Waitrose is the English supermarket chain for the rich. Clifton is the Bristol suburb where some of them live.
A guy I met in Waitrose asked me over to his place
I think you’ll be impressed, he said, it’s really quite a space.
A cool million plus’s worth of high Clifton style
With a view that on a good day stretches nearly half a mile.
It was a box.
The door was solid steel, the floor was polished glass
It was all I could do to cross the room and not fall on my arse
He poured a glass of wine and settled down in his recliner
Grinning like he’d just been made the emperor of China,
And started banging on about the electronic locks
On his box.
I was feeling slightly ill from so many right angles
When his latest wife walked in packing twenty pounds of bangles
All those mirrors in strange places showed some interesting bits
Of her perfectly hand-crafted clearly artificial tits
And her box.
It had floor to ceiling windows or was that ceiling to floor
I was so disoriented I couldn’t tell any more
The guy was spouting rubbish à propos of nothing much
We’ve really got a lot he said to learn from the Dutch
His wife stretched out beside me and flashed me some panty
Architecturally, he boasted, this place really ups the ante
I felt like a ship drifting slowly onto rocks
In his box.
I was nearing desperation and searching for an out
An appliance started beeping what on earth was that about?
So I claimed to spend my whole life working for the poor
And that the treatment of asylum seekers shocked me to the core…
Within seconds he was on his feet showing me the door
Of his box.
It was in autumn, 1966. I had been to a party at Dilworth Terrace, the beautiful and at the time neglected row of semi-detached houses overlooking Judges Bay in Parnell, the first of Auckland’s inner-city suburbs destined for gentrification.
Present, all the usual suspects – Gary Baigent, Johnny Herman, Brian Roach, Francis Pound I think, the fearsome, fascinating Johnny Ryan and many more. Someone, possibly Baigent, mocked Roach, calling him the “secret writer,” because although Roach often talked about writing no-one had ever seen any work. I recall his painful humiliation. A year or two later I caught up with him, briefly, living in Kings Cross in Sydney. He was starting to acquire a reputation as a primitive painter, and for good reason. Don’t know if he ever wrote a word.
The flat was partly occupied by two gay women – Sue Henderson and Lauren Lysaght, Jiggs may have been living there but I can’t be sure. We were pretty close in those days. He was such an interesting, dry guy, and highly intelligent. Always made me laugh. I went in my spanking new Swann-Dri, my pride and joy, the coolest garment of the day and, like many of the humble, working man’s garments affected by us aspiring folkie-beatniks, expensive. Partied on. Everyone had chucked their coats in the front room – Lauren and Sue’s room. Leaving, I went to retrieve my Swanni. I couldn’t find it.
Searching, I found it rolled up in a ball under the bed, stuffed back in the corner.
Lauren came in just as I found it. I accused her of stealing it. She became very aggressive. Being the butch part of the duo, that meant a lot of swearing, shouting, kicked me in the shins, claimed it was hers. Just as Sue came into the room she decided to show how tough she was and started to belt me. I was no hard man but had had to fight my way out of a fair few situations at school. I pushed her back, hard, and as she went down Sue launched herself on me. By this time I was like, fuck this, smacked her in the chops, grabbed my Swanni and left.
Walking down nearby Augustus Terrace, I was joined by a slowly cruising car with three cops in it.
“Well, well. Been having fun bashing women at a party, eh, ya queer? Hop in.”
Out they poured, laid into me for a bit and dragged me into the car. I sat in the back between two of the cops who kept belting me.
We fetched up at the old Central on the corner of Princes St where the University Maths building now stands. A 19th century police station in every sense of the word.
They didn’t even bother questioning me, just kicked off a queer-bashing party for the boys. It didn’t last long. I was against a wall, trying to defend myself with my hands and arms, when something snapped. I was so full of adrenaline I wasn’t even feeling the pain, just the thud of the blows.
A cop stepped up to me, grinning, and drew his right hand back for a king hit. The fact that he wasn’t even bothering to keep his guard up enraged me. I let him have it, putting all my strength into a straight right to his nose. I felt it crunch as it erupted in blood.
I went down, and out, in a torrent of fists and feet.
I was shaken awake in the morning, freezing on a hard bench, in agony from head to foot. My father had arrived, white with fury. I was charged with common assault and assault on a police officer. Dad, who didn’t ask me what had happened and didn’t want to know – although far from a coward he was utterly supine before the law – told them I had been having mental problems, had been to a psychiatrist. In court, I was sent to Oakley, one of Auckland’s two huge Victorian-era secluded mental asylums, for a month’s ‘psychiatric observation.’
Their system seemed to be to drive you insane and then declare you perfectly fine. I was locked in a room for two days. No-one spoke to me, except for the one occasion when I was taken out for a haircut by one of the orderlies. I struggled, pretty attached to my long hair. They took out a big syringe, long, thick needle, and filled it with yellow liquid.
“This is haloperidol. It hurts like hell going in and will knock you out faster than Cassius Clay. You’re getting your haircut one way or the other. With hair like that you won’t be safe in the day room.”
I didn’t know what he meant. The fact is, he was probably right. They gave me a GI No.1 cut with electric shears. It would be years before I could bear to have anyone cut my hair.
On the third day, I was released into the day room, which was just a great big locked room, almost a hall full of very, very disturbed, frightening people.
There was Fergie. Must have been six foot six, couldn’t talk properly, funny noises issuing from a contorted face. He kept creeping up behind me and trying to fondle me. Many of the occupants were what they called CMD’s – congenital mental defectives, bizarre accidents of genetics, many of them I imagine products of incest between close family members. In the 90s I worked for an outfit who housed people with intellectual disability and wrote stories about several of their homes. I never saw anyone like those poor buggers in Male 3. Some would constantly remove their clothes, the place stank of shit because several were incontinent. Others couldn’t feed themselves. A few howled at random intervals. Several were grotesquely deformed, others schizophrenics sunk into catatonia, departed this world for who knows where.
After a day of this I thought I was going to die or go mad. I’d just turned seventeen, was deeply confused and often severely depressed.
Then, the next morning, the door opened and in walked Jiggs. I couldn’t believe it. I actually wondered for a moment if I was hallucinating.
“Oh man! What are you doing here? Are you visiting?”
“No. I’m like you, here for a month. They wouldn’t let anyone visit, and I couldn’t leave you alone in this place.”
I hugged him. I honestly felt like he was Jesus, come to redeem me. I probably cried.
Unfortunately, I went on to be given a series of ECT a few months later. My memory, perfectly clear up to that moment, is completely blank about what happened next. That’s what it does. That part of my hard drive got wiped. I imagine I recall those episodes because of their associated emotional intensity; perhaps the brain stores these things differently, or elsewhere.
I can only imagine that Jiggs’ arrival relieved the worst of my distress and the subsequent memories, being less deeply etched, were more vulnerable to the jolts.
I can’t even remember what he did to get in. All I recall was that he did something dramatic and illegal, like smashing a shop window, and told them he wanted to kill himself.
I don’t know how much longer we remained close. It makes me sad. All I recall is the feeling, the liking, the companionship. Thinking of him as one of the few good guys. I can’t remember a single thing we did together. The ECT knocked some pretty big holes in my memory of those times.
I ran into him about ten or more years ago, out walking with my daughter Holly in Grey Lynn. He was very taciturn, seemed a bit pissed and was obviously deeply unhappy.
I’m very sad about his passing, but even sadder about what went before. He really was one of the good guys. One of the best, in his day.
The Rest of the Story
As for Sue, she was so riddled with remorse she broke up with Lauren. A couple of years later, by which time we were both junkies and about equally unhappy, I ran into her. She had married Graeme ‘Shaky’ Wise and remained his wife until he died of a massive smack overdose in the months after we caught up. He was always putting far too much in the spoon, saying, “If I die, just chuck my body in the Domain.” One day, he did. They didn’t, not that I recall. Happily, I wasn’t there. Shaky was actually a pretty lovely guy, another casualty of the brutal 50s and early 60s NZ culture.
Sue and I became friends; she even lived with me for a few weeks and we would have been lovers if we hadn’t obliterated our libidos with junk. I can still see her clearly, lying beside me in the flat in Grafton Rd in her collarless blue shirt and jeans, her beautiful smile and raven hair. We did a lot of hugging and stroking. She never kicked the habit, lived for years in India, totally wrecking her health.
I ran into her at a drugs conference in 1996. She was representing an addicts’ organisation but in fact had come home to die. I was addressing the conference on behalf of the Health & Disability Commissioner, in the capacity of her Communications Manager, in a suit. I was utterly thrilled to see her, distressed that she looked so ill. I had recently discovered I had Hep C and was about to start treatment. We sat together, so happy to see each other, holding hands, while she gave me advice about the Hep.
I wondered what people thought, the Commissioner’s CM holding hands with an obvious junkie; I couldn’t have cared less.
She left shortly afterwards for Wellington, where she had friends whom she knew would look after her to the end.
As for me, the treatment, a year and a half of gruesome medications, worked. In 2000 I was declared clear of the virus.
Apparently few of my contemporaries have been so lucky. A friend slowly (very slowly, please God) being beaten down by the Hep and emphysema tells me that the liver department of Auckland Hospital is like a roll call of all those old hands from the 60s drug scene, many of whom gathered for Jiggs’ funeral. F. made a rare appearance. Always slight, he got badly knocked around by the treatment, lost his hair and the rest of his weight. It failed. He went on to get liver cancer. Although currently in remission, he is now a frail recluse who walks slowly with a stick. Not an untypical story, apparently.
I didn’t know this until yesterday, not any of it. I was under the impression that cure rates were quite high. Not so. It makes me profoundly grateful for my life. It is a glorious English autumn day. I’m going for a long walk, maybe through the beautiful Leigh Woods, and drink in the wonder of my currently perfect health and vigour. Then I’ll swim my usual kilometre.
After that I’m going to raise a glass to my friends, the ghosts.
Every day is a gift. To think that I was contemplating … no. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Never again.
In a world ruled by money it makes perfect sense for six million tonnes of extremely high quality food to be discarded every year in the UK alone before it reaches the shops, and for those shops to chuck out another six million tonnes. That’s about half a kilo per person per day. The numbers stack up, and so does the waste. If it doesn’t feed people, so what? It may well feed ‘growth’ and ‘prosperity.’
It would all be fine, if it wasn’t so patently, obviously insane. And deeply immoral. I won’t waste words saying why. If you can’t see that, go back to watching the football. Aren’t Man U looking good! So most days I wander down the road to the Bristol Skipchen, in the Crofters’ Rights in Stokes Croft, and help serve up about a hundred delicious, nutritious meals made entirely – entirely – of food that was headed for the bin. Today we had chicken and chips with broccoli and salad, and all-day breakfasts of baked beans on toast with egg and chips. And some yummy desserts, with lashings of cream. And tea and coffee. The supply is limitless. Every suburb in Bristol could have one and there would still be no problem producing the meals, because happily there is also an abundant supply of people who are so disgusted with this waste they’re happy to help. Let me honour all those folks on farms, in restaurants, markets and other outlets who hate throwing out good food but that’s the way it works so they have to. Many go out of their way to make sure the Skipchen gets it instead. People pay what they feel, what they are able, or nothing. This system reliably produces more than enough money to pay the utilities bills and the odd overhead.
Why do we do it? For many of us the simple sanity of making sure that, instead of getting thrown away, good food gets eaten by people who want or need it is more than enough. I don’t presume to speak for my mates but there is also a general despair that ‘the system’ can be that broken while our power structures go on thinking it just needs ‘better management.’ Whatever that is. What worries me, though, is that there is in fact very little bad management involved. Quite the contrary. Don’t be fooled. All appearances notwithstanding, the people of the UK and indeed of most of the world are actually living in a highly-organised, very well-designed system, one that recurs cyclically through history. From the point of view of a handful of the super-rich, things are ticking along very nicely indeed. To illustrate: since the supposed ‘Crash’ of 2008, the financial assets alone (not the net worth) of the richest 1,000 individuals in Britain have increased by an amount greater than the national debt of £119bn. Tax that and we literally wouldn’t have the debt. Let’s have a brief language lesson. The language is Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire (although most of its educated inhabitants actually spoke Greek.) Divide et impera. Divide and rule. Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses. (As in, they’ll put up with anything if you give them enough …) The swine are doing it again. The Occupy movement made popular the cry that 1% of the world’s population owned 80% of its resources. If only. With the world population around eight American billion – eight thousand million (the English billion would be eight million million but that’s history) – that would be eighty million people. In fact it is a tiny, tiny fraction of that. A 2010 US Supreme Court declared that corporations had the same rights as citizens. If we then consider the influence of these uber-citizens, economist David Rothkopf has shown that the number controlling 80% of the value of the world’s multinational corporations is 6,000. You could easily fit all the people running the entire global show, including the CEOs of those companies and the very small number of ultra-rich who own pretty much everything else into Ashton Gate stadium and still have room for all their butlers, PR flacks and personal cooks. In his stunning analysis of the global situation, The Precariat Charter, economist Guy Standing takes it all apart and shines light into every scabrous little corner of this very deliberate, organised system. If there is a core to his thesis, it is that the objective of the super-rich, the plutocrats, and their servants in the salariat, is to downgrade the rest of us from the status of free citizens in any meaningful sense of the term and turn us into ‘human capital.’ A resource that, like money, can be taken out and used in exactly the quantity and for only the time required and then put back in the box and forgotten, requiring no attention, no resources, no life. And the more there is to spare, the better. It’s no accident that there are no personnel managers any more. Now they’re ‘human resources’ people, an ugly phrase if ever there was one. He calls us a new, emerging, dangerous class called the Precariat. Those whose lives are insecure in every respect. Precarious.
Divide and Rule
Actually there are already so many of us in the precariat that if we were all aware of it, if we could all see our common fate and our common cause, the plutocracy would be having trouble sleeping at night. But they sleep just fine, because of that good old Roman ruse, divide and rule. The precarians whose parents were old-style workers, who just want a ‘proper job’ with security, decent pay and conditions but can’t get one don’t blame the plutocrats. In fact they tend to believe every word of the ugly new liberal utilitarian doctrine they preach. The problem that they see is … another branch of the precariat. The migrants. The ones who have taken ‘their’ jobs. They’re probably right, as far as they can see. If UKIP has its way and all the migrants are chucked out and the doors closed to Europe, it is just possible that many more would get a job – on the minimum wage and a zero-hours contract. No paid holidays, of course. And quite possibly a lower minimum wage than we currently ‘enjoy’ because it’s from nasty old Brussels that the only significant pressure on higher minimum standards comes. The meat in the sandwich section of the precariat consists of a rag-tag collection of your friendly neighbourhood enemies: dole bludgers, migrants, Roma, druggies, ex-cons, even those pampered, over-privileged people with disabilities – any of the classes who regularly appear as demons on the front page of the Daily Mail. Most especially migrants. Why shouldn’t we hate them? If for no other reason, such as they’re just like us, people doing what they can to survive, then, perhaps, because it’s entirely possible that we, or our children, will end up in the same boat. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into this ill-assorted class these days, with so many laws to break, so many drugs around and so many cops available to bust the users. (Cops who would be far more gainfully employed catching white-collar criminals. But we all know that. Wonder why it doesn’t happen?) Migration, too, could easily be your or your kids’ fate. Why would your kids stay here, with the grim prospects hanging over them? At least if they can get into somewhere outside the EU they wouldn’t have that huge student loan hanging over their head, destroying their hopes. The student loan that bought the crap degree that for so many has turned into a part-time job tending bar. And if we migrate, or our kids, we wouldn’t want to be treated like that. Actually there are significantly more Britons living and working abroad than there are migrants in Britain, so the risk is perfectly real.
But the two essential reasons not to wallop the victims are utterly simple. One: they’re not to blame. They may, in some part, be an obstacle, but they are not the cause. Two: They are actually acts in that great, attention-diverting circus. ‘They’, the global engineers, need us to blame our fellows. A really good reason not to.
Then there’s the third part of the precariat – the entrepreneurial young go-getters who spend their lives writing proposals, endlessly networking, up-dating their CV’s, going to job interviews, putting together schemes for some nifty new initiative. All unpaid work, which is the conspicuous characteristic of all precarian lives – endless unpaid work, often done to meet crushing deadlines. Applications close on the 31st! I’ll just have to pull an all-nighter. Unpaid work, and lots of it, is common to all members of the precariat. Forms to fill. Trick questions. Get them wrong and poof! goes your meagre benefit. Interviews for non-jobs. Ad nauseam. The third lot don’t like the migrants, either, and tend to view the resentful, under-educated offspring of the old proletariat as a hopeless, useless drain on scarce resources. People who should stop whingeing, get off their bums and make something happen, dammit. Everyone blaming every-one else. All looking the wrong way, egged on by the mass media which is owned and run by … guess who? No. Things are ticking along just hunky-dory, if your home is a boat the size of Colston Hall tooling around the Med.
Bread and Circuses
So where does that fit in? The policy of cheap food and entertainment? They haven’t bothered too much about the bread bit, because they don’t have to. The Roman circuses happened only occasionally. These days the circus never stops. Just sit on a bus and look around. Everyone’s staring at a screen, gulping down a steady stream of gaudy media and endless chatter. Full-time circuses, regularly spiced up with messages of fear – of other precarians. The Romans would be green with envy.
We just have to wake up. Don’t be divided. Don’t watch the circus. We can change the world in three simple steps. One: stop blaming other precarians. Every chance you get, tell them they’re your sisters and brothers and explain why. Two: Turn off the circus. It’s a phone. Use it as one. You’d be amazed at what happens when you stop distracting yourself with trivia. Three: Do something disruptive. Start another Skipchen, for instance. Because if you start thinking about, doing stuff for others, they do it for you. Then miracles start to happen.
For the Chris Brake Show – http://chrisbrakeshow.com/
For three unforgettable days in 1969 I found myself in San Francisco. No, I didn’t get to smoke hash and dance in the street, due to certain restraints on my fulsome embrace of the Suburb of Love. I had arrived as a stowaway on the SS Richwood, a broken-down tub that had been around the world delivering aid rice to Indonesia, where I boarded her. Because I was being deported in a couple of days I was assigned a security guard who got bored after the first day and took me around in his Mustang, complete with a radio-powered car phone. I’ll never forget crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge and seeing a dude with long black hair flying in the breeze as he zoomed by in a Cadillac convertible with the hood down. I’d never seen a guy with hair that long own anything more valuable than a guitar.
We fetched up in Haight Ashbury. Man, what a scene – street art everywhere, all kinds of marginal freaks doing their thing, exactly what I expected. More than once I sneaked a look sideways, checking for a chance to do a runner. I probably could have, but the guy was such a decent skin I couldn’t land him in it like that.
Time has passed and so has the Haight. But the spirit lives on in Stokes Croft, that most virtuously wiggy part of Bristol heaving with, well, the same really – street art everywhere, all kinds of marginal freaks doing their thing. Welcome to Haight North – north in space, north in time (if in fact time moves up and forward, which I sometimes think …nah. Too deep. Forget it.)
Come with me. I rise and am inspired from 7.30 to 12.30. Having put in my morning’s work writing, I slip down the hill to Gloucester Rd, the longest row of independent stores left standing in Europe. The Glozzer and its myriad friends has beaten off attempts by Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose (the big three supermarkets) to build a megastore and destroy the business base of all those hardware shops, fishmongers, organic food stores, pubs, greengrocers, hairdressers and off-licences (liquor stores, known as ‘offies’) and God-knows-what-else. Bring it on, ya corporate raiders. The city wouldn’t dare give you your permits. We’d burn their arses down.
I stroll towards the centre and arrive after an always entertaining walk at Stokes Croft, that crazy hotspot bordering on the immigrant areas of St Pauls and Easton. Every day – yes, every one, one of the walls will sport a new piece. Don’t ask who funds all those cans of spray paint. No idea. It just happens.
This is the land of the million-pound wall art. Literally. I’m talking about Banksy. Check the pics. He’s been around for a decade or more. He? They? No-one knows for sure because Banksy is a massive exercise in anti-celebrity. There are only two things known for sure about Banksy: he’s a Bristolian artist of huge wit and artistic talent, and anyone who can get there their mitts on one of his pieces are quids in for a cool million. Yep. Thats £££££££££, not $$$$$$$$$$.
A few months ago a cricket club whose door he had used as a canvas were going bust and decided to sell the door. Hold hard there, says the council, that’s public property. Banksy is a public asset and we’re claiming the door. Next morning there was another little Banksy on the wall stating unequivocally that the door belonged to the cricket club. Which got a whole new lease of life from the piece.
I love this place!
My dear, mad friend Bob Crane was cooking his breakfast on candles in his council flat (apartment) because he’d had fights with the utilities and they’d cut off his power and gas. He died in the resulting fire. A crime for which the bastards will never be called to book. One of the funniest people I’ve ever known, even though he was mad as a meat-axe. And the most generous. Within days the tributes were appearing all over the walls. The picture of Bob depicted as a scarecrow with birds in his pockets, his tea-cup and plate is my favourite. We miss him. I was distraught but those pieces helped.
Then the Skipchen opened. Food wastage in the West is beyond obscene. At the Skipchen we take a little chip out of that. (Skip=dumpster.) The numbers: 12 million tonnes a year wasted in production and retail in the UK alone. That’s 540 grams per person per head per day – enough to actually feed everyone. We could feed everyone on the food we throw away and send everything we actually buy to people who need it, and they are legion.
So at the Bristol Skipchen (https://www.facebook.com/bristolskipchen?fref=ts) we rescue food and serve it up. Up to a hundred meals a day. If we’d been going when Bob needed to cook on candles I’d still be pissing myself laughing at his gags.
The wonderful, or terrible, thing is that we don’t even need to dumpster-dive any more. Restaurants and shops call us up and ask us to take their surplus away to feed people. Most of them hate throwing good food out – sane people who know how utterly bent out of shape that is. But the money system, competition, blah blah blah makes it necessary.
Something has to change. This thing is broken. As Mao said, a small spark can start a prairie fire. Open one near you. You’ll never do anything more rewarding.
Over and out Indianapolis, and anyone else reading.
One of the many understandings I drew from reading Pagola: the story of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Birth of Christ which we celebrate each Christmas was all quite clearly made up, something apparently accepted by all serious biblical scholars. How little I knew. Two gospels, Mark and John, don’t mention it. Luke and Matthew have contradictory versions. Pagola goes further though, putting it in the context of the midrash haggadah, a Jewish tradition of fictionally expanding on the lives of the great and holy with the intention of deepening our understanding of who they were, what they were like. A devotional tale, if you like.
The early church really went the doctor on it, revering Mary as ‘ever (i.e. always) virgin’ in spite of the fact that Jesus is specifically stated to have brothers in the New Testament. Probably sisters too, but women counted for so little it would be quite natural for them not to be mentioned. From the Annunciation story we are supposed to understand that she always knew he was the son of God incarnate in spite, again, of the gospel account of her accompanying her other sons on a mission to bring Him home after he supposedly lost the plot after his sojourn in the desert.
Fine. Nice story. But here’s the weird, weird thing. Of all the possible Biblical presences who might be supposed to be watching out for us, it’s Mary who keeps turning up. I made quite a study of Fatima. In spite of the Church commissioning more than one ‘devil’s advocate’ to debunk the story, no-one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain what happened in Fatima in 1917. Three illiterate children talked about trouble in Russia, reporting information which they completely failed to comprehend. Three weeks later the Bolshevik revolution erupted. When they asked the apparition who she was, she answered ‘I am the immaculate conception,’ words they again failed to understand but repeated to others. When separated and terrorised by the local police, all three steadfastly refused to recant. These are little peasant kids. Finally, of a huge crowd who had been told to expect ‘a sign’ (and that’s all) at three o’clock on the final afternoon, the great majority described exactly the same vision, the so-called Dancing Sun. Mass hypnotic suggestion can be ruled out.
I find it most logical to conclude that the apparition was real and genuinely treated the crowd to the promised spectacle. It didn’t physically happen, of course, but that’s irrelevant. There were cameras and reporters present; it didn’t show up on film. The point is that there is no known way to cause a crowd to experience the same vision with neither prior suggestion nor technology. Just in case you think the word spread through the crowd in some form of ripple effect, there were simultaneous identical or highly similar reports from as much as 15km away. The question which I keep revisiting after reading Pagola is: who is this? Lourdes. Guadalupe. Walsingham, not too far from here. All instances of the same miraculous presence. I’m now starting to look back and elsewhere and starting to find parallels which I will update but my thesis is already formed: there exists in the universe a benign entity, female in our understanding, long predating Christ, which has real agency in the world. Which is, in short, looking out for us.
Usually I post completed propositions. This time I’m looking for suggestions. Any takers?
This is Clifton Bridge, probably the most photographed object in Avon county. Designed by the colourful Isambard Kingdom Brunel, completed in 1864, four years after his death. At least he knew it was being built. It is an extraordinarily lovely thing. Little-known fact: it is also an optical illusion – to offset the optical effect of the different heights of the cliffs on either side it slopes 3 feet upwards left to right in the picture, creating the illusion of being perfectly level.
It is, inevitably, the best-known suicide spot in Bristol, although fewer than 10% of the city’s suicides actually take place there, almost all male. I’ll tell you why.
Leaning over the edge you look straight down 246 feet – 75 metres. It makes your feet feel funny, which I posit is caused by your body making sure it is standing on solid ground, or perhaps blood rushes to your feet to lower your centre of gravity, thus making you feel light-headed, literally. Scary, anyway. There are much less challenging ways to top oneself. That’s why. (And they call it the coward’s way out. Hah!) But it does have the attraction, under certain circumstances, of certainty. 95% of the four who jump every year die, a far higher success rate than most alternatives. Jumping from the Clifton Bridge isn’t a cry for help. Presumably the occasional survivor hits the water at high tide. That would mean life in a wheelchair, for sure; your spine would fly to bits as your body flattened out at whatever angle you hit, meeting the water at about 120 miles an hour. (In 1885 a woman survived because of the ballooning of her skirts. She lived a healthy life into her 80s.)
I’ve had a few very difficult years. At times it has just seemed like all too much. How much more can I take, or more to the point, do I want to take? The end result is the same. After a particularly upsetting day a few weeks ago I set off on a walk and, without really planning to, ended up at the bridge. Was I being told something? Was my instinct giving me a hint? Standing on terra firma at that moment a quick end seemed frighteningly attractive. Yes. Maybe this is the moment. What a relief, if it is.
I thought by getting into position at least I would find out. Maybe, looking down at the rocks, I would simply know that it was OK.
They have halved the annual rate of jumping by putting wire barriers above the footpath, but at the Leigh Woods end there are viewing platforms with chest-high stone walls deemed too beautiful to disfigure with barriers; it would also spoil the spectacular view. I love that about Europe – in New Zealand the all-powerful health and safety Nazis who have virtually destroyed Guy Fawkes night wouldn’t hesitate.
So there I was, sitting on the parapet with my legs dangling over 200-odd feet of space, rocking gently back and forth, knowing that if I rocked just a little further I would have slightly less than four seconds to think whatever I might think in those four seconds. That, in those circumstances, is quite a long time. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I sat there for a quite a lot longer than that.
I discovered several things. First, that I had finally succeeded in ditching my childhood fear conditioning about suicide sending me to hell. I felt quite sure that wouldn’t happen because the most powerful force in the universe is benevolence. Destiny is on the side of the good guys. The Hitlers always lose. Whatever my uncertainties about deity I felt sure that the universe isn’t run by by a cruel force which punishes those who can’t take it any more.
Secondly, I felt a powerful sense that this just wasn’t my destiny. I felt as if the story of my life, though still unknown to me, had already been written and this wasn’t how it ends.
I was reminded too, of something I have known since I was young. Although a hell of a risk-taker – my mother told me later in life that from my earliest years my lack of common-sense fear was her constant nightmare – I seem to have a powerful drive to keep breathing. At times it has produced behaviour I didn’t understand at the time and only later realised were about self-protection. This isn’t fear. I wasn’t afraid to jump. It seemed a pretty attractive option, even gazing down at the distant rocks. But there was something strong that I would have had to tear myself free of. I couldn’t have just slipped off. I would have had to hurl my self off. I’m not sure I could have done it. It’s a strong force, like electromagnetism, and as we know, that’s more powerful than gravity. I suppose everyone has that to some degree, although we do read of people calmly stepping off cliffs or shooting themselves. Not me.
Although I’m listing these things in sequence, they weren’t a sequence. All sorts of things were going on simultaneously. The whole time I sat and rocked I was in connection with the suffering my suicide would cause, and painfully aware that it wasn’t enough. Numerically, I mean. It would savagely hurt a very, very few people. Too few. This was not a good feeling or a good thing to reflect upon even now. On the other hand, there was no-one it would please, which should have offset its inverse corollary but didn’t.
I had made the discoveries I needed to make: this wasn’t my destiny, and the suffering I feel intermittently is too far short of the hurt my suicide would cause, so the whole thing was a no-go.
I wasn’t quite ready to get down. It was a special place, a moment in time. Unfortunately none of my discoveries had cheered me up even slightly. The opposite, if anything. But it felt nice, sitting there, rocking, looking down at my unattainable quietus.
Then an arm locked around my neck, I was dragged rapidly backwards and two guys were sitting on me.
CCTV. I could have guessed, but I just wasn’t thinking about it at the time.
So that was that.