The Rhythm of Life

“We can’t stop here, this is Cat country!”

It wasn’t the ideal line to hear from a bus driver, especially as he overshot my stop and picked up speed on an increasingly mad dash through Catford. I tightened my grip on the seat in ahead of me, getting a wary look from the man in front as he watched my knuckles turn white. Why he wasn’t panicking I don’t know, especially as a booming ‘YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHAW!’ rang out over the speakers on the top deck. Usual behaviour for London bus drivers perhaps? It seemed unlikely, they never did that sort of thing back home, not as far as I can remember. But then back home I never got the bus, so perhaps this was the norm in all big cities and my fear just marked me out as a newcomer.

I ducked down as the bus screamed through traffic lights, not much of a defense against the possibility of a t-boning truck, which we narrowly avoided to the maniacal laughter of the driver downstairs. Still nobody seemed bothered, in fact a mother and daughter were even playing a game of ‘I Spy’ behind me. A routine past time made worse by the little girl’s loud and excited guess for ‘s’ – ‘sudden death’ she shrieked as the truck that had narrowly missed us spun out of control and flipped over in a spray of sparks. We’d missed the two stops after mine too.

“Do you have a valid Oyster card? Well, do you?”

The driver’s voice had suddenly grown sad, a good thing I reckoned as it coincided with the bus slowing down to a more sedate rampage down the road towards Lewisham. It was ok, I figured, I could walk home if I had to, plus my Oyster was valid, which had to be a good sign, right?

It was also irrelevant, apparently, as the now crawling bus continued to avoid every stop it passed. My grip had loosened on the seat in front, the wary looking man visibly relaxing as my minor physical invasion at the periphery of his vision went into retreat. I could, I reckoned, jump off the bus now, hit the emergency button downstairs and make a running landing, or at least a stumbling and non-fatal roll along the pavement. That’d be sensible, that’d be sane, given the circumstances, I should escape before the maniac in charge perked up and decided to start racing with death again. I didn’t move though, in fact if anything I relaxed into my seat, on the edge of a panic attack on the inside but somehow anchored by the gentle swaying of the bus. Besides, everyone else still seemed completely calm, they must have known something I didn’t and it would have been rude to start acting all crazy and jumping out of moving vehicles. I didn’t want to be rude, and the bus had to stop eventually, right?

“This is the 185, terminating at termination. Please remember to take your bags with you and, for the love of God, don’t put your feet on the seats…”

Londonistan

The Catford Cat - A Pagan Abomination

When they tore down the Catford Cat it should have been a clue on the direction things were heading in. A ‘pagan effigy’ they called it and that was why they got away with it. Everyone knew it was part of some dark magic, they just didn’t talk about it and behind the collective silence people really were tired of the disappearances, the sacrifices and the strange meows in the night. Everyone except for the people of Catford, of course, and they always were barbarians.

So, we all let it go when they threw chains around the cat and dragged it off to be melted down. Some of us even lined the road to cheer, not me though, even then, though I didn’t think enough to see it, I had the nasty feeling that things were going the wrong way. Not to say I’m smart, anything but, if I were I’d have done something to stop them before it went any further. Still though, I knew something was sitting wrong in the city and they were at the heart of it, slowly taking over and changing everything.

Next – and I don’t mean to get poetic here – they came for the Elephant & Castle. It was ‘morally unacceptable’ they said. I saw one of them talking about it, just before they started the purge, a wild eyed man on a plinth in Trafalgar Square denouncing the abominations, hedonism and sins of the natives of Elephant. Shameful, he declared, that such a iniquitous mob should be allowed to roam the streets bringing disgrace to us all. No one came out to cheer that moment, it was all grim faces and nervous looks, depending on who was doing the listening. I was at the back of the crowd, with the idle observers, for a while at least. We were the first to drift away though as the fanatics rant spun itself into a spit spraying frenzy to the delight of his invited audience. There was an ugly mood and not one anyone sane wanted to stay and see, so we left them to it, comforted to at least know it wasn’t us they were after. I heard what they did to the Elephant & Castle, though I never saw it myself, few who did left to tell the tale and to this day I don’t even get the bus through there – I don’t even want to see the streets were that shit happened. Not that I’d be allowed to of course, no free movement these days, you go where they tell you to and you keep your mouth shut about it.

After that it all came in a flurry of atrocities. Then we had to care, comfortable ignorance was no longer an option and we were blown away that all we’d missed with our eyes half closed. There were so many of them, so many that we weren’t even sure whose city it was anymore. Sure, if you stayed at home, or went to the shops, or sat in your local it seemed like everyone was same, that everyone was one of us but the proof was in their actions – they were there, somehow operating in the city without us ever noticing. A whole parallel world that had grown up in the city without ever touching on ours.

Whitechapel, Farringdon, Angel Islington, Tottenham, Peckham, Camberwell, Vauxhall, they all fell like vast concrete dominoes. There one day, working and sane and safe, gone the next to be replaced by something unrecognisable, something which, now we weren’t part of the staring crowd anymore, seemed disgusting and alien. All of the old certainties faded away, hacked apart by the new order that we were powerless to stop. The pubs changed, the takeaways changed, the shops changed. What had once been a local, comfortably decayed and unwelcomingly friendly was suddenly all horse brasses and real ale, old men calling themselves the ‘Colonel’ lining the bar in tweed jackets, never mentioning the Lee Enfield rifles they all carried as a matter of routine now that they’d taken over the streets. What used to be a Chicken Cottage or a Morley’s would, almost overnight, be turned into a traditional pie shop, or a tea house, lingering youths and famished commuters driven from their doorways at gunpoint for preferring a two piece meal to eel and cow’s eye pasties. That was how things should be, they told us, that’s how it was meant to be but I can tell you it’s never felt natural to me, not in London. Even my local corner shop wasn’t left untouched after they’d finished. I remember it now, as it was, as it should have been, a surly nod from the Sri Lankan who worked there, a pint of out of date milk and the local alchy ahead of me in the queue taking his time over the spare change taken to buy a can of K Cider. Halcyon days in the city. Now it’s all Union Jack bunting, rosy cheeked children buying penny sweets and friendly smiles from men in brown shop coats. Sickening, really, what they’ve done to the place.

I’m old now. My back’s bent and I’m tired. Certainly too tired to fight them. It’s all I can do to sidestep the Morris Dancers and cheery urchins on my way home. I remember, they used to say ‘If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life’ and fuck me but I’m exhausted with it. Some used to warn us too, back then, that we were being taken over. Muslims they said, hordes of them, Sharia law, public stonings – well, they weren’t all wrong, if only they’d known that the threat was coming from those Home County bastards instead. Still, too late to worry now, my city’s gone, they call it London Village now and I need to finish up here, it’s time for mandatory cricket on the green. Used to be a Primark y’know, backwards and barbaric they called it when they burnt it down…

Jesus : Our Lord of Public Transport

“You really think he’s Jesus?”

“Of course not, Jesus doesn’t drink Tesco Value Lager on the night bus. Wouldn’t be right, besides, the son of God would be more of a wine man I reckon, although how that fits with the blood of Christ thing I’ve no idea.”

“You’ve got to admit though, that bit where he turned that woman’s sick back into a doner kebab was pretty impressive. Don’t often see that on the night bus.”

Barrington nodded, it was true, you didn’t often see that on the night bus.

“Still though, why would the Messiah be headed to Penge, caned on cheap lager and singing ‘South London is Wonderful’ in between sermons? Shouldn’t there be angels and stuff? Heavenly trumpets? That kid in the back with Drum and Bass on his phone doesn’t really fit does it?”

Jay didn’t have an answer for that so he just sat staring at the other worldly figure swaying precariously at the front of the bus, wiping away a dribble of beer from his chin in preparation for another speech to the unbelievers.

“Now you see God doesn’t want you to worship him. I mean, you should like him and all, he’s a great fella my dad, heart of gold, would give you the shirt off his back. Well, would do if his back wasn’t more of a theological concept than an actual, you know, back. He doesn’t need all the churches and temples and mosques though, I mean what the fuck’s he going to do with them? He’s a being of pure energy, encompassing all life and matter, what, is going to use it as a holiday home then? Nah, better off building yourselves something useful like a pub, or a cinema. He likes The Fast and the Furious though you know, big fan, more of that’d be good. Fuckit, I know he’ll get a kick out of this – Vin Diesel is now, officially, a Saint.”

“You think he can do that?”

Barrington thought on that for a moment, trawling through half forgotten memories of slow Sunday mornings spent being shouted at by a priest who thought everything done by everyone everywhere was probably a sin of some sort. Given the current company that made him an authority, Jay had spent his Sundays on the Playstation.

“I suppose so, not that he’s Jesus or anything, but if he was then why not? Saint Vin Diesel, don’t see what the Pope could do to stop it.”

“And another thing” the drunken Christ went on “my dad is not a big bearded white bloke. I mean, I say ‘dad’ but even that’s a stretch, he’s everything, all life, all matter, all space, the lot. You might be confusing him with Santa Claus and take my word for it, that guy’s a prick.”

As the bus turned a corner the Messiah staggered to the right and fell into the lap of a dozing nurse who’d sat up front, which left the rest of the top deck gasping as a flock of doves randomly appeared in the air and started flapping about in mad panic.

“That’s a lot more like it” Jay said, hands up to wave off a particularly terrified bird “doves are in the Bible right? That’s proper miracle stuff there.”

Barrington was too busy picking feathers out of his hair to reply.

“SIT DOWN ON THE TOP DECK! I have to tell you one more time and I’m stoppin’ the bus.”

It took a minute for things to settle down but still the drunken miracle worker got back to his feet, ignoring the drivers order to sit down.

“Anyway, I’m back now. Been a long time eh? I’ve kept an eye on you lot but to be honest it’s all a repeat down here. You fight each other, you feel bad about it, you fight each other again. And the sinning, all the sinning, I tell you, I’m very disappointed in you all, terrible stuff, you should be ashamed.”

Both Barrington and Jay found tears in their eyes now, each wiping them away with as much dignity as they could maintain as the intoxicated preacher’s words slipped under their skin, carrying far more weight than they should.

“I forgive you though. I do, really. When the big man created you he wasn’t at his best, not that that’s an excuse, but it is a reason. You wouldn’t think it really, that your omnipotent, omnipresent cosmic deity could have a bit of an off day but there you go. Tricky stuff creating life, no matter who, or what, you are. Anyway, you’re all forgiven and now I think we’re in Penge. Have a good one.”

“Last stop, this is Penge, your last stop.”

It took a few minutes to everyone to file off of the bus, to the driver’s dismay, his shift was over and the weepy, stunned looking people staggering down from the top deck were holding him up. Something to do with that fucking drunk, no doubt, but then there was always one. Last week it had been a bloke claiming to be the Hidden Imam, that hadn’t been his problem though as he’d just dropped him off at Tottenham Court Road where he’d gone off with a dozen dazed followers to ‘bring peace and justice to the world’. Good luck with that in Leicester Square on a Saturday night.

Standing on the pavement in the drizzling rain Jay looked at Barrington and Barrington looked at Jay.

“That was something, wasn’t it? That forgiveness thing, I feel a lot better for that you know.”

“Yeah” Barrington scratched his head “was definitely something…”

“Not sure I like being called a sinner though, not perfect or anything, but still.”

“Yeah, was a bit out of order wasn’t it? And did you see that beard? Fucking Hipster.”

“Right, fuck him. Offy and home then?”

“Sounds good. Night bus innit, always one on there.”

Fading in the distance the voice of Jesus rang out in the cold night air.

Oh South London,
Is wonderful,
Oh South London is WONDERFUL!

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Conflict Resolution in Croydon

It wasn’t so much a gang war as a communal scuffle. Although as fifty-three people wound up dead you could say that was just arguing semantics. They really didn’t mean for things to escalate so fast though, no one did, things just kind of worked their way up from a civil discussion to gun play in the streets without anyone thinking to step back in the intermediate steps.

Really, no one could have predicted it, not on that fresh, crunchy Autumn evening. It was nice, the air was chilled but cutting, not yet settled into that grey London freeze that puts a concrete lid on the passions of the human experience and as they settled down for a quiet evening the notion of violence couldn’t have been further from their minds. Which just goes to show, even the most innocuous of situations can carry the nucleus of conflict where humans are involved.

It was unfair when the police called it a warzone though, even more so when the tabloids referred to Croydon as the ‘Most Dangerous Place on Earth’ and it was bang out of order when questions were asked in Parliament about whether or not to deport the entire population of the borough to a deserted island in the mid-Atlantic as a warning to others. Locals took offence at all of that, they’re proud people out there after all, what with the Croydon tram and the big Ikea – who wouldn’t feel a certain swell of pride when surrounded by such urban bounty? And if they, apparently, had a slight tendency towards the psychotic then who was anyone to judge? Especially those high faluting snobs from the center of the city. What did they know about assembled a fifteen piece Scandinavian storage unit? Nothing, that’s what and who can really say they’ve lived if they haven’t ridden the rails of the tram line down to the Whitgift shopping center, to which the tube is, by comparison, about as worthwhile as a hat on a man with no head.

The truth was, one witness attested, that there’d been a small disagreement about the borrowing of pens at the Bingo hall. These things happen, tempers flaired, a bit of pushing, shoving and shouting ensued. Others corroborated the story, that was the trigger they agreed, no doubt about it and it had all been over in a flash, a minor side note to an otherwise alright evening. That they fell strangely silent about what came after that was a matter for some discussion by the investigating officers. Serious police who’d dealt with drug dealers, gangs, Yakuza hitmen, Mafioso Capos, ‘Ndrangheta assassins and Cartel drug smugglers, they all agreed that when it came to sticking to a story and not grassing anybody up there were none more reliable than the members of Croydon’s Bingo going fraternity.

Not one person admitted to bringing along the baseball bats, Stanley knives and boards with nails through them that evidence suggested were the first tools of escalation after the seemingly innocuous disagreement about pens. And nobody even hinted at who’d handed out the AK47s and Glock 9mms, although there was no doubting that someone must have seen something as the crates were cracked open. Even the CCTV turned out to have been wiped when tired inspectors sat down to look for clues as to where the Chieftain Tank and the surface to air missile launchers had come from. Every question was met with a blank look, whether the witness was a hefty barmen or a little old lady.

The final report, released long after the funeral processions, memorials and recriminations had died down, was vague. As with all government investigations those in charge had agreed that, in the public’s best interest, it should be as long as possible, as incomprehensible as possible and as late as possible just in case anyone looked at it with strange ideas about truth being seen and justice being done. What did emerge from it though was the curious fact that, of all those killed on that fateful night, only one person was actually from Croydon. They were also the only casualty listed to have died from apparently accidental causes as they managed to fire an RPG the wrong way round and blow themselves away while setting up a fortified position at a bus stop. Everyone else though was from beyond the borough. No one could have known that at the time though of course. From what the crime scene investigators could figure the two battling sides, each claiming that the pen had been theirs in the first place and that they’d have won £250 and a bottle of whisky but for those bastards, were completely random in their composition. It really wasn’t Croydon versus the world, they said, although admittedly it did look suspiciously like it.

In the end no charges were brought, no one was exiled and Croydon wasn’t subjected to high altitude bombing, as some residents of neighbouring Bromley had loudly demanded. It wouldn’t ‘serve the public interest to pursue prosecution’ the government said, while the locals who’d been facing charges just nodded serenely and lent meaningfully on unmarked packing cases that seemed to have been delivered to just outside the court. The police agreed too, as they stood warily behind armoured vehicles the officers had paid for out of their own pockets. It was after all, they told rubbernecking journos, just a bit of a slagging match and nothing to be concerned about really. Plus, they whispered later, off the record and after a few pints, it was Croydon and for everyone’s good what happens in Croydon, stays in Croydon.

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The Pirates of Deptford Creek

The Pirates of Deptford Creek

The Royal Navy tried, they really did. Frigates, destroyers, dreadnoughts, rubber dinghies, armadas of novelty inflatables, they gave it their best and bless ’em for the effort.

Then the Americans came in, late, as is their habit, and took their turn. They brought an aircraft carrier and three nuclear submarines, not to mention the fighter jets, Apache helicopters and, eventually, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Damon on their day off. They’d both trained extensively for the job but in the end their performances were unconvincing. Right up to the point where they were hung high from the yard arm, tarred and feathered with a copy of the South London Press jammed into their mouths.

The Russians chanced their arm next, ships, planes, tanks and a whole heap of grim faced, heavy set men in ushanka hats with little patience for anything that stood in their way. They filled Deptford Creek with soldiers and sailors, an impressive achievement given that the tide was in, but still they had no luck. In the end Vladimir Putin himself had to do the back stroke in and call his lads off, to the jeers of locals and the smug nods of nervous American Generals keen not to be outshone.

After that it became a bit of a free for all really. The French came and went with not a shot fired, the Germans threw their spiky hats into the ring then ran when they were thrown back, the Israeli’s tried building a wall, the Chinese built a bigger one, the Mongols came by on horseback and the Swiss waved their pikes around. All for nothing as the Pirates of Deptford Creek repelled the greatest powers the world has ever seen without even breaking a sweat. And by the end even they were starting to feel bad about it, after all it doesn’t do anyone’s pride any good to be beaten back by a load of people who’ve only just stumbled out of the pub and onto a slightly lopsided old trawler. When the fire was in them though, when the black flag was flying and the dirty brown sea spray of the Thames was in their eyes there were none finer on the water or under it than those fiendish sailors of South London. And to think, until someone had the bright idea after closing time to sneak onto a ship and go for a joyride not one of them had ever been closer to sailing than floating a rubber duck in the bath.

So it went and so it still goes though. Not a tourist cruise is safe, not a party boat goes un-raided, at least when there’s nothing worthwhile on the telly and it’s not pub quiz night. The Royal yacht doesn’t dare show it’s face and HMS Belfast has given up and applied to join the infantry, police boats skulk in small inlets, surreptitiously smoking roll ups and hoping not to be noticed while coracles sailed down from the wild wastes of Kent and Essex overturn themselves in fear at the shifting of the waves.

The Pirates, for their part, take it all in their stride. They’re local heroes now, their names spoken in reverential awe by landlubbers and salty sea dogs alike – from Brockwell Lido to the raging waters of the Atlantic. Barrington ‘One Eye’ Daniels, Trevor ‘Trevor’ Murdoch, Lisa ‘Kick ‘Em In The Head’ Flynn, Dan ‘I Can’t Swim’ Levy, Irfan ‘Don’t Get My Shoes Wet’ Hussain, Mandy ‘My Other Boats A Frigate’ Mitchell – titans amongst giants amongst mere mortals. One day, they say, we’ll leave these homely waters, when the novelty wears off of sinking boats full of drunken students and confused tourists, we’ll sail to the very edge of the earth – or perhaps over to Calais on a booze cruise. But as the Royal Navy, Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, Swiss, Mexicans, Mongols, Malaysians, Mamluks, Mercians, Madagascans and Peruvians have learnt from bitter experience – you just can’t shift a Deptford Pirate.

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