Thursday, 16 January 2020

An Englishman in HEB


HEB is my local supermarket, our equivalent of Tesco or Sainsbury's. The most popular, most visible alternatives are Target and Walmart, although they don't quite count, being department stores with grocery sections; and I dislike Walmart due to their employment practices, generally depressing atmosphere, and because the last time I went, I was refused entry with my backpack. This was in the wake of a mass shooting in the El Paso branch of Walmart, down on the Mexican border. I guess the staff were concerned that I might intend to go nuts with a firearm I had fiendishly secreted in said backpack, although my actual intention had been to buy stuff and use the offending item as a means of conveying it all back to my dwelling. I have reservations regarding Walmart's commitment to discouraging persons with firearms going nuts given the great prices to be had in their own well stocked guns and ammunition department; although in their favour, they prevented my potentially deadly ingress by posting a crack team of very old ladies at the store entrance.

'Sir, you cain't come in heah wit' that,' they told me.

There are smaller supermarkets such as Michoacana, which is handy for anything Mexican which can't be found elsewhere, but HEB is the most convenient. As with branches of Jim's diner, HEB is to be found all over town, and each store has a slightly different character according to the neighbourhood it serves, as denoted by an unofficial but widely known nickname. The fancier end of Alamo Heights is served by the Gucci B, whilst the more temperate end of Alamo Heights is served by the Dooney B - a joke which my wife had to explain to me but which apparently makes immediate sense if you've ever bought an expensive handbag. The one on Fredericksburg Road is called the Deco B in reference to its architectural style, and the one near the Jewish Community Centre is sensitively referred to as the Heeb.

My local HEB is known as the Ghetto B because we live at the edge of what many rap artists would recognise as the 'hood. Practically this means that white women with face lifts are rarely seen amongst its clientele, the majority of whom seem to be Hispanic, which itself also means that it can sometimes be difficult to buy bratwurst. On the other hand, I feel approximately at home at the Ghetto B, as though they're my peeps, roughly speaking.

I shop there every day, just fifteen minutes as I make my way home from the trail negating the need of one massive, expensive and time consuming shop at the end of the week in the generally exhausting spirit of a mountain climbing expedition. Consequently I know the store pretty well, and the staff have come to inhabit my current mythology in the absence of workmates, even those to whom I've barely spoken a word. Excepting my wife and facebook, they're what I now have instead of a social life, which works out fine seeing as I've discovered that I'm not actually that social and quite enjoy not having to talk to people all the time.

I know to avoid tills worked by Lorna or the woman with Karl Malden's nose. I checked out at Lorna's till on three occasions when I first moved here, and there was a problem every time. I'd bought the wrong one, or picked one that wouldn't scan, or something else which had her rolling her eyes as though I'd done it on purpose before calling for a manager. The woman with Karl Malden's nose seems less contentious, but once stockpiled all of my purchases at her end of the conveyor belt after ringing up the prices. This meant I was unable to pack them into my bag as they were scanned, and gave me the impression that she believed I'd been banking on doing a runner without paying; so that was annoying.

There have been a few whose tills I always head for, based on some vague impression of their being nice people, or at least interesting people - Jennifer who resembled a Mayan princess, and the young black woman with blue lipstick who always seemed unreasonably happy - both of whom have gone on to hopefully better things. Then there's Lesbia, who used to work at Walmart, and I don't know but that's what's printed on her name tag; and no, I'm not going to ask. There's Thomas who has a girlfriend who lives in England, which is how we got talking, because he flew over to see her about a month before my own most recent visit. It turned out that she lived in a village called Stoneleigh, near Coventry. Given that Stoneleigh is so small as to have neither a shop nor a pub, and I used to cycle through the place two or three times a week when I was living at my mother's place, back in 2010, the level of coincidence would seem comparable to that thing about random chimps coming up with Macbeth.

Today I'm carting my seven tins of cat food, bottle of tonic water, and ten packets of Ramen noodles for the kid to Katherine's till, which is rare, although I think this is the first time I've noticed her name tag. She seems okay, but is very, very small, and I've developed an irrational fear of small people ever since I went out with Dora the Explorer. Someone called Brandy is stood at the end of the belt on bagging duty. As they work they're talking about allergies and having trouble sleeping. Katherine recommends something called Benadryl.

I listen in because I've had a couple of restless headachey nights, which I'm blaming on pollen in the absence of any better idea. It never used to affect me, but I guess now it does.

Usually I pack my own bag, but sometimes it seems rude to do so if there's a bag packer stood there looking bored, as they occasionally do. I give Brandy the bag, the one I always bring with me.

'I love that pattern,' she says with a strong Texan lilt, the kind which sounds like words spoken whilst chewing gum. 'Is that like a crocodile print?'

'I've no idea.' I don't want to be rude but it's just a bag, and weirdest of all is that I've had this conversation before in this store with other bag packers. I guess they're just making conversation.

'Did you say you were having trouble with allergies?' I ask her, because I actually want to know.

'Nope.'

I'm confused. 'Was it you who had the allergies?' I ask Katherine.

'Yes.' She squints at me, curious. 'London?'

It takes me a moment to recognise it as a question.

'Yes, I'm from London.'

'I just love your accent,' says Brandy.

'Thanks.'

'My friend is from London,' Katherine adds, then starts on some story about a phone-in radio show which relates in ways which aren't yet obvious, and I'm suddenly aware that I'm holding up the line. I pop my card into the reader and enter my number.

'Do you know what part of London?'

'No, but I can tell the accent apart from the rest.' She means as distinct from other English accents. 'I bet we all sound weird to you, ha?'

'Well, not really. I've been here ten years so I don't really notice.'

'But at first we must have sounded strange.'

'At first, when I first came here, yes.'

I've had this conversation many times before, but it's preferable to the weirder alternatives, such as the cashier who deduced that I have a rabbit because I was buying rabbit food, told me that she too had a rabbit, then spent the rest of the conversation going on about the terrible smell of rabbits. I found this weird and confusing because Charlie, who is our rabbit, usually smells quite nice.

I've had this conversation before, as I say, but I don't mind it at Ghetto B because I know people are simply curious, interested to meet anyone from a foreign land.

'How do you like it here?' Brandy asks, as they always ask.

'I like it a lot,' I say, as I always say. 'To be honest, I like it a lot more than I like England.'

So that was my adventure for this week.

Friday, 10 January 2020

The Writers' Workshop



Where do you get the ideas for your amazing books? is a question I am asked all too often, and it's not the only question either! Sometimes it's how do you write your amazing books? which is of course another matter entirely. Naturally, were I to answer such questions on each occasion of my being asked, I would barely have time to write my amazing books! Therefore it seemed high time I offered some more general address in hope of satisfying everyone's curiosity, affording my readers a precious glimpse of how the magic comes about; and so today I'll be sharing some of my thoughts on the work of a few aspiring authors.





War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Whether it be Star Trek, Star Wars or Babylon 5, I love science-fiction, and science-fiction novels can be great too. In fact I'm unapologetically a particularly huge fan of Philip K. Dick, the crazy genius who brought us both Blade Runner and Total Recall. Unfortunately, anyone reading War of the Worlds hoping for anything in the vein of one of Dick's famous twist endings will be disappointed. War of the Worlds is a steampunk novel, and steampunk is Victorian science-fiction, although I know I hardly need to explain that to anyone who, like me, follows the adventures of that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor! If War of the Worlds sounds familiar, then you're probably thinking of the wonderful BBC serial of which this is the novelisation. Wells strives to tell an exciting adventure in jolly old Victorian England but comes unstuck by concentrating on the action whilst ignoring the powerful character development we saw on the screen. I'm all for writers branching out and doing their own thing, but not at the expense of the drama. My advice would have been to develop some conflict for George, perhaps with a childhood scene wherein (for example) his father makes light of our young protagonist, perhaps being dismissive of a childish drawing the boy has done for his dear old dad. Wells' War might then serve as a clever metaphor for George's internal struggle as he wrestles with feelings of abandonment, subconsciously seeking the approval of a father figure while fleeing from the Martians and their terrible ray guns. Wells might do well (no pun intended there!) to pick up a few of my officially licensed He-Man and the Masters of the Universe tie-in novels so as to see how his somewhat flat characters could have been better handled.





Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. No-one loves to curl up on the sofa on a rainy day with a super-gooey romance like I do, but I have a hard time believing that D.H. Lawrence feels the same even if that's what he's tried to write here. This is probably the grumpiest, gloomiest romance I've ever tried to read, and the hero doesn't even sound particularly dashing. There's an introduction by one of the author's snooty friends making a big deal out of Lawrence's descriptions of the natural world, but to be honest I found this aspect even more depressing than his failure to summon up anything approaching lovey dovey. My advice to D.H. would be to treat himself to a binge watch of Midsomer Murders for some pointers on creating a charming rustic atmosphere, and because romance does actually feature in the show every now and then - certainly more than you'll find in Women in Love. Women Having a Bit of a Moan would have been a more accurate title!





Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Behind each successful author there will always be a queue of others hoping to ride on the same ticket to YA publishing stardom, and I'm sure Stephenie Meyer has lost count of those hoping to duplicate her success with the fantastic Twilight franchise. Mary Shelley can hardly be faulted for her ambition in picking such a well established character as Frankenstein, but she  should have done a bit more research. Whilst this Frankenstein sounds familiar from Shelley's long-winded steampunk influenced description, the problem is that old bolts-through-the-neck never shuts up, instead delivering long lectures which I doubt even the great Boris Karloff, the original Frankenstein, would have had the patience to memorise. With a little more effort, this could have been the beginning of an amazing, if not terribly original, franchise with  Frankenstein meeting a spooky Egyptian mummy, a werewolf and so on, but it's hardly surprising that Shelley's publisher declined to pick up the option on this one.





The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. I know what you're thinking - it sounds like one of those super saucy Confessions films from the swinging seventies starring Robin Askwith, the key to which was the suggestion of lewd material without showing too much. If Mr. Burroughs saw any of those films, I would say he probably didn't learn anything because this book doesn't make any sense, and is extremely lewd with page after page describing what two men of certain inclinations might get up to if left to their own devices. Now I'm no prude, and I'm a great supporter of the LGBT community, but this sort of thing really is beyond the pale. There isn't even any description of anyone sharing a romantic lunch in suitable preface to the bedroom unpleasantness described in such detail, which I'm sure the author thought was very clever indeed. No-one likes a toffee nosed show off, Mr. Burroughs. In the author's defence, it seems the publisher has mistakenly published the pages of his novel in the wrong order, resulting in a mish-mash of such bewildering composition as to resemble the sort of insanity which was popular amongst the spaced out druggers of the 1960s, and fans of cult classic The Prisoner might enjoy some of The Naked Lunch had Burroughs not spent so much of the book describing things I would rather not discuss with children present.





London Fields by Martin Amis. I have to confess that I don't know how this one ended, having given up half way through. The problem is that whilst Amis clearly strives to recreate the charm of the beloved Cockney characters from EastEnders, he fails to imbue them with what we writers refer to as relatability, which is a quality where the reader is able to imagine him or herself as one of the characters in the book. My advice to Mr. Amis would be to pick up a couple of volumes of Black Pudding Row, my popular series of heart-warming tales of down to earth folk living in a pleasant town in the north of England. It's possible to write working class characters without recourse to foul language, Mr. Amis. You simply have to keep at it.

So there we have it for this time. I hope you've enjoyed my sharing a few humble suggestions as much as I've enjoyed sharing them with you; and if you're a budding author, I hope this has provided a few pointers. A book should transport its reader to a magical world of wonderment and make believe, so it's important that we who have been blessed with the task of arranging that transport should get it right!

Friday, 3 January 2020

The Blue Hole


We are driving to Wimberley, Texas, a journey of an hour or more. Some woman has asked Bess to paint a design on canvas using specific colours, and we've worked out that it will be easier - and certainly cheaper - to hand deliver the finished piece to the woman's parents than to stick it in the mail; plus we're probably due a day out. Bess tells me that I've already met the people we're visiting - although I have no memory of them - and that they are old and will therefore most likely hold with certain views and opinions. I am to be on my best behaviour. It's news to me that I'm ever less than delightful even in proximity to the absolute worst kind of shithead.

Wimberley is pretty and of surprisingly alpine character for this part of Texas. It reminds me of Ruidoso, New Mexico, which is way up in the mountains. Houses are spread out, hidden by walls of cypress, down gullies or up the side of a hill. We follow winding roads and eventually arrive at our destination.

'Be nice,' Bess reminds me.

'Okay.'

Marie and Marvin are indeed of a certain vintage, both retired, and I remember them from Bess's grandmother's ninetieth birthday celebrations. Marvin reminds me of both Hank - Walter White's brother-in-law from Breaking Bad - and Yondu from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, although not bright blue. He's gruff but genial, and immediately comes across as a nice guy.

They invite us in. They compare notes with Bess - mutual friends, Bess's grandmother, and Pearsall, the town serving as a common point of origin for everyone in the room except me.

I look around and notice a bookcase with actual books. This seems like a good sign. It's something I don't see very often.

'So how did you two meet?' Marvin enquires.

It's the inevitable question and I can hardly blame anyone for being curious. We give the answer we always give, which somehow leads on to Marvin asking what I think of all the business with Prince Andrew. You can tell he's treading with care, choosing his words just in case I whip out a sword and challenge anyone insulting her majesty to a duel; or possibly just in case I'm a raving republican.

'I don't really know, but I don't think a lot of it,' I tell him. 'To be honest, I try not to think of the younger royals at all. I think Princess Anne was probably the last one of them who wasn't completely useless.'

I'm surprised by my own later-life monarchism, which is either something to do with having just finished watching the third series of The Crown, or possibly being a displaced Englishman living in a country which has chosen an illiterate fucknugget for its supreme being; but it's true that I've never had strong feelings about the royal family one way or the other, beyond that they seem a wearyingly easy target for those who somehow believe their abolition will lead directly to some kind of classless utopia. I appreciate that there may be a republican argument to be had regarding leaders who've risen to positions of authority without having been democratically elected, but given the dangerous fucking maniacs who have risen to the top through the democratic process, I'd suggest there's a shitload of wiggle room in that proposal.

Marvin chuckles and mutters something about Boris Johnson.

'He was a comedy game show contestant when I was living there,' I say, 'just a bumbling cartoon toff, and he was very good at it. I have no idea how he ended up where he is. He's terrible.'

'Well, we have the exact same problem here, as you know,' Marvin tells me, and it's clear we're on the same page.

We give them the painting which is to be passed on to their daughter, then Marvin shows us his workshop. He creates art by burning lines into wood with a heated stylus much like a soldering iron. This is a new one on me, and he's very good at it, achieving a surprisingly subtle realism in the images he crafts.

We stand by the car saying our goodbyes. Bess hugs Marie.

'I don't do all this hugging thing,' Marvin explains.

'Me neither,' I report with obvious relief and we shake hands.

'You two are the same person,' Bess laughs.

We head to the centre of the town, to the local museum.

The local museum is a log cabin with two rooms. I manage to look at the grinding stones of the old corn mill for about five seconds before the attendant helpfully explains that these are grinding stones which were originally used at the old corn mill. He then describes their operation, how water would drive a mill and the corn would be ground into flour between these two stones. I'd point out that, having attended school as a child, I am very much familiar with the concept, but his monologue presents no gaps in which I can wedge my interjection.

I move on.

All around the room, the walls are adorned with informative essays and illustrations from old books describing the founding of Wimberley. I try to read but the attendant follows me and takes to summarising each piece of writing. I guess he's just glad to have someone to talk to.

The next room is concerned mainly with Jacob de Cordova, a Jewish man of Spanish ancestry born in Jamaica, and who founded The Gleaner. I recall The Gleaner fairly well as the newspaper of choice for almost every Londoner of Caribbean heritage I ever knew, so this seems like an interesting story with more than its fair share of peculiar random swerves. Bess and I look at the picture of Cordova's grave, and the map of Texas he famously drew, and a painting of the Battle of San Jacinto, but it's difficult to work out how all of these elements might be connected whilst our chatty host is yacking away, and now he's somehow onto the subject of James Bond, the famous English spy who wrote all of those books and who had the idea for them while living in Jamaica.

We give up and leave, trying hard to be polite about it.

We wander through Wimberley, taking in a few of the galleries.

Finally we head for the Blue Hole, which is to be found in the local park. Unfortunately, it being Autumn, it's the Orange Hole at this time of year, what with all the leaves covering everything. Bess summons a picture to her phone and shows me how it looks in summer. It's a small lake, surrounded by cypresses, beautifully clear waters with a terrifying limestone orifice at the centre. It reminds me of the cenotes of Mexico which were traditionally believed to lead to the realm of the dead.

We pass another couple as we leave and Bess detects an English accent so we have the usual conversation.

'He's from Coventry,' Bess says.

The woman mutters something about Dorridge. This rings a major bell for me although I can't remember why.

'It's near Coventry,' the woman explains.

'I know,' I tell her as the penny drops. 'I went on a sort of pilgrimage to Dorridge a couple of years ago. Do you know John Wyndham, the writer?'

'No,' she says.

This floors me for a moment. 'Well he was born in Dorridge so I went there to see if I could find his birthplace. You must know The Day of the Triffids?'

'Oh yes,' she confirms happily and we all spend a moment talking about John Wyndham's famed predatory plants.

'Do you remember Quatermass?' she asks, having apparently mistaken the focus of our conversation for scary stuff we can remember seeing on the telly.

Bess and I discreetly extricate ourselves from the conversation for the second time today. Even as the Orange Hole, it has still been worth the trip.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Beano


There were eleven of us, myself included, and we met up at the Crystal Palace Tavern - Kingsley, Andre, Don, Sav, Big Dan, Rodney, Tuns, Steve Mozzella, Alan the manager, and some bloke seemingly known to everyone except myself. He was some mate of Alan the manager, probably a postman from up Mandela Way and unknown to me because I tended to avoid overtime where possible. Eight hours of that shit each day, plus four at weekends was in itself quite sufficient.

It was Saturday afternoon, just enough time for everyone to have had a quick shower and a change of clothes after work. A van had been hired and we were going on a beano to Southend-on-Sea.

I'd customarily avoided this sort of thing in the past, but I was approaching forty and I'd begun to ask myself what was the worst that could happen. I liked a drink and I liked to get drunk, and I'd even begun to enjoy the company of other postmen. Even Tuns, my former enemy, seemed to have got over whatever problem he'd had with me when I started at East Dulwich. We weren't buddies, but at least he was no longer sneering at me from the other side of the sorting office whilst rhetorically asking who the fuck I thought I was because I'd just chuckled at a joke cracked by someone from one of his other inordinately complex mental lists.

On the other hand, Alan the manager was an unalloyed tosser, and unfortunately the reason that Nadim had decided against joining us; although Nadim also had some problem with Rodney, something about the changing rooms after some football match and how Rodney had sprayed Ralgex on his finger and then stuck it up some young kid's arse. It sounded a bit unlikely to me, but it also sounded like the sort of disagreement for which there wouldn't be much to gain from taking sides; and personally I liked Rodney. He was one of the funniest people I'd ever met and had at least never tried to stick a  Ralgexy finger up my arse.

Steve was a bit of a wild card and was usually to be found at the centre of an actual shop floor fist fight at least once a week. I never really understood why as he seemed fairly amiable whenever I spoke to him. My guess is that he lacked the ability to rise above the sort of shite people habitually come out with at work.

I used to drink with the Catford postmen, not all the time because that bunch would drink until they couldn't stand, but mostly they were fun. The Dulwich bunch didn't really socialise in the same way, probably because so few of them actually lived in Dulwich, so the beano seemed to be a means of redressing the balance, or something along those lines, but with the disadvantage of it being fairly difficult to stagger home from Southend-on-Sea once I'd had enough.

Wikipedia thus describes the etymology of the term beano:

A bean-feast was an informal term for a celebratory meal or party, especially an annual summer dinner given by an employer to his or her employees, probably derived from a tradition in the Low Countries at Twelfth Night. By extension, colloquially, it describes any festive occasion with a meal and perhaps an outing. The word, and its shorter form beano, are fairly common in Britain, less known in the United States.

So the comic which brought us Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids is therefore named after a works piss-up.

We piled into the van and set off. I managed to seat myself amongst Kingsley, Don, and Andre, and significantly as far as possible from Alan the manager, but not so far as to be unable to hear him trying hard to balance his efforts to be one of the lads whilst maintaining command presence. Curiously for a black man, he didn't seem to particularly like black people, which looked one hell of a lot as though he was trying to prove something to white managers - see, I don't play favourites, I'm not like them, I'm like you. He routinely pulled Kingsley up about stuff he probably wouldn't have noticed had it been some white dude.

Yet even here, as just a bunch of cunts in a van with not a uniform in sight, the hierarchy remained. Alan haw haw hawed with the overtime boys, the docket bashers, those for whom getting off your tits with the boss was apparently strategic; and the rest of us - the losers and tag-alongs - kept to the back of the van.

It was a couple of hours to Southend, going via the Blackwall Tunnel, with just one stop at an industrial estate somewhere in Essex so that Don and Andre could urinate in broad daylight against a chain link fence.

We hit Southend, the seafront, and straight into a pub, and I immediately realised that this had been a fucking terrible idea. I'd imagined all eleven of us, maybe even Alan, quietly sinking into pleasant alcoholic haze over the next nine or ten hours, sinking into our chairs, talking shite, and all differences reduced to raw material for jokes and comic digs. Instead, Southend was swarming with arseholes all looking to get pissed and laid, or looking for something which might at least be obtained by exerting downward force upon everyone else. It was loud and chaotic, and the reason we had all gone into the pub was for as quick a pint as possible while getting our bearings and working out which arcade we were going to hit first. It was going to be an afternoon of pings and flashing lights, and even the act of getting drunk seemed to have taken lesser priority.

'What the hell are we doing?' I asked in rhetorical spirit.

'I really don't know.' Andre's answer seemed similarly dour, much to my surprise. Everyone else was getting into the swing of it, off to some pub, agreeing to meet later, announcing preferences for such and such an arcade game. Even Kingsley had been absorbed into the beano gestalt, contrary to his ordinarily temperate disposition.

I suddenly knew I absolutely could not spend the next eight or nine hours in the company of these people. It was nothing personal but the fact of being stranded here and obligated to engage in someone else's idea of fun until the van took us back to south-east London around nine in the evening was like some massive concrete block I simply couldn't get around. I'd anticipated some social event, but these people didn't want to talk. They wanted to get pissed and play arcade games. They wanted fun activities.

'Fuck this,' I said, seizing the moment. 'I'm going home.'

Only Don, Kingsley and Andre had heard me. The rest were in different bars or battling illuminated aliens or stuffing burgers into their faces.

'I'll come too,' said Andre, looking slightly ill.

We followed signs for the railway station, making our way against the tide of people piling onto the seafront in search of fun. We passed some goths, not the sort I'd grown up with, but the new generation, the ones who were into Marilyn Manson. They were the first of this batch I'd seen, and this was the first time I felt old.

They looked like children. They wore black clothes so clean and tailored as to seem fresh from the box, ridiculous flared trousers and silver spikes in stupid places. They looked like products, like things which came in sets, as though they had all been designed and marketed according to specific guidelines.

Andre and I took the train back to Liverpool Street, sharing a compartment in silence because he was genuinely ill - something he had eaten before setting off that morning.

I, on the other hand, had no such excuse, just the usual error of judgement.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Simon


It hasn't been a great week. It's been cold and I don't do well with the cold, which was one factor that eased my relocation to Texas. Christmas approaches with all the obligations of time spent in the company of persons whose company can be problematic. My wife is being messed about at her place of work. Carol died earlier in the week, and if I hadn't seen her in a couple of decades, it still felt rough even at such distance. Our neighbour has been whining about the cats again with his usual passive-aggressive charm, seemingly expecting me to tell him God knows what - maybe that I'd happily have them all put down rather than suffer another stray turd to be laid upon his beloved driveway; and Simon Morris is dead.

Simon was the vocalist and driving force of a group called the Ceramic Hobs. I first heard them at the tail end of the eighties, or possibly very early nineties - a couple of tracks someone had stuck on the end of a tape for me, and all I can remember was that they sounded like a bit of a racket. My initial impression wasn't great.

Around 1999, he sent a copy of Psychiatric Underground, the Ceramic Hobs first album, to the Sound Projector magazine with the words please feel free to give our CD a good slagging - we can handle it! I was writing reviews for the magazine at the time and Ed Pinsent, the editor, passed it on to me, suggesting that it seemed to be my sort of thing. I thought it sounded like a bit of a racket, but tried to write something positive:

It's certainly one of the more incoherent CDs I've come across. Tape collages are splattered across its twenty-eight tracks with all the ferocity of the pattern in the toilet bowl after a bout of swallie induced pebble-dashery. All mashed up with the tapes and a few techno inspired remixes is an assortment of occasionally tuneful punky numbers complete with gargled vocals, a drumkit being demolished, and a family of chimps at the mixing desk. They must've got through some PG Tips whilst this album was being made. Psychiatric Underground is like one of those kid's drawings of a circus where everything happens simultaneously, an interpretation which, if true to life, would mean that most circuses would last about five minutes.

Another stumbling block had been the association with Pumf Records, whom I recalled from the eighties back when I too had been involved in the whole DIY weirdy tapes by mail scene. To be fair, I hadn't actually heard any of their works, but had become jaded through a million flyers for Pumf products spilling from everything which came in the mail for a period of about a year. It had begun to feel like telemarketing; but then, I reasoned, there almost certainly would have been persons out there similarly weary of my own shittily photocopied self promotion. I swallowed my pride and struck up a correspondence with Stan of Pumf, and then also the Ceramic Hobs guitarist, reasoning that veterans of whatever it was that we both seemed to be veterans of should probably stick together.

Next came Straight Outta Rampton, the second Ceramic Hobs album, and the one where I finally felt I understood what the hell they were trying to do. The above description still applied, but somehow the random patterns had formed something weird and beautiful; and I suddenly felt guilty about having given Psychiatric Underground away and sent for a second copy; at which point Simon wrote to me to say thanks for the write up, but also:

It's weird to be writing to you really. In about 1983 when I was fourteen I used to correspond with Larry Peterson, and I distinctly remember a Do Easy flyer that he sent - that was you, wasn't it?

It was, and he told me that my writing was the best stuff in the Sound Projector - even though it clearly wasn't - which was nice, and we became pals. Musically speaking, I'd been working on the launch of my ill advised rap career, and it had occurred to me that it might be interesting were the impending CD to include a few voices other than my own. I'd heard Simon rap on tapes he'd recorded with Stan as Judge Mental and the Heavy Dread Beat - amongst other ludicrous names - and while his rapping was basic as fuck, it was also funny and made up for the shortfall with sheer anger. I sent him an instrumental and he sent me a vocal which I striped onto the four-track master without too much difficulty. Then I performed with the Ceramic Hobs when they played at the Garage in Islington, first time jumping on stage on the spur of the moment, and on the second occasion with more preparation. I think I may actually have thrown up on him on one of these two occasions, which is always a bonding experience. I doubt our collaboration made any difference to anyone's life, but they were fun, and we loosely kept in touch from that point on - despite my momentary emesis - through my moving to Texas, through the Ceramic Hobs splitting and then reforming in different configurations.

He suffered from schizophrenic episodes and mostly seemed to have it under control, but was mad by some definition - a term he embraced with punky enthusiasm - and was as such a square peg in a round hole world, as the best people tend to be. He was also fiercely intelligent and I found we agreed on most of the important stuff.

It's like he doesn't get the idea that all this arty music is just another form of showbiz, it's all product. I'm convinced of this so when people seem to swallow the false high/low culture divide it bugs me. The Ramones say more to me as art than Aphex Squarepusher laptop powerbook wank anyway.

As fellow graduates of a certain poorly defined thing, we knew a lot of the same people, same points of reference. When Robert Dellar, the Mad Pride activist who had arranged for the Ceramic Hobs to play at the Garage died at the end of 2016, I took it upon myself to produce some sort of anthology as either a tribute or an epitaph. The book was called Kiss of Life, and Simon's contribution was a letter explaining why he couldn't contribute.

My book from last year and the one out soon are full of death and obituaries. I feel like a fucking undertaker or something. I just can't face writing more stuff like that, not about Robert. Apologies again. You can use this paragraph if you like as an explanation of why I can't contribute - I am still much too upset basically.

I know the feeling.

More recently he urged me to get in touch with Philip Best of Consumer Electronics on the grounds of his having moved to Austin, just down the road from me, and arguably being another veteran of whatever the hell it had been when we were all much younger. Philip had been a member of Whitehouse so I was slightly terrified by the idea, but through Simon's persistent nagging I made the effort; and I'm glad I did because, as I now realise, Philip is one of the nicer - or at least less cunty - people I've met through association with noisy music, and he now runs Amphetamine Sulphate publishing which has been responsible for at least a couple of the greatest short novels I've ever read.

In addition to compiling the astonishing Black Pool Legacy, the double album which at last makes sense of the Ceramic Hobs sprawling body of work, Best also published three books by Simon, and I gather Simon had become a valued gate keeper and collaborator as editor of titles by Meg McCarville and others.

Then, just six months ago, while it would be absurd to suggest that we fell out, he pissed me off on facebook - although that hardly makes him unique. I made some comment about his beloved Electric Light Orchestra and he told me, get over yourself. I wouldn't have minded but the comment had been me taking the piss out of my own long-standing hatred of Jeff Lynne and all his infernal works, a joke amounting to here I am being a dick yet again; but he didn't seem to see the funny side and perhaps assumed I was simply being an actual dick. He suggested I would need to familiarise myself with one of their horrible songs in particular because I would be reading about it in Watching the Wheels, his forthcoming book from Amphetamine Sulphate.

That rather depends, I thought to myself, on whether I choose to buy your forthcoming book from Amphetamine Sulphate.

He'd also taken to posting status updates on what it's like to write books, what books should be, and so on, which I found a bit irritating. I unfollowed him and went off to think about that Nocturnal Emissions album I'd sent him as a freebie because I'd ended up with two copies. We hadn't fallen out, but it's always good to take a break, and I'd reconnect in a few months once he'd moved past delivering edicts and I'd grudgingly read Watching the Wheels, as we both knew I would. It was probably silly, but so is existence.

I vaguely followed his goings on through others. He came to read in Los Angeles at an Amphetamine Sulphate evening, and it was nice to know he was doing well and already had another book in the works.

Then about two weeks ago, all of those mutual friends were suddenly worried at his having gone missing from his home in Blackpool. He'd vanished below the radar on a couple of previous occasions, deactivating social media accounts whilst getting his head together, and I assumed this would be the same; although it was a little worrying that the police were now involved in looking for him.

He'd show up.

He'd turn up and there would be some new novel spun from this latest psychological turnpike.

Just this morning my wife came in from her morning run and told me his body had been found.

Simon is no longer with us.

Gone.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

I wonder at the folly of falling out - or at least going silent running - over Jeff bloody Lynne, but not for long. It wouldn't have made much difference to anything, I don't think.

I dig out his old letters and postcards. I listen to Black Pool Legacy and realise we really have lost one of the good 'uns, which likewise doesn't come as a surprise. I always knew it.

He was one of those people who made things interesting, who caused good things to happen, whose art - even with the bleakest and blackest of subjects under the microscope - could not help but sound optimistic, hopeful, even funny by some mechanism I couldn't even begin to understand. He struggled but he always seemed to come through. He made things better.

I will miss him.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Some English Bloke 2020


Unfortunately I am unable to stand for the office of president, but although I'm not familiar with the full legality of my situation, I don't see that this necessarily needs to be a hindrance. After all, much like those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Donald usually finds a way. So maybe if you all write me in we can make this happen; and if you choose me to be the fourty-fifth president of the United States of America, I promise that I will probably do some of the following, depending on how it all works out and providing I'm not super busy or whatever.


  • Creation of a walled sin bin state for resettlement of all the white supremacists, hardcore Christians, anyone who ever used the term liberal as a pejorative, and general shitbags who refuse to get along with the rest of us. I'm not sure where this will be, but somewhere with hardly any existing population, maybe West Texas or Wyoming. They won't be allowed electricity, technology, outside aid or anything much at all, but will instead be free to demonstrate how much better they are than the rest of us by growing their own food and re-inventing fire. It should be noted that this isn't actually a prison but rather should be viewed as an exciting opportunity given that those forcibly committed won't actually have to have done anything wrong by existing laws, aside from pissing me off.
  • Free socialised health care for all excepting residents of the aforementioned sin bin state, who probably wouldn't want it anyway. Speaking of the sin bin state, it will need a name. I'm thinking along the lines of Freedomia or Patriotica, something which will help the inmates feel good about living there.
  • Cops, including those presently serving, will be required to undertake more rigorous training for a period no shorter than two years so as to root out all the wrong 'uns. Law enforcement's current recruitment process seems to be limited to asking some rando if he wants a gun, then just giving him one when he says yes; so obviously that has to change.
  • Gay and transgender persons to be able to buy a cake where and when the fuck ever they like, up to and including banging on your door at three in the morning and demanding immediate macaroons.
  • Trophy hunting laws to be adjusted so as to allow only for the hunting, killing, and subsequent stuffing (or conversion to sausages) of fellow trophy hunters and their immediate relatives.
  • Cosplay will be banned along with all references to the same, and use of the term bingeworthy television show.
  • Massive tax on trucks driven within city limits or on highways without documentation proving the vehicle to be integral to the running of one's business, or window mounted documentation detailing the length and girth of one's penis to be displayed at all times. That should clear the fucking roads a bit.
  • Cycle lanes everywhere. General ban on lycra.
  • Instatement of a royal family, seeing as that's clearly what everyone really wants, if the last two-hundred years of portentous speeches and Ionic columns are any indication. Obviously it will need to be run along different lines to that of the British royal family so as to prevent the occurrence of the sort of beastliness which has befallen the same at least since we found out that one of them wanted to be a tampon. As in England, the proposed American line of hereditary supreme beings will have the constitutional right - and duty - to kick the government's ass when occasion demands, and I shall begin interviews as soon as I'm in office. At the moment I'm thinking either Amy Sedaris, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Octavia Spencer, but we'll see.
  • Pedestrian walkways on every urban street, road or thoroughfare and a general ban on electric scooter rentals so as to encourage exercise and generally not being a useless lump of shit.
  • Unilateral ban on the music of ELO, possibly excepting material recorded in collaboration with Olivia Newton John which shall henceforth be exclusively regarded as part of Olivia Newton John's body of work.
  • Comically massive fines on litter crimes because there's really no excuse, penalties possibly up to and including on the spot execution like in Judge Dredd, or at least permanent exile to Freedomia, Patriotica, or whatever we decide to call the place.
  • Close Guantanamo Bay and any other institution engaged in the sort of practices we routinely condemn when someone else does them. While it's tempting to have members of the current administration spend a couple of years down there having substances pumped up their bottoms just to see how much they like it, we need to get out of the habit of expecting an eye for an eye.
  • Spanish to become official principal language of the United States. Let's make America Mexico again.
  • Political campaigning to be exclusively state funded with each candidate given equal time, so as to hopefully reduce the occurrence of political offices being limited to useless arseholes with too much fucking money, not mentioning no names or nuffink.
  • Raise Pat Sajak's wages. The man is a national treasure.
  • Shut down Disneyland because it's really not doing anyone any good in the long term. In fact close down Disney and call it a day.
  • General ban on film or television relating to Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Big Bang Theory, any other comedy wherein three persons occupy a sofa as a fourth enters the room to a round of either laughter or applause without having had to do anything funny. Also, no more shitty superhero shows. The films can stay, at least the Marvel ones, but there's no point hanging onto any of the rest.
  • Massive increases in Native American rights, the precise nature of which will be deduced by actually talking to them and asking where they see room for improvement. Conservatives getting all pissed off shall not be an impediment to the implementation or expansion of any of the rights involved.
  • Television and cable broadcasts to be limited to the hours of six in the evening until midnight. No-one needs breakfast television, or to be sat on their arse all afternoon watching seventy consecutive episodes of anything involving a futuristic spaceship. Read a fucking book, you lazy twats.
  • Unilateral rationalisation of corporate culture with particular emphasis on anything which sounds a little too much like it came out of a self-help book. You're there to do a job, not to come up with fun fancy dress options for Friday's meeting of the taco club.
  • Socialism to be taught as a subject in schools, at least so as to cut down on internet turds ranting on about it without having the first clue what it means beyond being something that some bigger boys don't seem to like very much.
  • All sports broadcasts, without exception, to be limited to a single television channel. It isn't news and the rest of us don't care.
  • Banned words and phrases to include swag, life hack, any other form of hack, any form of hack being described as unlocked, bling where not referring directly to the work of Louisiana based rap artists, political correctness as reason given for your supposedly not being allowed to say something stupid, and awesome. Also anything obviously derived from self help literature.
  • General decriminalisation of narcotics, because the cure seems to be worse than whatever condition it was supposed to treat.
  • Huge cut backs in the armed forces. I suppose we have to keep some, although I'm open to debate on that score, but I don't see how we need enough as to be able to invade other countries. We're supposed to be better than that, after all.
  • Replace Deena on Jersey Shore. She really isn't bringing anything to the table.
  • References to the Bauhaus to be removed from art history textbooks. Those people just weren't that interesting.
  • Patriotism will be reclassified so that it's no longer viewed as either a talent or a qualification any more than enjoying the music of Bruce Springsteen is either a talent or a qualification. Toxic Patriotism to be reclassified as a psychological condition requiring treatment, symptoms being recognised as anything upwards of the phrase thank you for your service used more than three times in the same week.
  • High ranking government positions to be filled by rappers, WC, Brotha Lynch Hung, E40, C-Bo, Ice Cube, MC Eiht, Spice 1 and so on, providing they're available. I'm not sure what they would do, but I've no doubt they could come up with something interesting.
  • Massive reinvestment in manual labour as an industry so as to get people working and to cut down on the surplus of automated shite we don't need.
  • Taking climate science seriously on the grounds of it being science and therefore not really something with multiple choice options. Those who don't understand this have the opportunity of going back to school until they do. It's not hard.
  • No more National Enquirer or any of that kind of thing. Reportage of anything qualifying as opinion rather than news will be strictly regulated. You should have better things to do with your time than fill your head up with junk. If you're bored, go for a fucking walk or something.
  • Claims made on Prince Buster records to count as legal precedent.
  • National anthem to be something or other by Kiss, possibly either Do You Love Me or I Love It Loud, or failing that, the theme tune from Hancock's Half Hour.
  • Freedom for el Chapo along with the dropping of all charges against same. Possibly also see if he wants a job. Maybe we could make him the first King.
  • References to Bauhaus to be removed from musical history textbooks. Having recorded one decent single does not render them any more interesting than it does the five-million other bands who never quite managed to write a second song.
  • Stupidity to resume its standing as an undesirable disadvantage rather than a qualification.

There you are. There's probably more but we can talk about the rest once I'm in office and running the show, or at least you can listen while I explain. See you next November, citizens.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Prophecies of Doom and Gloom


A man walks into a dentist's surgery, as the joke would begin. I am that man, and it's actually the hygienist's surgery, and I'm unlikely to be cracking any jokes because my customary October slump has turned up a month late. My mother is in hospital on a different continent, every day brings an increased awareness of just how many fatheads are at large in the world, Donald Trump still hasn't been loaded into a cannon and fired into the sun, it's pissing with rain, and I'm at the dentist.

I've anticipated a repeat of the cowboy hat comment, which has additionally dimmed my mood. Last time I came, she beckoned me into the surgery and said, 'That's quite a look you have going there. You have your cowboy hat. You have your check shirt…'

It isn't a fucking look. These are simply clothes I wear, and the Stetson is practical because it keeps off both scorching sun and pouring rain; plus we're in fucking Texas and the hat is therefore hardly worth commenting upon unless you're a moron; but I know she's just making conversation.

'Leave your hat on the side,' she says without further discussion of the same, much to my surprise. 'So, have you been doing anything fun?'

I climb into the chair. 'Not really. My mother has been in hospital so it's been a pretty tough six months.'

'Oh no. Is she okay?'

'I hope so but I don't know. It's very frustrating. I mean I went back to England in September, but there's not much I can do. It's her hip. She's had it replaced.'

'Still - she'll have the best healthcare money can buy.'

I'm momentarily bewildered by this comment. 'Not really. It's England.'

'Well, they can always fly someone in.'

Again I'm bewildered but I carry on. 'Well they've operated, so hopefully she will be home soon.'

'How old is she now? Ninety-four?'

I have no memory of ever having told this woman anything about my mother. 'What? Did Bess talk to you? You must be thinking of her grandmother. Anyway, no - she isn't ninety-four.'

'Bess?'

'My wife.' I tell her my mother's age.

'Your mother?'

'Yes, my mother, the one who went in for an operation, the one who phoned me and said I don't want you to worry but I think I've had a stroke.'

She laughs, but it's an awkward laugh. 'I thought you were talking about the Queen!'

She gibbers an apology, and I realise that everything which came from my mouth since she asked whether I'd been doing anything fun may as well have been blinky blonkey blimey, Mary Poppins! She finks I bin talking about the jolly old Queen 'cause I is a British from England innit! Wot else would I of bin talking about if not 'er Royal 'ighness. Stroike a loite!

The day just became even more depressing, which isn't entirely unexpected.

She works on my teeth for about thirty minutes, maybe forty. I am in excruciating discomfort because she can't numb me during cleaning for reasons she explained last time and which I didn't understand; and she has to use the sonic cleaning implement in preference to the manual one which didn't used to hurt so much. Every so often she stops and asks if I'm in pain. I tell her yes and she carries on. Maybe she thinks that the general impression of her concern will have a mild anaesthetic effect. It feels as though someone is stabbing needles into my gums with force, which probably isn't too far off what's happening.

The other dentist drops in and studies my x-ray. 'This one is going to have to come out. Is it painful?'

'No, and it's been absolutely fine. If anything that particular tooth seems less mobile than it was this time last year.'

'Well, it isn't going to be fine forever.'

'Thanks. I already know that. If it's okay with you, I'd prefer to have it taken out when it starts giving me trouble, rather than now while it's still fine.'

Rebecca, my regular hygienist, has retired. I liked Rebecca. Somehow she was able to clean my teeth beneath the gum line without it being agony, and without assuming I'd be using those same teeth to scoff some jolly old fish and chips like the bloke that I am. Rebecca had been around Europe and was interesting, with photos of her family and places to which they had travelled lining her office. Her replacement has just a picture of herself and her husband, who looks like your bog standard truck-driving shithead.

My regular dentist has also become an infrequent visitor these days, leaving me with these two and their prophecies of doom and gloom delivered as though I've been living under the illusion of having the teeth of an Osmond brother. My regular dentist - the guy who actually did the work and saved what teeth I had left - used to tell me how well I was doing, and how he wished he'd taken photographs of my mouth prior to treatment so as to showboat at dental conferences with the before and after shots.

Eventually the pain stops.

She finishes and makes me another appointment, now giving me a special mouthwash to use. Apparently it will do something to reduce the pain of her stabbing away at my gums even further, but I know that she may as well be giving me a scented candle for all the difference it will make.

It's now raining even harder.