Wednesday, April 06, 2005

the madness of st helens

I'm not a big fan of mornings, at least not when they're positioned at the start of the waking day.

So today was always going to have to work hard to impress me, as I had to get up at half fuckin six to go and be prosecuted in St Helens (I got nicked at an anti-GM thing a while back).

Stumbling through the station it was still so early that there were people in fleeces by the ticket barrier handing out copies of Metro, a lightweight freebie daily tabloid given away in most major cities in the UK.

If you've been aboard my Badgerwagon for a while, you may remember my post about the one word I know of that is scouse rhyming slang: 'bills', (Bill Grundies = undies).

The word comes up frequently in unwitting comic contexts, but special mention must be made of one so good that it caused me to involuntarily laugh out loud even though I was on my own in a public place at 7.15am on the way to a criminal conviction.

Quite why the Prime Minister's underpants are in peril isn't made clear.

St Helens is a classic industrial town. It has tons of small red brick terraces and not a lot else. There are boarded up shops, disused factories and empty houses. It could almost be a 1980s theme park called Thatcherland. The National Lottery stall in the shopping centre had a queue 14 people long at 11am.

There's loads of these towns in the murky hinterland between Manchester and Liverpool. St Helens is just about in Merseyside, so there are buses to Liverpool Airport. It was renamed two or three years ago, and this morning I saw the new name as the illuminated destination on the front of a number 89 bus, giving me my second proper laugh of the day.

It's now called John Lennon Airport.

Naming the Liverpool airport after the city's most famous smackhead tickles me no end, and their tagline 'above us only sky' is yet one more addition to the list of satire-pummelling actualities.

It's amazing how many rebels become cherished figures beloved in the deepest enclaves of the establishment. James Joyce, a writer so controversial that when he delivered Dubliners to the printers they refused to handle it, ended up on the Irish tenner. Hilariously, Australia put a portrait of convicted forger Francis Greenway on their 10 dollar bill.

By 2025 I fully expect the Thames Barrier to be named in Mick Jagger's honour and to get there by tube on the Ronnie Biggs line.

Anyway, back to today. I arrived at the court. I sat there, unable to help myself earwigging in on coversations. There's a lot of sitting around to do in a court building, and you can't concentrate on anything properly. The legal system is the one thing that keeps you nervously waiting longer than hospitals or even the dole.

A woman came and sat at the far side of the guy beside me, who she clearly knew already. Her opening line was so startling that I wrote it down, and then struggled to keep pace transcribing the entire exchange, as I knew that if I didn't write it down verbatim I'd suspect myself of exaggeration afterward.

Read it in the carefree bright and breezy tone it was spoken in.

SHE: How's Doreen? I heard Pete's dead.

HE: Yeah, about six months ago.

SHE: How'd he die?

HE: Pneumonia.

SHE: Really? He was my cousin, him. How's Doreen?

HE: Mad Doreen?

SHE: Yeah.

HE: I see her in the shop. She purrs doesn't she?

SHE: Purrs?

HE: Yeah

SHE: Why?

HE: I dunno. She's mad.

SHE: Alan's dead in'he? Not Alan, Pete.

HE: Yeah.

After an hour and a frigging half, I was called in for my five minutes before the bench. As is to be expected, the copper's sworn statement is somewhat at variance with the facts of the event, but it wasn't worth making a fuss. I was bound to be convicted so I just got it over with quickly.

£50 fine and another £55 costs. That was the money I'd put aside for a Glastonbury ticket which, in near-identical circumstances to Jim Bliss, I never managed to get.

It makes me grumbly to think I've just done the equivalent of buying the state a Glastonbury ticket, but they'd got me by the short and curlies so there's sod all I can do.

They've even changed the law so you have to cough up rather than not pay and then do a couple of days chokey for non-payment. It's now an offence in itself not to provide them with a statement of your financial situation including your NI number so they can go get your money direct from whoever pays you.

So out on to the mean streets of St Helens. Outside the Town Hall there's the war memorial. It often startles me what these common items really mean. In every town, village and city district across this corner of Europe there is a commemoration of the fact that, two generations running - only four and five generations ago from today - they took all the young men and decimated them.

In St Helens there's a white stone obelisk with marble plaques bearing dozens and dozens of gilded names of men killed in the two world wars. Then, high up on each of the three sides that aren't the front, there's a small marble plaque. One bears a man's name and 'South Atlantic 1982'. One, a single name and 'Borneo 1966'. What the fuck was that? I never knew we went to war there ever, let alone so recently.

Those two plaques were small, just room for the one name. Chillingly, the counterpart for Northern Ireland only bears a single name, but is larger than the other two with blank space for a further two or three names.

When I was growing up in England in the 70s and 80s, we were always told by politicians, teachers, media, the whole lot, that the fighting in Northern Ireland wasn't a 'war' and they'd jump down your throat if you even referred to it using that word, alleging pro-IRA propaganda. Yet here's a dead British soldier's name on a war memorial for being killed in action there.

Had to change railway stations in Manchester, meaning a walk across the city centre. Down Market Street there were blokes selling bootleg MAKE POVERTY HISTORY bracelets and a seemingly more innocent but actually equally shady street stall set up with a gadget and questionaire for 'FREE STRESS TEST'. This is in fact a Scientologist stall.

If you're gonna be religious, at least have the decency to admit your nuttiness and stand outside WH Smith warning of hellfire while nobody listens. I fuckin despise the sneaky stuff Hare Krishnas and Scientologists do in pretending to be something they're not.

The Krishnas stop you and flash some laminated thing at you and say they're collecting for children in poor countries. If you ask them direct, they admit they're Krishnas. Then you can usually haggle with them for some good tat. I've had superb joss sticks, a C60 of people chanting Hare Krishna non-stop (great as source material for Radio Savage Houndy Beasty audio collage soundscapes), and sheets of Gouranga stickers.

Talking of which, big respect for the dedicated way they flypost Gouranga posters on bridges over roads. Every time I see them I imagine a carload of orange-robed baldies going out with a bucket and paste and dangling one of their number upside down 30 foot above the M1. If only they could apply that sort of commitment to something worthwhile.

Anyway, Scientology woman offers me a questionaire. I love it when I get religious fuckers in the street and I'm ready for them. Sometimes I give them the Bill Hicks line,

While I appreciate your quaint traditions and superstitions, I, on the other hand, am an evolved being who deals solely with the source of light which exists in all of us, in our own minds, no middlemen required.

Sometimes I just flash them a heavy metal horns hand gesture, smile broadly and say 'Satan is Lord'. These people really think there is a Satan and he has a lot of followers, so it really unnerves them.

I'd seen this Scientology thing before and so was clear about what bugged me.

'It's religious isn't it?' I asked.

'No' she replied.

'Yes it is. You want me to do that so I'll join your religion, am I right?'.


'You're Scientologists aren't you?'

'This isn't to do with Scientology,' she said, showing me that the questionaire's return address as if that proved it. It was addressed to a place called the Hubbard Centre. I took it off her, and found that at the bottom it had a copyright notice.

© Church of Scientology

'You see this? It says you've just lied to me. Isn't the point of religion to encourage a higher standard of moral behaviour? Shouldn't that include not lying to people?'

'If you're not interested in religion you don't have to take it,' she said and walked off.

Surely if you think you've got a full clear answer to the origin and meaning of all things and you go out into the street to evangelise you shouldn't be so easily put off.

Scientologists, just like Mormons, fall at the first hurdle nine times out of ten. Now Jehovah's Witnesses, they're a different kettle of loony, argue with you for hours they will.

Spent the train ride home going back over the final chapters of Colin Tudge's book So Shall We Reap: How Everyone Who Is Liable to Be Born in the Next Ten Thousand Years Could Eat Very Well Indeed; and Why, in Practice, Our Immediate Descendants Are Likely to Be in Serious Trouble. In days gone by I used to have a good memory, but with time I'm finding if I want information to stick I have to bookmark the Big Points and the Great Phrases and go and re-read them once I've finished the book.

Tudge's book is the most important I've ever read. It's really clear and complete; what farming is, why we do it, how nutrition works, why the great gastronomies of the world are nutritionally superb. And, most importantly, how it could all really be OK if we did the obvious thing and actually geared food produciton to feeding people with an eye to being able to do so in future. Instead, food production is geared to making as much money as possible for the wealthy in the short term and unprecedented starvation may well be the motif of the 21st century.

I don't agree with absolutely everything he says, but then nobody could write 400 pages you totally approve of. But as an education and as a terrifying alarm call I recommend it with maximum urgency.

Of course, it's not that easy to find. Different bookshops stash it different places. Some put it in Food, along with Jamie Oliver books and the criminally insane Dr Atkins.

Some put it in Nature Writing with the ornithology. I've seen it in Politics too (which actually means just grey politics), the graveyard of bookshops. Nobody buys books from that section, and for good reason. (Another book about the internal workings of the present Parliamentary Labour Party? Great, I'll take six).

There should be a section called something like The Really Big Issues That If We Don't Suss Out NOW Then We're All Fucked, And In Fact It May Well Already Be Too Late.

Books like this and this and this and this.


scarletharlot69 said...

Hi Merrick

> 'You see this? It says you've just lied to me. Isn't the point of religion to encourage a higher standard of moral behaviour? Shouldn't that include not lying to people?'

If I remember rightly, Private Eye once reported someone was sent before Church of Scientology "Ethics" and said something like the concept of Hubbardist ethics being as peculiar as a Ku Klux Klan race relations bureau. Allegedy.


Anonymous said...

Your best ever. I've laughed hard and read important stuff because of this blog entry.

You wander about telling us good stuff.

From now on, no single issue blog entries.. ramble a bit man!!

My take on today is that I've boarded out the loft so as to store the vinyl collection of my mate iain who's moved to arizona from northwich and i've had 4 pints of excellent Bothy bitter from the Southport Brewery which commemorates 40 years of the Bothy Folk Club...