Friday, 18 January 2019

Funerals and Santa

I only met Skip Brooks twice. The first time was at a Devo concert in Austin. My wife pointed out a guy who resembled Skip, her cousin Jenni's husband, but we didn't say anything because we weren't certain of it being him. I don't know if that really counts as a meeting. The second time was at a Fixations gig in San Antonio. Skip was playing guitar for the Fixations, who were tremendous, and we spoke briefly after their set. So I didn't really know Skip and now I never will. He was fine this time last year. In April he discovered that he had cancer, and now he's gone. He had forty-seven years and that was it. It seems very unfair.

I know Jenni a little better, and it seemed to be mainly down to timing and circumstances that I never got to know Skip; which is a shame because I'm sure we would have had a lot to talk about, at least with the music. He had two young boys and was a great father and husband, which I know because it was plain to see, and so much so that everyone remarked upon his being both a great father and husband - which seems a rare thing.

The cancer was in his mouth. The operation sounded nightmarish. They had to remove his jaw, clean out the cancerous material, then reattach it. For a while he was doing okay, and then he wasn't. The cancer had returned and spread, and was so located as to cause fractures in his spine as it grew. It's difficult to imagine how his situation could have been worse. The end seemed inevitable. Jenni maintains that he kept his spirits up throughout what might justifiably be called his ordeal, communicating with sign language.

Today is his remembrance service.

We're at Trinity Baptist Church.

Skip was introduced to me as a punk rock preacher - mohican, tatts, piercings, and prone to belting out hardcore thrash numbers at his sermons. Coming from England, this combination took some getting used to on my part. I don't have anything specific against the religious, but belief in the man upstairs does not come natural to me. I refuse to identify as anything so tediously dogmatic as atheist because I don't see why I should have to identify as anything; and if your religion works for you, then I'm probably fine with that. Dealing with the world by means of metaphor is as good a way as any, up to but definitely no further than the point of voices in the head.

As a preacher, it seems Skip was tireless in his work with the homeless, those brought low through addiction, and others traditionally spurned by the more clean-cut - and not particularly Christian, it has to be said - representatives of the Baptist church. He was a guy who spent his life doing good things, and now he's gone.

Trinity Baptist is huge, and is presently full of friends, relatives, and those who probably wouldn't be here today were it not for Skip picking them up and setting them back on their feet. About half of the assembly have studded leather jackets and tattoos. One guy has the cover of the Subhumans' The Day the Country Died album painted on the back of his jacket.

The record came out in 1983 and it's now 2018 in a different country. My own pretend noise band once played on the same bill as the Subhumans, and I hung out with Dick Lucas and Trotsky - respectively the Subhumans' vocalist and drummer - as we watched Opera for Infantry, the other support act of the evening. They were nice people. I feel like I should tell this to the guy in the jacket, but I don't.

Jenni talks for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.

It's tough to imagine what she must be going through, what her kids are going through. She talks about how she met Skip, what he meant to her, and she gets through it just fine. It doesn't seem like she's reading from a script. She expresses herself very well and it's very moving.

Prayers follow, then further testimonials with greater emphasis on Skip the preacher, part of his world which I don't really understand, and to which I don't find myself drawn. It isn't that the sermons are all just words but I honestly don't know what else there is to be said. I barely knew the guy and yet his passing feels like something which had no right to happen, a great wrong which no amount of prayer can ever set right; but I guess it's just me.

At length we leave, Bess and myself, and we head to St. Luke's - straight there without first going home because time is tight. She and the women of her rock group have an event - referring here to a group of women who paint various designs on rocks, transforming them into objects given away in hope of bringing cheer to someone's day. The event is a Christmas rock exchange, the occurrence of which has been publicised through social media.

We are the second to arrive at St. Luke's parking lot. Sandy is already waiting.

'Where do you think we should set up?' she asks.

We gaze down at the St. Luke's rock exchange, a small circle of decorated stones on the grass verge at the side of the road. Members of the public are invited to leave rocks they have painted in exchange for anything which has taken their fancy. We have a table and the rock exchange is on a bit of a slope.

'Over there.' Bess indicates the corner of the parking lot, which is on level ground.

We unfold the table, spread out a table cloth, then set up the Christmas tree. Sandy wraps it in tinsel as the others begin to arrive. Some hang things from the tree. Others bring tins of cakes or cookies. Everyone seems to have brought more painted rocks, but it's still just five or six of us beneath a slate grey sky and it's kind of cold. Bess has told me this won't take much longer than half an hour. We're a sort of festive flash mob, you might say.

Another fifteen minutes pass and abruptly it all comes together. There are twenty or thirty of us now, and plenty of children. Santa strolls across from where he's parked his truck.

'Ho ho ho,' he informs us.

Santa is actually Byron, Bess's first husband. He's a goofball but in a good way, and without really trying. Being a first husband, his deeds occasionally give rise to the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but there's an honesty to the guy that's difficult to resist, and he's consistent, and when you need someone to dress up as Santa, Byron's your man. He's done it before and Bess called in a favour, so here he is handing out candy to the kids whilst cracking jokes about reindeer on the barbecue.

Bess and I watch, impressed in spite of ourselves.

'He's one of life's natural Santas,' I observe.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe - attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate, Byron as Santa at the St. Luke's Christmas rock exchange…

The children hoover up all the available candy, and we hang out with gals for a while. Then, once we're done, everything goes back to the trunks of trucks and cars, and we drive home.

'Funerals and Santa,' I say to my wife. 'It's been quite a day.'

Friday, 11 January 2019

Graham's Dream

I had an amazing dream on Tuesday night. The field next to my house was as it used to be with no houses. A football pitch was marked out. Loads of people were there because Pete Murphy was playing football, and I was playing in the same team. The ball went over the line and I was about to take the throw-in. I was looking for someone in my team to throw the ball to, and I couldn't see anyone except for Pete Murphy and he was a long way away, so I waited for him to come closer. I was just about to throw when he walked out of the gate with someone else. Everyone was sad because he was going, and when I threw the ball at him it was deflated. I went to pat him on the back and he turned into Ian Baldwin.

Friday, 4 January 2019


Once again it's market day. We loaded up the car last night and we're heading out to a spot where we'll set up our canopy, table and a couple of chairs. We will be attempting to sell our stuff to complete strangers - Bess's painted rocks and my canvases. Usually that means it's Saturday and we're heading for Mission Plaza, but today is Friday and we have a pitch at the Desesperación Community Centre*. It's their annual peace market, as it's called, a three day event, Friday to Sunday with a 9AM start; and it's a benefit for the LGBT community. We haven't even got started and somehow it already feels like work, but we're telling ourselves this is simply because it's something different and we've grown so used to the set up at Mission Plaza.

Some people make thousands of dollars over the three days of the festival, we've been told. We usually pull in about forty at the Mission, and that's entirely my wife because no-one can afford my paintings, relatively cheap though they may be. Mission Plaza is on the south side, which isn't really where the money is, but I'm personally not too bothered. People seem happy just to see my paintings and that works for me; but it bothers Bess, which is why we're here at Desesperación, which is fancier and is therefore patronised by overmoneyed Alamo Heights types looking to offset their economic footprint with something cute, ethnic, and preferably hand crafted.

The street is closed off for the market. We park at the Bill Miller barbecue place, which is opposite the Community Center. It's still early and there are only a couple of other vehicles in the parking lot. They surely won't mind and we can move the car elsewhere once we're unloaded. Between us, it takes two trips, fifty yards between the car and the spot which has been reserved in our name, Bess and Lawerence scribbled on the curbstones in chalk, my name spelled with a vestigial e. The first trip is punctuated by some Desesperación official letting us know we'll have to move the car once we've unloaded because Bill Miller is likely to get pissy.

Yes, we know.

The second trip is more complicated. I'm carrying an easel and a case full of paints whilst pulling a wheeled carrier containing Bess's rocks, one of those things with an extending handle. I have eight house bricks piled precariously on top of the wheeled carrier and I'm pulling it along with great care over the uneven pavement so as not to dislodge them. We're on grass at Mission Plaza where everything can be pinned down with stakes so as to prevent it blowing away, but here we're on asphalt so we've picked up a stack of bricks from Lowes with which to weigh everything down.

I'm pulling the wheeled carrier along the pavement at the back of stalls which have already set up and I come to a power line, a thick length of cable duct-taped to the ground. I'm having trouble getting the tiny plastic wheels over the thing. Someone more important than myself, whose time is more precious, dances around me so as to get past, obliging me to manoeuvrer, spilling my house bricks across the pavement. There are eight bricks in total and three of them smash in half.

'Thanks a lot,' I call out to the important person. 'That's great!'

I lift the wheeled carrier over the power line, gather up the bricks and the pieces of bricks, and eventually get to where Bess has already got our canopy set up.

She heads off to move the car.

I bolt things together and unpack more stuff.

We're next to a guy selling bead jewellery similar to the Huichol crafts you see in Mexico. The guy opposite has silver jewellery. To our left is the end of the street where they're setting up a stage and a PA. Ours is the stall nearest to the stage. Somehow I'm having a tough time feeling positive about any of this.

Behind us is the building of the Desesperación Community Centre, some sort of converted warehouse. There are two floors and a number of rooms within, presently all occupied by other traders. Some of them have come from Mexico, places such as Malinalco and Oaxaca, and these are the people who reputedly pull in thousands of dollars over the weekend selling art, crafts, clothing, jewellery, and delivering what they refer to as Aztec Horoscopes - which I'm not touching with a fucking bargepole. I've spent a lot of time up to the eyeballs in the Mexican Tonalpohualli calendar over the years, and I don't like to see it repackaged as a money spinning one size fits all new age nick-nack.

As with Mission Plaza, we don't have to pay for our pitch, but unlike Mission Plaza, Desesperación wants a cut of whatever we make. Bess and myself had our name down for a ten foot street pitch, which means they'll want 35% of our takings at the end of the day, assuming we sell anything. Smaller pitches were available for a lesser percentage, but we needed ten feet for the canopy because we don't want to take chances with the weather. Indoor pitches will be obliged to cough up 40% of their takings.

This was explained to us during the induction which we attended on Tuesday evening. First we had to apply, showing examples of our work because they don't want anything too shit lowering the tone. Having been accepted, we came to the induction hosted by four of the organisers, three young women and an older one, a Matriarch in traditional Oaxacan dress. The young women were like of the kind who, you know, when they talk they're all like ermahgerd this and, you know, ermahgerd that, and they're all like giggling and stuff and like they don't know words and everything they say sounds like a question, which didn't inspire a whole lot of confidence. The Matriarch - whom I shall call Ermintrude for the sake of both convenience and insult - had horrible hair and nasty shoes, although it was Bess who noticed this second detail. She seemed officious and humourless, like an unforgiving school teacher. I hated her upon sight and immediately understood that this was all a terrible idea. She put me in mind of the definition of a false wise man recorded by Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún in the late sixteenth century.
The false wise man, like an ignorant physician, a man without understanding, claims to know about God. He has his own traditions and keeps them secretly. He is a boaster, vanity is his. He makes things complicated; he brags and exaggerates. He is a river, a rocky hill.

Ermintrude immediately struck me as a woman who makes things complicated. The induction rambled on for far longer than seemed necessary on the topic of how it was going to be. Here's what we were going to do. Thanksgiving was coming up so there would be all that leftover food, and maybe we could bring it along to help feed the volunteers. In fact, maybe we could just take a day out to fix tacos for them, and don't worry about making too many, and we should advertise the market on all of our social media platforms. Everything was about what we could do for Desesperación, rules we should observe so as to keep ourselves from getting in the way or becoming a nuisance, how we were to pay the money we owed at the end of each day, how to sign our contracts…

Never trust a hippy, I thought darkly to myself. Anyone who projects their inner serenity with that much emphasis is invariably overcompensating for something, usually their inner Heinrich Himmler.

Yet here we are, because they had us sign a contract, and there has to be an upside to anything with that much small print. Maybe I'll sell a ton of paintings.

I wander around before the crowds start to thicken, checking out the other stalls. It's mostly clothing and jewellery, some animalitos,  muertitos and the like. The art is mostly decent, but nothing I'd want to buy, nor anything which makes me feel uncomfortable about my asking for eighty dollars a canvas - price adjusted so as to account for
Desesperación wetting its beak every time we make a sale. One stall has a typically inept painting of the Joker and his girlfriend, Harley Quinn on sale. So much for filtering out those who might lower the tone.

It's ten, and the crowds begin to arrive. A group from the Centro Cultural Aztlan are engaged in a ceremony at the end of the street, four of them in approximately traditional Mexican dress chanting, saluting the four cardinal points, greeting the sun, and asking Ipalnemoani to bless the craft market. They also mention Huitzilopochtli a couple of times, which seems a little incongruous given his famed penchant for human sacrifice on a massive scale. The incense burning in their censer is cedar rather than copal, as it probably should be, and it feels hokey. Next, a Tejano band start up on the stage, effectively drowning out any attempts at conversation we might make. Tejano is a traditional fusion of country, Mexican music, and Bavarian oompah bands with particular emphasis on accordion. In between songs, our accordion player introduces himself as being in some way related to Flaco Jiménez, a local Tejano boy made good who was won awards for his accordion playing in some peculiarly specific capacity like fastest, loudest, or most annoying. I have nothing against Tejano music, but I prefer narcocorrido - a variant which celebrates the deeds of various drug lords - and I'm not crazy about the volume. The band play about a million songs, all of which sound more or less the same to me, and then on comes our compère. She resembles a hybrid of Yoko Ono and a Hispanic version of Toni Arthur who used to present Play School back in the old country. She smiles like it hurts, and it seems as though she's addressing an audience of small children. She screeches and her speech is seasoned with ill-fitting phrases borrowed from rap. She introduces people as being in the house, asks that we give it up for them, and so on. She is exhausting to watch.

Now it seems that Ermintrude is in the house, so we give it up for her. Ermintrude repeats some of what she told us at the induction. The thrust of her speech is that as we approach Christmas, maybe we shouldn't be giving our money to the multinationals who are destroying the Earth, but instead opt to ethically spunk away all that lovely lolly on independent traders, such as those gathered here today. Desesperación raised a million dollars last year, and the city matched that sum with a further million, and now - maybe if we really make an effort - we can raise another million for Desesperación over the coming days. Ermintrude is kind of vague on what this money is for.

'We save buildings,' she explains. 'We campaign for preservation orders. You know, we have many beautiful historic buildings in San Antonio, and that's partially thanks to our campaigning work. Also, last year we fought the city when they wanted to raise taxes to pay for a new pipeline for the water system, although we lost that one.'

Given that San Antonio's water and sewage system is in famously poor shape, I'm not sure how I feel about Ermintrude's apparent attempt to preserve its state of historic disrepair; and a few more taxes to keep us from turning into Flint, Michigan doesn't seem an unreasonable proposition. Furthermore, I realise that in all this time I haven't heard a single fucking word about the LGBT community for whom we are supposedly raising funds. Mostly it's been about our money and how we can help out. At one point I go to take a piss, and pinned to the walls of the rest room are flyers with DONATE in bold letters.

Never trust a hippy.

The Tejano group is followed by a mariachi performance, a band backing an elderly female singer in flamboyant dress who prowls the makeshift stage as though about to drag one of those nice young men off into the bushes. Her voice is unfortunately a shrill screech and far from seductive.

Then there's another elderly woman wearing an unusual amount of makeup and lamenting mislaid love, after which it all blends into an endless conversation stopping racket which has made its home at the end of the street, punctuated only by further announcements of who is now in the house along with requests that we either make some noise or give it up for them.

I've bought my easel, oil paints and a freshly prepared canvas, because I had a feeling this was going to be one fuck of a long day, and it's not even eleven. Seven hours to go. I set to painting the tree on the opposite side of the street, incorporating elements of the revolving sign of the Bill Miller restaurant. Within minutes my view is blocked by people watching the band, but never mind. I do what I can, pushing paint around the canvas until it looks like it's in more or less the right place.

The mariachi performance is followed by Yoko Arthur screeching and telling us who else is in the house, then drawing a few raffle tickets. Each trader was asked to provide an example of their best work to be given away as prizes in the raffle. Bess gave them one of her painted rocks. I didn't give them anything.

The Centro Cultural Aztlan people are back, reborn as a rap group. This time there are two of them along with a woman playing a flute, rapping to a backing track of hip-hop beats. It sounds okay, and they're lyrically pretty tight; but as with the ceremony, it feels too much like an impersonation and not enough like that which it aspires to impersonate. Generic ad libs asking where my people be at? and the like don't really help.

We're right here, I suppose.

Next is a woman named Azul. She sings and plays vihuela, and is backed by an approximation of a mariachi group. She tells us her music draws from the traditions of Veracruz on the Mexican gulf coast. It reminds me of Tarascan music and is happily lacking the oompah of Tejano. It's the best thing we've heard so far by some margin. Of course, I still find something to annoy me - there's a woman sat at the front in a turquoise shirt, late fifties, bit of a spare tire with the face of a librarian. She is lost in music. Her arms sway slowly in the air as she snaps her fingers. Her head is back and her eyes are closed in rapture. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone look quite so smug. She is every social worker I've ever met, and only now do I realise she's been doing the chair dance all fucking morning, just sat there being a spirit demonstrably more free than the rest of us. I never realised there was a female equivalent to the dance famously done by dads at weddings, but now I've seen it with my own eyes.

I paint the tree and Bess sells rocks.

Yoko Arthur returns, now treating us to a full screeching half hour of what seems to be either a one-woman play or performance poetry which outstays its welcome. Her voice swoops up and down as she describes the trauma of childhood jealousy. She wanted the Commodore 64, but they gave her a ballerina doll seeing as how she was a girl and all. Gender stereotyping is a bad scene. Her brother got the computer, but she isn't bitter because she saw the alien. It was in her room one night, like the aliens you always hear about with the bald heads and big eyes and everything. It blinked at her and was definitely real, and that was better than having a Commodore 64.

'Who the fuck is this for?' I ask Bess.

She shrugs and sells another rock to someone.

Yoko Arthur concludes her performance and we give it up for her, and then for another poet who is now in the house. This one seems a little nervous as she takes the microphone and informs us that this is a poem about when she had uterine cancer.

Death sits at a desk and in my uterus, she explains, and I'm so astonished that I jot the phrase down in my notebook. It was actually the doctor who diagnosed her cancer sat at the desk, but that's poetry for you. This poem just keeps on going like a more depressing Energizer Bunny™, becoming bleaker and ever more bereft of light by the minute. It's all we can do to not laugh.

I purchase beer and tacos from upstairs, and the music resumes, more Tejano, more horseshit, and then the world's most efficiently workmanlike blues band. The bass player used to be in Question Mark and the Mysterians who had a massive hit with 96 Tears. This doesn't mean a lot to me because I preferred the Eddie & the Hot Rods version.

I paint.

Bess sells rocks.

The woman in turquoise is still doing her dance, such as it is, arms in the air, fingers snapping, moves requiring nothing which formally acknowledges rhythm.

'Now she is why people voted for Trump,' I tell my wife.

I come back to the painting from time to time. I can't tell if it's any good. Bess swears that it is, but then she usually does. It feels like we've been here for at least a week.

Yoko Arthur introduces yet more people as being in the house.

I paint.

A little girl goes crazy over a small canvas my wife has decorated with a mandala, first asking that my wife sign it, then to have her picture taken with the artist.

'Now that has made it all worth while,' Bess explains happily.

Hours drag past.

My painting begins to look kind of okay.

It gets dark and I still haven't sold a single canvas, not that I'm hugely bothered. I pack up my paints.

'I'm going to take this stuff to the car, okay?'

The car is in the parking lot of San Antonio College, not actually a whole lot further than Bill Miller.

I return and it's twenty to six. Bess starts to pack away her rocks.

'You can't pack away yet.' Ermintrude appears from nowhere to deliver the warning like we're naughty children. 'You have to wait until six.'

'Sure. Whatever.'

We wait until six, and I tell Bess to leave the packing up to me. She has to take our receipts to the office so they can work out how much we owe them, and the queue is already long.

I pack things away. Bess returns after about forty-five minutes. She is strangely quiet as we carry our stuff back to the car.

'Are you okay?' I ask.

'Fine,' she grunts. 'Tired.'

We no longer even need to have the conversation about whether we're coming back tomorrow. We signed contracts stating that we would, but the penalty of breaking the contract is that we won't get invited back next year. Boo hoo.

We drive to a branch of Jim's. We're tired and hungry.

Bess tells me that we took $130 - which was all her rocks. The Desesperación people looked at our receipts and reckoned it was $133, by which point Bess no longer cared enough to argue. They said that we owed them 25% of our takings because we had actually been given an eight foot rather than the full ten foot pitch. Bess said she wasn't bothered and that we'd signed a contract to pay 35%, and in any case she'd already written out a check for $53.20, that being 35% of $133. They said we owed $54 because they had rounded it up. Having stood in a queue for three quarters of an hour, Bess threw a dollar bill at the woman and told her to keep the change.

We eat and we leave a tip.

The knowledge that we won't be returning tomorrow, that we've managed to reclaim our weekend from Ermintrude and the forces of evil is a feeling so wonderful that it has left us almost lost for words.

Never again.

*: Names changed because I've no doubt they have some really mellow and tuned-in lawyer ready to destroy the lives and empty the bank accounts of anyone who might be legally proven responsible for a bad vibe.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

2018 Without Notes

This was the year during which I learned to paint oil on canvas. I'd had a couple of stabs at it before, once back in the eighties and then again a couple of years ago. Neither attempt was particularly successful due to my having assumed it would probably be just like working with acrylics, only to find out that it wasn't. Anyway, this year I got the hang of it, roughly speaking - thanks in no small measure to the advice of Sean Keating and Chris Hunt.

Sean Keating and Jamie, his younger brother, were the two American kids at our school, Ilmington Junior and Infants in the heart of rural England, a stone's throw from Stratford-upon-Avon. Their father was an actor of some renown who was, at the time, appearing in something or other at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, although I only discovered this recently when encountering Sean - now an artist - through social media. I also discovered that Sean's father had played the villain in a long-running American television series and was as such one of my mother-in-law's favourite actors.

It's all connected.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre was managed by David Brierley. His son, Crispin, was my best friend at Ilmington Junior and Infants. Many years later and over a hundred miles south as I lived and worked as a postman in London, I found myself about to deliver a letter to a pompous theatrical turd residing in Glengarry Road. I don't remember his name, but he had appeared in the Guardian colour supplement as most promising something or other. His wife, also in the theatrical profession, was much nicer, and I used to talk to her from time to time. One day she turned up in an episode of The Bill, the popular television police drama. Next day I happened to encounter the pompous theatrical turd in the street so I said to pass on my congratulations to his wife. He made a sniffing noise, the sneer of a man who considers himself above watching anything so base as an episode of The Bill, which is why I came to think of him as a  pompous theatrical turd.

Anyway, the letter I found myself about to deliver to him on this occasion was from David Brierley, manager of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This was too much of a coincidence for me, so I knocked and the pompous theatrical turd came to the door.

'Look,' I said pointing to the name and return address on the back of the envelope. 'That's my best friend's dad from junior school! Isn't that incredible?'

The pompous theatrical turd took the letter, made the same noise he had made when I'd met him in the street on the morning after his wife's appearance on national television, and closed the door. Apparently he didn't think it was that incredible.

At the age of fifty-three I have come to routinely expect improbable coincidences, so I don't suppose I truly regard any of it as necessarily incredible, not any more.

I knew Chris Hunt through fanzine and tape culture back in the eighties, which would be another substantial digression, but the point is that himself and Sean Keating got me started on the oils, introducing me to techniques quite unlike those I knew from working with acrylic paint. So, 2018 was the year I began to paint on canvas, working from life rather than photographs - as has been my preference up until recently - because the medium seems more conducive to working from life rather than from photographs.

I went back to England for a couple of weeks back in the June of 2018, and during this time I visited Dave Hirons, my former teacher from the art foundation course in Leamington Spa. He asked why I had opted for such a fundamentalist approach to painting, and may even have described my work as a rejection of modernism, or at least as being back to basics with the kind of emphasis which summoned unfortunate memories of Margaret Thatcher. I had no answer, and still don't, because the question seemed to require a needlessly polarised justification for why one thing is not something else.

This is tea, not coffee.

Why do you hate coffee?

I paint what I enjoy painting and this year I've also been trying to sell the things, which is a first for me. It's easy enough to keep acrylic paintings in a folder down the side of the bed, but canvases take up more space, plus I need money to buy comic books and all the vinyl records I never got around to buying at the time. I've painted twenty-three canvases this year, with two of those still being works currently in progress. I've sold four of them from which I've made $200, which is probably not amazing, but is better than a kick up the arse. Strangest of all, of the four I've sold, three I hadn't regarded as being anything special and I'd assumed they probably wouldn't sell. I guess I'm not the best judge of my own work.

Also this year, I started buying back all those X-Men comic books I got rid of back in the nineties, simultaneous to filling in all the gaps in my record collection - seeing as it's now become feasible to buy vinyl again. This is what I'm doing in lieu of the traditional mid-life crisis. It's probably the same thing but is more fun for me and less of a pain in the arse for everyone else. Sales of canvas paintings probably cover, at a rough estimate, about thirty back issues of Uncanny X-Men plus holes plugged within the respective back catalogues of the Stranglers, Wreckless Eric, and Eddie & the Hot Rods.

Additionally, I cycled a couple of thousand miles.

We acquired even more cats.

I wrote many, many words. I also painted some book covers and probably had something or other published.

Donald Trump continued to make America great again.

The Earth went around the sun.

I read 93 books, according to Goodreads.

There will have been other stuff too.

So some of that was 2018.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

The End of a Fair

We have yet another craft fair booked at Mission Plaza - Bess and myself - although this one is a slightly bigger deal than that to which we're accustomed. Higher attendance is anticipated due to it having been tied in with some cycling event, and there will be a live band. This means we have to leave earlier than usual to set up. Ordinarily this would bother me, but for once I've managed to get my ass into gear and we loaded the car up last night, so amazingly we're there before nine. It's a nice day too, clear blue sky and just warm enough to be pleasant. Without having really kept count, we think this is probably our eighth or ninth stint at Mission Plaza. It feels strange to have become old hands at something we only began this year, and so much so that we can set up without having to think about it.

We put up the canopy, stake it into the soil; out with the table and camping chairs; Bess spreads out her rocks and painted things whilst I bolt together the frames upon which I display my canvases; and soon we're done, ready for the rush - which is usually two or three people every twenty minutes or so. We're situated between the food bank and the Mexican guy who sells cacti. Because it's some sort of special occasion, today the food bank is a whole truck loaded with refrigerators and the like, so they take up twice the normal space. It's a mobile market stall for vegetables mostly grown by volunteers, and they accept food stamps. Last time we were here they gave us some stuff to take home as thanks for our help with their own canopy - butternut squash, potatoes, a massive onion, and a sweet potato I still haven't got around to using.

There are a lot more canopies than usual, and a big huddle of them over the far side of the field. This is something to do with cycling, specifically an organisation called FrankenBike.

The entire field doubles up as a drive-in movie theatre, because I've now reached the point of my acclimation at which it feels strange to refer to it as a cinema. The screen is a huge concrete wall to our right, curved and painted turquoise, excepting the white rectangle upon which the works of Michael J. Fox are projected. At its base is a raised platform which serves as stage when the occasion demands, as it will today. There are doors in the screen, presumably leading to inner rooms and storage spaces. It's a structure unlike any I have previously encountered. Usually someone trails a mains extension out from within the screen to a speaker sat alone at the front of the stage and we spend the morning with a soundtrack of peculiarly unpredictable composition - salsa, tejano, country rock, hits of the sixties, hits of the twenties, and occasional bewildering excursions into dubstep, trance or drum and bass. We're yet to hit the Swedish death metal playlist, but it can only be a matter of weeks. Normally I might find this annoying, but the music has thus far been okay and has in any case kept itself to the background.

By ten we've already had a few nosing around, and Bess has already sold a couple of rocks. A few people have told me they like my paintings, which is nice, and which is what happens instead of me actually selling any of the fuckers; but I don't mind. I know we're in the wrong part of town to sell a painting for sixty dollars. My prices are based on what I myself wouldn't mind paying, and on the fact that I'm not even sure I want to sell at least a few of them so the price has to be one which feels worth my while, and on prices I've seen charged by others. I've noticed very few people asking less than a hundred for an oil painting, excepting the only notionally talented who tend to paint lop-sided pictures of Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn, the Joker's girlfriend. I therefore feel confident that sixty dollars is a reasonable price for a proper painting produced by someone who can actually paint, namely myself; and luckily - I suppose - I don't really mind them not selling. I've come to think of our stall as a temporary gallery with knobs on, and it's a nice day out.

Also by ten, we're both inexplicably hungry. There's no sign of Chinga su Madre!, the taco truck which is usually here parked just behind the woman selling home made cookies; and yes, the guy really does trade as Chinga su Madre!, which is doubtless hilarious in neighbourhoods where no-one speaks Spanish. I therefore cross the highway to Nicha's, which sports a banner claiming itself to have been voted San Antonio's best Mexican restaurant. I've a feeling I've seen the same banner outside plenty of other places, but Nicha's is nevertheless decent. Nicha is short for Dionisia, and we've already made all the jokes about how if you gaze long enough into the salsa verde, the salsa verde will gaze back into you.

Happily, there's no sign of Snooki, who usually takes my order. She earned the name through an unfortunate resemblance to Snooki from Jersey Shore and because she always seems to find the taking of my order to be a colossal pain in the ass.

'Chicken fajitas on corn,' I will ask.

'How many?'

'I don't know. Just chicken fajitas on corn. I want however many there is in one order of chicken fajitas on corn?'

'How many do you want?'

'I want however many you gave me the last time I ordered chicken fajitas on corn without having to specify how many I wanted. They're for my wife.'

She'll sigh and narrow her eyes. 'You need to tell me whether you want one or two.'

'I don't know. Two, I suppose. My wife eats them. Usually I'm also eating rather than sitting there counting how many fajitas you've given her.'

'Two chicken fajitas on corn, and what else?'

'Street tacos.' I don't have to specify the required number of street tacos because they always come four to a serving, although I resent having to call them street tacos which sounds suspiciously like hipster terminology. I just adore Mexican street food, I recall a person of my vague acquaintance from Portland once screeching in reference to what is simply known as food in Mexico.

Snooki is nowhere to be seen, and even more exciting is that I saw a help wanted sign on the door. Snooki's replacement seems nicer and is able to take my order without extraneous negotiation. She also likes my accent and tells me that her boyfriend is from France. I tell her that I like the French and I try to remember whether I've been to his bit of the country.

Back at the craft fair, we're half way through Goldilocks and the Three Bears on the stage, as performed for the benefit of an audience of maybe fifteen, but those watching at least seem appreciative. I watch for a couple of minutes. This version of the tale has been given a local spin with the bears making a big deal out of how much chilli they've added to the porridge before going out on their walk. I can't tell if this works or not, but the little kids seem to get a kick out of it.

For the sake of something to do, I embark upon a new painting, having brought my paints, easel, and a canvas. Having taken up oils I'm concentrating on painting directly from life, simply for the sake of stretching my artistic horizons. I paint the tree behind our stall, and because there's a red truck parked next to the tree, I paint the back end of the truck, which seems to make sense in terms of the composition as a whole.

A band starts up on the stage, three middle-aged guys playing the sort of thing middle-aged guys tend to play. Writing about this one week later, it will have become impossible to recall quite what they were doing - but probably generically competent country rock, something of that sort.

Woo hoo.

We sell some more, or Bess sells some more and everybody tells me how much they like my paintings. One woman definitely has her eye on two of them, and will bring money next time we're at the Mission Plaza, which will be March.

'What?' I ask Bess. 'March?'

'Yes, this is the last fair of the year.'


'Afraid so.'


I now realise this explains the big send off with performance and the FrankenBikes and everything else. A guy sat with our cactus retailing neighbour walks over and gets in the red truck. I feel suddenly awkward.

'I'm going to miss this.'

'I know. Me too,' Bess sighs.

More time passes.

I can't tell if I like the painting of the truck and the tree, and I can't tell whether or not I've finished it. Just in case I have, I cross the field to the public bogs to wash my hands which have begun to feel greasy from the linseed oil with which I thin the paints.

When I return, Bess tells me that the guy who owns the truck came over to examine my work. He liked it.

I mosey over to the cactus stall. 'Hey there. Hope you don't mind me painting your truck. It just seemed to fit the picture.'

I'm surprised at how happy he seems. 'You have a lot of talent,' he says. 'I wondered what you were doing at first.'

'Yeah. I didn't realise it was your truck. That time when you got in, I thought, oh fuck - he's going to drive off and I haven't finished.'

We both laugh, then I go back to the painting. I think I'm starting to like it, although I'm not yet sure that it's finished.

Our friend who sells cacti comes over to see. 'You know he loves that truck. He is very happy to see you have done this.' He points at a large sticker in the rear window. 'He is very proud of that too.'

I squint but I can't quite read it - something to do with the military, so the guy is clearly a veteran.

The stage is now host to a performance by some kind of local tejano class - guitarist and drummer accompanying a string of little kids playing accordions. Some of the kids are significantly smaller than their instruments. Tejano is what happened when the Spanish music of post-conquest Mexico joined up with the oompah bands which German settlers brought to Texas. The ability of the kids, some of whom look to be about seven-years old at best, is astonishing - wheezing ninety mile an hour accordion trills with not a bum note or missed cue to be heard. It's not entirely my thing but it beats the blandly competent country rock we had earlier. The grand finale has all of the kids playing at the same time, seven or eight accordions blasting away on stage; and I come to the strange realisation that one accordion sounds the same as seven or eight played in series.

I finish the painting, hypothetically speaking.

'How much do you want?' the owner of the red truck asks. It hadn't even occurred to me that he might want to buy it, and I hope he doesn't think I painted it in expectation of his coughing up the readies. I feel a bit guilty, so I say twenty because he seems like a decent guy and his obvious enthusiasm makes up at least some of the difference.

It has been a really good day, and as I said, I'll miss this place over the coming months.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Art School Re-onion

The first one had been great against all expectation, but then it was all last moment with phone calls and people who also just happened to be in the vicinity. We met in some pub in Forest Hill - Adam, Gail, Mark, and two Carls respectively spelled with a K and a C. The pub was loud and brash as pubs tend to be, full of the traditional braying Saturday night wankers, but adversity sometimes forges magic of a kind. We all got hilariously pissed. I realised that I'd barely exchanged a word with Adam during the entire three years of the course we both attended at Maidstone College of Art, and thirty years later it proved impossible to work out why - just another one of those stupid things. Similarly it turned out that Carl and Mark had never actually had a conversation prior to that evening. Gail was still funny with a pleasingly dry wit but a different accent to the one I recall, and the other Karl was still massively entertaining. He didn't seem to remember having once made a codpiece of a red plastic utensil drainer nabbed from the kitchen sink for a performance of Cameo's Word Up, but never mind. We ended the evening stood outside freezing our bits off, swaying gently from side to side. It was a great night, and it really didn't seem like it had all been so long ago.

The second one results from a more intensive application of choreography, and my name has been announced on a facebook page as having come all the way from Texas, which I have. It's at some place called the Harp in Covent Garden, or roughly around that way. Central London wouldn't have been my choice, but it's easily accessible to all of the people who have said they will be coming. Carl and I walk across the city because one of the stations is out, although it feels a little like one of Carl's long walks, cheerily innocuous proposals which end up being thirty fucking miles. It feels like one of Carl's long walks most likely because I'm still limping. I arrived in London yesterday, walking from Victoria Station to my friend Rob's place at the rear of New Oxford Street because I'd reasoned that it probably wasn't that far on foot.

I turned up at Carl's place around midday and by six I have begun to suffer from conversational overload, being an otherwise fairly solitary sort of person. We walk across London - or limp in my case - and I feel pissy, whilst simultaneously resenting my own lack of endurance because how often do I actually see any of these people these days? How often do I see anyone?

They aren't upstairs at the Harp, whoever they are or will be. We check downstairs and they aren't there either. Carl and I buy beer and wait upstairs having found a table in a room with a bunch of rugby enthusiasts busily honking and hooting at each other as they do. Happily it's the room in which we are destined to meet the others. Upstairs at the Harp were the actual directions, and there's only this one room. We wait until nine and decide no-one is coming - two hours. On the way out, we find them crowded around the door, out on the pavement. Someone looked upstairs, poked their head into the room in which we'd agreed to meet and failed to recognise either Carl or myself. I'm wearing a stetson and a shirt of material in the pattern of the Lone Star flag, which you would think might have helped identify a person who had come all the way from Texas, as advertised on facebook.

We buy more drinks and go back upstairs, all seven of us this time. There's Sue and Kirsten, then three blokes I don't know. They look familiar in the same way as someone on a TV show can occasionally look familiar, but that's it.

I sit next to Sue. 'So how have you been?'

'Fine.' She regards me as a complete stranger; or worse than a complete stranger. It's that look of fear or even distrust in anticipation of the next question making everything horrible and awkward. Had I asked hey baby, what star-sign are you? her reaction probably wouldn't have been much different.

'You don't remember me, do you?'

'I'm afraid I don't.'

'I don't even look a little familiar?'


Sue is the person whom I was looking forward to seeing, knowing she would almost certainly be in attendance. We had been friends, and if not actually buddy-buddy, certainly more than merely acquainted.

'I used to live at the Square in Leeds village.'


'You remember Jane, your best friend for at least a year?'

'I remember Jane.'

'You used to come over to see us. I cooked a couple of times, or tried to cook. You sent me postcards from the Lake District that one summer.'

'I remember the Square in Leeds, but I don't remember you living there.' She pauses, uncomfortable. 'So what are you doing these days?'

Like you give a shit, I think, you don't even fucking know who I am. I mumble something which is reciprocated with a brief summary of her own life as a vaguely successful printmaker, and I am reminded of how little I ever had in common with most of those people at art college, people who stand in one room high street art galleries describing something or other as very interesting, people who go all misty-eyed over the shipping forecast on Radio 4, people who met this really amazing old guy on the side of a mountain in Baja California…

By the same token, I have no memory of the three middle-aged blokes on the other side of me. It turns out they were in the year below me and the painting department. I never really had much to do with anyone in the painting department.

Then there's Kirsten who remembers me well, which is gratifying because I remember her well. She's very funny, very dry, and a couple of the more sarcastic one liners and zingers in my arsenal probably came from her. It's a joy to see her again, as I suspected it would be. It doesn't really seem like a whole lot of time has passed. Inevitably we talk about Charlie, because he and Kirsten shared a house, and I seem to be the only one of us who kept in touch with him.

'He was the only student I ever met who turned up on the day he moved in with an ironing board - bless him.' She's laughing but it's an affectionate laugh.

'Who was this?' Sue asks.

'Charlie Adlard,' three of us chorus.

The name rings no bell, and of course she hasn't heard of the Walking Dead. Someone explains it to her, and why Charlie is now more famous than the rest of us put together, including Traci Emin, another Maidstone graduate.

Sue zips off to catch a train back to the south coast, and I begin to feel less irritable. The rest of us talk and drink for another hour, mostly like strangers who've only just met because that's mostly what we are. I manage to squeeze out another hour of conversation about our having shared the same geographical coordinates some three decades ago, and then I limp back to the tube station with Carl. The past couple of hours seem to have reproduced my experience of art college in microcosm with surprising fidelity.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Lone Hollow

Junior has attended summer camp since he was about eleven. Summer camp is one of those characteristically American institutions I don't quite understand, having no equivalent in my own childhood. I suspect I would have hated the idea of going to one, but I suppose I would have adapted; and our kid seems to think summer camp is amazing so he gets the last word, seeing as how he has the actual experience.

It's November, cold, wet, and we're taking the boy to some sort of off season reunion held at a local high school, specifically one of the knobby ones. We sit in the car, waiting at the gate. The security guard comes out of his bunker.

'Is this a military base?' I ask.

'No. It's a school.'

My wife talks to the guard. He returns to his bunker and the gate slides back. We drive through the grounds. About a minute passes before we see buildings.

'Is this one of those schools where they have their own generator so they can sit out the apocalypse when it happens?'

The boy laughs at my joke, which is gratifying. We're looking for building number forty-one. We can see thirty-nine and forty-two.

'We should park and look around. It must be up here somewhere.'

Some other people wander across the way, but with neither the numbers nor urgency one would expect for something describing itself as a reunion. Still, we follow them and find a site map screwed to a wall. Within another minute we have found our building. There's a temporary sign on a board set up outside, manned by a couple of summer camp types in Lone Hollow t-shirts and evangelical smiles.

'Hey, it's Josh,' observes our boy, or maybe not Josh, but some name in that general ballpark. Josh recognises our boy and somehow manages to grin even harder. I thought he was already at full capacity but apparently not.

We enter the lecture theatre. We sign our names.

'Would you like a sticker?' the woman asks happily.

'A sticker?'

'You can write your name on it so we know who you are.'

'No, you're all right there.' I smile in diplomatic fashion and move on.

They give us publicity material and a DVD, a visual record of the most recent summer at the camp; and suddenly we're walking out.

'Wait,' I say. 'Was that it?'

'No, there will probably be more.'

'Are you leaving?' asks Josh, or whatever he's called.

'We're just going for a walk,' my wife says.

We head for the car.

'Did you want to stay?' Bess asks the kid.

'I don't know. What else was there going to be?'

'I don't know.'

'Shouldn't we go back,' I suggest. 'I don't mind but this seems kind of rude.'

We wander around the grounds for a couple more minutes, then we go back. We find seats high up at the back of the lecture theatre, which isn't difficult. There are a few parents but I count about ten kids.

'How many kids were at the camp? It was more than just ten surely?'

'There were a lot,' the boy says, with the usual emphasis on the quantifier, as though he's hoping to blow my mind, as though I wouldn't believe how many millions of kids there were at the summer camp. 'But they were from all over. There were even some kids from New York,' he says as though this were impossible, and yet he'd seen it with his own eyes.

'Wow,' I concede. 'Do you know any of these?'

'I know Josh. I don't know the others.'

We sit. Bess gives me a bingo card on the grounds of my being good at that sort of thing - sixteen squares of pictograms referring to things they get up to at summer camp - a bow and arrow, a football, a wigwam and so on. Still images of rural activities flash across the screen at the front of the hall and I notice one of the pictograms superimposed in a lower corner. Bess gives me a pencil and I start to cross them out as I see them. It's something to do. 'I wonder what we win.'

The presentation begins. Summer camp people outnumber the rest of us two to one in their cheery blue t-shirts, but then it's a cold, wet Sunday in the nether regions of Texas. The first speaker tells us a load of things about teaching kids to do stuff. It feels oddly like a sales pitch, or something which will conclude with the handling of poisonous snakes.

We watch a film, presumably the one we've been given on DVD - kids in boats, canoes, sliding down zip lines, swimming, running, making art, and quite clearly having a fantastic time. The music is the sort of populist autotuned emo you would expect, aspirational songs about having fun. More than anything, America is about team, about being true to your school, about cheerleaders and loyalty; but I suppose you get used to it.

The film ends and we discreetly leave.

So that happened.