In which we visit the countryside, scam a telecoms company, and meet the Flat Earth Society.
The countryside is fucking barbaric. I don’t know if you’ve been there at all but, if you haven’t, it’s a bloodbath from end to end. One enormous slaughterhouse, all of it.
Everything in the countryside can be shot, hunted and generally preyed upon, and is too busy shooting, hunting and generally preying upon everything else to notice. Furthermore, whereas a Londoner such as myself will consider knowing what time the Bakerloo Line shuts down, or where to get a late drink in Southwark* as evidence of participation in an advanced society, someone in the countryside will consider knowing the best way to dispatch a rabbit in much the same light. The method, incidentally, is as follows: place the fore and index fingers of your right hand in a ‘v’ shape around the rear of the neck, then put the palm of your left under the luckless bunny’s chin and push firmly up and back. The lumbar vertebrae snap, the spinal cord is severed, and death is instantaneous. It is, as they say in the countryside, ‘the kindest thing to do’, although I imagine it would be even kinder not to kill it in the first place, or maybe treat it to a slice of carrot cake in the V and A tearooms instead. This information was imparted to me by Joe, a fellow urchin from the hairiest days of capering amid the shanty town of Camden Market, while executing hamsters with a claw hammer on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Joe hails from White City, but has been living in a wigwam in the grounds of Runton Hall for eight years, and has gone entirely native. The lesson here is this: if you’re going to go to the countryside, get in, do what you need to do, and get out. Don’t start mucking about having pub lunches and all that. That’s how they rope you in – Joe only intended to stop for scampi and chips in Wells Next The Sea, and now he lives like an Iron Age person. The danger, my friends, is real.
Mercifully, some similarities remain between us. For a start, we are both unemployable in any meaningful sense. Joe’s career highlight involved checking telecoms companies for Millennium Bug Compliance in 1999. This is not difficult, as it merely entails walking around, nodding thoughtfully, and placing a sticker featuring a microchip fashioned into the shape of a smiling insect with ‘Bring On Y2K!’ written underneath it on equipment deemed able to withstand the coming digital apocalypse. It was a scam, obviously, but so was the Millennium Bug itself. Joe understood that no one wanted to be the person who in January 2000 would have to explain why they hadn’t thought it worthwhile having their business Millennium-proofed, with computers running wild in the streets, and therein lay the genius at the heart of the whole caper: more companies than you might think adopted a ‘Well, we’d better let him get on with it’ approach, and quietly paid his invoices when presented with them some weeks later. Incidentally, the way to get past the poor quality security guards at telecoms companies is to be extremely aggressive when demanding access, and entirely charming once it has been granted – essentially a one man ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. Sadly, both good and bad cops alike agreed that he had committed fraudulent embezzlement following his arrest in a BT building in Reading, and he was sent to HMP Oxford for fourteen months, but although he missed the Millennium celebrations, enough invoices remained unclaimed-back out of sheer corporate embarrassment to make his incarceration worthwhile.
All Joe’s numerous children are a larf. This is especially true of one of the oldest ones, whose enthusiastic conception I overheard while trying to sleep on a sofa in Joe’s comically disintegrating mouse-infested ruin of a squat on Girdlestone Walk N6, over the 2008 Easter weekend. There were walls, of course, but they were thin and served only to amplify the horror. Even when there was an opportunity to escape the noise of the miracle of life being created, it was a difficult place to sleep in because what we suspected was a money laundering operation was in constant full swing next door. Counterfeiters always seem to have an inherent sense of theatricality, and those behind whatever was going next door were no exception, with drop offs and pick-ups in the dead of night, lots of full beam headlights, wheel spinning and people in suits wearing sunglasses at three in the morning. It was harmless compared to the neighbour on the other side, who claimed to have changed his DNA via meditation. He was nuts. Really, really, nuts, following us to Archway tube if we weren’t careful, jabbering in a crazed but earnest fashion and then into Camden, where we were trading, and where he admittedly blended in quite nicely. Remarkably, he ended up dj-ing at Gilgamesh, and I believe still does so.
Joe provides for his wife Becca and their numerous children by slaughtering his way through the local East Anglian wildlife as part of a site management position at Runton, a role which also involves maintaining fences, growing stuff, and making sure that all gates are left open to let the air circulate. Claw-hammering hamsters also comes under the highly interpretive list of ‘kindest things to do’, because it provides an instant, if undignified, death, as does beheading chickens in preference to the accepted strangulation method. If I was a chicken about to be strangled, I would want it done by someone skilled at the task, rather than have Joe – in his own words – ‘wringing random bits of neck like a face flannel’, and would also choose decapitation, given the choice. The whole carnival of death is at odds with Runton Hall, which these days is a low-key retreat for Buddhists, hippies, Reiki healers, obscure religious sects, hermits, conspiracy theorists, yoga junkies, idiots, flower children and drop outs of every heft and hue. Remarkably, Joe has been voted onto the Hall’s board of trustees, and has managed to have me appointed, too. It remains to be seen how we’ll make a grab for absolute power, but doing so is an interesting idea, because a) Runton Hall is a lovely place in need of expensive restoration, and b) there is no such thing as a poor hippy, so you’d like to think there’s some potential for connecting the two things rather pleasingly, after which a third could be added whereby the hippies are subsequently done away with, either by beheading or claw hammer, depending upon the vibe at the time.
These, then, are our days. In case you remember us from bygone times, no more market trading. The tiny empires that sprang from the East Yard, Camden Lock Market, vaulting the Grand Union Canal and spreading east and south along the Northern and Central lines in the early years of the twenty first century have all but disappeared, their race among the socio-economic fabric of London finally run, and like Joe and I, many former traders have scattered deep into the geographical accident known as the Rest of the World. Unlike Joe, I do at least live in a permanent structure in the form of an actual house near-ish Runton Hall, although it is factually correct to state that more people live on Girdlestone Way N6 than in my minuscule village. We are often joined by ‘Anton’, an old Deptford cohort now living in a part of Leeds he describes as ‘well Basra’, having given up selling awful jewellery to, and then shagging, unimpressive and poorly tattooed forty year old Lewisham grandmothers at Greenwich Market in favour of an even more precarious living as an ‘amateur electrician’. Thanks to his trademarked fingers-crossed-and-hope-for-the-best work on the elderly wiring of the Runton outbuildings, the old servants’ quarters can now house the many groups of people who like to use the place to escape from, or into, reality, depending upon your point of view. It currently has some Flat Earthers in it, and I have learned that if you introduce their dormitory with a cheery ‘Flat earth – bumpy mattress!’, you get some very stony stares indeed.
*the White Hart at Great Suffolk Street if you’re in before 9ish, but it’s popular with old bill so mind yourself.
No, I don’t know why Joe keeps the hamsters in the first place, either. There are loads of them, though.