Thursday, 19 October 2017

My Long Lost Uncle Richard

Derek, Peter, Richard and myself, June 2012.

Back in 2007, just as Arthur Burton, father to my father, shuffled off into the great beyond, another Burton emerged from the woodwork, a Burton named Richard Straley. My cousin Mark had been engaged in genealogical research, climbing out onto long-forgotten branches of our family tree to see if there was anything of interest dangling beneath. In the meantime, Richard Straley had undertaken familial detective work of his own, and the two of them met in the middle.

Going back to the beginning, my father's parents - my grandparents - were Arthur Burton and Marjorie Brush. Arthur had one brother, Charlie, although the two of them didn't get on very well. Hitler kicked off, and Arthur went overseas to fight, but ended up captured, taken prisoner, and was as such forced to march across Poland towards the end of war as part of a notorious undertaking which it is believed claimed the lives of thousands. Marjorie meanwhile had been working as a nurse somewhere in London, and I understand that Charlie continued to labour on the farm. Neither of them had any idea as to whether Arthur was dead or alive, and Marjorie had a child by Charlie.

When it transpired that Arthur was still very much alive and on his way home, the child was given up for adoption and seemingly never mentioned again. My understanding is that Arthur never knew, and neither Marjorie nor Charlie were in any hurry to spill the beans, although personally I have to wonder if this might not have been the true root of what animosity everybody recalls as having existed between the brothers. I remember that Charlie passed on back in the seventies, and that we went to look around his house, which seemed huge and fascinating to me. I wondered why we had never, to the best of my knowledge, visited him, but if there were an answer I probably wouldn't have understood it.

Marjorie was killed in a car accident around what I recall as having been the same time, or at least the same decade.

Then in 2007, my dad discovered this previously unknown older brother, or half-brother, or possibly two-thirds-brother given that his uncle had been the boy's father, more or less keeping it all within the same gene pool. My dad gave me an email address and I wrote to the man, attaching some photographs I figured he might want to see. He replied in an email dated to Friday the 17th of August, 2007.

Wonderful to hear from you. I had no idea you existed, so it's an additional pleasure and the fact you are a painter completes my pleasure. I am going to have to reply at great and boring length tomorrow or the day after as we have to collect my son Ben from camp at Bewdley tomorrow at 9.00AM - means an early start.

Thank you so much for the photos, both of your work and the family. So sorry about your grandfather but I hope to be able to make the scattering of his ashes. Pat will let me know when and I believe your dad is organising it. Especially nice to see Elizabeth as that is the only photo I have of her.

Thanks so much for writing. I really do appreciate it.

This was followed up on the Sunday.

I'll try to get this email off in one go but there is a lot to say and tell and my son will need the PC when he decides to get out of bed.

It really was exciting to hear from you. So sorry that Arthur died but I hear from Pat that the funeral went well and Peter has his ashes. I believe they are to be scattered on Mum's grave and I hope to be there for that. Pat said she would let me know when, but apparently Peter is organising. I'll wait to hear when and where.

What amazing photos. They came out perfectly. Mum's home on the farm looks very warm and cosy. I would imagine you enjoyed going there. Such a shame I never knew them.

I had been trying to find my natural family since about 1984 when I finally got hold of the adoption papers, and I could never understand why my father was Charles Burton but Mum married Arthur Burton. I looked and looked in all sorts of records but there were so many Burtons it was impossible, but I did put the details on Friends Reunited where eventually Mark Jeffries found them and hey presto - here we are a family again. Getting used to meeting so many new people has been quite an experience, especially as there is such a strong family resemblance, especially with Frank whom I believe is coming to the UK next year. If you have any other photos you could share with me I would be very grateful. Trying to build a family from nothing is a challenge!

I lived most of my life in Southampton, going to Art College there, 1967-1970. Then there was the Open University arts degree, 1971-1974 whilst working as a postman. Then a year out driving a tractor on a farm at Eastleigh just outside Southampton, then teacher training in London, 1975-1976, finally getting a teaching job at Blackpool College, 1976-1980. I left there to come down to Gloucestershire and set up a Theatre in Education group, going around secondary schools putting on set plays for GCSE. That folded in 1981 and I went to Gloucester Art College where I stayed until I retired in 2001.

I met my lovely wife Eunice at Gloucester in 1982. We married then and now have two sons, Ben, 17 and Pete, 14. My life is very simple now. I try to keep painting, design websites, cook and shop. Eunice works at the University in Student Support Services.

Your life sounds really interesting. I've never been to Mexico but our two sons are adopted from Brazil and we spent some time there in the mid-eighties and early nineties. I tell a lie - in 1980, to get over a failed relationship, I took myself to the USA and got a Greyhound ticket for thirty days, I went all over the US and into Mexico but did not stay. Mexico City was so polluted I just got the next bus out. Shame really - I should have stayed. I wanted to look at Diego Rivera's murals.

More later, but Ben has surfaced and needs to complete some college work on the PC.

We briefly spoke on the phone, and it was both weird and exciting to find myself in conversation with a Burton who spoke with what was, roughly speaking, a London accent, one who had been both a postman and a painter, much like myself. We finally met in June, 2012. I was married and living in Texas, but I'd returned to England for a couple of weeks to see friends, relatives, and to catch up. My dad drove across to the village, Cranham in Gloucestershire, and we met in a pub called the Black Horse. My uncle Derek turned up unannounced, based entirely upon my dad having mentioned that he intended to visit, and so we had a table full of Burtons. This was unusual for me, or at least it was unusual that I should be present given the geography and everything. The Burtons have a very distinctive look characterised by a certain shape of face and the big lips which earned my dad the nickname Smiler at school; and there were four of us, and two of those were identical twins; and one of them was someone whose existence had only recently been revealed to us - that same face but with a London accent coming out of it, roughly speaking. It was weird, but nice.

Richard was erudite and funny, and it was one of those occasions where you realise how much you have in common with others, forgetting entirely about the differences. We all got pleasantly drunk and then went our separate ways.

I kept in touch with Richard through facebook, on and off, and oddly it was his invitation which had first drawn me to the social media site. One year, somebody bought me a collection of Accident Man comic strips written by Pat Mills and drawn by Duke Mighten, who, in the dedication at the front of the book, thanks my college lecturer Richard Straley for putting me on the right track and keeping me focused; so that merited a raised eyebrow or two. I had a vaguely famous uncle, and one who would address me as dear boy from time to time.

Unfortunately, Richard's health had been an issue from the moment I first knew of him. He was a man of sedentary habits who seemed to enjoy pies and beer significantly more than he enjoyed exercise. He used a mobility scooter to get around, but even this was difficult given his living in an isolated village in which everything seemed to be uphill, and in a small house built before wheelchair access even existed as a term. Last December he suffered a fall and was rushed to hospital in a coma. He recovered, but never enough to come home, and then I found out that he passed away on Sunday the 3rd of September. I suppose, it wasn't entirely unexpected given the state of his health over the previous year, but it was nevertheless sad, and a waste, and a loss, as deaths tend to be.

I knew him for just ten years, which was better than not at all.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Conversation in a Fast Food Establishment

I'm well aware of all of the many arguments against, both dietary and moral, but nevertheless every once in a while I get a craving for something from McDonald's, and it's usually breakfast. Living in Texas, I'm spoiled for burger joints, and most of them serve the real thing, but you don't always necessarily want the real thing. Sometimes you want a McDonald's.

The guy is young and white with a beard of the kind which is really just hair growing on his face, hair with which he might do something but he hasn't yet decided what.

'I'll have a sausage and egg McMuffin.'


I don't recall seeing his name tag so let's call him Steve for the sake of argument. 'Actually I'll have the meal. That's with coffee and a hash brown, right?'

'Sure - medium coffee,' and Steve says something else I don't quite catch. I guess he's asking me whether I require milk.

'White,' I say, and feel immediately weird about it, like we're a couple of Klansmen exchanging secret signals. At the same time the other half of my brain unscrambles the original question, whether I want creamer and sugar. I take another fraction of a second arguing with myself over creamer, and how actually I'd like milk because nobody in the history of the world has ever genuinely wanted creamer, but I'm in McDonald's so it's not really worth arguing. You press the button, stuff comes out, and that's how it works.

'Two sugars,' I say.


'Two of those as well.' I notice how this transaction is going smoothly, or at least more so than what usually happens when I enter a fast food joint. I'm not certain it's that my accent sounds strange so much as that it's simply unfamiliar, so for some people it's as though Prince Charles just came in the door and they freak out accordingly. I had to ask for ketchup four fucking times at Barbecue Station, and yes, use of fucking as a quantifier is entirely justified in this instance. Each time I asked, I pronounced the word ketchup exactly as it is pronounced by everyone else in the universe.

Have you got any ketchup?

Say what?


What was that again?


You want some milk?


At one point he held up a squeezy bottle of mustard and pointed like that might be what I was referring to with my free-form Dadaist parole in libertà. Anyway, right now it's going well for me in McDonald's, so I get adventurous.

'Can I have an extra hash brown with that?' Somehow this is traditionally the stage at which I come unstuck. I'm a pig and that's why I want twice the traditional quota which comes with the order, and usually this confuses people at least as much as when I ask for ketchup. 'So that's two hash browns.'

Steve presses buttons on the till, which seems promising. 'I guess you're from across the pond.'


'So what brings you here?'

'I live here. I mean, I got married and I live here. My wife is from San Antonio.'

He chuckles. 'How do you like the heat?'

'Well, you know, it's okay.'

'I'm from Seattle and I can't stand it. I'm used to rain.'

I tend to enjoy conversations with strangers, but sometimes the novelty can get in the way. I'm enjoying this one because it seems like no big deal. 'I guess England and Seattle have about the same climate,' I suggest.

He says something about London, something relating to weather, I guess.

'I was a mailman for twenty years so I don't mind it,' - I mean that I don't mind the heat here in Texas, but it probably doesn't matter whether I'm making sense. 'You know, starting every morning at six and it's freezing cold and like there's a whole six months where the sky is just grey all of the time, so I really don't mind the heat at all.'

I assume that made some kind of sense, and I've noticed that I used the term mailman in preference to postman. I consider the city of Seattle for a second, the home of Tad, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Peter Bagge's Hate! comic. 'How come you ended up here?'

'My mom was in the military, Steve explains, 'so I came down here with her, but she moved to California.'

'You didn't want to move with her?'

'I'm twenty-five and I couldn't. It wouldn't have worked out. She bought me a house here so,' and he explains something I don't quite catch about paying rent. Whatever it is, it sounds positive.


There doesn't seem to be anything more to say, so I pick a table by the window with a view of the Austin Highway. My order is numbered 103 on the receipt which Steve gave me. It feels strange to be sat at a table without food, so I return to the counter and wait.

Steve is now mopping the floor. 'You know, it's okay here but I could have lived without Harvey.'

Clearly he's referring to the hurricane. 'Yeah, but I guess we were lucky.'

He talks about Houston and the flooding.

'I know,' I say. 'My wife always tells me we're too far inland for any serious damage, and she's lived here her whole life. I mean I know there were tornadoes in the city last year. I try not to worry about it too much.' This was supposed to sound reassuring, but I somehow managed to get onto the occurrence of tornadoes in a city which traditionally doesn't suffer tornadoes.

Steve shakes his head. 'I tell you one thing, I thought Bush handled Katrina bad, but compared to this guy, Trump - I mean, Jesus - what a mess.'

'I hear you.'

I don't know if the sense of relief was tangible in my voice.

As a white man, I probably don't have a lot to worry about in the great scheme of things, at least nothing specific to my lack of pigmentation; but one minor hazard of being a white guy is when other white people assume that I share their shitheaded right-wing or even racist views. It's not a major problem, but it's enough of one for it to feel amazing when it doesn't happen.

I definitely approve of Steve.

'Wait until Hurricane Irma wipes out New York,' he mutters darkly, still mopping. 'We'll see how he likes that.'

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Science-Fiction for Righties

Perky Girl Assistant finished cleaning the TARDIS dunny and returned the quantum bog brush to its receptacle. The work station set into the nearby roundel bleeped to acknowledge the end of her shift - eight hours, by Gallifreyan standard. Now all that was left to do were her tax returns for the day's labour, but she was still removing her overall as that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor burst in through the door.

'There you are,' he said breathlessly. 'We're needed. I've just received a distress call from Prime Minister Farage! Early twenty-first century, and I believe during White History Month, unless I'm very much mistaken.'

'But my tax returns…' she floundered as the sentence failed to complete itself. 'It's just that I don't want—'

'No time for that,' barked the Doctor eccentrically. 'The game is afoot! There is adventure to be had.'

'What? Seriously?'

'No - I'm joking. You must of course fill in your tax return first. It's only fair. I'm not made of money.' He snapped his fingers in a jovial yet firm manner. 'Step to it, Perky Girl Assistant!'

She quickly went to her quarters and changed into a perkier outfit so as to save time. She switched on the neutrino computer and set to work. She had laboured eight hours at seventy Gallifreyan dollars an hour, making 560GD from which she owed the Doctor 30% in tax, which would be 168GD, leaving her with 392GD. Of this sum she presently owed 290GD in room rental, use of facilities, and time-space tax; so that left her with just over one-hundred. It seemed a little unfair, and yet the figures added up. I'm not running a charity here, the Doctor had told her on a number of occasions, and it was equally true that she enjoyed the full benefit of all that the TARDIS had to offer, and he had overheads of his own to consider. Artron crystals didn't come cheap, and without them that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor would just be some weird cunt stood in an old police box.


Later that evening they were sat at the table of the main dining room at 10, Downing Street. There was the Doctor and his assistant, both tucking into their veal fritters, with the Prime Minister and his wife, Gisele Bündchen, facing them. A respectful butler refilled their glasses with wine as the Doctor regaled his host with an account of their most recent adventures.

'You see, the Cyberpersons were using the portal—'

'I'm sorry?' Farage grinned his famous grin. 'Who?'

'Cyberpersons. I know,' chortled that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor. 'Wretched, isn't it?'

They all rolled their eyes.

'You see they were using the portal to reconfigure the ancestral gene pool, so that by the time we arrived, it was standing room only.'

'O que era apenas espaço parado?' Gisele asked in Portuguese.

'This would be the disabled lesbian Muslim theatre workshop?' wondered the Prime Minister darkly.

'I'm afraid so,' confirmed the Doctor answeringly.

'All funded by innocent taxpayers, I don't doubt.'

'Exactly!' The Doctor slammed the palm of his hand upon the burnished oak of the table. 'That's why the planet's economy had been decimated.'

'You couldn't make it up,' said Perky Girl Assistant helpfully, but no-one took any notice, as usual.

She still missed that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the old Doctor. She just couldn't get used to this new, burly figure, supposedly his thirtieth incarnation, or his thirty-first if you included the one he never liked to talk about, the one with a fanny. She had asked him, of course, but he usually ran off into the cloister room, and she could never tell whether he was blushing or angry. All a terrible misunderstanding, he would mutter before descending into a rambling refutation of his cursed Gallifreyan biology, the evils of Socialism, the triumph of a free market economy, and how he had never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever been confused - not even for one second…

Thursday, 28 September 2017


I've spent most of my life dreading October, the month when it becomes obvious that summer is at an end. Grey skies move in, bringing, rain, cold, frost, and the prospect of what feels like six months during which the sun barely climbs above the houses on the other side of the street. Someone told me October was the month characterised by uprising and revolution, because that's the time of year when everyone gets so pissed off that they just have to do something about it.

I moved to San Antonio and assumed it would all be different nearer to the equator. It is all different, but now the month is August, and it's at least been a relief to realise that it isn't just me. August in Texas is punishing in terms of heat, with midday temperatures having reached 110° Fahrenheit some years. In San Antonio's favour, we're on the edge of the hill country, so we're high up and we don't suffer the additional burden of the humidity they get in Houston and to the east. The heat is more bearable up to a point. We all have air conditioning, so we stay inside during the day and do whatever else we need to do during the morning, at least before eleven, or in the evening. Unfortunately, whilst tolerable, such siege conditions mean that all other inconveniences and irritations seem amplified. If you're going to blow, then it will probably happen in August, and most years are conditional to whether we can just make it through to September. My wife told me she once considered seeking counseling in the hope of dealing with August.

This time it began with a sick cat. Jello stopped eating and took to spending whole days asleep in the back of the closet. We decided it was a cold and hoped he'd be better in a couple of days, but he wasn't, so my wife had a look in some book of feline ailments, then wished she hadn't, having found a good few describing our boy's symptoms as indicating something terminal. We took him to the vet and found it was just some viral deal, so he recovered and is now fine; but that sleepless night of wondering whether or not he'd be dead in the morning cast a long shadow.

Then my wife's car broke down, necessitating an entire Saturday hanging around at a garage in the heat.

Then hordes of angry, ill-informed white people emerged from the Texan woodwork to protest the removal of Confederate statues coincidentally erected during an era of pronounced racism, which probably wasn't surprising, but it was surprising that there should be any of the fuckers living in San Antonio - probably not the wisest place to make your home if you dislike brown people for whatever reason.

Then it all kicked off in Charlottesville, whilst the internet burst at the seams with voices of reason telling us that Nazis have as much right to express their reservations about multicultural society and whether the Holocaust actually happened as the rest of us, and that politically correct thugs need to respect that right, and that we need to address their concerns rather than calling them rude names.

Then my computer blew up, as I knew it eventually would.

Then Hurricane Harvey showed up, so we sat glued to the weather channel and the map of the big purple zone in which we could be forgiven for shitting ourselves, and San Antonio was just inside the predicted realm of doom. Thankfully all we saw was a shitload of wind and rain before Harvey swerved away in the general direction of Houston, so there were a couple of days spent waiting to die, followed by the awful feeling of being glad it had happened to someone else, which is never good. I grew up in England where the worst natural disasters tend to take the form of flooding, and I grew up in a part of England where that never happened, so this was all new to me. There had been a couple of tornadoes which hit the city about a year before, and we had to take shelter at the centre of the house with all the doors closed at one point, waiting for it to pass and fuck up some other neighbourhood; but that had been an exception, and this felt different. The news crews were telling us to stock up on bottled water, and the supermarkets were all packed to capacity with people doing just that as the sky turned darker over towards the south-east. The weather channel in particular seemed to be creaming its pants over the doom which was to unfold, and Godzilla had already been sighted making landfall somewhere near Brownsville.

Yet, we were lucky, and we knew it just as soon as they started sending evacuees from Corpus Christi and Rockport to San Antonio. We knew they weren't going to send them here if there was any chance of it being frying pan to fire, so we sat tight and it passed; and the weird thing is that even what rain we had wasn't so severe as it's been on a couple of occasions.

Houston was nevertheless screwed, and we have friends and family in Houston, and yet again the internet has exploded with stupidity, resentful morons pointing out that they hadn't seen any #blacklivesmatter rescue trucks speeding to help out at the scene of the deluge; and, despite all of my best efforts, it became briefly difficult to feel good about humanity in general.

Everything piled up, became overwhelming.

I smoked again. I found myself irritated at the kid leaving the kitchen light on all night. I experienced that sensation of joylessness which had been with me up until about 2011. I just couldn't feel good about anything. I experienced endless self-involved thoughts.

But September is now here.

Jello the cat is bouncing around the garden.

The new computer works.

We're still alive.

It will all seem better in a month or so, even if it isn't.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Fighting with Statues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He's right too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 September 2017

I, Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Emerald Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Yes, they were.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

'You're sure about this?'


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

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


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

I waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My journey once again interrupted by our French cat.