Chapter 17: Ice Age Stanley

Evolution of a Bark – a frozen cave bear – Werner Herzog – the life and habits of the Pleistocene Cave Bear described – dogs from wolves – what’s a Smilodon got to smile about? – Stanley’s good deed – and the treat he wins – domestic chores finally done

However annoying Stanley’s barking is – and, for the record, I have to say that really he doesn’t bark all that much – twenty thousand years ago we’d have been very glad of his bark indeed. In fact, we’d probably have kept him for that very purpose, along with his comedy walk, his empathetic expression, his crazy fur, his lolloping good humour and the rest of it.

The only reason I mention any of this is because on the news the other day I saw that some reindeer herders in northern Siberia had come across the carcass of a frozen cave bear. It was incredible. The whole bear, right there, emerging from the thawing permafrost with a terrifying snarl on its lips. (Mind you, I’m the same. If I don’t get the full forty thousand I’m a real grouch).

I remember seeing a documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet caves in southern France. Apart from the fantastic animal paintings they’d found there, and the handprints of the artists who’d made them some thirty thousand years ago, I remember Herzog talking about the skull of cave bear. It had been put up on a plinth of rock, very much like an altar. And there were claw marks in the cave, too, where other bears had come to make their own contribution to the murals, or maybe to protest about their friend being made into a god. It’s hard to know from this distance – which is a point Herzog makes using an albino crocodile (you have to see the film).

Anyway, apparently these cave bears grew to quite a size – eleven feet or more when they stood up and waved their paws about, which they must’ve done a lot, especially when you accidentally went into the wrong cave, looking for a nice place to do some painting in, or living, coming to that. And then of course, the cave bear was omnivorous, which meant that although a pawful of berries or a scooched salmon or two would be more than welcome, a nice, fresh, screaming human would’ve been a particular treat.

Seeing how enormous the fangs on that icy bear were, I can imagine having a barky dog around to let you know if one was sneaking up would’ve been very handy indeed.

The theory is, of course, that dogs are domesticated wolves. They reckon it happened about fourteen thousand years ago, because there’s direct fossil evidence of dogs being buried with their owners. It may be that wolves started hanging round human camps, intrigued by the noise and the light and the delicious cooking smells. And I can corroborate this theory anecdotally, based on Stanley’s intense interest in the slightest sound of cupboards being opened in the kitchen – although cupboards didn’t appear in the fossil record until quite recently, of course. The humans may well have encouraged these feral but inquisitive animals, tempting them with scraps, laughing at them when they fell asleep and twitched as if they were still hunting or something. And after a few generations, maybe some of these wolf-dogs started tagging along on the hunt, and earned rewards for flushing out deer, or corralling aurochs, and generally making the whole thing more of a day out.

And then or course, there were the bears. And the saber-toothed tigers. Which, to be honest, I never did get. I mean – why would you need teeth like that, except maybe to impress? But at what cost to your table manners?

(I just Googled that. Apparently saber-toothed tigers weren’t actually tigers and were more properly called Smilodon. A Smilodon had teeth specially adapted to ambush big prey like bison and camels, biting them in a special way that scientists can’t agree on, except to say it wasn’t all that pleasant. Which makes the name Smilodon seem darkly ironic.)

I think Stanley would’ve been in his element, twenty thousand years ago. The earth was still frozen in the last great ice age. Woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths were hulking about. There were packs of wolves chasing down giant elk through the snowy forests. In fact, everything was giant, so Stanley would’ve fitted right in, especially his ears. I can imagine him, sleeping towards the front of the cave, twitching happily on his pelt, lulled by the flickering embers of the fire – until he suddenly sits straight up and starts barking, the dreadful hoooof-hooooofing echoing around the cave, and everyone groaning and stirring, swearing and cussing like flint-knappers, throwing quern stones and mammoth shoes and eagle bone flutes at him, until someone has the grace to realise that actually, he’s just saved them all from a particular savage cave bear, who’d been tippy-clawing up the slope in an effort to claim back its home. And then Stanley gets a great deal of cuddles and fuss, and a Pleistocene treat, being his favourite – the femur of a Moa (very low fat, high in magnesium, great for healthy teeth and bones and shiny coat, the only drawback being it’s so big you can’t pick it up). And the cave bear would grouch away along the glacier line, and trip, and get more completely frozen than those vegetarian burgers you have absolutely no memory of buying, and which only emerge twenty thousand years later when you finally get round to defrosting the fridge.

longshot

A warm, wait-less welcome to Moonshot Test n’Trace / the best damn testers in outer space / Just visit our online rocket / to choose a time and block it / (but if you’re symptomatic / it’s a bit more problematic / and though it’s hard to explain this / unfortunately you’ll be diverting to Uranus)

thank god it’s not friday

Fridays are the worst.

It’s more than just the hospitals clearing the decks before the weekend. There’s something else about the day – an end-of-the-week, last-chance, store-closing, now-or-never vibe that means from shutters up to shutters down the phone never stops ringing and every call is a crisis. Coming to work at eight on a Friday, you feel like stacking sandbags round the desk and putting on a tin hat. As it is, you make a cup of tea, get a fresh notepad, a pen and a highlighter, open up as many useful programs as you have access to on the computer, crack your neck, and wait.

But you can oversell these things, of course. And there’s a certain satisfaction to be had from stumbling from one thing to the next, like a clown fireman at the circus. Once you surrender to the chaos, and focus on the audience, it’s actually quite a rush.

Luckily, I only had to work the phones till three, when I was released to go on a couple of visits. It was so busy, though, thank goodness my replacement actually showed up. If they hadn’t, and I’d had to stay for the rest of the shift – well – who knows what would’ve happened? I’d probably have been found by a cleaner, alone in the office, lit by the ghostly glare of the screen. They’d have tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Are you alright?’
And I’d have swung slowly round. And the cleaner would scream – because they’d see my ears were merged with the headset, my hands with the armrests, my eyes would be flickering like two little plasma screens, and the veins in my neck and face would be spread all over like wires.

*

The first visit is easy enough. The second is a disaster.

Being exhausted doesn’t help, and the fact that my patient, Mr Reece has only just arrived back home after being discharged from a rehab place, weeks and weeks after he went in. All he wants to do is smoke a fag and watch the wrestling.

His flat is in a wretched state, lit by two shadeless, ineffectual, energy saving bulbs. Mr Reece is sitting in a ruined armchair, an electric scooter to his immediate left, a zimmer frame to the right, and a TV just in front. Around the chair is a scattering of papers, leaflets, unopened mail. In the corner of the room is an unmade bed, the centre of the mattress sagged and seamy. The whole place is suffused with a settled fug of neglect.

‘Hello Mr Reece!’ I say, as brightly as I can, struggling in with all my bags. ‘Sorry to disturb you so soon after you got home, but we’re a short term service and we need to get things started.’
He frowns at me, then pointedly plants a cigarette between his lips and reaches for a lighter.
‘Would you mind not smoking whilst I’m here?’ I say, putting my bags down and then wringing my hands together, like an apprentice vicar leading prayers for the first time.
‘Why?’
‘Because I’ll stink of smoke the rest of the day. And it’s not good for me. Sorry! I won’t keep you long.’
Mr Reece twists his lips together with a displeasure so violent the cigarette falls out into his lap.
‘You’ve got ten minutes!’ he snaps, throwing it onto the scooter. Then he jabs his hands towards me, palms flat, fingers spread wide. ‘Ten!’
‘Okay. Thanks. Well – has anyone told you who we are?’
‘No. They haven’t.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry about that. Well – we’re an NHS community health team whose job is to support people being discharged from hospital, or stop them going into hospital in the first place. Mr Reece? Are you okay?’
He’s leaning over the side of the armchair, rootling about in a pile of mail and newspapers.
‘I had £850 there and it’s gone.’
‘Oh. Shall I help you look?’
‘No. You stay there.’
‘Okay.’
I watch him scrabbling around for a minute. He struggles to get out of the armchair. When I go forward to help he tells me to keep away. He tries using the zimmer, but it gets caught up in the scooter. I offer to move the scooter.
‘Leave it!’ he says. ‘Leave that thing where it is!’
He abandons trying to use the zimmer, and shuffles around the chair instead, using the arms and the headrest as a support. He kicks his bare feet amongst the detritus, like a bad-tempered park keeper through a heavy fall of leaves, peering down.
‘Mr Reece? If you had £850, and it’s not there anymore, do you think it’s been stolen? Shouldn’t we be calling the police?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says. Then he stops, straightens, and – gripping the back of the chair with his hands – draws a bead on me down the sharp crook of his nose. ‘We’ll see if I find it. Won’t we?’

rule of sticks

So hang on a minute – let’s get this straight / in order to frustrate / the spiraling viral aggregate / and avoid the L-word activate / we’ve now got to do everything by six / which sounds a dodgy kinda fix / from Boris’ Bargain Bucket of Tricks / less insightful state-aid / more frightful band aid / and to make things worse / neatly highlighting chapter & verse / the tragi-comic, Eton Rifles ethos / in the Cummings-Johnson universe / grouse shooting is exempt / showing the contempt / the government has for the working population / who struggle to make sense of the situation / where kids can go to school but not the park / where neighbours are encouraged to turn neighbourly nark / phoning from the dark / of their safe social bubbles / staying out of circulation, staying out of trouble / but if you’re out on the moor / with a hundred other lords or more / berating the beaters, blasting the grouse / it’s perfectly legal to leave the regal manor house

UK plc19

CUT TO: Boris Winton dashing with a wonky trolley through the Value Valley of Death / all squinty eyes and minty breath / a big-haired, bad-mouthed, Supermarket Macbeth / out of luck and out of his depth / smiling & waving at all the MPs misbehaving / and though none of them seem to impress him a lot / even he can see that the place is hot / and he’d better be grateful for whatever he’s got

CUT TO: Boris Marat eating a hard cheese salad in his big tin bath / having a soak, having a laugh / when in comes Farage for his autograph / pulls out a knife from his Union Jack corset / and the next thing you know the PMs bought it / and Farage gets punished for his act of treachery / with a column in the Telegraph and a job in the Treasury

CUT TO: Boris Who striding out of the Tardis / hawing and guffawing and saying now what IS this? / those EU Daleks are REALLY taking the piss / they’re all like: Information! and Negotiation! while exterminating the Brits / but sadly, his sonic screwdriver’s reduced to thrummings / ‘cos the battery’s been nicked by his assistant Cummings

CUT TO: Boris ‘Tom’ Jones hiding in the cupboard / with his pants on his head for ol’ Mother Hubbard / but when she gets there / and finds him and the cupboard bare / she goes completely spare / all Travis Bickle / beats him to death with a gherkin pickle / ‘That’s what you get for screwing up the shopping!’ / then happily gets out her mop and starts mopping

Meanwhile, down in the crematorium,
at least one successful British emporium,
Look! There’s Auntie Ollie! Waving from the plate!
C’mon on in, Jim – the Covid’s great!

annie’s yuccas

Outside John’s window are two enormous flowering yucca plants, bees bimbling drunkenly up and down the spikes.
‘Look at that lot,’ he says. ‘What d’you reckon?’
‘Pretty impressive.’
‘And they’re socially distanced, n’all. I was going to put a mask on ‘em, but I thought the bees would get annoyed.’
‘That’s a good one! I like that!’
‘Yeah!’ he says, ‘This bungalow, it’s the best plot in the street. It’s got the garden. It’s got somewhere to park the car. ‘Course, the garden was really Annie’s area of expertise. But she’s gone now and I’m not so good as I was on my pins. Still – can’t complain. Honestly, if I was a millionaire I couldn’t be any better set up. I’ve got everything to hand, look. The kitchen, the bathroom, the bed. I’ve got a TV. I’ve got my iPad for doing the email and putting a few quid on the horses. I’ve got friends next door who do my shopping and run the hoover over. I’ve got family who pop in when they can. So you tell me. What better life could a millionaire have than what I’ve got?’
‘I can’t think, John. It seems pretty great.’

And it’s true. It is.

John is ninety-two, but he’s been lucky with his health – that, and the fact he played a lot of sport and stayed active all his life. He never smoked, he says, and only drinks on special occasions, which is ‘any day with a D in it.’

He sits upright on the armchair, his gnarled hands restlessly moving, from a stroking kind of action on the ends of the arm rests, to a vigorous rubbing of his bulbous nose, to a dog-like scratching of his ear, then back to the arm rests. It’s like watching an old but well-maintained tractor, idling in the yard before rattling off down the lane.

But his demeanour suddenly changes when he tells me what happened with Annie.

‘Wa’aall,’ he says, batting the air. ‘They messed up the appointments and whatnot. There was a lot of toing and froing. Me ringing the surgery asking whether the blood results was back yet; the surgery saying ‘what blood results?’ and this and that. You get the picture. Till finally when they found out what she had it was too late. She got took by the cancer. It wasn’t easy. And then there was this in-quiry, see? But I tell you what – I was prepared. I had all the dates written down, all the lost appointments, all the tests they missed. And I sat up in that room in the hospital, with the consultant and all the rest of them sitting opposite me. And the consultant he said she would’ve died anyway. So I got a bit hot, I can tell you. And the woman from the wherever-she-was-from, she said I had to show a little respect. So I said where was the respect you showed my Annie? Where was the respect there? ‘Course, they went quiet at that.’

He shrugs, strokes the arms of the chair.

‘It’s all in the past now,’ he says. ‘I got a letter saying sorry, so there’s that.’

He looks out of the window, at the bright sunshine pouring down into the garden, the hedges looking a little ragged now, the shed leaning to the right.

‘What about them yuccas, though?’ he says. ‘Socially distanced! Hey?’

the (un)magnificent seven

Michael Gove as Yul Brynner
avec glasses, sans charisma
deadly as a TV dinner

Matt Hancock as Steve McQueen
looking lost when he tries to look mean
fucking up the scene

Pritti Patel as Eli Wallach
shifty and shambolic
pink & purely symbolic

Rishy Sunak as Robert Vaughan
slowly taking his time on the lawn
working on his draw

Dominic Raab as James Coburn
practicing with knife and gun
high noon in High Holborn

Gavin Williamson as Brad Dexter
smiling, says he’s here to protect ya
authentic as a debt collector

Boris Johnson as Charles Bronson
one fixed and fatal expression
total incomprehension

[SFX horses, gunshots &c / cue music: mariachi version of Rule Brexitannia]

pellets

There’s an approximate number one with a crooked arrow beneath it, crudely painted in black, nailed to a board beneath the crappy intercom at the front of the house. I guess the Cartwells have a flat round the back, so I head in that direction.

Beside the front door to Flat One is a large electric button, so new it stands out from everything else. In fact, it’s such a contrast – the bright plastic box, the imposing but ramshackle old house – I’m surprised the whole thing didn’t cave in when they screwed it in. But then again, I’m guessing they took the safe option and used glue.

There’s a thick carpet of blue slug pellets scattered in front of the door. Two or three cartons worth. They must have a terrible slug problem. Or maybe they think it’s good for health visitors, too? Pellets crunching underfoot, I reach out, press the button and wait.

Nothing.

I’m not sure it rang anywhere, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell.
I look around. Waggle my feet experimentally on the pellets.
Press the button again.

Nothing.

Is that even a button? Maybe it’s a fancy design feature and the button’s somewhere else. Maybe it’s actually a camera. I lean in to look, and then lean out again, not wanting to scare them. Feel around the box. No – it must be the button. Why would you have a feature on a doorbell that looked like a button but wasn’t? That’d be crazy.
Maybe I just didn’t press hard enough.
I prod a little harder. A couple of times.

Whaaaat? cries a voice from deep inside the house. Why’d’ya keep pressing the fackin’ button? Who ARE you?
‘Oh! Sorry! It’s Jim – from the hospital. Come to see Mr Cartwell…’
I rap on the door with my knuckle and gently push it open.
‘Alright if I come in…?’

There’s a steep flight of stairs leading straight up to a landing. An elderly woman leaning over railings at the top, looking down. She looks insanely hostile – flaring white hair, wide eyes, and a great toothless mouth. She looks down at me with such a rapt expression, I’m worried she’s suddenly going to extend her neck down the stairs and snap me up – head, bags, lanyard and all – in one convulsive gulp. Luckily she stays where she is, gripping the bannisters.
‘Who sent you?’ she says.
‘I’m so sorry to disturb you. It was the hospital. When Mr Cartwell was discharged they asked us to come and see how we could help.’
‘Urgh,’ she says (or sounds like). ‘I suppose you’d better come up then.’
She lets go of the bannister and shouts ‘Eric! It’s someone from the hospital to see you.’
A voice from a room somewhere.
‘But I’ve only just got ‘ere.’
‘C’mon. Get up. He’s come to see you he says.’
‘What for?’
‘I don’t know. He’ll tell you.’
‘I was having a kip.’
‘Have it later.’
Inaudible curses.
‘C’mon, then if you’re coming.’

I walk up the stairs, scattering blue pellets behind me like a cat leaving a litter tray.

‘Sorry to be a nuisance,’ I say.
‘Go in the sitting room,’ says Mrs Cartwell. ‘He’ll see you in there.’
‘Okay. Lovely. Thanks.’

The flat is tiny, the narrow layout made worse by all the clutter. There’s just enough room to move from one place to another, and when Mrs Cartwell comes in we have to choreograph each move in advance to make it work.
‘So they obviously didn’t tell you who we were,’ I say, looking for somewhere to dump my bags but giving up.
‘No,’ she says. ‘Who are you?’

We’re interrupted by Mr Cartwell, wheezing and puffing and cursing as he comes down the corridor towards us. His belly is so distended, it reminds me of the spacehopper I used to have, bouncing round the garden, tugging on its ears. It’s such a squeeze for him, moving through the flat, and he fits the width of the corridor so perfectly, it’s hard to resist the idea that he made these walkways himself, just by moving around, and if he’d stayed in hospital a few months longer, the whole place would’ve closed back up again, and that would be that.

Mrs Cartwell waves me to the right, then she moves to the left; I move to where Mrs Cartwell was; Mr Cartwell rolls into the room, eventually easing himself into a decrepit computer chair that creaks and sags alarmingly.
‘What’s all this about?’ he wheezes, flapping the sides of his open dressing gown like wings. And when he turns to look in my direction, he doesn’t open his eyes.

announcing Mr JRM

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg

brass-knobbed reform-clubbed fob-chained Where’s Wally watchdog

antediluvian Gladstone Murdstone vaudevillian Victorian hoary-handled tory brolly 

party banker market spanker golden jackpot handle cranker

nappy dodging speaker teasing crocheted pants stance bants bodger 

money mashing Latin flashing nanny lashing Grenfell bashing maxi-Thatcher share stasher

gene recessive noun excessive spirit depressive LGBT repressive anti-progressive 

that Jacob Rees-Mogg

holds his phone up in parliament

(roars of applause from the Tory government)

Britons never never never shall be slaves

(But only if you went to Eton: the rest of you, behave)

a rose by any other name

When I was about ten my older brother Mick asked me a question. It was a hot, aimless, endless summer day. Dad was marching up and down the lawn with that ancient and electrically suspect mower he had; I was playing my usual game of standing in the snaking cable coils and leaving it as long as I could till I jumped free. I was surprised when Mick suddenly appeared. He was usually upstairs studying, and anyway, he didn’t usually have all that much time for me. We fought a lot – mostly over wall space, things like that. It was a small house, too many kids, not enough money. A solid, semi-detached kind of pressure cooker with a garden and a garage full of bikes. Mick wanted to ask me a question, and I could tell from the way he asked it – fidgeting from side to side, hardly able to wait for me to answer – that there was a lot more riding on this than just science. He had a point to make and scarcely needed me there to do it. I was below him in the pecking order. It was the way these things went. 

This was the question he asked me:

What are roses for?

‘I don’t know. To be colourful. And beautiful. And attract bees.’

I added the bees to make myself seem smarter and less of a target.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Roses are there to make other roses.’

He stared at me, daring me to say he was wrong. And I wanted to, I really wanted to. Only… I didn’t know how. It sounded crazy. What did he mean? Was he right? Was that really it? One long line of roses, from the beginning of time to the end? I mean – Why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier just to never have roses? 

Recently it all came back to me, that little front garden, Dad shouting, tripping over the wire, as me and Mick tried to kill each other among the roses.

It came back to me recently because I got stuck in the same way, trying to understand what a virus was, what it meant, what it was for. For making other viruses. Really?

Of course, one of the essential questions about viruses – the most basic, Mick-type question – is whether they’re alive or not. And I suppose using Mick’s rose protocol, you’d have to say they were alive. Virus begets virus. The life principle satisfied. That’s it. The sucker punch school of philosophy.

Only – that’s not it. 

The accepted view is that a virus is non-living. Which is not the same as saying it’s not alive. As always, there’s a hinterland of meaning and ideas behind these words, and they quickly lose their patency. 

Technically speaking, though, a living organism is supposed to have seven characteristics: Movement, Sensitivity, Respiration, Nutrition, Excretion, Growth and Reproduction. A virus only has one of these – and even that in a qualified way.

A virus is not capable of independent movement, relying instead on sneezes or random hook-ups, the innocent winnowing of tracheal villi down a particular respiratory tract. 

It’s only sensitive to its environment in that it’s vulnerable to UV light or excessively dry conditions, for example. But some viruses are tougher than that. An extinct form of giant virus – ‘giant’ in microscopic terms – was recently revived after being dug out of the Siberian permafrost 30,000 years after it went in. Another virus was discovered biding its time inside bacteria that live around deep ocean thermal vents. 

A virus doesn’t breathe, eat or excrete waste products because it doesn’t need to – which is a pretty useful adaptation, when you think of it. As humans, we need energy to live. We do that by metabolising oxygen and food to create ATP, the chemical compound that powers our complex systems. A virus simply taps into that, using our energy reserves and our cellular machinery to replicate itself. 

Neither does it grow, designed instead to float around until it finds a host cell to make copies of itself, cookie-cutter style, each version a clone of the original. 

But not exactly. Because although this isn’t reproduction in the usual sense, some genetic change can happen – and in some cases, like flu, very quickly and often. Sometimes you get two similar viruses with slightly different RNA or DNA that recombine in the host cell to produce a genetically novel virus – which either does well or it doesn’t, in the evolutionary way of these things. Which is why viruses are so successful, or such a problem, depending on your viewpoint. 

So is a virus alive or ‘non-living’? And if it’s really ‘non-living’, does that put it into the same category as – say – a rock?

The question is more nuanced. A rose is made of atoms arranged in a particular molecular way, as am I. Some of those molecules are repurposed into genetic material, determining whether we grow thorns or thumbs. So in that respect a virus is the same – made of atoms, some of them bent into intricate RNA / DNA ladder strings, determining whether they invade human lung cells or thermal vent bacteria. The only difference between the rose, me, a virus and that rock, is that whilst we’re all made of atoms, me, the rose and the virus have that specialised genetic material and the rock doesn’t. A rock is a passive expression of molecular stuff, sculpted by geological processes into the thing you pick up to chuck at your brother. 

I’m not a scientist. I quickly get out of my depth. All I’m left with is an overwhelming sense of the universe’s richness and complexity. It seems to be reaching out over trillions of years from one critical moment of expansion through the arcane laws of thermodynamics to some other state,a statistically driven force scattering infinite manifestations of energy through everything, every last particle of existence, until some kind of balance is reached and nothing further is possible. So you get viruses, and roses, and two brothers fighting on a front lawn, and that kind of endless summer day when nothing seems to happen, and everything does.