Category Archives: reportage

Tramp Wars 2

‘Course they’re Romanian, it’s in all the fucking papers.’

Tennish, a brisk day, the wind never ceases, blows Arfur’s long hair back off his face then into his eyes. He strokes a greasy paw, hooks back lank locks behind a waxy ear.

‘…taking all our fucking jobs…’

‘You ain’t got a job.’

‘So?’

‘Someone called me a tramp the other day, fucking school kid.’

‘We might be tramps but at least we’re fucking English!’ Assent and laughter. English Tramps.

An empty MacDonalds brown paper bag cartwheels across the pebbly beach. One of the two dogs which regularly inhabit the English Tramps’ bunker flings itself off the parapet and onto the stones where its legs buckle with the unanticipated impact.

The English Tramps laugh as the stocky staff picks itself up and gallops after the bag, past the Romanian bunker which is sparsely occupied this morning, and under the rotting pier where rusty iron drips, resists the centuries’ battering of waves, and carries decaying remains of the burnt out House of Fun, Ghost Train, Bingo and Ballroom on its hunched red back.

The dog is a dot on the distant pebbles. ‘Oy! Doreen! Fucking come back!’

Harry of the black teeth spits. ‘Doreen?! You can’t call a dog Doreen -‘

‘Why not?’

‘It’s ‘is mum’s name innit -‘  Sheila McGee puffs down the stone steps from the promenade with two blue carrier bags bursting with cans  from the only shop left in town that will sell them these lethal concoctions. Sheila was once a beauty blue eyes red hair before alcohol got her in its savage jaws.

The English Tramps surround the carrier bags, dying of thirst.

‘Giss some money,’ says Sheila, stubborn. ‘Pound a can’.

‘Ey Look its the fucking Romanians,’ Arfur pronounces the word with relish on the Rooo. Roooomaynians. From the easterly bunker and along the colonnade, two hard-eyed skinny characters approach with exaggerated bravado.

‘Oy!’

They ignore the English Tramps and continue purposefully past their bunker.

‘Oy you! I’m talkin’ to you -‘

The Romanians walk past swiftly as their audience swivels to follow their retreating backs. Arfur drains his can and throws it after them. Doreen immediately sets off in pursuit, barking and growling, claws skittering and sliding over the concrete.

The Romanians look back alarmed, see bared teeth, bravado challenged, defeated, break into a run.

The English Tramps all roar with laughter.

‘Gis another one, sweet Sheila McGee.’

‘Where they goin anyway?’

‘Public bogs. Even they ain’t gonna take a shit in public in broad daylight.’

The Romanians, having taken a shit and noted the provision of public showers, have returned to their bunker via the upper level, the promenade. The Romanian bunker has filled up and a dozen pairs of vengeful eyes are turned on the English Tramps as the returnees deliver a resentful account of their adventure.

A triumphant high possesses the English Tramps for they have routed the intruders; in pairs, in threes, or alone, they swirl and lift their knees and punch the air in a merry victory dance, miming ‘cheers’ to the Rooomaynians.

Morning has shuddered into a grey afternoon and the later hours bring their own problems. Sheila McGee’s blue carrier bags are full of empties now, hanging limply from the edge of the bench where Sheila herself is unconscious, sitting slumped like a rag doll with her feet sticking outwards, splayed, her head lolling to one side.

‘It’s your shout Arfur. The Post Office is still open.’

‘I ain’t got no fuckin money’

‘You gotta have a tenner left you ain’t been all week.’

A vague threat of violence enters the space. Arfur sits down next to Sheila whose battered plastic handbag is abandoned beside her. His comrades look out to sea or become engaged in conversation, their eyes looking any direction but his.

Very very quietly, Arfur unzips the top of Sheila’s handbag and sneaks his hand inside, removing a small purse, like a little girl’s plaything, pink with a golden snap top. This, he also violates, shaking out a collection of change and thrusting it into his pocket before replacing the purse and re-zipping the bag.

Now, our hero looks along the colonnade considering his route to the shop.

Once, in another life, Arfur was walking in the East Sussex hills, his face upturned to the clouds and blue sky, following the path of a crimson air balloon drifting southwards above him, the hum of bees and the afternoon’s drowsy stillness punctuated by the hiss release of flames, shwuuuuu… suddenly, from nowhere, came a galloping of hooves through the thistles and a herd of bullocks rushed him from a small copse at the top of the field…

The Romanians, grouped together, hands thrust deep in pockets, hoods up against the wind, for some reason reminded him of that dislocating afternoon.

Arfur decides to take the steps, and stumbling slightly, passes from the concrete underworld into the light.

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Tramp Wars 1

When you get to the south coast of England you realize there is nowhere left to go; it’s the end of the road. A suitable metaphorical environment for the elderly who contemplate the sea’s silver horizon; disastrous for the drinkers, the hordes of the hopeless who somehow discover themselves hungover, washed up, and stranded on these pebbly shores.

London boroughs have been shipping their problem families down to cheaper accommodation and a more forgiving social environment for years, but now it seems to have reached epidemic proportions. Fighting, brawling, spitting, vomiting, drinking, peeing, shouting, swearing, what you looking at. London Road, St Leonards on Sea, Hieronymus Bosch on a weekday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Mr Margolys takes a refreshing walk along the promenade, having left his sea front home and double locked the door. White waves graze the pebbles, then withdraw. A soothing repetition like a heartbeat. A blue sky. Deep breath, seagulls soar. Ah this is the life. Expiring, inhaling, all regular and fine. ‘Hi how are you? Yes fine thanks.’

Beneath the promenade, a walkway, invisible to those above. A concrete colonnade, never dry, and reeks of piss. A sense of danger, hidden from view, promenade walkers’ eyes ahead and don’t look down over the edge, beneath the railings, inhabited as it is by English tramps and drinkers and their dogs.

Two round fortresses, once romantic viewpoints for seated lovers, jut out onto the pebbles perhaps a hundred yards apart. As the afternoon progresses, these are thronging with drinkers. From the westerly fortress, English voices rise and are audible to Mr Margolys, Julia, pushing her newborn baby in a pram and Madge and Sol who just moved down from London, marveling at the enormous house they got for the price of their pokey one-bed flat in Hackney.’You fucking what?’.

Cans of industrial strength lager flash in the sunlight on the way to eager, if slightly uncontrollable, lips. Guzzle guzzle belch, wipe mouth. Chuck empty  onto beach. Dog races onto stones, retrieves can. Nah you fucking idiot. Boot. Yelp. Chuck it back, restrain hound. Laughter, dog snaps and struggles. Haha.

In the easterly fortress, strangers. Narrow-eyed newcomers, stubbly, furtive, dark hoodies and old-fashioned jeans. Sharing rations, cans of booze, smoking, picking up fag ends, rolling. Spitting, shoulders hunch against solid gusts of southwesterly wind. Nothing to do. Intermittent radio-tuning snippets of another language heard on the prom by Julia, pushing her baby home now, turning her collar up, thinking of dinner. Romanian. New arrivals with nowhere to go, homeless now the channel has been breached. Fierce and defensive. Gathering.

As the sun begins to set this thin mid-winter afternoon, all eyes turn westwards, mesmerized by the routine of the universe. Madge and Sol lean on the railings, Sol stamps out a cigarette, the butt falls over the edge and into the damp colonnade where it is swiftly gathered by an unseen hand.

All eyes are on the sunset but those of the English Tramps who have suddenly become aware of their easterly neighbours. ‘Who the fuck?’ ‘What the fuck’ ‘Fucking Hell’. A low growling as the sun slides over the end of the planet and dark clouds roll in.

 

 

 

 

Dogs and owners – same the world over

When I first started spending time in Hastings, I had a lovely black Labrador, Iggy, who was not exactly tough. The dogs of Hastings, however, were.

In fact – to tangentialize for a brief moment – just a couple of months ago three staffies off the leash went nuts in St Leonards and hospitalized twelve people.

Anyway, Iggy… I was walking by the playground on West Hill with her and let her off the leash for her customary tear about.  After about two minutes I heard this thigh-squeezing yelping and she returns staggering up the hill with two staffie pups attached to her throat. Seriously.

The owner, having difficulty herself making it up the hill, due to her excellent McCurves, arrived just as I managed to prise apart the second set of mini jaws from poor, trembling, Iggy’s neck.

I imagined she was going to apologize and decided not to make a fuss. This was not, however, the message this buxom youngster wished to deliver.

‘They’ve never done that before,’ she said, accusingly, snatching the two beasts up into the tender shelter of her weighty upper arms. She cast a vengeful look at Iggy: ‘Your dog must have done something,’ she shot, turning to sail back down the hill.

It’s quite amazing how owners of vicious-looking dogs are so defensive. ‘He’d never hurt a fly,’ they say fondly of some slavering beast straining at the leash with blood-red eyes, gnashing at the void.

Now, yesterday, it was sunny here in Funchal and we took a walk along the promenade where a canine obedience training session was underway. Two guys dressed up like police with black clothes and pocketed waistcoats were herding a bunch of dog owners and their best friends around inside a fenced off area. They told them to line up in a row, dogs sitting obediently by masters’ sides, facing out to sea.

We stopped to compare the relative attractiveness of each canine. One in particular caught our eyes – a lovely, medium-sized, collie type fluffy brown dog with a foxy tail. There was an assortment of about eight dogs, a little lap dog, a Labrador pup which kept getting up and pottering around, not very obediently, and…right at a the end of the line, a huge rottweiler.

The obedience task at hand was for the owner of each dog in turn to walk it on the leash, in and out of the line of other dogs. The very worthy aim of this exercise was to stop the dog doing that really irritating stopping and sniffing at every meeting with a fellow four-legger.

A nice, well-behaved white poodle went first, led by a pony-tailed teenage girl in jeggings and a little pink top. All went well until they tentatively approached the Rottie at the end. A distinct growling was heard and the Rottie’s owner, a dapper little man with a Hercule Poirot moustache, gave Rottie’s leash a yank by way of reprimand. The Rottie stayed seated, contenting itself with giving the white pooch a dirty look and the girl and her charge circled round and skipped off, relieved, on the home run.

‘Ah, dear Rottie,’ I said fondly and we resumed our walk. ‘They’re probably fine when they’re properly trained’. Suddenly a terrible fracas broke out and the air was filled with ferocious barking and yelping. We turned back to see the Rottie in mid air with the foxy tail of our favourite brown dog clamped firmly between his jaws; poor brown dog, still attached, was being whirled around like a toy.

The policeman-like trainer grabbed the Rottie and prised open its jaws, delivering the bloodstained victim back into its owner’s hands. Now he had to prove dominion over the huge powerful beast which was baring its teeth and facing him off. With some kind of super-human strength he hurled it onto its back and, placing a knee on its chest, kept it pinned down while it struggled and growled.

The Rottie eventually surrendered, and the assistant trainer brought over a muzzle which was buckled over its throbbing jaws. The leash was tightened and the beast allowed to stand up and brush himself down. He was then returned to his owner. Now the trainer suggested the brown dog and the Rottie should be brought together again, presumably thinking the Rottie, having been subdued by man, would now be more docile.

Wrong! Once again as the brown dog tentatively approached he went beserk and nearly succeeded in breaking free from his diminutive owner’s grip, gnashing wildly despite the confines of the muzzle, eyes filled with pure hatred and violence.

Now the trainer brought an electronic device on a collar which was fastened around the psychopathic beast’s neck. Again, the two dogs were asked to approach, again Rottie went nuts…but this time he got an electric shock delivered by a complementary device in the trainer’s pocket.

The procedure was repeated until the Rottie’s frenzy upon meeting the other dog was slightly diminished as he tired of repeated electric shocks; now he retreated, skulking and growling, by his owner’s side.

The class ended and Rottie and his moustachio’d owner, along with all the other dogs and humans, dispersed. We fell into conversation with Rottie’s owner; he spoke excellent English and explained how the electric shock discipline device worked… and then came the proof that dogs and owners are the same the world over.

‘He’s usually so gentle,’ he said, patting Rottie’s chunky cranium. ‘He’s so good with children and he sits so quietly in the back of the car….’. As we gaped with horror at the idea of Rottie being anywhere near a child, Poirot turned to look  accusingly at the poor brown dog, which still appeared completely traumatized by its ordeal. ‘There’s just something about that brown dog…’ he said.

 

The Wolves’ Room – Madeira

It was an uncomfortable moment, looking round the vast and shiny hotel lobby and realizing my clothing and demeanour so closely resembled that of our fellow inmates in this island hotel. Shorts, socks, trainers, check, t-shirt, check, and some kind of outerwear, hooded sweatshirt or anorak, check. White hair? Not yet, but only thanks to L’Oreal. What will you do with your time on this island? Check the notice board.

This is the woman who lived on the edge of the Sahara desert, who spent weeks with Eastern European Roma. Getting soft and soggy.

Decided to get real. Explore the island. Set off, intrepid against the breeze, rucksacks firmly attached to backs. Over the cliffs and far away. To the next village westwards.

Descending the steep walkways between pastel coloured houses, the little fishing harbour slides into view, nestling between steep, rugged cliffs on either side, to the south the great grey ocean littered with breakers stretches grandiose and awe-inspiring, all the way to Antartica, to the north, some shops and a bus stop.

The harbour is sheltered from gales and waves, still and deep blue waters, rocks under metres of polished saphire, brightly coloured fishing boats languidly sway at their moorings.

The little fishing village is called Camara de Lobos. Winston Churchill did a painting here. It means, the Wolves’ Room.

Where the water laps the concrete harbour’s edge, among boats already landed, a semi circle of intense activity. A dozen bedraggled fishermen, darkened by the sun and toughness, focus on the tasks at hand: hauling boats out of the sea, co-ordinating their rythmn and strength,  calling loudly to each other in dialect, with voices evolved for the purpose of shouting across the sea and valleys. Hanging above one boat, like a strange tattered sail, flayed fish are hung to dry in the sun. Half a dozen  grubby dogs scavenge for scraps.

But around this central stage, a raised semi-circle of tables and chairs, the outdoor seating of a handful of cafes, like a large outdoor lounge. The chairs are all turned to face the harbour and upon them, drinking beer or coffee and eating sandwiches or chips, about two hundred tourists enjoying the spectacle. This real life, living fisherman at their work, view.

Just sitting, and scoffing, and swigging, and staring. And I’m doing it too!!!!!!!

A coach disgorges its load of fat northern europeans and they muscle through the workers, taking photos as they pass on their way to some newly emptied cafe seats. A guide explains the scene to them.

Spying a sun-blackened youth on a bike talking to his skinny, malnourished friend with holes in his ancient sneakers, one visitor has the audacity to direct his handicam straight at the pair framing their picturesque poverty neatly and capturing this parallel universe forever to deliver it for later viewing back home in Munchen.

The wolves’ room indeed.