Andrew Marr's Head of State
Cock of the Walk
A dirty wind gusted. There were just three days to go before the referendum that would settle Britain’s destiny. The Golden Cockerel swung proudly from the balcony on the top floor of one of the City of London’s most repellent buildings. Even among the swollen glass spikes, cheese graters and vegetables crowding the capital’s horizon in 2017, this pastrami-and-lemon-coloured confection from the boom of the 1980s stood out – vile colours, ill-judged proportions, cheap materials.Architecture is one of the most certain measures of cultural and social decline. Inside the abomination, the Cockerel restaurant offered a cold-eyed English catering executive’s idea of French peasant cooking. In recent years the ‘Cock’ had gained a certain notoriety, because its outside smoking terrace had become popular with City suicides.
A South Asian accountant, bullied at work, had thrown herself to her death after dinner. A City trader whose losses were about to be exposed had leapt the eight floors after a couple of Cock of theWalk martinis.The almost famous and thoroughly cuckolded president of the Society of Costermongers had made a witty speech to a gathering of his best friends,then vaulted over the guardrail into the traffic below, bouncing off the top of a passing bus before experiencing his last convulsions under the wheels of a kitchen-delivery lorry.
This Monday morning there lay, foetally curled in the grey half-light on the pavement below the Cockerel, the young constable’s first corpse. She took in a dark-blue jacket of a Portuguese cut, a pair of German designer jeans pulled down around his ankles, scuffed but new-looking English brogues, arranged at unlikely angles; and finally a mop of dark, curling hair nestling in a half-dried archipelago of blood. This was a youngish, once-handsome man. There’d be a worried girl somewhere this morning. Or maybe a boy. As the wailing police cars screeched to a halt and disgorged more officers, who pushed aside the ghouls and surrounded the body with tape, and then a plastic tent, the constable stared up at the jutting metal balcony and the gaudy metal bird, squeaking nastily in the wind.
Odd, she thought.
Inside the tent, green-uniformed ambulancemen were bending over the body. But you only needed to glance at the twisted figure to know that there was nothing to be done. In the dark, the body could have been a rough sleeper, ignored for hours.
She walked over and rattled the door of the Golden Cockerel, which led to the lobby, which led to the lift. It was locked. Everything was locked. Too early. Even the cleaners wouldn’t be in for an hour. So how had this happened? It was one thing for a drunken, despairing person to jump late at night, or even in the middle of a meal; but who would find their way into the Cockerel early on a Monday morning, and then jump? There were easier places – the bridges over the Thames, for one thing – all around.
It didn’t make sense.
Three hours later, as the body was swaying slightly, tightly tied down on a gurney in a fast-moving van, a mobile phone began ringing in the dead man’s pocket.
Ken Cooper, Upset
At the other end of the line was a heavily-built man sitting in the back of a chauffeured Mercedes which was stuck in traffic in central London. He was on his way to the offices of one of Britain’s once-great newspapers, the National Courier.
Ken Cooper hated being in the back seat. He hated the taste in his mouth of a wolfed breakfast and the smell of warm leather. He hated the nauseous feeling caused by reading all those newspapers while the driver listened to some funny-moronic DJ doing a funny-moronic phone-in with his – Ken’s – own readers. He hated the thought of the ill-tempered meeting with the marketing department weasels and circulation ferrets that would begin his office day.
How would it go?
‘Kevin’s done some more focus-group research, boss.There are too many older faces in the paper.We need good-looking young people. We need less politics. I’ve done some work, and you know our ideal story? Tasty rich kids being mugged for their Rolexes outside Annabel’s. We need more muggings and more tasty rich kids.’
Reptiles. Water rats. But you could hardly blame them. All the papers were the same these days, run by scuttling, nervous children. Ken was coming to hate the trade he’d always loved. He hated the clever rat-run route his driver had chosen, which had led straight into this hunched chaos, a clogged artery of barely moving German engineering. He hated the prospect of lunch with the proprietor’s son, an Eton-educated stoat who affected purple tweeds and whose girlfriend was on the cover of half the colour supplements most weekends. He didn’t mind the proprietor himself, a rough, cynical man who had made his money in property in the sixties. But he hated the son.
And he hated his Mercedes. He’d have been faster on a bike.
He’d have been faster hopping on one foot, probably. Never in human history had so much engineering been expended to transport so few people such short distances so slowly. But try getting that in the paper.
Yet a car and driver was one of the last perks left for national newspaper editors, as their circulations shrivelled and their once-mighty legions of reporters were reduced to hysterical little platoons of underpaid dimwits. So he used the journey every morning to read his own paper, savagely underlining mistakes and striking through bad headlines, then scanning the opposition and drawing up lists of stories missed, or angles his guys had failed to see. Then he’d check Witter, jot down a few ideas for the morning news conference, and make some calls to cheer himself up.
At least in the office there was order and hierarchy and clear lines of command – Ken often reflected that had domestic life been as well-run as office life, the world generally would be a lot happier and better-ordered. At work, people knew their place, and could be rude or amusing to one another without offence being taken. Behind the front door of his house, the rules had been mysteriously different. His now ex-wife’s flaming temper had matched his own, and on the few occasions when things had come to blows, she was faster with her fists too.
This morning his first call was to the news editor. Some good news, or at least real news.Yesterday afternoon a body had washed up on the embankment of the Thames, on a sliver of mud just below Battersea Park. The local nick, which was in the pay of his crime reporters, had tipped the Courier off. Christmas envelopes were the gifts that kept on giving.
As described by the police, the body was that of a heavily-built, naked white male in his late fifties or early sixties. The head and hands had been cut off. A Russian mafia killing? But the police had said that the only clue to the deceased’s identity was a single Royal Navy tattoo. So whoever he was, he had been English.
The news editor had given the job to the paper’s last proper investigative reporter, Lucien McBryde. But now Ken Cooper couldn’t get the arrogant little sod to pick up his bloody phone.
McBryde, he reflected, had been behaving oddly in the last couple of days. He claimed to be closing in on a sensational political story. And certainly, these were sensational political times. The referendum was slicing the country down the middle. The British had always been a people slow to feel political enthusiasm – one of the great secrets of their national survival. But now, families were dividing over supper tables, and offices were riven by arguments about a subject bigger than football or waxing. Ken’s car had already passed a dozen hoardings featuring the wrinkled, boxer’s face of the prime minister – ‘Your choice, your future. Vote Clever’ – and as many, if not more, from the anti-Europe campaign, now led by the former home secretary Olivia Kite, who with her red hair, pale face and vivid crimson lips looked increasingly like Elizabeth I, or at least Cate Blanchett – ‘Your country, your choice. Give your children the gift of freedom.’
But if Lucien McBryde had something to add to the earsplitting arguments over Britain’s future, he hadn’t shared it with the paper’s political editor, or with Ken himself. He’d just said he was on to something that would ‘change everything’. He had seemed even nervier and more excitable than usual, though that was probably down to the marching powder. He had also recently broken up with his girlfriend.
Whatever McBryde was up to, he wasn’t answering his phone. Ken groaned, decided not to leave a voicemail message, and turned his phone to silent. Perhaps there wasn’t really a story at all, and the whole thing was just an excuse. It wouldn’t be the first time. Ken was glad that McBryde had been given the headless Battersea corpse. It would settle him down. Calm him. Give him something solid to get his teeth into.
But still, it was bloody rude of him not to answer his phone. It was past 9 o’clock. How dare the little badger not pick up?