The high street stores are telling us that ‘skools back’ as if the enforced imprisonment of what euphemistically is called an ‘educational system’ can be trivialised and turned into a ‘shopping experience’. And for us more hardened consumers? This year’s ‘autumn range’ lets us know that last year’s autumn range should be shipped off to the local charity shop where this year’s holiday ‘easy-reads’ gather dust and scatter sand on the shelves. There’s a sadness in the air, a sense of childhood lost – that eight weeks’ freedom which was never quite gained, and when translated into the designated standard fortnight only reminds us of what we haven’t got and will never have.
How many times, I ask, was that saddest of all mantras, ‘this is the life’, chanted this summer on the beaches of southern Europe? Well, if two weeks of suntan, cocktails and unusually languorous sex is ‘the life’, what are the other ﬁfty weeks of the year? There’s a self-imposed forgetfulness about holidays; it’s hard to lie out on a sun-lounger while thinking about mutilated corpses on the streets of Baghdad. So maybe for those ten golden days you don’t glue yourself to the Guardian, and for those ten days that oh so dependable guardian angel loses a little bit of its propagandist hold over you. No wonder you feel relaxed; you’re free from Tony Blair’s brain-damaging bile, from Rupert Murdoch’s insidious cultural domination and, wonder of wonders, amongst your fellow beach-baskers there isn’t a terrorist to be found, unless, of course, you were unfortunate enough to have gone Truly Turkey (ironic resonances here of Churchill’s ‘ﬁght them on the beaches’).
Holidays are a demonstration of possibility, a taster of what life could have been like beyond the slavery of the work-ethic. The two-week ‘treat’n’trick’ is that it’s long enough to ensure that you’ll be back for more, but short enough to ensure that you won’t become so convinced as to want to make it a lifestyle. Remember the tales of Christmas Day football matches in the trenches? Of course the puffed-up Generals and prattling politicians didn’t like it; it proved too conclusively that, left to our own devices, we can happily co-exist: ‘good god, if we allow them to arrange a return match they won’t be ﬁt enough to kill each other.’
So you ﬂy back to Blighty refreshed and invigorated (no matter that the Stansted Express is anything but). There are people on the train travelling home weary from work. You feel a little superior. You take a peek at their newspapers. Yes, Blair’s still babbling on, and Baghdad’s still burning. You suddenly realise that it’s days since you thought about The Archers. Has Sid had a heart attack yet? Is Mrs Snell getting her pantos in a twist? You get off the train to take the short bus-ride home. There are hustlers hanging around the bus station. You get offered grass which you don’t want because it probably isn’t, and asked for loose change which you haven’t got, and, by the way, ‘have you ﬁnished with your ticket?’ The roadworks around Seven Sisters haven’t been worked on since you left two weeks ago, so there are severe delays. Having spent time in the Med, you’re used to the heat, but the airless humidity of the grossly over-crowded bendy-bus gets to you. Everyone around you looks pale and sickly, and although you’ve barely been back for a couple of hours, that’s already how you’re beginning to feel. The ﬁnal walk home is full of trepidation. Has the house been burgled? Did you remember to put out the garbage sacks? If not, it might have to be another call to the Council’s Vermin Ofﬁcer. Will they have ﬁnished the cheap conversion job across the road? Oh, Lord, not more plastic windows. Clissold Park looks parched to extinction. It must have been hot. Will the neighbours be as tanned as you without having been further than their back garden? The ‘£1,800 all-inclusive’ suddenly seems rather a lot. There’s a very large bright orange camper van parked right outside your doorstep. Oh, no, not squatters. But apart from the knee-deep pile of pizza menus and cabbie cards, everything is just as you left it: dark and a little empty. The phone is ﬂashing twelve messages, but just at the moment you don’t want to hear about Dad’s hernia or BT’s latest offers, but you do wonder for a while whether their ‘Choose to Refuse’ service might be applied to their own intrusions. You’re beginning to feel mildly depressed, maybe it’s the effects of last night’s raki binge, or maybe it’s the wretched dripping tap which for all the will in the world just won’t ﬁx itself. How is it that most of life’s bigger problems somehow lead back to plumbers? You stash the duty-frees in the drinks cabinet, re-boot the computer, turn the central heating to full and head off down Church Street to see whether you can recreate a little of that good-time atmosphere before it does a ﬁnal fast-fade. Your taste buds are still thinking taverna, and there’s a touch of that crisp white sheets and sea-breezed-curtains feel still a-yearning in the groin. If nothing else, there’s nowhere quite like Church Street for its choice of bars and restaurants, and, despite all the efforts of a small cadre of particularly rapacious landlords, the spirit of independence and bohemian bonhomie remains reasonably intact.
It’s a warm evening. There’s folk about. They even seem friendly. ‘You’re looking good,’ calls an acquaintance across the bustling street. You begin to feel good. The shops look colourful. One of the second-hand bookshops has got a copy of what’s his name’s latest novel. The Guardian said it was ‘a must’. You’ll pop back tomorrow to pick it up. Maybe Stokey isn’t so bad after all. You stop off for a drink; a light white which sends giggles right up from your stomach. The garden out-back is every bit as cosy as anything you’d found around the beaches, and you enjoy being able to understand whatever it is people are talking about. ‘Where’ve you been?’ You enjoy telling them. There’s a blackbird singing. It’s not exactly a lark, but it puts you in mind of another, older England, somehow more graceful. Okay, so the wine’s bringing on a bout of nostalgia, but why not? This is home and you’d best make the most of it.
By the time you hit the street again, the alcohol has had a positively poetic effect. For a moment you even imagine you can hear the sweet sounds of the best of British jazz wafting out through the windows of the old Vortex. Oh, this is the life. But then, in one horribly calculated blow to the stomach, it all comes tumbling down around you. There’s a colourful banner been hung from one of the lamp-posts, it says ‘I (heart) Hackney. Making Hackney a safer place.’ Fine, but why the picture of an ASBO bobby wearing a ﬂak-jacket? Intimidating or what? If he, with all his small-arms training and Immediate Response Unit support, needs a ﬂak-jacket, what about you? It’s not him who’s going to be back-street mugged, it’s some poor sod like yourself, so where’s your arsenal?
As Bush and Blair have so conclusively proved in Iraq, two wrongs never make a right.
It’s the innocent every time who get mowed down in the brutal crossﬁre. There’s no such thing as a good man with a gun, so why is New Labour so enthusiastically pushing Britain into the madness of gun culture? Peace and safety are states of being that can only be achieved through compassion and understanding (and an educational system which promotes those virtues rather than the viciousness of ﬁerce competition). Like it or not, Hackney Council’s colourful banner is promoting violence, and if we can’t see that, we are complicit within it. Gun Lobby? Who needs one?