Friday, 9 November 2018

Where I'm From


People notice the accent and ask where I'm from. Some assume I'm Australian. I've never quite settled on an answer, but have recently taken to saying Stratford-upon-Avon. Everyone's heard of Stratford-upon-Avon because of Shakespeare, and that was the nearest large town when I was growing up. Since then I've spent five years in Kent, about three in Coventry, and nearly twenty in south-east London - pacing around the country like I was trying to get out. 




I'm no longer certain of the dates - late nineties and maybe some small change, but no later than 2002. It's seven in the morning at Royal Mail. Some days I'll take the unofficial ten minute grace break, but not today. I have too much work. We have a workload amounting to about nine hours of work which we have to fit into an eight hour day, so breaks tend to go out the window. If this week's acting governor is an arsehole and any mail is left undelivered because someone bothered to take the break to which they're entitled, it could mean an entirely unethical first stage warning for delaying the mail. No-one has the time or energy to argue.

I usually spend the grace break - if I take it - talking to Carmen. She's the woman who runs our canteen. She works for a catering contractor rather than Royal Mail, and has been assigned to our place. We're about the same age, but she's from a Caribbean background. She's coffee coloured with a smile that warms my heart, and - to commit what may well be racial stereotyping - a soft, lilting voice which sounds almost as though she's singing. We are both lost souls of some description. She asks about my possibly ludicrous attempts to write a novel, and I tell her about Lawrence Miles, my favourite author. She says that he sounds interesting. She lives in Plaistow, miles away in East London, and attends a reading group once a week. She's even read some Philip K. Dick. I like her because she seems to like me, and because she's interested in things. There's more to her than tea and toast.

'It's not Philip K. Dick, but it's probably better than Jeffrey Archer,' I joke, having lumbered her with a stack of pages from my cranky novel, printed from my PC last night.

'You shouldn't laugh at him,' she says, not unkindly. 'He's sold a lot of books.'

But today I work through the break to a soundtrack of Jackie swearing in the next bay along from mine, mostly cursing those to whom she delivers mail for either getting too much of it, or for it being mostly junk. I can never tell whether she's genuinely outraged or just passing time. She seems neither happy nor unhappy, just world weary.

Ted passes and jokes, 'Do you know who the father is yet, Jack? Must be one of this lot innit?' He grins and casts his gaze around the sorting office so as to imply that any one of the thirty or so males present could be the father of Jackie's impending child.

'Yeah,' she sighs, playing along. 'I'll probably just name him SE22.' This is the postcode covered by our sorting office.

'Wasn't you was it, Oscar?' Ted now asks me. 'You didn't get our Jack up the duff, did you?'

'Sorry, Ted. Not guilty.'

'It weren't Lawrence,' Jackie confirms. 'I'm sure I would have remembered.'

On the subject of mysteries, I still haven't pinned down why Ted took to calling me Oscar. Some days it seems to be a reference to Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street, others it's after Oscar Wilde - which may be an obscure play on words referencing how wild I apparently seem when I'm pissed off.

'I'll have something for you later,' Ted tells me in a more furtive tone, which reminds me that I have Sue's record. I have it in my bag. I take it out and go around to the next aisle of sorting frames.

'Here you go,' I hand it over. It's Blade's The Lion Goes From Strength To Strength, double white vinyl, very rare these days.

'Did you like it?'

'Fantastic - reminds me a bit of Public Enemy. You know, that kind of full on sound, very dense.'

'Yeah - it's good. Did you make a copy?'

'Yes. I'll burn you the CDR tonight if that's all right. It came out really well.'

It was quite a surprise when I found out Sue was into rap in a big way. She used to be one of those teenagers with a hoodie and a spray can forever breaking into train yards, or whatever it is they do. She's tall and skinny, kind of smiley. But for a slight Kentish twang she seems more like someone who has adventures in a children's book than a reformed b-girl.

Eventually I have all of the mail in the sorting frame, so I'm working my way through the redirections. The information is printed on a series of yellow cards kept in clear plastic wallets, one for each address. I work through the cards, pulling mail from the frame to check it isn't addressed to whoever has moved away. In instances where it is addressed to someone who has moved away and has accordingly paid for the service, I take a sticker for the new address from the rear of the plastic wallet and slap it on the envelope, covering the old address. After about twenty minutes I have a stack of thirty or so letters and magazines destined to be forwarded to other parts of the country. I head for the other side of the office, to the outward sorting frame to which we sort mail headed for Scotland, the Midlands, Cornwall and so on.

I encounter Alan, the fake Rasta, as I turn the corner of the frame. He's our acting governor this week and he's an arsehole. I think of him as the fake Rasta after Nadim gave him the name.

'I saw that fake Rasta last week,' Nadim told me. 'I was just walking along, you know.'

'Yeah?'

'He slowed down like he was going to chat shit. He had this big fuckin' smile, man.' Nadim made the noise, sucking air between his two front teeth. 'I looked down and there was this brick just on the road, so I picked it up and looked right at him, like weighing it up in my hand, yeah?'

'Seriously?' I began to laugh, relishing the thought of Alan terrorised by a former employee.

'Yeah, man. He didn't look too happy about that. He wasn't smiling no more, you know what I'm sayin'?'

'What? He drove off?'

'Yeah. He put his foot down, man. I'm tellin' you.'

Anyway, right now I'm headed directly for the outward sorting. There's no other place I could possibly be going given that I'm on this side of the office. I'm holding a big stack of mail in front of me, redirection stickers plainly visible. My purpose is fucking obvious.

'Lawrence,' Alan says.

'Huh?'

He wags a finger as he strides past. 'Don't let me find any redirections on your frame. Take them to the outward sorting otherwise I'll be giving you a first stage warning.'

'Okay.' I think of Nadim stood at the side of the road, screw faced with a brick in his hand. I liked Nadim, but he was given the heave ho, for reasons which seemed unconvincing to just about everyone. Black guys seem to have a tough time in this job, particularly if there's a black manager who feels he needs to prove something. They actively look for failings, pouncing on minor irregularities about which no-one gives a shit if you're white. The white supremacist contingent always chuckle to themselves about the bad attitude of black workers, but it's bullshit. Mostly the supposed bad attitude seems more like a justifiable reluctance to lay back and take it whilst being fucked over by upper management, which is unfortunately how the job works.

Call me Ben Elton, but this is why I generally prefer working with black people. They know when to tell the governor to fuck off. They're attuned to detecting when they're being diddled from above.




I'm on the sorting with Jimmy Axton - whom Carmen calls Jimmy Ackleston, unless I'm thinking of Lucy. It's just the two of us because it's Saturday and we're on late duties. Jim fancies a fag but doesn't want to light up in case Frank, the acting governor, is still hanging around. I first met Frank when he was acting governor at Catford, and vividly recall him locking himself inside his office as Robbie Finley tried to smash the glass with a broom, bellowing, 'Come out and face me, you cunt!' Robbie lost his job but was later briefly eulogised in song, something adapted from a number which had become popular at football matches.
Robbie Finley, he's our mate.
He's our mate. He's our mate.
Robbie Finley, he's our mate.
He smacks governors!

The song transposes both the name and the violent action of the original - smacks governors for kills coppers - and isn't strictly accurate in so much as that Frank remained safe in his office, which I suppose was for the best given that Robbie's objection was not entirely without foundation.

I walk up to the hatch of the PHG cage to see if Frank is hanging around within, as is sometimes the case. He isn't, but Sav is in there with the others. They're watching porn. The woman on the screen wears stockings and is on her back. She has quite a nice arse, and I don't think I've seen this one. I'm sure I would have remembered.

'Blimey, Sav,' I observe.

'Lawrie,' he exclaims, and we both make the established noise of greeting - uuuuuuuh, like a moose.

'Whose video is this?,' I ask. 'Is this one of Ted's?'

Enter Mel.

'What the fuck do you want?'

'Is this your video?, I ask. 'Can I borrow it?'

'I don't know whose it is.'

'Video?' Sav snorts derision. 'This is on the telly!'

'Live & Kicking has changed a lot.'

A brief silence ensues as we all watch appreciatively.

'If I was in charge,' I propose, 'I would make it illegal for women to be not wearing suspenders at all times.'

Mel scowls. 'Say that again?'

'I said it wrong. What I meant was that if I was in charge I would pass a law requiring that they wear stockings and suspenders at all times.'

Sav chuckles. 'What? Men as well?'

'No. For men it would be on a purely voluntary basis.'

'Oh yes?' Sue asks, coming in from the other room, amused by our sudden discomfort. 'What's all this?'

'No, honestly,' I stutter in response to the accusation I've imagined. 'I was looking for Frank and I got distracted.'

I flash a glance at the television set. Someone with lightning reflexes has turned it off. Sav stares from the window as though he has something on his mind. Mel leaves the room shaking his head.




It's Saturday evening, September 2002 but probably not the same Saturday. We're meeting at the Crystal Palace Tavern, but I'm the only one who has turned up. I have a drink with Snowy who is sat in the saloon bar, as is probably usual. He's bigger than ever. He's put on a lot of weight since taking extended leave, and it doesn't look like he's  coming back. It's wonderful to see him and it's been a while. He's one of the funniest people I've met but has had a few setbacks of late what with the death of his dad and his own declining health. He's still a handsome bastard though, even with all those chins which somehow give him an aristocratic appearance, and the full head of snow white hair swept back with a bit of a duck's arse at the front.

We chat shit for a while, how are things back at the sorting office and which useless arseholes have been left in charge, how bad it's getting; but his breathing seems laboured and there's no longer quite such a twinkle in his eye. I get the feeling that this will be the last time I see him, which will eventually turn out to have been unfortunately prescient of me. He's a survivor of better days in the job, of life in general. He will be missed when he's gone.

Paul turns up, and it's just the two of us, which is unfortunate because he can be hard work. He got the boot a few months ago, and now he's full of conspiracy theories about why he was sacked and how he's going to blow the roof off that place using secret cameras and exposés, the results of which will be broadcast on Channel 4. He has delusions of cinematic aptitude, and has been pushing his autobiographical motion picture which is named My Heart is Broken. He talks it well, but only two of us have seen the single videotape which is slowly making its way around the office. Terry's verdict, for one example, was that it was very good, very professional, but he'd expected it to be longer than fifteen minutes. The story of the film is based on Paul's own childhood, which sounds less than idyllic. We all have the promotional postcards he's been giving out featuring a still of the boy who plays Paul as a kid.

'I used to smear myself with my own shit and hide in the cupboard,' he tells me. 'That was so he wouldn't hit me any more.'

'I know,' I say, having heard the story many times. The thing with Paul is that it's impossible to tell how much is made up, and it's frustrating because there's clearly some awful truth in there; plus he's not a bad bloke, just a bit manic.

Carmen arrives at eight, all the way from Plaistow, which is a massive relief. I wonder what it says about her personal life that she's chosen to hang out with us sad sacks on this warm September evening. Unfortunately our combined presence is not enough to get Paul off the subject of himself and how a lot of people are going to be very sorry.

Sue arrives half an hour later with some friend from outside work. The drink was Sue's idea, but never mind. Her friend seems okay, bit shrill, nothing much to say of any great interest seeing as she doesn't know us or any of our colleagues whom we're now busily slagging off behind their backs, but her presence is at least sufficient to dilute Paul's mania.

Kingsley arrives after nine, and that's it. There are just six of us out of the whole office, three of whom either no longer work there or never worked there. Kingsley takes a shine to Sue's friend and somehow transforms into a more slimline Barry White. I hear him asking about her star sign with a big smile, and he's lost to us for the rest of the evening.

We drink, and Paul resumes his ranting and raving, and I think about how Carmen has travelled across London for this.

'I must go,' she sighs, and no-one questions because we all appreciate she has a long trip back. It still seems early.

'I'll walk you to the bus-stop,' I say.

We talk as we stroll down Whateley Road towards Lordship Lane, nothing amazing, just writing and the stuff we talk about on the rare occasions when I take a grace break. She tells me in passing that she once went to North Africa on a roots thing and was surprised to find that Africans came in all shapes, shades, and sizes. She's always interesting.

I know it wouldn't ever work between us, but sometimes it's nice to pretend that it would; and it's nice just to enjoy her company without feeling any sort of pressure to impress or perform.

There's almost a moment when the bus comes. I kiss her on the cheek, and that's that.

I walk up the hill, back to my flat in the basement of a four story house. There doesn't seem to be much point in going back to the pub. I'm lonely, but I'm used to it. I don't recall any other state of being. The financial powers which rule the city are doing their best to gouge me out of my present security, to oblige me to pay more for less, even though I'm already pretty much reduced to a utility because they haven't yet invented a robot which will do it cheaper.

I have my doner kebab and something disgusting borrowed from Ted, and I'm under no illusions about anything.

On the other hand, I'm cautiously settled. If I can just hang on until I eventually die, I'll be happy. I have no-one, and probably never will for reasons I don't yet understand, but that's okay. I no longer have the desire to move on because I'm not sure there's anywhere left to go. One day I'll look back on all of this and see things in a very different light, but for now this is where I am, so this is where I'm from; and it's the closest I will ever come to a definitive answer.

Friday, 2 November 2018

One Episode Was Enough


The Alienist. Unfortunately nothing to do with the people upstairs, but rather the term refers to a Victorian era psychologist or something of the sort, based on the notion that mad people were alienated from their true selves. Being set in America - specifically New York - I still don't quite see how this sort of thing qualifies as Victorian, but never mind. I suppose it works better than Clevelandian, which would reference President Grover Cleveland, whom I've only actually heard of through having looked him up just now. Anyway, our Alienist seems to be an exception within the psychological practice of his day in so much as that he attempts analysis by trying to understand his patients rather than just flogging them or locking them up like everyone else. Personally I find this unconvincing, even if it allows for greater scope in terms of the story - not that they take advantage of the fact, and it might have been a little more entertaining had he just spent the full forty-three minutes trying to flog the truth out of the rest of the cast. The problem is that they seem to have spunked away all the money on making the whole thing look like some tedious steampunk console game, leaving just a few bucks in the kitty to pay for a script. You get what you pay for, is therefore the lesson we should take from this one.

Crazyhead. I'm not sure why it's called Crazyhead, so maybe that's explained in a later episode. Maybe the girls end up recruited to one of those secretive government organisations which squirrels away all the stuff that falls off flying saucers, and the organisation is named Crazyhead, for some reason. Anyway, this is about two twenty-something women who fight demons whilst cracking jokes, and was as such probably pitched as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Pramface. It's watchable because Susie Wokoma is in it, and she's always wonderful, but otherwise the general quality of the show divides the scenes into those featuring Susie Wokoma and those during which you're mostly just waiting for Susie Wokoma to reappear; beyond which it's all bargain bucket CGI, flaps gags, and young dubiously employed people who somehow live in those London Dockland apartments which not even your average brain surgeon can afford, or which are kept empty as an investment by unscrupulous foreign landlords.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. I've never been entirely convinced by Douglas Adams, and his books tend to read like an endless series of snappy retorts with linking material, at least to me. I loved Hitchhiker's Guide when it was on the telly, and I enjoyed the novels when they first appeared, at least the first two. I tried reading Dirk Gently, and whilst I have fond memories of that first page about a truck driver who is actually a rain God, for some reason I never got any further with the book. Similarly I don't remember a lot about this first episode of the television adaptation, except that there was a Hobbit in it, and I found it irritating for all the reasons I expected to find it irritating.

11.22.63. This is an event series according to the promotional material. I appreciate that no television production company is ever going to attract viewers with here's this show we made, it's a bit shit to be honest but some of you might get a kick out of it, but describing 11.22.63 as an event series still seems a bit much, unless the implication is that it was produced through a series of events - Stephen King writing a book, the cameraman turning up for work as usual, some actor remembering his lines and so on. Otherwise, I'd say it's more of an occurrence series in so much as that it has occurred, because it's basically Quantum Leap with moderate sexual swearwords. The premise is that some guy discovers a magical land at the back of his closet, just like in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but the magical land is the year 1960 rather than Narnia. Our man decides to change history by saving Kennedy from assassination in the hope of making the present day amazing, but snuffs it before he can finish the job, so he enlists a school teacher to finish it for him, specifically an English teacher. We know he's an English teacher because we first see him as he's teaching a class about writing. He stands in front of a blackboard upon which is named the next book to be read by his class - The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. This was the point at which I was unable to continue with the suspension of my disbelief because The Lurker at the Threshold is awful, a work which August Derleth expanded to novel length from a couple of pages scribbled by Herbert Philips before he shuffled off to that great gambrel roofed drawing room in the sky. Sir may as well have had his class reading Sven Hassel or Jeffrey Archer. The rest of 11.22.63 was pretty much as you'd expect, all pristine cars with ludicrous tail fins and not a single smudge of dirt on one of them, girls with pointy knockers, kids who say gee willickers, and waiters helpfully mentioning that it's still 1960. I expect Dean Stockwell turns up in part two.

Inhumans. I read some of the comic when I was a kid, and it impressed me enough to have left a lingering sense of nostalgia; and re-reading it as an adult sort of works because the whole premise of the Inhumans is just weird enough to be interesting; so of course they had to make a TV show, because when will we see an end to this terrible shortage of caped telly?

The effects are wonderful, as you would expect of something which apparently used up such a proportion of the budget as to leave about five cents with which to pay whoever wrote the script, most of which was the sort of portentous horseshit that worked in a comic because if you were reading the comic then you were probably about eight-years old.

Unlike the comic book, Black Bolt wears no mask with a piano tuner stuck on the top because I expect some genius decreed that it would look ridiculous, and yet we nevertheless have ridiculous elements which weren't even in the comic book, but which have been added because that's how we make television these days, and oh look - another fucking fight scene which needlessly slips into slow motion every couple of seconds, because I haven't seen that one since at least Tuesday. More off-putting still is that the bloke who plays Black Bolt seems to be the singer from Death in June.

I don't know why they made this.

iZombie. It's hilarious, I was told by a man who patently found it so hilarious that he could barely speak, because just talking about it brought back memories of its hilarity. The premise is that some blandly good-looking young woman is bitten by a zombie and so becomes a zombie, or a sort of zombie in so much as that she gets to keep her personality - which is used mainly in the dispensation of wry observations and knowing asides - and resembles a photogenic goth rather than an actual living corpse, conditional to a steady supply of human brains upon which she can feed. By happy coincidence she seems to work in the pathology lab of a cop show and therefore has regular access to stiffs. Also, it transpires that when she eats a brain, she is able to relive some of the memories of the deceased and thusly is she also able to solve crimes, like who murdered them, for one obvious example; so it's basically Angel with a hot zombie chick. That is the thing that it was. The thing that it wasn't is hilarious.

Once Upon a Time. Just imagine if all of our most beloved fairy tales were real, and they all happened within the same continuity, and if that wondrous realm were somehow connected to our world; and if anyone is still awake after reading that sentence, then Once Upon a Time is probably the show for you. My guess would be that it came about upon one enchanted eve of the magical chance encounter of a marketing executive who just happened to notice that Game of Thrones was big bucks, with another marketing executive who had a vision, specifically a vision about it still being worth giving the Harry Potter cow another squeeze. Thus didst they weaveth a tale about the magic of stories with CGI effects rendering everything like unto an animate Thomas Kinkade painting and a script of such weft that even a line so crappy as you don't have to do this seemed not so unusually far from home. Plinky-plonky piano starts up whenever anyone feels a bit sad, everyone is kind of good looking, Robert Carlyle's career slips a little further down the pole than where it came to rest during his stint on Stargate, and I also noticed some use of that accent which Americans do when they're pretending to be Oirish, so I did to be sure. Once Upon a Time is so good it could almost have been written by Warren Ellis.

Santa Clarita Diet. Bland suburban whiteys who happen to be estate agents find their world turned upside down when mom turns out to be a zombie, and as such demands a constant supply of fresh human meat - with hilarious consequences. It's probably just me who doesn't consider the very concept of Santa Clarita Diet - if we're going to even call it a concept - inherently hilarious, but even so, they almost did a pretty good job with this one. The script is sort of witty and the cast are mostly great and with a decent sense of comic timing, and it could have been a total pile of shite, yet somehow isn't; but there's no getting around Drew Barrymore. I don't know what it is about the woman, but I just can't watch her. I can't tell if she's overacting, or if she's a great actor simply playing an excruciatingly annoying character to perfection, but whichever it is, the results amount to the same thing. She seems incapable of delivering a single line without boggling her eyes, pouting in needlessly exaggerated fashion, or else pulling some variation on the face which says, you don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps! It's as though she's on stage trying to convey every last nuance of her lines to those in the cheap seats, a mile and a half up in the sky, or she's playing the villain in a silent film of the twenties. Maybe she tones it down in later episodes, and we get to enjoy the show on its own merits, but unfortunately there's just no way of knowing.

Skins. I'm probably a bit behind the curve with this one, but at least now I understand why this should be the first time I've seen it, given that I can't imagine the trailers would have piqued my interest had one caught my attention. The strangest realisation, at least for me, is that this is what most English television now looks like from where I'm sat, and have been sat since 2011. I realise most American sitcoms are three people on a sofa, with a fourth walking in the door and asking how's it hanging? as the laugh track goes ballistic; but I think I'd rather have even that than yet more teenagers cracking rape jokes in front of a shaky camera with Arctic fucking Monkeys on the soundtrack. At least American sofa comedy is honest about being a corporate entertainment product and doesn't try to pass itself off as the Sex Pistols. The entire internet seems to have thought Skins was great, with some even claiming it provides an uncannily accurate mirror to their own lives. Maybe teenagers have changed, because in my day they were mostly socially inept spotty twats bearing no resemblance to these wisecracking post-ironic sophisticates busily arranging to have each other's cherries casually popped in between viola lessons and twocking cars. Of course, we was yer actual working class, give or take some small change, although apparently so are this lot. You can tell the kids from Skins are working class because they go to what is amusingly identified as a posh party in the first episode, meaning that they themselves ain't posh - I guess - and admittedly most kids of my generation and milieu generally started our day auditioning for the city chamber choir at a private girls' school. You can also tell that the kids from Skins are working class because they use street credibility words and commonly greet each other with a chirpy call of shit your bollocks out of my titting cock you wanking fucking cunty knob, which as you know is how working class kids on the street tend to speak. Skins falls somewhere between being J.K. Rowling's Trainspotting and the Inbetweeners taken seriously, and is as such unwatchable. At the risk of appearing judgemental, if you enjoy Skins then you're a fucking idiot. Sorry.

Vikings. It's like The Sopranos with longships, they said. The first episode looked more like CSI: Götaland due to an excessively digitised image speeding up, slowing down and pulling all those jerky little moves which make everything look like a Nine Inch Nails video - the stuff which suggests a game presumably in the hope of conning a few teenagers into watching. Maybe it comes to resemble The Sopranos as the series goes on, or maybe whoever said that was simply watching The Sopranos in the mistaken belief of it being a later instalment of the same story set in modern New Jersey. My knowledge of Viking culture is only marginally smaller than my enthusiasm for the same, so I don't know how authentic this was - apparently the story of a Viking who discovers America, or who discovers something across the sea which his Viking CEO has forbidden him to discover. The fact of it being produced by the History Channel doesn't bode any better than the fact of the first episode comprising a sequence of scenes I've seen a million times before.

Oh look, our hero is off on business, and here's a couple of ruffians calling on his feisty Viking wife intent on having their wicked way, and bugger me - she's just beaten both of them up and sent them packing due to her characteristic feistiness. Who could possibly have seen that coming?

The dialogue was about what you'd expect. No-one actually said talk to the hand or ain't nobody got time for that in this episode, but it wouldn't have made much difference. Most of the script has been written in the Marvel comics version of Shakespeare with a vaguely Scandinavian accent, and the bloke who built the boat was Keith Flint whom older boys and girls will remember from the Prodigy.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Britface


Central Market is subject to a special promotion they're calling the British Invasion. The name is a reference to Beatles band and the phenomenal popularity enjoyed by the fab four when they first set foot over here, because Beatles band is one of those things Americans understand about Englishland and its culture, along with the Queen, red double decker buses, and Keeping Up Appearances. The promotion promises that the shelves of the supermarket will be lined with British stuff for the next month or so. The first I hear of this is when someone on facebook proposes that I enter the associated costume competition.

Register for our Passport UK Costume Contest and be entered for a chance to win a trip to London!

Let your imagination run wild and come dressed as any Brit from Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare to Elton John and the Spice Girls. The top costume at each store will be entered to win a travel voucher for two round trip tickets to London, plus a $500 Visa gift card.

Simply register using the link below, get dressed up on September 21st, check in at the main entrance. We'll then take your official party photo that enters you into the contest.

Once you've taken your official party photo, walk through the store to show off your costume and enjoy over a dozen British specialities like tea, shortbread, house-made sausages, smoked salmon, chocolates, English sparkling wine, beer and cider, plus the very ice cream served at Buckingham Palace.

Its all free and proper fun, sure to be a jolly good time. And remember, your costume could be your ticket to ride — to London!

It occurs to me that Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare would be a complicated choice given that they're actually two separate people rather than a single gestalt entity, contrary to what Central Market seems to believe. I consider going as myself, seeing as how I'm actually fucking English, but there are certain depths to which I will not stoop, not even in the cause of sarcasm. On the other hand, it might be nice to stock up on a few things which I can't otherwise get in Texas, assuming that's actually an option.

My hopes are less than stratospheric. Central Market aspires to be, I suppose, the Texas equivalent of Waitrose, a store for a better class of person, as the facelift-happy twats of Alamo Heights who shop there seem to consider themselves. This means that there is at least a place where I can buy Crunchie, Mint Aero and Marmite when the mood takes me.

Marmite costs about seven dollars a jar, in comparison to less than a quid back in England. Marmite is, as I understand it, a by-product of beer. American beer is made at a children's lemonade factory and thus yields no Marmite, so we have to import it, hence the price. I don't mind because although Marmite is nice every once in a while, contrary to the mythology, I can take it or leave it.

Unfortunately, that's about it for me and Central Market. Everything else I can get at my regular HEB, or at least Target; because otherwise even shopping for something as basic as a tin of cat food is a waste of time at Central Market when the only brand on the shelf will inevitably cost four dollars for a tin of what turns out to be minced alpaca seasoned with organic chard.

Bess and I drop in on Thursday evening, having stuffed our faces with curry at the excellent Bombay Hall over on Wurzbach Road. I'm here in the admittedly forlorn hope that they'll have a steak and kidney pie, and I'm expecting disappointment. Bess is here because she's looking forward to the sarcasm with which I customarily express my disappointment.

We enter the store.

'What are we looking for?' I wonder out loud. 'Is it all over the place, or will it be a big pile of British stuff on a table with Dick van Dyke stood next to it?'

'Look,' Bess observes. 'These have little Union Jack flags on them.' She indicates the pricing labels of something I don't immediately recognise, little red criss-crosses on blue and white stuck to a purple ball. The objects are bath bombs, it transpires, and not really my field of expertise; but it answers a question. Maybe these are Benedict Cumberbatch's bath bombs of choice.

The end of the aisle is embellished with a sign instructing us to keep calm and do something or other besides carry on. I still remember the first time I saw one of those posters. I still remember when the joke was funny. The display relates to stacked cans of Irn Bru, which is nice, although I always preferred watching the Irn Bru television adverts to drinking the actual drink. Around the corner is porridge, small boxes of it. I'm pretty sure porridge is readily available here and is known as oatmeal. Happily I've been able to make the semantic leap without experiencing too much culture shock.

We walk on.

I'm expecting really obvious, arguably slightly crappy things that I'm unable to buy over here - Heinz baked beans, Birds Eye fish fingers, Wall's sausages, Mr. Kipling's cakes, custard creams, but they don't seem to have anything along such lines. Everything else I could possibly want, I've learned how to make for myself with the only significant difficulty being getting hold of kidneys for steak and kidney pie.

The deli section is expansive and takes up about half of the floor space of the store. The British Invasion seems more in evidence here, with the alleged foods of Englishland sat in chiller cabinets amongst the usual fare. Much of this supposedly English product seems to have been supplied by one company trading as Jolly Posh, a name which I'm sure had them rolling in the aisles at some board meeting or other. The branding seems ill-suited for what is mostly a pretentious take on what you would eat in a transport caff. The Cornish pastie is the size of a handbag and suspiciously pale. There's also some kind of pie incorporating chicken, but I make a pretty decent chicken and mushroom pie and am disinclined to pay ten dollars for one which probably won't be as good.

On the other hand, I find there's a Jolly Posh black pudding and pork sausages, so I'm having some of that. Black pudding is unknown in Texas, and while we have sausages coming out of our ears, they're of ancestrally German descent and quite unlike the kind which kept me alive from 1988 to 2009. The strangest thing is that I've never been able to work out what the difference could be, only that there is one and it's pronounced.

'What are tatties and neeps?' Bess asks. She's pointing at a plastic container on the top of the counter, some mysterious substance within. I've asked this very same question of every single Scottish person I've ever known, and I still can't remember the answer, something to do with either parsnips or turnips - but definitely potatoes.

'I don't really know, although for whatever it's worth, I've only ever heard them referred to as neeps and tatties, never tatties and neeps. I'm not sure if that makes a difference.'

To my ears it sounds as though I've walked into a newsagent and asked for a packet of onion and cheese crisps.

Adjacent plastic containers house Scotch eggs and Welsh rarebit. That would be cheese on toast which has already been prepared so as to save us the misery of having to slice the cheese and stick it on top of bread, because who has time for that shit?

The Scotch egg costs nearly four dollars and is nice enough, but somehow not quite as good as the ones you get out of the chiller cabinet at your local corner shop in Peckham. Next to the Scotch egg are individual punnets of Yorkshire pudding and kedgeree. I'm finding this increasingly surreal. We seem to be in Iceland territory - the shop rather than the country - foods pre-packaged because someone somewhere never quite got the hang of mashing a fucking potato or slopping a knob of butter onto green beans; and kedgeree is the one food I can't stand. Even the smell of it has me dry heaving. I've eaten crickets, cacti, maguey worms, and all manner of Lovecraftian shite, but I draw the line at kedgeree.

The British Invasion isn't really English food. With a couple of exceptions, it's mostly a cargo cult version of what someone considers to be English food. My American-born wife once took the piss out of English food by referring to jellied eggs, or whatever the hell it is you people eat over there, and I've a feeling that if I asked for jellied eggs - even though there's no such thing - I wouldn't be disappointed.

I ask the cashier if I get a discount, seeing as how I'm actually English and all. She either doesn't hear or doesn't get the joke.

Against expectation, the sausages are great, as is the black pudding. No Mint Aero though, the fuckers.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Worst Halloween Display Ever


There's a house with a chain link fence on a corner a few blocks from where I live. The chain link fence runs across the front lawn of the place, which is unusual. The rest of the street is just regular houses, fairly well-kept lawns, trees, maybe flowers, no chain link fencing. Some of those other lawns are presently host to political campaign advertising, mostly Beto but a couple for Ted Cruz, according to the political leanings of whoever lives there. Beto is standing for the Senate on behalf of the Democratic Party, challenging Ted Cruz who currently holds the seat on behalf of the Republicans. Those dwelling within the house on the corner favour Ted Cruz, and his campaign material is secured to their chain link fence, along with a whole load of other stuff advertising their political sympathies to those who drive along North New Braunfels Avenue. Amongst the other material is a large presumably canvas banner which reads:

We have had it with Barack Hussein Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Cory Booker, Chuck Schumer, Colin Kaepernick, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O'Rourke, Socialism, and political correctness. Vote as if your life depends on it, because it does.

To unpack all of this for anyone unfamilar with this array of names, Barack Hussein Obama was our last president - meaning either the president we had before the current guy, or our last president, depending how things go from hereon. The good news for our people behind the chain link fence is that he ceased to be president nearly two years ago, so I'm not sure why they've had it with him, as they put it. Maybe he regularly pisses on their lawn on his way back from the pub, which might also explain the fence.

Hillary Clinton is the wife of another former president, and she herself applied for the job at the same time as Donald Trump, but didn't get it. Again, I wouldn't like to speculate on how she's managed to upset our mysterious family. I can understand why people might not have wanted to vote for her, and it isn't that they're scared because she's a woman and she's brilliant - as one dimwit so memorably put it, but sheesh...

I don't know much about Nancy Pelosi beyond that she's a Democrat politician whose name is routinely employed as a smear in Republican campaign messages. Current campaigning against Gina Ortiz Jones here in San Antonio relies upon her association with Pelosi. Having just come back from a weekend in Houston, I noticed that one of their local Democrat candidates is also supposedly awful due to something or other to do with Pelosi, whom I therefore assume to be a malign Lovecraftian octopus entity manipulating human history from behind the scenes.

Colin Kaepernick is a football player, or at least a participant in a game which Americans call football. He famously failed to stand for the national anthem in protest of institutionalised racism. This caused the heads of certain people to explode due to toxic levels of what Orwell described as primitive patriotism.

It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations. And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances.

I'm only vaguely familiar with the other names which have apparently struck terror into the hearts of our family behind the chain link fence.

At the risk of shooting a fish in a barrel, these neighbours of mine therefore feel - as is implicit in the last line - that their lives are jeopardised by someone who isn't president, someone who didn't get to be president, a football player, a space octopus from beyond time, a political ideology which has never had much of a foothold here in the United States, and anyone who tells them that they can't say the word n***** because it's disrespectful. This stuff is ruining their lives.

On the other hand it could be that they're just shitheads who don't fucking understand nuffink, instead pooing their pants every time some power hungry nest-feathering plutocrat waves Nancy Pelosi in their faces and growls, she's coming for your children, and she's going to force them to have abortions and gender reassignment surgery. It's always depressing to see people whose buttons can be so easily pressed by almost anyone in a nice suit claiming to be on their side.

Hopefully no-one will take offence at my use of the term shithead here. Angry Moron Who Doesn't Understand Stuff seems cumbersome, and is a little too politically correct for my liking.

The button pressing would seem to be revealed by the inclusion of Barack Obama's full name, given that the banner appears to have been commissioned from a company specialising in such things, in which case I imagine our family would have been charged by the letter, or at least the word; and Hussein, Obama's middle name, is not widely used and is therefore a superfluous inclusion unless attempting to establish an association with Saddam Hussein by means of sympathetic magic. This is the same button pressing favoured by the sort of righties who photoshopped images of Obama with a Hitler moustache, so I suppose our bunch are just passing it on. The possibility that someone behind the chain link fence owns a banner manufacturing business and got this one as a freebie seems unlikely given crude handwritten cardboard signs affixed to other parts of the fence reading God Bless the USA, Secure the Border, Keep Our Guns, and all of the usual rightie concerns for things which either aren't the problem, or are else actively contributing towards it.




Hung from the awning of the house is another home-made sign reading We Love President Trump, and in the garden there's a professionally made one pertaining to a local anti-bullying campaign. Evidently they see no contradiction there.



I was in the middle of an already lousy morning when my wife told me about the signage at the house with the chain link fence, and I found it significantly depressing. There are too many shitheads in the world as it is, and I don't like to think of them living in the town I've come to call home.

While I would agree with the shitheads that there are problems on the left, if they genuinely believe America even has a left, then they're even more shitheaded than I thought. My position is that the difference between Republican and Democrat politicians is that the Democrats at least feel a little guilty after they've shafted you. I don't trust anyone in a suit who tells me they have my best interests at heart, because historically they never have done, and if they did, it would be self-evident and would hardly need stating.

However, the bottom line is that part of being an adult is making peace with the idea that maybe not everything in the world will be exactly as would you like it to be; and if you're an adult you should have the ability to reason and to at least empathise with those in opposition to whatever you happen to believe, to at least understand where they're coming from even if you don't agree with it. That's what being a grown-up is about.

Therefore, when a stranger waves something awful in your face, explains that this awful thing wants to turn your kids into homosexuals, communists, people who can tie their own shoelaces, or whatever else gives you cause to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, when the next thing that stranger tells you is that he or she has the answer to all of your problems - the ones you've only just found out about, thanks to the testimony of this same individual - if it doesn't occur to you that you're being played like a fiddle, then you're either a very small child or a fully grown shithead.

I don't know how much more simple I can make it. It really isn't that hard to understand. No source of information - no news source if you prefer - is without some form of bias; but this simply means you have to use the power of your mind to deduce whatever may actually be going on. Living in the information age, it's not difficult to find varied accounts of any given situation or issue, and it's down to you to reach a decision based on what seems likely rather than on what seems most comforting, most consistent with your existing view of the world, and which requires the least effort expended outside your comfort zone.

If you're unable to do this, then you're a shithead.

If you're a shithead, then your opinion is of no value because you don't understand stuff, and there's no reason the rest of us should be obliged to listen to you or to take your uninformed shitheaded views into account; because when a small child tells you they've just seen a real live dinosaur, it's cute, but hopefully you won't believe in the literal truth of such a claim; which is why we hopefully don't vote for people engaging in cock-obvious attempts to goad you into hatred of whatever easy target happens to be on the table at the time.

The day after I learned about the house behind the chain link fence, I passed by the place on my way to have a root canal. I wasn't in the most buoyant of moods, but nevertheless I had to stop and take photos, just as I would have done had a real live dinosaur been reported in my neighbourhood by someone more authoritative than a small child. I cycled down a street with lawn after lawn playing host to Beto's campaign material, and there it was at the end, like a shit splatter of Info Wars taped over the end of an episode of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, the house which still seemingly fears that Obama is a'comin' for our guns.

I dismounted.

To my surprise, I realised that I felt sorry for the poor dumb bastards. I'm scared of all sorts of things - old age, cancer, and the likelihood of the entire planet becoming significantly less habitable during my own lifetime - but I can't imagine what it must be like to be so terrified of the rest of the human race, even one's own neighbours. I can't imagine daily existence lived in the belief that they're out to get you, with they being whatever some over-moneyed corporate saviour has you scared of this week. I can't imagine how difficult it must be making one's way through life with the comprehension and reasoning power of a typical eight-year old boy; and if this comparison seems unfair, consider that the shitheads are in power, gaining more ground across the world every day, all the cards in their hand, and the fuckers still aren't happy.

So I felt sorry for them, because what else is there?


Thursday, 11 October 2018

Underpants, the Denial of Dentistry


I'm on my bike heading for a dental appointment at eleven. The dental appointment is at eleven because they no longer see anyone in the afternoon, which was a better time for me but never mind. Being a dental appointment, it's not something I'm looking forward to, but I suppose it's better than having my teeth fall out. I've worked out that it takes me thirty minutes to get from my home to Doctor Stalker's surgery on my bike, and I've set out at twenty past ten so as to take a slightly longer route through suburban neighbourhoods, thus avoiding the highway and heavy traffic. It takes fifteen minutes to get to Broadway, which is more or less half the distance, and then I'm into the familiar territory of St. Luke's, the middle school from which our kid graduated a few months back.

Unfortunately as I reach Olmos Park, I find the road barred by a barrier carrying the familiar instruction turn around, don't drown. I should have known.

It's not that it doesn't rain much in Texas, but the rain is infrequent and when it rains, it's torrential and makes up for lost time in a single concentrated blast. Creeks swell overnight to ten or more feet of water which will drain away over the next couple of days. The trail I regularly follow becomes impassable as Morningstar Boardwalk is swallowed by a temporary lake, and the city sends some guy out to close the barriers, each one embellished with the hexagonal warning sign.

Turn Around, Don't Drown.

It seems unnecessary. Most of us can tell whether or not it's wise to keep on going, and the familiar wooden walkway being underwater is usually enough for me; and yet nine out of ten times, I'll ignore the warning and skirt around the barrier, because if the waters have receded sufficient for me to be able to see Morningstar Boardwalk high and mostly dry, then I feel fairly confident that I'm not going to drown, and that the city simply hasn't got around to reopening the barrier.

So that's my reaction right now, I can see Olmos Park up ahead, and yes we've had a bit of rain this week, but I'm not turning around now. I have an appointment to keep.

I walk my bike around the barrier and remount, cycling slowly because the road surface is slick with mud. The park is deserted and almost entirely brown in hue, and the puddles are admittedly large. If I can just get through the park to Dick Friedrich Drive I'll be fine. I'm just minutes away.

There's a small bridge I need to cross, and as I approach, I realise that water is flowing over it as well as under. All I can see are the handrails. The water looks to be four of five inches at most. I'll do what I usually do, raising my feet from the pedals to coast along where it gets deep.

Annoyingly, it gets deep, then deeper, and I've slowed so much that it's either pedal or fall over; so I pedal, sinking my feet into water which is now almost up to my knees.

Fuck.

I cross the bridge.

I keep a pair of flip-flops in my saddlebag for eventualities such as this. Once I'm clear of the park I can take off my shoes and socks, and the hygienist will just have to work on a shoeless man with damp trousers.

There are further puddles, some of them thirty yards across by the look of it. Worse still, the ground isn't actually ground, but a six inch layer of soft Texas mud with the consistency of diarrhoea. I make it across the underwater parking lot to Dick Friedrich Drive and see that my intended route presently takes me through an actual lake.

It's not happening.

I look on my phone but I don't have the number. The dentist's office regularly sends messages in the form of jpeg images which won't show on my phone because it isn't a smartphone, because I've never really given a shit about smartphones. I call my wife and ask her to contact the dentist's office and tell them that I won't be showing because I can't get there.

I head back to the main road. There's probably another way through, but it will be more than a mile up the road. I'm apparently stranded in a post-deluge landscape, just mud and water as far as I can see, and yet somehow I'm in a public park in the middle of a city. I don't understand how this can be. There's a fountain of water about six feet high where a storm drain has burst just on the other side of the deserted highway. I'm on the mud planet.

I reason that going back the way I came at least means I won't experience anything worse than I've already come through, so that's what I do. Everything below the knee is soaked, but I make it out of Olmos Park. Once I'm beyond the mud, I stop and switch to flip-flops so that my feet will at least dry out. My sodden socks and shoes go in a bag.

Once again I'm lost in the suburban maze of Alamo Heights, with only a vague idea of where I'm going, so I cycle home by a meandering route as I recover from what has felt like an ordeal. I buy cat food from HEB, then somehow end up at Target on Austin Highway. I remember that I have money in the bank, and that I've been putting off buying crackers and socks for the last twenty years or so. I am fairly certain that at least two pairs of crackers currently in service can be dated to 1993, one wife and two girlfriends ago, originally purchased when Mandy poured scorn upon Y-fronts still hanging on from an era when such items were supplied either by my mother or relatives who didn't really know me too well at Christmas.

I guess there's no time like the present.

I'm treating myself. I buy underpants, a box containing six pairs - no holes through which anything can dangle, no saggy elastic, and not fucking boxers either.

I've been to the mud planet and missed a dental appointment, but I have new underpants. It's an ill wind that blows no good.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

One of Those Parent-Teacher Things


I've been rehearsing what I'll say all day inside my head. Theresa Thatcher will see my wife and do that exploding face thing, faking the joy with arms out, pretending it isn't the most awkward situation in the world. She's so glad to see us and how have we been?

I don't want to seem rude, I'll explain, but the thing is that we don't like you very much, so we're going over here now, and we'll walk away, easy as that.

'We'll be polite,' Bess tells me in the car. 'We'll be polite and then we'll walk away.'

'My way would be polite though,' I say, 'maybe a bit direct, but still not actually telling the woman to fuck off.'

Unfortunately I know that my wife is probably right.

The woman isn't really named Theresa Thatcher, but she carries herself with both the warmth and sincerity of the two female British Prime Ministers and has similar hair, so she's Theresa Thatcher for the next couple of paragraphs. She is mother to Devil Boy, possibly the most evil child I've ever encountered outside of an Omen movie. She is motivated almost entirely by money so far as any of us can tell. We thought we'd seen the last of her, but no, Devil Boy has been signed up for this same school. He's in our kid's class.

We're on the way to the high school because it's one of those parent-teacher things. We're late. We were supposed to be there at ten to six, a time which seemed to presuppose that most parents will be wealthy oil tycoons who don't actually have to work for a living. It's a private school, so most parents probably are something along those lines, and we're the exception. The boy decided he wanted to attend this school, and the relatives who can afford to stump up the lolly said yes, so here we are. If it were up to us he'd be at a regular school, but never mind.

Don't worry about it, I told Bess. We'll eat as usual, and we'll go after that and see what happens. If we're late it's tough shit. They should have started at a more reasonable time, like seven.

We're supposed to be there at ten to six to pick up our schedule, whatever the hell that is. My understanding of parent-teacher evenings is that we, the parents by some definition, get to speak to the boy's teachers, but apparently it isn't that simple and we need a schedule. It's going to be an experience of some kind. Even without it being an experience, I don't really see the need.

The teachers are paid to teach.

Logically, they'll either spend the time snorting coke, setting things on fire, rampaging around the school with a hand gun, and telling kids with questions about the curriculum to go ask someone who gives a shit; or maybe they'll do their jobs and teach. I'm banking on it being the second option, and I'm so confident of this being the case that I don't require reassurance or even a demonstration. I seem to recall my mother telling me that she only ever attended one parent-teacher evening and never bothered after that because it was difficult to see what difference any of it made to anything.

The parking lot is full of trucks due to this being Texas. Many Texans drive trucks because they are engaged in work which requires heavy machinery or livestock moved from one place to another in rural areas. Other Texans drive trucks because they're idiots with too much money and are probably compensating for something underwhelming in the trouser department. My wife and I keep driving until we can no longer see trucks, then we park in what space is available.

Once inside, we realise that the parents of the entire school are here, pretty much. The place is heaving. For some reason I had assumed it would be just parents of children in our boy's year, but no - which at least explains the need of a schedule. Each parent has an itinerary based on a typical day of lessons undertaken by their child, but scaled down to ten minute periods. Junior apparently kicks off the day with an hour or so of algebra, so that's our first class, followed by ten minutes of geography, then English and so on. It's all been scheduled so as to prevent disaster should seven-hundred parents have decided they all want to find out what their kid gets up to in the Latin class at the same time.

We collect a schedule from the cafeteria, then make our way to a classroom containing the parents of all the kids who have algebra first thing on a Monday morning. There's a teacher at the front, stood before a massive flat screen where I'd expected to see a blackboard. She's explaining to us that she's going to do her best to teach our kids how to do really complicated sums, and she gives us her email address so we can get in touch if we have any questions. Unfortunately we spot Theresa Thatcher sat at the front, and she's seen us, even though she's pretending she hasn't because it's awkward.

Suddenly this first session is at an end. I'm not sure we're any richer for having been here, and now we have to find our way to a geography class in some other room. The corridors are lined with lockers which doubtless have pin-ups of Michael J. Fox or Cheryl Ladd selotaped inside the door. It feels like I'm trapped in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Everywhere I look I see squareness and team spirit worn with pride. I can see nothing I recognise from my own time at school, other than the basic configuration of hominids within a building.

We dive into a darkened theatre, following other parents similarly swarming towards geography.

'I'm so glad to see you,' beams Theresa Thatcher out of nowhere. 'How have you been?'

Fuck.

She asks whether our boy is taking drama, that being the function of the darkened theatre.

Nope.

We're away through the other door, into daylight. We've escaped.

We climb stairs to the geography room, another teacher stood in front of a massive flat screen telling us his email address. We take seats, those screwy plastic chairs with an arm rest upon which you can lean to write or take notes. They don't even have desks as I understand it, nowhere to carve swastikas, skulls, the logos of heavy metal bands, or messages casting aspersions on the sexual preferences of other pupils. It feels as though we're in training for office work, as I suppose we are.

The teacher fills the screen with a page explaining which parts of the globe the kids will be studying over the coming year. It looks as though it will be mostly in socio-economic terms, with much less emphasis on plate tectonics or colouring around the edge of your fjord with a blue pencil, although I could be wrong. The teacher additionally informs us that he will be taking a dim view of anyone found playing with their phone in class, explaining in no uncertain terms that they will be told to put their phone away. I'm not even sure where to begin with this idea.

The bell goes and our ten minutes are up. The bell is actually a harsh electronic tone of the kind which alerts citizens to the arrival of a new batch of soylent green in a dystopian movie.

Everything is different. My school was primarily about teachers writing things in chalk on a blackboard, following which we would usually take books out of our desks - an operation effected by raising the lid - either to read them or write in them. I recall my dad's account of writing on a piece of slate at his school and how archaic it sounded to me even when he first told me, and realise I am now at a similar remove from the present. I am waiting to see how anything is improved.

We enter the English class. My wife is suddenly excited to see someone and is making all the noises. There's Theresa Thatcher half way up out of her chair in response, but both of us seem confused; then I recognise Duncan's mother. We'd forgotten her kid is also here, so that's nice, and it is indeed good to see her. Bess later tells me she felt hugely awkward, having failed to spot Theresa Thatcher seated in the next row. I had assumed it was deliberate.

The English class seems to combine what I recall as having been two separate lessons, literature and grammar. I glance around the room. There are two book shelves. One contains generic text books. the other is empty. It seems to me that an English classroom should maybe have a few more books. The teacher tells us that she expects her pupils to spend the first five minutes of each lesson reading a novel, something of their own choice. Somehow I don't find this reassuring.

The next classroom is full of sporting paraphernalia, trophies lined up on every surface, framed photographs of winning teams, pin-ups of soccer players, and a fish tank.

'I like the fish,' I tell my wife.

'This is the biology lesson,' she explains.

I look around. There's a poster featuring a cartoon octopus on the rear wall, otherwise it's mostly sport.

'He's the PE teacher,' my wife elaborates. 'Physical education staff over here tend to have a second subject, something else they teach, although it's usually history that suffers.'

I take another look around the room. It's mostly about him, not very much relating to biology. He tells us his email address in case we have any questions, then describes his teaching methodology by means of an acronym, GTS. He doesn't believe in just filling their heads with meaningless facts. He prefers to show them how to find out those facts for themselves, how to Google That Stuff, which is somehow delivered to his audience as a sales pitch.

Science, and specifically marine biology, is one of our boy's favourite things. We now understand why he hasn't been telling us much about the class in his usual way.

The bell goes.

Religious instruction follows. We're invited to ask questions.

'I don't want to seem facetious,' I say, 'but what are you teaching here? Do you deal with other faiths, or are you mainly focussed on Christianity?'

'Well we're starting with the Book of Genesis,' he tells me, 'so that mentions polytheistic faith.'

This answers my question in a way which does nothing to contradict the impression that has been forming over the last hour.

'Tell me,' he asks, 'is there anyone here for whom religion was unimportant when they were growing up.'

About a third of us raise our hands and he starts asking for reasons. Sadly the bell goes before he gets to me.

Finally, we end up in the Latin class. It isn't on the schedule but we were passing and we just happened to see the teacher. It's just the three of us, so we actually get to have a conversation with the guy.

'You know our boy picked this place because of the Latin?'

He didn't, but he's gratified to find this out. He talks some more, at last introducing something positive to my impression of this apparently expensive school. His room is decorated with posters relating to his subject, even with a small mosaic on board depicting the Minotaur at the centre of a labyrinth.

We finally leave with something to consider, and the rest will, I suppose, just have to look after itself.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

A Better President


Not being in possession of full citizenship, I am presently unable to vote, which isn't going to stop me from telling you who to vote for. Therefore, here are my suggestions for ten potential candidates who would probably make a better job of it than the gentleman currently in the hot seat.

El Chapo. I realise that Joaquín Guzmán Loera is not only presently legally inconvenienced, and that he's not even an American citizen, and that - if we're going to be picky - he's a bit of a live wire in certain respects; but if we really must have a president who is, first and foremost, a businessman, then it should at least be a guy who knows what the fuck he's doing. I'm not even joking here.

Spongebob Squarepants. I don't know much about Spongebob Squarepants beyond that he lives in a pineapple under the sea, but in a political climate which is more about public relations than policy, he dresses well and has a winning smile in addition to a positive attitude. Critics will doubtless point out that Spongebob is a cartoon character and is as such not real, but personally I suspect we're a long way past that making much difference.

Tim. I met Tim on the art foundation course I took back in the early eighties, and we kept in touch, although I often found our friendship frustrating bordering on pointless. We fell out a couple of years ago during a facebook argument over UKIP. He thought they were okay, and I thought they were a shower of shite. Amongst the reasons he gave for his enthusiastic support of UKIP was some nebulous guff about energy and the economy, and how he didn't want the United Kingdom to become like America. I still have no idea what qualified him to pass comment on anything being like America given that he'd barely travelled outside of Warwickshire. When I first announced that I would be marrying an American woman, he offered a sequence of clichéd observations which one might justifiably have expected of an eight-year old schoolboy living in a rural area of England in 1967, but which sounded a little weird coming from a grown man in the twenty-first century. When I pointed this out, Timothy's defence was that he knew all about Americans because he had once encountered one at the antiques centre in Stratford, and golly - what a cracking chap he'd been; and even taking all this into account, Timbo - as he occasionally refers to himself - would still make for a better president.

George Clinton. If you don't know who George Clinton is, you probably need to go back to the beginning and start your life all over again. The reason he would make a great president is that he's George Clinton, in case that isn't obvious; and no, I don't think he's related.

MC Ren. MC Ren is one of the members of NWA whose story was somewhat sidelined in the Straight Outta Compton movie, which seemed a little unfair given his having been at least as integral to the group as any of the rest. Since NWA, he released a series of increasingly terrifying solo albums which communicated his being a man of fortitude, conviction, and strong opinions. It may be deemed problematic that the strong opinions expressed on Attack on Babylon ran along the lines of let's go shoot some white people, but I expect he was just having a bad day, and you can at least see where he was coming from.

Barack Obama. Because why the fuck not? It's legal and he already knows the job. I expect he still has the suit and all that. I never claimed he was a saint, and I regard all politicians as inherently untrustworthy on some level, so we might at least have a politician who can spell his own name; plus it would be worth it just to watch all those heads exploding in the more conservative neighborhoods.

Ahuizotl. Ahuizotl ruled the Mexican city of Tenochtitlan from 1487 to 1502. Following the distinctly underwhelming reign of Tizoc, he expanded the influence of the Triple Alliance on an unprecedented scale, and also - as I've only just found out - introduced grackles to central Mexico. I've read a lot about the guy and have always found him fascinating. His rule, were he somehow rendered a practical choice by means of either cloning or time travel, would probably be unspeakably cruel but fair.

The President of Mexico. I'm not sure who it is right now, and I can't be bothered to look it up, but I'm sure he'd do a reasonable job should the existing border be nudged up towards the lower reaches of Canada as part of the Make America Mexico Again campaign; at least in the event of el Chapo being unavailable.

Mick Johnson from Brookside. As a fictitious character from an English soap which got cancelled fifteen years ago, Mick Johnson may seem an unorthodox presidential candidate, but my freedom to suggest that he'd still do a better job than the current idiot is still just about protected by the first amendment, although that may soon change. The Johnson presidency would be characterised by steroid abuse and lots of hanging out with a fat guy called Sinbad. President Johnson would be remembered for his slightly menacing catchphrase, what do you think you're playing at, Leo?

Malcolm. I don't remember his actual name or much about him, but Malcolm was a boy with curly ginger hair in the year below us at school. We called him Malcolm because his hair reminded us of Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols. For some reason he had an ongoing feud with my friend Graham. I'm not sure who started it, although it may have been because Graham called him Malcolm. On one occasion, he approached Graham whilst swinging an Adidas sports bag around at arm's length and knee height as he delivered the warning, 'You'd better watch out because I'm a bagswinger,' as though attempting to convince us that this was some newly devised martial art. Graham later wrote a heavily sarcastic song mocking Malcolm and his underwhelming show of strength, and the song was called Bagswinger. I don't know anything else about Malcolm, but I'm still fairly confident that he couldn't make quite such a shitty job of the presidency as the man with the little hands.