Friday, 22 September 2017

Fighting with Statues


Living in the south, and particularly Texas, it is recommended that one develops a thick skin, at least when engaging with social media. The south had slaves, invented the Klu Klux Klan, and it's mostly been downhill from there if social media is any indication. The civil war was fought because everyone living in the north hated slavery and loved freedom, and those were the only reasons. Dirty deeds done in the north are exceptions to the rule, and anyway there was usually some dude from Texas involved, but anything shitty occurring below the Mason-Dixon is probably occurring just because that's how we are down here. Facebook posts linking news items referring to the south, some retarded government official proposing regulations discriminating against a particular group of people for example, will inevitably be embellished with the comments of millions from somewhere up north who told us so. Can't we just get rid of Texas?, they'll whine, because Texas is the only place in all America where shitty officials get in power and make stupid decisions. Nothing bad ever happens anywhere else, and it's surely only a matter of time before we learn that Donald Trump is actually from Brownsville, because it sure would explain a lot.

This is why when a speaker from an organisation called Sons of Confederate Veterans was invited to talk on a local radio show, I listened to what he had to say. I had no strong opinion regarding the Confederacy, beyond some reservations about those who still wave its flag, but in any case this wasn't really what the guy wanted to talk about. Instead he discussed the north-south divide and the continued demonisation of the latter. He discussed the Civil War and the received wisdom of it being fought purely so as to free the slaves - which may have been an issue, but was at best a side issue. It was more to do with the south seceding from the Union, and this being a problem because the south was where all the money was made, doubtless thanks to slavery, which suddenly deprived the government of a significantly massive source of tax revenue.

This is roughly my understanding, namely that there was no great or noble cause on either side of the line, regardless of the possibility of there having been noble individuals; because that's how war is by definition, a last resort where reason and negotiation have failed. That slavery was ended is obviously a great thing, but we should probably keep in mind how well African-Americans have generally fared in this country since 1863 before anyone starts declaring it their victory.

This isn't to necessarily express either sympathy or solidarity with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, so much as to acknowledge that the existence of such an organisation is understandable in terms of regional identity without needing to be rude about it by suggesting anyone is necessarily a racist. Unfortunately though, the Confederate cause really does seem to attract shitheads. I've encountered one of them on a local bulletin board called Next Door, a forum to which one may sign up in order to converse with others in your neighbourhood. The city council had announced that it would be removing a statue commemorating the Confederate dead from Travis Park in downtown San Antonio, and Biffo the Bear quite naturally had plenty to say about it on Next Door.

Of course, this wasn't the same Biffo the Bear whose adventures endured for fifty-one years in the pages of the English children's comic, the Beano, but that's what I'm calling him in accordance with the level of respect which I feel is his due.

I signed up for Next Door more than a year ago, and became immediately aware of Biffo the Bear. He seemed to have a lot of time on his hands and would comment on almost every thread. Maybe you were moving house and had decided to give away a dresser to anyone able to collect the thing. Biffo the Bear might comment on how it was a nice piece of furniture and how he sure wished he had room for it, and then his attention would turn to the more pressing issues of no good punks, or lousy drivers, or shiftless repairmen. You'd lost your chihuahua and wondered if anyone had seen her, and there was Biffo once again grumbling about Obama coming to take our guns, and how we all needed to keep an eye open, and to keep our guns in good working order because you never know who might be out there, and hell - there could be an ISIS cell right here in our neighbourhood just waiting, waiting…

Biffo the Bear struck me as insane and stupid, and I found his testimony depressing, so I gave up on Next Door. I didn't want to have to think about the existence of people like Biffo the Bear, and how they get to vote and thus influence decisions which affect the rest of us, people with working brains. More recently I found myself drawn back in when another of our neighbours received a particularly vile piece of anonymous hate mail.
Attn. Lazy filthy Latin negros From Cuba. Take a little pride in yourselfs and clear up your unkempt dump of a yard. Start by storing that junk boat you smuggled your 'familia' in, in a storage, also chop shop are against the law. I understand stealing cars is the only thing your parents taught you. It's obvious you smoke crack or PCP, so get rid of those ghetto blinds and buy curtains. Fix up your 'casa'. My dog has a better house than you do, but then again my dog is an American, not a uneducated immigrant. If you need help join the neighborhood association, but you have to quit the Bloods or Crips first. If you can't read or write English and probably never will, look at all your 'Primos' in the 'Bronx'. Ask your Mexican neighbours if they could read it in Reggaeton. For your theirs like twenty of them that live next door. Or go library and check out Hooked on Phonics for the Spanish speaking Negroes from Cuba or Dominican Republic. But do something please, you pathetic peasants. Now I know why Trump wants to get rid of you. Better yet we should make you slaves like your cousins.

I've standardised the case - which randomly switches between upper and lower, sometimes half way through a sentence - and I've added punctuation, and anglicised and deleted a couple of words I didn't understand, but that's the general thrust of the argument as set forth by this anonymous individual who identifies only as your wonderful and caring Anglo-Saxon neighbours on Sumner Drive.

The subject of this missive was understandably upset, and so shared it on Next Door in hope of discerning some clue as to its origin. It seemed like the point of the letter was spite, plain and simple. Having walked past on many occasions, I would say that the man's house is fine, as are his blinds, as is his yard, as is the boat he keeps in his driveway. There is nothing to distinguish his house as any different to those of his neighbours, and it's situated at such a distance from Sumner Drive as to call into question why the author of the letter would even give a shit; but this is of course to credit the sender with both locative honestly and motives beyond just racist harassment undertaken for the sake of retarded chuckles.

We talked about it on Next Door, and everyone was horrified. I noticed, after the first hundred or so replies, that Biffo the Bear was yet to weigh in, Biffo who routinely shares his thoughts about the dangers of liberalism and the protection of our second amendment rights on every single thread, even if it's just some guy asking for the number of a decent plumber. It struck me as strange that Biffo, never usually so reticent on the subject of other people's business or how we need to act when we don't like what some neighbour is up to, should have no opinion. I said as much in the thread, which prompted a couple of others to agree that yes, it was fucking weird; which in turn prompted another couple of others to break their silence and point out that Biffo was a lovely Bear and would never have sent that terrible letter, and that we were sounding a little like a lynch mob and should therefore be ashamed of ourselves. More serious still, one of Biffo's defenders informed us that she had made a note of all our names and would be handing the note to her brother-in-law at the first sniff of pitchforks and burning torches.

Her brother-in-law was a cop, she told us. That's how most crimes are solved, see. Usually the officer in charge is handed a revealing note by some close friend or relative, and that's how he knows which heads to bust.

Biffo the Bear returned to the fray a couple of days later, just as I now return to the point. The city council had announced that it would be removing a statue commemorating the Confederate dead from Travis Park in downtown San Antonio, and Biffo the Bear quite naturally had plenty to say about it. His cousin had been down to Travis Park and had told him all about what was going on, and William B. Travis fought at the Battle of the Alamo and was nothing to do with the Civil War, which just goes to show how stupid these uneducated punks are, and it's exactly like when the Taliban blew up those Buddish*1 statues in Afghanistan. ISIS also want to rewrite history and that's why these damn liberals must be fought. Something about Sharia Law, Obama, blah blah blah...

Had Biffo gone down to Travis Park himself - and it's surprising that he didn't considering how much he cares - he would have seen that the statue earmarked for removal simply commemorates the Confederate dead, and was erected in the park named after William B. Travis without actually depicting the man; but never mind. His understanding of the situation at least doesn't seem to be any worse than that of anyone else on his side of the debate. Photos of protesters from both sides of the divide appeared on facebook, not really clashing because there probably weren't enough people there and the cops were present. One image showed kids in mostly black t-shirts, some black lives matter slogans, laid out on the ground in what was obviously a peaceful protest. One of them shows a raised clenched fist, a symbol of which the meaning is so fucking obvious as to require no further clarification.

That fist means Marxism, warned an octogenarian facebook dweller in the comments section next to the photograph, because the beauty of social media is that everyone gets a say, no matter how fucking stupid they are; and someone will read those words and somehow assume that the moron responsible is speaking from an informed position.

'Let's see what's happening down at Travis Park,' I said to my wife. It's Sunday and we have nothing else on, so we go.

The park is pretty small and has been populated by a substantial population of homeless people at intervals between vote-grabbing drives to move them to a place where they can no longer offend the eyes of responsible tax payers such as Biffo the Bear. It's about 98° Fahrenheit and there aren't many people around. We see a small group over near one of the fountains, mostly African-American, so we go over to talk with them. Unfortunately someone has beaten us to it, an older white guy pleading the case for keeping the statues.

We shuffle up behind him to listen in. I'm wearing my favourite shirt, one made from material patterned so as to resemble the state flag. It seemed like a good idea to appear vaguely patriotic, because I'm more worried about being shot by angry, uneducated crackers suffering from patriotism poisoning than I'm worried about being shot by anyone in a black lives matter t-shirt; but now I feel a little self-conscious as the old guy states his case. I hope no-one thinks I've come along to back him up.

There are a couple of white dudes sat at a table about ten foot away. They look like hillbillies. Their accents are impenetrable to me, just noises like someone playing with rubber bands; but they don't sound particularly happy and they glance over at us from time to time. A little further away there's a cop maintaining command presence.

Bess and I listen, and I am at least initially encouraged by the words of the white guy. For him it's about history and identity, and has nothing to do with racism. This much is obvious from the fact that he's talking to these seven young men and women. Finally he runs out of words, and his audience are better able to respond.

'Kanye was stupid for that,' one of them sighs, referring to Kanye West's attempt to take back the Confederate flag in some video or other.

'Same goes for Lil' Jon,' says another shaking his head.

I'm stood next to two young guys in shorts with black t-shirts and dreads. The larger one now dominates the conversation. He speaks well, genial and without any obvious anger, and I find myself chipping in. It's fun, and I'm actually learning something, coming down off that fence; not least because it's so rare that I ever have anything you would call a conversation, certainly not spoken with anyone to whom I'm not directly related in some way.

'This is a park,' he says, 'a public place where you bring your family, your children.' He gestures towards the statue somewhere behind him, and the case for the prosecution is shown to be solid.

The removal of Confederate statues isn't about rewriting history, because the statues weren't about history in the first place. Most of them were raised during a period of elevated white racial insecurity, expressed in reactionary terms such as the revival of the Klan in 1915, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and even chuckling Edgar Rice Burroughs referring to the KKK as freedom fighters in his pulpy little thrillers. If we're really that bothered about remembering history, statues don't seem to have been much help with this one; but in any case, it isn't about then, it's about right now, and whether we as a multiracial society can move forward if we're still doffing caps to a regime which has come to stand for white supremacy and the slightly sinister reduction of the practice of slavery to something which was simply of its time. It doesn't matter that something like 95% of the population of Texas at the time of the Civil War had no direct involvement in either owning slaves or the practice of slavery. It doesn't matter that there was more to the Civil War than just the issue of slavery, or that the north was hardly a model of progressive thought; because what matters is right now, and that the Confederacy has become a symbol for shitheads across the board.

'Even with all that you said there,' our man continues, 'whatever that flag meant back then, it ain't ever coming back. It ain't ever going to be good again; and we need to start thinking about moving on.'

He's right too.

We talk some more, at least enough to elicit a few smiles once they realise I'm not about to pull on a white hood. The shirt was probably a mistake.

'You from Australia?' asks the guy who reminds me of Idris Elba.

'That's what everyone says,' I sigh, and tell him I'm from London because he probably doesn't want my entire life story; and of course it turns out he has family somewhere in the south-east of England.

We all shake hands and fuck off, going our separate ways. Later I go online to look up soulhop_musik, having seen it written across their t-shirts. It turns out that a couple of the guys we spoke to were rappers, and pretty good ones too, and I'm sort of relieved I didn't know this at the time, thus sparing us all the embarrassment of the fat, old white dude in the Lone Star shirt trying to be down with the kids and talking about which is his favourite UGK album*2.

It can be a shitty old world, but the guys at the park give me hope, and some faith in the idea that the current resurgence of the shithead far-right is its death rattle, a croaking protest at the certainty of the knowledge that it no longer has a role in the world; but I suppose deep down I already knew this on some level. For one thing, the overwhelming response on Next Door was in support of the guy on the receiving end of the hate mail, and not just support but justified and righteous outrage that such a thing could have happened in our neighbourhood. Biffo the Bear was suddenly revealed as a cranky minority voice, just some lonely, paranoid twat making a lot of noise because there's nothing much else going on in his own life, and I suspect that's probably the reason why he chose to say nothing for the first time ever; because he saw himself as he really was, and he understood that maybe the shitheads aren't going to inherit the earth after all.

*1: No idea. Possibly some belief system derived from Buddhism.
*2: Probably either Too Hard to Swallow or Ridin' Dirty. It's hard to say.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

I, Writer


If you're anything like me, then I doubt there can be a day goes by without you pause to reflect and ask yourself, what is the magic of this thing we call writing? Well, happily I'm here to help you out, to draw back the curtain of mystery and answer that question, for I have the privilege of being a writer. I've always written, whether it be my wonderful books, personal letters bringing a little sunshine into the lives of my many, many friends, or even just notes to the milkman requesting an extra pot of low-fat yoghurt. It is my trade and I am very good at it.

Writing is easy for me. I sit down at the computer and adventures and stories just flow from my fingertips. I know not where they come from, and in truth I'd rather not shed daylight upon magic, for it seems wiser to simply be grateful that I am so able to spread happiness with the amazing tales I tell. Consider if you will, the humble street sweeper or fast food worker. Watch him as he works that broom and cleans our roads of fag packets and dog poo, or observe as the young lady takes our order for burger and fries, then calmly assembles our meal with the sort of care which suggests she could do it in her sleep. Do they pause to consider their duties? Does our man regard his broom and decide to use it in a particular way, or does our waitress stop to ask herself where she might find the fries in her workplace? Of course not, and that's how writing is for me.

I can write all kinds of wonderful stories. Some of you may know my name from the series of exciting adventures I have written featuring He-Man and his Masters of the Universe, but I've also written grown-up books too, such as Black Pudding Row, a heart-warming tale of down to earth folk in a pleasant town in the north of England. Then there are the regular blog posts in which I share my thoughts on writing, allowing you the reader a precious glimpse into the creative process and how I come by all of my amazing ideas. I don't even know if any of these words will be read as I write them, but I, ever the optimist, persevere nonetheless for there is no greater satisfaction than knowing that I have brought pleasure to someone, somewhere. You might say it's a calling.

From time to time I may stray into a book store, and sometimes I see that my works are on sale, ready to be snapped up and treasured by an eager public, but other times it seems my name has been overlooked. I am not there. Not even my He-Man adventures. Of course I feel sad, for in many ways I am no different to any of my readers and I too am only seeking for some little diversion from the daily drudgery of life, something magical, a world of wonder and adventure to explore, because that's really what a good book should be. And I try my hardest to write only good books.

I have not yet won an award, and nor have I been asked to speak at any important literary events, but that doesn't matter to me. The only recognition I crave is that of my loyal readers recognising me as the one who tells those wonderful, crazy stories. Does our friend the street sweeper care that his only satisfaction comes from a living wage and the knowledge of a job well done? Does the fast food girl ever dream of breaking the world record for how fast she is able to serve her hungry customers? I don't think they do, because, much like myself, they just get on with it and do what needs to be done.

Wait a moment, Lawrence, I hear you ask, how can you know such things? Surely you, as a writer, have never had to sweep a street or flip a burger? How can you know?

Guilty as charged, for I have been blessed with the talent by which I make my daily bread, and by which I am able to place myself inside the world of a street sweeper or a fast food operative and imagine how it must be for them. And in doing so I am able to understand something of their respective worlds, and how in a funny way, we are all very similar. The girl serving burgers might feel a little glum when they dock her wages for forgetting to supersize a meal, just as I too become downhearted when I see that a book store carries none of my titles, or when an important television executive responds to one of my imaginative proposals with a cursory rejection letter.

But then under such circumstances I, ever the optimist, might walk down our wonderfully clean street to the fast food outlet and cheer myself up with a meal and a shake, just as those people might finish their shifts and curl up in front of a roaring log fire and escape into one of my wonderful novels. Thus does the circle of love, life, and laughter maintain itself. Because we're all worth it.



In closing I'd just like to reiterate that I'm really not bothered about not having won any awards. I really can't emphasise that enough. It doesn't trouble me in the slightest.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Emerald Dynasty


Emerald was a small black cat who took to hanging around our yard, having noticed that I occasionally left out bowls of food which our own cats hadn't finished. We didn't realise she was a stray because she looked so well groomed, but it seemed significant that we could never get anywhere near her, and that she always seemed to be hanging out with SOF. SOF, standing for Son of Fluffy, was another stray, one presumed to have sprung from the union of our own Fluffy and a female stray to which the kid gave the name Juliet, because even he could see that romance was in the air. I say presumed, but none of us were really in any doubt as to SOF's heritage. We mistook him for Fluffy a couple of times, and even his meow was the same. Unfortunately, like Emerald, he too was absolutely feral and wouldn't let us get anywhere near him.

Emerald became a familiar sight, and enough so for the boy to give her the name because of her green eyes; but still we were never able to get near her, and she'd approach a bowl of food only after we moved away to let her get on with it.

One day as we came home, we spotted kittens over at the neighbour's house. Frasier wasn't home, we guessed, and we went over to have a look. We had no idea where they could have come from. By this point we'd worked out that Emerald was female and probably a free agent, but she hadn't looked pregnant. Then again, neither of us could quite recall when we'd last seen her.

Just by Frasier's front door was a planter formed by three low brick walls running up against the side of the house. There had never been any soil in there, not so far as we knew, and a sheet of board lay across the top. Presumably he used it as storage space. I lifted the board and we had an aerial view of three tiny black kittens scrabbling to get away from the light. They were a few weeks old at most, very much mobile but still clumsy. We picked them up, noticing they were kind of chubby.

'Holy crap,' exclaimed my wife. 'These are some seriously chunky kittens.'



The one she held still had blue eyes and was noticably fluffier than the other two, although the third had vanished into the undergrowth at the side of the house.

'They have to be Emerald's kittens, I guess,' I said, as much a question as anything. 'I wonder where she is.'

'She'll be nearby,' Bess told me. 'Mother cats leave their kittens hidden while they hunt for food. Sometimes they don't even leave them all in the same place.'

Kittens are my favourite thing in the universe, so we petted them a little longer, then returned them and replaced the roof of their temporary accommodation.

Next day they were gone, but Donna noticed that I was looking over. 'Did you see the kittens?' she asked.

'Yes, we saw them yesterday. I guess you weren't home.'

'They been in there a few weeks. Lord knows where she's taken them. They were the cutest thing!'

'Yes, they were.'

A couple of days passed and, as I was washing dishes, a commotion drew me out into the garden, barking and snarling, a horrifying sound so close to the house when neither of our immediate neighbours have dogs. I ran out into the back garden. Shooty the drug dealer's two kid-killing dogs had once again escaped the confines of his own back garden and were now in Frasier's yard. They were going wild on the other side of the chain link fence, trying to get at something. They wanted to kill something. I'd never seen them jump our fence, and guessed they would have found it difficult with all the intervening wilderness, hackberry shoots and the like. I went closer.

Two of the kittens were hidden in the undergrowth, mewling and hissing in a pathetic attempt to scare off their gargantuan attackers. They were on the same side of the fence as the dogs. Only a rock hard tree stump forming a cage of truncated branches kept them safe.

I saw red. Here was a metaphor for all that was wrong with the world, helpless creatures about to meet a grisly end because our local shithead can't keep the violent killing machines he barely cares for in his own fucking yard. In that moment I could have destroyed both  dogs with just my bare hands. I ground my hands into the dirt at the lower end of the fence, underneath into Frasier's yard, and grabbed the two kittens. They hissed and scratched me, or tried.

'Fuck off,' I screamed at the kid-killing dogs with such raw fury that my throat hurt. They barked for a while, but deprived of anything helpless they might destroy, lost interest after another couple of minutes.



I temporarily housed the kittens in a cardboard box lined with a towel, and with a bowl of water. I called my wife at work.

'Emerald will be around somewhere,' she told me. 'You should just give them back when you see her.'

'You're sure about this?'

'Yes.'

'I've picked them up. She'll be able to smell me.'

'She won't be bothered. She'll just be happy to have them back. Did you say you only have two of them.'

'Yes.'

Neither of us wanted to think about what could have happened to the third kitten.

I waited.

The kittens hissed at me, which was quite entertaining, but seemed unharmed. At length I noticed Emerald watching from the side of the house. She looked pissed off, but then she always looked pissed off. That was how her face was. I set the kittens out on the grass and backed away to watch from a safe distance. She trotted over, picked one up in her mouth, and carried him off, coming back for his brother a moment later. I guessed it was going to be okay.

Weeks passed and we began to see them around, marching in a little line across the garden, tails aloft, or Emerald supervising as her kids swarmed up and down the trunk of the pecan tree. Occasionally we got close enough to pick them up, which they seemed to tolerate, but mostly we left them to it. Sometimes we'd see Emerald finish off a bowl of cat food in the porch, with two tiny black faces watching her from around the edge of the door, coming no closer because they could see that we were there.




They became bolder over time, and grew bigger. One was  turning into a fluffball, with a chocolate complexion which seemed almost red under a certain light, so Bess named him Jack in oblique reference to Jack Ruby, because rubies are red. His shorter-haired brother became Tony because we'd been watching The Sopranos. We couldn't really get close to Tony, but on the other hand he didn't quite seem afraid of us, although Jack still ran up into the walnut tree every time one of us came near.

Eventually Tony plucked up the courage to enter our house in search of food.

'He wants to be our cat!' Bess squealed happily, and it seemed like he really did.

'We already have about four-hundred,' I pointed out, exaggerating but not by much.

Tony vanished into the kitchen and was using the litter tray, like a workman whom you employ to fix your roof coming in to use the lavatory. The line between what we might describe as our cats and cats we just happen to feed was becoming intangible, and Tony became a part of the family, or at least a welcome relative.



Apparently he told his brother, because the previously timid Jack transformed overnight into the world's friendliest cat. We noticed also that he had tufts of fur between his paws, like a Maine Coon. We remembered how often we'd seen Emerald hanging out with SOF and realised that Jack was therefore almost certainly Fluffy's grandson. Unfortunately the two of them didn't get on, necessitating frequent incidents of my scooping Jack up and taking him outside to safety, away from grumpy old Granddad; following which he seemed to have decided I was his daddy. Wide green eyes full of admiration may have been just anthropomorphic thinking on my part, but on the other hand, he'd occasionally reach up and take hold of my hand between his two front paws whilst giving me that look, as though beseeching me to help drive the bandits away from his village. Bess occasionally referred to him as Jacques, and so he became our French cat.

Meanwhile, Emerald was pregnant again, a black silky pumpkin  waddling onto the porch to finish off another bowl. We vowed to catch her and get her fixed once this new lot were born.

The new kittens were sighted, with Jack and Tony now nearly fully grown, our back garden swam with black cats. We watched the new kittens grow, and occasionally managed to hold them so as to acclimate them to human company. As with Jack and Tony, they weren't really our cats as such, but my wife nevertheless named them Enoch and Jessie after characters in Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. We'd had a Pekingese called Enoch when I was a kid, so I thought my wife had made a good choice. The first Enoch had been small, black and apparently named after racist Conservative politician Enoch Powell, which I believe was something to do with my dad's sense of humour.

Enoch, like Tony before him, wasn't backwards in coming forwards. He wanted to be our cat, and we let him because we couldn't say no. He had us at a disadvantage. He had the softest, darkest fur, the sweetest nature, and the loudest meow of any cat we'd ever encountered, and it didn't take too long to work out that his dad was almost certainly Mr. Kirby, one of our feral friends distinguished by a peculiar hooting meow. Enoch would stroll in, meowing loudly, and it sounded almost like singing, someone playing saxophone or guitar solos with heavy use of wah pedal.

'What is it, Enoch?' we asked. 'What do you want?

'Waaaeeooohhwwwaaahhheeaahhhooo,' and he'd wander off down the hall as though looking for something. Then he'd come back and take up residence on a lap, purring like a tiny motorbike. Scratch the back of his neck and he'd tip his head back and it would seem as though he was grinning. Sometimes I did this and I'd whisper Bob 'Oskins to him, because that was who he reminded me of, and he seemed to like it. We began to refer to him as our perfect cat, because he was wonderful.

Enoch was about a year old when Jessie, his brother, was hit by a car. Jessie had remained feral and unapproachable but it was still a sad day. Then Emerald was suddenly pregnant again and still unfixed, and our golden age of black cats came to an end. They disappeared one by one, excepting a cat we think is probably Tony but who keeps his distance these days. We suspect the third pregnancy was probably too much for Emerald, and we still have no idea what became of Jack or Enoch. Their stories may have had some unfortunate end, but given our neighbourhood, it seems just as likely that someone took them in. So that's what we tell ourselves.


My journey once again interrupted by our French cat.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Birthday Boy


It's taken a while, but I finally seem to have achieved some kind of communicative syncretism with the child, the fruit of my wife's previous marriage, my stepson. He was six and puzzling when I first showed up, although even then it was already clear that his sense of humour lay at a healthy tangent to that of everyone else in the universe. All that he lacked was the means by which to communicate it. Here's the first joke he ever told me, one of his own compositions:

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Cheese.
Cheese who?
Cheesy.

The joke had the cadence of something proposed by one who has not yet grasped what humour is or how a joke is supposed to work, but as time has passed I've come to realise that Junior knew exactly what he was doing. It's an unfunny joke, specifically a joke which relies upon defying audience expectation of the punchline making sense or being conventionally amusing. I too went through an unfunny joke phase, as did a number of my friends at school, the apotheosis of which would probably have been the block of wood joke cycle pioneered by Jason Roberts.

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because he was glued to the block of wood.

You probably had to be there. We were about fourteen, so it could be argued that Junior has been ahead of the developmental curve in this respect.

The timeshare jokes started a couple of years ago, beginning with him asking friends, relatives, and occasionally random strangers whether they would like to buy a timeshare. None of us really found it particularly entertaining, which is probably what made it funny for him, so he continued. In fact he really hammered that thing into the ground, so much so that it eventually became funny. My wife paid for and built him a sarcastic website for his last birthday. Subsequent gift-giving occasions have further furnished him with timeshare-themed business cards and custom printed promotional pens which he gives out to other kids whilst savouring their utter confusion. My biggest fear was once that I might be stepfather to some drooling games-addict man-child who can name four-thousand different species of Pokémon but never quite got the hang of wiping his own arse; but happily it turns out that I'm stepfather to Chris Morris. My adopted child is a living Swiftian satire on late capitalism.

Now it's his fourteenth birthday. It's morning and my wife is headed off, first to collect the boy from his father's house and convey him to zoo camp, and then to work.

'Wait!' I say. I'm washing dishes. I pull the plastic lid of a Land O'Lakes butter carton from the water, swipe it clean, dry it off and hand it to her.

'Here. Give him this and tell him happy birthday from me.'

'He'll be thrilled,' my wife chuckles.

I haven't bought him anything because it's difficult to buy for him, so many of his interests being in non-corporeal things inhabiting screens of one kind or another; which leaves us just with the thoughts which supposedly count. The thoughts which count for me are that I've bought him nearly everything he's eaten under this roof for the last six years, and kept his room clean, and that he's surrounded by relatives forever throwing money at him, so he gets a butter lid and he'll be glad of it. I have a hunch that this kind of useless gift will appeal to his sense of humour, and it's given as an homage to the relatives of my friend Carl, specifically his grandfather and sister. The two of them never saw eye to eye and would present each other with cheap passive-aggressive gifts at Christmas, a newspaper one year, a packet of crisps the next.

We formally celebrate the boy's birthday in the evening with a meal at Magic Time Machine, a themed restaurant. The theme is vague, depending upon who the waiters and waitresses feel like impersonating from the worlds of film, television, comic books, showbusiness, or whatever else the dressing-up box has coughed up. They're mostly pretty good, staying in ludicrously exaggerated character as Jack Sparrow, Batman, or Lara Croft whilst taking our order; and best of all, it's mostly amateurish, enthusiastic, and aware of its own absurdity as opposed to slick and corporate, more Rocky Horror than Magic Kingdom. I guess the waiters and waitresses get to pick which character they play based on how well they feel able to pull off a convincing Spiderman or Marge Simpson or whoever. This means that our own table is attended by Miranda.

Miranda wears a striped shirt, too much lipstick, baggy pants with the message haters back off inscribed on the ass, and we haven't heard of her either.

'I have a series on Netflix,' she explains in a weird voice, patently an impersonation of someone none of us recognise. 'You should really watch it.'

I suppose this at least means that should I ever apply for work at Magic Time Machine, I'll be free to bypass Robocop or Shrek or whoever and just go with what I know best, waiting tables as a former ruler of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico. The hardest thing to decide will be whether I'm Itzcoatl (1427-1440) or Ahuizotl (1486-1502). I never could decide which of those guys I liked the more. Anyway, it will be hilarious, I promise.

Junior, so it turns out, is very happy with the butter lid I gave him. He's been showing it to all the other kids at zoo camp, incurring their admiration and jealousy.

His father is with us, aided by a walking frame following major surgery just yesterday; and also Jay and Courtlandt, respectively our boy's uncle and cousin. Miranda crams us all into a corner where the edge of the table intrudes upon the bellies of at least four of us, this being Texas and all. I complain so she moves us to another table, still twittering away in bewildering fashion and delivering catchphrases none of us have heard before.

There's Byron, one day after surgery and all on the day of his own father passing; so two of our group have lost their dad, and two have lost their grandfather, and the occasion is strange and a little subdued.

Junior opens presents as we wait for drinks to arrive. As well as the butter lid, he also receives a Swiss army spade from his father, a high-tech shovel which can be disassembled and repurposed for all manner of esoteric survivalist requirements. He plays with the shovel for a while, taking it apart, showing us the blade, the components one might use to start a fire and so on.

We pass around his birthday cards and read them.

One is from his grandfather, no longer with us.

It tears my heart out, just for a moment, seeing the signature.

Happy birthday, kiddo - your Granddad's dead, I think.

Drinks come, iced tea, beer, and something green with waves of dry ice frothing over the brim for Junior, all part of the service at Magic Time Machine. A minute later, he accidentally knocks it over whilst demonstrating some function of the Swiss army spade.

Courtlandt grabs the butter lid and uses it to scoop frothing liquid across the table into the now empty glass.

'See! I told you it had a use!'

We all agree what a great present the butter lid has been as Miranda brings us another green drink with dry ice.

We eat. Jay and I discuss our favourite Police albums. He likes Synchronicity, but I prefer Zenyatta Mondatta.

Everyone is a little subdued. It's impossible to imagine what must be going through the heads of the two boys. I still remember how hard the death of my own grandfather hit me at roughly their age.

Miranda fetches a to go box so I can take the leftover fries and make chip butties with them. She draws a pair of pants with haters back off written across the seat on the polystyrene box, then a pair of lips and an arrow pointing to the name Netflix, so we'll be able to find out about the character she's been playing and decide whether it's funny or not.

Next morning, Junior screws his Swiss army spade together and announces that he'll be taking it with him to zoo camp.

'Are you sure?' I ask, sharing a quizzical glance with my wife. 'I mean with great power comes great responsibility, and you know that thing cost your father a lot...'

He whisks out the butter lid, flashing it at me like a cop showing his badge.

'Well, all right then,' I say. 'I guess you know what you're doing,' and I'm secretly impressed, perhaps even proud.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Schot


It was one of those grand houses which people always associate with the south, all columns and verandas - not actually the former residence of a plantation owner, but rather the place where the slaves of the guy in the next mansion along had once lived. On the other hand, it was just the two of them - no servants or anything - so that was something; and they seemed like regular folks as they invited us in. I've spent time in the company of the absurdly rich, but usually as a guest who has paid an entrance fee, or as a manual worker who is being paid to do a job of some description; so ordinarily this might have worried me, but I had other things to think about. I was English and exotic, and these people had no real reason to like me. They might even have seen me as some sort of cuckoo, ousting Byron, their son, from his familial nest.

Thankfully life is never so obvious or predictable.

Schot was in his eighties but he got around okay. He was a little gaunt and moved slowly, and might most generously be described as a man who enjoyed a tipple. He never seemed drunk, but then he never really seemed conspicuously sober either. If he was as sozzled as he probably was, it was an amiable, gentle sort of drunk, a man slowly embalming himself in preparation for immortality.

He'd been ill on many occasions, and never anything casual or which might be set right with aspirin and a spot of bed rest, but each time he came back. We'd all begun to assume he would live forever.

His voice was warm and low, full of creases and character in a way which reminded me of William Burroughs. 'Can I get you something to drink, Lawrence?'

'I'm fine, thanks.'

'Scotch and soda, whiskey, I have some good malts...'

'No honestly. I'm okay.'

'Gin, bourbon, maybe some rum...'

'It's a bit early for me.' I tried not to laugh, then wondered if the comment might be taken as an insult given that I had no idea what time of day Schot might regard as sufficiently civilised for a first drink. 'I'm fine, really.'

'We have beer, or maybe a glass of wine...' He went on through the list, seemingly convinced that my temperance must be an illusion fostered only by his having thus far failed to identify my preferred tipple.

We escaped and made it to the swimming pool at the rear of the house, which was part of the reason why we'd been invited over. We splashed around as Schot and Minnie sat at the side on loungers.

I got out a couple of times, and on each occasion Schot resumed his enquiry, determined to get me that drink just as soon as he'd figured it out what it was.

'Tequila, maybe a liqueur...'

We saw them again from time to time, usually at Byron's house for one of his barbecue nights. I saw them less than did my wife, I suppose being the more remote relative, genetically speaking. It wasn't so much that I had a reason to avoid them, but their world seemed complicated. It was a place I didn't understand.

The last time I saw Schot was in the hospital, at his bedside. He had gone in with pneumonia. Aside from the location and the presence of a few tubes and drips, he seemed the same as ever. We knew he'd be out in a few days.

Not having seen either Schot or Minnie in a couple of months, I felt briefly warmed in their presence. These were people with whom I really didn't have much in common, but it was impossible to dislike either of them. These were, I suppose, real-life oil millionaires, and that's where Dallas and everyone else gets it wrong.

You mean like Trump?, my father chuckled as I tried to describe them over a transatlantic telephone connection.

'Not even slightly,' I told him. 'These people have some class.'

But it's Texas and it's the south so everyone has these ideas, and they're nearly always wrong. I seem to recall Schot having some guy ejected from his home for an off the cuff racist comment; and Barbara Jean, his own late sister, was an out lesbian with a long term partner and not particularly concerned with pretending otherwise; but no-one is ever going to break the box office with tales of the tolerant, liberal south.

The last time I saw Schot was in hospital on the Sunday, and on Wednesday I heard that he had died. Somehow it was unexpected, and it took the wind out of everyone's sails, and all I can really say that's of any use is that I feel privileged to have known the guy, even just briefly.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

It's Not Always Good to Talk

I'm very glad that you asked me that question...

I'm being interviewed for a podcast called Raconteur Roundtable. The interview lasts about an hour and is conducted over a Skype connection. Most of it is about my science-fiction novel, Against Nature, which was published by Obverse Books back in 2013. The interview is fun but exhausting, and I make the mistake of attempting to respond to certain questions with answers beyond the range of my ability to articulate them. I write a lot but I'm not very sociable and I don't engage in profoundly intellectual conversation on a daily or even yearly basis, which leaves me ill-equipped to discuss certain aspects of my own work. If I were able to tell you that, I should have said, I wouldn't have needed to write it in the first place.

Skype is a programme which facilitates communication between computers in different parts of the world. It makes use of a webcam so that you can see who you're talking to, and the webcam usually has a microphone built into it. My interview is conducted in audio only, but the webcam is nevertheless plugged in so that I can use the microphone, and thus am I able to watch a video image of myself as I speak. I'm sat in front of the Mexican national flag which I have hung over the back of some shelving. I'm going cross-eyed and duck-faced as I scrabble around in my vocabulary and attempt to form sentences. My hand wheels in the air at the side of my tilted head in illustration of something or other and I realise I've somehow turned into Suzanne from Orange is the New Black, and that I sound demented.

The thing is - well it's sort of, you know—what I'm getting at is that I was always looking for something. I mean I used to be into flying saucers and all that sort of rubbish, but I—well, it was like this. I discovered... I suddenly... I was looking for like a total... You know, I was always interested in ancient Egypt. I don't have the words here - what I mean to say...

As we conclude the interview, I tell them that I'm aware of having been unable to form sentences, or indeed to say anything useful, but they insist that I did fine and that they'll be able to edit it down to just the good stuff. I leave it at that.

I'm woken at three in the morning by my telephone beeping so as to alert me to the fact of the battery having run low and that it requires recharging. I've forgotten to switch the phone off because I barely even use the thing. Most of the time I keep it charged just in case my wife has an emergency and needs to reach me.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I swear and scrabble around in the darkness, struggling to unwrap the phone from my pants in the laundry basket at the side of the bed.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I turn the fucking thing off, then lie wide awake for the next few hours. I have David Bowie's Never Get Old stuck in my head and my thoughts are cycling, over and over - what I should have said, how I shouldn't have agreed to the interview in the first place, and how I wish there were a specific individual responsible for the fact of my stupid fucking phone having an alarm which beeps when the battery needs recharging so that I could track him down and smash his kneecaps and elbows with a ball-peen hammer.

I have to get up at seven, so naturally I lie awake, hot and restless and pissed off until approximately ten to seven.

I sleep briefly.

I get up at seven to feed a million cats, then come straight back to bed as my wife gets up and goes to work. I sleep until about ten and have a dream in which I am menaced by Adrian Meredith, an older boy who didn't seem to like me very much when I was at junior school. He's pushing me around. He needs me to do certain things. He wants me to go into a pawn shop and buy back his girlfriend's gold necklace, the one he pawned to them in the first place.

I get up and have a slow, crap day - headachey with a sore throat, so the oak pollen is probably high and it's something like 98° Fahrenheit outside.

In the evening my wife and I eat at Hung Fong on Broadway because the kid is with his dad tonight, and I've found myself unable to venture out onto the surface of Venus so as to visit the supermarket from which I would ordinarily purchase the ingredients for whatever I would have cooked as our evening meal. After Hung Fong we visit Northstar Mall because my wife needs the battery of her iPhone replaced. It charges, but only just, and she's had it about five years. She tried the AT&T store, but that line of enquiry went about as well as we expected it to, so now we're at the Apple Store in the mall. It's like a dining hall designed by IKEA, pine benches and the kind of stools you would expect to find in a pretentious kitchen. The place is packed, but it's hard to tell whether anything is actually happening. Everyone is stood or sat around, pissing about on MacBooks, chatting to staff without any obvious sense of urgency. The staff can be identified by their all being in their early twenties and skinny with beards, excepting the single female. Some of them also have ear gauges, and I expect there's a hat rack laden with fedoras somewhere at the rear of the store, ready for when they all fuck off home at the end of the working day - if we're going to expand the definition of work to such limits as to incorporate this bunch.

We can't tell what we're supposed to do, who we're supposed to see. Each one of the staff is chatting to someone, busy in his own way. There's no queue nor till nor any obvious point of focus to the store, because that would be like sooo predictable. There's a bench at the far end of the store identified as the genius bar by text printed on the wall alongside a symbol resembling an atom with neutrons and protons in orbit, possibly so as to make a slightly mystifying association with Albert Einstein. I am familiar with the Apple corporation's repurposing of the term genius. I have iTunes on my computer, and the genius feature is something which plays my tracks at random. This seems a very loose application of the term to me, something relating to the fetishisation of the mix tape, now that we've rendered cassettes obsolete and decided that they were called mix tapes, which they never were. It's because simply choosing something is now considered a wildly creative act, so when you're putting together your mix tape and you have Madonna's Material Girl followed by something from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that makes you a genius, yeah?

Even so, I can't tell what they're doing at the genius bar, and it isn't even the sort of bar at which you could buy the beer necessary for some of this arrangement to make sense.

'Maybe we just send out a vibe,' I suggest, 'or maybe if we take our clothes off...'

A young man - I'd guess in his early twenties - with a beard takes my wife's telephone number. It's a little before eight in the evening.

'I'll send you a text when someone is free,' he tells her. 'It shouldn't be much more than three quarters of an hour.'

We leave the store and take the escalator to the upper level, the food court I suppose you would call it. We buy ice cream from Marble Slab - because there's always room for ice cream - and sit and wait for the text summons to come to the iPhone which doesn't always work because of a problem with the battery.

We are summoned as we head back to the store just in case they've sent the message and we failed to receive it on the iPhone which doesn't always work because of a problem with the battery. The time is 8.45PM, and we waste another five minutes back in the store trying to work out who has summoned us. Eventually a young man with a beard identifies himself and shows us to a couple of stools. 'Someone will be with you shortly,' he tells us.

We wait.

I reintroduce the idea of taking our clothes off, but Bess isn't so keen. I move the stool away from the bench so that I can lay on it on my stomach. I stretch my legs out back and spread my arms. 'I'm a plane!' I tell Bess.

This doesn't work either so I try to look like I'm buying something. I take a box from the shelf and pull faces so as to suggest that I'm weighing up the pros and cons of buying a household lighting system which can be controlled from your iPhone. I guess my pantomime isn't very convincing because no-one comes to manage the potential sale. Try as I might, I am unable to impersonate interest in something which no-one sane could ever possibly need in their home.

The store begins to empty. An assistant with an unusually prodigious beard leaves.

'That one must be their king,' I point out, having decided they're like an ant colony. I say it loud in the hope of annoying somebody.

Twenty minutes have passed and a young man finally comes to see what's up with my wife's iPhone. Weirdly, he has no beard and he's kind of chunky.

'It's the battery,' we say.

He takes the iPhone into the back room in order to perform a full diagnostic. 'It's the battery,' he tells us fifteen minutes later.

I think of the phone guy in Earlsdon High Street back in Coventry, England; forever sat there yacking away to his ancient sidekick, always with a fag on the go. It's my phone, you just about manage as he snatches it from your hand, presses a few buttons, pulls a face, rips the back off, replaces something, then chucks it back.

'Call it a tenner, mate.'

We're a long way from Earlsdon High Street, and still some way from a fully operational iPhone. It's booked in, but it will take an hour and a half and my wife will be able to collect it tomorrow around noon.

'An hour and a half?' Bess is sceptical. 'There's a guy on YouTube who does it in twenty minutes.'

'Well there are other jobs we have, cracked screens to be replaced and so on.'

Neither of us can be bothered to point out that these alleged cracked screens are nothing to do with us. We just want to go home.

On the way to the parking lot we pass a Microsoft concession out in the mall. I wonder out loud if they have fights with the Apple colony, like the Bash Street Kids and their rivals in the pages of the Beano.

'Maybe that's where the King went. Maybe someone challenged him to a duel?'

We may never know the answer.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Schnitzel & Giggles


So far as I can remember, my first village fête was in Wimpstone, a row of houses in rural Warwickshire which I'm not even convinced was ever really long enough to be called a village, although it probably seemed like the big city when I was five. The River Stour runs along the back of Wimpstone, past the last house and under the main road, and I imagine the fête must have occupied the triangular patch of land framed by road, river, and the garden of whoever lived in that last house. That's how I remember it, although it was nearly half a century ago so I could be wrong. I recall attractions which didn't even do much for me at the age of five, if that's how old I was; and I remember old crap turfed out from attics and cupboards beneath stairs for sale upon tablecloths laid across the grass. I bought a book about Robin Hood, or at least I cadged pennies off my mother and bought a book about Robin Hood. It was an orange hardback, the kind which would once have been wrapped in a garish technicolour cover, and it was illustrated. It seemed like quite a find and left a bigger impression on me than anything else that day, or from any village fete since.

Just once, I would like to have been as excited about a village fête as Randy is about the Camden County Fair in My Name is Earl*. 

Hey, everybody! I'm Gus, the Camden County Fair bear, runs the commercial while Randy tries hard to keep from exploding with anticipation. Who's ready for some fun? Enjoy food, fun, prizes, an Osama bin Laden shooting gallery; And this year, get your picture taken inside the actual car from Smokey and the Bandit. It's gonna be bear-tastic!

Subsequent commercials additionally promise that the event will be not only bear-riffic, but fully bear-awesome. I know bear-awesome doesn't make any sense, and yet it sort of makes perfect sense; and one day I'll attend a village fête which will be genuinely bear-awesome. Maybe that day has come.

We're out driving. We don't know where we're going because we're having an adventure; or Bess may have some vague idea seeing as she has the wheel because I never learned to drive, but I suspect she's playing it by ear. It's June and we live in Texas, so needless to say it's fucking hot, somewhere up in the vicinity of 100° Fahrenheit; but our lower humidity makes the heat marginally more bearable than it would be in England, and in any case I don't know what that is in old money, so it's just something we deal with, even if it rules out long rural walks at noon.

As we approach Boerne, we see a sign for the Berges Fest, which isn't a village fête because we don't really have villages in Texas; but it sounds like it might be a county fair, and might therefore be bear-awesome. I guess Berges derives from berg, apparently meaning mountain in German; and Boerne is a culturally German town on the edge of the Texas hill country, which I suppose amounts to more sense than my assumption of this being the Berges County Fair, because there is no Berges County. Boerne is in Kendall County.

We park in a suspiciously empty lot, probably a field which has only just been opened up to handle the overspill from the existing lots. We walk amongst giant trucks and make appalling jokes about what we're going to find, because we don't yet know what we're getting into. Thankfully it isn't a Klan rally or an international swingers' expo. It's a fair, if not strictly speaking a county one. It's food, music, heat, and booze. Fest is probably as good a term as any.

First we have cups of corn, something my wife recalls as having been a treat when she was young, but of course a new one on me. We stand next to the fifteen foot inflatable cob and the guy fills polystyrene cups with bright yellow corn. We get plastic spoons and are invited to mix in our own butter - which is in liquid state at this point - mayonnaise, and paprika. Surprisingly, it's delicious.

We approach a covered marquee with open sides, one of two. There's a stage in the middle and an oompah band, all pigtails and lederhosen. The musicians are arranged upon the stage in a half-circle, three rows of them, all seated, because technically they are an oompah orchestra. Sadly there seem to be more people on stage than in the audience, but happily those on stage are having such a great time that they don't really care; and not once am I reminded of that scene in Cabaret.

Finishing our corn, we investigate the other marquee. Within, we find an array of craft stalls, but they seem to be of the kind we see everywhere selling the sort of stuff which fills the stores of Boerne and New Braunfels - pieces of wood embossed with motivational slogans, and the like. There are also stalls selling car insurance and double glazing.

Who the hell goes to the fair and buys double glazing?

There's an ice cream stand run by a likeable old coot with a moustache of the kind my English relatives probably imagine to be more common in Texas than is actually the case. Bess chooses coconut and I decide that I want the eggnog flavour, so our guy works his way around a succession of nine or ten freezers before locating our requested flavours. The ice cream is home made, frozen onto sticks, and delicious.

Beyond the marquee, we find a rodeo in progress, or at least we guess it's a rodeo because there's a rodeo clown stood in front of an audience. An absent minute passes before we see the cattle in a pen on the far side of the bleachers. There's also a distorted commentary coming through the tannoy, but we can't tell what he's commenting upon because nothing seems to be happening, and the commentary is delivered in that accent which sounds like someone playing with a selection of rubber bands. The rodeo clown is just standing there.

Another minute saunters by, and still nothing has happened so we walk in the direction of cheering and excitement. Here is another, smaller crowd, and they too are watching something narrated by a man with a microphone. We shuffle to the front of the crowd and see dachshund races in progress, a couple of little sausage dogs being petted and steadied at one end of a track with their people waiting at the other - doggy people, one of them a woman wearing a t-shirt upon which is written don't ever let go of your wiener in country and western lettering. Suddenly the dogs are off, tails wagging, some panting as they happily trot off in the vague direction of the finish line. They don't seem to be in particularly competitive spirit, but another minute passes and we have a winner. His name is Michael and his owner scoops him up and lavishes him with kisses.

The dachshund is a popular dog in our part of Texas, second only to the chihuahua; but it's hot, and it's difficult to imagine a full afternoon at the dachshund races; and already my wife has been distracted by a food truck, not because she's hungry, but because she's drawn to novelty. The truck has a name, as though it's just a restaurant on wheels. It's called Schnitzel & Giggles, so my wife takes a photograph and posts it on facebook.

It seems like we've had all the fun there is to be had, so we leave. It's been the kind of occasion which might have seemed more significant if we lived in Boerne, which we don't. It's been a great way to spend thirty minutes, but fell sadly short of bear-awesome.

*: Stole Beer from a Golfer, the seventh episode of the first series, in case anyone was wondering.