J.D Salinger was dead and, as Holden Cauldfield himself might have muttered: ‘So what? He was just another old phoney in a world stuffed full of fakes telling us what to think about life.’
It was a one of those January afternoons where the open sky yawns clear and free. It looked as though it might break away from the sea as they raced in parallel across the horizon. I wondered what might exist in-between.
I walked along the Kent coastal path in the shadow of the ruined Roman fort, its skeleton exposed like torture victims’ tears, and thrust my gloved hands deep into my coat pockets. Out in the waters the white pillars of the wind farm, with their turbines’ slowly twisting arms, sent semaphore messages of ecological disaster, that stretched up to the still fleeing sky and all around me the echoes of snowfall disappeared back from whence they had come.
This was where Augustine came to tame the so-called English - the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes and the mixed up mess of leftover empire. The allegedly uncivilised bastard hybrids of a thousand blood soaked battles, the bedevilled offspring of rape that arrived on the cusp of a wave screeching obscenities. Or if not here, then some other corner of Kent, the mythical garden of England. Some say the Isle of Thanet, some say Ramsgate. The coast from Margate, which snivels its way through Herne Bay and onto the Rochester estuary, is haunted by history, particularly memories of invasion, but has such resonance lingering as that of the arrival of Augustine. He who brought orders from blessed Rome and the sanctification of divine word to spread amongst the peoples of this land.
Legend tells that in the sixth century he landed out of a bedraggled small fishing boat that had barely survived the splurge across the channel, and stumbled, barefoot through the salty waters and across the shingled sands, crashing to his knees and praising his unrecognised lord for delivering unto him a nation of heathens to better.
Actually, that’s not a legend. I made it up. I have no idea what the true story of his landing is. Same as I cannot really pass judgement on the apparent ease with which the King Ethelbert fell for the story of redemption and eternal paradise. It is a legend because history is written by the winners and Augustine and his church, with its holy soldiers scattered throughout the land to enforce moral servitude, won.
Maybe. Maybe not.
I raised my camera and picked off a snaggle of hikers along the far dyke, drenched in the semi-lit red death sun rays falling across the oyster farm. Silhouettes, representations of people. Like Plato’s shadows in the cave. They may have been real people. They may not have been. My imagination might have automatically interpreted them as flesh and blood, filling in the gaps of the framework that the representation suggested.
Perhaps it was just me, but as January limped its way out of the snow drowned suffocation of winter it felt as though something was ending. Or it maybe beginning. It probably was just my imagination (running away with me); seeing things that aren’t there.
Earlier, back when the snow still blanketed the streets and it was warmer out than in as long as I stayed mobile, I walked along the Old Kent Road and felt his leery smug gaze fall upon me. David Cameron’s photoshopped eyes slimed out of the billboard into the city.
“We can’t go on like this,” even his type intoned evangelical hypocrisy, “I’ll cut the deficit not the NHS.”
‘That’s not a policy,’ I grumbled to myself, ‘that’s just an empty promise.’
His great big tight lipped privileged smile was condescending to the whole street, inflated to the size of an upper deck of the number thirty-six. I wanted to clamber up the billboard and rip him into meaningless shreds.
Someone in Hackney went further. “Fuck off back to Eton,” they scrawled in cartoon blood red.
In Hereford a full abusive makeover transformed the Tory leader into a sideburned end of the pavilion Elvis impersonator who’s seen better days. “We can’t go on like this,” he wailed whilst the backing tape slipped, “with suspicious minds.”
The night bus inched its way through Peckham trying to plough through an inexplicable two in the morning traffic jam. I rested my temple against the cold damp glass of the upstairs windows, letting the rumble of the diesel engine throb across by brain. The rhythm burst the red wine bubbles that raced through my thoughts. I dreamed of words, words printed on paper and pushed into hands. And for some reason about shaving all the hair from my body; of being reborn free from sin.
My head was riddled with frivolous thoughts and memories of histories once learnt. But whilst all that was going on inside me, outside in the real world stages were being set.
Gordon Brown stepped out of the St James’ mansion that is Lancaster House; he walked out of nineteen century red silk luxury and into the unrelenting flashbulb glare of twenty-ten media. In his back there were still the stab wounds, the fresh knife cuts overlaying the budding scar tissue. He talked of offering something to the Afghan people other than bullets from the white hot, dust clogged end of an SA-80.
He was careful to avoid phrases such as ‘save’ and ‘peace’ preferring to focus his dour delivery on things he is more comfortable articulating. Monetary issues. Finance. Cash. He concentrated and his body barely moved for fear his wounds might reopen.
The NATO leaders are trying to wash their hands clean as they promise to use the rainy day pots of emergency money to establish a trust fund for Afghanistan. They made a pledge to Taliban fighters; offering to make them wealthy if they will renounce arms. They suggested a binding deal with people whose ideology is, in part, the removal of western capitalist decadence from their homelands. They will attempt to bribe idealists to renounce their cause. And they think this will work.
You cannot solve every problem by throwing money at it. Money, you do not necessarily have. Money, that if you do have it may be of more use elsewhere – such as topping up the fund to rebuild the vibro-shattered infrastructure of Haiti. Sometimes, you have to find principles. Sometimes, you have to have morals.
Meanwhile, a matter of hundreds of metres away the Tony Blair circus rolled into the Queen Elizabeth conference centre and erected its marquee. Journalists reported the shake in Blair’s hand as he fumbled with a water bottle, the only sign of apprehension before the performance began. The immortal star of persuasion politics rose like a phoenix back for one last encore. The smile, the hand movements, the intonations were all nauseatingly familiar, like Oasis’ brief and unexpected revival from beyond the grave a couple of years ago – some things are best left in the time they originate from. He deflected questions, he rephrased arguments, he ignored reality with greatest of ease, like a trapeze artist swinging through the air knowing that the safety net won’t be needed for he never falls.
And at the end, when he was asked if he had regrets, when he was given the opportunity to appear human he declined. The heckles dribbled through, but the shock that someone could be so arrogant was like a thunderclap. Gordon’s back may have been bloodied, his face might have been scarred and bruised, but Tony’s hands were soaked red with gore and the demon eyes flashed out of the past to burn passing good souls.
Was Elthebert a good soul for allowing the patchwork of Christian population suppression to descend across his land? Did he mean well? Did he believe he was doing the right thing? Did history judge him or have we all forgotten who he was?
Indeed, we have no clear picture of the man. There is no photograph, no permanent record of perhaps a distinctively striking, tall, muscular man with fine drapes across his leather cross hatched armour, a noble poise as his horse galloped across the Kent flatlands, marsh mists and horse sweat forming clouds around him. We don’t even know if Augustine convinced him of the power of the Lord or if the King grudgingly converted to keep the marital bedroom a harmonious place, for his wife Bertha was a Frank and therefore already one of the converted. Possibly, he insisted on meeting Augustine and his cohorts under an open sky for that would protect him from sorcery.
Or maybe the monk bunged him thirty pieces of silver and walked straight on past.
I slid off my rock on the sea’s rim and trudged through the loose shingle back to the car. The locks opened with a snicker and the engine fired with an oomph. As I drove back to the city, back the future, I headed into the dipping sun. I raised my hand to shield my eyes and the whole world was blistered with gold.
J.D Salinger is dead. Does that mean we all have to wise up? Grow up? Does that mean I can no longer act like a teenager?
The bus jerked forwards and seemingly travelled backwards simultaneously. I wondered if I was going to make it home before I needed to leave for work. On the other side of the aisle were two young men, sitting apart and yet together. Each had their own double seat. The one in front was turned around and draped over the plastic upright, whilst the one behind leaned in close to hang off every word. Their conversation was lowered, but the snippets I caught were those of an introductory conversation, the sort you make when you’ve just met and are desperate to impress. It was a conversation of hopes and aspirations, of dreams and desires. It wasn’t idle small talk, but statements of intent. The one man ran his fingers across the back of the other’s hand. Romance was blossoming.
Whilst in front of me it was dying. The woman with the bright orange hair was purposefully looking out of the window at the night whilst he turned inwards, almost demanding with his body that she pay attention to his earnestness, his hand cupped empty air for emphasis. Their voices were not so hushed; they drifted in and out of earshot as decorum and privacy were rudely shoved aside by indignation and anger. The argument could have been any relationship burning out. It was about money, or the squandering of it, it was about suspected and refuted infidelity, about jealousy, about effort of lack thereof with each others’ friends. Her voice began to crack with tears. His gestures became increasingly desperate.
The bus stopped yet again. A blonde girl whose smile seemed larger than her face flounced up the stairs.
‘Hi,’ she sat down next to me. ‘Can I make friends with you?’
It took a moment for my brain to stop prying into everyone else’s business and reply: ‘Um, okay.’
‘Cool. I need to talk to some else I’ll fall asleep and it’s always super to make a new friend.’
In my head Billy Bragg sang “I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl,” but I wasn’t sure I believed him.