Friday, 23 March 2018

People Who Want Money

I answer the ring of my cellphone, the cellphone for which only my wife has the number and, as usual, I can see that it isn't her on the other end of the line. There's a pause and the voice asks for my mother-in-law.

'You have the wrong number,' I say, delivering the familiar speech. 'This isn't her phone.'

I only have a cellphone for use in emergencies. It's registered to my mother-in-law because she signed up with some kind of esoteric plan whereby she gets her own phone at a cheaper rate if she has more than one.

'Maybe you can help me anyway,' the guy suggests. He asks if I'd like to make a charitable donation to a fund for cops because it's a very risky job. I'm a stranger in this country, by some definition, but I'm fairly sure cops are paid to be cops. For a country in which handouts or financial assistance of any description are seemingly regarded as the gateway drug for raging Communism, it's surprising just how often I am asked to give generously to people who already work for a living.

I hang up.

Next evening, we're at the school again. It's just parents, something which won't take long, but it's mandatory. Our boy has another few months before graduation, so we're here to find out about that and about the impending trip to Washington DC. The whole class will be going and they'll be staying in a hotel for the best part of the week, so there will be a lot of juggling involved. Unfortunately we're ten minutes late for the meeting because we stopped off to eat at the Greek place over by the Quarry. The Quarry is about a minute from the school, so we thought we had it all worked out, but our food took longer than anticipated to arrive.

Anyway, we're here now. We shuffle awkwardly amongst the folding chairs, trying not to be the annoying latecomers. The teacher is telling us about someone who will be acting as a chaperone on the school trip. We each need to give our child ten dollars in an envelope, and this money will constitute tips for the woman, a way of showing we're thankful for her hypothetically vigilant dispensation of justice when one of our precious little ones attempts to let off a fire extinguisher in a hotel corridor.

Personally, I'm confused.

Another woman steps up to speak. She's very excited about something, but I can't understand what she's saying. Her voice is way up in the Minnie Mouse register and her accent peppers whatever she is trying to tell us with additional syllables. I've lived in Texas for nearly six years, but I'm still not used to it. She speaks fast and it sounds like she's playing a Jew's harp. She delivers words resembling formal edicts punctuated with improvised twittering based around um and you know, over and over. I have a horrible feeling she's actually the mathematics teacher we met last time the school called us in for some parental event.

Everybody looks at the forms in their folders, apparently prompted by something our speaker has been explaining.

I guess it's just me then.

Fifteen minutes of this and it's over, and we're done, and we can leave. We shuffle from the room exchanging pleasantries with Duncan's mother, then Mr. and Mrs. Pace. They're the only parents I recognise.

'So who are we tipping again? Who needs our ten dollars?'

Bess tells me it's the woman with the voice of Minnie Mouse.

'The maths teacher? Does she not already get a wage?'

'She isn't a teacher. She's one of the parents. She always volunteers.'

'Oh - okay. That makes more sense, I guess.'

I feel a little guilty for my uncharitable sentiments.

'I still couldn't understand a fucking word she said though.'

'Me neither.'

Maybe this is what it's like to be old.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Future of Art

I discovered art as a teenager, the age of fourteen or maybe fifteen; and by art I mean fine art; and by fine art I mean painting. I vaguely recall being taken to see the Dalí exhibition at the Tate back in 1980, and I was given Painting in the Twentieth Century by Werner Haftmann for Christmas, 1982. From this point on I began to regard certain paintings as though they were pieces of music in terms of how important they seemed - or what they said to me, if you prefer. Marc Chagall's I and the Village had at least as significant an impact on me as that first Joy Division album. Art - by which I still mean painting - seemed like this alternative universe with its own parallel history, its own languages, and I found it very exciting.

Having fixated on Italian Futurism, I myself took to painting in a  style heavily derived from the work of Fortunato Depero. I attended art foundation course, and then took a fine art degree at Maidstone College, although most of this course of study - if that isn't too generous a term for my four years of pissing about and mumbling - was dedicated to time based media, specifically film and video. I had unfortunately lost most of my enthusiasm for this mode of expression by the time the course came to an end, rudely depositing me upon the doorstep of the rest of my life.

I returned to painting from time to time over the years which followed, gradually developing the sort of ability which I probably should have picked up at art college, and doubtless would have done had I not spent all that time chasing what was ultimately an artistic dead end, at least for me. I didn't even manage a life drawing class, because I was seemingly developmentally a couple of years behind most of my peers and was mortified at the thought of having to sit there drawing a nude woman. I mean, a real nude woman - what if I got so aroused that I spunked my pants? Whilst I really wish one of my tutors had sat me down and forced me to learn how to draw and paint properly, obliging me to learn techniques taught in art schools at the turn of the previous century, I have only myself to blame. Art education at the end of the twentieth century might be caricatured as a load of bollocks about self-expression bypassing the requirement for actual talent, but I see it as having had more to do with the motivation of the individual. If you really wanted to learn, you could go a long way, but if you didn't have it in you then it probably wasn't meant to be. I suppose for myself it's simply that my timing was out.

Another factor might be that I realised I didn't actually have much interest in or sympathy for the contemporary art world as it was by the time I graduated. In terms of art history, by the end of abstract expressionism - excepting rare outliers - fine art became something else, divorced from ordinary life. It became an exclusive club founded on inflated sums of money, wearying novelty, something with its own private language which defies criticism and the identification of nudist emperors by looking down its nose and declaring that obviously you don't understand. It embraced the new purely for the sake of the new.

One of my wife's friends is an artist, and a contemporary artist, meaning that's how he makes his living. One of his pieces was a spunk-stained sofa, an old living room couch upon which he did what I feared would have befallen me had I taken a life drawing class; and this he sold as art. We attended an exhibition of his work, by which point he'd moved on to conceptual pieces wherein a model of, for example, a microscope or a pair of binoculars, is made from wood physically cut out of a painting - oil on board - of a subject pertaining to the resulting model, the image of a bacterium or else something seen from a distance. It was amusing and quite clever, but I need more from my art than amusing and quite clever, and this wasn't sufficiently amusing or quite clever enough to dispel the conceit of Spunky Couch or whatever he'd called it. Not everything has to have the sledgehammer populism of Soviet propaganda, but Spunky Couch struck me as a smug man marching up and down a street with a placard reading you are stupid! Such art supposedly defies our expectations, asking why a man can't slap one out over his sofa and then stick it in a gallery, but as soon as we answer, we're told that we don't understand because we're too vulgar. Art creates its own elite, generates its own audience inculcated with the correct responses.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Painting with a Twist, a corporate chain of venues as much as painting classes for people who probably won't end up ejaculating over household furniture.

Invite your friends, sip your favourite beverage and enjoy step-by-step instruction with our experienced and enthusiastic local artists. You'll leave with a one-of-a-kind creation and be ready to come back again. We also host private parties for every occasion. From birthday and bachelorette parties to corporate events and team building, we'll help you celebrate your creativity.

I have a cousin-in-law - if that's an actual term - who regularly attends Painting with a Twist. Paints, brushes, and canvas are provided, and although I gather you're welcome to do your own thing should you feel so inclined, generally the group will follow the lead of the organiser, painting whatever subject has been picked that week. My cousin-in-law has an arts degree of some description, and yet regularly returns from Painting with a Twist with a fresh irony-free canvas depicting Winnie the Pooh or characters from The Lion King, so whatever her artistic awakening may have been, I'm guessing it probably wasn't Marc Chagall's I and the Village - or indeed anything I would recognise as art on my terms; and somehow I can't help but feel that this is where Spunky Couch and its like have brought us - that same retreat into the safety of the soft, rounded, and childish as is currently promoted by most contemporary media right now, the same rebellion against intellect and qualification we see in the political sphere - because we don't really need to grow up in order to be dutiful consumers. In many ways, it's actually better that we don't.

Wasn't art supposed to make a difference of some description? Wasn't it at least supposed to be more than a diversion?

I've therefore decided to start again. I'm painting, and I'm painting in oils for what is somehow the first time.

That's not strictly true. Someone gave me a blank canvas, already primed and stretched back in 1987, so I borrowed some oils and had a go, but the results weren't great. Having noticed that art supplies stores now sell ready made primed and stretched canvases I bought a stack of them in 2015 and took another shot, but that was similarly a bit of a disaster because I was still using oil as though it were acrylic.  Now it's 2018, and I'm going at it again, but this time I've sought the advice of both Sean Keating and Chris Hunt - acquaintances respectively encountered at different stages of my existence, and both well accustomed to working in oils. I've decided I'm going to paint something every Sunday afternoon, something quick rendered in the general spirit of the Impressionists with the emphasis on light and mood. I'll be working from life, no gimmicks or novelties, no crowd-pleasing kitsch, no talking down to anyone, no Winnie the fucking Pooh, just good, honest painting in the hope of making the world a better place in some small way. At the time of writing, I've produced four canvases, each arguably improving on its predecessor as I ease myself into the application of new techniques, relearning how to do that which I picked up during many years of working with acrylic. Of these canvases, I've somehow already sold one for sixty dollars.

This enterprise is partially inspired by my wife and the rocks she paints, as described here. We're collectively trying to add to the global stock of beauty - or thereabouts, and to serve as an example by aspiring to do something of greater relative worth than either the kitsch or spunky couches with which we're supposed to be satisfied; and once I've generated sufficient quota of respectable canvases, we're going to start hitting the craft fairs.

With all of this in mind, we are now driving across San Antonio, just a little way down the Austin Highway after eating at a Caribbean place near where we live. We find the house easily enough. They could have come to our house, but it turns out that they're both allergic to cats. The woman produces pours - assuming that's the plural form of pour as a noun. A pour is a canvas upon which acrylic paint has been poured, allowed to mix, and then to set, forming a colourful pattern much like what can be seen in a blob of oil. She contacted my wife through facebook to propose a collaboration, so Bess is going to paint her mandala-style designs upon canvas pours. I'm here because we do everything together and I'm told that the husband of our pour artist is himself a painter, and that he has exhibited his work in galleries and should be considered a professional. He sounds like someone worth knowing.

We are invited in.

The place is full of canvases, large and colourful, abstract designs which remind me a little of Roberto Matta or satellite photographs of Jupiter's upper atmosphere, and I get talking to the guy. He took up painting just two years ago following an injury at work. He seems fascinated by the fact that I'm from England and tells me about the time he and his wife visited London. He tells me he's had his ancestry dissected by one of those companies which extrapolates such information from a DNA sample, and some of his ancestors were English. Otherwise he's also about 40% Native American, which makes sense being as he has that sort of face. There are postcards of Mexican pyramids on the wall.

'Chichén Itzá,' I exclaim happily. 'I've been to Mexico a few times but I never made it that far east.'

'It's a beautiful place,' he tells me. 'You know all of those pyramids, they are built upon a secret chamber. All over the world, they have found open spaces below the pyramids.'

I vaguely recall reading of a cave system beneath the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, a subterranean structure supposedly divided into seven chambers bearing suspicious concordance to ancestral Mexican myths of Chicomoztoc, the Seven Caves from which the Nahuatl-speaking tribes were reputedly born; but I have an uncomfortable feeling our host is referring to something else entirely, one of those things modern science can't explain, at least providing you ignore whatever existing explanation modern science has probably already given.

We talk about painting instead. I ask about the one I saw on his facebook page, three figures arranged before the Mexican national flag. It seemed reminiscent of the murals of Diego Rivera, and therefore not without promise.

'The Child Heroes,' he tells me. 'They were young boys who defended Chapultepec in the Mexican-American war.'

I recall Niños Héroes, a tube station one stop south of Balderas in Mexico City. I guess that the children would be those whom the station commemorates. If I knew the story of the Child Heroes, it seems I have since forgotten it.

He shows us the rest of his work. It's mostly representational, a little raw but not bad. The exhibitions turn out to have been stalls at comic conventions, and he shows us large canvases depicting Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and some other Batman character I don't recognise. I sigh inwardly. Harley Quinn's mouth sits at a peculiar angle, distracting me from questions of why anyone would wish to buy such a thing, let alone why anyone would want to paint it in the first place.

So much for that idea.

The meeting makes me feel bad for our hosts, and uncomfortable at my own uncharitable regard. I could lie and say it's wonderful work and that at least you're expressing yourself, but I'm not sure anyone who copies a character out of a comic book is really expressing anything, and I don't know that a pat on the head and well done, you is really fair on any of us.

I don't want that to be the future of art, so from this point on I'm going to shut up and get on with it.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Automotive Commercials

Everybody loves a car advert, and having moved to San Antonio, Texas, I seem to see quite a lot of them. Here are my ten favourites. Readers of a more down to earth disposition are advised that what follows may contain traces of sarcasm.

That Bloke out of Pitch Black.
It's funny how whenever some young gentleman with an unusually small penis attempts to compensate for his deficiency by noisily passing us on the highway at speeds in excess of two-hundred miles per hour, the vehicle is almost always a Dodge. This correlation is reflected in Dodge's television advertising which, up until recently, featured actors portraying the Dodge brothers as a couple of sneering depression-era shitheads mysteriously transported to the present day in order to pull wheelies in contemporary motor vehicles; but these two have been replaced by Vin Diesel, squinting from behind the wheel and providing a voiceover proposing terms by which we might refer to him and his high-speed pals as we express our inevitable disapproval, because we be haters. Call us irresponsible, he growls, call us shitheads - or words to that effect because I can't remember what he actually says and I didn't bother to write it down. It doesn't matter, he concludes, because we can't hear you, and the reason he can't hear the musty condemnation of us disapproving suit-wearing cuboid squares is because his mighty Dodge engine is revving so loud as he throbs along at a million miles an hour like a super sex penis of manly power. Of course, the reason he's saying all of this is because a rich man in a suit is paying for his oral performance as though Vin were a common prostitute; and I have it on good authority that Vin Diesel was dressed as Shirley Temple when recording his voiceover in the studio, and he even had a huge lollipop with a red and white spiral design, and the engineer had to keep coming into the booth to take the lollipop away because Vin kept knocking it against the microphone and spoiling the take. I also have it on good authority that Vin Diesel started crying each time he had his lolly taken from him. I'd happily tell him all of this to his face, but of course I know he wouldn't be able to hear me.

Grinning Family.
Ancira is a local dealership. I think they specialise in Nissan, unless that's just the one showroom. I'm not really sure how it works and I don't care enough to find out. Anyway, being a local car dealership for local people, Ancira have wisely chosen to make their own television adverts featuring themselves, April and her father, Ernesto. For some reason I was under the impression that the gentleman's name was Jeff and that he was her husband, so let's pray to God that I'm either thinking of a different advert or getting my wires crossed. I suspect Ancira advertising may place emphasis on the great savings to be had when you buy a truck, or at least a vehicle of some description - based on this being the theme of most automotive advertising rather than anything I remember watching. The aforementioned savings, if they are indeed a selling point, are probably made by not bothering with either actors, acting lessons, or anything you could reasonably call a script. Instead we are treated to a series of stilted, implausible exchanges between members of the Ancira family as they discuss the great savings to be had when you buy a truck, or at least a vehicle of some description, punctuated with awkward pauses and the kind of grinning I haven't seen since I was a regular subscriber to Fiesta, a gentleman's interest publication which encouraged photographic contributions from its readership. The aforementioned selection of Ancira family members also includes the children, who seem a bit young to be in cheesy television adverts, although I'm sure they had a blast filming the thing on someone's phone. I'm in my fifties but I still recall many aspects of childhood, and I know for sure that I didn't give two shits about savings made on automotive purchases.

Timely Fuck-up Preventative.
A slightly drippy woman has picked up a specially commissioned cake for her friend's baby shower. The word girl is spelled out on the top of the cake because, being a baby, there is not yet anything else which differentiates the guest of honour from others of its generation. A cake baked, for example, so as to resemble the original 1959 edition of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch would be potentially confusing. Another friend of the drippy woman sees the cake and points out that it has incorrectly identified the child's gender, because the child is male; and any righteous sword bearer of internet justice who can't tell the difference between what I've just written and Jerry Falwell blaming earthquakes on homosexuality can go fuck themselves.

'Oh shit!' exclaims the slightly drippy woman, or words to that effect. In all the excitement of laughing at jokes cracked by her salad during lunch, she must have forgotten the kid's gender, or else the baby was produced by a friend in whom she has very little emotional investment.

'Buick has an SUV for that,' the voice-over helpfully announces, implying that the vehicle in question - a Buick Encore - has been specifically designed to cater for the needs of those wishing to make last minute culinary amendments; and so our woman swerves through traffic, even turning corners and that sort of thing, returning promptly to the cake shop, thus preventing a misgenderisation disaster which they would have been talking about for years to come.

I had to conduct some research before writing this account, possibly because, being from England, I was previously unfamiliar with the term baby shower, and my primary association with the name Buick was as an onomatopoeic sound effect signifying emesis in an issue of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic. All I took from this advertisement is therefore that women tend to forget the gender identity of children fairly easily, and that had the slightly drippy woman been driving any other vehicle, she would have been fucked.

Singing Boss.
I had a look on Google utilising car advert like a boss as my search term, and found that the commercial I'm looking for is not yet on YouTube but probably refers to the Acura RDX, which is apparently a type of car. I was looking for the current television advertisement for the Acura RDX, which I've seen on many, many occasions, and certainly enough to inspire a mad dash for the mute button on the remote each time it comes on; and yet so far as I am aware, I've never actually encountered the name Acura before just now, even though clearly I have; which at least means that all that stuff about how advertising works is bollocks invented by wankers who would very much like to continue getting paid for producing something of no value. Anyway, I found the 2015 Acura RDX commercial, and the similarities were sufficient to suggest my being on the right track. I don't actually remember much about the current advert beyond that it's annoying and makes use of the phrase like a boss, possibly suggesting that we, the viewers, should either drive like a boss, live our lives like a boss, or both. Aside from the point that bosses often prefer to be ferried around by a chauffeur, my principle objection stems from the fact that anyone who ever used the term like a boss in any context whatsoever is a fucking twat, so the suggestion that I might aspire to do something like a boss is annoying.

For what it may be worth, the 2015 advert features a woman driving her Acura RDX like a boss whilst singing along to Rapture by Blondie, and she's so lost in the moment that she misses a phone call from some important looking men in an office, who accordingly pull the faces which squares pull when confronted with reckless spontaneity. Amongst the usual YouTube comments about how it's the funniest thing someone or other has ever seen, we inevitably find:

Dumb commercial. That woman probably wasn't even born when the song was first out. She probably had no clue about it until she got hired to do the commercial. She sings like she is clueless.

Amongst the many retorts responding to the above as part of what expands into a truly Pinteresque debate, we find:

I and everyone here are now questioning your sexuality. You're either gay or women confuse and frighten you. More likely, though, it's your disgusting pot belly, neck beard and extra nipples that have you lashing out at women with your insecure cheap shots. These are just a few of my theories that are most certainly, all true.

So there you have it, whatever it may be.

Words for Wow.
Here's how different people express themselves when they first set eyes on the new Spunkenwangel Motherfucker, growls the voice, although I'm paraphrasing and I can't remember which truck is being advertised so I've just made one up. I've a feeling it might be some General Motors leviathan, although it could just as easily be a Chevrolet. I don't care enough to be able to retain information of such minor consequence. Anyway, the advertiser has rounded up a bunch of real dudes who definitely aren't actors from assorted libraries, opera houses, and university philosophy departments, and is showing them a new kind of truck in order to gauge their reactions. The point is that we all express ourselves in different ways, but each recorded report conveys the same semiotic information, specifically that the truck in question is the most amazing thing these guys have ever seen, so you should probably think about getting one. One of the men says, 'yes, sir,' presumably as short form for yes, sir - that is indeed an impressive truck. I think another one mumbles something like, that sure is an awesome truck. It's disappointing in so much as that the advert seems to promise grown men literally shitting themselves and going mad simply because of how amazing the truck is, or at least just one of the fuckers expressing something a little stronger than a general admission of the brisket having tasted pretty good this evening. Maybe they were distracted, still puzzling over Fermat's last theorum or what Jean Genet had to say about morality in Our Lady of the Flowers. That must have been it.

White Supremacist Dad Fail.
We see two dads. Both are loading up their cars with materials their respective daughters will need later that day. They are taking their respective daughters to play football, or some kind of sport requiring that one turn up with a whole load of kit. The respective daughters stand watching but offer no assistance, despite being twelve or possibly thirteen years of age and able bodied. The dad who bought the Honda is able to load his car without incident. The dad who foolishly drives some other brand of motor vehicle is meanwhile engaged in a ludicrous dance, hopping as he struggles to open a rear door with his foot, arms failing to contain all the equipment he is carrying. Balls, tennis rackets, oars, and self-inflating life rafts spill comedically from his grasp, he falls over, and probably quacks his pants too, although we don't actually get to see that detail. His daughter looks on with the faint sneer of a monocled Nazi officer, wishing her father had bought a fucking Honda and wondering whether she might have been adopted; or possibly she just looks a bit disappointed. I don't really remember. The thing I couldn't help but notice about this particular advertisement is that the Honda family are white whilst the hilarious loser clown family appear to be African-American.

That's kind of a troubling message you're sending out there, Honda. It's probably a good job our president hasn't yet seen the advert, because he'll do his bollocks when he does. He really hates that sort of thing. You can ask anyone.

Hominid Sales Unit Loves Her Job.
Once again I've forgotten the make of car advertised, so let's say it's a Sturmey Archer. This series of commercials visits the Sturmey Archer showroom, particularly focussing on the work of a particular saleswoman whose well-ordered personality and generic dispensation of moderately quirky humour seems to foreshadow Janet, the humanoid artificial intelligence from The Good Place. As with much contemporary entertainment, her humour mostly takes the form of well-known phrases of which the humorous element is simply their repetition - I hate when that happens, and that sort of thing - delivered so as to effect safely eccentric ideas such as that you don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps! In one commercial, the showroom is surrounded by a horde of customers so numerous as to squash those at the front against the glass, somewhat suggesting a zombie apocalypse. We hear a low moan from the crowd as hands begin to beat against the glass, seeking entrance and subsequent access to great savings. An ordinary person would find this alarming, and yet Janet - as I'll call her - smiles beatifically because she understands that these people are keen to snap up a bargain Sturmey Archer vehicle in the sale.

'I love that sound,' she says, as though referring to some angelic choir.

It's a fucking good job I wasn't drinking coffee.

Bewildering Celebrity Hamster.
I already discussed this one under the heading of Grinning Fool Plays Air Drums back here, since which, new data has emerged. World Car is a local dealership in the general vein of Ancira, as described above, and so their commercials similarly have the look of having been made on someone's phone. Here's my earlier account of the stars of the commercial:

She is small and Hispanic, and he physically suggests a scenario in which aliens discovered the ruined body of Hoss from NBC's Bonanza on some distant asteroid and attempted to surgically restore him but, lacking any understanding of human physiology, found themselves obliged to use an Alfred E. Neuman heavy issue of Mad magazine for reference. Released back into the wild in the general vicinity of San Antonio, he was cruelly incapacitated by a thorn which became embedded in his mighty paw, but luckily the Latina woman happened to be passing and they've been faithful friends ever since.

This was written when I believed these two individuals to be employees, or perhaps even the owners of World Car, because this at least explains what they're doing in the advertisement. However, I recently learned that the large gentleman with the hamster cheeks is actually a local television celebrity of some description. In other words, these two have actually been paid to lend their own particular charismatic magic to the brand image of World Car. I'm sure they're wonderful people, especially if either of them happen to be reading this, but fucking hell...

Noel Edmonds' Stacked Deck.
He looks a bit like Noel Edmonds smoothly reimagined for the Hollywood retelling of his life, a little more handsome, tidier beard and so on; and he stands in a field with trucks. He has an audience, men and women with their children, but he's specifically addressing the children. 'Adolf Hitler used to drive Jews and homosexuals to the gas chamber in a Ford,' he explains - or words to that effect - 'so which truck do you think Daddy should buy? Do you think he would be wise to buy a nice award-winning Chevy Silverado, or do you think he should buy the Ford regardless because you're a Nazi-sympathiser and a fucking tool?'

There are other Chevy adverts in which Noel Edmonds 2.0 similarly puts loaded questions to members of the general public. They're mostly variations on a theme, and this one seems to be the most annoying. There's one in which we're told that members of the general public who are definitely not actors were so awestruck by the advertised truck as to be lost for words, followed by footage of the same group clambering all over the truck in question whilst exclaiming yes, sir, or now that's what I be talkin' 'bout, amongst other cliches; so it seems they weren't actually lost for words at all, not even figuratively speaking.

Never Confused.
Ram trucks - which I refuse to render as RAM in case it generates a thermonuclear quotient of testosterone - are made by Chrysler, according to Wikipedia, and they're somehow related to Dodge, which figures. I assumed they were just General Motors with a different logo, which just goes to show how much I know. Ludicrously massive trucks resembling a Claes Oldenburg version of a Tonka toy, complete with silicon boob-job tyres, are fairly popular in Texas so I see a lot of them. They're all more or less the same thing, and there's no real need for you to drive one unless you're directly involved in stock, rodeo, lawn care, or agriculture. So if you're a dentist driving one of those things, the rest of us are usually making jokes about how you probably have a fairly small penis, hence the overcompensation; and we've been making those jokes for fucking years now, just not to your face.

Ram's macho advertising campaign only underscores this possibility, and to the point that all those gravel-voiced cowboys just off-roadin' an' a fishin' an' a huntin' an' a pullin' out the ol' tree stump seem positively homoerotic, so much so that even I'm a bit turned on, and I was never confused. The latest advert features a few ladies ruggedly hanging around as the men grunt and squeeze the rubber grips of their galvanised metal tools, but they're not fooling anyone.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Barbecue Quest

It's that time of year again. Byron is competing at the Barbecue Cookoff and has bunged us a couple of tickets. We're going along partially because it's his weekend with the kid - Byron's son, my stepson - and there's probably a limit to how much fun Junior can absorb from such an event whilst his father is busily setting lumps of meat on fire, so we're going to pick up the boy and whisk him back to the safety of his room and his games system. The Barbecue Cookoff is ordinarily part of the annual Stock Show & Rodeo, which is nice because it means we get to see the cows; but this year the event has been moved to a different site for some reason, one without much in the way of available parking. The plan is that we park at the AT&T Center, which is where the Barbecue Cookoff has been staged up until now, and we take a shuttle to the new site which is two miles away. The shuttles have been specially laid on. There must be a reason for this new, somewhat laborious arrangement, but neither Bess nor myself can work out what it might be.

This whole thing about parking then taking the shuttle seems like a pain in the ass. Bess looks on the map and notices that the site is about ten minutes walk from the Jack White Park Trailhead, or that's how it looks. The Trailhead is part of a greenway which follows Salado Creek south towards the old Spanish Missions. We've both been along there before, and it makes for a pleasant walk through a largely wooded strip of land away from the noise and traffic of the highway. So that's the box we're ticking.

We park at the Trailhead, oblivious to the fact of an empty parking lot suggesting that no-one else considered this seemingly obvious shortcut. We cross beneath the interstate, then a smaller railway bridge, and we follow the creek. We can hear stadium country in the distance and the smell of barbecue faintly smokes the breeze. Stadium country is country and western without the redeeming features, more X Factor than Hank Williams; but in its favour, it can always be heard at great distance and as such provides useful navigational information to the occasional questing wanderer.

'It can't be much further,' Bess suggests.

Sixty seconds later, we notice that the music now seems to be behind us. We look to the source, to the eastern line of trees, and the possibility occurs to us that we're on the wrong side of the creek. We turn around and head back for the interstate.

'Maybe if we head up that way,' I suggest, pointing.

'That's along the highway,' Bess says. 'We won't get very far.'

We're both looking at the headquarters of the Lucifer lighting company, which is at least on the same side of the creek as the Cookoff. The grounds of the Lucifer lighting company slope down towards the water, and there seems to be a path worn into the grass, so again we head off.

'That always struck me as a funny name for a lighting company,' says Bess. 'Like Beezebub plumbing or Satan parcel delivery.'

'You know Lucifer means light bringer?'


'Actually I'm not sure, but it's something like that. Luce means light in Italian, so…'

'Well, the fallen angel - I guess he was supposed to be pretty hot after all.'

Approaching the railway bridge, the path takes us into a labyrinth of reeds, dried stalks of Arundo donax, an invasive species which can grow up to twenty feet in height and does well in really shitty, contaminated soil. It's one of those things which thrives around industrial estates and places you probably don't want to go, and the earth beneath the bridge is accordingly decorated with flattened beer cans and burnt patches. Forward progress becomes difficult.

'I'm having my doubts about this one.'

'Let's turn back,' Bess sighs. 'I don't feel like getting assaulted today. I suppose at least we tried.'

We return to the car, and grudgingly drive to the AT&T Center where the parking lot is already filling and we have to pay ten dollars on top of the Cookoff ticket price. We follow the crowd on foot, everybody drawn to the point from which the shuttle will depart. Everyone is wearing a Stetson and my head feels suddenly naked. I'm overdue a haircut, that being one sin for which a Stetson usually compensates. I've been meaning to buy a new hat for some time. My current Stetson has had a lot of use and is consequently so old, crappy, and distressed that it could pass for the cover of a Nine Inch Nails record.

The shuttle arrives and we all pile on. It's actually a school bus, the large yellow kind as driven by Otto in The Simpsons. I've never been on one of these buses before, and yet they are universal to the experience of almost everyone I know. The interior is cramped and crappy and it feels as though someone will almost certainly bring either a goat or chickens on board at any moment.

'You must have seen that in Mexico though,' Bess says.

'Not really. The buses seemed a bit scary and confusing. I took coaches out of the city but that was different.'

'No chickens?'

'Mostly businessy types. I caught a Pesero in Tula but there was no-one with a chicken on there. It was a bit freaky because I was just following what everyone else did, and no-one seemed to be paying when they got on, so I sat down and assumed you were supposed to pay when you got off. Then the next few people who got on paid the driver, making me look like an arrogant cunt tourist.'

'What did you do?'

'I paid him when I got off and tried to explain that I was a clueless gringo. He didn't seem to care that much.'

We head off and I think about Mexico, and then crazy school bus drivers described by Henry Rollins in his spoken performances. Thankfully our guy just seems to be doing his job. We take a side road I've never noticed before into what may as well be open country, and yet we're still in the middle of the city because that's how San Antonio works. We are surrounded by scrubby fields of cacti and we pass stables with horses stood around.

Finally we arrive. We get wristbands and find a map posted on an information board, from which we learn that Wack 'Em & Stack 'Em have a concession just a little way further along the main thoroughfare. The place is packed.

Wack 'Em & Stack 'Em is the name of Byron's barbecue team, apparently taken from a song by Ted Nugent. I have no idea when it all got started, but he's always been a good cook. Apparently someone at some point told him he should compete in barbecue competition events, so he did, and in doing so acquired a whole team of helpers, crew, hangers-on, or whatever you want to call them.

'So what do the rest of those guys do?' I ask my wife, because she's telling me the story. 'Do they just hang around and maybe pass him an onion if he needs it?'

'Pretty much,' she tells me. 'Byron does most of the actual cooking. They turn things on the grill while he's doing something else, or they stand around and make sure the beer is drinkable.'

'So it's really Byron who wins the competitions?'

'Yes, but to his credit he's never really been about personal glory in that way.'

It transpires that Byron has a rival team formed from Wack 'Em & Stack 'Em dissidents who felt sidelined by his superior cooking ability, despite his repeated emphasis on everything having been a team effort, even when it wasn't. We're better than this, they apparently cried out. We can barbecue as good as any man, and no more will we stand in the background occasionally handing a tomato to some superstar…

We find the concession and we have wristbands which grant admittance. There's a marquee and a bar. The barbecue trailer is at the back, a huge open-sided thing on wheels with Byron and a couple of others working away. We find Junior in a caravan next to the trailer. He seems glad that we've arrived, but we have to tell him that we're not leaving just yet seeing as we only just got here.  We talk to Byron and Robert and have sodas from the bar. One of the bartenders wears a hat resembling a turd, specifically a furry cartoon turd with a smiley face. It's not that much of a surprise.

Having found our bearings, Bess and I take a walk. There are a couple of stalls selling hats around the corner, including Stetsons. It takes a few tries but I find one which fits my apparently massive head, and it's only twenty dollars. I buy it and feel that the journey has been worth my while. We wander a little further but come perilously close to where some band are still belting out the stadium country by which we forged our earlier path. We head back to the Wack 'Em & Stack 'Em concession.

Just outside the concession I pause to read postcards pinned to a board. They're from little kids, all addressed to Byron and mostly thanking him for buying their cow or pig. I get the impression that in most cases, the cow or pig in question has been hand-reared by the child who wrote the card.

'Did you see this?' I ask Bess.

'Oh yeah,' she says. 'He does a lot for those school 4H clubs.'


'Horticulture, husbandry, and a couple of other Hs.'



'But it's like agriculture and stuff?'


I take another look at the postcards. It seems like these kids put a lot of love into raising their animals. 'They know what Byron does, don't they, why he's buying their animals?'

'Oh yes.'

This is one I'm just going to have to keep from thinking about too hard, given that I already know where meat comes from.

Byron appears, jovial as usual. We shoot the breeze for a couple of minutes, wishing him luck with thrashing the dissidents in the upcoming competition. He horses around as is his way, a man truly in his element.

Then we gather up the kid, and head home.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Winter Wonderland

The Winter Wonderland is staged in the parking lot of the school, Sunday afternoon, and I'm trying hard to work out why. It doesn't really seem to be about anything beyond kids having a limited quota of fun and promoting the school, but maybe that's all it needs to be. Furnished with the snow cone which is apparently stipulated in his contract, Junior wanders off to find his buddies. We stand and watch the snow slide for about a minute. Somebody invented a machine which makes snow, and they have one here today. There's a line of hyperactive kids climbing steps, then tobogganing down the snowy incline on the plastic sleds provided. It probably helps if you're twelve and haven't grown up loathing snow, or indeed almost anything cold, as I have.

There's a crowd gathered a little way off, and it's only a little way because the parking lot isn't particularly big. I can see very small children stood on a stage singing something religious. Bess and I make our way to the front, but the voices of the children are drowned out by their own backing tape.

Down past the school entrance, a line of tables has been set out with fun activities, but the whole thing is beginning to remind me of Fun Land from the first episode of Father Ted; and to further map the extent of my imagination, one table is manned by the science teacher who reminds me of Andy Dwyer from Parks & Recreation. He seems to remember us so we stop at his table, which is the only fun activity of obscure methodology. He has three trays of iced water and he invites us to probe each with a finger and to guess which is the coldest. They all feel about the same.

'One of them is colder,' he insists, showing us the labels, regular, with added sugar, and salt water. 'Like to take a guess at which is coldest?' he asks again.

I guess that it's salt, but I can't remember why - something about water taking longer to boil if you add salt when making spaghetti.
Salt it is, Andy Dwyer from Parks & Recreation confirms happily, because it freezes at a much lower temperature. He whips out a thermometer and shows us: fun and educational.

We wander off, past the face painting and into the school. The building is essentially a church welded onto a school because it's a religious institution - although thankfully not one of those which favours intolerance and brainwashing. It's a proper church too, and pretty big, not just some chapel or vaguely theological outhouse. It reminds me a little of Coventry cathedral and is conceivably of about the same vintage.

We look for familiar names in the alcove where the ashes of wealthy patrons are kept, without success. Our boy's grandfather is apparently here somewhere, as is his great aunt, Barbara Jean. It's odd to find myself attached to a family with relatives interred inside a church, like King John at Worcester Cathedral.

We walk up the aisle towards the altar, enjoying the stained glass and the organ music bellowing forth above our heads.

'That's what you want,' I observe, 'proper organ music, not piped crap from a CD or whatever.' I'm thinking of the Christmas service which featured kids singing along to muzak piped from a laptop.

The organ ceases.

We both turn and there's a man up there. He looks pissed off. 'I'm trying to practice.'

We look at him.

The church is empty but for the three of us, and the door was open so Bess and I didn't need to jimmy the lock in order to effect our entrance. We were talking, as opposed to shouting or singing sea shanties whilst howling with laughter and throwing up. I'm a little surprised the organist could hear us up there in the organ loft, or whatever you call it.

'There will be a service later if you'd like to come to that,' he adds without making it seem as though we would be particularly welcome. It sounds like an awkward afterthought from a man suddenly aware of his own knobesque qualities.

'Okay,' we say and leave.

Just beyond the slide, there's a patch of fake snow set aside for snowball fights and the like. We watch Junior stuffing snowballs down the backs of garments worn by his various school friends; and we notice a child whose anonymity I'll preserve by calling him Juan, son of a legitimate businessman who makes an honest living importing legal materials from Mexico. Juan is at a different school these days. I suppose his father is the man I'll need to see if it all goes tits up next time I renew my green card, if you know what I'm saying.

By this point we've probably extracted all the fun there is to be had from the Winter Wonderland. Junior is still busily terrorising his friends, so we go to the supermarket for cat food, then return thirty minutes later by which time even the kid is bored.

We go home, and as we pass through Olmos Park we witness some sort of medieval re-enactment deal unfolding, except it's all a bit brightly coloured and comical, and the costumes are like something from It's a Knockout; so the day hasn't been a complete waste of time after all.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

My Wife's Rock Group

It's Sunday afternoon and we're in La Madeleine, which bills itself as a French bakery and café. It's a chain restaurant which does a fairly good job of acting like it isn't - in so much as that the food is decent and suggests both human agency and the possibility of someone at head office actually having been to France. I usually have the chicken friand - as it's called - because pastry encasing anything savoury is a novelty in Texas and should therefore be cherished. Instead I have a croque monsieur with a parfait for after. I'm not even sure what a croque monsieur is, but I vaguely remember the name from French lessons at school.

The cashier has a strong French accent, which I find quite exciting. I make a mental note to introduce myself once I've been sorted out with coffee and everything. She will be the first French person I've encountered on this side of the Atlantic, and I will introduce myself as a fellow European. But the moment never comes. My Gallic cashier is busy and in any case, Bess has already spotted the other women of her rock group, which is why we are here.

Six months ago, Bess began painting rocks, decorating small stones with colourful mandalas of acrylic paint. It was something she'd seen on facebook. People have taken to painting rocks and leaving them to be found in public places. The idea is simply to brighten the day of some random stranger. Bess often protests that she has no artistic ability and can barely manage a convincing stick figure, but her recent efforts cast doubt upon such a claim. The first rocks she painted now seem primitive and unfinished, just cheery coloured spots in haphazard configurations; but she's kept at it and developed her talent, and now turns out pseudo-fractal designs of astonishing beauty and precision. They have the look of patterns grown upon the shell of a sea urchin expressed as a firework display. The random strangers who have found them in parks, malls, diners, or on walls have been mostly delighted and have expressed their admiration for my wife's work on facebook. Her fame has become such that the aforementioned random strangers now make specific requests for one of her rocks, even offering to pay. The problem is that such offers miss the whole point of the rock being something found and unexpected, a little bit of magic in what might be an otherwise colourless day for someone you will never meet. Nevertheless, we've now met a few random strangers in parking lots, encounters co-ordinated through social media with me tagging along just in case one of them turns out to be a nutter. Usually my wife will exchange rocks rather than just dish them out because it seems more fair and places the two parties on an equal footing, although those rocks she receives in return tend to score higher for enthusiasm than craft. Society being what it is, we've seen plenty of them decorated with poorly rendered Disney characters. I suppose it's the thought that counts.

Today is probably the next step up from an exchange of painted rocks in a parking lot, because there are five of us and we're in a café. As usual, I'm here for support, although thankfully the other three seem approximately sane, just middle-aged women who like to paint rocks. Examples of our work are passed around, notes are compared about what's been going on in the wider world of giving painted rocks to random strangers, and then they all get out their paints. This is something I hadn't anticipated. My wife is taking a class. She has become a guru.

I hadn't really given much thought to how long we were going to be here, but I didn't anticipate it being for much longer than it takes to eat a chicken friand and drink a coffee. I need something to do because I'm not a middle-aged woman and am as such perilously close to the perimeter of my comfort zone.

'Give him a rock to paint,' one of the women suggests.

Someone hands me a couple of small rounded stones and a brush. Bottles of liquid acrylic are being passed around the table so I take dabs of what I need - yellow ochre, black, cadmium red, a yellow of some description. First I paint the Mexica sun symbol representing the current age of the world by agency of the red and blue ollin glyph at the centre. It's the first thing that comes to me because I've painted it so many times. Next I paint a traditional gnome with beard, boots, and a tall conical cap. I feel that gnomes have been under-represented in much contemporary fiction, so I've written them into a few of my own things and they're never too far from my thoughts.

After twenty minutes or so we all seem to have enough done to show everyone else. Bess has been demonstrating her technique to the others. They seem to be getting it, although their efforts are not quite so polished.

'It's an Aztec sun,' says the woman to my left, and they all coo over my efforts.

'He's an artist,' my wife explains.

Technically it's a Mixteca-Puebla style sun that I've painted, but I'm not a dick so I don't say anything. Thankfully the gnome doesn't really require explanation.

Friday, 9 February 2018


According to my diary, it was Sunday the 15th of February, 1998. I took my four channel Tandy mixer around to Ed's house, along with a couple of effects boxes - graphic equaliser, compressor, that sort of thing. It was a pretty basic set up, but I expected it would do the job, even though the actual details of what the job would entail were unclear. Ed was in a group called Attack Wave Pestrepeller, an improvised noise thing, and on this particular Sunday they were going to improvise noise in Ed's kitchen accompanied by a group of madrigal singers. No-one quite knew how it was going to work, or if it was going to work; but the singers seemed keen on the idea, and if anyone had grounds for reservations it would have been them, given that Pestrepeller probably weren't going anywhere near the Figgy Pudding song.

I knew Ed because we'd both been involved with small press comics publishing, and then discovered further common ground in weirdy music of the kind which often prompts witless twats to opine I wondered when they was gunna finish tuning up. Ed's enthusiasm extended to his publishing a magazine called The Sound Projector, and he roped me in to write for it, although most of what I came up with now makes me wince. Ed and I had recorded together, and I gather he had formed the impression of my knowing my way around a mixing console, which I do; and additionally he had this band with Harley, another cartoonist, and Savage Pencil.

My introduction to music beyond the Beatles and whatever shit Dave Lee Travis was playing that week had been facilitated back in February 1980 when I started buying Sounds music paper on a weekly basis. By far my favourite regular features of the paper were the tangential cartoon strips drawn by lil' Alan Moore under an assumed name, and Savage Pencil's superb Rock 'n' Roll Zoo, which probably changed the entire course of my life. Rock 'n' Roll Zoo was hilarious, vicious, amazing, fucking stupid, resembled a drug-addled scrawl, and couldn't be arsed to come up with a punchline half of the time; and I would probably still be hailing Savage Pencil as the greatest cartoonist of his generation had I never had the misfortune to meet the miserable fucker. As of Sunday the 15th of February, 1998, I was yet to meet the miserable fucker, and was therefore understandably excited to find myself in the immediate orbit of someone whose work I'd admired to the point of adoration.

Despite being mildly starstruck, I managed to contain my enthusiasm when introduced to Mr. Pencil who, after all, was really just some bloke Ed knew. I refrained from explaining how oh darn - my tail's fallen off again had probably been the greatest punchline in the history of graphic arts, or how he was probably directly responsible for my ever bothering to draw comics in the first place, because it would have been undignified and I didn't want to embarrass the guy. On the other hand, maybe that's what he actually wanted. It was difficult to tell. He was this little bloke, kind of rounded with a massive, grey beard and eyes suggesting sleepless nights - the self-made grumpy hamster of outsider art. He didn't look particularly happy and he didn't say much, at least not to me.

He had a Moog synth so I plumbed that into my mixer, then added Ed's Hammond organ - or whatever it was - and then Harley's guitar, assuming I correctly recall that he was playing a guitar; and there was a single microphone for the madrigal group at the other end of the kitchen. It was going to be chaotic, and my job was to attempt to maintain some sort of balance. The internet describes it thus:
Savage Pencil conceived the idea of combining the fearsome noise of Attack Wave Pestrepeller with the voices of madrigal singers. The idea was to combine two different sounds, but also two different approaches to making music; the singers, who could sight-read music, would be forced to improvise and sing without sheet music to guide them. The idea was tested in Ed's London kitchen, causing maximum distress to the neighbours for long, painful hours. The five singers struggled to be heard over a cacophony of feedback, organ drones and bitter grunts from Sav's Rogue Moog synth, although the handheld tape recordings of the sessions magically extracted the true essence of the event.

I'm thanked on The Cruel Sea, the CDR they released of the recording, although not thanked in the specific sense of having been involved. The magic which somehow just came about, perhaps as a sort of interference pattern resulting from the proximity of such fucking massive talents all in the same place, was, I might argue, essentially down to me keeping Savage Pencil's synth at the same volume, despite his turning the fucking thing up a notch every time I brought him down, so as to allow whatever the others were doing to be heard. Bizarrely, the Pencil seemed to appreciate this.

'He's very good, isn't he?' I heard him mutter to one of the others, marking my apparent graduation from just some cunt Ed knew to a person who is able to do things. It would have been nice for this to have been acknowledged in the above account. I feel somewhat sidelined by the suggestion that what you hear on The Cruel Sea occurred just by agency of some crazy magic, but never mind.

Anyway, we all went to the pub, because that was what we did in those days. The neutral environment seemed like it might be more conducive to conversation with my sullen hero, but it wasn't to be. I spoke to his wife, who was lovely and possibly long suffering. I spoke to himself and he ignored me. Being two decades past, I can no longer recall what I said, but it was almost certainly something safe, possibly something about the synth he had brought along, but he nevertheless ignored me. I made two or three direct addresses, at least one of which was tagged onto some utterance from elsewhere across the table. In each instance he looked directly at me for just a moment, then spoke to someone else, mostly prolonged name dropping from what I could hear. His voice took on the world weary drawl of a retired colonel or some jazz wanker. 'Yes… that was when I went to Los Angeles to interview the Grateful Dead...'

Realisation dawned upon me that for all his talent, the cunt wasn't actually worth talking to, and that contrary to assumptions, I wasn't amongst friends.

This is why you should never meet your heroes, I told myself.

They always turn out to be arseholes.

Every fucking time.

Then I count all of the heroes of mine whom I've met, some of whom I now count as friends, or at least chummy acquaintances, and I realise they don't always turn out to be arseholes.

It was just him.