Emergency." That was the headline staring across at Jeanie
and I from Chubbsy's Times above the Darjeeling and toast. England was
at a standstill! Two IRA car bombings at the Home Office, another at the Hilton
Hotel, three more in the West End. Energy crisis. Power cuts. Millions of homes
blacked out due to cold weather. Go-slow on the railways. Talk of rationing. Strikes.
Miners refusing overtime. More demonstrations.
had I been? Lost in Brighton Pavilion, under Major Chubb's nose, up Jeanie, at
royal weddings, in Siegfried's diaries, and on the end of Randy's dick? You bring
in the army when questions fly, passions set off like thermite. Was England waking
up at last? Was I?
needed notes, Randy Crumm.