watership-down

To my shame it’s only four years since I read Watership Down for the first time (it was one of the very first books I obtained through Bookcrossing.) For more than a quarter of a century before that, the thought of a book or a film about anthropomorphic bunnies made me a bit queasy. But I loved the book because it was dark and not in the least sentimental, and had a great deal to say about the human condition and the state of the world.

It took until now to see the film, and then only prompted by the fact that Tom Ewing’s excellent Popular blog had reached 1979 and Art Garfunkel’s strikingly dark and moving song Bright Eyes, taken from the soundtrack. The song is woven into the fabric of the film but I was a little surprised to find that it didn’t dominate as I’d feared. Instead there’s a score by Malcolm Williamson that owes a great deal to Vaughan Williams, and that’s apt because what this film does most beautifully is to evoke the countryside of he Hampshire/Berkshire borders perfectly. So lovingly has the background been created in watercolour that sometimes it was easy to forget that this was an animation. Nor was it in the least idealised. This is a countryside complete with electricity pylons and full of hidden dangers: badgers and foxes, hawks, humans with snares, and other rabbits less than cuddly of demeanour.

A hefty novel – 500 pages in this case – is always difficult to translate into a manageable film, let alone an animation, but this film remains remarkably true to teh original. Some minor things have been changed, a lot has been missed out, but nothing has been lost. It’s understandable that the horrors of the Efrafa warren are focused on, and I thought it was a shame that the effete and over-sophisticated rabbits of Cowslip’s warren were glossed over (although I actively disliked this bit of the novel – it came across to me as anti-intellectual, although I did get the point.) But it keeps the dark flavour of the novel intact.

It’s about as far from Disney as you can get, but it’s none the worse for that.

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Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

1967.  Martin Luther King is making headlines at the head of the civil rights movement.  In a third of the States, mixed-race marriages are illegal.  Vigilantes hunt down voter registration campaigners.  Hell, killing a Negro doesn’t even count as murder.  And the Oscar for Best Picture goes (all right, will go to) a film in which a black FBI man comes face to face with a rednecked Alabama police chief. 

White America is polarised between the old-guard bigots and the liberal intelligentsia intent on sweeping them away. But what happens when those liberals come under scrutiny?  What happens when the daughter of a crusading San Francisco newspaper proprietor brings home the man she’s fallen head-over-heels in love with and plans to marry come hell or high water?  And the man concerned is a brilliant doctor and medical academic who just happens to be Sidney Poitier?  And what about his parents? And, er, the black skivvy in this exemplary liberal household?  The racial revolution of the sixties has been the subject of a lot of films, but not many of them have turned the spotlight so searchingly on the motives of the white middle-class campaigners.

For all that it had its finger on the Zeitgeist (as it were), it’s a curiously old-fashioned piece.  By that I don’t mean that its mid-sixties ambience seems ‘dated’ now – it’s of its time and thet’s fair enough.  But it looks so terribly stagey.  The most surprising thing about it is that it won the Oscar that year for Best Original Screenplay, because it looks like a theatrical performace, acted out before a painted backdrop of San Francisco Bay as if it were a piece of early Alan Ayckbourn.  There are a couple of moments when the action moves away from the house – presumably intended to emphasise the aging  Spencer Tracy’s growing estrangement from the bright young world around him – and they are gruesomely, wince-inducingly, bad.  But it would be unfair to judge the whole film on two short scenes.  It rolls fairly predicatable on to a conclusion in which Tracy gathers all the protagonists around him to give a long speech like an avuncular Poirot, and you want to scream at him to stop wittering and get to the point.  Then you remember that Spencer Tracy was seriously ill at the time, that Stanley Kramer didn’t know if he was going to make it through filming, that it was the last scene he would ever record in a long and distinguished career.  He would be dead in just a few days.

Whittaker Prize – Round 7 entry

Friday, 12 September 2008

Schrödinger’s Cat – a nuclear fable

Erwin – that’s my human, Erwin Schrödinger – is having a dinner party.

The good news is that because he’s a strict theoretician he can’t be trusted with anything practical and that includes cooking. He’s asked his friend Nils to do the food. And that means there’ll be lots of herring. Mmm, I could die for herring. And Lise’s here, so it’s always worth lurking under the table because her legs are so smooth and soft to rub up against and she’s always passing me little bits of this and that under the table. The other buggers are too lost in their own world to notice the cat.

The bad news is that because it’s one of Nils’s Danish parties it will go on for hours, and they’ll all get horribly drunk and I’ll have to miaow really loud when it’s time to get them out of the way to let me hunt in peace. Still, it’s not as bad as when Bob Oppenheimer does one of his barbecues and they stuff themselves with Hamburgers and Frankfurters and get drunk very quickly. You’d think Erwin would get upset at the idea of barbecuing his compatriots but he didn’t seem to mind even when Bob boasted about barbecuing Hamburg itself, and he got just as drunk as the rest of them. No, Nil’s parties are something a cat can understand. Nibble a bit, drink a bit, sing a bit, play a bit, sleep a bit. Nibble a bit more, and so on.

Let’s see, who’s here? Erwin Schrödinger you know about. Look, he’s got odd socks on, the silly old thing. One black one and one blue one. I don’t know what he’d do without me to keep him in order. I’ve told you about Nils Bohr who did the food. Bob Oppenheimer’s the one with the black leather brogues, which would be very elegant except for his sweaty feet. Phwarr, best keep away from him. The one with the shorts and the hairy legs is old Albert. Somebody should tell him that shorts just aren’t right when you’re his age. Honestly, you should see all of him, including what’s above the tablecloth. Oh, you have already I see. Yes, he’s the old guy with the big white hair and the whiskers and the permanently worried look. Well, you’d worry if you knew what he knew. Albert and I go back a long way. He once…

Hold on, who’s this? Big furry boots. That can’t be right, not in Boston in August. I’ve never seen these before. Let me have a sniff and rub… Mmm, yes, a new one to me. But this will be the one they called Igor, won’t it. The comrade from Russia, or the Goddamsoviets as Bob insists on calling them. That’s all. Apart from Lise. I’ve told you about Lise already, haven’t I? Lise is my favourite, wouldn’t you know. I’ve tried to get her and Erwin together but she insists they can only have a working relationship. Whatever that means. Excuse me a minute, while I leap upstairs and renew my own working relationship with the gorgeous Lise…

Mmm. That gravlax is just divine. Almost as good as the salted herring, and that’s about as near perfection as you can get. And it’s pure silk. Lise’s dress I mean, not the gravlax, although come to think of it that would be an apt comparison. I could have curled up in her lap for hours. I wonder where she got that from? There’s a war on you know. Even if we’re over here in Boston and not getting the shit bombed out of us, times are still hard. It must be a good life being a theoretical physicist in these times. Or maybe it’s just being a very good-looking female theoretical physicist. None of them are smiling much, except Bob who always seem to be smiling about something.

Of course, they started off talking shop. “Shop” in this case being about making the biggest bangs you can. Bob is pleased with himself about making an exceptionally big bang down in New Mexico a couple of weeks ago, but I don’t think he’s being convincing. If he’s got so much to celebrate, why has he given all the roast beef from his smørrebrød to me? Not that I’m complaining, mind, but there never was such a man for eating beef and now he won’t touch the stuff. And he kept going on about how Lord Vishnu had a point. Don’t tell me he’s found religion.

Never mind. It’s amazing what a few beers with akvavit chasers can do to lighten the atmosphere. Just before they were getting silly over a game of Grenzallee. Don’t expect me to explain the details. Humans can be pretty inscrutable sometimes, particularly when they just sit staring out of the window. Who knows what they might be thinking? One might almost imagine that they are contemplating the origin of the universe, or trying to work out the fine structure of matter. And when they play, they seem to get such easy pleasure from the most trivial things. In the case of Grenzallee, they take turns to call out the names of stations on the Berlin U-Bahn, and the one who says Grenzallee first is the winner. Erwin says it’s a game of great subtlety and complexity, and Bob claims that even as a senior professor at Princeton he can’t make head nor tail of it. I’m not so sure myself. I can sort of see it, and of course Lise has got it sussed but she usually keeps it to herself. Until tonight, because Bob was being even more obtuse than usual under the influence of all that akvavit. So one game went something like this:

“Grenzallee!” says Bob.

Albert puts an avuncular hand on Bob’s arm and tell Bob that that’s just not done.

“Why the hell not?” says Bob, “it’s in the rules – first player can always win by calling Grenzallee.”

“But then there isn’t a game,” says Lise, and she looks at him with those big feline eyes in the way she has that always makes Bob back down. Not without a sigh of protest.

“Friedrichstrasse,” says Albert.

“Onkel Toms Hütte,” says Nils. “I love that one!” I saw Bob give him a kick on the shin.

“Alexanderplatz,” Igor growled, as if defending his territory.

“Sophie-Charlotte-Platz,” Lise offered. “A blow for women.”

“Sullivan Square,” Bob says, still missing the point.

Erwin told Bob gently that he was offside, or that he had fouled out if he so preferred. But the akvavit had lit a fire in Bob’s head. “I never wanted to play this goddamn game,” he snarled. “What’s the point of it, anyway? It’s dumb!”

“Yes, Bob” said Lise. “It’s dumb. War is dumb. At least nobody gets killed playing Grenzallee. But it’s just like this war is going. To win you have to call Grenzallee before your enemies do, otherwise you get eliminated. But you can’t call Grenzallee straight away, because that would be pre-emptive aggression. And now we have the Trinity device…” She fixed Bob with a frozen stare.

The room fell into silence. Even through the akvavit fog, all of them knew that she was talking about Bob’s big bang in New Mexico, and I think the implications of it weighed heavily on all of them.

I thought the party was going to break up, then. It was Igor who saved it.

“But now Germany has surrendered,” he growled, “There is no need to use the Trinity.” He’s got a lovely deep voice, has Igor. Rich and dark and yummy, like yeast extract. “We should all work for peace now.”

Somebody – I suspect Bob – must have gripped the tablecloth because I felt it slide away. I braced myself for things falling on the floor, ready to fly, because things falling on the floor generally mean trouble for the cat in my experience. But no such thing happened. Except for Bob, who hissed about how you could bet we needed Trinity still so long as Joe Stalin was still alive.

“It’s time to drink a toast to absent friends,” said Nils. Ever the peacemaker is Nils, must be the Scandinavian blood. This means they’re about to get maudlin. Time for a nap under the table, I think. With half an eye and half an ear open, of course, in case anything interesting happens.

“I wonder how young Werner is?” said Albert. “He was a bright lad. We could have done with him over here. I worry about him.”

“Heisenberg, you mean?” said Nils. “I saw him a couple of years ago, when I was still in Copenhagen. I still don’t know what he was up to.”

“When he wouldn’t leave Germany I was scared for all of us,” said Albert. “Who knows how he might have beaten us to a Trinity device, and then where would we all be?”

“Or he stayed behind to make sure the Nazi atom project was held back,” said Lise. “Werner wasn’t stupid and I like to believe the best of people.”

“You could never be certain with Heisenberg,” said Igor. “You never knew where he was from one minute to the next. And when you did, you couldn’t tell how fast he was going with his thinking. A slippery one, he was.”

“Slippery enough to survive the Nazis, I’ll bet,” said Erwin. It’s all a matter of probability. We have no way of knowing if he is dead or alive, in a prison camp or in a research facility. So in a way he is both.”

I could see the black brogues and the furry boots twitching. From this I deduced that Bob and Igor were feeling sceptical.

“You mean if he’s in a prison camp he’s dead even if he ‘s breathing?” said Nils.

“Well, just as a demonstration, take my cat, Fritz”

Uh-oh. Both my eyes are fully open now, both ears erect, tail twitching. Mind Albert’s legs…

“Suppose we put him in a box, like this.” The legs of Erwin’s chair slid backwards. Oh no. Not the box again.

I was going to tell you earlier, wasn’t I, about me and Albert. Albert was here once when Erwin had just had some new equipment delivered so there were empty boxes all over the apartment and they needed to be explored, didn’t they? And one of them had a spider in it, so of course I had to pounce. As I pounced the box slid backwards, and as I caught the spider it slid forward again. And Albert was staring. “Supposing Fritz was a photon of light,” he said. And from there he got, somehow, to converting matter into energy. And that led to big bangs in New Mexico. Ugh!

So I’m chary of boxes now. You never know what might happen.

So, I’d have been out of the room in a flash if Igor hadn’t grabbed at me with his great big hairy hands. Of course, I hissed and bit and scratched and spread out my legs to stop them putting me in the box, but what could I do? There’s six of them. And then I’m in the box and the lid comes down. Now, I don’t mind the twilight as you know, but I hate total darkness. There was a metal tube in there, too, and a little glass bottle, and a smell of marzipan. I didn’t like it one little bit.

“We have no way of knowing whether Fritz is alive or dead,” Erwin was saying.

Oh yes there bloody is, I thought. I let them know by yowling and scratching on the cardboard walls.

“At any moment, but we can never know which moment, the radioactive sample might decay, and cause the Geiger tube to trigger a hammer which will break the bottle of cyanide which will kill Fritz. And we have no way of knowing if Fritz is dead or alive. So in a way Fritz is both dead and alive at the same time.

“But God knows,” Bob said. Or Yahweh, or Allah, or Lord Vishnu…”

“You were saying earlier that we’d all become God since Trinity,” said Lise.

There was a loud explosion.

Well, I was bloody furious wasn’t I? So would you be if you’d just been shut in a box to prove some point of metaphysics. No way of knowing if I’m dead or alive indeed.

Erwin tried to make it up to me with a tickle and a piece of herring. I wasn’t going to let him get away with that so easily. That’s why he’s sucking at his arm and rubbing it.

So there you have it. They’ve gone all quiet now. Somebody’s put the radio on. Benny Goodman, that’s nice. I like Benny Goodman. Igor is telling the others how Jazz is so decadent and couldn’t we listen to a bit of Shostakovich , but nobody’s taking him too seriously. Not even Igor himself. I think for all he’s been singing all those maudlin Russian songs about yearning for home, he secretly likes it here. He likes Benny Goodman really. He keeps talking to Nils in a low voice about working with him in America, and Bob keeps interrupting.

Now it’s the radio’s turn to interrupt. It’s quite blunt about it. “We interrupt this programme to bring you a newsflash,” it said. Something about the war in Japan.

And a Big Bang.

And you could hear a pin drop. Well, not literally, but you know what I mean. Twelve shoes under the tablecloth, all suddenly motionless.

The tablecloth slid. Igor this time, definitely Igor. A plate crashed to the floor and broke. Investigation yielded a morsel of herring on a furry boot.

Time held it’s breath.

Bob broke the silence. I didn’t like his voice. It was like Erwin’s when he knows I’m going to the vet and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“Grenzallee!” he said.

The essence of Mike Leigh is simple. Take a bunch of assorted characters, all larger than life but all very believable. Throw them into a dysfunctional suburban nightmare, and just let them get on with. There’s little in the way of plot but oodles of insight into human nature, especially of the kind to be found in the neglected wastes of north London, with all its limited horizons. There’s a whole world out there, but they can’t see beyond the limits of their housing estate.

Everybody here shines. Alison Steadman as the tireless mother hen who laughs infuriatingly at her own jokes, and Jim Broadbent as her meek husband, a cook who dreams only of running a ramshackle hamburger stand. The terrible twins, Claire Skinner who crops her hair and works as a plumber and might go for a fortnight in America one day if she gets round to it, and Jane Horrocks in huge round glasses who doesn’t have a clue what she wants to be, except very, very angry. Steven Rea as a drunken wide-boy and, best of all, Timothy Spall’s gormlessly intense would-be restaurateur.

It’s all very theatrical. Stagey, I mean. It leaves you with the feeling that it ought to be played out in the round above a pub somewhere. Mike Leigh hasn’t, by 1991, quite found his cinematic feet yet, but he does a good job here. Very enjoyable. And totally bonkers.

The Searchers

It’s so easy to poke fun at John Wayne. He’s such an inviting target; his bone-headed stubbornness, his neanderthal attitudes, his apparently wooden acting. What’s harder is trying to explain how it is he turns up in so many excellent films, and not in minor roles either. Stagecoach and Red River are up there with the greats of any genre, and so is The Searchers.

The history of the Western has been about the America of the European settlers coming to terms with what it has done: what it has destroyed as much as what it has achieved. It’s been a hard lesson to learn, especially as the awful realisation of what was visited on the people who were already there. John Wayne fits into this history perfectly. He’s the embodiment of Manifest Destiny; the pioneer who ain’t gonna let nobody stand in the way of his fortune; the man who takes just what he wants and blasts away anybody who gets in his way. Even his own brother, if his brother has the woman he wants.

And he really hates Injuns. He lost his mother to them. He hates the red man so much that, when he comes back late from the Civil War and finds that his brother’s family have adopted as their own the part-Cherokee boy Marty, the look he gives would freeze whiskey in the full heat of noon in Monument Valley. He hates them so much that he shoots them in the back as they ride away from him. Some Hero of the Old West! He’s even determined to kill the niece he and Marty have been tracking for five years, taken by the Comanche, because she’s become assimilated with them.

Sure, it’s a dreadful thing that the Comanche torch the settlers’ homesteads with the settlers inside and abduct the children. But it’s also pretty bloody awful for the US Cavalry to charge through a tepee village on sight massacring men, women and children alike. And in the end it’s the Comanche who come out of The Searchers smelling sweeter. In 1956 America was waking up to what it had done to its indigenous people, The Searchers still has a touch of moral ambiguity about it, but the Western has come some way from Red River a few years earlier where cutting the throat of an Indian was no obstacle to being family entertainment.

It’s the ambiguity that made the ending, which I won’t give away, such a disappointment for me. It’s undoubtedly a great film, but for now it must yield to Red River the title of My Favourite Western.

Saturday Night Fever.png

I had never seen Saturday Night Fever before. Not when it was the big pop-culture phenomenon of early 1978 (only to be surpassed later in the year by Grease, which I did see at the time and will probably not be revisiting.) Not since, and with any luck I might have escaped forever. But then the estimable Popular site reached 1978 and this film couldn’t be ignored any longer.

One reason why I hadn’t been tempted before was my perception, not unique to me, that this was a bit of fluff designed to promote the then-hot disco movement in general, and the musicaol careers of Robert Stigwood’s charges in particular. A piece of product placement on what was then – a more innocent age when merchandising wasn’t the plague it is now – a more innocent age.

It seems I was wrong in my snap judgement, and that’s why Saturday Night Fever had to be worth a look.

And yes, this is a much more substantial film than the 1978 hype would have had you believe. Yes, the disco is at its core, and yes, there’s a lot of Bee Gees songs (and the Bee Gees, though never considered “cool”, could write damned good songs spoilt only by Barry’s put-on squeaky “disco” voice. It’s based on a Nik Cohn story in a New York newspaper and Cohn himself has admitted that he based it on the lives of West London mods, but there’s surely more than a slice of Alan Sillitoe here. Think of another classic film with “Saturday Night” in the title. Consider that this, too, is about a working-class lad in a dead-end job, whose family doesn’t understand him, who thinks he is god’s gift to women, whose life revolves around letting his hair down on a Saturday night on the local dancefloor. And hanging out with a gang on the edge of criminality, full of macho posturing. Get my drift?

There, too, is the immortal story: man can screw any woman he likes except the one that he really wants, who teaches him a few life lessons. Karen Lynn Gorney does this bit marvellously, saving the film from the kind of gloop I had feared, by managing to look great without being in the slightest glamorous.

It’s not that great a film but it;s not a bad one either. And there’s the dancing, which in the end really is what it’s all about. While there is some of the tedious macho strutting I was dreading, I found myself pleasantly surprised to see that much of the dancing was the sort of dancing I recognised; they probably wouldn’t have called it leroc but the moves sure looked like leroc to me, particularly those moves borrowed from salsa, And I can do that! Or I could before arthritis in the knees put paid to it.

Anyway, I’m glad I saw it. I may watch it again one day, but not for a while.

Whittaker Prize Round 5 story

Friday, 15 August 2008

(prompt: I’m not as dumb as you look)

GOING TO THE DOGS

I knew trouble the second I clapped eyes on it.

“Gordon H Bennett,” I says to Kevin when I saw the lad in the back seat of Kevin’s red Peugeot. “What’s he doing here? Riding shotgun?”

I couldn’t see the lad’s face. He had his head down so all I could see was a lot of grey hood. And his kecks. They were them baggy kecks, the ones with pockets in the legs, the kind that make them look like they didn’t make it to the shithouse when they walk, you know what I mean? He had one of them games that makes a lot of bleeps and whizzes and his hands were dancing over it like John Travolta in that old flick, what was it, Saturday Night Fever.

“Leave him be, Tel,” Kevin says. “This is Carl, our Sal’s little brother. She wants him out of her hair tonight”

“You pillock, Kev,” I says, “We’re doing business tonight. We don’t want nothing getting in the way. One slip and we’re toast.”

“He’ll be ok Tel,” Kevin says, “we just put him in front of the fruits and he’ll be as good as gold.”

“You hear that, Carl?” I says to the lad. “you stay out of the way and keep your nose clean, you hear?”

The lad didn’t move. Except his fingers, working away at the game. They were just a blur. Spooked me out they did, specially with all the bleeps.

“I said…” I started to say but then Kev gets uppity.

“It’s no good.” says Kev, ” he can’t hear you, he’s deaf.”

“What? A mutt?” I says. Kev leans over and taps Carl on the shoulder, and then the two of them are wagging their fingers at each other like a pair of tic-tac men only five times faster. I could see the lad’s face now, fresh as an April morning at Sandown Park before the bookies come and spoil it. I don’t know what the two of them were saying but it was bloody noisy. That sounds daft doesn’t it, neither of them made a sound but there was a lot of it, if you see what I mean, and the lad grinned and nodded a lot.”

“Here,” I says, “you’d better not be pulling a fast one Kev or both of you will be keeping the worms company tonight. What you say to him?”

“I said he could have a tenner to play the fruits or have a bet if he stays out of the way.” says Kev. “He’ll not be a problem.” I didn’t like it but we’d got too much staked on the business to stop there and then.

Anyway, Kev and me we get a stakeout by the window in the bar so we can clock what’s going on. And keep a special eye on Ted Danby’s pitch by the track. Rather him than me, standing out there with his trilby and his shiny mac calling the odds in the rain. Great stair rods, they were, shining in the track lights and hammering on the tin roof of the bar. It was a fine night for a conspiracy. Ours wouldn’t be the only business in town. But stick to the plan, keep a close watch on Ted Danby and don’t let anything distract you. That’s the only way to do it.

I have to keep half an eye on the lad Carl though. He was happy enough in the corner. He seemed close to the machine, hugging it to his jacket so that boy and machine seemed to become one. Every now and then the machine had a spasm of polite coughing. “Magic fingers, that Carl has,” I says to Kev. “We could bring him into the partnership one day.”

“He’s got a way with fruits, Tel, I think he fixes them. He’s not so dumb as you look,” says Kev.

I let that pass for now. The reckoning could wait. “Shut up and don’t take your eyes off Danby,” I says.

The Tannoy crackles out the call for the fifth race. Outside kennelmaids in Dayglo waterproofs parade their charges before the punters and lead them to the traps. One of those strange moments you get at dog tracks. It’s hard to describe. Nothing much changes and everything does. The level of chat in the bar doesn’t get louder or quieter, but it changes somehow. It’s more focused. And everybody turns to the window, everybody except the ones who are pouring into the rain regardless to see the action. For a few seconds the air is charged with electricity, and then the hare comes by and the traps rattle open and there are six dogs in pursuit. Christ, they’re beautiful, them dogs, when they’re running. Such grace! Such power! Fair makes me want to go straight when I see them like that.

But it’s only for a few seconds, thank Christ. Just as long as it takes for the dogs to go round the track a couple of times and then they have to be sorted out by their kennelmaids like the rabble they are. Mugs, they are, just like the punters. If they had any brains they’d cut across the track instead of chasing the hair round in circles. Cut the corners, grab your chances, that’s the only way to survive in this life.

The machine in the corner’s standing alone. “Where the fuck’s Carl?” I says, “Aren’t you watching him? I don’t trust him.”

“You said watch Danby. I ain’t got eyes in the back of my fucking head.” That Kevin’s getting a bit lippy if you ask me. But then he says “There he is, over there by the window.” And so he is. The punters are all going back to their drinks now that the race is over. But the lad’s still standing there, staring out into the night, at nothing. Well I couldn’t see much. Nobody with any sense was out in the open, except for two guys on the grass in the middle, huddled under umbrellas having some kind of a pow-wow. Trainers, owners maybe. Nobody I knew, none of the local business types, I know all about them. You don’t get business outsiders, not at a little track like this one.

So Danby’s chalking up the odds for the last race and I’m trying to watch every twitch he makes as well as watching Kevin to make sure he’s watching too. And so I don’t see the lad Carl go anywhere. All I know is suddenly he’s not at his post watching the guys in the middle any more, mainly because those guys aren’t there any more either, and he’s not standing at the fruit machine either, and try as I might I can’t see him anywhere and I don’t feel safe. So I says to Kevin, “Stay there and watch Danby cause I’m going looking for the lad. And I goes out into the rain, see, to rub shoulders with the punters chasing their crocks of gold like the mugs they are. Only the bookies ever win, but one bookie that night was going to get unlucky.

And then I sees Carl and where is he? He’s over by Ted Danby’s pitch and he’s waving his hands at the blackboard. This looks like a bad accident in the making so I ambles over so see what the lad’s up to. What he’s up to is grunting at Ted and pointing at a name on the board. Number five, ‘Proper Charlie’, it was, and the mutt probably was one if the odds on offer were anything to go by. “Don’t be daft,” I says to him as I pass, “that’s not a dog, that’s a malnourished donkey.” But of course he can’t hear me. “Well, it’s your money and it’s your funeral,” I says as I sidle off. Besides, we’d get the money back later. When I look back Carl is scooping handfuls of coins into a bag Danby is holding out for him.

Well, you know how word spreads in these places. The next time I pass Danby’s board the odds against Proper Charlie have shortened like a bishop’s plonker in a vice-squad bust. It’s the same all the way down the line of bookies. Something’s up, I thinks to myself, but I don’t worry too much because there are other things on my mind, so I go back to find Kevin, and to relief all round Carl’s back in the corner with the fruit machine where I can keep an eye on him.

But something’s making me want to keep an eye on that last race because there’s something afoot and I don’t want anything spoiling my evening. As the dogs streak by the stand on the first lap, Proper Charlie is lagging but he doesn’t look like an unhappy dog. Biding his time, more like, waiting for his chance. On lap two Proper Charlie is making his way through the pack, and by the finish he’s a couple of lengths clear. So that was it. A ringer.

Did Carl know something? Surely not. And yet there he was, the first to Danby’s pitch to collect, and Danby is peeling off rolls of smackers and giving them to him. But Danby doesn’t look happy, and neither does anybody else. And then it’s merry mayhem out there.

I nudge Kevin. “Go go go,” I whispers. We use the cover of a bunch of punters who know something’s hit them but don’t know what yet to move darkly amongst the pitches and up behind Danby. A quick check for Danby’s reckoner, who is busy with an angry punter, and then no words are necessary. Something hard pressed to the base of Danby’s spine is all Danby needs to tell him what’s required of him. Kevin’s got the boltcutters out and back up his sleeve again before you can say “steward’s enquiry” and the satchel is safe in his hands as that pressure on Danby’s spine gives him time to slide off through the crowd again.

It was just perfect. I couldn’t have planned it that way, and by the time Kevin is out of site the stadium is filling with sirens and blue lights that catch the slanting rain along with the undivided attention of the punters. I push my way towards the exit and then remember that Carl is somewhere around and he’s turning out to be a bloody liability after all. Where would he go? Back in the bar; he couldn’t keep away from those fruits could he? So I runs up the steps as best I can with all those punters coming down towards me, and I pushes my way into the building. There’s no Carl there, but there is a posse of dibbles, and it’s me they’re after.

Carl stood bail. He could afford to, he was the only one who cleaned up that night in the end. The dibbles spoke to Kevin and let him go, nothing to pin on him. Don’t ask me what he did with Danby’s satchel and a pair of boltcutters in the garage is just a pair of boltcutters in the absence of any other evidence. I was all for having his bollocks on toast for my breakfast but then he pointed out that it wasn’t clever to get on the wrong side of Carl in my current predicament.

“But how did he do it, Kev?” I asked.

“He knows how to fix a fruit machine,” says Kev. “And then he stakes the proceeds on an alleged no-hoper in the last race while he could get good odds. Simple, really.”

That didn’t even begin to satisfy. “That’s all well and good,” I says, “but how did he know Proper Charlie wasn’t a hopeless case?”

“A couple of men told him,” Kevin says.

I remembered the two guys on the grass in the middle of the track, in the rain. With umbrellas. They must have thought nobody could possible hear them out there. And inside my head somewhere, a fruit machine coughed a single penny into the tray.

“The little sod can lip-read!” I says.

“I told you our Carl wasn’t daft,” says Kevin.