Mr Fox

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Mrs Fox used to call me Fantastic Mr Fox. I was a magnificent creature: from my sharp white teeth to my neckerchief, but please – don’t mention my tail.

I had outfoxed the farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. We thrived under ground as they shivered above us. We were happy, but good things never last. Mr Badger called me a show-off. We fought, I won, but hurt the poor chap in the process. The others started looking at me with fear in their eyes. They scuttled away whenever I came around, so I felt it was time to move on.

I took Mrs Fox and the little foxes to the city. It broke our hearts to leave the countryside. We went from green grass to grey concrete, fresh chicken to greasy leftovers, and the sharp, sweet air to the toxic fumes of killer cars.

The city foxes laughed at my country ways. They bent their heads, curled up their tails, and called me Fantastic Sir Fox – the insolent fellows. But I soon held sway. I knew they were weak. I could tell from their fundge, which was pale and insipid. Not like our pure pungent poo at all.

I marked my territory on the best patch, right by an all-night take-away. The fried chicken scraps were not bad. I’d eaten better, but my little ones loved the fries.

Mrs Fox wasn’t happy. She wanted to go back home, or what was left of it. My stupid pride stopped me from seeing sense, and I refused to go. So she left, and took my darling cubs with her.

They left a huge hole in my heart, deeper than the one dug in the field by Boggis, Bunce and Bean. I ate to fill the emptiness. I stopped caring about my appearance. I became angry and bitter. I lost all my sense of joy. My teeth started to yellow, and my neckerchief hung from me like a dog chain, heavy, dragging me down.

And now, when I prowl my patch at night, I can hear the other foxes whispering, waiting for their turn, wanting to gnaw on my discarded fried chicken. Listen hard and you’ll hear them. ‘There he goes,’ they sneer, ‘he used to be someone. He thought he was the best thing since onion rings. Sad old fat old Mr Fox.’


Mr Fox, meet Millie and me

Truth is, I don’t like foxes.

They drop their mess on my front door step. Spray their scent to drive the local mutts crazy. And stare sullenly at me, sloping off insolently as I try to shoo them away.

Dahl’s Mr Fox was confident and triumphant. But he was also arrogant and I wanted to take him down a peg or two.

Millie was keen to draw him, as long as she received payment upfront. We agreed on a Hershey Bar. She ate it, did nothing, and then blamed me for not giving her a hard copy of my story to work from. I’ve never quite mastered the printer at home.

I started to hound her. It was half term and she had time. Then one day, she put her mind to it and got the job done. It was good, but not quite right.

Mr Fox looked like a fox, but he was a bit too smart. He looked sad, but wasn’t fat. He was eating a burger not fried chicken. And, to cap it all, he still had a tail.

I rejected her first attempt.

Millie wasn’t happy. She’d researched foxes on Google images, and they all had tails. The drawing had taken her one whole hour, and she felt that this in itself was beyond the call of duty.

I focused on what she’d done well, and gave her a couple of tips. Read my story again. And even better, read Dahl’s too. But Millie’s not a reader. Not like the rest of my family. She prefers YouTube and Netflix so hasn’t got time for books.

I got specific with my feedback. I was too prescriptive. I was taking it far too seriously. Truth is, I’d grown attached to my Mr Fox. I was only trying to help. But I should’ve let her do it her way.

I bribed her with another Hershey Bar and this time she cracked it. Mr Fox the second was fatter and didn’t have a tail. His once-smart clothes had become shabby. I liked the fact that the chicken drumstick he was holding could’ve been a glass of bubbly.

How the mighty have fallen. Sorry Mr Fox.


Part of 26 Twits, a celebration of the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth.

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‘A lie which is half a truth is the darkest of all lies.’ Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The brown package dropped on the doormat with a satisfying thud. He’d been waiting for some time and had become irritable and testy with his beautiful wife. This didn’t bother her. It was a price she was willing to pay. And in turn, she had exactly what he wanted in a woman: high cheekbones and low morals. She was perfect in every way.

The package concealed a coffee table book; beautifully bound in Milan. He was at the top of his game, at least commercially: his work sought out by collectors and galleries across the world. The public loved him for his lifestyle as much as his output. You could say he‘d lived a little, if not a lot.

His agent had commissioned a hot, young writer to fabricate a legend for the foreword to the book. According to this story, he’d led a loose, unfettered existence, driven by an uncontrollable desire to live life as if every day was his last. The public wanted a new Pollock: someone with unrestrained energy, vim and vigour, someone who could rock the boat but wasn’t afraid of falling over board.

His biographer claimed that ‘he couldn’t even remember his first name. Everyone just called him Stone from a very young age.’ In fact, he was Jacob, son of Imre and Edith Stein. His parents anglicised their name on arrival from Berlin just before the war. He was bought up in a nice middle class road in Golders Green. Edith always insisted that they lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

‘He always balanced his canvases on two squat rocks as he was Stone – tough and resolute, and his work should be audacious and never timid.’ Jacob kept a pebble in his pocket. He’d picked it up on Brighton Beach, aged nine. It reminded him of the sea. When he first saw the grey-green shifting mass of frothy salty water, he was so moved he burst into tears. Imre thought he was scared and took him straight back home. He howled even more.

‘He hung out with the Stones in the South of France in the early 70s. Keith called him Stone the sixth Stone. You can hear him playing bongos on Exile on Main Street.’ Jacob was nervous. The air was thick and toxic with smoke. Keith took one look at him, winked then crashed. Stein decided to leave, made a neat 180-degree turn, and timidly tapped a bongo as he sloped out through a side door.

‘He met his wife, Gem, an up and coming model, at the launch party for Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium.’  She was serving the canapés.

In truth, these were half-truths, designed to make him appealing to a public more interested in notoriety and celebrity, than art and the human condition.

The critics were not so convinced. He had style and technique, but lacked mystery. There was no pain on the canvas, no hidden depth. It was all surface, they said, beautiful to behold, yes, but ultimately empty and unsatisfying: a perfect mirror to contemporary life, which explained why he was so popular.

Yet despite his success, there was a darkness lurking at the heart of his soul. It would grow to a point where he would recognise it and even embrace it. This wasn’t what Gem wanted. So she left him for a pony-tailed porn producer called Peter. Jacob remained single, and in his later years created a series of monotone work of great and terrible beauty.

And long after his colourful life story was forgotten, it was this work that would live on in the collective memory. Stone became a byword for a no-frills aesthetic, which absolutely nailed what it was like to live in the early 21st century. A period defined by instant digital thrills and a celebration of the moment; yet tempered by deep anxiety and long-term uncertainty.


Part of 26 Lies – http://www.26lies.org.uk

 

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24. The last post

I left early after staying out late. The coach was leaving at 6.30am. I was the first one there but the last one on. I didn’t have the right ticket. It was the wrong coach company and the next one wasn’t due for another hour or so. The driver and his supervisor had a chat. We’d joked, I’d meekly accepted my fate, and they eventually took pity on me and let me on. The other two passengers didn’t seem to mind too much.

When we stopped at Glasgow I nipped out for a ‘comfort break’, and when I came back a big handsome Spanish man was sat in the seat next to me. His name was Nick and he was Greek. He apologised as, being tall too, he understood the benefit of having two seats to spread yourself out on.

The driver, on the other hand, was a short angry man. He was receiving conflicting instructions, and the ‘fucks’ were flying as we made our way out through the city in the rain. I offered Nick a sweet and he began talking for the next eight hours or so. He was fast and furious at first, but after a while he settled into a rhythm and all was well. The journey passed quicker for it. Nick was frustrated in his job, stuck up in Scotland when his girlfriend was in London. He had a lot of energy, lots of ideas, and he shared them all with me, two or three times – at least.

When we pulled into London we marvelled at the sunshine and early evening crowds as the coach crossed Oxford Street. It was both familiar and wildly exotic at the same time. There were girls, lots of them, in short summer skirts. You could be forgiven for thinking that it had been October that morning up in Inverness. But here it was early July, and for once the sun was doing what it was meant to do at this time of year.

Nick & I said goodbye, and I was alone and on the homeward stretch. It was just a quick nip from Victoria to Vauxhall, then back home to Kingston. On the train, I reflected on what I’d learned on my trip:

First, a happy man just walks and simply enjoys the sights, smells and sounds of his immediate surroundings, rather than contemplating the meaning of the universe before taking each and every step.

Second, when you’re lost, most people will point you in the right direction, even if they’re not sure that it’s actually the right direction.

Third, spontaneity is over-rated and planning is under-rated.

And finally, getting somewhere is just as interesting as arriving there.

So, I was home after being away for 10 days. Not that long really. In that time I’d skirted around nuclear power stations, said confession for the first time in over 25 years, and had shed a tear at the voices of angels. I’d marvelled at mountains, been blown away on headlands, and had been spoilt by unspoilt beaches. I’d managed to hitch in one of the most far-flung parts of the mainland. I’d drunk with thirsty, lusty, lost souls in Inverness. I may even have killed a seagull.

Yet nothing compared to getting back home and getting a big hug from my wife. Then, walking into the back room and seeing a ‘Welcome Home’ banner hung up by the kids. They were sleeping innocently upstairs: dreaming of Dad, the Great Adventurer, and, more to the point, wondering what he’d bought home for them as a present. Later I found out that Millie had hung up the banner for Charlie, as he’d spent one whole night away camping with the cubs.

And that was it, a trip that felt big at the time, but was actually quite small when I look back on it six years later. I’m going to set off again one day. I need to complete the journey up to Cape Wrath: to hit the end of the road, peer over the edge, then turn around and come straight back home again. Tick it off the list, then stay put. And sometimes, I think that’s the biggest move you can make.


Cape Wrath, 24/24

 

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23. Man walks into a bar

It was my last night away and I had that end of term feeling. I treated myself to a nice meal, had a couple of drinks then wandered down into town. I landed up at MacCallum’s on Union Street. It was a basic sort of place, full of older tipsy ‘ladies’ preying like vultures on younger, wasted men. But there was beery good cheer here too. It was the end of a long night and the booze had kicked in. There was an atmosphere of wild abandon. Hair was let down, and wigs were slipping down.

A tall woman at the bar was the centre of attention. She sat on a stool being chatted up by a short, stocky man, who, despite standing, was still smaller than her. She glanced over, weighing me up with a professional eye, while I lined up for a drink. Maybe she was interested in me as a way out from the short man. He was making no headway at all and had started to get agitated and talk about politics. But I had no time for this. I was too busy picking up broken glass from the floor, and making a neat pile for the barman. He thanked me, but I got the impression that breakages were a regular occurrence here, and no one paid them any undue attention.

I got my drink, took a seat, happy to just look on and take it all in. In the corner, a man played an urgent, bluesy machine-gun guitar and fired off popular songs. Some people sang, some danced, and some wandered around aimlessly with big smiles on sunken, drunken, red rose faces. Men in black flooded in from the street and the energy level cranked up a few notches. I wasn’t sure if they were bouncers just come off shift or funeral directors out on a team jolly. The men danced wildly and the girls joined in. One man sat next to me and shouted by way of explanation, ‘Stag do… mine!’ Then, as quickly as they’d poured in, they drained away, and things wound down. The singer had sung his last song and started packing up. It was time to move on.

I wanted one more drink in one more bar. There was a band covering 80’s classics in a raucous, not so respectful, manner. There was a birthday party and an attractive girl in her mid-twenties was having a big night out surrounded by her friends. She was at the hub of her own social whirl, not so calm at the heart of the storm. Everyone was drawn towards her. She looked fun, open hearted and gregarious. Her boyfriend smiled. He had every right to be happy. He was average looking, had man boobs, and a beer belly. How had they had come to be a couple? I wondered if they would still be together in a city with a larger gene pool.

I sat out on the edge again, an observer rather than a reveller. I wrote hastily scribbled notes, like Jack London in a rickety old bar in a gold rush town – or at least that’s how I romanticised it afterwards. A few tables away sat three fresh-faced boys in specs. You could tell they wanted to join in, but just couldn’t bring themselves to get up and get down on the dance floor. It was safer up here on the sidelines, so they discussed their maths homework instead. Suddenly, two jumped up to dance leaving one at the table alone. He put on a brave face. Meanwhile his friends danced to the band, closer to the action, but still not quite at the heart of it all.

Did the boy left behind silently seethe and berate himself for not having more spunk? Or, was he angry with his friends for breaking some unspoken code by joining in, having fun, and abandoning him? Or was he just fine with only his drink for company.

I would never know. It was time for bed, so I could head back home early tomorrow morning. As last days go, it had everything: the romance of the road, a sun-kissed evening, good food, beery joy, then finally, a heavy metal cover version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’. What more could I ask for?


Cape Wrath 23/24

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22. The magic bus

I didn’t make it in the end. I failed to reach my destination. Cape Wrath was a windstrewn ferry too far; for the second day running there were no crossings. I had to give up and go home. I had run out of time and money. But, as Dylan nasally intoned, ‘there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.’ I wish I knew what he meant by that, but I get the sentiment all the same. And I wasn’t that downhearted as it meant I’d have to come up again one day.

It was a long way home. I started by heading back down to Inverness on the Bike Bus, which snaked and skirted its way south east via Ullapool. There were only three of us at first, including the driver, plus a mobile bike shed clamped precariously on the back of the bus. It would stop en route for any cyclist needing a ride. This would hopefully include Colin who’d set off earlier in the day to see how far he could get down the road. Holly was the only other passenger at first. We’d met earlier that day, as she’d also tried to get over to Cape Wrath.

We got on well and were in good spirits, for truly we were on a magic bus. It was without doubt one of the highlights of my trip. Every bend would yield another ‘Ooh!’ or ‘Aah!’ and even the odd ‘Mmm!’ The purity and splendour unfolding before our eyes bordered on unbelievable. This beat IMAX: stunning views in motion, bigger than 70mm. We were on a roller coaster ride through the Highlands but no one was strapped in.

Occasionally we’d stop to pick up a passenger, often randomly not at official stops. And at one of these random pick-ups, Colin hopped on, exhausted but smiling, and we set off back out of a narrow inlet, the same way he’d just cycled in. Then we headed up into the hills again. More ‘Oohs!’ and ‘Aahs!’ followed at every turn, and after a brief break at Ullapool, we said goodbye to Holly.

We pulled into Inverness on a golden evening. And even though I’d only been there a few days earlier, I saw it in a completely different light. Sunshine always alters my perception and influences my feelings about a place. And late afternoon is my favourite time of day; it makes everything look like an Edward Hopper painting. It also helped that Colin had recommended a hostel in a nice part of town, just up from the castle. This time I would miss the fights outside McDonalds. I could cope with that.

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21. Noelle weaves her web

Balnakeil was built in the 50s to serve as an early warning station in the event of a nuclear attack. It consisted of 20 or so modest huts; soldiers’ barracks, each with its own small water tower. The military abandoned it in 1964. There was no attack, but it was at risk of destruction until a community of artists moved in and settled there. The artists survived by selling artefacts to visitors who sometimes came by the coachload. So it became a post-Cold War craft village.

I wanted to tell Rupa about my groundless fear of the dark, damp hole the previous day. Rupa was covering for the artist Ishbel McDonald. I found her place but there was nobody home. So I popped next door to a hut with reflective mosaic tiles stuck like crazy paving on the walls. There was an older lady spinning yarn. I wandered in. It was her front room not an open studio. And although I’d rudely interrupted her at work, and intruded into her space, she smiled kindly and beckoned me in.

I’d stumbled in on the past. Her name was Noelle Bosa. She was like a character from an old fairy tale: weaving her magic, turning loose strands into rugs and jumpers on a wonderful old wooden loom. We had a nice long chat. She’d settled there years ago, ‘up from England’. My English accent was the first she’d heard in some time. After a while I thought I’d better let her get on with her work. I looked back after closing the front door. Her was head bent low; she was totally engrossed in her work, a benign queen spider spinning her web. I envied her calm, simple life. But I was sure she’d experienced a good few interesting twists and turns in her younger days.

There was still no sign of Rupa. But a young woman was looking after the hut. She showed me around. Ishbel’s work was strong and expressive. I loved an original of crashing surf, a seabird gliding elegantly just above the waves almost disappearing in the swell. You could feel the ocean spray against your skin. I resisted the temptation to dive in and buy it. Instead I dipped in my pocket and bought the postcard version for £2.50.

That evening I headed back down to the Sango Oasis with Colin, a cyclist I’d met that morning at breakfast. We’d had a good long chat comparing stories and sharing travel tips. He was also heading to Cape Wrath, on a break from work and writing up his trip for simonseeks.com, a travel review website. He was earnest and thoughtful; good company – younger, fitter and smarter than me.

On the way back, I stopped off to get web access in a tiny self-contained room in someone’s house. I felt like I was intruding for the second time that day. I popped my money in the slot and started writing about the day before I forgot the nitty gritty details.

When I left it was after 11pm but still quite light. I felt exuberant. It’d been another great day. Perhaps simple pleasures don’t make a great story: but the beach was special and unexpected, the walk was bracing, life-affirming even, and Balnakeil was truly inspiring. The next day, Colin and I were going to try and get over to Cape Wrath again. The wind would decide whether we’d make it or not.


Cape Wrath, 21/24

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20. A shelter from the storm

My plan to get out to Cape Wrath the following morning was scuppered due to high winds. You had to walk or hitch to a ferry then hop on a minibus to get out there. If you were a hardened cyclist you could go the long way round, adding another 20 miles or so to your journey. There was another major hurdle too. Naturally, a chunk of land at the far north west of the mainland Britain has strategic importance. So the Ministry of Defence own and use it to play war games: flying fast and low to test its latest military hardware. And this limits access at certain times of the year. So I’d started my trip at a nuclear power station, and aimed to finish up at a firing range.

I wasn’t that bothered. I loved the remoteness of Durness, and had a whole extra day to explore the local area. Mary Anne suggested a circular walk: out to the nearest headland, then loop back through the artistic community at Balnakeil. This appealed to me. It sounded really interesting, and I could buy Rupa a drink to say thank you for the ride the previous day.

I set off. There was a beautiful white sandy beach less than half a mile from the hostel. It had clear blue water and rocks scattered tastefully, like a conceptual piece of art. I had it all to myself. It wasn’t cold; it was a bright sunny day. It was just violently windy and the sand whipped up into my eyes. Still, from what I could see, it was a truly world-class beach, just in the wrong part of the world to attract any tourists. I felt absurdly happy. I’d discovered a Highland oasis: a special place unpolluted by deck chairs, stripy windbreaks, and the whiff of overcooked onions from dodgy burger bars.

I continued my walk up the road, before veering off to get to the highest point of the headland. Here I hunkered down into a convenient lookout hole for shelter. I had an uplifting view, enhanced by the great drama of the gale-force winds swirling around my head. It was like witnessing a scene painted by Van Gogh in his later, madder years. I was glad of that hollow. I snuggled down into it like a little lost lamb. Soon after, I peeked over the edge and shot a quick video on my phone of the majestic panorama surrounding me. I shot it upside down then deleted it by accident. No mini movie clip would’ve done it justice anyway.

I headed back down crouched on all fours: impersonating a rugged mountain goat to stop myself being blown over the cliffs. I felt like a reluctant kite, unwilling to take flight, safer on the ground. This was early July, summertime, when the living was supposed to be easy. I was at the mercy of the elements and found myself spouting, ‘Blow winds, rage and crack…’ King Lear sort of said that. And apart from Shakespeare, I was still all alone. Eventually I made it off the headland. I stood upright and walked somewhat light-headed down into Balnakeil.


Cape Wrath, 20/24

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