Friday, 28 December 2012

Stealing the Knife and Fork

Sunday 19th September 1999: wondering whether maybe I really should steal the knife and fork.

I first went to Mexico in September 1999. For most of the previous five years I had been nurturing a growing obsession with the country and its history, and had arrived at the point where I just had to go there. A person who can name every aircraft manufactured by Lockheed-Tristar since 1950 in order of suggested tire pressure, yet has never been near an airfield let alone inside a plane, invites mockery, most of which will almost certainly be justified; and so it was with myself. I had begun to form strong opinions on Tlatilco and Zacatenco phase pottery fragments, and thus through the combined power of obsession and the need to maintain some sense of self-respect was I driven to acquire a passport and a plane ticket.

I was thirty-four years old and had never been outside the country of my birth, unless you count Wales; and nor had I ever had any strong desire to visit other lands prior to the whole Mexican thing; which seems peculiar now that I'm living in Texas. In any case, in terms of world travel this was probably the equivalent of flying before you've learned how to walk. I had spent a year or so idly dipping into spoken Spanish without any conspicuous success, and here I was travelling alone to a place on the opposite side of the world where I would almost certainly be kidnapped and bummed, or so just about everyone I knew believed. I lived in South East London and had reasoned that Mexico City would probably be similar in some respects. Whilst I'd probably be useless in a fight, I had done my best to develop invisibility, or at least that level of confidence that allows one to pass through shitty neighbourhoods without drawing too much attention, or looking too much like you're trying to avoid drawing attention.

To leap ahead, Mexico City actually was like South East London in some respects - warmer, with better food, better public transport and a lot more Mexicans - but essentially similar. I didn't have any trouble, but lacking an ability to see into the future, I had no foreknowledge from which to take comfort on the evening of Sunday the nineteenth of September, my last night in England, the night before I popped my international travel cherry. It wasn't that I necessarily anticipated disaster, or anything at all for that matter. I was unable to imagine what the next two weeks would hold. My state of mind was understandably that of someone about to make a huge leap into the unknown because that was what I was going to do.

Kind words of advice and understanding came to me that evening when the phone rang and Theban Dang suggested that once on board the aircraft, I might like to steal the knife and fork.

I knew Theban through Andy, the singer and lyricist for UNIT with whom I played guitar and keyboards. Andy worked for the patients' council of a large East London hospital specialising in care of the mentally unwell, and had met Theban in this capacity.

The story had been that Theban, a young Vietnamese man in his early twenties was apprehended one evening by members of Her Majesty's constabulary, some routine enquiry which went horribly wrong when Theban's poor grasp of the English language was taken for belligerence. Being a formidable practitioner of various martial arts, he supposedly put about eight officers in hospital before they got him into the van, then one thing led to another and he was incorrectly diagnosed as mentally ill and binned up, as they say.

Well, that's the version I heard, and it's true that whilst Theban struck me as being one of a kind, he never seemed like someone who might necessarily require psychiatric care. By the time I met him, his grasp of English had improved sufficient for communication, and certainly it was better than my Vietnamese. I'd gone over to see Andy one day, and Theban was there, sitting around drinking tea and cadging cigarettes.

'Will you please explain human evolution to Theban,' Andy pleaded, apparently having run out of patience. It might seem an unusual request, but I'd been reading a bit of Dawkins here and there, and Andy enjoyed discussing that sort of thing, and had been making admirable but possibly doomed efforts to engage Theban with subjects other than fighting and gambling.

'What do you want to know?'

'People they all come from Africa, right?' Theban had an arresting turn of phrase, a haphazard grammar which worked for him by virtue of a sly smile - which may just have been his face in repose - and a friendly tone which nevertheless suggested that even if he was interested, he wasn't going to lose any sleep over whatever it was you were saying. 'Cavemen and that they all come from Africa?'

I nodded and started to dredge up what I'd read of our supposed origins - Lucy, Australopithecus and so on - without much conviction as I wasn't entirely sure this was what he was after.

Andy gave me a sympathetic look that said he had tried his best.

'That don't make sense.' Theban wandered off towards the kitchen, shaking his head. 'Where Chinky come from?'

This was the first time I'd heard an Asiatic person use the term Chinky. It was sort of horrifying and yet funny. I'd only previously heard it used by inbred rural heavy metal fans in reference to takeaway food.

'How do you mean?' I asked. 'I guess Chinese people came from Africa just like everyone else.'

Theban wasn't convinced. 'Chinky not come from Africa. Where Chinky come from innit?'

Andy shrugged. How do you argue with that?

Months later, on the eve of the first day of the rest of my life, I picked up the telephone wondering which of those people I regarded as friends had called to wish me well and tell me not to drink the water.

'Lawrence. Andy say you going to Mexico innit.'

Bewildered, and unable to mistake the speaker for anyone but Theban, I said that this was true.

'Who you fly with?'

'British Airways. The flight is in the morning at—'

'Listen. When you get on plane they give you nice meal innit. Like chicken.'

I said that I didn't know, never having flown before.

He assured me that there almost certainly would be a meal, then went into detail, describing how I might steal cutlery by slipping it into my pocket while the stewardess wasn't looking. This done, I could then ask for more cutlery, innocently adopting the position of having been overlooked when the meals were handed out.

I tried to digest this information, falling silent for a moment.

Theban took my silence for a lack of confidence in his plan. 'They not find out. It easy innit,' he reassured me. 'Put knife and fork in pocket. Say miss I got no knife and fork and you get another innit. They give you it. They know nothing. Then you get off plane when you land and you got knife and fork. They not find out.'

I could tell he regarded this plan as foolproof.

'I er,' - I didn't even know where to begin. 'Why would I want to steal their knife and fork?'

'No,' he insisted. 'You wait for waitress to go away, then you put them in pocket innit. They not find out.'

The conversation carried on like this for another twenty minutes. Theban wasn't taking no for an answer, and God I wish I'd been able to record it. I explained that I already owned several knives and forks of my own, but he didn't really understand why I wouldn't want more. Eventually, keen to get Theban off the phone so that I might sit down and recover, I said I'd consider stealing the British Airways knife and fork if the opportunity arose.

The next evening I was in Mexico City, an entire new world opened up before me. My first flight was amazing, and I'd spent the whole eight hours with my face pressed up against the porthole like an excitable dog on a long car journey, and with all the euphoria, I somehow forgot to steal the knife and fork. Perhaps ultimately it doesn't really matter whether I stole the British Airways knife and fork so much as that I had considered the endless possibilities, even if  only just for a second.

Friday, 21 December 2012

So This is Christmas...

So observed the world's most poetic man in the opening bar of his 1972 hit 'Merry Christmas (War is Over)'; 'and what have you done?' he continued, pushing his spectacles a little further up the bridge of his nose to regard us with saintly but nonetheless tested patience, doing that thing done by people with scarves and clipboards when they suggest you think it's okay for South African kittens to make the ivory for your bagpipes in some Korean factory on a wage of one pence a year? You think that's good, do you? You're okay with that sort of thing, are you? You probably think if anything those ivory producing South African kittens are overpaid and should work harder, don't you?

This was how it always sounded to me when the song came on the radio where I used to work; and from the end of September onwards it would be played on Capitol Gold roughly every twenty minutes, alternating with 'I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day,' - which I really didn't - 'Wonderful Christmastime', - which as a point of interest was something I simply wasn't having - and Mud's informative 'It'll be Christmas this Christmas'. Three months of this would have been bad enough in itself even without an increasingly heavy workload running up to the reputedly happiest day of year. Thus, living in England as I was, for roughly two decades the true meaning of my Christmas was six weeks of back breaking toil in the freezing cold, leaving for work and returning home in the dark, and with John Lennon repeatedly sneering at me to a daily schedule. It was cheerless and I often found it difficult to get into the spirit of things, if you can imagine that.

Ironically, or at least ironically in the sense understood by Alanis Morissette, my relationship with Lennon began in earnest one mid-seventies Christmas when Santa brought me the Magical Mystery Tour album by Beatles band. I seem to recall the songs of Beatles band being de rigueur incidental music for all sorts of television documentaries prior to about 1976, and have a vague memory of becoming fixated on that weird plinky-plonky piano around that time. As a rustic youth I was fascinated by the album, virtually playing it into a flexidisc, and spending hours copying out drawings from the booklet. Then I blew a big wad of pocket money on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack because the film had been on the box; and then at some point in 1977, embarked upon my first ever record buying spree, two albums in one go - Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; and there it sort of ended.

I wasn't really interested in music by anyone other than Beatles band, or at least nothing I heard on Radio One or Top of the Pops to the point of wanting to buy it; and I'd listen to those four albums over and over, just as my friend Sean and I had once listened to his Wombles album over and over; and I'd look at the vinyl records that might be ordered from my mother's Marshall Ward catalogue and wonder what was meant by Plastic Ono Band, how it figured in Beatles band continuity, and whether I would ever get to hear its undoubtedly amazing music.

Then in 1979 Graham Pierce lent me the first Devo album, and once the initial shock had passed, I realised that everything I'd ever known was false, and that there was more to life than Beatles band.

Many years later, I purchased other Beatles band albums, mainly because that was the only vinyl left in the short lived East Dulwich record store and I was still holding out against CDs; and although Beatles Band for Sale and Help! sounded surprisingly fresh, I'd peaked too soon with their music and had already heard far too much, and regardless of doubtless sterling quality, the magic had all been squeezed out long before. Beatles band being the only group I really could have been said to discover before I turned ten, their appeal was not far removed from that of the Wombles, the Banana Splits, or any other neatly modular gang of primary coloured personalities. They each had their own distinct powers and costumes. You could collect the set, not like with other groups, those Rolling Stones or whoever - Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts, but after that who knows? The French guy who married a four-year old girl, the one who looked like Rod Stewart, the window cleaner from those Confessions films...

My mother was never a fan. She grew up in Liverpool during the Merseybeat era, and her best friend at school ended up marrying Paul McCartney's brother. Beatles band were just four teenagers she saw knocking around from time to time. She favoured the classics, maybe some of that Bob Dylan in a pinch. My dad didn't grow up in Liverpool, but in any case always preferred the Rolling Stones, regarding Beatles band in much the same way as everyone regarded Johnny Hates Jazz during the eighties - excepting possibly the  members and immediate family of Johnny Hates Jazz.

By 1980 I was in my fourth year of high school and had got into the habit of listening to the music I still listen to now. I'd heard enough Beatles band to cheerfully embrace the truisms that for all their fine qualities, there was a lot of other stuff I liked more, and Ringo Starr was ironically the only one of them to have enjoyed a solo career involving tunes. The return of John Lennon with Double Fantasy barely registered on my radar, although I recall taping a lengthy interview from the wireless, John and Yoko telling us why they had come out of retirement, dispensing their views upon punk rock and all that other stuff I was listening to, reflections upon shifts in the musical landscape since they last showed heads above the parapet.

The punk rockers, John told us, were nothing new, really just like Beatles band had been back when they used to play Hamburg. 'We could do that if we wanted to,' he said. 'We would find it easy.'

'We could be freakier than the freaks,' Yoko added, and at that point I realised that neither of them were likely to say anything of interest or relevance ever again.

Some months later, John Lennon was shot by Mark Chapman. It was sad, a bit of a moment, but more than anything it only struck me as strange. People died all the time, and here it was happening to someone whose records I had enjoyed. At school, Jason Roberts - the token self-proclaimed free spirit, a kid who probably knew who Jeff Beck was and had even seen some of his films - wore the haunted face later popularised by John Kerry and Eeyored on about how nothing mattered any more. He's dead, Jason told us in a way which made it clear there was only one person to whom he could have been referring. He may also have addressed me as man during this lament.

I exchanged a glance with Graham who had introduced me to Devo and we both shrugged.

As time has passed I have grown increasingly mystified by the posthumous Deification of the Liverpudlian who died for our sins. He was an adequate songwriter and musician, author of the occasional amusing observation, but probably not a great person. I'm sure all those Jewish fag remarks levelled at Brian Epstein were hilarious if you were there and joining in with the jolly thrust of homophobic japery, and none of us reading this were married to Cynthia so who knows - maybe we too would have found it necessary to punch her in the face from time to time?

Can any of us really say how others should run their lives?

John Lennon at least had a few ideas in this direction, asking that we might consider what it would be like to live without possessions, religion, punching women in the face and so on. I can imagine at least two of those things, but I don't think this really justifies Lennon having become a posthumous human motivational poster. He wrote some reasonable songs, and some which were pretty poor, but ultimately he was a musician, and excepting Henry Rollins and members of Devo, musicians are, for the most part, morons. If you're unsure as to the correct way to sit upon a toilet, don't bother asking a musician. That's not what they're for. Their job is to sing their little songs and then piss off so that grown-ups can talk. Pontification delivered by a musician will, nine times out of ten, comprise anecdotes about sexual intercourse, flying saucers, Atlantis, recreational drugs, drivel that will only ever be of interest to other musicians, and about as much use to anyone else as the Richard Dawkins heavy metal album.

John Lennon was a musician in every sense of the word, neither saint, nor a great orator, timeless wit, nor revolutionary; so can we please stop banging on about Beatles band now?

Enough is enough.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Letter from the School

Firstly please accept my apologies for this being the fourth email communication it has been my unfortunate duty to relay to you this morning, but at least allow me to sweeten the bitter pill which it is my sad duty to deliver by first conveying the good news that, following a brief exchange with Miss Weisenheimer, your son, little Fresno, did indeed attend to his undone shoelace and gave us a commitment of allowing for no repetition of this shameful incident during school hours. Therefore please disregard the contents of my previous missive. Miss Weisenheimer has already arranged for the cancellation of our suggested additional appointment with Fresno's psychoanalyst, Miss Argue, given that your son's shoelace issue is hopefully resolved at this time.

However, Miss Weisenheimer informs me that at approximately 10.35AM, whilst taking the art lesson and responding to little Winchester Tagnut III's question about whether brown was a better color than gray, she happened to glance across at your son. It was at this point she noticed how, rather than working on his watercolor rendition of a clown driving a truck, he appeared to be staring from the window, his studies quite forgotten.

Mr. Burton, I must tell you that it is Miss Weisenheimer's testimony that little Fresno was in fact looking at a bird. Miss Weisenheimer, a respected teacher at San Antonio Academy for Prestigious Children of two years experience then fulfilled her commitment to respond to the question posed by Winchester Tagnut III and, this task duly dispensed, resumed her examination of Fresno who, she reports, had by this time resumed his work and was no longer looking at the bird. Miss Weisenheimer estimates that the boy's attention was focussed upon matters other than his school work for approximately fourteen seconds. When questioned regarding his conduct, Fresno appeared to have no knowledge of this shameful interlude of impromptu ornithology, and Miss Weisenheimer was unable to determine whether he was deliberately lying in order to conceal his shame, or had perhaps suffered a genuine lapse of memory - itself a troubling indication of some hitherto unexpected psychological issue.

I have therefore taken the initiative and made a fresh appointment for Fresno to discuss his future at San Antonio Academy for Prestigious Children with Miss Argue and will be recommending a course of anticatepinerohypnatines in the hope that this may reduce his tendency to look at birds every so often, providing of course that it doesn't clash with any of his other courses of medication.