Thursday, 2 July 2009

Adventures in the North :: DIY and Desiccated Mermaids

‘I hate the North East.’

This is Joe. Balding and sour-faced with high blood pressure and no neck. He is the late Mr Kingfisher’s younger brother. He is 72. He has a combover, a bold moustache and an electric drill. He is here to help. He insists on it. The cabinet has been successfully assembled (by me), and Joe has taken on the task of getting it off the floor and onto the wall. Nee bother, pet.

However, for all his desperation to prove the contrary, Joe is old and weak and he makes mistakes. Most of my offerings of assistance he refuses triumphantly and blunders on alone, taking horrible short cuts when things don’t quite work out. I wonder if he is aware of how bad a job he is doing. I wince as I watch, and then on the pretext of giving him more space, I cringe into the hallway and leave him to it.

Minutes later he scurries out of the front door and goes rummaging in the street, returning presently with a short length of 2x2, which he cuts to size and screws onto the wall beneath the cabinet. ‘That’ll give it that extra support,’ he says. His thinking – if I’ve understood correctly – is this: ‘Why use the two screws provided when you can just hammer a dirty great lump of wood to the wall?’

When he is gone, taking his drill with him, we notice that there is a space between the piece of wood and the cabinet - it’s not even supporting it! It’s nowhere near. Basically, he’s just screwed an ugly lump of wood to the wall for the hell of it.

Alma and I stare at one another, shaking our heads.

Why did we let him do that?

The next day Alma buys a drill. Days pass. I put it off. Then she goes away for a few days to stay with friends and I promise I will do it while she’s away. I will fix Joe’s mess, and yes, I will replace the old wooden towel rail and the old wooden toilet roll holder with a much snazzier chrome set while I’m about it. Alma’s back tomorrow, and my reputation is on the line.


I’ve drilled a couple of holes, but it’s boring. And the drill’s a bit of cheap old gash. I’ve made deeper holes with dirty looks. I know, I know. I am a bad workman, and I am afraid of failure. The fact is I’ve got holes to fill, and then holes to drill, but no more tonight. That would be anti-social. I’ll finish it tomorrow morning. Now we need to talk about Joe.

‘Why do you hate the North East, Joe?’ I ask him.

He snorts a little, as if I’m asking the most ludicrous question. ‘Well, look around you,’ he says. He sighs. Joe lives twenty minutes away in Sunderland. He’s lived there all his life. ‘There’s nothing,’ he says.

Joe bemoans the hole left by the dissolution of the ports and the mines in the seventies and the eighties. Hopelessly, he bemoans the paucity of imagination, the kids tossing bricks in the streets, the boarded-up pubs, the hopelessness. ‘Newcastle’s alright,’ he says, wistfully. ‘It’s got a bit more life to it. But even so, the whole area is just a bit…’

‘Dead?’ I offer. He ignores me.

‘It’s been left behind,’ he decides. ‘Or it’s fallen behind, one of the two. I don’t know whose fault it is.’

I ask him why he’s still here, if he feels so strongly about it. He shrugs and picks up his tool-bag, as if, perhaps, to say, ‘Well, who would screw logs to the wall if I wasn’t here?’ But he doesn’t say that. Instead he says, ‘This is where I live.’

‘Can’t argue with that,’ I say. But what I really mean is, ‘Best not argue with that for fear of uncovering whatever it is that’s simmering and ticking away beneath that avuncular veneer of butterscotch and Brylcreem.’

So instead of arguing with Joe, I bought a bike! I got it second-hand. It had been in an accident in which its front end was bent right out of shape. This is because a boy with a plastic bag on his head rode it into the back of a parked car. The bag was to protect him from the rain. But he was also drunk. He’s the son of the man in the bike shop. This is how I know about his shameful exploits. (They are definitely very friendly up here, on the whole, almost to the point of it being quite annoying. No, no, I’m joking. Just… please let me go. Before one of us dies.)

I enjoy the fact that my bike has already been in an accident. It’s like the plane crashing into the house that Garp and his wife are viewing, and Garp then insisting that they definitely have to buy the house, because nothing like that will ever happen again. It’s just like that. It’s dumbass superstition. But I’m clinging to it.

Cycling is proving a great thrill. Sometimes, when you really get into it, it’s like the bike becomes a part of you and your feet and the pedals are working together, taking great chunks out of the road, chomping up everything, absolutely everything, as you zip up the coast with your mouth open. I must buy a helmet, I know. I know.

I rode out to the sea, to see what there was to see. Despite the fact that it was a chilly, overcast day – racist fucking heatwave - people were still out there, rolling up their sleeves and determined to enjoy the heat they could see other people enjoying on TV. It was like the Emperor’s New Heatwave. ‘Goosebumps? What goosebumps?’

Then I read a wonderful story about a rock. A northern rock. In South Shields. Poor old rock used to look like this…

Then it became unstable so they blew it up. Now it's more of a stump…

It’s pretty cool though, Marsden Rock. It used to be a smugglers’ cove, and just over a hundred years ago a bunch of choirs climbed to the top and sang hymns. (Not a 'bunch' of choirs, an excelsius of choirs!) And before that, mermaids used to wrestle on it. Better even than that, however, is the story of how it got its name. The details are here somewhere, but in a conch, it took its name from the white mare which wandered the shoreline, waiting on its slain master - star-crossed romance, fiery opposition, warring families, everyone died. The mare wandered about for a bit, bereft, then she died too, further compounding what was already a pretty tragic affair. Her death-place became known as Mare’s Den, which became Marsden. I carried my bike down to the beach, feeling really quite maudlin. Down these here stairs…

Do they go down or do they go up? Do they go down or do they go up? Do they go down or do they go up? They go up. Or do they?

These go down…

But they don’t come back up.

It is beautiful here, mind you. The nature at least, is sufficiently awesome. But the manmade stuff really isn’t. I covered about fifteen miles of coast and a lot of it is well bleak. There is an eviscerated fun fair, for example, and a pair of abandoned ice cream huts. There are dead lighthouses, and collapsed landmarks. It looks like it might have been fantastic in the Sixties. Now it’s all a bit ‘come, Armageddon, come’. Or even post-apocalyptic…

In fact, it’s odd, but the whole dilapidated mess reminds me of Joe himself. I reckon he was probably pretty cool in the Sixties, before he got dragged down by the pointlessness of it all.

That was yesterday. Today I drilled and filled, sandpapered and painted. There were two tins of blue paint. I assumed – no, I checked and I saw that they were both the same.

They weren’t the same. They were two shades of blue.

I used the wrong paint and it’s a fucking mess. I’m going to have to get Joe round to fix it.

Ooh, go here for an astounding picture of Marsden cove. Wow. This guy is awesome.

Oh, and Luka, look - less than eight quid from Amazon!

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Luka said...

Poor old Joe. It's just human nature though, isn't it? It's why so few of us emigrate. We all love to moan about the current state of affairs but it is always easier to stay than to leave. And even when things are far from perfect there is much comfort in the familiar.

(Less than £8 on Amazon you say? I'm tempted, truly I am, but there's a 3 for £10 deal at the offy and I only have a tenner in my pocket. You can see how I'm fixed.

However, if I do get hold of a copy at some point I promise to review it.)

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Cor blimey, those are great pics.

I'm jealous. I want to wander around Northern coastlines and not be in a heatwave (it got as far as Manchester, it's obviously just racist against Geordies).

Maybe I'm just not working at it. I could probably get myself to a beach and some dramatic rocks if I tried really really hard.

But I can't be arsed.

Antipo Déesse said...

I like your curiosity about people, and the incisive way you analyse them. Do your thoughts simply spring from mind to keyboard fully formed, or do you polish up and edit your blog posts at length?

They seem polished, yet effortless to me. You inspire me and you piss me off.

Larry Teabag said...

I’ve drilled a couple of holes, but it’s boring.

Catofstripes said...

pffff. I didn't comment because I thought you'd have 1000s for that interesting reading. Must be the hot weather.