Friday, 2 December 2016

Stepfatherhood


My marriage came with a free child, which wasn't a problem, but was not a scenario I'd foreseen. I'd just have to do my best and play it by ear, I decided.

It hasn't all been easy, although to be fair neither has it been anything like so difficult as I might have anticipated had I given it more thought. He was seven when Bess and I got married and is now thirteen. Sometimes he's a pain in the arse, other times he's fine - as you might expect, so you just have to get on with it.

Possibly more aggravating was the distant susurrus of expectation from newly acquired relatives for whom Junior was our precious boy. Even before I'd crossed the Atlantic, one opined that I might be a paedophile eager to get my clammy hands on the child; because were I some sort of kiddy-fiddler, that's obviously what I would do - marry an unsuspecting American so I can bag me one of those green cards and get my Jimmy Savile on in the land of the free. Another newly acquired relative took demonstrative issue when I failed to show at some screeching kid-filled event at the local country club, a birthday with our precious boy in attendance. I'd been in America for a week. I was about to get married and I had left behind everything I had known since birth. I was knocked sideways by the intense Texas heat, felt ill and still shell-shocked, and I didn't feel like hanging out with small, screaming children on that one particular occasion so I stayed home.

That man had better get his priorities straightened out, the relative testily informed my wife, apparently so as to showcase the extent of her devotion to our precious boy. These days I get on fine with the woman, but I haven't forgotten. People tend to reveal their true colours before they know you.

I always imagined one major difficulty with being a stepfather would be my apparently replacing an existing father, which I haven't attempted on the grounds that his dad is still very much around, in the picture, and we all get on just fine. The scene where the child slams the door and screams you're not even my real dad is yet to happen. Strangest of all, he seems to think I'm great, which is partially because I'm exotic - coming from England and all that - and because I know about Doctor Who - although I'm doing my best to discourage him on that score - and he appreciates the sense of security I apparently bring. I qualify all of this as strange, because the information derives from conversations with his mother as she brings him back from school. It's taken him a couple of years to get into the habit of communicating directly with me, not because he's rude so much as that he is burdened with a combination of shyness and extraordinarily narrow focus. Bess has pointed out how I'm the one person in his life who doesn't dote upon him, or regard him as our precious boy by sheer dint of familial genetics, or necessarily at all. My favour therefore has some currency and he knows it. When he's rude or he screws up, I'm generally quite happy to tell him so in as much detail as seems necessary, addressing him as I would an adult because I don't do baby-talk; and on some level he responds to this.

Children need boundaries, as they say.

Over the years we've had rough patches, mainly characterised by uneaten food left to go off in his room, toilets full of poo either unflushed, or flushed by a method entailing operation of the handle followed by running away as quickly as possible without checking whether the disturbingly verdant ten-inch floater has held its ground. Other misdemeanours mostly come down to basic manners and continued failure to do something which he has been asked to do over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

'Look, it's not even like we ask you to mow the lawn or take out the trash, or even to do anything at all,' I'll begin in preface to the usual speech about full glasses of tea left perched precariously above electrical sockets. He will stare at me as I state my case, usually with the look of a rabbit caught in headlights, and even as I speak I wonder whether he's taking any of it in or whether it's more like a dog reacting to a harsh tone of voice when it's been caught taking a dump on the rug.

As the years have passed, it seems he has begun to take at least some of it in, and his communication has developed sufficiently for me to be able to tell that he at least doesn't mean to piss me off; which is nice because I like to be able to think well of him, and I don't enjoy pointing out that he's screwed up any more than he enjoys it. These days, we can almost have something that sounds a bit like a conversation, even laughing at each other's jokes, or some of them; and while I doubt I'll ever regard him as our precious boy because I'm just not that much of a walking Hallmark card, I feel protective towards him and I want him to be happy.

Now it's the weekend and Bess and I are taking him to the cinema to see Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. He's read the books and has been gagging to see the big screen adaptation. It's a Tim Burton film, but stepfatherhood is sometimes about making sacrifices, about meeting others half way. Junior has a reputation of talking through films. It's worse when they're on television because he gets to move around, jumping up and down, describing what we've all just seen on the screen with our own eyes.

'It's like,' he yelps, completing the sentence with dramatic gestures so as to illustrate Loki fighting the Incredible Hulk, and we know that this is exactly what it's like because we're still trying to watch the fucking film.

'If you're going to talk through this,' I tell him as we enter the cinema, 'and explain everything that's about to happen or has just happened, could you sit on the other side of your mother and do it quietly?' I ask him.

'Sure,' he says, then barely utters a word for the next couple of hours; and surprisingly I find myself enjoying the film even though it's by Tim Burton.

The boy lets loose in the car on the way home, going into ludicrous and slightly sniffy detail regarding all the changes which have been made during transition from page to screen. He obviously enjoyed the film, but it was different to the books. Much of his communication takes the form of lists prefaced with let me see, then whatever he wants to share reeled off with the verbal equivalent of bullet points, and he's really going to town this time.

I find myself feeling strangely proud, which is almost a first, because not only has he recognised a book as the more authoritative form of a story but, as I realise, he has actually read the thing and taken it in. This has been a bone of minor contention, specifically how much I hear about the kid's supposed love of reading contrasting with my own experience, which is mostly him in his room laying on his back tapping the screen of his iPad with a finger all evening, occasionally calling out to have a bowl of chips conveyed to him. His supposed reading - I have noted with some suspicion - always seems to occur off-screen; but now I'm at last hearing him talk about a book, and in the sort of detail which suggests it's something he actively enjoys rather than being just a chore.

He's been with his father for most of the weekend, during which time I've made a six-foot bookcase with seven shelves for his room. We picked him up from his father's house and took him straight to the cinema, so the bookcase is a surprise.

His mother has asked me to make him a bookcase on and off for the last couple of years, but I've never quite got around to it, partially wanting first to see some evidence that he's capable of putting stuff on a shelf rather than just dropping things on the floor then stepping over them for the next two years; but I've eventually caved in because carpentry is good exercise and what harm can it do? Bess and I have collected what we can from the rubbish tip that is his room, set it all on the shelving, and now we can see the floor.

Junior sits on the bed staring at the book case.

'One thing,' I say.

'Yes?' He sounds nervous.

'It's your room and it's your bookcase, but if for whatever reason I see bits of wood carved out of it because you were bored, I will become unhappy.'

'Okay.'

This is a karaoke version of an exchange from about a year ago. Large plastic cereal containers, which should never have found their way into his room in the first place, had sections of the red plastic tab by which one removes the lid snipped off for no reason at all. Even as vandalism it seemed so weird and pointless that I felt ridiculous having to bring it up.

'Do you think he likes the bookcase?' I ask my wife, because I can't tell. Sometimes the boy is too inscrutable for his own good.

'Oh yes,' she tells me. 'He's very pleased with it.'

It feels like we've turned a corner.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

SA Law


Many years ago, when the possibility of living in the United States was initially presented to me, my first action was to stroll up the road to Dulwich library and have a look in their travel section. They had a copy of either the Rough Guide to America, or possibly the Lonely Planet version, and on the first page I read that Americans are a naturally litigious people, in more or less those words so far as I am able to recall. The information was offered just as guides to other countries might helpfully point out folky affectations like the Chinese love of tradition or the German disdain for littering. Americans very much enjoy taking you to court, was the implication. They will sue you if the coffee you have just served them is too hot, or if they should slip and fall in a puddle of your urine, or if the shape of your head has caused them to recall some long-forgotten childhood trauma. They can't help it. It's just how they are.

Despite having lived here for five years, I haven't yet been sued by anyone, and nor have I myself yet had cause to take anyone to court. Nevertheless, I could hardly have failed to miss the cultural emphasis on legal matters. Had I required the services of a lawyer in England, I would have had to look in the phone directory in order to find one, but here they're everywhere - adverts screaming at you from both television and billboard. At last I understand why almost every imported American television show of my childhood was about either cops, detectives, or mystery-fixated teenagers investigating the legitimacy of property rights claimed upon an assortment of abandoned fairgrounds and disused mines.

Anyway, as to the aforementioned lawyers, here are my favourites:

Jim Adler, the Texas Hammer. The hammer epithet serves to suggest that when it comes to law, this guy doesn't fuck about, whilst cannily circumnavigating problems which might arise were he to advertise himself as Jim Adler, the Guy Who Doesn't Fuck About - easily offended persons suing him for public usage of the word fuck, for example. Adler's promotional strategy serves to illustrate how some things just don't directly translate in cultural terms - an English lawyer advertising himself as, for example, Derek Fitzgibbons, the Gloucestershire Hobnail Boot would simply come across as weird and cranky and by association potentially ineffective in a courtroom scenario. Jim Adler's television commercial features the man himself, shouting at the viewer whilst stood on top of the cab of a huge truck, and specifically shouting about how much money he may be able to get for you should your car be involved in a wreck involving a huge truck. The most impressive thing is that Jim does not seem a particularly young man, but the fact of his being stood shouting his lungs out on top of a huge truck really helps to convey the idea that you probably wouldn't like him when he's angry.

Thomas J. Henry. I don't know much about Thomas J. Henry, but he seems to have offices everywhere so I guess he must be good at his job. Most of his television advertising seems to show him - a smart suited gent of stern demeanour and possibly in his late-fifties - walking towards the camera in slow motion with a slight frown. He may be walking through dry ice, or possibly a darkened hall with a lot of marble surfaces, and I have a feeling that Die Liebe by Laibach was on the soundtrack somewhere, although I could be wrong about that. Anyway, Thomas J. Henry walks frowning towards the camera and then executes a half-turn so as to stand in profile facing the viewer, like we're watching the trailer for The Avengers vs. Thomas J. Henry. Sometimes I wonder, if I went around to Thomas J. Henry's house to see if he wanted to come out for a game of football, would he walk down the hall in slow motion before executing a dramatic half-turn upon reaching the front door?

David Komie, the Attorney that Rocks. My wife and I passed a billboard advertising this guy's services as we were visiting the People's Republic of Austin. Presumably he represents those undergoing prosecution for violation of puff-puff-pass statutes or else found accused of harshing the plaintiff's mellow. His name came up during a conversation on facebook not too long ago, compelling some other person from Austin to opine I remember that guy when he was just some clean cut ambulance chaser in a shitty suit, or words to that effect, allegedly. I supposes this constitutes a lesson regarding what can happen if you live in Austin too long.

Tessmer Law Firm. They're probably very good, but I've personally found their billboards weird and off-putting. Most of them seem to show a businessy looking woman, presumably Heather Tessmer herself, smouldering into the camera as bold type asks ever had an argument with a woman? The question seems reliant on an understanding of women as being more or less as described by male comedians from the north of England during the 1970s, namely talkative and devious, bordering on evil. The question might almost be ever had an argument with my mother-in-law? Additionally, given that Heather Tessmer is notably easy on the eye, the advertising seems to suggest - at least to me - an additional promise which I won't specifically identify because I'm writing about a member of the legal profession and I'm not a complete fucking idiot.

Bryan Wilson, Texas Law Hawk. Bryan Wilson is based in Fort Worth and only came to my attention as I was googling for the identity of a San Antonio lawyer advertised by means of a billboard where a blown-up image of the guy is augmented by a giant three-dimensional fibreglass hand looming out of the poster as we drive past on our way to eat Mexican food. I was unable to deduce the identity of the man with the huge three-dimensional hand, but I found this guy instead. He begins his television commercial by running towards the camera whilst holding the national flag proudly aloft, followed by a slightly puzzling collage of images as our man roars that he is hungry for justice, then settling into an imagineered scenario in which four patently innocent men are busted by a cop during a game of - and I'm not making this up - Hungry Hippos. If this has ever happened to you, then it would seem that Bryan Wilson is your boy. I don't know much about the law, or anything at all about Bryan Wilson, but having watched his commercial I already like the guy.

Wayne Wright. I don't know much about Wayne Wright either, but he always comes across as being about fifty times more trustworthy than any politician you care to name whenever he's on the telly, which I suppose isn't that much of an achievement but seemed worth mentioning anyway. He wears a stetson and seems to know what he's talking about. Someone called Albert, writing on the company website says after I called Wayne Wright, he told the insurance company there was a new sheriff in town, which probably tells you more or less where the guy is coming from.

DISCLAIMER: This essay is intended for entertainment purposes only. No responsibility can be accepted by either author or publishers for occurrences arising from misuse of the above text towards any ends other than entertainment related. The author does not represent any of the individuals or organisations named above and makes no claim as to reflecting their interests or indeed having anything either useful or legally binding to say about them. The author has no money and isn't worth suing.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Buying the House


I never imagined I would buy a house. The timing of my birth led me to anticipate an adult life of smart suits, cheap rented accommodation, and meeting girls in coffee shops with Ricky Nelson on the juke box, something in the approximate tradition of Joe Meek, Billy Liar, Hancock and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The promise of living in a socialist country seemed to be that I need not worry about having somewhere to live.

For American readers who don't actually know what socialism is, or who think they know what socialism is but don't - like my idiot neighbour with his lawn sign proposing we choose freedom not socialism - for those people, here's the short version.

If you're reading this, you almost certainly live in a civilised society by some definition, and a civilised society with an infrastructure provided for the benefit of everyone. Your willingness to contribute to the infrastructure is implicit in your choosing to remain in civilised society. Your contribution will usually take the form of taxes by which roads, healthcare, and public works are financed. If you don't wish to contribute - keeping in mind that you also benefit from this system - then nothing is stopping you pissing off into the wilderness and living in a cave on nuts, berries, and whatever you can catch. Living in a civilised society doesn't mean you get to decide the worth of the infrastructure based on what you're getting out of it, what you've decided you should be getting out of it, or what you think other people are getting out of it but shouldn't. If your main concern is what's in it for me? then you don't belong in civilised society, or at least are yet to achieve adult status therein.

Unfortunately socialism was on the wane by the time I left home. Rents were going up, wages were going up but not at quite the same rate, and the possibility of buying your own council home meant that those who, like myself, had never really seen the appeal of buying a house were increasingly obliged to rent accommodation from private landlords or letting agencies with rates dictated by the almighty market. In 1984 I rented a room in a shared house for ten pounds a week. In 2009 I was renting a tiny single room flat in Camberwell for ₤750 a month. It was the cheapest place I'd been able to find and it cost roughly two thirds of my monthly wage. By the time I came to understand the desirability of buying a house, I knew I would never be able to afford one.

The problem was eventually resolved when I came to get married and moved to Texas. My wife, who was at the time just my girlfriend in another country, lived in a first floor apartment in San Antonio. The apartment was a decent size, but too small for us as a family with myself added to the equation. She began looking at larger places to which we could relocate, preferably somewhere with a garden for the sake of the kid. Then about a month before I was due to fly, she sent me an email with the attached floor plan of a house.

What do you think? she asked.

It looks fine, I told her.

Actually it looked about four times the size of anywhere I'd ever anticipated living, which was nice. I wasn't overly bothered about where we ended up so long as it wasn't too shit and wasn't actually smaller than my Camberwell rabbit hutch had been.

A month or so later we were shown around the place by some relative of the owners with a view to renting. I'd never even considered renting an entire house, but it worked out at about half the monthly cost of what I'd been paying for my south London broom cupboard. The place wasn't perfect. The owners hadn't bothered cleaning it or fixing anything before showing us around. It could have done with a lick of paint and a couple of the air conditioning units had seen better days. The yard was a barren football pitch of sand and dead plant matter. A few of the doors didn't quite close or wouldn't stay closed, and a hole had been punched in the kitchen wall for some reason. Best of all was the knackered metal frame of a large glass-topped table rusting away in the garden, the sort you can buy at Walmart for about twenty dollars, but with no glass in it.

'You could have a circle of glass specially cut for that,' our man suggested optimistically, because that shitty rusting frame of a cheap piece of crap from Walmart was - you know - such a lovely piece.

In spite of everything, I loved the place. It seemed huge to me, and owing to the way San Antonio sprawls across our corner of Texas, it didn't even feel like it was in the city. We said yes, moved in, and got married.

Over the next five years I transformed the yard back into a garden. We made little improvements here and there, rolled the skeletal Walmart table around the side of the house along with the corpse of a propane grill so as to present an impression of having nothing worth burgling. We acquired cats and paid rent.

Eventually, once we noticed how settled we'd become, my wife suggested that we might like to see if we can buy the place from the owner, reasoning that it wouldn't be significantly more expensive than renting, and it would mean we could make our own improvements. This seemed desirable because getting our landlady to fix anything - like what a landlady is supposed to do - was never easy, and it was getting ridiculous.

Her name was Mrs. Species, which is as close to her actual surname as is practical for the purposes of this essay.

Our kitchen sink developed a drip which eventually turned into a steady trickle, and the pipes beneath the sink had seemingly fused solid meaning that repairs were beyond my admittedly limited powers. My wife phoned Mrs. Species, who seemed mainly concerned about the terrible expense of getting a tap fixed, apparently missing the point that this was her job regardless of how much it cost. When a couple of blokes finally came to effect repairs, an undertaking which took all of five minutes, I noticed that the plumbing company was actually owned by Mr. and Mrs. Species with their name on the side of the truck and everything, which really begs the question of why all the whining over expense. Mr. and Mrs. Species weren't the worst of landlords, but they were nevertheless pretty crap, and her phone manner suggested that she seemed to believe we were living in a mansion for which we should be eternally grateful, the sort of dwelling in which one might reasonably expect to encounter Trump or Liberace or Puff Daddy.

The gold-plated taps were fixed, but we knew the air conditioning units weren't going to heal of their own accord, and so my wife made Mrs. Species an offer based on other houses of similar size and repair in our neighbourhood: ninety-thousand dollars.

Mrs. Species said no.

One year later, my wife tried again.

This time it turned out that Mr. and Mrs. Species had indeed been thinking of seeing whether we might be interested in buying the palace from them. They couldn't possibly accept ninety-thousand dollars, but we'd work something out. So the wheels were at last in motion, and they took us to the figure of one-hundred and twenty thousand. We didn't bother replying, it being thirty thousand more than the place was worth; and then came a reminder pointing out that they had always intended to sell the house, and would be selling it soon, and it would be nice if we could buy it seeing as we were already living in it, and maybe we might like to think about getting around to accepting their generous offer before the place was sold to some other lucky couple - no pressure or anything.

My wife paid an independent appraiser to take a look at the house. The independent appraiser valued it at ninety thousand dollars.

Mr. and Mrs. Species couldn't possibly accept ninety-thousand dollars, but we'd work something out. So they paid for a second independent appraiser to come around and take a proper look at the place. By amazing and happy coincidence, this one valued the house at one-hundred and twenty thousand, the very sum which Mr. and Mrs. Species had been hoping for. The first appraiser must have been mistaken or something, but to be out by thirty-thousand dollars - gosh! What a silly goose!

We went along to where Mrs. Species worked as some sort of guidance counselor. Mr. Species turned up, and we all spent a couple of hours signing forms. We had the usual conversation about my being from England, and how they once went to London.

A month later we signed another load of forms, failed to get the thousand dollar deposit returned as our rental period ended, and  became owners of the house. I looked up Mr. Species on the internet and learned that he was a high court judge of some description and considerable reputation, recently retired to sit on the board of some massive company. He's buddies with the governor of Texas and all sorts of important people.

One way of looking at it is that we were seriously ripped off, and that the massive coincidence of the sum produced by that second appraiser doesn't say much for the legal system here in America, nor the worth of your average high court judge. My wife reasoned that whilst ninety-thousand dollars might have been a fair price, we might reasonably have expected to pay another ten on top of that, and we've saved the expense of having to move, and we're also paying for never have to deal with Mr. and Mrs. Species ever again; so that's the way we've chosen to look at it for the sake of a quiet life.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The Annoying Orange


My wife stayed up to watch the election results. When she came to bed she told me that the Annoying Orange had pretty much won. Neither of us slept well. I drifted off around four, sinking into a dream in which we were living in an unfamiliar two-storey house. We'd just moved in. I came down stairs and found Bess recruited into a girls night out around the kitchen table with Jana, Beverley Goldberg from the ABC situation comedy named after her autobiographical family, and six or seven other women. I went back upstairs to fiddle with a succession of mobile phones, attempting to text my wife to explain that I was freaking out. None of the phones worked, and I opened a few up to see if I could fix them. Certain keys produced the wrong characters, rendering my messages illegible. I woke before seven to the news that the Annoying Orange had won.

I couldn't believe it. I still can't.

It's been a concern for however many years this whole campaign has been dragging on, but polls seemed to suggest that he didn't stand a chance so naturally I took comfort from that and because I like to believe the best of people. I took comfort from the notion that he might be a moving target set in motion so as to draw fire and make even Hillary Clinton seem electable. I dislike conspiracy theories, generally speaking, but the idea that America might have become a one-party state run for corporate interests by corporate interests has come to seem plausible over recent years. The idea seemed to explain at least George W. Bush and why Al Gore didn't appear overly fussed about losing in 2000. Maybe, I thought, they no longer require a genuine opposition candidate, just a fall guy who looks like he might win so as to preserve the illusion of choice. The Annoying Orange fitted this bill very well in that he didn't appear to be a politician so much as a set of abrasive opinions associated with a big pile of money. The potential for his presidency didn't feel like part of the established script.

His speeches, what I heard of them, were incoherent - rabble rousing observations calculated to appeal to our worst, most xenophobic tendencies, potshots taken at whichever target would get the reaction he was after. To paraphrase some of his supporters, he was just saying what we were all thinking but weren't allowed to say because of political correctness - Mexicans flooding over the border taking our jobs and raping our women, Muslims in our midst itching to blow us all sky high, the tyranny of women's rights, gay rights, gay marriage, liberal agenda blah blah blah...

He countered accusations of stirring up racial hostility by pointing out that he was actually a great friend of the blacks, not black people but the blacks - that great homogenous group of predatory outsiders in our midst. Nevertheless, despite this noble Martin Luther King-style call for racial harmony, he somehow managed to avoid alienating his white supremacist supporters.

He'll shake up the establishment protested his fans, the poor and terminally disenfranchised with some justification for having lost faith in the system. I can understand this much in that I can understand why someone might not wish to vote for Hillary Clinton, a women epitomising the fact of American politics having become a dynastic institution much like the monarchist hierarchies to which America was once supposed to be a fairer alternative; and I can understand it when the pro-Hillary argument mostly seems to have rested upon the fact of her not being the Annoying Orange, with a lesser helping of because she's a woman and she's brilliant, which I personally never found convincing.

What I haven't been able to understand is the logic of I've been poor and shat upon for most of my life so I'm going to vote for a millionaire who got where he is today by shitting upon people. It may as well be hey, I'm a shithead, so dammit I'm going to vote for a shithead. What this boils down to is when you find yourself on the same side of the fence as men who think Hitler wasn't so bad, why wouldn't you take a long, hard look at yourself and what you're doing with your life, unless you really are a shithead of some description?

I had faith in the Latino vote ensuring everything would be okay, or okay in so far as Hillary Clinton might be deemed the lesser of two evils. Latino voters seemed to have responded poorly to having been described as rapists, and were registering to vote in record numbers. Possibly I failed to account for naturalised Latino citizens who regard those crossing the border as fucking wetbacks who spoil it for the rest of us, and those who will vote for anyone on an anti-abortion ticket regardless of whether or not that person happens to be Adolf Hitler.

So he won and facebook has caught fire at least a couple of times this morning. I appreciate that not everyone who voted for the Annoying Orange is necessarily a raging xenophobe getting misty-eyed over a return to segregation; but as with arguments flaring up in the wake of Brexit, I'm tired of righties whining about our mentioning those with whom they stood shoulder to shoulder in the voting booth on the grounds that it's upsetting when we call them hurtful names, particularly when those names directly correlate to what they actually voted for. I'm tired of a political discourse which is only able to elevate itself by pushing down on the most vulnerable members of our society whether it be those coming over here taking jobs we don't actually want, alleged welfare millionaires, black people getting uppity just because a cop shot them in good faith, or anyone else who isn't in the right gang.

All I can take from this is that hopefully Congress will stem his more ludicrous proposals, given how even some of the screwier Republicans didn't want us voting for him; and that maybe he really will shake things up in some way which ultimately leads to a better outcome than the one he's promised; and that I suppose at least all those boring fuckers whining about the government taking away our guns might shut up for five minutes; and I suppose it's nice to know that the whole thing obviously wasn't rigged after all - although I still don't understand how the candidate with 206,576 more votes lost. Other than this, I'm worried for the future of the planet and the future of this country being that it was hardly a bed of political roses in the first place. I'm worried about our civil liberties and my continued freedom to even express such dissent, and I really hope I'm as wrong about this as I was about the prospect of the Annoying Orange losing to Hillary Clinton.

I actually like this country, warts and all.

Following the morning's usual chores and visit to the store I went and bought tobacco. I don't smoke except in times of unusual stress. The last occasion was when David Bowie died.

'You aren't from around here,' the girl in the store observed.

'I'm from England,' I told her, then added, 'it seemed like a good day to take up smoking again.'

She laughed, but it wasn't a happy laugh.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Second Gun


We're in Fredericksberg, a town founded by German settlers in 1846 and built with local limestone. Owing to the parallel time and material, the place bears a disconcerting resemblance to Moreton and Stow, English market towns in the Cotswolds just down the road from where I grew up; and Fredericksberg is likewise given over to gift shops, the sort of labyrinthine indoor mazes which would be termed arcades if it didn't lower the tone.

They sell objects of the kind which you pick up, examine, will probably describe as neat if asked, and then set down again - some quite nice in their way, some pretty crappy, and all with the same folksy handcrafted quality. We browse key-rings, polished rocks containing fossils, ceramic farm animals, slightly bewildering paintings showing assembled presidents Kennedy through to George W. enjoying whisky and cigars together, even rusty old horseshoes presumably dug up from around the surrounding country and signifying the old west. Punchlines to old jokes or corny observations made as guests depart were once limited to spoken media and other features of the moment, but one can now find such phraseology painted, stamped, scored, printed, embossed, and even branded onto tidily stressed rectangles of wood suitable for hanging around the family home: don't let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya, or everyone is entitled to my opinion, or always kiss me goodnight - which someone other than myself gave Bess one Christmas. We considered the thing as it emerged from its wrapping, exchanged a shrug, then left it to gather dust on top of the display case in which my wife's running trophies are roughly assembled if not actually displayed, and there it has remained ever since as a monument to good intentions, poor judgement, and the guilt generated by tacky presents.

On the other hand, my dad very much seemed to enjoy the rusty horseshoe I gave him a few Christmases back, presumably through having grown up with tales of the old west as the most commonly available form of entertainment. With this in mind, here we are back in Fredericksberg with just a couple of months to go to Christmas - time enough to have something packaged and sent off.

The woman behind the counter is called Brandy, going by her name tag. 'Well, I can tell where you're from,' she chuckles, taking my purchase and hunting for the price sticker.

As usual, I'm wearing a stetson because the sun in Texas is hot and I burn easily - should an explanation be necessary. I'm also wearing the shirt I bought from Victoria's Thrift Mart on the Blanco Road - short sleeves, red, white and blue with the lone star of the state flag. It's one of my favourite shirts. They had a job lot of them when I bought mine, and my guess is they originated either with some steak joint or a gas station that went out of business.

'I'm not really from Texas,' I confess, feeling suddenly as though I've been caught trying to pull a fast one. 'I'm from England. I'm just trying to blend in.'

Brandy seems delighted and amazed. 'Where are you from in England?' My wife later tells me that she added we get a lot of Australians in here, but apparently I missed this particular footnote.

'I'm from London,' I say, 'sort of - well, I lived there for twenty years.' Every time someone asks, I have to take a moment to work out where I'm from, and answers might legitimately include Coventry, Kent, London, or Stratford-upon-Avon depending on which seems least likely to invite further questions.

Meanwhile, the other cashier has finished giving a demonstration to a fellow customer. The other cashier is a little guy. He looks vaguely Latino and wears a device of moulded plastic across his knuckles. He squeezes his fist and tiny sparks dance around the metal strip along the front, repeating the demonstration.

'What is that?' I ask.

'It's a stun gun.'

'I could have done with something like that when I was a postman.'

Brandy is similarly impressed, and gets to talking about guns, how it might be safer to carry one of these things than a firearm, then turning back to me to offer something sounding like an apology. 'It must be kind of weird, I mean with the guns here—'

'It's no big deal,' I say.

'I mean you don't have them in England but, we—'

I've already heard the disclaimer, and I always recall the testimony of my friend Stuart from Scotland. He has relatives in Dallas and whenever he comes over to visit it seems they're queueing around the block to show him their assault rifles. I've a sneaking suspicion he may be paying for some offhand remark made many years ago expressing reservations about the NRA.

'I've been here five years,' I tell Brandy, 'and I've seen one openly carried gun in all that time.'

It was a guy I passed on the Tobin Trail. He was cycling along with a rifle of some description in one hand. I didn't find the encounter scary, just weird. I've seen cops with guns in holsters of course, but I'm not sure they count in the same way.

Stun gun boy raises the front of his top so we can both see the handgrip of a small pistol protruding from his pants.

'Well, now I've seen two,' I say.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

English Telly in Texas


Apparently the BBC and ITV continued to make and broadcast new shows after I left England back in 2011, meaning that when I summon Hulu or Netflix to my massive Texas-sized HD flatscreen gogglebox, looking under categories headed either British Television Shows or Because You Watched Fresh Fields, I find tons of shit that I've never heard of. I sort of imagined the British would stop making new shows once I'd left and probably just stick to either repeats or Only Fools & Horses reimagined with Ant and Dec in the lead roles or something, but no...


So here are the English shows which I've watched since I moved, shows which I've only seen whilst slouched across a Texan sofa, eating tacos, and plucking cactus thorns from my shins. English telly looks very different now that it comes from five-thousand miles away.

Auschwitz: The Nazis & the Final Solution - My wife has always been fascinated by Nazis - although not in the sense of simply exploring controversial ideas and images like the man out of Death in June. In fact, as a general fascination it may even run in the family. I bought her mother a book about psychiatry during the Third Reich for Christmas, a title she said she had wanted. 'Nazis and psychiatrists - my two favourite things,' she chuckled as she opened the present and saw what it was.


'You can't go wrong with Nazis or psychiatrists,' I opined.


'Oh for sure,' she confirmed happily. 'Sometimes I can't decide which I like more.'


Anyway, this one had dramatisations - which always strikes me as a bit Discovery Channel and is something I don't usually like in my documentaries - but for once it worked; and this was a great series, and humongously disturbing, which is as it should be. It's nice to know that the Beeb can still make stuff of this calibre when they put their collective mind to it, assuming it was the Beeb.

Coogan, Steve - I've lost track of what we've watched because my wife fancies him so we've watched everything, some of which has been new to me. The most recent one was Happyish, although admittedly it was an American production presumably resulting from a massive team of writers attempting to turn Coogan into the next Seinfeld without actually understanding what makes him funny. We managed about five episodes but the last of these was so monumentally shite that we've left it at that. Happyish is about an advertising tosspot experiencing a mid-life crisis whilst married to a whiny analyst-seeking woman, in case you're wondering. In one scene we experience his wife's near unendurable suffering as, looking forward to an afternoon's ceramic work in her private craft studio, she is waylaid by a very boring man who won't stop talking, thus keeping her from making a few pots. It really put all the complaining and grousing of those moaning minnies at Auschwitz in perspective.

Detectorists, The - The skinny one from The Office teams up with that lumpy looking bloke who turns up in all the films these days for a comedy about metal detecting, which is mostly funny.

Doctor Who - I think I've seen three of these since I moved and they were all shit. One of them was called The God Complex, which I watched because everyone said oh it's a pity you missed The God Complex because it was by far the best of the season, much better than the rest, but that was shit as well. Doctor Who is unique in this list in being a show I've seen prior to my moving to Texas, but I've made the exception in the hope of upsetting a few people, particularly those whose enjoyment of Doctor Who is somehow ruined just by the simple concept of there being people who regard it as a pile of wank.

Helm's Heavy Entertainment, Nick  - This seems to be an hour-long one-man variety show in which the host invades the personal space of various audience members to comic effect. I've only watched one, and I sort of found it funny, but there was something about the tone I didn't like and I can't quite put my finger on what that might be. It somehow has a touch of the Mumford & Sons about it. It's probably significant that I can't help but regard anyone under the age of forty with a full beard as a complete arsehole.

Impressionists, The - Sometimes one yearns for a more elevated discourse, such as what you get with the arts 'n' shit; and thusly did we watch this four part documentary presented by a man who was such a total cock he could almost have been Robert Elms. The historical and biographical detail of the artists under examination was all very interesting, not least concerning the mighty Camille Pissarro who painted a house to which I delivered mail when I was a postman some hundred years later; but the presenter resembled Cosmo Smallpiece as portrayed by Les Dawson, and he kept playing the ordinary workin' class geezer like what I am card despite clearly being nothing of the sort, and it was all this Monet was the Liam Gallagher of his day crap so as to avoid alienating anyone too stupid to understand unless handed some laddish contemporary comparison every five minutes. It was approximately watchable but our man was no Robert Hughes.

Inbetweeners, The - I see this slagged off left, right and centre, but personally I think it's great. It's a sitcom about four teenagers failing to have sex. It reminds me of the sort of shit people used to talk about at Royal Mail, and as such fills me with a warm glow of nostalgia.

IT Crowd, The - The IT Crowd derives from the same hand that penned Father Ted, and if not quite as good, it's a reasonably close second. I've a feeling this may have been aired whilst I was still living in England but indentured to Marian, which might explain why I wasn't able to watch it. Humour wasn't really her bag. I seriously doubt she would have appreciated The Inbetweeners either.


'Do you think it's a good idea to encourage young boys to rape women?' she probably would have asked me.

Kingdom - I can't remember if his name's supposed to be Dave Kingdom or something, but I expect it's along those lines - as with so many current television productions utilising a single enigmatic word for the title. Dave is played by Stephen Fry and is a crime-fighting lawyer who specialises in gentle, scenic crimes soundtracked by classical music and maybe just a pinch of Sting. There was possibly also a horsey woman in green wellies called either Jocelyn or Margaret. It's okay, I suppose - maybe a bit plummy, which is sort of what I expected.

Lee's Comedy Vehicle, Stewart  - I'm amazed that I'm able to watch this here in Texas given that it's probably tantamount to communism, and I'm really not sure quite how many of my neighbours will be reduced to tears by a relatively esoteric English comedian sneering at Asher D of So Solid Crew. Jeremy Clarkson is unfortunately popular over here, so maybe there's a backlash and Netflix or Hulu or whichever one it is are attempting to cash in. That said, I see Jimmy fucking Carr is also available for my viewing pleasure here in the States, so maybe they just license English stuff because it's English, regardless of quality.

Miranda - This is a show about a woman called Miranda as played by a woman called Miranda. It's a comedy about how she's awkward and is easily embarrassed in certain situations. It's not very funny. I think I saw her live once at some stand-up comedy event. Her routine was mostly focussed on how awkward and embarrassing it was being on stage, and how we probably weren't going to find any of it funny, and we didn't. One of my wife's co-workers thinks Miranda is one of the funniest shows ever made, although to be fair said co-worker isn't actually from Texas.

Misfits - I wish we could go back to writers making the effort to come up with proper titles for what they've written, and could draw a veil across this collective noun thing. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was definitely a better title than Flying Saucers, and Dinosaurs would have been a terrible name for Jurassic Park, and thank God Steinbeck went with Of Mice and Men rather than Thick Losers. Misfits is about a bunch of super-powered ASBO types, and there's a lot of swearing and self-conscious efforts to appear edgy and down with the kids on the street, yeah? I found it difficult to care about this show and only watched two of them.

Moone Boy - This is about a small, rural Irish child and his imaginary friend. It has the potential to be the most twee thing ever broadcast - late period Last of the Summer Wine looking at itself in a mirror - and yet somehow it gets the balance just right and is very, very funny. Amazingly it's written by the bloke who plays the imaginary friend. I had kind of forgotten that written and starring shows don't necessarily have to be shite by definition.

Only Way is Essex, The - I know I've watched at least five minutes of this but I can't remember anything about it. I have a hunch that it might not be Alan Moore's favourite show, although I can't even remember where I got that impression. I have a feeling The Only Way is Essex may even be the English equivalent of Jersey Shore, which means I should probably make the effort to have another look*. Jersey Shore is horrible and yet fascinating.

Peaky Blinders - I watched five minutes of this, waiting for someone to say something, but it was mostly just moody high contrast and high definition shots of nineteenth century squalor with music which sounded like Nick Cave. It was a bit like watching a Nine Inch Nails video, and after five minutes I decided to watch something else. On the other hand, Paul Mercer defriended me on facebook after I posted disparaging comments about this show, so the five minutes weren't entirely wasted.

Plebs - This is a cross between The Inbetweeners and Up Pompeii but missing the crucial ingredients which would have rendered it watchable, namely Frankie Howerd and jokes. I vaguely recall the single episode I watched revolving around misunderstandings relating to women's tits, or something of the sort. It wasn't very good.

Pramface - I think this was sort of like The Inbetweeners but with the humourous content replaced by wry, touching observations about school kids getting knocked up. All I can remember for sure is that it didn't make me laugh.

Primeval - Well, it's no I, Claudius but it has CGI dinosaurs and can be watched without my having to shout oh fuck off and throw things at the screen every few minutes, so that's good enough for me. I think the most recent series was made in conjunction with some sort of US-based nerd channel and was thus a complete waste of time, but then nothing lasts forever. I quite liked the one where they went into the future and encountered weirdly evolved monsters which looked like something from a harrowing Hungarian claymation.

Rev. - This is about a regular Church of England vicar living in Hackney and struggling with the fact of no-one giving a shit about going to church any more. Despite the not particularly promising premise, Rev. was fucking brilliant once it got going. Weirder still was watching this thing and recognising bits of London in the outside shots filmed around where my friend Andy once resided. In one episode there's a block of flats in the background and you can clearly see that it's Fellows Court which I used to visit regularly when Andy lived there. I even knew a bloke who went mad and tried to jump from the roof of Fellows Court whilst believing he could fly. The character of Mick also brought back some happy memories for me.

Spy - Crap dad inadvertently becomes a secret agent in an effort to impress his shit son, or so it is claimed, although I didn't watch enough of this to get to the part where he presumably phones MI5, or however it's supposed to happen. All BBC dramas now look like this one to me - same bit of suburbia with the granite effect work surface and the coffee machine and someone chopping up a kiwi fruit, same comically apologetic father figure taking his kid to football practice with the Arctic Monkeys playing in the background. He's played either by Martin Clunes, that bloke who looks like the blonde one from The Green Wing but isn't him, or the funny one from The Now Show, Outnumbered, and Mock the Week - funny being very much a relative term here, obviously.

Stella - Happily nothing to do with McCartney's jumper-designing kid, but instead a drama with jokes - as the format is known in the telly biz - concerning the trials and tribulations of Ruth Jones as a Welsh cleaning lady. It also features a bloke called Alan who strongly resembles my old boss, one of the few Royal Mail managers I didn't actually hate, so I find that somehow pleasing. I also find Ruth Jones both entertaining and very easy on the eye, so it's nice to discover that I have a whole five series of this thing to get through. Some of them get a bit drippy in places, and I could do without the turdy indie music, but otherwise it's mostly watchable.

Surf-Twat Disappoints Girlfriend's Father - Teenage girl brings digeridoo-playing knob-end back from a festival and her father accurately identifies him as a digeridoo-playing knob-end, with hilarious consequences, or probably just consequences. I think the father was Martin Clunes, but I don't remember what the show was called and there's no way of finding out. Perhaps we will never know.

Wrong Mans, The - This one featured James Cordon and some dude resembling Silvio's right-hand man from Lilyhammer, which was actually why I watched it - because I thought it was him, the ferrety looking chap with the baseball cap and the bumfluff. Anyway the two of them endure a series of improbable scrapes and chuckles derived from having been mistaken for other people. I've never hated James Cordon with quite the same venom as almost everyone else I know, although he can occasionally be irritating, but I thought he was okay in this. It was fairly funny, although the second series was stretching it a bit. It's hardly the greatest show ever broadcast, but it could have been worse, and Alison Steadman's always good.


*: I did and it was horrible.

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Border


We're heading for Laredo on the Mexican border. It's a trip of about 150 miles and we're making it because we can. My wife is off work for the week and has a new car and it's been a few months since we had a day out.

She was driving her beloved Honda Element back to the dealership on Monday when it finally gave up the ghost. It was getting long in the tooth, or whatever cars have which constitute the equivalent of teeth. It was becoming increasingly cranky - prone to stalling for no reason we could work out, and the air conditioning had been on the fritz for the last couple of months. Air conditioning is important in Texas, particularly in August. Ours occasionally blew cold when the car slowed, but was otherwise alternating between not doing much and kicking out a sort of warm, damp sportswear aroma which rendered journeys of more than a couple of miles impractically unpleasant; so my wife was taking the vehicle for either repair or replacement. The dealership was some distance. There's one nearer, but the last time she went to that place, one guy suggested she come back with her husband whilst the other refused to acknowledge her existence, walking away as she tried to explain that she was hoping to buy a car. The dealership to which she was headed on Monday was the one situated in 2016 rather than 1934, but a surfeit of black smoke pouring from the engine dictated that the final part of the journey be facilitated by tow truck. So now we have a new car. We miss the old one, but the new one is significantly more comfortable, runs smoother, and the air conditioning works; and so we're headed for the Mexican border.

Specifically we're headed for Laredo, because we visited once before and liked it enough to want to go again. Laredo isn't quite the southernmost town of the United States, but both McAllen and Brownsville are much smaller, so you could probably say that it's the southernmost town of any size. We went there in January, 2013 but they were having some kind of festival which made it difficult to get a good impression of the place.

Bess visited fairly regularly as a child. Her grandparents would take her across the river to Nuevo Laredo - which is on the Mexican side of the border - so that her grandfather could buy cheap medication and eyeglasses. This was back when you could cross the border without a passport. Coming back, border security would ask him to confirm that his nationality was American and he'd set them straight by testily explaining that he was from Texas, not America.

Bess and I stand on the east bank of the Rio Grande, the river which forms much of the Mexican-American border. This is our first port of call because I want to see Mexico again, even if only from a distance. It isn't even a particularly large river at this point. I could easily swim across, and I'm hardly a great swimmer. On the other side we see trees, the backs of a few houses and yards, and the tiny figures of people sat around on the riverbank, some fishing, some maybe picnicking.

We are looking at people in another country.

It's a strange feeling in so much as that it feels like it should be a much stranger feeling, less prosaic. A great many of those who have yet to stand where I'm stood might anticipate a very different sight, a west bank crowded with those Mexicans, diving into the water one after another, coming over here to take our jobs, to claim welfare, to set up a taco truck on every street corner, and to breed.

'I don't see what's stopping anyone just swimming over,' my wife observes, looking around. Behind us there is a multi-story parking lot, still very much under construction. A railway bridge spans the river a few hundred yards north of where we are stood. We can see no line of economic migrants stepping carefully from one sleeper to the next as they cross. We've seen plenty of border security vehicles, so doubtless there's some guy with a rifle and a pair of binoculars just out of sight, or at least security cameras.

'I suppose this would be where he's going to build his silly wall,' I suggest.

'Maybe that's it right there.' My wife points to a small wire fence at the side of the river and we chuckle to ourselves.

We stand and watch Mexico for a while. We can see people moving around, but they don't look like they're planning anything. Someone in Mexico could shoot me from across the other side and there wouldn't be anything anyone could do about it, but they would have to be a good shot and they would have to have a reason.

Economic migrants from Mexico have been invoked on numerous occasions of my talking to people back in England, specifically people who've swallowed the line about uncontrolled immigration bringing this country to its knees. Having lived and worked in areas of London with a high percentage of immigrants, it is my belief that uncontrolled immigration bringing this country to its knees is bullshit scaremongering perpetuated by the extreme right, having found a way to pass themselves off as reasonable people taking a bold stance in saying that which we're supposedly not allowed to say because of political correctness; and it is my belief based on information accrued through my own direct experience rather than through the nice man on the telly telling us what we want to hear.

'You're talking bollocks,' I'll suggest in my imagination, which can somehow be heard in the inflection of whatever strategic lies I  mutter so as to avoid an argument.

'You know that Mexican border somewhere to the south of you,' the person will begin, before describing Mexicans in sombreros with huge moustaches flooding across to take our jobs, to claim welfare, to set up a taco truck on every street corner, and to breed. I can never work out where they've come by this information, or how they imagine they might be better informed than someone who actually lives in the region under discussion, or how the person has somehow assumed that I'm such a fucking simpleton as to experience a dramatic reversal of opinion now that I've been given a supposed example utilising local points of reference.

Yeah, I didn't understand when you were talking about Polish people, but now the idea seems so much clearer...
 

Most of all I am baffled.

I've been to Mexico many times. I've been banging on about Mexican culture to anyone who will listen for roughly the past two decades. I live in a city within a couple of hours drive of Mexico, a city with a 60% Hispanic population. Nevertheless, here's some shithead who never even met a Mexican trying to get me on team by playing on my presumed fear of those people down there.

Fuck you.

We've come to Laredo because it reminds me of Mexico. Most of the region in which I now live used to be Mexico, and thankfully there are a few places still holding out against the incursion of Miley Cyrus and all she represents. The streets of Laredo are small, lined with old Spanish buildings painted in bright colours, and the pavements are chipped. We eat at a café on a street corner. It's called Ricardo's, and but for the layout of uninhabited tables, it may as well be somebody's front room. We order tacos, which are cooked as we watch then served on paper plates, and are the best tacos I've had in some time - definitely the genuine article complete with burnt bits. Our hostess either doesn't speak English, or can't be arsed, obliging us to speak Spanish; and it's nice to speak Spanish again. It's nice to have a reason to do so, thus dispensing with the point of feeling a bit self-conscious about it.

It feels like we're in Mexico, and facebook thinks we are. Bess takes a photograph and, by some wizardry I don't quite understand, the photograph instantaneously appears on social media with my fat ass tagged as being in Nuevo Laredo, on the other side of the river, across the border.

After we've eaten, we go for a wander around the town. We pass stores named Sanborn's and Liverpool, presumably no direct relation to the much larger department stores of the same names in Mexico City, and most likely just low-rent attempts to get in on the retail action of their namesakes. Everyone looks Mexican. The signs are all in Spanish, and the place even smells like Mexico City - a touch of drains and hot sun but oddly just evocative rather than unpleasant. It's a town where people live rather than just driving through. Everything is kind of cheap, crappy, and broken, but you get a strong feeling that the people here are doing their best and trying to get by. They don't have much but they take pride in what little they do have.

As we leave the centre, we're back out onto the highways and the sprawl of Walgreens then Walmart then Lowes then Applebees punctuated here and there with a blandly efficient subdivision, pale Lego housing of wood and particle board, and we remember we're in America. We remember we're the lucky ones.