We four were driving to the swimming pool in the afternoon sunshine of the last Sunday in August, descending the long slope of Air Balloon Road, when I noticed a Seat at the bottom of the hill give the kerb a whack. ‘That driver’s a bit rubbish’, I said to Mrs Brit. As the car headed up towards us it veered wildly onto my side of the road. I pulled over to give it plenty of room. A second or two later, before I had even set off again, there was a quite shockingly loud bang. The Seat had piled into a couple of parked cars at the top of the hill. I got out and trotted up the road, muttering dark unholy things to myself. Dopey Sunday afternoon people emerged blinking from their houses but I was first to the scene. I pulled open the driver’s side door and helped a middle-aged woman out into the road. She was wearing a black leather jacket, blood was leaking from her mouth and her entire face sagged in a mask of deep intoxication.
‘Pissed,’ said a man behind me who was getting out of his own car. ‘She overtook me back there, all over the shop.’ ‘No I’m not drunk,’ slurred the woman drunkenly, as she lurched against my shoulder. ‘It’s sleeping pills.’ I looked back into her car. Both airbags had deployed and some sort of vapour was drifting from the nearest one. White paracetamol-sized tablets were scattered across the front seats and floor. At that moment an enraged-looking lady in jogging bottoms and vest emerged from one of the terraced houses, expressing in no uncertain terms her irritation at the destruction of her innocently-parked vehicle. I was now able to see the damage, which was considerable. The offender’s Seat was a crumpled write-off, and three other cars had suffered expensive-looking harm. Glass was everywhere. Holding her arm, I ushered the drunken woman onto the pavement in an action that was part-rescue, part-citizen’s arrest, and in the same confused spirit I called 999 and requested both police and ambulance.
As I was making the call I experienced one of those sudden lunges of horror in the bottom of my belly. The woman had been swallowed by a gaggle of tattooed Bristolians and taken into the vest-lady’s house, where, it occurred to me, they might be issuing some sort of terrible mob justice for the car damage. While the ambulance operator jabbered questions at me I elbowed my way into the house in a state of barely-suppressed funk. The narrow hallway had bare floorboards, but in the missing-a-carpet way rather than the trendy-middle-class-decking way. I turned the corner into a tiny living-room, where the drunk lady was slumped forward on the edge of an armchair, holding her head and moaning ‘Oh no oh no oh no oh no.’ The vest-lady was squatting in front of her while a tall shaven-headed man hovered. The vest-lady looked up at me. “She’s ok,” she said. “She had a row with her partner and tried to take an overdose.” “While driving,” added the shaven-headed man, rolling his eyes. “I’ll go and make her a cup of tea.”
After the police had taken my details I went back down the hill to our car. Now that I didn’t have to worry about her well-being, I felt it was ok to be righteously furious with the stupid selfish idiot cow who only failed to kill someone, such as me or one of my daughters, by sheer luck. Mrs Brit concurred with my sentiments.
When we got to the swimming pool and I opened the door to retrieve E from her child seat, I realised that although I had correctly strapped E to the seat, I had forgotten to attach the seat itself to the car, and had I had to perform an emergency stop she and her seat would have flown into the back of my head. A thin membrane of self-hypnosis separates our jolly little realities of swimming pools and Sundays from the horrors of the planet. Policemen and paramedics work in the netherworld of blood and drugs and misery. Down in the sewers there was a giant ball of fat and wet wipes. Imagine poking at that for a living. Like the Night Soil Men of yore, patrolling the hidden filth while the nobs slept. Our mobile phones twitter news from Hell at us, in case we want a quick peek at a beheading while we change into our swimshorts. All summer the news has just been relentlessly horrible, humanity having apparently decided it’s time for another bout of barbarism. So much for progress. Could all it be because Nelson Mandela has left us, I wondered?
In a fine destruction of one of Richard Dawkins’ numerous Twitter misfires (this time about the moral imperative to abort Down’s Syndrome babies), Simon Barnes delivers this killer line:
It’s a shame that Dawkins wasted his title The God Delusion for his fundamentalist tract. He should have saved it for his autobiography.
As is usually the case these days in articles about Dawkins, Barnes expresses regret that a thinker he once admired can be getting it all so wrong:
It is dismaying, then, that a scientist and writer of brilliance — a great admiration of mine, as it happens — has given the world licence to conclude that my son’s existence is less valid than everybody else’s.
The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden were indeed brilliant, thought-provoking works. But has anyone outside of rock music (the Stones, Rod Stewart?) or film (Mel Gibson, De Niro?) so badly jumped the shark as Richard Dawkins, been so eager to destroy his reputation and legacy? Twitter has both enabled and revealed his madness. Elsewhere in the same issue of the Spectator, Damian Thompson writes in a piece about Islam in Britain:
Most young people are agnostic or atheist. Secularism has spawned an aggressive ideology. Its apostle, the embarrassing Richard Dawkins, has taken to attacking Muslims with the ferocity of an inquisitor.
Ouch. That ‘embarrassing’… the way it is just tossed in as an aside, with no requirement for further justification or embellishment, is surely even more devastating than Barnes’ bon mot.
Returning a little after 11 from the pub I stomped unsteadily into the living room and began the tricky business of removing my boots. My wife was on the sofa multiscreening.
Mrs Brit: How was Toby?
Me: He’s fine, you know.
Mrs Brit: What did you two talk about?
Me: Errr… [long pause]
Mrs Brit: Come on, did you talk about the kids? About work?
Me: Err… [very long pause]. Well, we worked out that if teleportation became a reality, it would have to be carefully policed, otherwise everyone from around the world would be arriving at tourist places like the Taj Mahal or Mount Rushmore at once, and you could end up with everyone getting their bodyparts mixed up, or a giant human blob with lots of arms and heads and legs.
Mrs Brit: [sigh].
To Holywell, a sub-scouse town exiled in northernmost Wales, and it knows it. While the rest of Britain was in blazing sunshine, Holywell stood under its own little raincloud like Joe Btfsplk. I parked near the Aldi and made my way over towards the high street. Mary Portas would weep to see it. These days even the saddest, most abandoned high streets have a Costa or at least something with an espresso machine amidst the charity shops and boarded-up pubs, but Holywell couldn’t even muster that, so to pass the time before my meeting I sat on a bench in the light drizzle, listened to the cricket on my phone and watched cars go in and out of the Tesco car park on the other side of the one-way system. Such is the glamorous life of the travelling businessman.
At the appointed hour I knocked on the door of Blinkhorn and Sons Chartered Accountants*.It was in a decrepit wobbly-walled building, the bottom floor of which was occupied by an estate agent. No answer came, so I pushed open the door onto a small hallway from whence ascended a crooked flight of stairs. At the foot of the stairs was a table containing a brass handbell and a handwritten note: If you need assistance going up the stairs, please ring the bell and someone will come down to see you. I was half-tempted after my long drive, but I climbed the stairs and came onto another landing. It was carpeted in sticky brown and opened up onto two rooms, both of which were stuffed to bursting with desks, computers and little people who operated them. There was a powerful smell of accountancy mustiness. As I stood there I began to feel seasick, which I attributed to the low ceiling, wildly uneven floor and wobbly walls. It was like an Escher drawing of an office, or one of those optical illusion rooms where the floor is sloped but everything is angled to give the appearance of being even.
I staggered left towards a corridor, which had a chair at one end and appeared to act as a waiting area. ‘Hello?’ I called, and a young man, his shoulders hunched against the permanent threat of the ceiling, rocked down the corridor to meet me. One arm he trailed along the wall, like a practised sailor keeping ‘one hand for the ship’. I introduced myself. “Ah yes,” he said. “I’m Neil, Mr Blinkhorn’s son. Come this way please.” I followed him down the corridor into a very small room. “I’ll just get Ian for you,” said Neil, and off he went.
I looked around, hoping that we wouldn’t be meeting in this room. It was terribly cramped, with two desks against opposite walls and little space between them. I stood in the doorway and soon enough along came another man. He moved down the corridor like a spider. His limbs were long but one of his legs was gammy, forcing him into a jerky limp. His head was sharp and narrow, Steerpikeish, topped with a medieval knight’s haircut. He looked like he dwelt in darkness and grinding drudgery; he looked like a Night Soil Man.
“Mr Blinkhorn?” I asked, offering my hand.
“Yes, although that’s also my father,” he said, shaking it. “I’m Ian. My father’s upstairs.” On this last word he grimaced and rolled his eyeballs up into his head, somehow suggesting that at the top of the building was a kingdom which few dared enter. “We won’t meet in here, follow me.”
Relieved not to be squeezing into such a small room, I followed him up more stairs to another room, which was even smaller. “Here we are,” he said. “And I’ll get Neil to join us. He’s the technology fiend.” So Ian went to get Neil, who had recently gone to get Ian.
Soon the three of us were crammed knee to knee, reaching awkwardly at intervals for our cups of tea, which were placed on desks behind us. Looking at the pair of them, I could scarcely believe they were brothers. Neil was fresh-faced, Ian was ancient, or rather, impossible to age. What on earth did their father look like? Old Man Blinkhorn, poring over his files and tomes, clad in spiderwebs and inksplots, carving crescents in the dust with crooked fingers. Sourdust. I liked the sons immediately, especially Ian, who was a man of profound cynicism and wisdom. We got along famously, and after the meeting, as I headed back through the desolate sodden streets of Holywell to my car, I thought about how often I met fine, intelligent people in dreadful places like this, while London is stuffed to the gills with fools. Back at the Aldi I climbed into the Focus. I punched a postcode into the satnav and drove off from that sad benighted place, off to somewhere far, far worse.
*That Dickension appellation wasn’t really the name of the firm, which has been changed to protect the innocent, but it would have been a good one.