Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Magnificent Five

We all arrived in London on the same day, the same train. I can still remember it pulling into the station, the commuters leaping from their seats as soon as the upside-down table of Battersea Power station drifted into view. They all seemed so desperate to be the first out of the door. They hovered around the exits, tapping against the glass like flies, muscles tensed in anticipation, like greyhounds waiting to spring from the traps. When the doors opened they would fly away. Sorry, I’ve always been bad at mixing my metaphors. Or should that be ‘good’ at mixing my metaphors? I suppose it’s entirely dependent upon the scale that you use... The five of us were good friends. Or, at least, the five of us considered each other to be good friends, in the way that people who have grown up together usually do. In reality, we shared little more than the same age, and parents who were geographically proximate. No, on second thoughts, we did share one other thing. Hunger. Some call it greed, others ambition, but I think ‘hunger’ does it justice. We were all possessed with that gnawing itch, that desire for more, for bigger, for faster. And so we’d buttoned our seatbelts, pulled our skates up, and moved to London. To make our fortune, or figuratively die trying.

It was the early nineties, so property was gold, and the obvious choice for investment. So what if it was theft - theft is exciting and profitable. From the first day, we spent money indiscriminately. It would have been hard not to; at every corner of every street there were estate agents offering you the chance to sign your name on the dotted line. A flat in Euston? Why not? A shop on Vine Street? Why, thank you, I don’t mind if I do. Within months, I had a string of houses stretching from Bow Street to the Strand. I think a small part of me realised that it couldn’t last forever, but at the time I was content, and rolling in it. D (I can’t bring myself to type his full name. He doesn’t deserve that courtesy) and I were doing best. He’d invested in Islington penthouses, and was raking it in now that professional twenty-something couples decided that they’d like to like to live somewhere with a postcode that didn’t contain the letters “W” or “S”. He started taking us all out to posh restaurants, telling us stories about meetings with his accountant. “Well,” said B, “That’s nothing. My accountant is so good that he has his own accountant”. They’d always been rivals, but this streak got worse when alcohol was involved. S always had to sit between them at our meal, reminding them that there were families present in the restaurant. We’d always meet at D’s beforehand – he had a limousine and a driver now, and we would travel around the city feeling like kings, fingers crossed that we’d find somewhere to park for free. It very rarely happened, but when it did, we felt like we’d won the lottery. The irony of a stretch limo in free parking was delicious, the icing on the bee’s knees.

But as the months and years went by, it started to feel a bit repetitive, like I was just going around in circles; Sign this lease. Pay that rent. See your accountant. Sign this lease. I know that everything was going well and I should have felt great, but I couldn’t shift this slight sense of unease. It’s just... Well, I don’t know quite how to express it, but... It felt like I wasn’t in control, like these things were just happening to me. I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or a man with a white beard who welcomes you with outstretched arms once you start to decompose, but I felt like an observer of my own life. At school I’d always joked that I was an emotional backstop, experiencing things two paces removed, while wearing thick gloves and a helmet. But the restaurants, the cars, the nights out – there was a little voice in the back of my head whispering “you are not the architect of your success”. And I think I knew that it was true. I hadn’t done anything to deserve this. I was living off compound interest; the money wasn’t mine, it was the money’s. I know it’s bad, but I was almost relieved when I got the call about L. He’d been taken to a police station, and needed someone to pay bail. Well, he didn’t need someone to pay his bail, per say – he’d been burning the midnight oil from both ends, and now owned half of the West End and a large shareholder stake in the redesign of King’s Cross. He just didn’t have fifty pounds to hand. Just think – for us, that was petty cash! So I walked over to the station, and paid it without hesitation. We had a good catch-up, afterwards, over a pint in one of the chain of hotels that I now owned. When I asked him what he was in for he said that he couldn’t say – probably just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, some jumped-up policeman wanting an arrest. I believed him then. After all, who hadn’t had a run in with an official with a clipboard and a god complex?

That meeting was my last with L for about a year. The restaurant visits had stopped, and the five of us had grown apart, too busy with our expanding empires for such indulgences as friends. I think D’s birthday was when it really hit me. No-one gave him a card, or a cake, or an hour. They just handed him a ten pound note, brusquely wished him a good day, then left. Their property wasn’t going to look after itself. It was just another transaction on their balance sheets, just another invoice in the out tray... Invoices in the out tray were becoming increasingly common around this time. You see, the lines of credit were starting to dry up. It was a slow process, imperceptible at first. But soon the estate agents calls were less frequent, fewer couples booked viewings, and eventually people just weren’t putting their property on the market. This hit B hardest of all; most of his assets were luxury houses in Mayfair. He still had viewings, but no-one was putting down any deposits. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t take the water out of the horse... I was largely unaffected – as I said, I was merely living off compound interest, and as long as people continued to want to stay in a hotel while they visited London, I could conceivably continue to do so. D decided to adapt, ‘diversify his portfolio’, buying into the trains. Soon, he was a stakeholder in services from Marylebone, Fenchurch Street, and Liverpool Street Station. I think S was the busiest around this time. He’d bought into the waterworks and a gas plant, and was constantly on business trips to the European continent, to slip Gazprom execs little brown envelopes.

As the years passed, I started to wish it would all end. I did, once or twice, contemplate leaving: taking a train out of London, giving my property away, and calling it a day. My hotels were doing fine, but I was bored, so bored, and increasingly isolated. L was in and out of prison, and only called when he needed the bail. I know he kept saying that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, but if that was true, why did he keep getting arrested? He’d had to sell on his West-End flats to cover the mounting legal bills, and the King’s Cross Shares were all he had left. Which would have been fine, were it not for D. You see, over the years, D had become obsessed with the idea of owning all of the stations. Whenever L was arrested, he’d show up at the police station, offering him the £50 bail money for his station stake! Can you believe it? B had gone bankrupt, in the meantime, his empty penthouses overlooking Hyde Park a monument to excess. Had Tracey Emin stuck her name on them, they would have won the Turner Prize. S had dropped below the radar since a deal with a Russian oligarch turned sour. Apparently one of his little brown envelopes was empty. Or at least, that was the word on the grapevine. For all we knew, he could be living in comfort in Switzerland or the Bahamas, having concocted the most creative non-dom alibi of the decade.

When the most exciting thing to happen in your week is receiving ten pounds from a bank error in your favour, I think it’s time to step back and take a look at your life.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


"People say that I'm overly dismissive of other people's opinions, but they don't know what they're talking about".

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Caution: Disobedient Magic Carpets

I came across this sign the other day.
I didn't realise that being thrown from your magic carpet was such a prevalent problem...

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Carpe Sandwich

I went to meet someone in a train station the other day, and their train was slightly delayed. As you might expect, I had a little walk around, occupied myself by looking at what the shops were offering. Then I came across this sign, displayed in a sandwich shop (to be kept anonymous).


I'd like to think that, at some point, they had a slogan that made sense, and the following conversation occurred between two ad execs.

"How about 'start the day with a sandwich'?"
"I like it, but isn't it a bit vague?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it doesn't specify where you should put the sandwich."
"Start the day with a sandwich in your stomach?"
"No, that sounds too scientific. Like a sandwich spontaneously generates there each morning. What's another word for stomach?"
"Tummy, gut, paunch, belly-"
"'Start the day with a bellyful of sandwich' What do you think?"
"No, you're right. 'Start's a bit flaccid. We need something more proactive"
"Carpe Diem?"
"There's no need to swear. Mug the day? Grab the day by the shoulders and shake it a bit until it's got the message that you are not to be messed with? Attack the day? Yes, attack."
"Erm, sir"
"Yes, you're right, I've noticed it too... we don't just sell sandwiches. How about we replace 'sandwich' with 'tasty'?"
"Tasty what?"
"That's up to the customer."

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Oh, the irony

True story:
I received my first ever library fine today, for a copy of Michel Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish'.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Episode Two

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Mediocre of the world, stand up and lose your balance a bit

My front door is a piece of truly mediocre carpentry. It does technically have two hinges, but they’re both positioned next to each other a few inches from the top of the door, as the carpenter didn’t feel like bending down when he was installing them. The door itself is a good foot shorter than the frame, so there’s a gap between the top of the door and the ceiling. I personally like it that way – it means that, if I ever forget my keys, I can climb over the top, root around in the jeans that I was formerly wearing, climb back out and then unlock the door. If I know that I’m going to be going far away, I can throw the keys back into the house so I know that I won’t lose them.

I’d like to sing the praises of mediocrity (but out of tune). I cherish what was supposed to be a blown-glass owl but, thanks to the poor skills of the glass-blower, resembles an overweight pug having a stroke, the wrinkly face nestling in the drooping folds of its torso, melted and drawn down one side. I delight in sub-par oil paintings, where the likeness is adequate, but distorted, as if viewed through a fug of myopia and acid, eyes too large for the face, three-fingered hands grasping indeterminable blurs. Where rooms have corners and walls but floors melt into shoulders, windows lack glass and views. But my favourite, the absolute pinnacle of the poor, is mediocre magic. Illusionists failing to find the card, while knives fall out of the assistant. A dove wriggles its way down the magicians’ sleeve, and, taking two ten pound notes and a false hand with it.

(A sub-par oil painting I did many moons ago. Not before perspective was invented, so I have no excuse).