Berliner Mauer

By Kenn Taylor

One of my earliest memories is watching on television the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course, I have other early memories of less geo-political consequence. But seeing the joy of the people stood on top of the narrow, graffiti-covered wall as they smashed it down, really did stick with me. Even if at the time I had limited understanding of what was happening or why it was important.

From then on, the Berlin Wall that no longer existed, held a fascination for me. My father had left school at 15 but had a huge knowledge of history and I absorbed this interest. While the Merseyside I grew up in was a place in itself where the weight of history was everywhere. The wall coming down would also have unintended consequences here too. The end of the Cold War meant a big drop in orders for the shipyard that Birkenhead had been built around. The yard’s subsequent closure was a devastating blow to the area. So many British towns are like this – trapped in a death spiral of dependence on a deeply cyclical defence industry for the want of anything else. Such places are usually where the military recruit from as well for the same reason. As Elvis Costello, who grew up in Birkenhead, wrote in Shipbuilding:

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town / Somebody said that someone got filled in / For saying that people get killed in / The result of this shipbuilding


I remained interested in Berlin as I grew up. Our school arranged its only ever foreign trip to visit WWII sites in Germany and Poland, including of course the now unified German capital. While I wasn’t sure my family could afford it, I was incredibly excited at the prospect. However, I needn’t have worried as my class was labelled the ‘bad class’ and not invited. Something which incensed me. Yet as an awkward young teenager I didn’t, as I probably should have done, march to the headmaster’s office and demand a fair deal. Rather I just took it as another sign that, even if history was one of the few things I was interested in and good at, there wasn’t much point in trying at school and I might as well piss around, so I did.

It would only be years later, after dropping out of education, going back in and eventually completing a degree, that I made it to Berlin. And I loved it. Returning many times since at different stages in my life.

Like most visitors to the city, I went to find traces of the wall which I’d watched the destruction of broadcast live hundreds of miles away. There are various fragments in different states of condition around Berlin. Probably the most prominent is the East Side Gallery, which was covered with murals in 1990 after the fall of the wall. It is also one of the most striking.

When I first saw the East Side Gallery in 2007, it was still on the fringe of a rapidly changing Berlin. Quiet, with only a handful of similarly interested tourists milling around. The murals, now around 17 years old, had faded and been tagged a great deal. On one of the murals had been written over in marker:

‘I am claiming this space. I am defacing the visual record of a history which is not my own. But why not? This sight is now a site which has been split from the continuity of Berlin culture. It is heritage which belongs to tourist culture. We are recording our own history, here, now, and I was here.’

This powerful statement was a harbinger of things to come. On repeat visits, I saw the area around the East Side Gallery develop more and more. When I returned 10 years on, the murals had been repainted, the site now visited by many more people. It seemed incongruous for such raw expressions from 1990 to be really bright and fresh again, even if necessary to preserve them. Huge construction sites lined the opposite side of the road from the wall, with developments all along the river Spree. A vast entertainment arena had been constructed and its illuminated advertising sign towered above the wall. To return only every few years and see this pace of change in snapshots was uncanny. While the negative impact of this aggressive speed and scale of development on some of Berlin’s communities is well documented.

I often thought though of that earlier statement written on the wall, dismissing its preservation as a relic for visitors. It would have been worse to prevent a new history being written around the site of a wall that has terrible memories for most Berliners. Just so as people like me could observe a place in the dramatic, run down state it held after the fall of the wall. That this once divided city was once again growing and attracting people and that day to day life was now taking place right over many sites associated with past darkness, was largely positive. Even if development should have been done with more care.

Another noticeable memorial to the wall are metal strips in the pavement which trace its line around the city. I took an early ‘shoe selfie’ over a section marked ‘Berliner Mauer 1961 – 1989’ when I first visited. As I was travelling on my own, it was a way of locating myself in the story my photos told. On later visits, I happened upon similar markers in different places and took the same shot. Creating my own personal record through time of my visits to this city. Shoes, jeans and me changing along with Berlin.


When we visit somewhere, we are often seeking ghosts; past histories, past cultures, past moments of trauma or triumph. Sites of things no longer there or in ruin. Perhaps even scenes from old films that never really existed in reality. We follow history to the place it happened and temporarily insert ourselves into it. Even parts of history recent enough to have occurred in our own timelines of existence. Meanwhile, different people and cultures that have often long moved on, pass over and alongside it. The last time I visited Berlin, I noticed while having a drink outside a café, that metal line again under the tables and chairs. Forgotten about underfoot while people enjoyed themselves in the sun. A café in the middle of what was once a death strip, peaceful life going on right over it. That didn’t feel incongruous. It felt like a good thing.

Yet, our desire to seek out and engage with the darkness in history remains. Is this just ghoulish, egocentric? Perhaps, but maybe also because we know we need to remember such things even as we want to move on from them. We trace these histories because they haunt us and affect us even if in distant ways. While it never does quite repeat itself, the waves of history do flow back and forth, leading to consequences that are not always immediately apparent. I didn’t realise the impact the joyous fall of the Berlin Wall would have on my hometown a few years afterwards. Decades on, a friend told me he voted for Brexit because the factory he’d worked in had been closed, shifted for cheaper labour onto the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain. To a country where the brief space of democracy is once again being screwed down by totalitarianism. As we watched the fall of the wall and celebrated the freedom of a people, we didn’t realise this would also lead to the increasing freedom of capital. Which we now see hurting communities in Berlin through hyper development and former industrial towns in Northern England through capital flight. Today there is growing angst at the iniquity and corruption of our system, as there was in Berlin in the 1980s.

What way will history flow next? Will we see the rapture of people pushing back against capital’s seemingly intractable might, or will the walls start closing in once again? Whether we want to seek out history, or carry on regardless over it, we do need to remember what we hate and treasure from it. The Berlin Wall is gone, but it should linger in our consciousness like all dark history, as a reminder of the depths we can go to. The ghost of the wall snaking its way under pavement cafes and past entertainment arenas remains ever relevant, looming over all of us, not just in the city which it once cleaved in two.

This piece was published in Issue 2 of Creeping Expansion in December 2020.

Loch Hotel

By Kenn Taylor

Just how far out can you go in mainland Britain in terms of isolation? With a journey many miles down a long, empty, country road, an owl flying low at the windscreen at one point, and a long, single track road before you reach the destination, this place certainly felt like a candidate.

At the end of that private road there’s a luxury hotel. Not for the likes of you and me. I am here not as a real guest, but because a friend had bagged a job there.

Adjacent to a mighty loch, it is as rural a Scotland as you could possibly imagine. Scenery flowing off into the endless distance. Dramatic landscapes in every corner of your vision: mountains, forests, streams filled with huge glacial rocks. Orange highland cows. Even the multi-coloured moss seems dramatic.

In isolation, in a vast landscape, things seem to have greater visual power. A strikingly white solitary house. A lone, worn-out boat. A fallen tree. At this altitude, and with few buildings, the slightest change of light or shift in the clouds that touch the mountain tops is instantly noticeable.

The hotel itself offers luxury in such seclusion. Old red leather chairs, worn but in the way that loos classy, not knackered. A roaring fire in a grate, the size of a small car, surrounded by dark wood and polished brass. A table lamp in the shape of a stag. The hotel itself looks ancient, but in reality is a fake. A Walter Scott image from the Victorian era.

What’s it like to live out here? I fear that the quiet and lack of stimulation would drive me mad. But there is plenty to do. Walk. Swim. Climb. Build. Read. There’s television and the internet but even then, my friend tells me, you do feel distant from everything. Terrible things happening on the news feel like dark fairy stories from far off lands, rather than things that will reach you here.

This has an allure, like some Arcadian fantasy of times past perhaps. But then this place is predicated on selling that. Charging an astronomical amount for the experience of ‘proper Scotland’. The staff, while they may also appreciate the fresh air and idyllic location, have to labour most of the time while those paying to be here can just enjoy it all. Hike the hills, fly in helicopters, drive fast cars, drink expensive whiskeys. Though labouring here is, my friend assures me, much better than some of the other places we had both laboured.

Of course, we can’t afford to even eat in the hotel. Instead we go over to the nearby inn for a pint, before driving the long way back to the nearest town to truly catch up. Nevertheless, I can see the attraction of this place, of going out to the furthest reaches. If you really have the money, you can pretend the world is not like it is. And forget, perhaps, the role you played in making it that way.

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in January 2021.

The Path of Least Resistance

By Kenn Taylor

– I never thought I’d live in the countryside.
– This isn’t the countryside, it’s the edge of a city.


In Yorkshire though, the rural and the urban have a more indistinct relationship than elsewhere. Something not always appreciated by those born there. For those of us who moved in though, the ability to walk in an hour from Bradford city centre to, yes, up on a wild and windy moor, is not taken for granted.

The place that meant most though, was the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. I’d known the same waterway at its other end too. Liverpool though, is a river city, dominated in every way by the huge estuary. The canal there is an afterthought, just another body of still water amongst the many docks.

In West Yorkshire though, the canal has a central function, having helped define the districts and towns that it passes through. The shape of the cities too. When I shifted once more in my life, this time from London to the outskirts of Bradford, the Leeds-Liverpool became, by accident, hugely important to me.

Another canal, the Regents, had played a significant role in my brief time living in London. The dense urbanity of East London was exhilarating. To the point when I sometimes had to grip to manage the intensity of feeling. Like it had been in Liverpool too at its absolute best, but that was a deeper, more personal feeling of shared experience, communal understanding and expression. In London, it was an external force and you knew you were just a tiny cog spinning in it, which had its own allure. The canal represented calm in London. A long straight place to head along without a particular purpose. Somewhere to burn off energy when collected fears and ghouls and ideas threatened to overwhelm.

Moving from Bethnal Green Road to Bradford district meant no longer trains to Liverpool Street thundering past the front of my flat, instead expansive fields and skies. The canal though was a rare constant and still a place for mental space. In London, this had meant a deep walk through every shade of urban life, in that city now mostly polished to within an inch of its life. In West Riding though, it was a walk through increasing ruralness, striding into ever wider, open spaces. All along the way, the black and white mile posts at various angles of lean, reminding me that my origins in Liverpool were just a, long, walk away.

Without needing a car, the canal was a place to head where tension could be felt lifting from the shoulders, often with every step. Where tasks, troubles and frustrations could be put aside to go deeper about ourselves and everything else. On the surface, a straight graded route next to the murky mirror shimmer of water which required no thought or strain to navigate. Really though it is a winding, up and down route through the path of least resistance. The idea of this once deeply capitalistic functional waterway, now vintage leisure route, as a way of working out a way through lives which had involved some wandering and some extremes, was not lost on us. The passage of time felt slowed and so better to consider it. 

It helped. Both of us. Not having to think about the direction helped us to figure out where we should be going. Sometimes, breathing in as we passed further out with nothing around but fields sweeping away in the distance into hills, that same exhilaration again. Where you almost need to grip something, but now, sucking in fresh air rather than the dense electric hum of the city.

There have been more moves since, but I find somehow the canal keeps coming back. A much needed place to pace along the path of least resistance and think about then, now, the future, nothing at all. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in December 2020.

Trans-Mongolian

By Kenn Taylor

Lying on my back on a bunk bed, on a very long, very bare train. Going a very long way through a very bare landscape a long way from anywhere.

At this point, I’d been travelling on it for so many days, that whenever the train stopped and I briefly stepped onto the terra firma of a platform to buy food, I had sea legs. Well, train legs. So used to the constant shaking and rhythm of the railway journey that, removed from it, everything seemed unbalanced and off kilter.

Being on a train for so long, there is nothing but time. To be filled in many ways. Looking out for the arresting moments between endless tress and endless desert. Games. Chat. Drinking. Lots of drinking. Someone brought a laptop with downloaded films and music, which in back then seemed over the top and now seems like common sense.

With me always being a late adopter, I’d brought books. Although like everyone else I’d been very affected, if not traumatised, by the animated film, I’d never actually read Watership Down. She had recommended it in her usual passionate way, so I thought, why not get a copy for my travels. In what was no doubt another daft attempt at maintaining a connection.

So, with an incongruity recognised by myself and others, I found myself reading a novel about anthropomorphic rabbits filled with descriptions of the lush, green and wet English countryside, whilst sat on a train going through the depths of dry, summer, eastern Siberia. With this being August, Siberia of course was nothing like the snow covered images of popular culture. A week earlier we had sunbathed near the Kremlin. As you do. It was odd but all the more vivid to be down the, er, rabbit hole, of this book about the loss of an arcadian England, whilst being on the other side of the world in a moving metal box going through a striking but unforgiving landscape.

Of course, wherever you go though, you are still you. I dived into the depths of this book and this journey, trying to concentrate on reading whilst also sucking in the vast stream of everyone and everything going past. On this bunk in the quiet afternoon though, in the world of rabbits as the eternal human struggle, I still found myself thinking of her and the chest pressing gulp of the pain swept back in.

Back then though, the wider world seemed brighter. This journey just another example of it opening up ever further, ever faster. Here we were crossing continents, a multiplicity of backgrounds filled with camaraderie, in a world of expanding global interconnection, dialogue and understanding.

Yet the warnings of how thin a veneer this all was were already on display here. A guide telling us of the racism he experienced all the time. Russians more than happy with Putin telling us ‘we need a strong leader’. The call to Free Pussy Riot provoking indifference, ‘they shouldn’t have behaved like that in a church.’ No one likes us, we don’t care. What now stares us in the face as the growing threat to democracy in the 21st century was all there lurking in the background. We had thought then perhaps that this was just the leftovers of an old world that was dying. Really though, the post 2008 trauma was still just sinking in. The thwarted ambitions and dreams of millions, many struggling now even for a basic standard of living. Their sense of injustice ruthlessly diverted to other targets by those in power, so they could maintain the status quo, despite its diminishing returns for the majority.

The world has turned darker in the last decade. So many of the places we visited then, even if it still possible, we might not choose to now. Borders going back up. Minorities oppressed. Rights shredded. History coming roaring back to bite. Wherever you go, you are still you and you take your experience and culture with you. Sometimes though, what you see when you go elsewhere follows you back home much later.

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in November 2020.

Second Hand Life

By Kenn Taylor

I live a second hand life amongst second hand things. Over the way on the high street, the brands come and go. And nowadays, they mostly go. What I sell they never bothered with though: old books and bits and bobs. These days the customers have an infinite selection of books and bits and bobs at the click of a button. Funnily enough though, they still come here. Long after those places with supply chains, brand strategies and HR policies have caved in. My shop is, I’m told, part of what is called ‘experiential retail.’ So, my old bones and my old stock in this old shop, is in the same category then as Harvey Nichols and those coffee shops with big lightbulbs. Fair enough, I’ll take that. Though I don’t make as much money as them of course. I barely make any money at all. This is a vocation. Like being a priest, or an artist. At least artists get the girls. Priests too I reckon. Me, I get dust and people haggling over £10 for a leather bound volume that’s taken up space on my shelves for too long. Oh, but they love to browse. People older than me even looking for something specific from their past, to teenagers who think it’s like something from a film in here. So authentic one of the students said to me once. I guess so. They used to come for the prices, now they come for the authenticity. No skin off my nose, as long as they still come. I guess that’s something those brand strategists forgot about when they tried to predict what people wanted. I have been here for so long, with few pretensions but to survive and to work with things I like. And I have seen plenty of things I like come and then go again. Running a place like this, it beats punching a clock. There’s not much stress, no restructures or redundancies, but it takes up all your time and all your life. Thing I figure about authenticity, such as it is, is it usually comes through toil and pain and that is what most sensible folks want to avoid. Even if doing that leaves them pallid and bitter.

The stock here is never ending, I don’t even know what I really have. Good luck to the soul who has to deal with it after me. What are they going to do about the authenticity when I’m gone eh? There’s plenty of people who want to experience authenticy, who try to buy it, but they don’t have the commitment. Me, I long ago stopped giving a shit. I read and I know and I observe and I understand, but for what end I don’t know. They’ll carry me out of here in a box and, unlike some people and places, I don’t think I’m quite authentic enough to be preserved by the National Trust. So, all of this put together over all these years will go to a fire sale, skip, then conversion into flats. Sell the fittings to one of the students for their loft apartment.

At least I’ve been surrounded by things I’ve liked. Never had to work too hard. Been able to watch the sun coming in through the window and move slowly across the sky as it illuminates the flowing dust in bright shafts. Like a monk me, but without the shaved head and yes I do take contactless. I think even the monks do now too I reckon. Authenticity is hard to get, but trust me, when you have it, it means little. You still have to haggle over £10 and sit watching others watch you. I’ve had plenty of time to read. Lived all sorts of lives through these books and records and things. But it was all second hand. There’s still more knowledge and experience and art in all of it than you could ever get through in a lifetime. And looking after it all has meant I’ve done little with what I’ve learned. Though I have learned enough at least not to think about it too much anymore. I read and I know and I observe and I understand. For what end I don’t know.

This was published in Issue 47 of The Crazy Oik in October 2020.

Libre

By Kenn Taylor

Those 1950s American cars are a key symbol of Cuba under Communism, giving a bit of old glamour to all those Lonely Planet images and travel documentaries. They’re real enough, seen all over Havana. Many however are like ‘Trigger’s Broom’ – having had so many parts replaced they’re more new than old. There’s no denying though that they’re still cool. In Cuba, they are a key part of that desire for ‘difference’ that attracts people to a place. And their owners are only too keen to earn some extra cash taking visitors for a ride along the sea drive, the Malecon, under the sun and close to the spray of waves.

Less well photographed though are the Ladas. The reason the old American cars are still there of course, has largely been the lack of something to replace them, due to the ongoing economic blockade. Though now they’re so famous they are likely to always remain, as visitors will always want something of the past that meets their expectations. The Ladas from Mother Russia though, were the main replacement car for all those decades after the Revolution. They were popular locally for their ruggedness and relative modernity, though of course the Ladas themselves are now also ancient. While less well known as a symbol of Cuba, Ladas are a big part of the modest traffic that runs around Havana, in particular being used heavily as taxis.

I had little naivety about Cuba’s ‘alternative’ system. While there’s a general lack of the hunger and homelessness that marks much of the UK, in turn you are faced with a Government which tolerates no alternative political parties or dissent and heavily restricts its citizens. While basic needs are generally met, the standard of living is also low. Those old cars may have a certain romance and now a tourist income for their owners, but having to constantly repair a forty year old refrigerator has less allure.

The famous free education in Cuba also doesn’t always translate into liberation. In my final Lada taxi to the airport I spoke at length with the driver. He had a master’s degree in IT but saw little point in using it in Cuba when he could make more money by driving. As well as have more freedom, not having to work for the state. He talked about how he felt his education was wasted and how, like many, he wanted to leave. In turn he asked me about IT work in the UK. I said as far as I knew, it was well paid, but highly competitive. And that a lot of IT jobs were now being ‘offshored’ to other countries where labour was cheaper. He was aware also that we had to pay for university and asked how much it would cost to study for an IT masters. It took me a bit of time to work out the maths and then convert it into to Cuban currency. He was aghast at the expense. “Yes, it’s a real problem,” I said. “Especially if you’re from a poor background.” 

We were pretty quiet after that as we did the final leg towards the airport, pondering the madness of our two systems. Neither of which anyone really believes in anymore, both slowly falling apart. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in September 2020.

Liverpool and Wales: Longing and imagination in city and country

By Kenn Taylor

The relationship between Liverpool and Ireland is well documented. The relationship between Liverpool and Wales less so, yet just as deep. At one point, Liverpool had the largest urban settlement of Welsh speakers. From teaching to building to retail, the Welsh were a key part of the region’s fabric. The National Eisteddfod was held several times in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Relations were not always cosy though. In particular when Liverpool Corporation constructed the Llyn Celyn reservoir over the Welsh speaking village of Capel Celyn, helping fuel Welsh nationalism in the 1960s. Liverpudlians too, were also part of Wales. From the earliest opportunities the working class had for holidays, Wales represented open space, clear air, leisure and countryside.

Even now, Liverpool may no longer represent the economic powerhouse for Wales, especially as Cardiff has grown, but it’s still the closest major urban settlement to North Wales. A place to study, to go out, to shop. While, despite the advent of cheap flights, Wales remains popular for holidays and days out. And both still hold a pull to each other, particularly for the young of each place, long after cars replaced paddle steamers as the quickest route between the two. 

Possessing dramatic landscapes and cultures fired with passion and poetry, they are places separate but intertwined. Hills and tall buildings just visible through the distance on brighter days from up high. For populations with experiences so different, how each viewed the other was and is so much about perception, projection, longing. The Welsh idea of Hiraeth, is something many from Merseyside are also familiar with even if they couldn’t put a name to it. A bittersweet longing for homeland, for a lost golden age, even by those who never knew it or never left in the first place. A yearning to return to something which no longer exists, or maybe never did, but is a feeling which always remains.

In urban Merseyside, Wales is a place to escape to. Peace and space and blinding light. The intensity of openness. A bucolic place of nature, of school outward bound adventures, as much about crisps and kissing as mountain climbing and canoeing. Cheap, accessible holidays and golden if chilly beaches. The romantic weirdness of Portmeirion. Steam trains that go from nowhere to nowhere but at least the landscape looks pretty. This though, of course, ignores the vast holiday industry driven by Merseyside, Manchester and Birmingham, the undulating, boxy sea of caravans along the coast. There are the pseuds too who pretend they’re not tourists, that claim they come for the ‘real Wales’. What is real North Wales though? There’s the real of lakes, mountains and beaches, but also the real of intensive agriculture, nuclear power stations, Japanese factories and RAF jet bases. The holiday parks too are just as real.

In North Wales, Liverpool is a place to escape to, especially for the young. Noise and density and blinding lights. The intensity of urbanity. The possibilities are bigger in London of course, but also much further and harder away. Good times, clubs and music, different people and alternative cultures. Freedoms away from small town oppression. Anonymity and maybe even opportunity. A life closer to the edge, even if it’s easier to fall off. But of course, what is the ‘real Liverpool?’ All of this but also, pleasant suburbs, vast parks, technology hubs and polished shopping centres, like so many others. What both places have is a fierce awareness of themselves and their cultural uniqueness, but that sometimes blinds to what is more universal and what is shared. As well as that, living in cultures so strong, can create a drive for some to escape from it. 

The city in the distance. The hills in the distance. The distance is what matters, near but far. Something to daydream of, to work towards, to long for. A projection in the back of the mind, both real and unreal. The closer you get, the more the longing fades and you begin to think what you saw in the distance was a chimera. The longer you stay, the more you think back to what you have left and realise, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe. Fresh eyes. Hiraeth again. The intangible feeling.

And it is everywhere. Strive to break from hard lives or particular places and we find we always take them with us. When we achieve our escapism, we find it’s just another different reality. What we’re looking for has never existed and it never will. Yet we still always look for it. In the distance, just out of sight. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in July 2020.

The Clear Out

oik30600

By Kenn Taylor

Sorting through his deceased father belongings provoked a mixture of emotions in David.

The scale of the task overwhelmed him. His father had been a hoarder who’d lived in the same house for 60 years. Even with the help of his siblings it would be a big job to sort through it all. They had put the task off until a few weeks after the funeral, but soon the house would have to be sold for all their sakes, so the clear out had to begin.

For the sake of organisation, they divided themselves into different rooms. After first looking through the house for individual items they wanted as keepsakes. There had been little conflict over this – their father kept far more tat and trinketry than they could ever want and, with them having all had their own families, old toys, personal items and the like had long been removed.

What remained was nearly all their father’s and their 9-years-deceased mothers stuff. David took the smallish room at the back of the house latterly used as a dining room. It was dominated by a poky resin dining table with wood-effect pattern and a large, dark-wood display cabinet whose lower drawers were stuffed with everything from a basket full of sewing kit to twenty-year-old birthday cards and boxes of ageing photographs.

It was a huge task to clear the cabinet and took David most of the day. His speed was slowed by having to sort through all the photographs. Nostalgia and sadness was inevitable as he sifted through the still glossy images in their fraying paper folders. After a while, he just put the boxes of photographs to one side, reasoning that he’d take them home and sort through all of them at a less pressing and less emotional time.

David had a sometimes difficult relationship with his father. John Hughes had not been cruel or violent, but his hard working life in the shipyard, especially during WWII, had made him somewhat distant and cynical. The harshness of the time had also no doubt contributed to his father’s hoarding instincts, which David now had to deal with the ultimate results of.

David had been born after the war and had grown tired of hearing about it or the Depression before it. He was a lot more optimistic and liberal. That said he was no hippie and he knew that his father was quietly proud that David had risen to the role of Technical Manager at the oilseed plant, before it closed and he took early retirement. It was never really something he had a passion for, but it had given him and his family a good living over the years and now he was retired, he had time more to indulge his fondness for art.

With the cabinet cleared, it left only the bureau to sort through. In his old age David now found it curious that their staunchly British father would use such a fancy word for the tatty fold out desk, but that’s what they had always called it and it had been in the same corner of the room since David had been a child. They were always forbidden to play with it as was where the ‘important’ things were kept; bank books, birth certificates, warranties. They were especially not allowed to go near it after one of David siblings had lent on it too hard and broken one of the brackets on the fold down desk top. His father, true to form, had never repaired it, so even now the closed cover hung off centre.

David walked over and pulled the desk top down. Slowly as, just as he predicted, it fell away when pulled. Once lowered he began to look through the various spaces that made up the interior of the bureau: small draws, racks and cubbyholes. Each one stuffed full with letters, documents and folders.

In the largest space there was a long green tin. Patrick pulled it out and looked at the faded labels above each coin slot: ‘Rates’, ‘Electricity’, ‘Gas’, ‘Radio Licence’….opening it up revealed just a few defunct coins and an ornate button.

David threw the tin in his rubbish pile and carried on. He pulled out payslips, insurance documents, brown enveloped letters from the Inland Revenue. He kept the odd thing, such as a small black and white photograph of his mother while she was still young, but most of it he placed in the pile to discard, with increasing frequency as he went along.

He pulled out a particularly old white envelope, then paused just as he was about to throw it away, noticing that it was addressed to him rather than his father or mother. He thought he had long ago taken anything related to him away to his own home. The envelope had been carefully and cleanly opened. David pulled out the letter inside, noticing straightway despite its age, the quality of the paper it had been printed on.

He carefully unfolded the letter and felt and lump in his throat when he read the dispatch address:

Liverpool School of Art
62 Hope Street
Liverpool
L1
Telephone: Royal 3162
Telegrams: ArtHope

He carried on reading

Dear David Hughes

We are pleased to be able to offer you a place on our Pre-Diploma Course based on your interview and your portfolio, providing you satisfactorily complete your GCE O-level.

If you wish to take up this place, the course will begin 15th September 1959. Please take this letter with you to the Admissions Office in the main college building at the above address, before 30th May 1959, to confirm your attendance and register.

The Admissions Officer will provide you with information on the materials and equipment that you will be expected to have procured ready for your classes starting.

If you have any further queries, please speak to the Admissions Office.

Sincerely Yours
Thomas Barnes
Senior Admissions Tutor

David examined the neatly typed, short letter for a long time. His nose stung and his eyes watered, though he didn’t allow himself to cry. Just as he hadn’t that time so long ago now when, on his return from school, once again his hope of receiving a letter from the College of Art had proved fruitless.

He had asked his father if he should go to the College to ask them, as it had taken so long for them to contact him.

His father looked up from his newspaper and, seeing the degree of emotion in his son, sighed. He walked over and placed his hand on the 15 year old David’s shoulder.

“There’d be no use bothering them. It’s time to accept that you haven’t got in David. Like I told you it’s not much of a thing to do anyway. You’re clever. We’ll go down the College of Technology next week, enquire about you doing a HNC.”

His mum had joined in, “Yes, it doesn’t matter David. Either way, we just want you to be happy.”

Hearing his sister enter the room, David folded the letter up, placed it back in the envelope and threw it in the pile of things to discard.

This piece was published in the Summer 2016 edition of The Crazy Oik

Welsh Streets

10570412_10101266039643815_423706891123048102_n

By Kenn Taylor

Ominous
as evening draws in.
The deep red
that cuts through this decay
is dragged back to the west.
Past the mountains
from where the builders
of these streets
came.

Sheet steel, not glass,
fills windows.
Buddleia spurt from rooflines
in roads where even streetlights
have died.

Indifferent now to the dereliction
that awes some.
There is little romance
in domestic decay
when you see it every day.

The silence though.
‘What happened here?’
A passer by may ask.
‘Fire, flood, famine, war?’
All this and more.
Though this place in England
is really the result
of the dropping
of a thousand bombs
of ideology.

In times past
the few with power
saw money to be made.
Scraping back the fields
to cram in labour,
filling demand in a fierce new era.
Keeping the trade turning,
taking and not giving
from places faraway.

People came
looking for opportunity.
They built proud,
as if still for themselves,
in the hills
to last a thousand years.

Homes for those
seeking a better life.
Trying to get by,
though always in the firing line
through depressions and wars.
See a 1950s house
in-between Victorian walls.

From peace came another boom
that saw many out
to leafier spots.
A rare time
when people
maybe
had a chance.

The more desperate though
moved in from around the world.
To the houses
not yet pulled down
in the name of improvement
by those who felt they knew better.

New communities
trying to get by,
despite the vicious treatment
from those who hate difference.
Until Orford’s tactics
see bricks thrown back
at the thin line of authority,
shocked
that the worm could turn.

Sadly though
the end result,
even more labels put on a place
no longer treated as a community,
instead
abused as byword.

Left and right
claim it as their quarry.
Use it to blame each other,
as photo-journalists from Hampstead fight
to take the best pictures
of trainers hanging from telegraph poles.

Here though
a new plan emerges.
From clever types
in league with
desperate politicians
in a desperate city
and a few descendents also
of those with an eye
for profits from the land.
They all conspire from on high
to drop another bomb,
one of renewal.
‘This land must be cleared,’
traded again,
razed of its problems.

Those who remain though
just getting by,
trying to fight their corner,
are drowned out again
by those who feel
they know better.

The developers on one side,
scrabbling for deeds.
On the other
the creatives and
heritage enthusiasts.
Martyrs to old bricks
who set themselves up
as defenders
of what was never theirs.
Fantasists of a culture
they have never known,
they stalk around
writing of
tiling and wrought iron,
missing out the
rising damp and
regulation
Corporation Green doors.
Until they head back
far away
to quaint, expensive
places of no change.

No longer a place
in all its complexity,
instead just more bywords
for the ideologues.
Abused by both
poet and profiteer,
they squabble over the moral high ground
as the streets beneath them decay.
A battlefield.

One day,
can they just be homes?
Or do they have to wait
for the next bomb
from those
after money,
power,
or truth?

Long after opportunities rot away,
bonds remain.
Money gets throw in
then taken away
just as quick.
Everyone
carries on getting by
trying to rebuild
brick by brick.
Let people decide their own fate,
their own path for their community.
Is it so much to ask?

A car speeds down the silent street,
the sun has gone.
No light from the windows.
I reach the end of the road
and turn away.

This piece appeared in the July 2014 edition of The Shrieking Violet. Cover design by Robert Carter.

Retail Therapy

Oikpic

By Kenn Taylor

“Bdumm!” The satisfying sound of the long-suffering warehouse doors being whacked aside once more by my roll-cage. The thought of damaging company property is incredibly satisfying, though it does little to alleviate the aches that presently swarm across my body with every movement. Somewhere inside this drink-battered carcass there is a healthy, sober man trying to get out.

Onto the shop floor proper and into that light that penetrates your skull. The uniquely awful combination of fluorescent lamps bouncing off shiny, nearly all white, surfaces with the constant, dizzying hum of innumerable refrigeration units thrown in for good measure.

A gratifying, but ill-judged, hard swing of the cage to the right sees me manoeuvre into a cardboard display stand.

“Shit.”

Still early though, no one about to bollock me, so I re-fold the thing vaguely back into shape and start to pick up all the sweet packets. In this state, even bending down is enough to send me close to collapse.

What was I thinking? Another ‘It’s-not-ilegal-if-you-don’t-tell-anyone-and-we’ll-give-you-time-and-a-half’, finish at 10pm back in for 6am shift. But then I need the money, I’ll just have an early night. No problem. Okay, just one drink. One fucking drink.

And so at 3.55am I make it back home. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes’ sleep later the clock goes off and, after cursing the guy who assembled it to eternal damnation, I drag myself up and put on yesterday’s crumpled uniform. After all, I’m the only gobshite on shift.

So here we are. Ankle deep in fucking Toffos.

I drag the cage round to my respective shelf, past a solitary, early-bird shopper and Hannah pushing the floor polisher. Big lass, but I would.

Not now though. Onwards and upwards and one step-ladder later, I’m rearranging tea bags so they’re all ship shape and Saveco fashion. You get a good vantage point from here. Up with the gods you can see right across the shop, row after row after row, after row.

I feel fucking sick.

It’s quiet. I lay down next to the ladder. Just collect my head, clear the muck out of my throat. Didn’t even have time for a shower this morning, old sweat sticks to my skin, made all the better by the Bri-Nylon crap that constitutes work-wear around here. To add insult to injury, the clown on the Music and Video Desk has turned up and decided ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman is ideal 6.45am listening.

I pick myself up slowly and return to the job. Keep going old son, an English breakfast is but two hours away. Ah, but it’s Thursday: Pension day. All the old folks turn up to buy their small loaves and small cartons of milk and tell you about their exciting day in the Post Office queue and then how their children just don’t come around any more. It really comes to something when the only place old folks can get company is chatting to weary shelf stackers in a tin barn built over the sites of the old factories they used to work in.

Mind you, they’re not all innocent old dears. Karim nabbed one the other day with two bottles of vodka, 3 tins of cat food and a cucumber hidden in her coat. Now that’s a party I wouldn’t have minded going too.

“Excuse me…” Despite the hangover, my retail ninja training kicks in. Quick as a flash I turn and say:

“How can I help you?”

And straightaway alarm bells begin to ring in the back of my mind. The prejudice that comes from long tours of duty in the aisles gives you a nose for the worst beasts to handle, and here’s a prime example.

Woman in early middle age, smartly but cheaply dressed in a stiff trouser suit. Designer glasses that she probably couldn’t afford and already possessing a stern look in her eye the moment I turn around. It doesn’t look good.

“See the items in these trays?”

“Aye.”

“Well the label on the side says there are reduced but none of the items in here have been reduced.”

“Oh yes, sorry, madam, but someone goes around in the morning and takes everything off the shelves that needs to be marked down and puts them there. Then they mark them all down a bit later when they get chance.”

“Well?”

“Well…what?”

“I want them marked down now. I don’t have time to wait, some of us have to get to work,” she says with a pout and a hint of a rough accent creeping in behind the restrained tones. It’s worse than I thought, she’s an ‘I’ve-conqured-the-male-world-of-the-office-and-I’m-not-going-to-get-told-what’s-what-by-a-lacky-shop-monkey’ sort. No doubt works in an estate agent, or something similar; bit thick but has got where she is today by kissing ass and taking shit and she aint going to do it no more. Too brassy and prim to have had kids, and the faux-continental, shite-for-one in her basket backs this up. She’s probably divorced. No doubt lies at home alone every night and masturbates vigorously to a mental image of Daniel Craig.

Sweeping generalisations? Well all she sees is a dopey cunt in an awful shirt, and that’s only because she wants something; most of the time they don’t see you at all. You learn much when no-one sees you. If you want to learn about people, work in a supermarket. All human life is here, from smackheads to plasterers to barristers to struggling mums and bitches like this, and they barely notice you in the corner, beavering away.

But we’re there. We know. We know who people are shagging and who’s pregnant and whose kids are going to the grammar school and who’s going down for a stretch. Usually we couldn’t give a fuck and would rather talk about the football and last night’s CSI: Miami. But we still know.

Anyway.

“I’m sorry but I don’t have the facility to mark them down. You need to get one of the computer guns signed out from the office and I’ve got to get this job finished before 7am. The guy who does the mark downs will be along in just a little while.” I offer a genuine smile, but it gets rejected. She twists her nose, straightens her back and moves off.

Just the fact that I’d managed to wind her up over such a stupid thing would normally have given me that rare sense of superiority that you’re not as small-minded as they are. Not when I’m in this state though, I only hope she’s the one bad customer of the day.

But I’ve barely got back on my step-up when I see Ms Valued Fucking Customer coming back around the corner with an unimpressed-looking Sarah in tow.

“James, did you just give this customer cheek?”

Cheek?! What the fuck?!

“I served the lady to the best of my ability, Sarah.” I shoot the shopper a mild look of sweet inquisitiveness. REMEMBER, SMILE THE BASTARDS TO DEATH. “As I explained, I have no facility to mark things down. Ash will be along in a minute with the terminal.”

“And as I explained to your employee, some of us have to get to work. If,” she talks at Sarah like I’m not there, her well-shod foot tapping with tension, “it isn’t to be marked down yet it shouldn’t have been put out on the display rack. I’ve got a good mind to call Trading Standards.”

“Look, James, just take the lady’s item and mark it down in the back, twice. Then, take the rest of this rack out to the warehouse. You know you shouldn’t leave this out.” Sarah speaks in her best, ‘you’re-a-naughty-boy’ tones, which may wash with her kids, but not with me. She turns to DragonBint. “I’m sorry for your inconvenience, madam; James will sort that out for you now, and let’s see if we can get you a complimentary voucher.” I go to protest, but stop when I realize the futility.

DragonBint hands over the goods, one pack of bagels.

All this over ONE. PACK. OF. BAGELS.

I could, then, have gone straight into how of all the grand, horrendous, horrific crimes and injustices that goes on every day in this world – children dying after they’re born because of inadequate medical care, whole countries kept in poverty because of the underhand dealings of international conglomerates, young girls running away to London because they’re scared they might be pregnant because their boyfriends forced them at the party they shouldn’t have gone to and ending up as crack-whores on the streets of Kings Cross – and this woman chooses to get angry about 25 pence off A PACK OF FUCKING BAGELS.

But I don’t. Use your customer service warrior training, my son. Maintain the poker face and grit teeth. DO NOT LET THEM WIN. “Sorry madam, I’ll sort this out right away.”

I hold in my righteous indignation. And I could have coped with it, happens dozens of times every day. It’s just another petty injustice of retail life. But then as Sarah turns, DragonBint flicks her taught face into a self-satisfied sneer and grins at me.

RIGHT! I turn around before I get chance to do some severe damage and release my internal flames through my eyes and the slow, firm pressure I give to the pack of Bagels. So lady, you think you’ve won. Revenge is a dish best served cold, madam, that’s our culinary tip of the day.

“Bdumm!” I let a little bit more out by giving those doors a whack with so much enthusiasm that they bounce off the sides and come back at me. Terry is going the other way with a job lot of TVs.

“Eh Jay, you look well rough.”

“Cheers, el tel,” I say.

“Ah you young ’uns,” he says with a wry grin, “I remember when I used to be out every night.”

Terry’s jovial words pacify me a little and I let a little more of the pressure out. But I feel even weaker than before with the rage gone, just a shell again, a sweaty, smelly shell. Terry moves forwards towards the light of the shopfloor and I descend into the bowels.

And behind the pretty pictures of shiny fruit and the gleaming white tiles lies where the real work is done. As I emerge out of the corridor into the cavernous, dank warehouse, a chill hits me from the loading bay. It’s still dark outside. I can hear the forklift humming in the yard, so I walk over and wave to Paul. The bite of the early morning air cuts deeper into me and, looking out across the yard to the blue-black sky, the deserted road and the still-strapped newspapers, I feel a vague sense of satisfaction that I am up and at ’em before most people are out of bed.

To business, though. And I wander over to the trolley with all of Ash’s other mark-downs on it and the pricing gun. Simple enough job. But first some extra, personal service for a valued customer

I slip the wee yellow tag from the top of the bagel packet, they’re always loose, and tip out the contents straight onto the lovely, mucky concrete. A multitude of sins reduced to unidentifiable rubbery black stains welcomes them as they hit the deck.

A quick glance around to check no one is coming, nothing but the sound of the box-crusher straining in the distance. Two bagels go up my Bri-Nylon shirt for a wee visit to my sticky pits, with their moisture courtesy of last night’s dancing and the other two go a darker, more hazardous journey down the sweaty crack of last night’s boxers.

I take them all out and examine them again, no real visible damage. Looking at them closely they have achieved a new sheen and a few hairs, but the dark bits are nicely masked by the raisins and sesame seeds. Mmm, the recipe is not yet complete. It needs some…dressing!”

Ah, out of cheese are we. I’ll get some of my own. Swing my head back, one big hawk and Pppthsh. Nice big green and cream one on the flatbed trolley. Eeeuigh. Well, that’s what 20 Lambert and Butler does to your insides, kids. Now, easy does it, just a slight dab around the fringes of it with the baked goods, nothing so you’d notice, just enough of the green stuff to taste. Now, back in to your lovely hermetically-sealed packaging like new. Let’s go for broke. I’ll give her 35p off not 25p. Just to show that we CARE.

I wander back through to the shop floor. My still throbbing head thankfully helping to keep the massive fucking smirk I feel inside from coming out. DragonBint is waiting by the swing doors, arms folded, face like a punched kitten. I hand her the bagels with a polite smile. “Here you go, all nicely discounted.” I’m about to feel a little sorry for her as she takes them from my grasp, but then she purses a lip and snorts before turning around. As we begin off in our separate directions along the long, white thoroughfare I shout back to her:

“Have a nice day now!”

I know I will.

This piece appeared in the Summer 2014 editon of The Crazy Oik.