Friday, 14 September 2018

A Quick Guide to Texas Politics

I don't really understand it, but as one of those illegal wall-hopping Kenyan immigrants who came here only to claim welfare, enforce the transgender agenda, and vote in a president who'll take all's y'all's guns - if I've correctly claused that part of the sentence - I don't actually get a vote. However, this hasn't kept me from watching television and forming opinions based on political campaigns waged during the Wheel of Fortune commercial break. Here's what I've understood about the candidates currently on offer. I'm not actually sure what any of them hope to become except that it's not president, because we already have one of those and he's amazing, obviously.

Ted Cruz is a Canadian Republican who knows what's best for Texas, or at least claims to know better than a guy who is actually from Texas. If Deena from Jersey Shore ever took a drug to effect a Jekyll and Hyde style transformation into Grandpa Munster, the being existing at the halfway stage of transmogrification would resemble Ted Cruz. His sales pitch is that he's tough, which he must be because if there's one sure fire means of detecting the tough guy in any given situation, it's by looking for the one who goes around telling everybody that he's tough. This sales pitch works best if we assume tough to be an admirable quality in a politician, a position about which I'm not convinced. It would probably be fair to say that both Stalin and Hitler were tough, particularly if you were Jewish, and we all know that didn't end particularly well. Aside from being tough, Ted's other main selling point is that he isn't Beto, and will therefore probably let all's y'all's keep your guns and won't force anyone to make cakes for gay people if they really don't want to.


Beto is apparently the man who has a red carpet rolled out for illegal immigrants, because he wants them all to come here and sell drugs and rape kids, or something. I don't know if it's a literal red carpet, but if so, maybe that's why the wall is taking so long. Perhaps he's refusing to roll the carpet back up, or is obstructing construction by hoovering and doing the Shake n' Vac to put the freshness back as he invites the entire population of Mexico across whilst simultaneously helping them to fill in their welfare claims. This is what Ted Cruz reckons anyway, but then the Cruz campaign is also based on Beto supposedly destroying a precious Hispanic neighbourhood in El Paso and selling it to his father in law for redevelopment. Cruz fucking loves poor people, so you can see how he would be annoyed about that. I have it on good-ish authority that the neighbourhood in question was mostly a meth-ridden shithole, although Ted Cruz describes it as though it was the Alamo, using terms such as heritage and community, and pronouncing them quite well too, even though they're probably Mexican words or something. Being a politician and therefore inherently corrupt on some level, Beto probably isn't a saint, but at least he isn't a being existing at the halfway stage of the transmogrification of Deena from Jersey Shore into Grandpa Munster.

Will Hurd is another Republican, so his campaign is mostly about how he saw the Democrat candidate do a poo in his trousers in the queue at dinnertime and how the Democrat candidate put his hand in his trousers and touched the poo and then he sniffed his fingers and sort of smiled and he thought no-one had seen him do it but Will Hurd saw him and he definitely done it. He was in the previous round of telly campaigning too, whenever that was, and I'm fairly sure his policies were different, according to whatever was going to get him votes on that occasion. This time he stands next to a bunch of veterans, pretending to know them, then mumbles something about standing up to Trump, but he sort of says it quietly with his hand in front of his mouth in case anyone who likes Trump happens to be walking past on their way to make purchase of heterosexual cakes. What a brave and boldly outspoken soldier he isn't.

Pete Gallego. All I know about Pete Gallego is that he resembles a butch lesbian and that Will Hurd didn't like him very much, thus basing his previous campaign on not being Pete Gallego - Hurd's campaign that is; Pete Gallego basing his campaign on not being Pete Gallego would have been peculiar. I think part of the aforementioned campaign may have additionally utilised photographs of Pete Gallego hanging out with Nancy Pelosi, which apparently proves that you're evil. I still don't know much about Pete Gallego, except that I don't recall his campaign being all about how the other guy fucks chickens, so he probably wasn't all that bad. I don't even know if he's standing for anything this time. In fact I'm not sure why I mentioned him.

Nancy Pelosi. She isn't even anything to do with Texas, so far as I know, but if you hang out with her, that's apparently bad. I would assume that she wants to introduce enforced homosexuality and Satanism classes to elementary schools, going by the general political stripe of her critics, except Jello Biafra doesn't seem to like her much either, so who knows? Maybe people only dislike her because, and I quote, she's a woman and she's brilliant, which I've heard said of both Hillary Clinton and Theresa May, but said by persons whom I found myself unable to take seriously.

Julián Castro was mayor of San Antonio, and identical twin brother to Joaquin Castro who is a Congressman, or who serves in the House of Representatives, unless those are the same thing. All I know about Julián is that he once had his identical twin stand in for him when he couldn't be arsed to show up at some official function or other. Some will regard this as irresponsible and disrespectful, but personally I think that it's funny and shows character. I would therefore happily vote for him if he were to stand for anything, and if I were eligible to vote. It's therefore probably a good thing that I'm not.

Greg Abbott is currently the Governor of Texas. He comes across as fairly amiable in his commercial, partially because he doesn't spend it trolling everyone to the left of Herman Goering; and he once called Ted Nugent a fucking arsehole - admittedly not in those actual terms - so that's all well and good, although personally I'm suspicious. Abbott doesn't seem to like any of those things which Republicans typically tend to dislike, although he can at least string a sentence together. I'm sure I vaguely recall something about him granting funding to some nutcase militia formed so as to prevent Obama coming and taking all's y'all's guns, but it was a while ago and I may be thinking of the other guy. The aforementioned commercial features Abbot rolling towards the camera against a succession of changing backdrops. I hadn't actually realised he's in a wheelchair, and I suppose it's to his credit that he doesn't appear to be going for the sympathy vote, although I can't help feel that someone in the PR department may have spent the weekend binging X-Men movies.

Gina Ortiz Jones. Nobody told me to stand for whatever it is that I'm standing for, she says in the advert, but I done it anyway; and thus does Ortiz Jones establish her credentials as a feisty lady who doesn't need permission for fuckin' nuffink, yeah? At the end of the commercial, which mostly comprises a list of stuff she did which she didn't have to do but she done even though no-one said she should do it, we see her stood on the Hays Street Bridge in San Antonio surrounded by smiling fans. My wife finds the advert annoying and headachey but I'm personally not that bothered by it, plus anyone who promises to humiliate Deena Munster has my support.


I've posted a picture of Lea DeLaria rather than Pete Gallego so as to give a general impression of Gallego's appearance, and because Lea DeLaria is fab and much nicer to look at.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Party Animal

'We're going to a party,' Bess tells me, words which would once have struck terror into my soul. The fear came from the part of the conversation which usually followed, first my objection on the grounds of not enjoying parties, then the customary admonitions of how I need to make an effort to be more social, how I need to make more of an effort to step outside of my comfort zone every once in a while, how I need to make more of an effort to be the person she should have gone out with instead of me. Happily, I married someone who has never played these sort of games, who doesn't engage in that kind of low-level bullying, and who would never make such a suggestion without there being a good reason.

Saturday comes and we pile into the car, then a short drive across town to Laura's place. Laura is in Bess's rock group, specifically an assemblage of women who paint rocks, in case anyone had begun thinking in terms of Judas Priest or the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. They paint rocks and leave them in places to be found by strangers, persons whose day might conceivably be left a little brighter by their having found a painted rock. It's actually a rock painting party.

I find a space in the fridge for my Newcastle brown ale, six bottles. Then it turns out that I'm the only one boozing, so there's no bottle opener. Well-meaning rock artists suggest ways in which I might open a bottle with the kind of inventive enthusiasm you might expect when trying to start a fire on a desert island, then someone realises that a previously mysterious dingus they've been carrying around in their purse is actually a bottle-opener and the day is saved.

We retire to the rock painting room.

I hadn't actually planned to paint rocks but it's not like I have anything else going on, so I take a seat at one of the two tables, sat between my wife and Jennifer's mother-in-law, a lovely woman who moved here from Mexico City and unfortunately doesn't speak much English. Sat opposite are Jennifer and Sandy, Jennifer's mother. The others I haven't met before, but they're all women and there's also a second Jennifer. In total there are about twelve of us, and I'm the only man here, as Joel Grey once sang.

Sandy hands out a few rocks, and we all get to painting. I start on a cartoon octopus, specifically a cartoon octopus with a mustache, bowler hat and smoking a pipe. It will pass the time.

On the wall behind Sandy are three dogs painted on canvas - one seemingly a poodle, another of indeterminate breed, and something like a terrier but without eyes. I guess it was never finished.

I'm using Sandy's pens, a specific type dispensing acrylic paint in liquid form, but they're not really working for me. The table is strewn with communal art supplies so I switch to a brush.

'What's with the dog?' I ask.

Laura explains that she couldn't get the eyes right and left it as it was.

'You could paint a pair of sunglasses on it maybe?'

'Oh! That's an idea.' She considers the proposal. 'How about you paint sunglasses? I think you might be better than me.'

I look at the painting and realise I like it as it is. 'I don't think I could, now that I come to think of it. It would seem wrong.'

'I don't mind.'

'No - I like it as it is. It has some sort of quality er… I just can't stop looking at the thing.'

There is something compelling about the eyeless dog, as though it has special powers and can see into the future.

I finish my octopus and start on Frankenstein's monster, inspired by my recently having been commissioned to produce a sequence of paintings depicting different stages in the career of Boris Karloff. We're mostly yacking away as we paint, because, as I say, I sort of know Sandy and Jennifer, and Jennifer once lived in London so we have that in common.

At no point in my life prior to 2009 did I foresee myself as the only male sat in a room of American women, and I find the realisation pleasing. At the same time I'm usually a little irritated by men who state a preference for the company of women, because it always feels as though they're engaged in some deeply wearying exercise in one-upmanship; but on the other hand it's nice to know that no-one will attempt to engage me in conversation about real ale, motoring, golf, football, sporting activities, science-fiction television shows, or any of the other tedious shit with which so many men fill their bewildering lives.

On the other hand, the women at the next table are all of a certain age with very short hair, and I suddenly have the sensation of finding myself in an episode of Orange is the New Black, the drama set in a women's prison; then I recall that a chapter title in J-Zone's autobiographical Root for the Villain asks Are Men the New Women?

It's time for more beer.

Friday, 31 August 2018

How Shipston Has Changed

My family moved to Shipston-on-Stour in 1977, the year I turned twelve. Shipston is a small market town in Warwickshire roughly equidistant between Oxford and Coventry, and it felt like a small market town. I left in 1984 with memories of having grown up there, not terrible memories, but not particularly rosy either. It felt like a place from which you escape.

I'm not sure how often I've been back since, but it may not yet be into double figures. My parents separated around the time that I moved away, and both ended up living elsewhere so I never had much reason to go back beyond simple curiosity.

This time, it's because my dad and I were going to have a couple of days in his caravan up near Skegness, but the plan fell through, so instead we've chosen to visit his sister, my Aunt Pat, in the village of Ilmington. With Shipston being just down the road, it seemed like we should at least stop by and have a look.

Prior to moving to Shipston in 1977, I attended the junior school in Ilmington, so I have a lot of history spattered around this whole area even if it isn't anything I'm able to recall in detail. Aunt Pat is lovely, one of those people who somehow twinkles, and it's always a pleasure visiting her. She is married to Steve, who - by funny coincidence - is the older brother of Neil, one of the few kids I can remember from the class above mine at Ilmington Juniors. I remember Neil because I didn't like many of the kids in the class above mine, but Neil was okay and he was funny.

One day I took a couple of passenger carriages from my train set into school to show around. Neil picked up the OO/HO gauge Pullman buffet car and grinned. 'This is the best one.'

'Why?' I asked.

'It's got all the nosh in it.'

This made me laugh a lot, but perhaps you had to be there.

Several decades later, I tell Steve the story, such as it is. His younger brother now runs the Eight Bells, Chipping Campden's oldest pub, and has built up something of a reputation for the food served therein. I like to think that it was my OO/HO gauge Pullman buffet car which first set him on that course. I ask Steve to pass my regards on to Neil, adding that I realise he probably won't remember me. Weirdly it turns out that Neil does remember me, or he did the last time Steve passed on my regards, which is impressive.

Around noon, my dad and I head off for Shipston. We park in the West Street car park, adjacent to the police station, which is itself adjacent to number fourteen - which was our house. It's changed a lot. Somebody has added an extension since we lived there. Also, the police station is no longer a police station, although it's hard to tell what it has become.

'It's still a police station,' my dad insists.

We stand and look at the row of houses on the opposite side of West Street. It was an orchard when we first moved in, and we both remember the new houses being built. One of them was occupied by Pete Emberer, a typically flared seventies character halfway between George Best and the Yorkshire Ripper. He was friends with my dad up to a point. They bought each other pints in the George or helped start each other's cars on frosty mornings in this very same car park - or at least they did until someone borrowed the battery from my dad's vehicle without even leaving a note. A few months later, our other neighbours - the cops - invited my dad to have a look at some of the things they'd found in Pete Emberer's garden, and there was the missing car battery. Pete Emberer therefore ended up in the cells at the rear of the police station, prior to trial at Sheep Street magistrate's court, just over the back. Everything pertaining to the crime - scene, victim, perpetrator, arrest, detention, and sentencing - was therefore to be found within a single area of about fifty square yards.

My dad and I take the alley to Sheep Street, noting that the bread shop has vanished. We wander down to the town square in search of refreshment. The choices are the George or the White Bear, but the George looks as though their food will be served on square plates or even lumps of slate. The White Bear doesn't appear to serve food, but on the other hand you can still tell that it's a pub so in we go. I was last in this pub for a school reunion about ten years ago, and it's changed a lot since then.

Talking of school, I'm pretty sure the bloke sat at the bar right in front of me is Paul Boulton. I've spent the last half hour staring at every passing stranger and wondering whether they might be the old and fat version of someone I knew; but when you actually see someone you did know, you can tell immediately, no matter how much they've changed.

Paul and I were sort of friends, or at least sufficiently close for me to have taped a couple of singles from him - Bowie's Ashes to Ashes and This World of Water by New Musik - and we almost started a band. He had a guitar and was definitely going to learn how to play it, but more importantly he had a name and we were going to be called the Suburbans.

Then thirty years later, he completely ignored me at the school reunion, looked right through me when I said hello Paul, remember me? Perhaps he blamed me for the Suburbans having failed to take off as he'd hoped, or even to exist in any form.

Anyway, I'm not going to bother this time. He's seen me, and once again there's that uncomfortable flicker of recognition followed by nothing. In any case, he's in a conversation with the bloke at the next stool, who looks similarly familiar but it may just be that everyone seems familiar if you look hard enough. He has the demeanour of a fifties rockabilly who smokes too much, slightly gaunt in the face, but wearing an immaculate white suit, shirt, tie, trousers, jacket - all white, like a band leader.

All the service seems to be in the saloon bar, so my dad and I go out into the street then return through the other door, and thus we too are served. We have pints and a table from which I can no longer watch Paul Boulton looking uncomfortable at the public bar. The barmaid seems familiar, but she only moved to Shipston in the nineties, so she can't be. The other couple also seem familiar. In fact I'd swear the guy is Richard Benfield. I ask, and he tells me that his name is Trevor in a Birmingham accent, although his wife is from Shipston. Typically, I don't recognise her at all.

My dad is the gregarious type and we all get to talking - where we live, where we used to live, how it's all changed and so on. The police station - which is adjacent to where we used to live - is no longer a police station because they're cutting back. Crime is therefore a growth industry in Shipston, not that the place was ever what you would call crime free. We all share happy memories - albeit some more recent than others - of local cops dedicated mainly to tackling the scourge of after hours drinking, occasionally being so dedicated as to investigate scenes of the crime in an undercover capacity, even getting too pissed to stand so as to avert suspicion.

Trevor shares a vivid memory of Constable Beard and a colleague attempting to find their way back to the station through fog at two in the morning by following the line in the middle of the road with a flashlight subsequent to a particularly heavy bout of investigation.

'I never liked him,' my dad says. 'He had it in for me.'

'Wasn't he the one who found your car battery in wossisname's garden?' I ask.

'That's true,' my dad admits. 'He always had some problem though, whenever I came home on me motorbike. There was always summat. He didn't like my bike being up on the pavement.'

'Maybe he wanted you to lift it up and carry it into our front yard.'

I remember Constable Beard mainly because he rather helpfully had a beard, and I knew his daughter, Janice. She and a couple of her friends had showbiz aspirations and had written songs, vocal arrangements for which they invited me to score music. Their influences seemed to be mostly Andrew Lloyd Weber, Abba, and show tunes, where mine were Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle, so the results were a bit cranky; but the undertaking meant that girls spoke to me, so I couldn't really say no, and Rebecca Jacques was sort of foxy.

We talk about all the famous people now flooding to Shipston. It used to be just Roy Dotrice, father to Betty from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, but now there are apparently all sorts knocking around, Tim Henman, sporty types, actors... I wonder if the man in the white suit is somebody famous.

Eventually my dad and I reach saturation point. We purchase sandwiches from the Co-Op and walk down to the river to eat them. Then we come back through the square. My dad goes into a junk shop to have a look around, and I head for the public bogs in the Telegraph Street car park because I need to take a leak. As I pass, there's a girl stood on the corner of Sheep Street with an iguana at rest on her forearm. I take a piss, and she's still there as I come back the other way. She's no-one I recognise. She wears black clothes with bare arms revealing elaborate tattoos and she has the iguana - a bearded dragon, I realise.

'Hello,' I say because I'm too pissed to care. 'Is that a bearded dragon?'

'Yes.' She smiles. 'I just bought him out for a bit of sun. He likes the sun.'

'He's great.' I can't take my eyes off the lizard. 'My wife used to have one, so I thought it was probably a bearded dragon.'

There's nothing more to be said beyond the grinning, so I go off to find my dad. Between the man in white and the lizard lady, it's all gone a bit David Lynch.

Shipston has changed a lot since my day. For one thing, it's a lot fucking weirder.

Friday, 24 August 2018

London Calling

I'm never sure what to say when people ask me where I'm from. Generally, I tell them England, but if they're after anything more specific - usually on the off chance of their having spent a holiday there - it's tricky. I grew up in Warwickshire, specifically on the farm which eventually became home to the Teletubbies, which sounds a bit insane when offered as a response to enquiries regarding my origin; so more often than not I'll say London. I'm not from London, but I lived there from 1990 to 2009, nineteen uninterrupted years, which is the longest I've lived anywhere. My personality was probably in flux for most of the years prior to my moving to London, so I'm not convinced I was properly myself when living in Shipston, Maidstone, Chatham, or Coventry, at least not by any terms I still recognise; so it feels as though I'm from London.

London was the first place I felt I belonged, and is therefore high on the list of places I need to visit whenever I return to England to stay with my mother in Coventry. Unfortunately though, it can be difficult. Sat at the PC in San Antonio, it's easy to fire off emails announcing my proposed arrival and reiterating the awful hey, we really must meet up for a drink - awful because it's usually the mantra of people I haven't seen in decades, despite my best efforts to prise open a window in their busy schedules, which always seem to be at least as dense as the crust of stuff you find stuck to the event horizon of a black hole.

Then when I arrive in England, I remember that the train fare from London to Coventry is usually about a million pounds return, and we're talking off-peak; and that I can't afford hotels or bed and breakfast and that I'm far too old to sleep on the floor; and that I haven't actually told anyone I'm coming because I didn't want to be pinned down to an itinerary I might not be able to keep, or in which I might feel trapped; and that I've just spent eighteen hours on planes so I don't feel well disposed towards further travel; and that I hate crowds; and that I hate having to squeeze onto public transport, and how long it takes to even get anywhere in the city; and that I fucking hate London…

I don't hate London, but the circumstances of my last couple of years in the capital were somewhat shitty, which has left a lasting and unfavourable impression; but the bottom line is that I actually have mentioned my being back in the country to a couple of people, so I'll look like a twat if I fail to make the effort.

I've already reeled in my travel plans. Sat at the PC in San Antonio, I had all sorts of grand ideas about taking a bike on the train, then having a couple of days in London, cycling down to the Medway towns and Maidstone, seeing all those people I've been meaning to see for years and years. It would have taken up most of the second of my three weeks in England, and I've now whittled it down to a single afternoon in London, conditional to the existence of a train ticket costing less than a million pounds, and I might stay overnight on someone's floor or sofa, but probably not as I'm already depressed by the idea.

Amazingly, there's a return ticket costing just thirty quid, travelling at specific times with a rail operator no-one has heard of, and stopping at every station, siding, and signal box on the way. The comparative cheapness of the ticket means I'll probably be sharing a carriage with people who've been on the Jeremy Kyle Show, but the price is right.

I arrive at Euston around noon. The promised stopping at every station, siding, and signal box on the way has turned out to be just Watford Junction, Rugby, and the usual places, just like in the good old days when I could afford any old train fare. Not being a regular on the railways, I forget that those ordinary extortionate fares tend to be for journeys at the speed of light stopping at no stations other than the one at the end of the line.

Euston isn't too bad in terms of crowds, and I seem to be on a roll, so I think fuck it, I'll get the tube. I have an Oyster card from the last time I was here, and amazingly it still works and even has a couple of quid on it, so I top up at a newsagent and head for the underground. My memory of travel in London is mostly buses, because I dislike crowds and ended up with a hatred of tube trains. I've been left with a falsely distended impression of how easy it is to get anywhere, and find it weird that I'm stood on Tottenham Court Road in just a couple of minutes. I can't work out if the crowds are less congested than once they were, or whether it's all been so long that it seems like a new thing and I haven't had time to get sick of it.

I head to Forbidden Planet because I'm after the latest issue of Interzone magazine, and Forbidden Planet seems like the sort of place which might stock it. The latest issue of Interzone features a story by Erica Satifka, author of the novel Stay Crazy; and Stay Crazy is wonderful, so I'm trying to support both a new writer and the general concept of visiting shops in order to buy things which have been printed. Amazingly, they actually have the copy of Interzone I'm after, which is probably a first, and so I read it on the train to Greenwich - a trip of about ten minutes.

I left London in 2009, at which point I vaguely recall the first of the new, funny-shaped skyscrapers going up somewhere in the vicinity of Elephant & Castle. At the time I was spunking away three-quarters of my weekly wage on renting a rabbit hutch in Camberwell, despite holding down a reasonably paid, if back-breaking, full-time job; so I felt more than a little resentful as my city went all Blade Runner whilst overmoneyed tosspots banged on about posterity and capital and investment and growth and ways forward. Returning as a foreigner of sorts, carnivorous progress no longer directly affects me beyond that I can't afford to stay in a hotel, so it no longer feels personal; and I sort of enjoy the spectacle of what is to be seen from the window of the train. They're everywhere now, gleaming prongs thrust miles into the sky above London like the city seen on the cover of David Louis Edelman's Infoquake, and not a single one of them is regular skyscraper shape. It's as though the architects have been in competition with each other to come up with the strangest, most ostentatiously surprising design. There's the Gherkin, the Shard, the Cheese, the Sex Aid, the Pokémon…

'Computers,' Carl tells me. It's due to the development of certain architectural software that we are now able to throw up any shape of building we fancy.

I'm at Carl's house in Greenwich.

I arrived twenty minutes ago.

He lives in a square with a small central garden, or at least a barbecue pit and a bench surrounded by bushes. Upon arrival, I sat on the bench and had a fag in preparation for ringing the doorbell of my friend whom I'd not seen in at least a year. As I sat smoking, I heard the sound of a door, then approaching footsteps, then an indistinct verbal address which sounded like Carl's voice. In my mind, it already was Carl, and I imagined him calling out Loz in the usual way, so I went to reply even though I was replying to a call I had only anticipated, and somehow I myself called out, 'Loz!', having mixed up the two components of the predicted exchange.

It wasn't Carl. It was some elderly woman who regarded me suspiciously, possibly because I had just emerged from behind a bush to yell my own nickname at a stranger.

Now I'm within Carl's house watching him finish up and save what he was doing on the computer, specifically retouching photographs of REM for some book or other. He's a designer, and he's also working on a book about Japan.

We discuss this for three or four minutes before I realise he's referring to the band rather than the country. I forget that he knows a couple of them, and he tells me they were originally from Catford - which is one of the places I worked for a couple of years. It feels as though Carl and I have been transported into a weird future, a world we never made - whatever the hell that means.

He places the cherry boldly on the futurity cake by informing me that another mutual acquaintance is now working as a prostitute, specifically a BBW prostitute specialising in bondage, domination and the like. This is another eventuality I could never have foreseen, but apparently she makes eight-hundred quid a session and enjoys the work, so why not? I'm somewhat out of my depth with the profession, but I always imagined that dominating people for money would probably be one of the better sex work options providing one could find the right clientele - for example, a frustrated bank manager who would happily clean your toilet and then pay for the privilege, thus avoiding the necessity of finding oneself penetrated by anything too ghastly.

The subject resumes later as we approach Herne Hill station. We've had a wander around Greenwich park, a bit of lunch and then caught a series of trains to Herne Hill. The conversation resumes because I'm reminded that I've recently read Stupid Baby by New Juche, an autobiographical account of life amongst prostitutes in one of the rougher bits of Thailand. It's one of the best books I've read in a while and is written with a refreshing honesty and none of the hysteria one might expect, given the subject. The funny thing is that it's published by Philip Best, formerly of Whitehouse, who now lives in Austin and is therefore almost a neighbour. I consider this funny because Carl and I are on our way to visit Pete.

I was at school with Pete many years ago, back in Shipston, and we were both friends with Graham, who may or may not be turning up tonight. Graham and I saw Whitehouse live in Birmingham back in the eighties, during which Graham was injured by an object casually launched from the stage by Philip Best, who was probably the most hated man in underground music for much of that year.

I've been wondering how to broach the subject.

You remember that time we saw Whitehouse, and you remember the bloke who was chucking stuff into the audience, and how you got hit? Well, he lives down the road from me and we seem to be pals these days, sort of. I think he's calmed down a bit in recent years. Anyway, he seems like a decent guy.

I tell all of this to Carl, and so we talk about Glenn, because somehow we'd both forgotten that Glenn was also in Whitehouse. Carl and I recorded music with Glenn at one point. Glenn left a keyboard at Carl's flat for a couple of months, apparently on loan from William Bennett - also of Whitehouse - who was living in Spain at the time. When you switched the keyboard on, the name Susan Lawly would scroll across the LCD display in greeting, that being the name of Bennett's record label. The connections form a peculiar imaginary cat's cradle in my thoughts. I'm beginning to think that current estimates regarding human population are grossly exaggerated, and that there are actually only about twenty of us.

We arrive at Herne Hill and walk to Pete's house.

I'm hoping Carl and Pete will get on okay, given that neither of them have been in the same room since about 1987, and were never conspicuously close in the first place.

Here's how it works: I was at school in Shipston, Warwickshire, with Pete and Graham back in the eighties. Pete's family had moved to Shipston from somewhere down south a couple of years before, and once Pete left school, they moved again, to Eastbourne down on the south coast. I left school and did an art foundation course, at the end of which I was told I should have a look at Maidstone College of Art if I wanted to take it further. I didn't actually have the faintest idea of what I wanted to do, but it seemed like as good a plan as any, so I went for an interview at Maidstone and was accepted, thus dispensing with the need to bother looking around any other colleges. By sheer coincidence, it turned out that Pete had already been at Maidstone a year, studying graphic design. Carl was also at Maidstone, a former graphics student by that point serving as president of the Student Union, so that's how I met him, and how he and Pete came to know each other.

Back at school, Pete, Graham, and myself had been in a band, calling ourselves the Pre-War Busconductors amongst a variety of other interchangable, wilfully ludicrous names. We barely had any instruments, couldn't really play, but nevertheless churned out tape after tape of scatological songs about people at school whom we regarded as twats. Having spent the last couple of years digitising these tapes, I now have our entire body of work saved on memory sticks, one for Pete and one for Graham. This is partially the purpose of our meeting tonight, so I can hand over the sound files and we'll all have copies.

Carl, Pete and myself walk to the Half Moon. Pete tells me it seems unlikely that Graham will be along after all, presently being in Devon with his girlfriend. We buy drinks and sit outside. Most of the talk is between Pete and Carl, because they're simply chattier individuals than I am, and somehow we get onto the subject of how Pete came to move to Shipston in the first place. I recall that he had lived somewhere down south prior to Shipston, and that somewhere turns out to have been the Medway towns - which is where Carl grew up. Furthermore it turns out that Carl and Pete both attended the same junior school, the Hundred of Hoo as it was known, without having been aware of each other at the time, or having been aware of this fact until right now in the year 2018; and I've a feeling this may also be the school attended by Jayne, Glenn's first wife.

The cat's cradle seems to be approaching critical mass.

Eddy and Neil turn up, which is wonderful as I haven't seen either of them in years. It's also wonderful because I have to ask Eddy whether it will be okay for me to kip on his floor. The latest specific time I can return to Coventry on the ticket purchased from a rail operator no-one has heard of is nine this evening, which would leave thirty minutes in which to have a drink with my old pals. The thing is that I feel awkward asking Eddy because I haven't actually spoken to him since his mother passed away. He's one of my favourite people in the universe, but somehow he only makes sense in person. We've communicated on facebook, but you're either hanging out with him, or arranging to hang out with him which, combined with my not being much of a fan of the telephone, means we haven't spoken for a while and it will feel a bit fucking cheeky when I ask if I can kip on his floor for the night; but like a true friend, he doesn't give a shit and is simply glad to see me, and of course I can sleep on his floor.

So we all catch up, getting cautiously drunk in the way middle-aged men get cautiously drunk. Everyone gets on fine, even though Pete is from a different shard of my existence to the others. Neil is, as ever, darkly entertaining with his tales of dealings with showbiz types, recent clients including Helen Mirren and Idris Elba. He doesn't seem to have a particularly high opinion of Idris Elba.

Eventually it's time to go and Eddy drives, being the one of us with a car and sobriety. His flat, which I've never seen before as he moved in just over a year ago, is small but functional. Money is tight, but he's getting by. Money is tight for everyone I know still living in London. I wouldn't have stood a chance.

Eddy assembles a camp bed purchased from some hardware place. It comprises canvas stretched across tubes of steel and works like a hammock. Two of the steel tubes are missing, but it doesn't matter because I'm not seven foot tall. We have a cup of tea, watch an episode of Urban Myths - which dramatises the true story of a regular dude giving Public Enemy a lift to one of their shows in his Ford Focus - and then go to sleep; and against my expectations, I sleep well because the camp bed is very comfortable.

Next morning we have a walk to the caff along by the Thames. Eddy points to a house over on the other side of the river.

'That's where Helen Mirren lives.'

I have two sausages, egg, and chips in the caff and it tastes fucking amazing. I realise how much I've missed this place and its people. I can still feel my roots here, reaching down into the tarmac and cracked paving, in the newsagents and pound shops and the bite of cold far too early in the morning. I'm quite happy to live a long way away, but I'm glad I came back, just for a day.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Curry with Martin

I'm calling on my friend, Martin. We're going for a curry. Last time I was in England, he said, we'll have to go for a curry next time you're here. I probably should have written those first lines as Grant Morrison would have written them:

I'm calling on my famous friend, Martin Bowes of Attrition. We're going for a curry.

I know it seems fucking stupid, but that's how it feels.

I stay in Coventry when visiting England because that's where my parents live. I myself lived in Coventry for nine months or so at the end of the nineties, then another eighteen ending in 2011. Both periods of residence were - roughly speaking - just me living somewhere while I sorted myself out in preparation to live somewhere else; so I've never really thought of myself as having lived in Coventry, not properly, much less being from Coventry. I was born and grew up in Warwickshire, but that's another story.

I first knew of Martin back in 1980. His fanzine, Alternative Sounds, had turned up at our local record shop, Discovery in Straftford-upon-Avon. I bought a copy because the Abstracts were featured therein, the Abstracts being a local band for which my friend Graham's brother played bass. Alternative Sounds was quite an eye-opener for me - the first fanzine I ever bought - and a great read even beyond the vague thrill of someone I knew having been mentioned; and sadly, seeing as I'd only just discovered the thing, this was to be its final issue because Martin, the editor, wanted to dedicate more time to his band, Attrition.

Attrition came to wider attention a few years later as part of a wave of experimental musicians championed by Dave Henderson of Sounds music paper, others including Nocturnal Emissions, Konstruktivists, and Test Department. The first tracks I heard by Attrition were Monkey in a Bin and Hang Me, which appeared on a compilation tape called A Sudden Surge of Power. These two were among the best tracks on the tape, so Attrition made a big impression. I bought their records when they started to issue music on vinyl, and Smiling, At the Hypogonder Club, their second album, was pretty much glued to my turntable for the duration of 1985.

So it feels pretty odd when, nearly a quarter century later, I spot Martin Bowes heading up Albany Road in Coventry. I've never met the guy. I never even wrote him a letter asking for a tape, but by this point we seem to have about a million mutual friends, having moved in related circles over the years.

'Oi, Martin!' I shout, aware that it leaves a lot to be desired as an introduction, but I can't think of anything else which would seem natural, and all the while I'm aware that this isn't just some bloke, it's Martin from Attrition and I'm terrified of appearing like some drooling fan.

He's probably used to it, because he doesn't seem particularly puzzled, and even gives the impression of having heard of me somehow. Attrition were on the same bill as Konstruktivists at some event not too long ago, and I used to be in Konstruktivists, plus we both sort of know Alan from Stress and Adventures in Reality; so it all kind of joins up; and Martin is a very personable sort of bloke - reminding me a little of characters written by Alan Bennet - and somehow this isn't like an awkward conversation with a complete stranger.

That was 2011, just before I moved to Texas.

We kept in touch.

At one point I needed someone to rescue material I'd recorded on minidisc, a format for which my computer had apparently lost all respect. Martin was running his own studio by then, and kindly effected the rescue during one of my more recent visits. Just as I left his house, Dill from God's Toys had turned up for a recording session and was eating fish and chips in the front room. God's Toys were another local band who had briefly been on telly when I was a kid, so once again I found myself momentarily starstruck by terms that probably wouldn't make sense to anyone else in the entire universe. Dill seemed like a nice bloke too.

So here I am, back in England, back at the house of Martin from Attrition, knocking on his door to see whether he fancies a curry, which of course he does.

We wander up towards the Foleshill Road, talking about England and America, his work as Attrition and mastering the music of other artists at his studio, notably Coil; we talk about mutual friends and acquaintances, of whom there always seem to be more than I realised - this time adding Carl Howard and David Elliott to the list; and then we arrive at Taste of India and eat the best curry I've had in a number of years.

We talk about goths, Whitby, not particularly liking the Cure, Hawaii, New Zealand, getting old, and fatherhood, or stepfatherhood in my case. Martin's son is a grime artist, one of those details which strikes me as both completely peculiar and yet makes perfect sense.

We finish and make our way back and agree we should go for another one next time I'm over.

These yearly return visits to England can be awkward, even uncomfortable, and sometimes feel as though I'm engaged in a forensic investigation of my own existence, establishing a motive whilst trying to verify all of those memories of living here as actually having happened. At worst, it can feel like a particularly morbid type of time travel, going back to times prior to the death of persons who are yet to die. So much of what I experience in England is now prefixed with this may be the last time…

Curry with Martin feels an even stranger experience on some level, like a sidestep into a reality where I actually lived in Coventry, and I have to remind myself that I did live in Coventry for a while. It's like a reconstruction, something imagined by whoever looks back at my life and decides, yeah, he probably would have known that bloke from Attrition. They would have gone for a curry, and let's face it - that would have been somewhere up the Foleshill Road. I had assumed Coventry would be done with the surprises by this stage.

This is how my brain works, and how it will doubtless continue to work, so there's probably not much point in my apologising for any of it; but the thing that I take from it is that, here in this land which is, for me, mostly memories and things which used to be, new stuff can still happen, for which I am truly thankful.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

My Australian Cousin

My Aunt Lynda moved to Australia in January, 1974. She corresponded with my mother - her older sister - for a little while, but silence eventually fell. I would have been eight-years old when she moved, and although I remember Lynda, it was a long time ago and the details are a bit sketchy. I remember Eddie, her husband, whose name turned out to have been extrapolated from Edwin rather than Edward, which would be at least one reason why more recent Google searches never seemed to come back with anything. I remember the block of flats in Leamington Spa where they lived, possibly because it was the first block of flats I ever entered, what with my being a rural lad and everything. The climb to the eighth floor stuck in my memory, and weirdly I remember it as a peculiarly circular activity in which we went up one flight of steps, then down the next one back to the beginning, over and over as though it were some sort of ritual undertaking designed to unlock the upper floors of the building. 'We're just going up and down again,' I kept trying to tell my parents. Realistically, I'm almost certainly remembering a dream about the ascent, which at least indicates how significant it seemed to me at the time. Big cities full of tower blocks, urban architecture and concrete were places I only ever saw on Doctor Who on the telly, usually subject to invasion by beings from other worlds.

I also remembered Dawn - Eddie and Lynda's daughter, my cousin - who would have been about three by the time they boarded the boat at Southampton; or at least I remembered her in the sense of remembering that she existed.

Decades flapped past and we all began to wonder what had become of this Australian branch of the family, but Google searches came back with nothing. Then in 2017, my wife got on the case, having run out of her own ancestors, or at least hit a wall back in sixteenth century Bermondsey - which was itself an eye opener given my own more recent association with south-east London. Bess, by agency of one of those genealogy websites, discovered that Eddie had been Edwin rather than Edward, that his surname had been Brown - a detail which the rest of us had somehow mislaid - and that, if this was the same guy, the trail led to Lynda and Dawn, both still resident in Australia. So emails were exchanged, and yes - it was them, after all this time. They had similarly been looking for us, on and off, but never found anything.

One year later, and I'm back in England visiting my mother. I'm here for three weeks, and my visit has been timed to coincide with Dawn and her family coming to England. I try to get back to see my folks once a year, and I knew Dawn was planning a trip so it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Dawn's trip lasts two months and seems to involve whizzing around half of northern Europe while they're up this way - even bits of Iceland and Norway. I suppose, if you're going all the way to the other hemisphere, you may as well try to see as much of it as you can.

So we've exchanged emails and we seem to get on fine, but I'm still a little nervous about the meeting, not least that it will take place at my mother's house, because they've hired a car so it's easier for them to drive over to see me from their current hotel, which is somewhere in the Cotswolds. I've met plenty of Australians, and only ever one Australian I didn't like - although he seems to have been the exception which proved the rule - and they probably number in my top ten favourite nationalities, possibly top five; and yet still I have this image of my mother - who generally doesn't do crowds - besieged by gregarious Aussies laughing and chucking tinnies to one another across the couch.

Thankfully and obviously, such ludicrous fears are unfounded. Dawn is with Darren, her husband, and son, Sean. They file into the front room and occupy the sofa as though entering a stately home.

There's a distinct familial resemblance between Dawn and my mother, her aunt; which is, I suppose, consistent with how my mother and Lynda have grown to resemble each other quite closely in recent years, which is surprising given how different they were as children. Dawn seems an outgoing, happy presence, someone whose company warms the room.

We talk about the sort of things you always talk about when you haven't seen someone for forty-five years, and my mother appears quietly delighted by the meeting. This is a relief, because I felt a bit awkward as the intermediary introducing people who may as well be strangers to her home. We talk about the family, and what little we can remember of it, and we talk about England and America and Australia. Darren is a miner, so he's interested in the old mines they've visited in Wales. He works at an open cast mine and I get the impression that it's one of those jobs involving huge, strange looking bits of digging equipment, like the trucking equivalent of the attractions at Jurassic Park. He seems a nice bloke and very much reminds me of my friend Glenn, quiet but with an endless supply of one-liners and with a face accustomed to grinning.

Darren is driving, so we drive to Kenilworth which is a couple of miles down the road. We spend most of the morning plodding around Kenilworth Castle on the grounds of it being there, and that Dawn was almost certainly wheeled around the place in a stroller back in the seventies. They seem to like it, as do I, because it's always good to see a place through the eyes of someone who doesn't know it so well as you do. All the same, given how much the three of them are packing in on this tour of the northern hemisphere, I'm surprised they're not beginning to suffer castle-burn. They've already seen Sudeley Castle, and I suspect it may not have been the first.

After the castle, we drive up to the Mews, as the cul-de-sac is named, to look at the house where our grandparents lived, and where Dawn herself supposedly lived for a couple of months.

'It's that one,' I say, pointing at number thirteen.

We look at the house.

Dawn had been wondering if the memories might come flooding back, which they haven't, but never mind. We drive on, around a couple of corners and end up on Rouncil Lane.

'I think that's where your mother went to school,' I say as we pass Kenilworth Sixth Form, emphasis on I think because this is only a vague impression I have, probably based on the fact of it being a school in Kenilworth. I wouldn't like to claim I'm anything special as a tour guide.

They drop me back off in Coventry and we say goodbye until what we all hope will be a next time. It was short and a bit of a whirlwind, but I'm really glad we managed to work out the dates; and once again I take pleasure from the fact that we're all still alive.

...and thanks to Dawn for the photographs!

Friday, 3 August 2018

An Englishman in Texas in England

Mary grins and chortles, gleefully poking me in the gut like I've just been rumbled. 'Hoo hoo - what's that?' she cackles. 'You take after your dad.'

I have a paunch because I'm middle-aged. I've been middle-aged for a while, and I'm surprised that this is the first time she's noticed how I bulge around the middle, particularly as I'm pretty sure I bulge slightly less than I did when I last visited.

It seems an inane observation.

I'm back in the old country, and it's getting harder each year; although on the positive side I'm still surprised and pleased to have found myself living a life from which I can issue such a sentence, because it means that I escaped, and I would much rather visit this country than still be living here. It gets harder each year because I get older each year, I suppose, and I become more and more acclimated to life in a hot country. I like to see my parents and people I know, but at the same time I dislike disruptions to my routine, and I dislike the process of travelling, twenty hours spent in constant motion from one door to another with all of the waiting around and headaches it will inevitably entail, then the jetlag amounting to a four-day hangover.

Last time I came back was the first since the people had spoken in favour of Brexit, and there was something unpleasant in the air. The country felt meaner in spirit, more insular than ever, more suspicious of anything slightly different. This time, the background noise of ambient xenophobia seems less pronounced, although to be fair it may only ever have been my imagination, a result of my being unable to shut out certain conversations occurring across social media. I've possibly just had more time in which to notice how many people now regard Brexit as a terrible idea. Either they're coming to their senses, or else it simply looks that way from where I'm stood.

In any case, it's strange being back, and I have an irrational fear of being stuck, somehow forced to resume my former mostly miserable existence. I'm presently a tourist in a life I've left behind.

My wife's friend Heather was back in San Antonio at Christmas, staying at her parent's house for the sake of convenience. Heather's father shook my hand and said, 'Well, at least you'll soon be out of the European Union,' as though this was something which would have been playing on my mind. I didn't bother to answer. It had been a peculiar announcement, because I hadn't said anything, let alone anything inviting consolation.

I've been trying to maintain an equivalent silence today, because I'm in the car with my dad and we're driving to some village on the outskirts of Leicester. Mary is sat in the back and we're dropping her off at her sister's house in the aforementioned village.

Typically I speak to my dad on the phone once a month. This time last year it had become something of a chore, with the first minute of conversational formalities usually giving way to his views on immigrants and how they were ruining the country, and how I wouldn't recognise Coventry any more. I usually shut up, hoping he'd run out of foreigners upon which to heap blame. Raising the obvious objections was a waste of time because I had the impression that for him, living a relatively comfortable life unimpeded by either immigration or immigrants in any tangible sense, it was really just like talking about the weather. His casual xenophobia was purely conversational and didn't seem to run very deep because it had no real reason to do so. Then in recent months our phone conversations became less contentious, focussing rather on whatever was going on in our respective gardens. It felt as though my dad might have come to his senses, so that was what I told myself.

I phoned him before I flew, and was thusly informed of his most recent holiday on the Costa Brava. Neither himself nor Mary had enjoyed it, because the Costa Brava has been ruined by foreigners - mostly from eastern Europe, very rude people apparently.

'It's not like it used to be,' he told me sadly.

This was an unambiguous return to the theme of what's wrong with foreigners, but I told myself it was different in at least being born of direct experience rather than some alarmist crap picked up from a tabloid newspaper.

Now we're in the car, heading towards Leicester, and I'm looking out of the window as my dad once again explains how I wouldn't recognise Coventry.

Mary offers a chorus from the back seat, explaining about all those jobs which would have gone to good Coventry lads but for something or other to do with Somalia. 'I'll tell you what the problem is, Lawrence,' she adds thoughtfully, 'some of them, they just don't want to work.'

I'm completely fucking lost by this point. I look at my watch. The case for the prosecution has been running for fifteen minutes.

'Do you think we could change the subject?' I say it loudly and forcefully, although my voice squeaks a bit because I'm trying not to sound as pissy as I feel. 'I hear it all the time and I'm sick of it - all the problems of the world blamed on the poor fuckers who have nothing and are the easiest to blame,' and I go on to give parallels and examples, notably fruit now rotting on Californian trees because migrant workers suddenly feel somehow unwelcome in the United States, and white people won't work for the shitty sub-minimum wages the farmers insist is the best they can do. I talk about the proposed wall and take some pleasure in pointing out that its main function is to appease angry morons who don't understand things, because it's not like it will actually keep anyone out. My speech wails and wavers and is peppered with awkward grammatical conjunctions because I'm improvising, but given the quality of the argument I'm attempting to counter, I probably sound like Carl Sagan.

I finish and take a deep breath and feel a little embarrassed.

Thankfully it seems it hasn't been taken as an outburst, because the conversation resumes normally and naturally; although Mary has just remembered some other things she doesn't like about immigrants.

I may as well have been talking about my favourite cheese.

'That's enough politics now, Mary.' My dad sounds firm, yet somehow not even slightly disgruntled. It really is as though we've been discussing the weather.

They talk about their ruined holiday on the Costa Brava, with reduced emphasis on lack of manners as an inherently east European trait. They talk about a holiday in Amsterdam.

The roads are amazing in Holland, brand spanking new and not a pothole to be seen. My dad explains that these wonderful highways are paid for entirely with British money stolen from us by the European Union, but I suppose that one won't be a problem much longer, so he doesn't dwell on it.

The Dutch will soon have to pay for their own roads.

Having dispensed with the customary scowling at foreigners, the rest of the day is fine, without incident or anything too awkward. Mary mentions the wedding of a grandson, specifically a grandson who has married another man. There's no talk of backs to the wall or which one is the woman or any of the stuff I might have expected five years before. There isn't even any comment deployed in service of demonstrating how progressive we have all become, how we're fine with those people, just so long as they're happy...

It feels as though something is better than it used to be, at least on some level.