Out and About in the Fourth Estate With Steven Gilfillan


Of all the achievements the grey-haired, and now bespectacled Joseph Nettexe may, and often does boast – all of it set out in a voluminous résumé – a first hard hour at the woolsack is not about to be one of them. Mr Nettexe plc is voluble in stating this himself, as often as public etiquette demands, and to as large a horde as he and his charming wife can muster.

I received my personalised if impersonal invitation to his private screening of Bizarre-ha on a bright sunny morning, at a moment when the newly applied décor of my little kitchenette was a dazzle of optimistic egg-yolk. The thing arrived in a luxuriating vellum, its crested frank a mock-up in meticulous gold leaf, which from the precepts of my humble pay scale must have cost the Nettexe stationery dept ingots to mail en masse. I broke its seal in a sense of sceptical wonder usual in my trade. ‘Dear Journalist,’ it read, ‘you are cordially invited etc.’

For those who don’t know, the anonymous Joe Nettexe – in his youth a Young Conservative – stepped out on a dull career path as High Street accountant. Grey and suburban it might have been, yet Joe (as people called him then) never lacked foresight. Small as his operation was, its place was in the Tory van, and that, to a certain kind of Englishman, has always meant the acceptable face of capitalism. An individual’s personal success spreads its succour in little waves throughout his immediate circle, so that a nation’s many Nettexes (a lot of Joes, not so many Josephines), are the essential fabric of economic life. Don’t ask me what business school he subscribed to.

The Nettexe expansion coincided with the Thatcherite emasculation of the trade unions, so that by the early ’90s his poky little High Street enterprise had shed its tweeds and donned its city pinstripe, with the move into shares, real estate, and a lively trade in God knows what overstuffed portfolio. By the late ’90s the Nettexe empire was lumberingly vast, and its figurehead (formerly Joe, but Joseph now) found himself consulted in TV studios as to what it took to regenerate a national psyche. That weeping ghoul, for so long laid low by the ancient curse of despair, formed no part of his makeup, though I’m afraid not much philosophy came in the observations he made – something like all must move with the times (and with News International). He was bold enough to align himself with Blairism, the rationale being that even to persons of conscience, that was also the acceptable face of capitalism – a smiling, evangelising face at that.

What had all this to do with my invitation to a private screening of Bizarre-ha? That was the question I asked myself on driving up to the gated hectares where the Nettexes, their staff and retainers were – a semi-castellated fortress done Disney-style, forbidding and foreboding. Before permitting me to pass, a flunkey in olive-green livery examined my invitation and checked its serial number against a computerised list of duplicates. He smiled politely and tapped the peak of his cap – ‘Ah yes’ – a motion synchronised with the whirr of an electric motor and the vast gates to Castle Nettexe opening inwards.

I drove what seemed the mile or so up the drive, and was met by another flunkey, who parked my low-economy Skoda with the more prestigious motors friends and associates in the Nettexe circle liked to show off. I was ushered in through the vestibule – a cavernous void – and formally announced in the marble ante-chamber where the other guests, huge in number, had been assembled, in the half-hour or so before we were shown into the theatre. Everywhere the fruit bowls were plump with oranges, and the decanters were brimful of single malt. The first bit of conversation I overheard was this, from the Italian contingent: ‘Costa molto la Ferrari?’ I imagine the answer: ‘Un pochino.’

And this was really the point of it, my being here, to circulate and overhear snippets of conversation. I began to deduce this when the sliver most often repeated was that, despite his lifelong interest in the arts, Nettexe had no ambitions to join his friends in the Other Place (the House of Lords) and spout on about the value of his Rembrandts, cultural or otherwise. For all his generous donations into Conservative coffers, and friendship with successive party leaders, it remains categorically so that no such honour is sought, and nor is it expected.

Finally I talked briefly to Nettexe himself, who was grey, bespectacled, portly, and who let it slip that the House of Lords was not the most effective platform from which to mastermind defeat of the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, to punish the EU, and to ward off Labour, whether Marxist-led or not. Then what was, I asked him?

‘I will tell you…. Ah, but look,’ he said, and tapped his wrist. ‘Time for the film.’

PS Bizarre-ha is directed by Robert A. Nettexe, grandson to the Nettexe empire, and is a forty-minute documentary and brief history of American and English chat shows. It’s a film-school student-graduate showing, the centrepiece of this private function before entry into the festival circuit.

Peter Cowlam has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. His last published book, A Forgotten Poet, is available at Amazon Kindle. He is published in a wide range of print and online journals. Steven Gilfillan is his fictional spokesperson experienced in journalism and other forms of literary art.

My journey to the end of the world

By Phil Hall

For most of the journey I was slap up against a secretary from Mexico City. It was a cramped 36 hour drive.

When we got there Julie and I walked, slowly unfolding, heading towards the cheap hotel in the dark. It was 2 am. We could hear the leaves rustle, but couldn’t see trees.

There was a taco shop on the way. Three wide-awake people inside. The following evening, the secretary phoned me from her hotel room.

“Hello, remember me?”

“Yeah, I remember you.”

That first night they prepared our tacos Merida style with a filling of cochinita pibil.

Cochinita Pibil

First, fatty pork is marinated in achiote and the aciote is dissolved in orange juice. Achiote is a red ochre paste made from a type of berry native to the Yucatan. The pork is then baked slowly in banana leaves . The wrap is placed in a clay pot in the oven or in a pressure cooker. It’s ready in an hour and a half or so. When the pork is cool, practiced fingers shred the meat into its fibres and the fibres soak up the juice and oil. Then the cochinita is spooned onto hot tortillas.

“Some chili sauce, please.”

They look at me. “It’s very hot.”

I know.” They pass me the bowl.

Basic Salsa, Yucatan style

Habanero slices and chopped red onion rings soaking in sour orange – the same orange that grows on the trees along the Merida avenues.

The following morning we took a bus to Chichen Itza for the summer solstice. The journey was much shorter. We see the observatory, the Caracol. We wander around the site, admire the snake heads at the bottom of the flight of steps, climb to the top.

I stand at the top. Look down at the people below. A voice calls out over the loudhailer system.

“It is time. Will everyone please come off the monuments?”

I wait a minute. About fifty unfriendly, pale faces look up at me impatiently from the base of El Castillo. Most of them look like Americans. But, also staring at me, is a Mexican-American – at least I guess he is Mexican-American.

I am the last person on the pyramid, and I go down quickly before the solstice begins.

A few thousand people are at the base. Julie and I meet up and decide to stand at the fringe of the crowd. A hundred gueros start to circle the pyramid ceremoniously, setting up little eddies.

The glossy, steak fed Mexican-American takes off his coat and climbs up the pyramid as the equinox approaches. He is dressed like a Mayan.

He performs an ersatz dance on one of the ledges at the base. Voices in English call out, chanting. The dancing man moans and hums; it sounds rather like a Sioux Indian song.

A murmuring of irritation spreads through the Yucatan crowd and the loudspeaker makes another announcement:

“Will the tourists who are on and near the pyramid kindly show some respect for our culture and stop what they are doing, right now.”

The fraudulent Mayan does another little jig and then we are rid of him. He comes off the monument to the sound of boos from the Mexicans in the crowd.

We watch. The sun, when it arrives at midday, casts the shadow of the steps onto the side of the pyramid in the figure of a serpent. The shadow grows until the body of the serpent joins the Snake heads at the base.

The sun has hushed the crowd.

I watch carefully, and feel no uplift. All I see is stone, light, shade and people.

The next day Julie went on a side trip and I decided to go to on my own to the beach. I went to Progreso, a small fishing town by the sea, not far from Merida.

It was more nothing. The beach was broad. I walked along it. The waves were quite rough, so I decided not to swim. The sand was an oddly depressing grey, and heaped. There were a few battered fishing boats that had been hauled up out of the water and piles of rotting seaweed.

After an hour there I went back to Merida.

Later, in the library of the Anglo Mexican Cultural Institute I looked up Progreso and found that it shared a beach with another town; Chixulub, only a kilometer away. Progreso was the exact site of the K-T extinction. Progreso was the epicentre for the catastrophe that destroyed most of the species on the planet. My intuition had told me nothing about it.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

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