One for the road

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They say it’s the journey and not the destination that counts. But that’s not immediately obvious when you’re driving for six hours up a motorway.

We were on our way from Bristol to Newcastle to attend the opening of an exhibition that featured some of my partner’s work. Normally, I’m all for a good old road trip, but the endless winding grey punctuated by industrial sites and Costa/McDonalds/Subway combinations was starting to get to me.

Things changed, however, when we passed a slumbering power station, dressed murky gold by the afternoon sun. My partner took a few snaps of it and suddenly the road took on a different meaning.
Within the strange, alien landscape we found art. Brutal concrete shapes became contemporary wonders and boundaries walls formed painted lines along with the trees and the sky. Swooping power lines looked dramatic against shifting clouds and there was even the occasional splash of colour, such as the OK Diner just north of Middlesborough.

It made me think that even in the bleakest of locations or the dullest of prospects, it’s possible to find a creative spark. Sometimes all we need is a little shake up of our perceptions in order to see something in a new light. On other occasions, however, it’s more about shaking loose any assumptions we might have to see what’s really on offer.

This was very much the case when we finally arrived in Newcastle. Admittedly, my expectations were limited to a city of smokestacks, bad weather and a mildly irritating accent. But as we crossed the majestic Tyne Bridge, I was faced with a glittering city that was anything but the crumbling industrial hulk it had once been.

Like the transformation of numerous East London boroughs, redundant buildings had been turned into artspaces and studios while brand-new apartments and construction sites jostled each other for space. The gallery itself was situated in a former biscuit factory and the place was teeming with visitors excited to see the new season of work that was on display.

This experience brought home a realisation that, despite being nothing new, seemed pressingly relevant. When faced with something as devastating as the closure of businesses and loss of jobs, buildings and neighbourhoods require nothing short of a complete renewal in order that they don’t crumble and waste away. Much like industry, attitudes die hard, but it seemed clear that we need to be ready to embrace transitions rather than resist them in order that cities and society at large can move into the future in the best possible way.

I got the impression Newcastle was trying to do just that. And the accent wasn’t bad either.

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High net worth

Karl picked up his suit jacket that was folded next to his belongings. It had stood up well considering the circumstances. The same couldn’t be said for his shirt, however, which clung unhealthily to his body, but he had to at least look the part.

He gathered the rest of his things and stepped gingerly over the mass of bodies that were sprawled across the floor of the shopping arcade. Supposedly, there was meant to be some order to this mess, but the wardens had scarcely seemed to bother when they ushered everybody in last night. Between the sleeping bags and scrunched up blankets, white lines still marked out a thoroughfare to the few shops that had held out down here. Now, only the window display of the old magic shop remained, its vintage posters and volumes on card magic, steadily gathering dust.

At the foot of the steps, a group of men were quietly discussing yesterday’s papers. ‘Crisis in the capital’ and ‘state of emergency’ shouted from the front pages. They turned at Karl’s presence.

“Where are you going?” asked one of them, a yuppie type with a week’s worth of stubble. “It’s not time yet.”

“Oh, yes it is” muttered Karl. Judging by old habits, it was exactly the right time.

At street level he was met by a flurry of commuters scuttling by and the hammering of traffic on the Strand. The rush was noticeably less in recent weeks as redundancies continued, but the sight of it still lifted Karl’s spirits. This was where he belonged, fighting the good fight to keep the wheels of the capital turning.

As he stepped forward, the device on his ankle began to vibrate. It was gentler than he had anticipated, but the high-pitched ringing was as startling as when he heard it on some poor sod trying his luck out of hours. ‘Going rogue’ as the papers liked to call it. They never lasted long, of course. He would have to move quickly.

Karl lurched across the road, ignoring a chorus of horns and set off at a pace down Villiers Street. Heads of pedestrians turned as the noise reached their ears and they parted for him as though he were the carrier of some highly contagious disease. One tourist lifted their camera absent-mindedly to their chest and pressed the shutter and Karl resisted the urge to swear at them.

Nevertheless, he didn’t have to fight through the hordes that used to populate this stretch even a month ago. Now, there were comparatively few traipsing in and out of the chain restaurants that still survived, news of London’s epidemic yet to reach their shores.

A crowd of commuters were forming at Embankment station as he approached the bottom of the hill and Karl could see staff speaking into their radios while their eyes followed his trajectory towards the underpass. Then, from the shadows, the Starbucks beamed at him.

He barged through the door to find it half full with suits, a few hammering out some last minute agendas, while others just lounged contentedly. Richard and Ken were sat towards the rear of the café, their greying sideburns at odds with the rest of the well-groomed heads.

The sound of the device cut through the subdued atmosphere like an alarm clock and everyone twisted round in their seats to face him.

“Excuse me!” called the girl from the counter. “You can’t come in here.”

Karl felt the heat of indignation rise in his cheeks. “The hell I can’t!”

As he approached the table, Richard’s face crumpled in fright before a flicker of recognition loosened it.

“Christ! Karl.”

“Hello Richard. Ken. Thought I’d find you chaps in here.”

“What are you doing?” asked Richard.

Karl cleared his throat. “I’ve come to ask for some help. I know things are tough at the moment, but I can’t hack it out here. I want back in.”

Richard shifted in his seat. “Karl, I’m sorry. You know how it is. There are protocols. It’s out of our hands.”

“Come on, Richard. There’s always an opening somewhere, even if its just administration. What do you say? Help out a colleague, a friend?”

There was a commotion outside the cafe. Karl knew his time was nearly up.

“Ken?”

“You know the score, Karl” replied Ken, looking at his hands. “We’re dropping like flies. With your background, I’m sure you’ll find something. I hear Asia is looking promising.”

The door to the bar swung open and two wardens in grey outfits stormed in. They grabbed Karl by the arms and dragged him out of the cafe.

Back on the street, curfew was off and a motley procession was taking place as the homeless were herded down the street to Embankment Gardens. The Guardian had likened it to yard exercise for prisoners and Karl conceded they had a point.

One of the wardens crouched down and pointed a scanner at Karl’s ankle. The ringing stopped. He stood back up and set about tapping away on the screen. “That’s a mark on your record for leaving a sanctuary during curfew. If it happens again, it could land you in front of a judge, understand?”

Karl tilted his face towards the sky. “I can see you’ve got a good background,” continued the warden. “9 years in the financial services. My advice is, keep your head down and keep a clean record. It could work in your favour when it comes to redeployment.”

They ushered him into line and Karl shuffled along until he was inside the park. He found himself a spot on the grass and hung his head between his knees.

“Scandalous, isn’t it.”

Karl looked and saw a woman sitting close by, wrapped in a pale grey trenchcoat. “Savings and investments, 2 years. Ed here,” she nodded to a glum-faced lad next to her, “he’d only been branch manager at Barclays for six months before they let him go. If this government thinks the country can survive on teachers and nurses, they’ve got another thing coming.”

The device glowed timidly from under the hem of his trousers as Karl shored his knees up. 2 weeks until his processing date. Long enough to consider the prospect.