Short story published in ACES ‘The Terrier’ magazine in the Winter 2018/19 edition.
‘Faster than a man can run’ is the fifth short story in the ‘Selwyn’ series. Please read ‘The Final Vote’ , ‘Lost Sheep’, ‘Weapon of Choice’ and ‘The Fee Generation Game’ the first four stories in the ‘Selwyn’ series before this.
The Selwyn series is written specifically for the Terrier. Each story is a self-contained episode in the life of an early-retired Council Property Manager from 2003 to the present day and beyond as he continues to maintain occasional contact with his former colleagues from the fictional Herdwick District Council. The characters often present controversial and outspoken opinions on local and central government policy and practice. Please accept that those stories, all names, characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and are views expressed by the author, not those of ACES. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. Also, occasional historical background details may have been changed to fit the chronology. Enjoyment of these stories will be enhanced if they are read in order from the beginning. The first ones are available by clicking on these links – ‘The Final Vote’, ‘Lost Sheep’ , ‘Weapon of Choice’ and ‘The Fee Generation Game’.
Faster than a man can run (July 2011)
‘You really did get involved with your properties, didn’t you? It’s good to know that you still have a bit of passion for your old surveying profession even though you’ve retired from it now.’
‘I should forget about them really. It’s just that I’m constantly bumping into them. I can’t go more than a few miles around here without passing one of them and they trigger so many memories. Are you getting a bit tired of my old stories and my rants about the Council and the Government?’
‘Provided you don’t keep repeating them endlessly then I think that I can live with them.’
‘I’m not sure that I can promise that.’
‘Live with them…’ That seemed like another subtle hint to Selwyn. ‘What was it she’d said the other day … about wasting quite a bit of time continually driving backwards and forwards to see each other?’ She’d been making little remarks like that recently and now he was starting to pick up on them. He didn’t rise to the bait so stuck to his subject.
‘Herdwick is a big district – as big as some small counties – but outsiders think that it’s just empty fells and valleys and lakes. I admit that in winter the sheep outnumber the residents but, nevertheless, the Council still has a lot of property spread across it. Did you know that there’s only one location in the whole of the district that’s at least three miles away in any direction from any parcel of Council land or any Council building?
‘How do you know that?’
‘I worked it out once from studying the Terrier maps in my old office.’
‘Where’s that location?’
‘I’ll tell you when I take you there. You’ll be surprised.’
They were standing on the promenade at Lantern-o’er-the Bay, leaning on the rails looking down upon the incoming tide lapping against the base of the sea-wall. The sun was shining, with only a faint hint of a breeze and the fells around the edge of the bay stood out prominently against a clear blue sky. To their right was the shell of Lantern Lido, a sad reflection of the past glory of the Edwardian seaside resort. Now its windows were bricked up, its gates locked and its walls covered with the graffiti from some wannabe Banksy.
‘You’ve not told me about that eyesore. What’s the Council going to do with it?’
‘Well, when I was Property Manager, I advised them to demolish it and clear the site. As soon as I‘d said that some local busybody asked the Secretary of State for the Environment to list it as a Building of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. So he did … and now the Council’s stuck with it. They don’t have any money to maintain it, never mind restore it, and can’t demolish it so it just sits there slowly rotting away. We used to jokingly describe it as ‘planned obsolescence’ in the office.
‘Why would anyone want to keep it?’
‘It’s the curse of the geriatric generation – nostalgia. The wrinklies outnumber the young people in Lantern and, being well-educated, fairly wealthy and with nothing else to do they have time to interfere for no good purpose. Many of them must have learnt to swim in there after the Second World War. So they think that the Lido must be preserved forever for that reason. Inside those barricaded walls is an unheated, sea-filled open-air swimming pool. Nobody in their right mind would swim in it. Did I ever tell you about my memory of it? My mother brought me here when I was about twelve years old. I stripped off, dived in, climbed out, dried myself and never went near it again. It was the coldest experience of my life. So I don’t think that this current crop of obese, centrally-heated, Mario Brothers-playing computer-age kids would thank anyone for restoring it.’
‘It seems a bit silly to preserve it when they have a new, warm indoor pool to replace it.’
‘You’d think so, but that’s closed recently. That’s another sad story of wasted public money. A failure of the Big Society initiative.’
‘What exactly is the Big Society initiative?’
‘Good question. Nobody really knows – not even those who work in Central and Local Government. The Government described it as giving citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. Everyone loosely interprets it as allowing community groups to take over the running of public properties.
The new indoor pool could be an example of the Big Society in action. Because the Council would not spend the District’s money on restoring the old Lido the residents of Lantern formed a Charitable Community Group. Then they commissioned a study from the local University to justify building a new indoor pool on the basis that it could be run by volunteers at a profit when virtually every other public pool in the country runs at a loss. It was built with over a £1million of Lottery Grant on a site leased for a nominal rental from the Council by the Community Group. The Group ignored the Council officers’ advice that it could never sustain itself financially. All credit to the Councillors, however; they warned the Community Group that if the project failed that they would not step in to bail them out.
It had design, maintenance and on-going funding issues from the outset so was it any wonder that after three years it was a wreck, commercially unsound and closed? Jim – he’s still the Council’s Acting Property Manager since Farah left to have her baby – tells me that the Community Group has now surrendered the ground lease back to the Council and that he’s seeking quotes to demolish the structure. The Council will then sell the cleared site for affordable housing. The Lottery Commission is livid because it can’t even claim the land so that it can sell the site to offset the loss of its grant. I suspect that the Commission will be changing the national rules to require security against such assets before giving out any more grants like that.
That’s the trouble with these Big Society initiatives – there are plenty of well-meaning members of the public willing to raise funds to set up these sorts of schemes but they need long term annual investment and specialist support once they’re established. After the capital grant is spent there’s a need to keep on fund-raising to meet the annual running costs. And those increase as the building ages. The initial volunteers are full of enthusiasm but when they move on or die there’s no-one to replace them. The fundraising dries up and the schemes deteriorate from neglect. So now the community has a resort with two unused pools and a sea that no-one dares swim in because of the dangerous tides and the quick-sands.’
‘How far is it to the nearest usable swimming pool?’
‘As the crow flies, about eight miles across the Bay. A bit far for a swim really … and usually cold and dangerous too whether the tide’s in or out.’
They walked along the promenade back to the car park and Selwyn gave some thought as to where their next walk could take them in a couple of weeks’ time, depending upon the continuing good weather.
‘Selwyn, will you do me the honour of marrying me?
She had dropped to one knee on the sand in front of him. Some people in the crowd turned to look and then began to applaud her.
They were in Herdwick Bay, surrounded by a backdrop of green and black fells dotted with grey lime-stone houses, at the mid-point of the old coaching route across the sands to Lantern-o’er-the-Bay, so named because in past times only the light from a big lantern lit by the villagers had helped travellers to keep to the crossing route in bad weather. To the east, west and north the empty sands stretched away under another cloudless, blue summer sky for miles in each direction before reaching landfall. To the south and out of sight but never out of mind was the sea, still held back by the pull of the moon and the tilt of the earth. Immediately in front of them was the cut where the Rivers Shep and Crook met below the head of the Bay before snaking out onto the widening sands. The cut was formed in the sands by the rivers combining and shifting position after every tide. The party needed to cross the cut to complete the second half of the walk to Lantern-o’er-the-Bay.
The Queen’s Guide had marked a width with two sticks along the nearest bank of the cut and was prodding into the knee-deep, grey-brown water between those markers with his pole to determine a safe depth and a crossing free of quicksand. In a few hours the tide would come rushing back, led by a foaming, white bore travelling faster than a man could run, racing up the cut and over the rippled sands to re-fill the Bay. But for now the cross-bay walkers were safe.
Selwyn grinned and glanced at the crowd that had formed in a half-circle around him. He kissed her to a loud cheer.
‘It should be me asking you.’
‘Silly man, this is the age of equality. Women are allowed to do anything. We even have the right to vote now. Besides, if I waited for you to pop the question it might never happen. I’ve dropped you enough hints just lately.’
‘Well, because there are no Council properties here. This is the only place where I could be sure that you wouldn’t be able to change the subject by starting one of your stories about Council property.’
‘Yes, I did promise to surprise you by taking you to the only location in the district of Herdwick that’s at least three miles in any direction from any parcel of Council land or any Council building. And here we are. But you’re the one that’s surprised me. How did you know where it was?’
‘That was easy. I just rang your successor, Farah, and asked her. I knew that it would have cropped up in one of your many conversations in the years that you’d worked together. Who else but a Property Manager would know?’
‘That’s the thing about women’ thought Selwyn, ‘No matter how fast men run they’re always one step ahead of us.’
The walkers waded across the cut and walked on. From the uninterrupted viewpoint on the other bank, Selwyn pointed out, in the distance, the old Lido on the sea front and the roof of the new, soon-to-be-demolished indoor pool behind it.
‘That’s one of the biggest reasons that I took early retirement when it became available … daft initiatives, like the Big Society, Best Value, Asset Management Plans, Corporate Property Strategies, Key Performance Indicators … they were endless and they took the fun out of the job. That new pool was always going to fail and negotiating that ground lease was disheartening.’
‘It wasn’t the only reason?’
‘No, my wife’s illness was a big factor. Retirement helped me to look after her in the last twelve months of her life. Also, I’d stopped being a manager of property and had become a manager of surveyors. That was never something that I really wanted to do but, like everyone else, when it was offered I’d taken the promotion for the extra salary and the boost to the pension pot.’
‘You wouldn’t want to go back to it now, say at a lower level?’
‘No, I’ve done my bit. After my wife died I had the time and I could have looked for a part-time post just as a surveyor and not as a manager. But that wouldn’t have stopped the daft initiatives like the Big Society. Why would I want to go back and deal with things like that again? Take that new Pool for example … it raised expectations within the Community which couldn’t be realised. The local community is great at managing activities – like this Cross-Bay Walk, or Village Sports Days or Art Festivals – because they don’t involve great expense or legacy issues with property after the event. They could be described as Small Society initiatives. The Bay is always here, the Guide is already employed by the Queen. The walkers just book a place on the website if they want to go, they raise sponsorship for charities, they enjoy the exercise and fresh air on the crossing and then they go home and switch off afterwards. They don’t have a large building to support or staff to pay and if they lose interest then it doesn’t matter if attendance drops off for a few years before being revived again by new enthusiasts. Those are small projects and easy to manage. But the community already makes those happen and they don’t need a Government initiative to promote them …
… However, there’s a reason that Councils exist to run those big expensive properties that don’t make money, like that pool and libraries and museums and such. They employ professional help and can spread the cost across the larger population so that we all only bear a tiny share through the tax system … and all the decisions about where they’re provided and what they comprise are taken democratically. The Big Society initiatives run by Community Groups may have a constitution but they don’t have that in-built democratic control from across the district to mostly avoid over-reaching and costly mistakes. And so many of them fail sooner or later because they don’t have the specialist expertise to sustain them indefinitely – especially in respect of property management. And they are all just ways that the Government tries to cut costs. Amateurs are always cheaper than professionals.’
‘So would you describe Marriage as an activity that the Small Society should manage?’ she asked, grinning at him. He knew that she was gently telling him to shut up about the pools.
‘That’s not a bad example actually. Generally speaking, people only pay for the wedding that they can afford, from their own resources, and the decision to proceed is always reached with a 2-0 democratic majority and afterwards ongoing costs should decrease because two can usually live together cheaper than each one separately. Have you got a date in mind?’
‘Not yet but I’ll let you know. My legs are beginning to ache and there’s nowhere dry enough to sit down for a rest out here – how far have we got to walk still?’
‘About another three and a half miles … to the Council’s seats in the Council’s park on the Council’s promenade … which are all still useable.’
©David Lewis Pogson 2018
Further stories in the ‘Selwyn’ series will appear following publication in the Terrier.