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2000: It's a Beautiful Day

They were still mopping up the mock riots when I reached

Hatton Garden, weaving between the Bridgets and Allys (and

Hermiones), with their one too many G&Ts at the office

Christmas party, their inadequate but well-dressed

boyfriends, and the coerced delights of celery salad boxes all

wrapped up.

When I was photographing food I discovered that the

richest man in the country was some faceless overlord who

had the bright idea of wrapping everything up. Everything

that doesn’t move, he wraps. If it moves, he’ll stop it and

wrap it up. Video cassettes, nappy sacks, slices of cheese, all

separated by invisible barriers, impossible-to-remove film to

protect them from life. We are a world of ten billion countries,

each with their own imports and exports, customs and war


London was full of killers. I saw them now, with their

Bosnian eyes and Rwandan smiles, World War memories,

Vietnam secrets: all the angry men. Out of the woods and

stomping city pavements, looking for victims and finding

only fresh problems killing can’t solve.

According to the papers we were bombing somewhere

new; I wondered if Campbell would be so keen on war if he’d

been the son of a Vietnam rather than Keighley vet. Yet I felt

as if I’d been at war: with my country, myself. Maybe I had

some disease, like those bubble-children you heard about

who were allergic to the 20th century. Maybe they were like

me, missing that invisible skin. The 21st century had coughed

politely and there was still no cure.

Still early so I dawdled. Walking past that hotel, the one

Granddad told me about in his only war story.

“I was on leave, and went into town to see a show, meet a

few girls, that sort of thing. This hotel called Café du Paris

had a dance band on every night with some black guy, ‘Snake

Hips’ Johnson I think he was called. But, the night I was due

to go, something kept me back at the air base so I arrived in

town late. It turned out pretty lucky as the hotel had taken a

direct hit from a V2. I went inside and it was carnage, over a

hundred were killed in the blast.”

The odd thing, Granddad said, was that in a far corner of

the enormous ballroom, the mirror ball still spinning itsl ight

over the dust, and faded crimson velvet splashed with gore,

there was a table that looked relatively untouched. Four men

sat around it in evening suits, their heads slightly forward as

if they’d nodded off. The blast from the bomb had killed them

instantly, but there wasn’t a mark on any of them.

I knew the non-feeling – relatively free of scars and

scrapes, yet underneath a mess of short circuits and faulty

wiring. Women bustled past in the rain, umbrellas flaring like

the frill-necked lizards of Australia. Cider Mary staggered

into the road, a car honked and swerved; Death Race 2000, a

dark obelisk will be found on the moon, clanged on by

Clangers with soup dragon’s bones.

Darker now, freezing, and the rain showed no signs of

stopping. Along High Holborn I wandered, the cultural desert

between the City and the West, between the cerebral and the

material, the creative and the industrial, great grand buildings

on an inhuman scale, built for architectural awards –

containing nothing of interest to anyone with humanity in

their soul.

Post-riot Covent Garden: fools on stilts and opera-goers

pissing on the poor’s chips, smug vegetarian cafes selling

groovy sarnies for a fiver, crystal and candle shops and, worst

of all, kite shops. Again I was in India and the fragrant

warmth of the sub-continent heated my cold, wet skin.

When Tony and I arrived in Delhi it was 3am. As the plane

descended neither of us knew what to expect, and looked out

gloomily at the huge darkened city, bonfires pin-pricking the

darkness. After being swamped by hollering beggars in the

airport we caught a windowless bus full of drunk Australians

into town, then took a cycle rickshaw through living streets,

piles of rubbish that moved and groaned, the only sound the

squeak of the wheels and the man’s laboured breathing.

We knew we looked absurd – our identical green

backpacks glowing, luminous – and tried to make a joke

by pretending to jab a pin in the Indian’s bony arse –

faster, bearer. He took us to his brother-in-law’s hotel in

Paharganj and we were woken by a cacophony at five as if

somebody had flicked a switch: birds, horns, bulls and

rickshaw raspberries.

Shaken by what we witnessed there, we took the roof of a

bus to Agra, arriving late at night. A signboard outside the

hostel proudly announced ‘views of the Taj’. I didn’t believe

it, didn’t really care, and then in the morning I went up to the

roof of the hostel and there it was, sending shivers down my

neck as if Diana herself – my first love in her newsprint

blouse – was sitting there by the fountain.

The novelty soon wore off; after all I’d seen it a million

times on curry house walls, and I was only there with Tony.

Hermione was thousands of miles away and some symbol of

true love this was; true, the Shah Jahan had erected it as a

tribute to his wife, and true also that when he died he had

plans to erect an identical one in black (man’s black heart)

opposite, but thirty thousand slaves had died in the making,

and its Italian architects were blinded so they could never do

anything of the same majesty again. To me that wasn’t love

but pride, like the pyramids, egos like the thrusting great

towers of the docklands that would one day crumble to dust.

No, what struck me about the view from the roof in the

scorching heat of early morning was that in the other

direction, over the corrugated slums, where among the

clusters of vultures and crows circling mugging monkey

gangs, fluttered shiny bits of paper on string. The children of

the slums made the kites out of scrap paper and flew them to

taste the freedom they were never likely to taste themselves,

and I watched with racial pride as the kites flew free of the

ghetto into the shimmering wide space of sky.

Unfranked memo to self: don’t glorify poverty. I could

never understand why people just back from India are so

damn smug; I was devastated.

*This is an extractof “Fire Horses” by M L Piggott.

“Fire Horses”: synopsis and quotes

“Fire Horses”: buy it here


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