The work sometimes runs smoothly on the screen. The Excel on one side and the Powerpoint on the other. Check data, copy it to a new worksheet, combine it with other data, represent it in a graphic, copy the graphic into the presentation. Examine its meaning. Write a comment about it. Move on. The time passes and the work is done. It’s tiring, concentrating. I might go to the gym. I might prepare some pottery for a workshop, I might make a coffee or a sandwich. I might check my emails. I might browse my Facebook. I might get punched in the gut, hit between the eyes, overwhelmed with the implications of an article, or a poem, or a video, or an image. My work is interrupted, my concentration blown. It has the right of place. It says what I feel. It takes me up and drops me down. To have that power through communication is awe inspiring.
Like a Bird on a Wire, and Suzanne roll through my memory while I’m writing about 1976. Forty years ago he was one of a multitude of welcome gatecrashers trying to get through the front door into the party. “Music to slit your wrists to” and “passé” then. He died last night, and when we saw him in 2008 in Kilmainham, he proved he’d never lost his right to be at the party.
By November , I’d been at Sheffield University for just over a year, studying for a Bsc in Psychology, at a time when Hubel and Wiesel, the leading researchers, thought perhaps our memories resided each in individual cells which each recognised one thing – The Grandmother Cell Theory, and when Bowlby was king. Computers were running fuzzy logic for pattern recognition, using ticker tape for programmes, written in ‘braille’ and PCs were still a twinkling in the eye of Bill and Steve. Though strangely, Phillips had already invented the lazer disc, a 12 inch equivalent of the CD. Most of us were still hooked on audiotape and especially vinyl and we cherished the gate-fold album, extra suitable for catching loose tobacco during the joint rolling process. Yellow Brick Road and Quadraphenia and Songs in The Key of Life and The Double White Album and Yes all have a spotlight shining on their artwork, even now.
Sheffield was a typical university. Friendly, buzzing, full of flairs and incipient punks, a bunch of stark sixties and early sevenites tower blocks and a couple of ivy-clad red-brick buildings funded, no doubt by Sheffield Steel. There was a pater noster, an amazing invention to transport people up and down the twenty stories of the Arts Tower, like a squashed ferris wheel. We lived in the student union cafe, on meat n potato pies and warm beer, and I also lived in the student theatre, acting in and directing 17 plays in three years.
By November I’d moved into Brunswick street, which had been home to the city’s brothels for the previous fifty or one hundred years, but had been overtaken by student bedsits and colonies of rats. Rent was £4 per week for a room in a shared house, and, having met the first love of my life, Isabella Mann, I was contemplating a move to more salubrious accommodation in the form of a bedsit across the street, with more privacy and space for a double bed. It had been a year of sexual adventures and more than a few misshaps, and meeting Iz brought a change of status from singleton to half a couple. Iz was a Liverpudlian who had grown up within shouting distance of Anfield, where Bob Paisley managed and Kevin Keegen sported a perm. Iz’s father had been a seargent in WW2 and still cleaned his teeth with soot from the front-room chimney. He was an ardent supporter of Labour’s Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist movement led by his friend Derek Hatton. This was the Scargill era, the Three Day Week, Tony Benn’s heyday. We marched across East London for The Anti Nazi League and chanted “What shall we do with Martin Webster” the fascist, leader of the British National Party, Enoch Powell’s legacy and UKIP’s grandparent.
But that whole movement was more about music than politics for me. I was surrounded by people who wanted to hear Tom Robinson and The Clash, and who thought we should pierce ourselves with safety pins but were too scared of becoming septic. But having older siblings and middle class parents, I loved Bowie and Bach and Dylan and Beethoven and Cohen and Mozart and The Beatles and Scarlatti and Picasso and Nietzsche and Hesse and Epstein and Waugh. The self absorbed nature of being almost twenty meant everything was on display. The Penguins were colour-coded on my bookshelves, The albums in alphabetical order. Sartre sat beside Simone de Beauvoir and “Art is Optimistic. Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty” occupied wall-space next to “What is it, is man merely a mistake of God’s or God merely a mistake of man”. Life was all one explosion of sensual and intellectual stimulation and realisation. My egocentricity was unbounded.
It was a Friday 21897 days ago. 322,000 babies were born that day.
- Saying of the year: “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse” (James Dean)
- Dwight D was in the White House
- Heroin was finally criminalised on 1st January
- Britain’s first Berni Inn Steak House opened
- The Melbourne olympics were on
- Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean disappeared from the UK and emerged in Moscow
- Archbishop Makarios was deported from Cyprus to the Seychelles
- Anthony Eden was PM and Macmillan was chancellor – he launched Premium Bonds
- ‘Love Me Tender’ came out
- Christopher Cockerell invented the hovercraft
- Britain’s first nuclear power plant at Calder Hill was opened
- The Soviets were in Hungary, Khrushchev visited Britain
- The average house price in Britain was £2002. In 2016 it is £206,346 (103 times). The average salary was £786, in 2016 it is £27,500 (34 times)
- There was petrol rationing because of Suez
- Third class rail was abolished
- Fats Domino was in the US charts at number 2 and Elvis had ‘Hound Dog at number one in the UK
- Segregation on buses in Alabama was ruled unconstitutional
- Videotape was first used on TV, Granada TV launched in Manchester
- Someone babysat Andy, Helen and Richard while June went into labour
- George was working for The Iron and Steel Corporation of Britain, later nationalised. They employed 268500 people at the time.
Did the sun shine? Was everyone feeling optimistic? How do we see the world we entered, and does it bear any relationship to this one? What happened that shaped us? Did that then make me what I am now? Which axons grew and which synapses started firing because of all that? Did I somehow start the clock according to James Dean’s motto? Was the brave new world that 1956 heralded formative in my always looking to the future?
Joe Weiner was certainly dying. Every morning when Rachel arrived at his door, he was weaker, less active. Multiple Myeloma first invaded his shoulders and crept unhindered through his vertebrae. It never slept, never retreated.
In some way he had completed his work. He’d built things, controlled people, manipulated and exploited situations. He’d towered over his colleagues, both physically and intellectually, ruled his roost. Looking back now, reading the carefully chosen anecdotes in his autobiography, he was struck by the truth that most or maybe all of it amounted to nothing. Who cares about the past triumphs of a mediocre political career? What difference does it make to the world when all is said and done? In the shadow of his cancer, Joe was trying to come to terms with that waste. A life of striving and all those meaningless achievements boxed up. What had he done with the truth of his life, but bury it and trample on it’s grave.
“I’m not sure I can face another bookshop full of vultures. They only care about who I’m going to give up, and what they did to whom, and I couldn’t care less about all that now. “
Joe flicked through a hardback copy of his book resting open from the night before, on the side table by his chair, before slamming it shut and pushing it away like a small child with a plate of unwanted vegetables. He even screwed up his face in disgust like that child. He would choose some excerpts later to read at Waterstones tonight.
The memoirs had been so long in the planning. He’d kept meticulous diaries throughout his career, with the book in mind. Writing the book had given Joe the focus to fight his cancer for months, given him the hope of some resolution. Each chapter had been fraught with the issue of truth. Each had biographical information on others, which was either damning or disputable, and within each anecdote, there lay question marks over Joe’s role. Getting it all down in black and white was meant to somehow crystalise and justify all his deeds and misdemenours, without judging them. He wasn’t looking to atone for his public injustices, and the rest was strictly private, off limits.
In drawing up contracts for his advance, his agent had attended well to his wish that this autobiography would be about his public self and not his private life. It was one thing to weave one’s way through the obstacles which others might raise in their criticism of one’s political decisions, and quite another to lay oneself open to personal disapproval, and worse, for one’s failings at home. Joe had always accepted that from those who knew him well. He’d chosen his path and avoided responsibility for his own family’s wellbeing in exchange for the high status and respect that went with protecting the social wellbeing of his voters.
From the start, when Ellen had become pregnant with Emily, Joe had been away a lot on Party business. His infidelities had been frequent, if meaningless and short, and he had quickly learned to ignore Ellen’s unspoken rebukes. She’d known pretty well every time he slept with a colleague or follower. He’d never said anything, or worn his guilt on his face, but she just knew. Perhaps it was his smell, or the clothes she washed. Perhaps it was just his coldness towards her when he returned from a trip.
In fact, the book gave scant reference to Emily, Ellen or his second wife, Maria, which suited Joe, and frankly his audience wasn’t interested in his family, or his personality, or, if truth be told, Joe Weiner either. It was the political arena he fought in they wanted to read about. The photos were all from state occasions, international summits, and even college rugby matches, but not from home. That had been agreed by the publishers on condition he spilled the beans on Major and Blair, on Heseltine and Prescott, and on anything else the lawyers could allow in.
Joe’s editor, who’d made his name with biographies of Tonies Blair and Benn, had insisted on details, names, but had never sought meaning. His wasn’t a legacy worth the record, and his autobiography was no more than fodder to the media cannon. It was an intrigue with a shelf life, out in August for the Christmas gift market, remaindered in March and pulped by July next. Unless he died first, in which case maybe reprinted after the funeral, to be advertised alongside his obituary in the Times.
Joe had begun by thinking he had to set the record straight for his detractors, and finished, wearily, with the comfort of his cheque as his only justification for the time and effort he’d given it. Time he couldn’t spare, effort he could barely make. And now, in the first month after publication, came the short and uninspiring PR tour. Tonight’s event in Hampstead marked its end, and a fitting place to hold the book’s funeral, Joe thought; he’d attended many such evenings for other Hampstead-based retired politicians and literati. Living in the borough almost demanded that one ‘had a book out’, and many had resorted to self-publishing if they couldn’t muster the interests of their publisher neighbours in the reams of self-agrandising waffle they had penned at their expensive walnut desks.
Besides the battles Joe had led in the public eye, he’d fought in private too. Over the years, he’d fought with his two ex-wives, and his three children. He hadn’t fought with his various grandchildren, most of whom he didn’t really know, because his daughters had done their best to hold their children back from their grandfather. Chloe, living in France now, had never asked Joe to visit, and hadn’t made any effort to share her family with him when he had ‘dropped in’ on her. Once he’d retired, he had made an effort to see Rachel’s children, but he knew Rachel and Richard didn’t want him to get too close, that Rachel took her children to see Ellen and never to see him.
His first marriage to Ellen had lasted over 20 years, but had ended within a year of Emily’s death, and as a direct consequence of it, and his second marriage to Maria had been ill conceived and brief. She hadn’t stayed around to witness his fall from grace in The Party, and his empty decline into drink, and Joe really had come to terms with that, even respected her for it now.
Rachel, now his eldest, still attended to his daily needs without rancour, despite the dispiriting lovelessness of their relationship. Emily had been gone over twenty years, though her name lived on in Rachel’s eldest. The naming of his granddaughter, Emily, had been discussed with Ellen, but Joe had not known until he attended her christening, and he had had to leave the church to get some fresh air in order not to retch when he saw her name in the order of service.
Joe’s first daughter, Emily, the one he’d loved so much as a child, the aunt that young Emily never knew, ended her life at twenty, while Joe campaigned for re-election in 1983.
Ellen had left Joe because he cut himself off from her after Emily’s death. She’d had ‘stood by her husband’ over his affairs, and various government scandals during his rise to power, despite her knowing that he wouldn’t be there for her if she needed him. She was a traditionalist, who had been brought up by devout catholic parents in a post-war middle class respectability, which set out a woman’s duties to her husband long before she met Joe. Ellen was clear that, like her mother before her, she must manage the home, ensure the children were well turned out and behaved with respect to their elders. While her parents had led respectable lives, she also felt it was her place turn a blind eye to her husband’s indiscretions. It’s true he brought home the bacon. His party had been in power since the early eighties, and he’d been in Cabinet for most of that time, so the income was assured – and when he’d finally lost his seat, there were oil companies and drug companies looking for non-Execs to open doors for them in Westminster, so Joe had continued to pay her alimony long after the children left home.
But she’d have given all that back for a chance to feel close to him when the world was falling down around her. All she craved then was the reassurance that he loved her, and that his suffering and hers could be shared. Instead she met with his wall. His busyness. His team of assistants and entourage of manipulators. He closed his door, locked himself in and continued fucking his secretary.
Ellen tried to compare her contribution to their marriage with his, in a meaningless equation that she knew could never add up. She passed those first months after Emily’s death cocooned in their Bayswater mansion, listening to The Archers, chain-smoking Silk Cut and fighting the urge to submerge her days in Bells or Johnnie Walker. The post lay unopened, the cleaner continued to polish the silver, and Rachel and Chloe somehow got themselves to school, fed themselves and did their homework around her.
She had tried to hold on to Joe then, but she felt exhausted and hadn’t the strength for him. As soon as he set foot in Westminster, he’d be completely cut off from their grief, taking solace in Maria’s bed or wherever they spent their time.
Within a few weeks, the bile began to rise, and Josie felt strong enough to insist Joe take his clothes and stay in his rooms in Westminster. In fact he moved out to Maria’s flat in Putney, and failed to see the children once in next three months, even though the House broke for summer recess and he could easily have taken them to a film or a play or something. Ellen’s devastation at Emily’s death, as well as her desperate efforts to calm and support Rachel and Chloe, had left her drained, but she was by then beginning to harden, building walls around her, which her upbringing and the last twenty years had taught her to do, and which allowed her slowly to learn how to function again. She took to walking the streets of West London in the cool evenings, renewed contact with her closest women friends and cut down on the drink and cigarettes. She no longer supported Joe when asked how he was coping, and only spoke to him when she needed money or documents signing. She refused to attend the functions he asked her to, leaving him to find himself someone else to do his bidding, someone who “didn’t know what purgatory it was to dress up and smile for the cameras while accompanying the dead.”
The day that Rachel accepted her place at Cambridge, and left for the Cote D’Azure for the summer to nanny for one of their wealthier friends, she packed Chloe, and herself off to the cottage in Dorset, dropping in to her solicitor on the way out of London to set in motion her divorce. Chloe could attend the local sixth form college while the house was being sold, and if Ellen could buy her own place in London before the year was out, Chloe could re-join her school friends at Latimer, and Joe could foot the fees as part of the divorce settlement. For Ellen, while she had no feelings of happiness, this gave her a sense of hope and allowed her to begin to look forwards rather than feeling herself to be drowning and having nothing to hold onto.
Joe’s career, and the demands on his energies in the months that followed Emily’s death provided enough distraction from his guilt, an anesthetic to his pain. The support he had looked for and found in Maria, his young assistant, allowed him to ignore Ellen through each awful step, and to rationalise his own part in Emily’s unhappiness. Maria, who was not much older than her, though wholly more mature, had met her several times at functions or at the house in Bayswater, when delivering papers, and she’d even chosen Emily’s birthday presents when Joe had been too busy to remember. After the suicide, it was Maria who convinced Joe of the ‘crash which had been waiting to happen’ and somehow that Emily’s life of selfish indulgence was her responsibility and not a product of his position and failure to hear her cries for help.
Maria had been at Joe’s side for some time before Emily died, and their relationship, well documented in the tabloids, had contributed to the pressure Emily became overwhelmed by. Her teenage years, like many of her privileged friends’, were spent juggling academic, social and sexual demands. Parties and prestige, self-doubt and insecurity were all held loosely in place by cocaine and marijuana, shopping and nameless sex. Ellen’s depression and her effort to keep a grip on her life with the younger children left Emily to drift from one party to another, one man’s bed to another. Everything she held on to came away in her hands, and by the time she jumped or fell into the Thames, high and drunk, her cries for help had long since stopped.
Once Rachel had cleaned up the breakfast and left, Joe lit a cigarette and stared out of the window, trying to picture Maria naked in his arms, in a sumptuous hotel four-poster, somewhere near Brighton almost two decades ago. He was still virile and strong then. His hair only peppered with grey, his back straight and his stamina intact. She’d been just 28 when they moved in together, shortly before his fiftieth birthday, and he was in love, or so he thought. Maria’s attraction to his power was as clear as her own ambition was, and Joe was happy to carry her along. It was thrilling to be seen as a couple, and for a short time, even the papperazzi were kind enough. Ellen was ensconced in Dorset, out of the public eye, and Maria provided a glamorous companion at several of the dress evenings after the elections. The exotic holiday in Italy, courtesy of a media magnate, changed all that. Joe and Maria fought through the whole time, and the final straw came when one of the tabloids caught Maria rubbing suntan lotion into the shoulders of an Italian waiter on their private beach during one of Joe’s days in bed with a hangover. They returned to London and to work without making any decisions, but when Joe was demoted to junior minister for the elderly in the following year’s re-shuffle, Maria started to show her distain for his fading glory. At 30, and with senior PPS status, she was attractive to and attracted by other younger and upcoming politicians, and Joe’s personal habits were wearing. The drinking was becoming a problem, and his mood swings increasingly frequent. From his perspective, Joe was not being given enough recognition by Tony, or respect by his colleagues for his years of dedication. He found fault with Maria’s work and was often enraged by her taking control of decisions which he felt should have been his alone. Maria stopped making any effort to cajole him, either at work or in bed, and for his part, the stress and alcohol had made him impotent so that it became embarrassing to be expected to perform. He moved back to his rooms in Westminster from Putney, and began to wonder whether to look for a house.
Joe had been called to speak at a conference in Scarborough, on the social welfare bill, and Maria had chosen to hold the fort in Westminster, when the deputy leader invited her to dinner to discuss a possible move into Number 10. She ended up in his apartment at Millbank, and accepted the job, along with the mediocre sex, assuming that somehow this wouldn’t reach Joe’s ears, and that the space it would give her would be good for their relationship.
Joe’s discovery of her activities in his absence was almost immediate, as he returned from Scarborough to a Cabinet meeting at which the Deputy Leader had been bragging to his colleagues. It was his embarrassment more than any personal hurt that had driven him to suggest a formal split. Not long after Maria’s move to Number 10, Joe was dropped from the Cabinet altogether and as a back-bencher, he had less exposure to Maria. His constituency took very little effort, though it should have occupied much more, and suddenly he found himself with time on his hands. Rather than finding the energy to build a new power-base, take up a new challenge or at least rekindle his interest in some of his existing responsibilities, he spent more time in his club. Chloe wrote to ask him for money, as she was planning to travel abroad, and he sent a cheque with a post-it note attached wishing her bon voyage. Rachel got engaged to Richard, and wrote to let Joe know, as she couldn’t face inviting him to the party, and again, his cheque book substituted for communication.
Joe turned again to the book of his memoirs, determined to find a suitably upbeat passage to read tonight. The invitees to the reading included two retired ministers from the Labour government in which Joe had been in Cabinet, neither of whom he wanted to see now, and some Trustees of the charity for the homeless of which he was lifetime president. Who else would come to the reading? Locals intent on a free glass of warm Chardonnay? Browsers looking for a book for the beach who had failed to get in before 6om? This group were the most disruptive in Joe’s view – they never sat still, and spent more time casting around on the display tables or reading spines on the shelves than listening to the speaker, and almost never came at the end to buy a signed copy of the book.