Thursday, 19 January 2017

Jersey Shore Eruditorum

It's February 9th, 2012 - Syrian Army troops continue to pour into Homs as part of the latest offensive, with scores of civilians and anti-government protesters reported as having been killed in the past day; Jessie J is feeling sexy and free at the top of the hit parade with Domino; and we have just forty-eight hours to go before my beloved Manchester United soccer group goal the Liverpools two to one at their iconic Old Trafford soccer stadium.

Meanwhile we've reached the sixth episode of the fifth season of MTV's iconic Jersey Shore, although before getting started on that, maybe we should brush up on a little game theory. Modern game theory began with the idea regarding the existence of mixed-strategy equilibria in two-person zero-sum games and its proof by John von Neumann. Von Neumann's original proof used Brouwer fixed-point theorem on continuous mappings into compact convex sets, which became a standard method in game theory and mathematical economics. His paper was followed by the 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, co-written with Oskar Morgenstern, which considered cooperative games of several players. The second edition of this book provided an axiomatic theory of expected utility, which allowed mathematical statisticians and economists to treat decision-making under uncertainty.

How does this figure in our review of Jersey Shore, I hear you ask. Of course, I should probably point out that this isn't so much a review as a little something of my own humble concoction which I like to call psychochronography, which is much like the psychogeography of the Situationists but instead examines a television show in context of its time by mentioning a few unrelated things which happened on the same date in the first paragraph, so let's leave the reviews to those who just want to talk about what happened and whether or not they liked it.

Anyway, game theory figures because today I'm discussing an iconic episode entitled The Follow Game, and I'll come to why it should be thus entitled in a moment.

As we renew our acquaintance with the residents of Ocean Terrace, we find that the Situation is on our familiar iconic duck-shaped novelty telephone to the Unit. As my many regular readers will already know, the Situation is the name by which housemate Mike Sorrentino designates himself as a sort of event in space-time, which seems a fair assessment given his serving as a kind of living axis around which drama occurs; and the Unit is simply the Unit - a man known to Mike, and I imagine that the name serves to imply that he has a large, possibly iconic penis. Anyway, Mike is naturally discussing a presumably drunken sexual liaison with Snooki, one which Snooki has repeatedly denied ever having occurred, and he's discussing it with the Unit because the Unit is supposedly a witness to the alleged penetrative event. It's clear that Mike intends to use this information to cause trouble, but as to when he's going to play his hand, we just don't know. He also tells Unit that he spoke to Deena's sister and asked what she would like for breakfast, therefore implying that he intended to have sexual intercourse with her at some point immediately prior to the preparation of said breakfast. This brings a wry smile to his face.

It probably wouldn't have brought a wry smile to Deena's face had she heard, but thankfully she is otherwise preoccupied with the fact that Vinny is using the shower. She wants to produce a stool so Vinny's hygienic considerations are quite an inconvenience, seemingly more so than would be the thought of Mike engaging in sexual congress with her sister, hypothetically speaking.

Next we learn that Jwoww is concerned with just how little she has seen of Roger lately. She feels that she is being sidelined.

'At least she got her hair done,' observes Deena, 'so that's good,' but this fact alone seems to bring little comfort. Later, regarding Mike, she sagely notes that a leopard never sheds its stripes. Were truer words ever uttered on this programme?

Jenni is still disgruntled when later they all go to the iconic Aztec bar in search of what Deena defines as a good time. As I've discussed in previous columns, the traditional duality of Jersey Shore divides equally into categories I have identified as real and fake, with the housemates gravitating towards the former but so often finding themselves having fallen into the trappings of becoming the latter. Mike represents the most extreme example of this duality in behaving patently fake specifically whilst aspirationally being real, yo. The model has further destabilised since Deena came in to replace the hapless Angelina at the beginning of series three, bringing with her an alternate duality founded in her conception of a good time contrasted with its unidentified thematic opposite. Snooki has a good time at Aztec in Deena's terms by engaging in robotic dancing. This Platonic good time ideal is essentially a monopole in relation to the already established real/fake duality, which is perhaps why these parallel thematic strands are able to co-exist.

Vinny meanwhile attempts to convert Nicky, who introduces herself as a lesbian, to heterosexuality - an endeavour he likens to the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Colombus, or for the sake of argument, the discovery of the same land mass.

Snooki burps repeatedly as they all walk back to the house, whilst Deena talks to another girl towards whom Vinny has expressed a pronounced sexual interest. Failing to convert Nicky to heterosexuality, he bids her an amicable good night and avails himself of his second choice with a thankful nod to Deena; although he later reports that the sexual intercourse was of only average standard.

Next morning we discover that the reason for Snooki's burping marathon was most likely due to how much she drank, and she now feels consequently unwell. We see this illustrated as she falls over and rhetorically asks, 'why am I alive?' A stint of sunbathing brings little comfort, and eventually she and Deena stagger to work at the iconic Shore Store in the company of Pauly.

The deal is that, as we all understand by now, the housemates work in the Shore Store, as run by Danny, in return for their being allowed to live in the iconic house on Ocean Terrace. The Shore Store specialises in novelty t-shirts and related apparel, so the work is essentially retail. We the viewers might assume the work to be fairly undemanding, but clearly it's more complicated than that and Snooki decides that it is unfair that she should be expected to work when she could be having a good time, as Deena might put it. Additionally she continues to feel unwell, and so devises what we now know as the Follow Game. The rules of the Follow Game are simple but effective, and Snooki illustrates by walking around the store between the racks of novelty t-shirts, followed closely by Deena, and then right out of the store and off for a drink. Danny is of course unable to appreciate the logic behind the Follow Game, instead focussing on Snooki and Deena's continued absenteeism despite repeat warnings.

Up to this point, Snooki and Deena have referred to themselves as the Meatballs, perhaps in reference to shared diminutive stature and Italian-American heritage; but now, as they run into Mike, they take on the new self-actualised mantel of Team Fun - a surprising development considering Mike's earlier discussion with the Unit regarding his having had alleged carnal knowledge of Snooki.

Snooki, much like Orpheus, therefore emerges from the underworld of her own personal journey through alcohol and robotic dancing to rebirth into the alchemical marriage of Team Fun. As we shall see in the next episode, the marriage is fruitful and the birth serves to unite disparate thematic currents - namely Snooki's reluctance to work within Danny's iconic terms of employment - in the form of the amateurish but nevertheless enthusiastically decorated cake which she and Deena prepare as an apology for taking the Follow Game through their own labyrinth of personal discovery, not to mention liberty.

Deena looks a bit like Grandpa Munster when you think about it, doesn't she?

Thursday, 12 January 2017


I grew up on a farm - actually the farm where they filmed the Teletubbies some years after I left, by peculiar coincidence. Until the age of eleven we lived in a cottage which came with my dad's job. Heating was provided by a single fire place, warm clothing, and not knowing any better. Everything froze in winter, and when it wasn't frozen it was cold, grey, and damp, with some respite during summer if we were lucky. Eventually we moved to a place with heating, and then I left home for a succession of rural student dwellings warmed, if at all, by portable gas fires. Upon leaving studentry, I took a job with Royal Mail and spent the next twenty-one years walking around in freezing wind and rain, three or four hours a day, six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year. It wasn't all miserable, but a lot of it was. Worst of all would be the Christmas period during which I'd trudge to work before dawn, plod around in the cold and wet for most of the day freezing my bollocks off, sometimes with the snow soaking into my socks, only returning home as it was getting dark. That sort of cold gets right into your bones and not even a hot bath will shift it.

Consequently I grew to hate winter more and more with each passing year. Even towards the close of August I'd already be dreading the clocks changing, the six months of cold and wet beneath a sky of battleship grey, and the sun rising no higher than the roof of the house on the opposite side of the street before sinking towards an appointment with dusk at around 4.30 in the afternoon. I sometimes wondered if I had seasonal affective disorder given the timing, and each October specifically feeling like a rehearsal for the less buoyant chapters of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea; and yet it isn't like I was deprived of natural daylight because the coldest parts of my job were outside. Just in case, I bought a light bulb advertised as simulating sunlight and recommended for those suffering with the condition, but it didn't seem to make any difference.

Therefore, even without any of the other considerations, when fate tapped me on the shoulder and asked what I thought about living in Texas, it wasn't something requiring much in the way of deliberation. I'd been to Mexico City a few times and it was hot, being some two-thousand miles nearer to the Equator. Further from the Equator but lacking the elevation of Mexico City, Texas turned out to be significantly hotter. In fact it was the hottest place I'd ever been, much hotter than anticipated. Some mornings the act of opening the front door upon a new day seemed much like opening the door to some kind of walk-in pizza oven. It felt as though I had landed on the planet Venus or the sunward side of Mercury. Yet weirdly, the heat seemed so extreme and so unlike anything I had experienced that it seemed endurable because I had no frame of reference. It was nothing like an unbearably hot day of English summer wacked up by a few more degrees. It felt different, and I knew I would get used to it because it was still better than freezing my bollocks off whilst sat on top of a portable gas fire wearing every item of clothing I owned.

Happily I did get used to it and I learned the rules fairly quickly. Outdoor work or travel is easiest early in the day, and definitely no gardening after two in the afternoon. I learned this through suffering heatstroke a couple of times. I felt as though I'd been microwaved, and each occasion knocked me out for a couple of days. Sometimes the heat can be restrictive and a pain in the arse, but that's why we have air conditioning; and even at its worst, when water catches fire as it leaves the tap - or faucet, I suppose - it's still better than being cold.

Of course, certain preconceptions have turned out to be untrue. Money spunked away on heating bills during the English winter don't represent a saving because it all goes on air conditioning during the long Texan summer. Also, I imagined my origin might endow me with certain superpowers under the circumstances in much the same way as Superman found himself at a significant advantage when he first came to Earth. Neighbours would shiver, so I believed, as I stomped down the street in just my t-shirt and pants in the middle of November. 'Haw haw,' I would roar like Brian Blessed, 'you call this winter? Why, in my country...'

Yet just as Texan summer was never anything so simple as the English equivalent notched up a little, neither is our winter simply a milder version of that which I shudder to recall. The days grow shorter, but nothing like so short as back in England, and some of them are at least as warm as an English summer; but then the temperature will fall ten degrees overnight and the next day will be cold, grey, wet, and miserable, and it still catches me out.

I thought I'd be Superman, or at least the one-eyed bloke in the country of the visually impaired, but instead I've acclimatised. The temperature falls to 10°C, a temperature I may once have considered mild, and it feels like I'm back in the land of numb fingers and soaking wet socks on the radiator; and it's somehow unexpected because I'm accustomed to scorching heat so I'm on edge, prone to panic, struggling as I force myself forward through the metaphorical snowdrifts of the day.

The week gets worse as the skies remain without colour. One evening I take the salmon I've just baked from the oven and it slides neatly from the foil to the floor which we share with eight cats. Bess and I eat just the cauliflower cheese I've made to go with the salmon, but deprived of context it seems tasteless.

Next day my bike falls over. I leave it on the kick stand so I can reset the combination on the lock of the gate at the side of the house, but the kickstand sinks into the mud and the bike falls somehow knackering both the rear-view mirror and one of the newly fitted grips on the handlebar. Like weather, Texas mud fails to be a variation on anything familiar. It's like modelling clay, but lighter - actually more like poo if I'm to be honest; and the poo from one of those days when you should never have got out of bed. You occupy the lavatory bowl, allowing the oval of toughened plastic to form an airtight seal around your buttocks, a little push and BRATTT!!!! Somehow it goes everywhere. It's on your socks. It's on the floor. There's a small splodge on the light fitting despite the established laws of physics. This is how mud in Texas behaves when deprived of the sun which would ordinarily bake it hard.

Not only do I knacker my bike but as I'm standing there at the side of the house I realise I'm staring at a backpack discarded amongst the leaves on the ground. I pick it up. It's wet and looks new and I've never seen it before. Someone has been here at the side of the house. Inside the backpack I find painkillers, energy bars, and a set of keys of an unfamiliar type.

I hear Donna, who lives next door, arriving home in her truck, so I go to see if she knows anything about the backpack. She doesn't, but guesses it might be some homeless guy who left it. She's seen a lot of them around the neighbourhood of late, and it rained for three days solid over the weekend. It seems likely that he might have been trying to get into our garage for the sake of shelter.

Now that she suggests this, I recall having seen the gate at the side of the house hanging a little way open. It doesn't close properly, so I customarily lodge a piece of wooden trellis between the side of the gate and the post so as to keep stray dogs from getting in through the gap, and around this I coil a bike lock; but I recall the gate being a little way open with the trellis fallen on the grass, still held mostly closed by the bike lock. Possibly some homeless guy tried to push it open without noticing the lock, then ran away without his backpack, having been startled by something or other. I don't know this for sure and it's a pain in the arse to have to think about it.

I head out on my bike but it's too fucking cold for exercise, so I just go directly to the supermarket and sit eating fried chicken in the caff, which is definitely exercise of a sort. I'm sitting freezing in a supermarket caff eating fried chicken under strip lighting. Across the aisle I can see Finding Dory play silently on a flat screen telly whilst on my headphones I have Happy Mondays singing about having sex on a beach in the Caribbean sun, and for a moment it's like I never left England; or maybe England has followed me.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Two Wheels

My first bicycle appeared when my family were living on Sweet Knowle Farm in rural Warwickshire. It would have been the early seventies, possibly even late sixties being as all I can recall of the bike was that it had stabilisers which came off once I was old enough to ride unassisted. This bike was followed at some point by a Moulton Midi, possibly made by Raleigh - a gangly frame in metallic blue resting on two peculiarly small wheels. I went everywhere on my Moulton Midi, everywhere mostly being the villages of either Ilmington or Quinton, respectively homes to my best friends Matt and Sean.

Then in either the early eighties or very late seventies, my dad won some money on the premium bonds and treated me to a racing bike - a British Eagle. I was at secondary school by this point and we all had racing bikes, although racing was never particularly high on the agenda. We were kids and we lived in the country and you really needed a bike to get around. Mine was purple, as Barbara Moran noted during a bewildering attempt to take the piss out of me as we all hung out at the sportsfield one evening. She was never a friend, but we had reached the age at which we became enemies for no reason I ever understood.

'I like your purple bike,' she sneered, placing particularly sarcastic emphasis on its colouration. To this day I remain bewildered as to why she should have viewed that detail as some hypothetically vulnerable chink in my armour.

Ooh look at me with my purple bike. I'm so fancy.

The purple bike got me around during school, then college, and eventually art college once I moved to Maidstone in Kent. I had it fixed up a couple of times following brief periods of neglect, up until moving to Chatham in 1987 at which juncture the guy in the local bike shop pointed out that what I had just brought to him was mostly rust, and was therefore regrettably beyond repair.

A year or so later I joined Royal Mail as a postman and was thus allowed sporadic use of a succession of Post Office bicycles, just three gears but bright red and sturdy with a basket on the front as made by Pashley of Stratford-on-Avon. The great advantage of the Royal Mail bike was that occasional repairs and maintenance came with the job, and by the nineties it was my company car - work six days a week and then handy for doing the shopping at the weekend, particularly with that basket on the front.

I left Royal Mail in 2009 and moved to Coventry. Deprived of my company car, my dad allowed me to have one of his bicycles on semi-permanent loan. He had three, and this was one he'd bought for twenty quid in the pub then done up. I rode it around that corner of Warwickshire for the next year and a half in the name of staying vaguely fit, clocking up just over three-thousand miles in total - which I knew because my dad had fitted the bike with an odometer.

In 2011 I moved to San Antonio, Texas, and naturally one of the first things I had to do was to get myself a bike. I went to Walmart because it was cheap, and happily the bike I picked up for a couple of hundred dollars turned out to be made by Schwinn, a manufacturer with a fairly decent reputation.

The first six months of riding around in this new land were a little weird, characterised by tires punctured with astonishing frequency - a couple of times a week on occasion. Everything in Texas is covered in thorns, I told myself - that has to be the reason. Up until that point I'd suffered punctured tires on average maybe once every other year and had consequently never developed any real aptitude for puncture repair. Usually I would re-puncture the inner tube several times whilst trying to force the tire back onto the wheel; so was in the habit of taking the bike along to the shop and having them do it for a couple of quid.

I went to Bike World in Alamo Heights, this being my nearest bike shop. Yes they undertook repairs, a bearded nineteen-year old told me as though grudging the time my enquiry had taken away from him alphabeticising his Neutral Milk Hotel vinyls. He glanced at my bike and informed me that my inner tubes were fitted with Schrader valves, an obsolete type. His colleagues would be able to effect repairs but it would be a pain in the arse because I had walked into a store selling top of the range stereo equipment asking for something upon which to play my Edison cylinders of Arthur Sullivan speeches. Bicycle inner tubes traditionally come fitted with either Schrader or Presta valves, except no-one who is serious about cycling has any truck with Schrader valves.

Of course, I've subsequently found this to be complete bollocks. Up until that point, valves were valves so far as I knew so it had never been an issue. Presta valves seem to have been designed for the benefit of lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously, who just really need an alternative to something which already works perfectly well; and Wikipedia describes the Schrader valve as a type of pneumatic tire valve used on virtually every motor vehicle in the world today.

Nevertheless I handed over the bike, then returned when the work had been done. I also needed a water bottle so took one from the rack next to the till and paid up. Once out of the shop I realised the repairs hadn't actually been that expensive, but the plastic water bottle had cost me twenty dollars. This was because it had the logo of a company called Dude Girl printed on it. Dude Girl make clothing for the benefit of female lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously, who just really need to wear something rooted in the old west cowgirl spirit and repurposed with the modern sensibilities of today's active women, and who need to make a statement with the vessel from which they drink their water. This is what happens when you shop too quickly, and when you make assumptions about how a water bottle will probably cost a few quid at most because it's just a fucking water bottle.

Lesson learned, I decided to look for an alternate bike shop to which I could take my custom in future, and so I found Performance Bike at which the staff seemed friendlier and less self-consciously edgy. Additionally, given the weekly punctures I had resolved to learn how to effect repairs myself without screwing up, deciding that surely it couldn't be that hard. Bizarrely, it wasn't, and I even worked out how to change tires. From this I discovered that the tires with which my beloved Schwinn came fitted had probably been crap because suddenly I was no longer getting flats every few days; and I was further inspired to wonder why I'd never got the hang of such a piss easy task before, considering all the time, money, and agricultural language it might have spared me.

So that was 2011, since which I've clocked up some eighteen thousand miles on the Schwinn. It went back to Performance Bike for repairs a couple of times, but never for flat tires. Everything was fine up until the most recent occasion. Something peculiar had happened to the array of gears on the rear wheel, causing them all to spin around independently of each other.

'You really need to take this to a repair shop,' the guy told me.

'I thought this was a repair shop,' I said, peering cautiously past him to his two colleagues who both looked one fuck of a lot like they were engaged in repair work on other bikes.

'Well see, it's not just the cassette. You're going to need a new chain otherwise it ain't gonna be worth repairing anyhow.'

'I need a cassette?'

He picked up a little spindle of cogs of varying sizes to indicate, this being the thing which had gone wonky on my own bike. 'Now if you buy yourself a chain-breaker, then you can get in there - take off that chain, and - let me just see.' He strolled across to a store display, bike chains vacuum sealed onto card. He began reading the sizes.

'Couldn't I just pay you and have you do it?'

'It's gon' be like a month before we can even look at it and tell you just what needs doing.'

'I'm not bothered. I just want it fixed.'

So, having agreed to a wait of at least six weeks without a bike, I at last managed to force the man to take my business.

Six weeks dragged past. I was in the habit of cycling fifteen miles every morning, and being unable to do so was weird and unsettling. I needed regular exercise but didn't want to have to think about it, which is why I like a routine. Recalling that my dad owns a number of bikes, I went to the pawn shop on the corner and bought a mountain bike for fifty dollars. It was a Genesis GS29, a type apparently made for sale in Walmart. Online reviews range from cheap and cheerful, to good for the price, to just don't bother. On the other hand, it seemed okay to me from what I could tell, and it's not like I could afford anything too fancy, particularly not for something which was essentially a back up to be ridden when the other is in the shop for repairs.

The first problem I encountered was that the seat was too low, so I raised it up, then discovered that the handlebars were at a fixed height and therefore could not be raised up in relation to the seat. I made do, and eventually got around this when I found cheap handlebars for a kids bike, just a tube of steel bent into a w-shape. I mounted these where the old handle bars had been, bringing the handgrips up to exactly the right height, although this meant I also had to replace the cable for the front brake with a longer one. Also, because the gear-change thing and brakes could only fit so far onto the handlebars before the curve of the w-shape got in the way, this left the rubber hand grips with only an inch or so of steel tubing inside, leaving a weird floppy overhang. I got around this by replacing them with solid handgrips which clamp on, additionally extending the length of the handlebars. Finally I added a rear-view wing mirror ordered from a scooter supplies store in England, having been unable to find one I liked anywhere local.

I rode the mountain bike for the next six weeks, fifteen or more miles a day, five days a week. It was fine, and even felt kind of sexy, although I noticed some vague problem with the wheels, albeit a problem so vague as to make it difficult to properly identify. It felt as though there was some resistance to the smooth turn of an axle, as though a brake block might be rubbing as I rode along, an impression fostered by a constant high-pitched whine when the bike was in motion. Nevertheless, no brake blocks were rubbing against the rim of the wheel, and both wheels spun fine and freely from what I could see. My father suggested the possibility of wheel nuts being too tight, but it didn't seem to be that either. The most definitive statement I could make was that the mountain bike was somehow not so easy to ride as the Schwinn.

Eventually the Schwinn came back with a new chain and gears so I resumed using it for my daily fifteen miles, now increased to twenty. Reluctant to neglect the mountain bike, I kept it in the garage and made a mental note to take it into Performance Bike for a tune-up at some point before the next occasion of my needing the Schwinn repaired. They would no doubt be able to pinpoint the problem and tell me what was up.

'It's probably those wheels,' the unfamiliar teenager told me, pointing to where the spokes met the axle.

'What's wrong with them?'

'Where did you get it?'

'I bought it from the pawn shop down on the corner. It was about fifty dollars.'

'Yeah, you see it's a department store bike.'

'So I need new wheels then?'

'Well I don't know, but it's about forty dollars a wheel, and then there's the work. You might be better off just saving up for a superior bike.'

'Is it really that bad?'

An older guy came over to see what the problem was, and so once again I described the sensation of riding along with a brake block in contact with the wheel, then adding 'although in all other respects it's a great bike.'

'It's a department store bike. How much did you pay?'

'Fifty dollars, but that was from a pawn shop.'

He got on the bike, rode it around the store in a little circle. 'I can't see anything wrong with it.'

'Well can't you take it in and have a look?'

'You'd be better off saving your money and getting another bike.'

So there was nothing wrong with my mountain bike, but I probably shouldn't have bought it in the first place and needed to think about replacing it. Once again I was the last man on earth metaphorically clinging to his beloved Schrader valves. Here I was trying to give these unhelpful fuckers my business whilst they looked at me as though I'd found a rusty tricycle on some waste ground, and flung it at them giggling fix this, yeah? I had bought the cycling equivalent of an album by Insane Clown Posse into their store, and not even one of the good albums by Insane Clown Posse.

Unable to think of anything else to add, I recalled that I had intended to buy a set of extra tires for the mountain bike. The teenager showed me a pair for twenty-seven dollars per tire.

'You know what,' I said. 'I think I'll leave it.'

He glanced at my tires. 'Those are wearing down, you know. You'll be getting punctures soon.' He said this as though the thought might not have occurred to me, like I might just be trying to buy new tires due to a pathological need to just buy something. Maybe I was buying tires so that the guys in the store would like me.

'All the same...'

I made my exit of the shop with no plans to return ever again.

I will find another repair place, and order my spares online.

I've ridden bikes all of my life, and ridden them great distances, and ridden them so as to get from one place to another. I've never regarded cycling as a hobby, an activity by which to fill some existing void as characterised by money I don't have spent on shit I don't need - luminous body stockings, Dude Girl water bottles, inner tubes fitted with a more prestigious pedigree of valve, or any of those ridiculous designer bikes I see ridden on the Tobin Trail by lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously - two and half wheels, seating effected by a butt plug mounted at the end of a horizontal armature and you pedal with your fucking elbows, you middle-class wanker. As an industry, cycling now seems dominated by the needs of those with too much money who may as well just be doing a jigsaw puzzle, and it is unfair to persons such as myself; but apparently this means I'm not serious about my cycling.

The day after my last ever visit to Performance Bike I take my fifty dollar pawn shop jalopy out on the Tobin Trail and it is, as ever, a pleasure to ride, regardless of the issue described above, whatever it is. Maybe, I think to myself, that's just a thing with mountain bikes given how they aren't really designed for flat surfaces.

Perhaps we will never know.

Friday, 30 December 2016

2016 from What I Can Remember

2016 has generally been characterised as the year which can fucking fuck the fuck off, at least on facebook. Up until a couple of days ago I remained sympathetic but uncommitted to this verdict because people are dying all the time, it's just that this year they were mostly people we'd all heard of. Then on Saturday the 17th of December I discovered that my friend Robert Dellar had died, which more or less settled it for me. He was fifty-two and had just had his birthday. A few days later, Sophia Pearsun wrote:

I have been speaking with the coroner and our family GP yesterday and today and it has been decided that there needs to be a post-mortem done to determine cause of Robert's death. Robert was anaemic, but other than that all other test results were within healthy ranges.

Robert had been feeling unwell with low energy since about May this year. This got worse around two months ago when Robert also started to be in pain when he lay down. This was sometimes helped by sitting up but occasionally Robert needed to stand to make the pain go away. Robert got very few hours sleep and not more than two to three hours at a time, usually far less. The exception to this was Thursday when he slept all night.

Last Wednesday, Robert had another blood test and it showed that his haemoglobin levels had started to fall again. Robert was told to go to hospital to get a transfusion. On Friday, his fifty-second birthday, we went to the hospital with a letter from our GP. Robert's blood was tested again. Blood oxygen levels were normal. Haemoglobin levels had also risen since Wednesday which resulted in Robert not being eligible for a blood transfusion. Robert was pleased that he didn't need to stay in hospital. We went home and had tea and birthday cake. We spent a pleasant evening in reading, listening to music and watching telly.

When I got up on Saturday morning, Robert was awake and asked me to get him a cup of tea. I made him some, said goodbye and went out at around 10.15. When I got back at approximately 13.45, I opened the front door to find Robert dead on the hallway floor.

It turned out to have been a pulmonary embolism, apparently meaning it would have been quick and without pain. Robert and I were never close as such, but I'd known him a long time and we had collaborated on a cartoon strip called Raffy the Psychiatric Labrador. He was one of the gang therefore yes, 2016 can most certainly fucking fuck the fuck off so far as I'm concerned.

The death of Lemmy of both Motörhead and Hawkwind almost certainly came at the tail end of 2015 but somehow felt like part of the reaper's open season on top pop personalities which later claimed both David Bowie and Prince; but I'm writing from memory here. I've kept a diary going for the duration of 2016, but I can't be bothered to spend six hours going through it all, day by day, so I'm going to work on the assumption that I will have remembered the things which were worth remembering.

David Bowie's death somewhat knocked me sideways. I gave up on him back in 1980 when he decided he'd really just wanted to be Marty Robbins all along, but the internet coaxed me into buying Blackstar out of curiosity, and for the sheer thrill of buying a brand new vinyl album in a record shop. Amazingly it turned out to be a genuinely great vinyl album, which made me feel somewhat guilty at having ignored the man for most of the previous three decades; and then suddenly he was dead, and as stated it knocked me sideways, and specifically it knocked me sideways into the local head shop because it's the only place where I can buy tobacco which isn't completely disgusting. I only smoke when unusually stressed, an indulgence I allow myself mainly because I now seem to be able to give up once I've reached the end of the packet, and I suffer no further cravings. There was almost certainly more to my being stressed than the death of David Bowie, but whatever else was going on I can't remember, so it was probably something to do with Junior's continued aversion to flushing the toilet.

I gave up smoking yet again and then Prince died, which was sad but which concerned me less, and at least didn't drive me back to the snouts. The radio filled with glowing tributes omitting the fact of his work having been mostly unlistenable since Sign o' the Times. My wife and I watched Purple Rain in tribute but it wasn't very good.

My next ciggies as therapy session was inspired by the election of the Annoying Orange. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised what with the way the world has been going. They want to make America great again. Personally I'd rather make America Mexico again, but apparently that's just me.

The United Kingdom had just about voted to leave the European Union way back in March or April or whenever it was, signalling a general return of civilisation to the political right. I had a few predictable arguments on facebook, and one unpredictable one with Harley Richardson who kept on repeating that the English people have spoken, which was also what my dad said and sounded nothing like the headline of a crowd pleasing newspaper which tells you what you want to hear. Apparently the notion that people had voted as they did due to an increasing hatred of those Islams coming over here and claiming our benefits was a tissue of lies forged by the leftie media owned by that notorious Marxist Rupert Murdoch and his Stalin-loving paymasters back in the Kremlin. Harley explained this to me very carefully, or he explained something to me very carefully, but not having attended a grammar school I was unfortunately too stupid to understand. Harley also weighed in on the climate debate, opining something along the lines of how we just don't know because there's no evidence, but sadly I was once again simply too stupid to understand.

Oh well.

Then it happened again in America. Just an hour ago I heard some bloke on the radio explaining how our President-elect had once eliminated contestants on his game show, The Apprentice, on a weekly basis; and when eliminating those contestants, he'd always consulted his two assistants to see what they thought about who he was about to stuff down the business end of his giant allegorical cannon; and a couple of times he'd consulted his own children, that week serving in an advisory capacity on the aforementioned game show, presumably taking a break from the entirely legal destruction of wildlife.

So that was a weight off my mind.

I suppose France will be next to fall to the forces of common sense, and we'll find that the French people have spoken, and soon the whole world will be great again, just like it was in the nineteen-fucking-thirties.

I read sixty-six books this year, although a few of them were comic books. I'm not sure which I liked best. The weirdest one would almost certainly have been something by Robert Moore Williams, who was churning them out up until the mid-seventies but whom I'd never even heard of until this year. The worst would have to be a toss-up between the Disney's Alice Through the Looking Glass novelisation and Simon Messingham's The Indestructible Man. In other media, I also discovered the wonderful music of Young Fathers and Ricardo Villalobos - although to be fair the Ricardo Villalobos album turns out to be over ten years old - and there was a new Pixies album, which was jolly nice. We saw both Lewis Black and Henry Rollins performing live, but not together obviously. I didn't watch much telly, but The Path was pretty great, and my wife and I discovered Jersey Shore. I think I may have watched an episode of Doctor Who with Peter Bacardi but I'm not sure which one it was. It was better than I expected, although on the other hand, whenever I hear something by Coldplay it usually turns out to be better than I expected.

I painted book covers for an Esperanto translation of Clifford Simak's Way Station, a couple of Faction Paradox novels, and something by Simon Bucher-Jones - although that may have been at the end of last year. I drew a couple of episodes of Raffy the Psychiatric Labrador for Robert Dellar's Southwark Mental Health News, and I wrote a fucking ton, some of which may have emerged in published form here and there, although apparently I'm not very good at keeping track of that sort of thing.

This was also the year in which I first entered a synagogue, and Bess and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, and I renewed contact with Rob Colson and Jeremy Diston - both old friends to whom I had not spoken in a while. I was on the local television news talking about sewerage, and the doctor said I was too fat so I lost some weight. I tried eating boring food but it didn't make the slightest bit of difference, so I added five miles to my daily bike ride and that seemed to do the trick. Bess's car blew up so she bought a new one, and we acquired a new kitten. He's called Jello and he is the same colour as our incoming president - but obviously nicer, which brings us up to eight in total, not counting the strays I feed.

We bought our house.

Dee Dee and her family over the road moved out when her landlord sold the place, which was a shame, but I still see Angela on the tills at HEB and they seem to have settled in fine at their new place.

Also, I found out that the farm on which I lived in rural Warwickshire for the first eleven years of my life is the farm on which Teletubbies was filmed. The Teletubbies set was in the corner of a field in which I use to roam as a kid.

There was probably some other stuff which happened in 2016, but I'm sure that's enough to be going on with.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Tonight I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1989

'It's an eighties party,' my wife tells me. 'It's Mari's husband's birthday.'

I know I've probably met Mari being as I've met quite a few people from the place where my wife works, but as usual I can't summon a face. The other two factors here are that I'm not really big on parties and I hated the eighties.

Okay, that's not entirely true, but given that when we say the eighties we usually mean either music or whatever music happened to be wearing, my eighties was characterised mostly by bands no-one had heard of or which were at least an acquired taste. If asked which names of that decade have left an enduring impression on me I'd have to say acts like the Apostles, Test Department, Einstürzende Neubauten, and whatever Jim Thirlwell was calling himself that particular week. Many persons whom I knew during the eighties now seem to spend a lot of time taking quizzes on facebook, particularly quizzes resting on whether or not one is able to recall that Spandau Ballet existed. I actually do recall that Spandau Ballet existed and if forced to say something nice I'd have to admit that Instinction was a decent song, but let's not go crazy. It was a decade like any other, no better, no worse, and all the really, stupid stuff only appears significant when it's your childhood and you haven't had much going on since. Personally I think the seventies were funnier with marginally better music, or at least the rubbish wasn't quite so bad, as illustrated by Bros making the Bay City Rollers sound like the Sex Pistols; but then it's all subjective.

My wife has chosen to approximate Madonna with big hair, lace, and a ton of jewellery. Following Halloween, I'm reluctant to let fancy dress become a way of life. Maybe I could go as Paul Mex or one of Opera For Infantry. In the end I just wear the suit and tie I wore for Noah's Bar mitzvah. It's a skinny tie like Joe Jackson favoured - or if that doesn't work, I'm one of those guys who wore a suit and tie in the eighties. Let's just pretend I was in a synth band who had a hit single about androids or something.

We drive out to Cibolo, a town about half the way between San Antonio and New Braunfels. Mari lives in the suburbs, so it takes us a few minutes to find the place.

I remember her immediately, a Latina with a face which makes it appear as though she's always excited about something. She doesn't quite look old enough to remember the eighties; and she is apparently married to Slash from Guns 'n' Roses. Also present are a number of goths as distinguished by backcombing, black clothes, and t-shirts of bands I didn't like even then. Introductions are effected.

Yes, I'm from England.

'Dude,' bellows Slash jovially, 'the eighties in England, man - punk rock and the Clash...' His point is that I don't seem to have made much of an effort in the wardrobe department, which is true.

This is the juncture at which I remember I'm in America, and everyone else's eighties was different to mine. Once past the brief splash of colour provided by Prince, Madonna, and the occasional British artist, the American eighties seems to have been mostly hair metal and related bands I've customarily spent my life crossing the road to avoid. Heavy metal, and specifically the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, was pretty much the village idiot of the musical landscape of my youth, and everyone in the town where I grew up fucking loved that shit except for me. Of course there are exceptions - Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and a few others managed to crank out a few decent tunes without falling over - but the rest...

Unemployed pipe-fitters from Studley pretending to be Vikings, a weird sort of pride taken in being a bit of a cunt, and a shitty sludge of widdly-widdly-guitar-solo music which never fucking realised that Spinal Tap was supposed to be funny: it's not that rock 'n' roll really needs 'O' levels as such, but it's nice when it can at least tie its own shoelaces. The Ramones managed it fine, and no-one ever accused them of talking down to their audience. Heavy metal is a man who realises he's pissed himself, and continues to piss himself even as it's pointed out to him, and instead of shuffling off to make use of what facilities are available, he roars with laughter and calls for more ale; and somehow they loved all that cartoon crap over here - Judas Priest, Saxon, Def Leppard, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Twisted Sister...

I help myself to food, then head into the garage in search of beer. The garage doubles up as a man cave. There's a fridge full of beer, a flat screen television, weight lifting paraphernalia, and a humourous information poster listing the rules of the man cave as a series of bullet points. I'm too scared to read it because I don't want to think ill of anyone, although in any case the light is not good, flashing red and green and provided by some piece of disco equipment.

I take a Bud Light, which tastes about as interesting as I thought it would but gets the ball rolling. I have a second can back in the kitchen as more guests arrive and I study the posters on the wall - mostly films in which Michael J. Fox taught the adults a lesson about what it means to be young. Hopefully the posters have been put up for the sake of the party.

We stand out in the back garden for a while because it's now cold and dark, which is a novelty in Texas, and Slash's brother has built a small wood fire which blazes and spits and smells good. It makes me think of bonfire night back in England, back on the farm - the bonfires we built at the back of Rex Harding's house with dead conifers dragged all the way from the spinney.

Bess is having a great time but I'm still feeling awkward and slightly out of it. I need more drink. Slash's brother is telling us how many important people and big knobs were once in the scouts. He seems to think this is a good thing but to me it makes the scouts sound like the Freemasons.

I try jello shots which either Slash or Mari have made. I've never had them before. In fact I'd never heard of them until I saw Parks and Recreation, but I gather it's jelly made with vodka or similar, or jello as it's termed over here. There's a tray of them, red and orange in little plastic cups. Slash demonstrates, holding one up to his mouth, his head tipped back. 'You squeeze it at the sides, then like flip it out onto your tongue,' - he swallows - 'and back like an oyster.'

I've never eaten an oyster either. I try, but it doesn't go smoothly. I'm stood in a stranger's kitchen apparently giving a demonstration of cunnilingus to a little plastic cup of orange flavoured jelly. It tastes alcoholic but not so strong as I expected, so I have another.

Fuck it.

Back in the man cave, Slash is playing Kiss, which is okay as they're one of the few bands who got this sort of thing right. I Love it Loud comes on, which is one of my favourites.

'You're from England, ain't you? Judas Priest, man...'

Again, I am unable to grasp the thrust of his thesis but I nod anyway, which seems to be the right answer. Slash grabs me a beer from the fridge, from his special collection. It's in a bottle and I've never heard of it, but I notice that it was next to a bottle of Flat Tire in the fridge. This seems ominous because I don't like Flat Tire, and sure enough this one has a bit of an unpleasant tang too it - like barley wine or Special Brew, one of those things designed to get teenagers as hideously pissed as possible thus alleviating their boredom.

Bess and I talk to one of the goths, and it turns out that she grew up in Suffolk back in England. Her family are American but they lived in England for a while. She remembers the day Channel Four first went on air, but not Brookside.

Never mind.

She works at San Antonio zoo, which is sort of interesting because Bess and I are regular visitors. Slash continues to ply me with whisky in shot glasses whilst howling things from time to time. He's one happy guy.

A black dude arrives with his wife. He's gone for the metal look, whilst his wife is something in the general direction of Madonna. Our host changes the music to rap, specifically the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. Bess and I exchange an uncomfortable glance, but I suppose it's no more weird than people cueing up to relate their anecdotes of the time they went to England, or the English guy they met fifteen years ago, or the eighties in England, man - punk rock and the Clash...

I somehow impress my wife by immediately recognising the voice of Ice-T and knowing the words to Public Enemy's Bring the Noise.

Doesn't everyone?

I'm drunk, but not drunk enough and I guess I never will be, so we leave. We've managed three hours which seems like plenty to me. I've had a good time whilst nevertheless feeling awkward for most of it. I never have been a party guy, and I don't really like getting drunk, and as for the music...

Three nights later, Bess has one of her semi-regular Mom's Night Out meet-ups. She gets together with Andrea and Jana and a few of the others for food and drink and to talk about mom stuff. For the first time ever, I am invited along because the numbers are down what with everybody having gone away for Thanksgiving, so I go along as a sort of honorary Mom.

I fit right in.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Robert Dellar

Photo: Shirley Pearson.

Going back thirty years to Friday the 15th of July, 1983, here's what I wrote in my diary.

I'm really getting to hate my paper round. I got the Sudden Surge of Power compilation through the post from Larry Peterson along with tons of other stuff. The tape is excellent. My favourites are by Mex, Cult of the Supreme Being and Mandible Rumpus, all of which I'm surprised to find are superior to tracks by the big names like Chris & Cosey, Test Dept, 400 Blows and so on. The weather is bloody hot as usual. I must get down to some recording one of these days.

Should it require explanation, A Sudden Surge of Power was a compilation cassette costing a couple of quid and distributed through the mail, advertised in fanzines and showcasing music created for the most part outside of the existing music industry infrastructure - bands you've never heard of recording their efforts on home stereos, in their bedrooms and so on. Cult of the Supreme Being had two songs on the tape, Chlorine Fills My Lungs and God is Thicker Than Water. The booklet which came with the tape describes them thus:

The Cult of the Supreme being started in February 1982. They played gigs at Kelly Drake's party, the Centro Iberico Anarchist Centre, and Watford Girls Grammar School before splitting up in March '82, appearing with such convenient namedrops as Twelve Cubic Feet, Replaceable Hedz, the Apostles, and the Godless Pinkoes.

Since this short spate of activity, David has joined the Expansion Chambers propaganda and fundraising arm of the Watford Revolutionary Bakuninite Collective whose activities include setting fire to the local branch of McDonalds and declaring Hunton Bridge roundabout a republic. Robert is now in the Wanderin' Graves, a post-modernist skiffle-art biscuit tin orchestra.

The Robert in question was Robert Dellar and I soon became familiar with his name as it reappeared on other hissy tapes with photocopied covers, notably Khmer Rouge's Year Zero Disco from Dead Hedgehog Records upon which he is credited with keyboards.

I made quite a respectable quota of friends through the cassette thing, and I kept in touch with a few of them over the years, notably various members of the Apostles and their pals. Ten years later I was living in London and had come to know a number of these people in person, having ended up as second guitarist for Academy 23, the band formed by Dave Fanning and Andy Martin in the wake of the aforementioned Apostles. Our first somewhat shambolic live performance was at Hackney Hospital in 1994, a gig put on for the benefit of psychiatric patients and organised largely by Robert Dellar, now working for the patients council.

We hadn't become bosom buddies or anything, but we knew each other, and I suppose you might say we were all in the same gang - an extended sprawl of artists, writers, musicians, and awkward buggers loosely in orbit of various squatted premises on the Brougham Road in Hackney. We often ended up in the same pub and Robert seemed a decent guy - quiet, intelligent, funny, and somehow always reminding me of a young Peter Cook - strikingly good looking. Also he was one of the few people I knew who liked the New York Dolls more than I did, so he had that Byronic rock dude thing going on without being a dick about it. I think I freaked him out a bit when I first introduced myself as a fan of the Cult of the Supreme Being. I think he was hoping we'd all forgotten.

We seemed to live on opposite sides of our shared social circle, but his name remained a constant because it was always Robert is doing this or are you going to Robert's thing? and Robert's thing eventually became Mad Pride, a series of gigs and CDs set up for the benefit of those obliged to use the services of the psychiatric profession. I vaguely knew he'd written books, or at least edited them, and I was slightly miffed that he'd never asked me to contribute to his Gobbing, Pogoing, and Gratuitous Bad Language anthology - although to be fair my contribution probably wouldn't have been up to much - but anyway, the Ceramic Hobs were playing at a Mad Pride event at the Garage in Islington and I'd fooled them into letting me drop science - as the rappers say - on one track. So I turned up and paid my money, then Robert arrived and told me that I needn't have paid seeing as I was a performer. He even seemed a bit miffed on my behalf and I was almost surprised that he even remembered who I was. I'd assumed he had me down as one of Andy Martin's adoring session musicians, but apparently not.

More recently, despite my having moved to Texas, he recruited me as cartoonist for Southwark Mental Health News - a magazine he put together as part of his involvement with the patients council at Maudsley Hospital, but retaining much of the spirit of the kind of punk fanzines through which I'd first encountered his name. The hospital had adopted a no smoking policy and recruited a sniffer dog named Raffy for the purpose of locating sneaky packets of fags stuffed down the back of beds. Raffy was introduced to patients as a welcome addition to the team, helping you along the road to recovery because everyone loves his waggy tail and happy bark as he confiscates the one thing that's keeping you from really losing it - all for your own good. Naturally Robert felt strongly inclined to take the piss out of this potential violation of the rights of a particularly vulnerable group of patients, and so we came up with the cartoon strip. It was at least fifteen years past the point at which I'd had much interest in drawing cartoons and my eyes weren't what they had been, but it really seemed like something worth doing; and it was, proving popular with more or less everyone who read it, so I'm told, which made a nice change from the days of drawing material about which no-one gave two shits even when it got published.

On Friday the 9th of December, 2016, Robert left the following message on facebook:

I had an ultrasound today at Lewisham Hospital. I've been unwell for a few months now - hence have kept a low profile: no energy - but don't know exactly what's causing this. Maybe the ultrasound results will shed some light on it, maybe not.

Then on Thursday the 15th of December:

Tomorrow I have to go to hospital for another blood transfusion as my haemoglobin levels are low again. Might have to stay in over the weekend. Tomorrow is also my birthday. A strange way to celebrate. Maybe someone will bring me a cake. I have packed for all eventualities and have earplugs and a good book.

Finally, on Saturday the 17th of December I read the following message posted by Shirley Pearson, his long-term partner:

Our beloved Robert died today.

He has been unwell since May this year and very unwell for the past couple of months.

I found him dead at home earlier this afternoon.

I have tried to contact as many of you as possible personally. Sorry to anyone who is hearing the news this way. I will update you as soon as I know anything else.

I still haven't quite taken it in. I think back to all he did, and to all the people whose lives would have been so much poorer without Robert involving them in this, that or the other, and it seems impossible that his existence can simply have stopped just like that. I had an idea he probably wasn't in the best of health and may not have been for some time, but still this seems wrong, something which happens in an alternate timeline but not here. I consider all those millions of miserable, joyless, shrivelled-up fuckers out there busily poisoning the collective consciousness against anyone or anything slightly unfamiliar, and yet the Death Gods somehow decided it was Robert's time? How the hell does that work? His narrative has come to an end and is a finite thing. This world has no Robert Dellar in it, which really fucking stinks. Like I say we were never bosom buddies but he was one of the gang, someone I was glad to know, one of the few people I've known for most of my life and now he's dead.

I've managed to avoid getting too upset because it's better to remember that even though he's gone, the main thing is that he was here in the first place and that he made a huge difference to the lives of many, not just those of us who knew him. In some sense, he's still there, still with fingers wiggling about in a million different pies, still making the world a better place; but he's in a part of it to which we can no longer travel, a part accessed only by memory. He's gone but at least he was here.

Goodbye, old friend. You are missed more than you probably would have realised.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Children of Abraham II

Whilst browsing for Halloween clobber at the local Goodwill, I'd noticed several suit jackets. Now I'd gone back to buy one. I once wore suits all the time - nothing flashy and nothing too businessy, just whatever I'd found in the local charity shop which looked reasonably smart, usually worn with a plain white shirt and sometimes a tie. I've always liked a nice suit. I've always liked that a nice suit isn't jeans and a t-shirt with a slogan, or indeed anything signifying the three years of commodified teenage rebellion traditionally occurring at the tail end of school or college and just before you take that job with Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, Johnson & Johnson. It's not that I've ever been a mod of any description, but a decent suit works anywhere under almost any circumstances. I went to Mexico in a suit five times and never had any trouble. Taxi drivers assumed I was some kind of businessman rather than a tourist, and possibly also German rather than American or English. People generally left me alone, presumably taking my slightly lived-in appearance to mean that I wasn't the sort of businessman who made any money.

Keen to distance myself from men dressed as giant children - sneakers, shorts, baseball cap, t-shirt sporting a picture of a cartoon character, and often seen driving a truck resembling a Claes Oldenburg recontextualisation of a Tonka toy - I decided I needed a suit. Also, we had a Bar mitzvah to attend, and Bess suggested formal attire would be appreciated.

Previous girlfriends had frowned upon my suits, missing the point, believing I would do better to act my age which somehow meant pretending to be eighteen, pretending to be into either Lush or Groove Armada, and pretending to give a pungent brown one about anything recommended by Time Out magazine. With hindsight, I'm surprised Marian didn't explicitly order me to grow a beard and take to wearing a cloth cap. Possibly that would have been next on the agenda had I not jumped ship. On the other hand, Bess told me I looked very smart, which was nice; and on an unrelated note, it occurred to me that this was the second weekend running of my visiting Goodwill in search of clothing appropriate to the context of an Abrahamic faith besides Christianity. Also, I was pleased to see that the cuddly tiger with the winning smile had gone, suggesting that someone had given him a good home.

We turn up at nine in the morning, an hour which surprises us all as I've long since ceased to associate it with appointments of any kind less dramatic than catching a plane. It's a synagogue identified on the invitation as Congregation Agudas Achim, the Yiddish apparently meaning Fellowship of Brothers. I've reached my fifties without ever having been inside a synagogue or having knowingly had much contact with Jewish culture or anyone Jewish, at least not beyond Sid - whom I suppose might be considered my stepfather-in-law by some definition - and my friend Mhairi, a woman to whom I once delivered mail and whose intelligent conversation rendered the job less of a chore on a number of occasions. Anyway, we're looking at a three-hour ceremony, but I'm hoping it will be interesting for at least some of that time, being somewhat outside of my experience.

The Bar mitzvah is a Jewish coming of age ceremony conducted when a boy reaches thirteen, the boy in this case being Noah, one of Junior's classmates from school. Bess wears heels and a sober dress. Junior and myself are in our suits and ties, and as we enter the synagogue we are each given a red satin yamulke with which to cover our heads as a gesture of respect; just like in the films, I think to myself.

The ceremony is indeed three-hours long as promised, possibly a little over, and - against all odds - remains engrossing throughout. Much of it seems to be based around readings from the Torah, specifically the story of Noah, the one who famously built the boat rather than the thirteen-year old boy stood up front. It occurs to me that Noah the child has probably had thirteen years of jokes about boats, rain, and judicious animal pairings, and might legitimately roll his eyes at some point; but he doesn't, and the more personal testimonials of the morning suggest that he's been looking forward to this day for a long time, even approaching his Rabbi without having been pushed to ask how soon he can get to learning as much as he can of the ceremony; and weirdly, I'm beginning to understand why.

The ceremony is conducted by Rabbi Abraham, reading or else addressing the congregation and talking us through it all, and Hazzan Lipton, who sings verses from the Torah entirely in Yiddish, unaccompanied by any instrument because his voice itself is enough. The role of the Hazzan is to sing, to lead the congregation in prayer. Wikipedia insists there is an equivalent in the Christian church, but I guess not one that does either weddings or funerals, those being more or less the extent of my own involvement with the same. I have encountered music in churches here in Texas, and thus far it has been uniformly terrible - twee modern hymns trying far too hard set to twanging rhinestone-laden country and western, either from compact disc played far too loud through a tinny PA or a live cabaret band. Taking pleasure from music in a place of worship is a new one on me and it catches me out. I find it strange to hear a human voice, loud and clear in the cavernous space of a place of worship, and to hear it unalloyed by instrumentation. The words are Hebrew, and the notation is very clearly Middle-Eastern - reminding me that Judaism and Islam have more in common than we generally acknowledge - and it is very, very powerful. I wonder if I'm having one of those religious experiences you always hear about. I suppose in some sense I am.

We're up and down every few minutes, sitting or standing according to which seems appropriate, and we follow along in hymn books and copies of the Torah with pages ordered in reverse to that with which I am familiar. Each page contains the Yiddish text rendered in both Hebrew and the Arabic script of our own alphabet, then a phonetic rendering which even I am able to follow, with extensive notes elsewhere on the page. The notes are what I find the most interesting, being an insight into a religious system which I realise I really don't know at all. The notes explain that some of what we're hearing expresses good wishes upon humanity as a whole, regardless of faith. Other notes question the various means by which certain verses have been interpreted during the centuries since they were written, and one passage refers to Judaism seemingly never having quite reached a conclusion regarding the possibility of an afterlife. I could be mistaken, but Judaism is beginning to look a lot like a faith which does what a faith should do, actively legislates against becoming an exclusive club, and isn't afraid to admit that it doesn't know everything or that some of those tales may be allegorical. All this and the music is great too.

At some point the Torah is revealed in the form of a book written upon scrolls, held within the ark at the rear wall of the synagogue, and ceremony is made of bringing out the Torah and taking it around the room. Eventually we come to Noah himself and the vows and wishes expressed for his future, with some of those wishes expressed specifically as boiled sweets thrown at him by the congregation. We've been prepared for this by the Rabbi and his aides handing out said sweets with a forceful request that we throw them gently, preferably using an underarm technique. I momentarily envision a thirteen-year old boy concussed by a well-aimed toffee apple at his own Bar mitzvah, which thankfully doesn't happen.

For two hours or more we've been listening to words sung in another language and somehow I'm still not bored. In fact I'm enjoying this far more than anticipated. It's pleasant, civilised, and characterised entirely by charitable sentiments unto others. The contrast is dramatic when I think of those terrible country and western ceremonies, and the Quinceañera in which the priest spent a good hour delivering a speech about how we're going to hear all sorts of disgusting lies told about the Catholic church by those outside the Catholic church and that we should ignore such disgusting liars and the disgusting lies they tell about the Catholic church because it's all lies, I tell you! All lies...

We turn to our neighbours to shake hands and wish them shabbat shalom. I guess we're in the Goyim stalls and I think the woman behind us may be a Hindu, which swells my wishy-washy liberal heart because I like to think that we humans have more in common with each other than not, and that's what today seems to be about, at least in part. I also get to shake the hand of Hazzan Lipton seeing as he's doing the rounds, so I tell him he has an amazing voice because he really has.

Noah reads from the Torah and further blessings are given before we meet the parents. His father is originally from New Jersey, one of those big bear guys whom you see and immediately like, sort of gruff but strong and with a kind face.

'Now it's my turn,' he announces ominously as he takes the microphone. He's the guy who paid for all of this, which he acknowledges in keeping with humorous tradition in some comment about the venue's next ceremony being a funeral to be held for his bank account. Laughter in church is another new thing for me, excepting the uncomfortable, nervous variety.

There is food to follow, so we file out three hours or more after we first took our seats, and fill plates with bagels, salad, salmon, capers, and cream cheese. Junior runs off to compare notes with his friends, and we listen to a fellow guest, a Latino guy who has recently converted to Judaism and is busily learning all that must be learned, including Hebrew. It sounds like an enormous commitment, but I find myself envying, or at least admiring him for it. Then he begins to talk about cutting off his family and having committed certain crimes he can't tell us about and I find I admire him a little less.

We leave with full hearts and full bellies, feeling touched by the spirit of something I'd never really considered. I've never really had anything you could describe as religious conviction, but I've got myself something meaningful out of this one occasion.

עֲלֵיכֶם שָׁלוֹם, as they say.