Friday, 27 December 2013

The Christmas Concert

According to Ankita Pathak, the ten things most hated by children are parental divorce, homework, vegetables, bed time, hair cuts, vaccination, exams, being picked last for a team, medicine and, in certain cases, their siblings. Missing from this list is Thomas Edison whom my ten-year old stepson regards as much worse than at least a few of the things traditionally despised by children. Ask him about Thomas Edison and he throws his head back, his nostrils flare and he speaks with greater force than is strictly necessary: 'I hate that guy!'

The children in his class have each adopted an historical character upon which to make a presentation. Junior, having picked Nikola Tesla, has discovered that Thomas Edison killed an elephant by electrocution as part of a campaign to discredit the selfsame Tesla. Junior probably likes elephants at least as much as he likes the Serbian American inventor and father of alternating current, and he seems to have taken this unpleasant historical detail personally.

It's the Thursday morning before Christmas. We arrive at the school and head for the classroom wherein Junior is about to channel Nikola Tesla before an audience of his peers. As we shuffle into a line at the back of the class - all four of us - the performance has already begun. One of the other kids wears a tassled jacket and a coonskin cap and is telling us about Davy Crockett. We later discover there to be two Davy Crocketts amongst Junior's classmates, but if it seems an obvious choice, it isn't entirely arbitrary given the significant role of the frontiersman in the history of both the Alamo and San Antonio. The current Davy Crockett is a girl, one of Junior's best friends, and daughter to the Pace family who went into business with the Pace Foods company back in the 1940s. This information is astonishing to me as I've been eating Pace salsa for at least the last decade. It was the only decent salsa I could get my hands on in England when I couldn't be bothered to make my own, and now here I am in Texas watching the fruits of a private education paid for in some small way by my love of Mexican food.

There are now six parents in attendance, all of us lined up at the back of the class, conspicuously outsized and awkward in a room full of small excitable, children. Davy Crockett finishes her address and scurries to where her parents are stood alongside us, and Junior takes the floor. He's been styled by his grandmother, herself a teacher at a school on the southside, and makes for a very convincing Tesla with his suit and toy cat, hair parted just so and a glued-on moustache which seems unusually natural and gives him an uncanny authority, like the Ron Swanson character from NBC's television comedy Parks & Recreation. He speaks well and clearly, introducing himself to his classmates as Nikola Tesla before explaining the details of his fame. I am surprised and impressed that a ten-year old boy is capable of such a performance. He shows no stage fright and delivers his testimony without hesitation. His audience is transfixed.

My wife and I share a raised eyebrow as our boy fancifully describes Tesla inventing a death ray, now supposedly held by the FBI at some secure facility. He leans into the words, emphasising death ray with portentous conviction just to let us know we're through the looking glass now, people. Clearly he's been handed the wrong end of the stick on this particular detail, but the rest of the presentation has been of such moment that it would seem churlish to split one specific hair; and besides, he's moved on, already describing that which Tesla foresaw in his dreams. One of these supposed predictions is understood by Junior to be a bird with laser eyes, which he describes with the same dramatic emphasis as the death ray.

'I want a bird with laser eyes,' one of the children calls out, excited.

'I am a bird with laser eyes!' boasts one of the others, rising wide-eyed from his seat as though about to swoop down on someone.

The presentation ends, and we file out of the room, my wife and I, plus Junior's father and Wendy whom one might regard as stepmother, roughly speaking. Our boy effectively has four parents, lucky kid. Maybe it is this arguably unorthodox arrangement which informs his occasionally peculiar character, choosing an obscure inventor over Davy Crockett, Babe Ruth, or some other more conventionally famous name for his presentation. In any case, for once we are all proud of him at the same time.

The private schooling is paid for by his father's side of the family. It wasn't necessarily our first choice, but we have no objection as we couldn't afford the fees, and it's a good school in so much as Junior is not only learning stuff, but has made friends and is happy. This is not something we take for granted as he spent the previous three years at a different school and didn't get on so well. It was similarly a private school - or public school as is the seemingly contradictory American term. It's in San Antonio and deems itself an academy, and I'll withhold further identification because it is run by and caters to people whose fortunes were not made by playing nice. For some reason, its teaching staff were not required to have any formal teaching qualification, and both my wife and myself feel strongly that this showed in their treatment of our boy. Whilst Junior may be quite fairly described as a handful, his teachers were unable to cope with him, or apparently to teach him anything despite this being their job. My wife would sometimes receive three or four emails a day informing us that Junior had just spent five minutes gazing out of the window whilst failing to do his work, or had spent an unacceptable ten minutes on a toilet break. Somehow these were crimes in which academy staff were ill-equipped to intervene. We tried to imagine what they actually did with their time besides sending out emails, and we wondered what would happen in the event of a pupil doing something that would genuinely warrant a letter to the parents. Teaching, we concluded, was most probably conducted by a sort of psychic osmosis, with pupils merely held in the presence of educational materials in the hope that the information would transfer itself to their thoughts.

Junior presented a solitary figure at the school, and with hindsight we have come to realise how he must have been fairly unhappy there, at least in comparison to how obviously happy he is now. Eventually a meeting was called regarding what was to be done about our boy. This was conducted in the presence of five members of staff and a child psychologist whose most profound insight seemed to be that each and every event of a child's upbringing must be considered a source of potential trauma. The group sat frowning as they focused their expertise and solemn authority not upon a child who had stabbed anyone, robbed a bank, or set buildings on fire, but a small boy whose grades could have been better and who was bored in class, a small boy who occasionally sat looking out of the window. The absurdity of the situation, that it could even be regarded as a situation, seemed to me typical of a certain stratum of American society - specifically the stratum with too much money - which imagines its every word to constitute an announcement issued forth whilst stood between Ionic columns, with no issue so trivial that it cannot be taken far too seriously. We have the same deal in England, but in England it's more widely acknowledged as bullshit.

I myself was not invited to this meeting, and my dealings with the school were limited to headachey Christmas concerts in which we would file into the gymnasium and find ourselves subjected to a simpering speech from a principal who no doubt imagined himself a great orator, but generally oozed all the sincerity of a television evangelist. This would be followed by songs hampered with hokey linking material that parents probably enjoyed more than the children. Four of the boys would stand at the front delivering lines that would have been rejected from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, effortfully seguing into this sort of thing:

'You know, I've always wanted to sail the seas!'

'Well, maybe you can. Maybe we could all sail the seas... in a Yellow Submarine!,' and hopefully all you readers are blessed with imagination of sufficient magnitude to allow for an extrapolation of what came next.

This would go on for an hour or so to the delight of the most over-moneyed facelifty group of parents with whom I have ever shared a gymnasium. These were people labouring under an illusory impression of themselves as an elite, an elite inevitably defined by the size of its collective bank balance - differentiated from the upper echelons of the English class system by the way in which they seem to regard amoral, carnivorous greed as a sign of character - and by their utter vulgarity, whilst I'm sneering. These parents in turn explained much that had initially confused me about the school which was not so much a seat of education as a place one sends a child so you can tell everyone you have a boy at the academy, which apparently impresses a certain kind of person.

The new school is less expensive and there are girls - which seems an altogether healthier situation to me. The teachers are required to have teaching qualifications, and seem entirely capable of doing their jobs to a high standard.

Having watched Junior's performance, we head to the chapel for the Christmas concert - a modern church building, but one that's been done well, observing tradition without sliding into kitsch. Each class performs a couple of traditional carols, and clearly they are enjoying themselves. There is no Yellow Submarine, no corny routines and no obsequious speech from a used-car salesmen masquerading as a school principal, no empty catechizing of an unintentionally ironic school motto about being the best you can be. Of course it's not perfect, and I wonder why the music is pre-recorded, lifted from a CD complete with incongruous drum breaks, which seems strange when we're sat within ten feet of an impressive church organ with no-one at the keyboard; but this is a minor detail which falls to insignificance because the concert is genuinely a pleasure to witness, and very different to the chore of its academy equivalent this time last year. Junior is happy here, and he has friends, and the curriculum is sufficiently broad to allow for all those quirks that emerge when a kid develops a working personality, even quirks like a pathological hatred of Thomas Edison.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Ten Thousand Miles

October 2009

In October 2009 I moved from London to my mother's house in Coventry having packed in the job I'd been doing for twenty-one years. I had big plans, making a huge leap in the dark, which began with my selling off a ton of the stuff I'd accumulated over the years - books, comics, and fanzines - all off in the direction of eBay in order to raise funds for the overseas shipping of all the crap that I wasn't selling. I had worked as a postman for Royal Mail since the late 1980s. It had been a physically demanding job, and one that I assumed had kept me roughly in shape - physically if not mentally - so I was conscious of the possibility of becoming somewhat rounder in my new sedentary existence. My Dad had recently taken up cycling, and now had a couple of bikes that he maintained having always been mechanically minded, so he lent me one of these.

I had grown up riding a bike, and can still remember my first - a metallic blue Moulton Midi complete with training wheels. I recall a few weeks of getting used to it, riding up and down outside the cow shed at the farm on which we lived, and then the training wheels came off. I got good use out of it over the next few years, cycling the miles to the villages of Ilmington or Quinton to see my friends Matt and Sean. I was accustomed to autonomous mobility at an early age, and I have a feeling it may have been something of a family tradition. I have a photograph of my grandfather taken during what I presume must have been the 1930s sat upon his bike, a drop-handled racer of a kind I didn't even realise had been made back then; and my father had always had his motorbikes.

Never having learned to drive, I've ridden a bike for most of my life, and during the years I worked for Royal Mail, it was a postman's bike which came with the job - although it had to be specifically requested - complete with a tough reinforced plastic basket on the front. For many years I had one of these bikes, effectively regarding it as the company car and using it to get around London at weekends, to do my shopping and so on. One of those bikes possibly saved my life at one point.

To briefly digress, I was about to begin delivery and had leaned the bicycle against the wall of 565, Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, a house famously painted by the Impressionist Camille Pissaro. I was stood facing the wall, going through the contents of the basket when a car that had stalled in the middle of the road rolled silently down the hill at my back and onto the pavement. The impact crushed the basket of the bike, which luckily prevented the vehicle from similarly smashing my pelvis like a pretzel. I was injured, but not permanently so, and nothing was broken.

So back in Coventry, my dad lent me a bicycle which he had himself bought cheap from a friend also named Lawrence. He'd cleaned it up and added an odometer by which I would be able to measure my speed and distance travelled. I made a fairly arbitrary decision to try for about fifteen miles a day, this being a nice round number and a mileage which wouldn't use up more than two hours at a time or leave me too exhausted. As my mother lived in Earlsdon on the edge of Coventry, this meant there was a lot of scope for exploring country lanes, and I had soon worked out a regular circuit through Cryfield Grange, Kenilworth and the village of Leek Wooton, then back down the old Coventry Road past the village of Stoneleigh. I missed days when the weather was either too wet, icy, or miserable, and I deviated from the established pattern with some frequency, but this remained my default circuit whilst I was living in Coventry; and by the time I moved out and came to live in Texas, I had cycled a total of 3,180 miles.

Settling down to life in San Antonio, I bought a bike at Walmart, fitted an odometer, and carried on, establishing a roughly daily route along the Tobin Trail, following Salado Creek; and - to get to the point - on Friday the 22nd of November, 2013 as I rode to the end of Morningstar Boardwalk, my most recent odometer registered 3,138 miles, meaning I had logged an aggregate total of 10,000 miles since I first began keeping count back in England in October, 2009.

So, over the course of the last four years I have effectively cycled a distance equivalent of London to San Antonio and back, or about three thousand miles short of the circumference of the Earth. As a number, 10,000 seems significant, sufficiently rotund to justify a sense of achievement, a degree of boasting, and a reflective eye cast back along the route. Months prior to October, 2009 I packed in a job I had begun to dislike intensely, disentangled myself from a relationship which was quite probably killing me, and stepped off the metaphorical train ride to what had for a long time felt like a crushing and inescapable future, the perfunctory existence Philip K. Dick described in A Scanner Darkly:

That life had been one without excitement, with no adventure. It had been too safe. All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes, and nothing new could ever be expected.

I took a blind leap and it paid off, because since October, 2009, I met my wife, moved to another country, got married, had a novel published, and actually began to truly enjoy life. My world has improved beyond recognition in the past four years.

To flail wildly off in a different direction, I have never liked self-help literature or the kind of person who relies too heavily on courses run along such lines. On occasion such things may prove helpful, but for the most part - at least in my experience - they almost invariably serve as substitute for action, a means of fooling oneself that steps are being taken, because the actual steps that genuinely need to be taken may lead somewhere scary, far outside the established comfort zone. That which one must do in order to go forward should usually be obvious to anyone with a functioning brain, even if that which one must do seems daunting. The cliché would have it that every journey begins with a single step, and this is what I have found to be true, excepting that my own first step was a turn of the pedals.

So yes - 10,000 miles.

I did that.

November 2013

Friday, 13 December 2013

Thank You, Santa!

It was the run-up to Christmas 1988, a weekday afternoon at the Pentagon shopping centre in not-even-remotely-sunny Chatham, Kent. I didn't want to be there. It was cold and had begun to get dark. I had been working for Royal Mail since summer, and my labours had impressed upon me that afternoons were precious, something to be cherished and not to be wasted on people I didn't really like. I didn't really like Aiden Bibby, but thus far I hadn't had much say in the matter.

Aiden Bibby was a friend of Glenn, at least in so much as he could be considered a medical condition that Glenn had unwittingly passed on to me. I think Glenn had contracted him either from living in the same house, or maybe from knowing the guy in a social context back in the days before he'd become a complete pain in the arse. I met Aiden Bibby whilst visiting Glenn and his wife Jayne when they lived on Meadowbank Road; and because I hadn't actually said leave me alone, you hairy fool out loud, he'd assimilated me into his platonic spider web of association. At the time I had similarly long hair, so he probably saw me as a potentially kindred spirit, somehow failing to notice my general hatred of marijuana, narcotics, psychedelic music, hippies, and the second half of the 1960s.

I had lived in Glencoe Road, Chatham for about a year, a year characterised as my first out and alone in the big wide world. I had finished my degree and was ready to become famous, although that didn't seem to be happening. I was socially awkward and, I suppose, a bit stupid and therefore disposed towards expecting the best of people. This was more than enough for Aiden Bibby, and soon he was regularly dropping around for tea, intruding upon afternoons when I would otherwise either have rested or drawn cartoons that no-one would read.

Knock knock knock.

I'd peer out of the window and there would be his stupid face grinning up at me, a huge pink egg that had been covered in glue and rolled around the floor of a barber's shop, little round John Lennon glasses to complete the effect. He would enter my one room bedsit, hulking and awkward in denim waistcoat, crappy trainers and tattered flares, still grinning for no good reason and always looking like he was trying to find a way to say sorry. He would sit and talk and I would listen, and most of the time it felt like a Cheech and Chong record without the jokes. He told me about a girl he'd seen waiting at the bus stop from time to time. He was fairly certain she had smiled at him and therefore believed he was in with a chance, but wasn't sure how best to proceed. I was hardly qualified to give advice, although even I could tell that his was a lost cause; and of course I said nothing.

One evening he ended up staying the night because he was scared of going back to his flat. He'd had an argument with one of the other tenants and it seemed the other guy had become violent and threatening. I didn't have the full story, but I could easily see how that might have happened.

'I'll just read,' Aiden Bibby told me, still grinning and settling into my armchair, rolling himself a cigarette and reaching for a stack of comics.

'Okay,' I said, wondering how this oaf had become my problem. I pulled the covers over and pretended I was sleeping in a tent so as to put some notional distance between myself and my unwanted guest. I lasted about two hours of him turning pages and chuckling at the antics of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, but it became too irritating and I needed my sleep.

'Do you think you could go home?' It was now three in the morning.

'I'll be quiet.' His face fell. Somehow he hadn't anticipated this.

'I can't sleep with some bloke sat reading comics in my room and I have to be up for work in two hours.' Resentment had built to the strength required for honesty, and my words had become an irresistible force. Incredibly he left, shuffling off into the night, back to the house shared with a person to whom he owed money, or whose refrigerated goods he had eaten, or whatever it was that had inspired the argument.

I had come to understand that Aiden Bibby was a friend in need, a human sponge absorbing energy from those around and forever requiring validation. I have a feeling his father may have beaten him, which is terrible if true, but still wasn't enough to warrant my unconditional sympathy. My heart would sink as I saw him approach, having spotted me from across the street. I would find myself making a mental calculation of how many hours I would have to sacrifice before I could reasonably expect to get away. His eyebrows would wiggle like those of a cartoon character, the kind of facial greeting that also serves for hey man, have you got any - you know...

I recall one occasion when I'd been sat in Gruts, the café frequented by at least a few of my friends and acquaintances, people in various bands and so on.

'Hey man.'

Aiden Bibby was suddenly there, sitting himself at my table, as incongruous as Spiderman turning up in a Charlie Brown comic strip. I remembered that I had excused myself from an afternoon drink in some pub by telling him that I planned to meet other friends in Gruts. I was playing chess, probably either against Prez, Tim Webster, or Alun Jones - one of the usual gang. These people didn't know Aiden Bibby, and I envied them. There was no use pretending that I didn't know him as they had heard him greet me, then watched as he sat at my table and proceeded to roll himself a ciggie, looking all around and grinning.

'This is a pretty cool place.'

Gerald, the proprietor approached our table. 'Yes, mate?'

Aiden Bibby waved a hand in the air. 'Nothing for me. I'm just here to—' he made a vague gesture but could not complete the sentence, suddenly aware he had presumed too much on the hospitality of our host. My head sank into my hands.

'Out!' Gerald pointed to the exit as though addressing a dog he had discovered going through the bins at the back.

Aiden Bibby stood up, protesting, but his defence was vague.

Gerald now held open the door. 'This is a café not a homeless shelter. If you're not buying you can piss off.'

I wanted to laugh because this was the tone of the sort of thing I would have liked to say to Aiden Bibby, but I lacked courage and humour was not the dominant element of this situation. I stood.

'You're all right. You don't have to go.' Gerald seemed a little surprised, even concerned, which came as a relief. He understood that Aiden Bibby was a medical condition, something from which I was suffering, not someone I had deliberately introduced to his café.

I paid my tab and went, offering some vague excuse, then followed after Aiden Bibby. Somehow the relief of his expulsion was not the comfort it should have been. I had no respect for this man and yet still I worried over what he might think of me. I had a paradoxical urge to show some solidarity with this underdog whilst knowing his critics invariably had a point. I could not bare the thought that he might imagine me a traitor, still sat in Gruts laughing and raising a mug of tea to toast the exile of the hated hairy one, which was of course a fairly plausible scenario.

I caught up.

He was angry, ranting to himself.

He had not understood why a man who ran a café would not  happily allow complete strangers to just hang out without buying a cup of tea. He lived in a world of joints passed around the front rooms of complete strangers, listening to Gong or Pink Floyd, everyone united in mutual appreciation of a plant. He whined about the unfairness and the way he had been spoken to, clearly without realising that my sympathies lay entirely with Gerald.

Why do I know this arsehole?, I wondered to myself for the millionth time. Yet my friendship, such as it was, was nevertheless appreciated, I suppose by virtue of my being one of the few people lacking the fortitude to just tell him to piss off. This appreciation was to be expressed in a Christmas gift.

I had been on my way to somewhere else, and Aiden Bibby had seen me before I saw him, and now for some reason we were in the Pentagon shopping centre. I stood outside WHSmiths, waiting for Aiden Bibby to emerge, resenting the delay, and mystified by the fact that I had not simply taken the opportunity to be on my way.

'Do you like the Monkees?' He grinned, as he always did, at last emerging and bustling me away from the door then walking quickly towards the High Street exit.

It was a strange question, completely divorced of context; he may as well have asked whether I liked the Andromeda galaxy for all the sense it made. I didn't actively dislike the Monkees as such, but in the same way that I don't have anything bad to say about Arnulf of Carinthia, King of East Francia from 887 to 899.

'They're okay I suppose.'

'Happy Christmas!' The hand that had been secreted within his jacket emerged to present me with a pre-recorded cassette of The Best of the Monkees.

'Did you just nick that?'

He nodded, and told me of other goods he had managed to pilfer from the store, presents for Glenn and Jayne and others. He was doing his Christmas shoplifting.

You shouldn't have, I would have said had I thought to do so.

I listened to the cassette a few times. It was okay, providing you like the Monkees.

The Christmas after that I had moved to the city of Coventry, a long way from Aiden Bibby, whom I neither saw nor heard from ever again, and that was a better present. I still have the cassette somewhere because I felt sorry for it as I sometimes do for inanimate objects - a mediocre product recorded on a disposable medium, the stolen gift of a loser given to someone who didn't want it; and every time I hear Last Train to Clarksville or Pleasant Valley Sunday, at least now I smile and feel glad, reminded that I am no longer living in Chatham in the late eighties, hounded by a friendless man.

Friday, 6 December 2013

When a Child Is Born

It had been a strange morning. I'd been cycling in the rain and I was dripping wet as I trudged around HEB, the local supermarket named for the initials of its founder Howard Edward Butt, presumably as a pre-emptive measure against the perpetual tittering of school-age children. I had filled my basket with sausages, broccoli, potatoes, and a bottle of Big Blue when I passed a display of Halloween inspired Hot Wheels toy cars. It was the Frankenstein themed vehicle which caught my eye, or specifically the image of the monster glowering on the display card, his square head and bolted neck clearly based on Karloff's depiction from the classic Universal Studios movie. The same likeness was reproduced upon the roof of the tiny die-cast vehicle. Why would Frankenstein's monster require a car, I wondered, and in particular a souped-up hot rod, the sort of thing that would invite all manner of undesired attention in Ingolstadt even without the name Frankenstein painted across each door in a wilfully terrifying font? Given the events of Mary Shelley's novel, a speedboat would have been more practical, surely?

I stood there dripping, fascinated by the display, my thoughts rolling on to wonder under what circumstances would the monster have learned to drive. It seems unlikely that he could have been instructed by his creator given how the two of them were never really on the best of terms, so what sort of maniac would have undertaken to provide the hapless creature with driving lessons?

I then noticed that other monsters cinematically popularised by Universal Studios had also been granted their own custom Hot Wheels vehicles - the Mummy, the Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, and even the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which really is madness when you think it through. The Wolfman on the other hand apparently prefers a van, which I suppose at least gives him somewhere to sleep off those rampages, providing no angry villagers put two and two together regarding recent grisly eviscerations and a parked Volkswagen T1 panel van with Wolfman written on the side across a custom painting of a distinctly lycanthropic character lit by moonlight just in case you're the sort of angry villager whose anger is further exacerbated by never having learned to read.

This gave me a lot to think about.

Minutes later I am waiting at the checkout staring at the magazines on display - National Enquirer, Us Weekly, People, all that sort of thing. Miley Cyrus is on the cover of In Touch. Miley finally admits: I need help!, the headline proclaims. Well, that's good, I think to myself. Miley Cyrus - apparently now just Miley, refined to a Christian name like Madonna or Prince or Jethro - recently caused a commotion by recording a song called Do Me Up the Wrong 'Un, Big Guy which she promoted by controversially and yet lucratively having it off on stage in rubber knickers during some television show. Apparently you could see it going in and everything. This upset a lot of people who had preferred Miley when she was a child star singing songs about puppies and stuff. One of the people she upset was Sinead O'Connor who recorded a highly critical song entitled Shame On You, Miley Cyrus, the crux of which was that Miley should stop showing off and seek psychiatric help; which she is now apparently doing, so that's good.

Having paid for my groceries, I hoist my pack onto my back and cycle off towards the nearest Church's Fried Chicken outlet. I like Church's. They serve proper fried chicken like you find in south-east London, not too fancy and with a slight suggestion of engine oil. Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen is probably better, but their fried chicken is always served in ways that seem too elaborate for my tastes. People whom I dislike might conceivably stoop to eating at Popeye's and declare the fare not too inedible, all things considered, but they probably wouldn't be seen dead in Church's, which is another thing in its favour.

I follow a group of five US Marines into Church's - all in the blue khaki and presumably based at Fort Sam seeing as it's just over the other side of Rittiman Road. They all seem incredibly young, and one of their number is an attractive Mexican woman, another detail that still surprises me even though I've been living in San Antonio for two years. I'm not accustomed to the notion of women serving in the armed forces, and so many of them too. I have no objection to their doing so, it just catches me out is all. I guess it has to be a good thing.

The Marines - if they are Marines - all order their chicken, which takes some time as Church's is not so much a fast-food establishment as a medium-to-slow-paced food establishment; or at least this is true of my local branch. There is some confusion when one young guy notes that he ordered the spicy sandwich and has instead received the original sandwich, which is not spicy. Somehow this isn't surprising.

I turn to watch the television which has been left on the window ledge opposite the counter. There are three seated customers, all eating chicken, and we are all watching the television. It is midday and the programme is one of those courtroom shows. From what I can work out, a young woman has lent her boyfriend twenty dollars which he has failed to return, and so they are settling the matter on national television. I realise I must almost certainly have the details of the misdemeanor wrong, but then I'm no longer a regular television viewer and have no real idea of how far the medium has sunk since I stopped watching. The ident in the corner of the screen tells me that the show is Judge Mathis. The judge himself is a black man, but I'm too far away to determine whether or not he is Johnny Mathis who, having presumably thrown in the towel with his pop career through having never quite managed to duplicate the success of When a Child Is Born, now dispenses televisual justice, settling disputes between people with tattoos. It probably isn't Johnny Mathis I know, but if it were, it wouldn't surprise me. It's been that kind of day.

There are a million stories in the big city, but unfortunately this wasn't one of them.

Friday, 29 November 2013


A few months into our relationship, some time around the end of 2005, my small, pushy girlfriend and I took a coach to the city of Oxford. A few months earlier she had informed me with characteristic charm that I needed to organise day trips, to think of places we could visit in order to stave off her becoming thoroughly bored of our association. This was to be my role in the relationship, it seemed. I was the entertainments committee. I was never quite able to pin down the nature of her contribution, but never mind.

I'd been planning to go and see my grandparents for a while. They lived in Clanfield, a village not too far from Oxford; and as the city had come up in conversation as being somewhere we both liked, it was an obvious choice. I found us a bed and breakfast because I was entertainments manager. I got hold of a National Express timetable, and phoned my grandparents to tell them we would be dropping in to see them.

We stepped off the coach in Oxford and Marian began to describe a previous visit when, travelling with a group of horticultural types, she had been to Waterperry Gardens and Garden Centre. This, she told me, was very near Oxford - although she was unable to remember quite where - and it was amazing. We would have to go. I listened as she gave further account of the wonders of Waterperry as I hauled her luggage along to the bed and breakfast. We checked in at around midday, by which time Marian had decided we must visit Waterperry that very afternoon. To do otherwise would be madness, plain and simple.

'But what about your grandparents,' she asked as though this spontaneous change of plan had been my idea. 'Do you think we'll get time to visit them as well?'

This was a familiar trap. Even the world's most optimistic moron would have had no trouble assessing the practicality of these options - two destinations in a single afternoon with Marian in tow, means of travel presently undetermined, and the location of one of these places as yet unknown. I offered a hopeful sounding possibly, knowing it was unlikely in the extreme. Marian did not respond well to no, or indeed to any conclusion which suggested she might have to tailor her ambitions in accordance with reality. Had I said no, I might still be there now, still listening to a speech about my negative attitude and the depths to which I would stoop in order to prevent Marian achieving her numerous goals.

It wasn't worth it.

We strolled back into the centre of Oxford as I pored over guidebooks and leaflets obtained from the tourist information centre, attempting to work out a route to this place so that Marian wouldn't have to do everything for herself as usual. Following what was apparently the quickest route, we took a bus four or five miles out of the city to the village of Wheatley, then walked across two miles of open field in the freezing cold to a large privately owned garden filled with plants that were either brown or dead due to it being November. It was dark by the time we made it back across the fields to Wheatley to wait an hour in the rain for the bus back into Oxford.

My phone rang. It was Madge, the woman who had married my widower grandfather back in 1977 and whom I had come to regard as my grandmother, roughly speaking. She'd been expecting us and wanted to know where we were, particularly as it was now dark. I explained that we were running a little late as though it was one of those things over which none of us had any control.

We eventually made it back into Oxford and went for something to eat in a restaurant. We were freezing cold, having stood in the wind and rain at a bus-stop for an hour. I ordered a mug of hot chocolate, and then phoned Madge to let her know that we wouldn't be coming after all as it was now eight in the evening. Marian had fallen quiet, but I was pissed off and not greatly concerned by whatever her latest imaginary problem could be. I'd just wasted an entire day visiting a patch of frozen organic mush in the middle of nowhere for no reason. Nevertheless after a little while she overcame her reticence, raging at my selfishly ordering hot chocolate, then drinking it in front of her in full knowledge of chocolate being forbidden by her current dietary regime. I had forgotten this detail as she seemed to change her diet every few weeks. It was difficult to keep track of what she could and couldn't eat from one month to the next, and on days such as this it was even more difficult to care.

That evening we managed to have a row over an unrelated matter. During the 1990s I'd written, drawn, and published a great many of my own small press comics. As a result I now had a sideboard packed tight with boxes of unsold copies of my work, with no idea of how, where, or to whom I might dispose of them, and I wanted my sideboard back. This was mentioned in passing as part of a meandering conversation in much the same way as one might make an observation regarding the weather.

'Well, what are you going to do about it?' Marian demanded to know in peculiarly stringent terms. I wasn't sure and said so, explaining that this was why I had raised the subject; I was thinking aloud. She didn't seem to understand this, but then I'm not sure she ever quite grasped regular human interaction outside the staples of bullying and appeasement, the currency of a power struggle. As subscriber to countless ineffective self-help philosophies, it seemed she was attempting some sort of intervention on me, some crap apparently born of the idea that the process of decision making is more significant than what decisions are made. She suggested I take all my self-published magazines to a paper recycling place. I said that given the work that had gone into producing this mountain of crap I found her solution unsatisfactory, which prompted an argument based on the question of why I'd bothered to ask her advice if I wasn't going to follow simple orders and change my life around completely according to that which had been sprung forth from the font of her wisdom. I'd had enough that day and for the first time in our relationship I was happy to let the bullshit evolve into a shouting match. It didn't go anywhere, but it felt okay.

We were only months into our relationship and I was still expecting things to settle down, even hopefully to improve at some point; but now, on some level, I understood that this wasn't going to happen. She had already told me to rearrange all of the furniture in my flat according to the principles of feng shui, and even though I knew feng shui to be the sort of mumbo jumbo to which only a serious simpleton could possibly subscribe, I did it because she had to get her way; and when she didn't get her way she would start on the tears and the blackmail about how she felt undervalued, as though her opinion didn't count for anything. There was no point in arguing, but sometimes it was nice to know that I still could.

The next morning I got out of bed and did my push-ups as I was then in the habit of doing on a daily basis. Marian, recognising an act of self-improvement, became excited as she sat up in bed and began babbling away like a small, hyperactive bird. The distraction was too much and my arm twisted behind my back in a moment of wrenching pain so profound that I screamed. It was agony, and months passed before I was once again able to do such exercises.

The rest of the day was spent in Oxford, visiting botanic gardens within the city, the Ashmolean Museum and Blackwell's bookshop on Broad Street, Marian as usual browsing for further self-help books. She had two shelves sagging with the things at home in London, but always seemed to need more, perhaps realising she was not yet perfect. I once saw her spend twenty-five pounds on a hardback entitled How to Spend Money More Sensibly or similar, naturally oblivious to the irony. The matter of visiting my grandparents did not come up again, and I said nothing because I'd realised I didn't want to subject them to Marian. She would only have made things complicated and unpleasant as she always did.

Later, once we were back in London she said, 'I feel like I'm partially responsible for the fact that we didn't get to see your grandad.'

I said nothing, and as it happens I never saw him again. He passed on about two years later.

There never was a happy ending to this one.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Lord of the Isles

I always had a thing for model railways, and at the age of forty-eight I still find it impossible to pass a toy store with tiny trains on display without my face becoming so firmly fixed to the window as to necessitate being chipped free with woodworking tools. The flames of this passion are quite naturally diminished, otherwise I'd still be fiddling around with OO gauge rolling stock right now rather than sitting here writing about it. Nevertheless they were once of such severity as to drive me to crime.

I was seven or maybe eight and our family lived on a dairy farm in rural Warwickshire, England. Alan, a teenager and the only other child on the farm, told me he knew where we could get more carriages and wagons for my train set. We went across the fields at the back of our row of cottages to a house on Redhill Bank just before the hamlet of Wimpstone. I vaguely recall being astonished at the meticulous state of the garden, bushes neatly trimmed to geometric shapes and the lawn mown into stripes like at a stately home. Whoever lived there had a lot of money, I guessed, and I realised that we were going to break in. I knew this was wrong and I wanted to turn back, but Alan insisted everything would be fine. I was way out of my depth and didn't fancy trying to find my way home on my own as it seemed like we had come many miles.

All I'm able to recall of our haul were passenger carriages, but they were strange - doors and windows printed on tin plate and quite unlike anything I'd seen in the Tri-ang catalogue. More disappointing was that Alan appeared to expect some sort of payment for whatever I was going to keep. I held onto the carriages a few days as I thought it over, and then the police showed up to decide the issue for me which came as a great relief. Alan was essentially a complete tosser, and burglary was the least of his crimes.

My own train set was a circle of track with three wagons pulled along by a little green engine with 27 printed on the tank, retailing as the Tri-ang Railways RS614 Pick-Up Goods Set. According to the Hornby Railways Collector Guide, the set cost ₤5.20 in 1972, which I assume would probably have been the year it turned up as the main feature of my Christmas presents, so I would have been six or seven. As train sets went, it was modest, but we were humble serfs and I loved it. My dad and I joined all the curves of track together, plugged it all in, and spent the morning watching my little green tank engine pulling its three wagons around in a circle. After a while, smoke began to issue from the engine, so we gave it a rest and made predictable jokes about the added touch of realism. From then on it became my ambition to own an enormous train set, a full layout like I had seen at both Rex Harding's house and at the model shop in Bourton-on-the-Water, trains, houses, landscaping, tiny people glued to plastic platforms, the works...

This proved difficult to achieve being as we were not a wealthy family and I hadn't quite got the hang of saving up my pocket money, so for the next few years I contented myself with drooling over model railway catalogues and compiling lists of what I wanted on my grandfather's typewriter. One such list was headed absolute necessities which I specifically recall because I remember asking my mother how to spell it. I would probably have bored my friends senseless with my train set related ambitions had any of them shared my interest, but none did which was probably a sign of changing times. Everyone was into Action Man or Dinky toys, specifically the Gerry Anderson stuff. The only exception was a younger boy called David Wild who seemed to be even more into trains than I was, but I found his enthusiasm strange and difficult to understand. We both loved our train sets, such as they were, but he went several stages further in owning Sounds of Steam record albums comprising recordings of actual steam locomotives chugging past a microphone, which was just weird.

David was from Wales and I suspected he had some sort of inherent cultural affinity with steam engines in the same way that native Americans are held to be closer to nature. He was the child of our headmaster, which must have been a tough job. In particular I recall his birthday party during which Mr. Wild angrily blustered and berated his son. 'You've ruined the day for everyone,' he raged as we watched, wondering what the hell was happening and feeling glad that our own dads were just regular people. Perhaps that was why David found comfort in records of loud atonal noise.

Eventually I somehow managed to save up for a second engine, a Hornby R354 Dean Single Locomotive and tender distinguished by a massive central wheel on either side and the name Lord of the Isles. It was amongst the more modest engines in the Hornby catalogue but I was fascinated by its distinctive appearance, and at least I could afford it. Something about that huge central wheel fascinated me, and despite the name, the engine seemed pretty, like something feminine which, to my mind, required protection.

Lord of the Isles was soon followed by luxurious Pullman carriages modelled on the chosen rail transport of people who lived in houses such as the one burgled by Alan and myself some years before. I took the carriages to school for the sake of showing off.

'That's the best one,' Neil Hargreaves grinned, picking up my OO gauge buffet car. 'That's the one with all the nosh in it.'

Years passed, we moved to Shipston-on-Stour, and I ended up at secondary school, still accumulating bits and pieces for the model railway layout towards which I was working; and yet somehow I never quite got there. By 1978 I was apparently old enough to cope with keeping a diary for at least the first half of the year, and every other weekend I would record the latest additions to my reliquary of trackside accessories - track, buffer stops, model trees, and a small town's worth of houses and buildings built from Faller and Pola model kits. On Saturday the 4th of March it seems I bought a massive sheet of chipboard from a local hardware store for ₤2.00. This was to provide the base of my proposed but poorly defined layout, and although I'm no longer sure of the exact size - particularly as I am now myself somewhat larger - it was too big to be carried up the stairs. My dad sawed it in half and then joined the two parts back together once we had taken them up to the spare room.

The strange thing is that I have no memory of actually having either of my engines by this point. The little green tank engine had long since cashed in its locomotive chips, and I had never actually got together any sort of set up on which Lord of the Isles could have run; or at least if I did, I cannot remember it at all. I have a feeling I may have swapped the engine long before that time, as that was what my friends and I did at the weekends, just swap stuff, more as social ritual than through any desire to acquire the other man's Spectrum Patrol Vehicle. Perhaps this was why my model railway layout never came to pass; like some compulsive gambler I would always end up swapping whatever I'd bought with my not-particularly-hard-earned pocket money before it was even out of the box.

With hindsight I believe I understand why I found David Wild's enthusiasm at such odd variance with my own. David was into trains, railways, and the whole deal. I myself couldn't really care less about any of that. I just liked the models, the idea of a miniature world crafted more or less by my own hand, a small universe over which I had absolute power. This is probably why I now write fiction.

For much of the twentieth century, a steam train would have been the largest, loudest, and most dramatic thing many people in England would see at least during the first few decades of their lives, and so the enthusiasm for model railways amongst my father's generation is not difficult to understand. For ourselves, by the 1970s we had film and television, and we had seen sights more awesome than even the Flying Scotsman at full pelt on its way up to Edinburgh, even if that awesome was achieved with a bottle of washing up liquid sprayed silver and suspended from fishing line; or at least that was what we believed, I suppose; and I guess I went from one to the other, roughly speaking.

So for all my efforts, such as they were, I do not recall any model train of mine ever running around a track since that circle with the three little wagons back when we had lived on the farm. I was buying the stuff, but just never quite getting there, presuming on some instant in the future when I would suddenly notice that I already had possession of everything I could ever possibly need and embark upon the task of making hills out of chicken wire and newspaper, then glueing little Swedish looking houses in place. I wonder now if on some level I knew that this future would be a disappointment, a poor second to its contemplation, to my savouring of this long term goal.

Living back on the farm, my mother had occasionally served as babysitter to Rex and Rosemary Harding, the family who lived at the foot of the hill. Rex was son to Mr. Harding, who ran the farm, and father to a very young daughter called Zoe. I always enjoyed the babysitting because Rex had built himself a massive model railway layout in his spare bedroom. It was a little neglected, but I got to play with it every time we went there. The layout had no concessions to scenery, but comprised spaghetti circuits of track all crammed onto a small baseboard, complete with remotely operated signals and points. Of course, impressive though this was, beyond hitching up various wagons and watching them go around and around, the world Rex had created was limited, as would be the one I myself intended to build.

My world would be green and hilly with at least two parallel circuits of track vanishing into the mountains at the rear. The houses of the town would be set in the middle, a peculiar brightly coloured mish-mash of European styles as determined by the fact that most of the kits were from either Faller or Pola, both German companies. It would look insane in the real world, but of course that wouldn't matter because only an insane person would choose to live in a town surrounded entirely by a self-contained railway line with just a single station. Not only would the noise drive you mad, had you not already arrived at such a state under your own impetus, but the area would be subject to terrible economic decline with the only service industry being a railway line doomed to go out of business because no-one in their right mind is going to pay for a ticket which brings them back to the same station roughly twenty seconds later.

I've a feeling the powers that be of Tr-iang had perhaps realised all of this in the late sixties when they began to jazz up their line with the Battle Space range found in old catalogues at Rex's house. The Battle Space range appeared to be railway modelling's attempt to cash in on some of that Gerry Anderson money, rolling stock from which one could fire missiles or launch helicopters, and strangest of all, the Battle Space Turbo Car, bright red and pointed with its massive propeller at the rear.

I wanted the Battle Space Turbo Car pretty bad, regardless of the fact that it looked ridiculous and would only have served to highlight the general absurdity of my notional layout. Were aliens ever to invade Earth, the military response would probably not arrive by rail. Were aliens to begin their invasion in my dream town of crazy people in their Black Forest style community with its pointless orbital railway, they would have to be pretty stupid and would probably blow themselves up anyway, and so the Battle Space Turbo Car would be surplus to requirements.

Perhaps I'd spent my childhood years in pursuit of something which I knew would prove disappointing and absurd whichever way one chose to look at it. Insisting on realism in railway modelling would result only in lengths of track upon which an engine could move back and forth, because circuits of the kind I'd intended to build cannot be found in real life. I recall once watching a railway modelling programme on BBC2 in which someone made a near perfect scale replica of a railway siding somewhere in Leicestershire or wherever, even building the signal box from scratch using wood and plastic. It looked like the real thing, but I couldn't see the point.

This is, I suspect, why I still find it so difficult to pass a model railway in a shop window. On some level I am still thinking of the Lord of the Isles, my beautiful little and slightly eccentric looking engine. She came out of the box - and despite the name, I can't help but thinking of her as somehow feminine - but I'm not sure she ever got to run or to pull carriages of imaginary passengers as intended, and all because my ambition was about momentum rather than destination. Like my little green engine running on its circle of track, the point was about forward motion, never about getting there. I wished for a world I could control, and yet deep down I knew it would be a dissatisfying and cranky world.

Please feel free to find a lesson in there somewhere.

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Very Important Story

'He shalt be clad,' the voice hissed yet again in portentous close up revealing blackened bone beneath receding necrotic gums, 'in women's knickers.' The final syllables washed away on echoes of pseudo-Shakespearian eternity, fading, becoming one with the great ocean of the very important story arc. Then a blue square box appeared. It was not a box at all. It was TARDIS! The mysterious traveller in time and space known only as Doctor Who comes out and looks around. He frowns on his face and looked thoughtful.

'What is the matter, Doctor Who?' asked Amy. She was his friend and she had ginger hair. Just then Rory came out of the TARDIS. He imagined for himself a woman running, a woman with curly hair who looked like Dirty Den's second wife in the Eastenders show on television. The woman ran and roared, a great cricket bat held aloft ready for the killing swing, a great cricket bat just like the kind Tristan Farnam would have been into but with six inch nails driven through the end, become a weapon of death and harm. Tristan Farnam probably would not have liked that part, Rory thought to himself.

'Er um,' he said and shrugged.

The Doctor made his eyes go narrow as though he were suspicious of some fact. 'Very strange,' he commented quietly.

'I er...,' said Rory. 'I think...'

There was a noise, the noise of bells. It was the theme music from Are You being Served? mixed in with the grinding of gears and the wrench of a handbrake as the ice cream van drew to a halt. It had scary clown faces drawn on the side like in a Tim Burton film or an old video of a pop song by the Cure. The music sounded sinister as it tinkled away.

Rory pointed at the Doctor's head upon which was worn a girl's hat. The girl's hat was green.

'I wear girl's hats now,' beamed the Doctor. 'Girl's hats are cool.'

Amy stuck her chin out and made her eyes appear large and defiant. When she spoke it sounded like a person from Scotland or maybe from Edinburgh or one of those places. She sounded feisty and defiant. No man would tame this foxy yet independent wench.

'I would like an ice cream, if it's not too much trouble.'

'An ice cream,' the Doctor said wonderingly and his voice went up and down. He looked around then and saw the ice cream van. 'Well that is handy, and unusual.'

In the ice cream van there was Davros, but this was Davros from the future, a reformed Davros who had climbed over the great obstacle of genital confusion and was now secure in his sexuality and therefore no longer angry. He no longer wanted to get the Daleks to exterminate Doctor Who. 'Yoo hoo, Doctor,' he called out in his grating electronic voice waving his single claw-like hand. 'I must say, I do like your hat.'

Rory coughed and fell over, but no-one noticed.

Amy studied the display at the side of the window, allowing her feisty Scottish eyes to linger upon the representation of a Fab lolly with all hundreds and thousands on the end. 'I'll take one of those.'

'I'll have a vanilla cone please,' the Doctor beamed grinningly as he pulled some psychic space money out of his magic pocket.

The red electronic eye set into the forehead of Davros glowed faintly. 'Can I interest you in my nuts, Doctor?'

'No thank you.' The mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor winked at Rory to show that he had fully understood the joke and that it wasn't prejudiced or nothing. The joke referred to the nuts Davros might sometimes sprinkle over the ice creams he sold, although of course it sounded a little like he might be referring to male testicles. That had been deliberate. It was a joke.

'And what would you like,' - the Doctor Who Man paused to remember correctly the name of his friend - 'Dave?'

'I'll have a raspberry ripple, please.' Rory sadly shook his head and there was a sad trombone sound. What a loser! Ha ha!

'Och! Do ye remember those?' Amy laughed defiantly. 'I used tae love me a raspberry ripple, me! Do ye remember Spangles too?'

Everyone laughed nostalgically.

Rory laughed too, but his laughter was tinged with sadness.

'No!,' Mrs. River Song shouted as she came running out of nowhere in slow motion, but it was a long no with a lot of Os - more like noooooooooooooooo like in a film with Matt Damon. She swung the cricket bat with nails that Tristan Farnam would have regarded as blasphemous. She swung the bat and went through the air but you could see all the detail like it was one of those games or something. It was awesome. Doctor Who looked around in slow motion just as the wizened claw of Davros thrust forward from the ice cream van clutching a raspberry ripple. Amy was feistily diving to save Doctor Who with her arms but she accidentally got hold of his trousers and pulled them down instead of simply pushing him out of the way of the cricket bat that Mrs. River Song was swinging at his head and as they all fell over it was revealed that the Doctor Who was clad in women's knickers.

'I wear women's knickers now. Women's knickers are cool.'

'Um,' said Rory apologetically.

'Hello Sweetie,' said the annoying woman with the cricket bat.

'You will not move,' ordered the grating metallic voice. 'Woof. Woof.'

The robot was low to the ground, almost like an iron dog but with technological bumps on its side. It was not a Dalek, because all of the Daleks had been destroyed forever in Pagga of the Daleks. It was more like a dog version. It was a Doglek.

'Dogsterminate!' chanted the growing group of Dogleks all spinning around sniffing each other's computer interface bottoms. 'Woof. Woof. Woof.'

'He shalt be clad,' the voice hissed yet again in portentous close up revealing blackened bone beneath receding necrotic gums, 'in women's knickers.' The final syllables washed away on echoes of pseudo-Shakespearian eternity, fading, becoming one with the great ocean of the very important story arc.

They all looked at the Doctor turning red-faced in his women's knickers. Everyone moved his or her head up and down just a little bit then looked at each other with their eyes narrow as though to suggest that something hitherto regarded as confusing had begun to make sense.

'They're comfortable.' The Doctor shrugged like a small child with eyes full of wonderment and magic.

It started to snow. It was cold. It was really serious like in a song by Fields of the Nephilim. It was seriousness like when no-one understands you and you have a frozen soul and that.

Davros grunted like a grunting electronic machine as he reached forward from the rectangular serving orifice set into the flank of his ice cream van. He tried to reach forward but his one arm was not up to the task. It was much too short for what he was trying to do. There on the ground was his Dalek - Time Lord English translation dictionary, laying open as it had fallen at the page for the Dalek words Dav meaning Doctor and Ros meaning Who.

'My God!' Rory stared with his accusing eyes at Mrs. Song. 'You're him! You are the Master!'

Friday, 1 November 2013


On Monday evening as I chopped bratwurst and potatoes my phone rang. It was my wife.

'You need to call your dad right now.'

'What I—'

'Your dad called my phone. I don't know what's wrong, but you need to call him right now.'

My father lives in Coventry, England whilst I live in San Antonio, Texas. We speak fairly regularly but this seemed like something out of the ordinary, a moment I'd been dreading. Apparently unable to phone me at home, he had called my wife at work and wanted me to call him back seemingly regardless of it being near midnight in England. I felt ill.

My father sounded sleepy but not unusually distraught, which I immediately noticed with some relief. He told me that Madge had died in hospital. I suppose Madge would be my step-grandmother, if there is such a thing. She was ninety-three and had recently suffered a fall so it wasn't entirely unexpected.

Approximately forty years earlier, a knock on our front door had brought similarly grave tidings. We lived on a farm in rural Warwickshire with just one telephone connecting us to the outside world, and this was kept in the main office and shared by everyone. One of the other workers, or possibly even Mr. Harding himself had come to our door with a message. Being winter and early evening it was already cold and dark outside, and the news was that my grandmother had been involved in a car accident. My dad grabbed his coat and rushed out whilst I commended him on his haste, helpfully explaining that old people were frail and therefore less likely to recover from  accidents of this sort. I was probably about eight and I think it was the only time my mother delivered unto my person one of those clips around the ear you always hear about.

When I was growing up we tended to see more of my mother's parents than the Burton side of the family, which is simply the way it was. Arthur Burton, my grandfather, was herdsman on a dairy farm near Witney in Oxfordshire. Like my dad, he was the guy who milked the cows.

I remember my grandmother, the first Marjorie Burton, and I remember her well enough to recall her voice and her face without the need of a photograph, but sadly that's about as far as I get. I remember their budgerigar, their bungalow, woodlands full of bluebells behind the farm; and I remember that whenever we visited I would usually end up behind their sofa, chuckling at cartoons in the twelve collected volumes of Punch magazine dating from 1936 to 1941 which my grandfather had purchased after the war.

Regrettably the first Marjorie Burton didn't survive the accident, which quite naturally left my grandfather somewhat rudderless, and there was one year in which he joined us for Christmas dinner at the house of my other grandparents which, if not exactly awkward, seemed a little odd, like Batman turning up in an episode of Star Trek. I was too young to recall much beyond the usual seasonal haze of the annual toy frenzy, and I have difficulty imagining what they all could have talked about. Both grandfathers had served during the war, one in Egypt, the other interned in a POW camp in Poland. One was a dairy farmer, the other a structural engineer for Coventry City Council.

Saturday 26th March 1977 is marked in my Letts Schoolboys Diary as the day Grandad married Madge, short for Marjorie and  recently widowed. Madge became the second Marjorie Burton, and because none of us knew if there really was such a thing as a step-grandmother, she remained Madge. They were married at St. Stephen's Church in Clanfield situated at the end of Busby's Close where Madge lived with Cindy, her corgi. It was a fun day, although I don't remember much beyond that my uncle George refused to enter the church on the grounds of being an atheist, which struck everyone as both characteristically disrespectful and idiotic, because it was. Arthur took a job at a dairy farm in  Clanfield, a job which came with a farm cottage, although Madge kept her bungalow knowing they would have need of it when Arthur retired. We visited from time to time once they had settled into their cottage and Madge would serve up the most incredible Sunday roasts, although I only recall going to stay on one occasion, a week in January 1978 before the school holiday came to an end. I stayed with my other set of grandparents in Kenilworth every other weekend, but I didn't know Grandad and Madge quite so well, so it seemed initially strange to me. Nevertheless I had a fine time, pestering my grandfather as he milked cows, certainly eating well, going for walks, and finding myself shepherded around the cottage with Cindy snapping at my heels, unable to shake off her herding instincts or the suspicion that I was probably a sheep. Waking with a temperature one morning, Madge prepared hot fortifying drinks involving milk and whisky, then brought me something to read from the mobile library, a book I recall as being Neutron Star by Larry Niven. There was a spacecraft on the cover so it had struck her as being something I might like, which it was. Whilst staying at their house, I watched the first broadcast episode of Blake's 7 - which meant a great deal more to me then than it does now - and pleaded to be allowed to stay up late to watch Spike Milligan's Q8. By the time it came on, my grandfather had fallen asleep in his armchair but Madge continued to watch bemused as Spike grinned on the television screen in response to a series of boob jokes conveyed through the medium of women in lingerie. It seemed to go on forever. I pretended I was asleep, watching through half closed eyes and struggling not to laugh.

After a few more days, I was struck by a crushing combination of homesickness and guilt regarding the same, wishing for familiar surroundings whilst worrying I might appear ungrateful. I was probably a fairly cranky child, but Grandad and Madge both seemed to understand. Whilst nothing about Madge suggested that she suffered fools gladly, she was nevertheless a kind and thoughtful woman.

Many years later I went to stay with them a second time. It was summer 2001, Arthur had retired, and they had moved to Madge's bungalow in Busby's Close. I was in my late thirties and conscious of the fact that I hadn't seen my grandparents in at least a decade in conjunction with Arthur now approaching ninety. They were both significantly older and slower and more prone to spontaneous napping, but it was otherwise comforting to find that little had changed in their world. On a slow walk with my grandfather, himself moving at snail's pace with the aid of a stick, he casually pointed out the three enormous and adjacent allotments from which he continued to harvest a tidal wave of carrots, potatoes, beans, onions, and other vegetables, expressing regret that he no longer had the energy to maintain the fourth plot. He was as self-contained as ever, and I recalled that our previous meeting had been at a wedding in 1990 during which he'd regaled myself and two friends with a lengthy treatise on the cultivation of onions. It lasted at least twenty minutes and came in response to my asking how things were going with his allotment. He naturally assumed your interests to be the same as his own, a traditionally obnoxious trait which nevertheless came across as quite endearing when Arthur did it.

'Well, he certainly knows his onions,' my friend Carl observed, slightly dazed as my grandad trundled off to bestow his horticultural wisdom upon other unsuspecting guests.

Meanwhile in the summer of 2001, Madge was a little surprised when I explained that I could only stay for a few days, somehow having missed the detail of my staying at all; but she didn't seem to mind, her main concern being that I might be bored, possibly being more accustomed to the breakneck pace of life in that London. All I had really intended to do was enjoy their company, so that was what I did. In the evening we would watch Emmerdale as Arthur intermittently slept in his chair, or we would discuss the rest of the family, cousins I had not seen in decades and so on. At one point my grandad talked about when he would visit the cinema in Rugby during his youth, and it took me a minute or two to realise that he was referring to silent films starring Tom Mix and the like. It was a window into an older, quieter world, another detail of which was revealed in the framed photograph hung upon the wall - Madge in her twenties bearing a more than passing resemblance to Rita Hayworth and just as beautiful.

Although we weren't related by the usual definition of the term, Madge seemed like the perfect grandmother, warm but strong, and with a good head on her shoulders as the saying goes. Her voice alone, softly accented with rural Gloucestershire, seemed to offer the assurance of all being as it should be at least in her corner of the world.

Sadly the next time I saw her was at Arthur's funeral in 2007. I had attempted to get to Clanfield to see the two of them again a few years earlier, but Marian had derailed the visit with her characteristic penchant for making everything complicated, thus denying me the last occasion upon which I would have seen my grandfather alive. Madge being Madge seemed to understand, or at least didn't hold it against me.

The last time I saw her was just before I moved to Texas. She still lived in Busby's Close, soldiering on regardless in the absence of her beloved Arthur. 'I don't suppose I shall be seeing you again, Lawrence,' she told me, and I had a horrible feeling she was right, as indeed she was.

As I stood in a kitchen in Texas speaking to my father that Monday evening, I felt a sense of relief that at least nothing unfortunate had happened to either him or my mother. The world hadn't come to an end, but one small corner of it had lost someone that could not be replaced.

So it goes.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Friday, 18 October 2013

Heiligen Hymne der Sündenbock

Recently there has been much slanderous talk about the political leanings of various members of Pure Blood SS, particularly following the release of the album Songs of Celebration Sung at the Funerals of Ethnic Minorities. Indeed, the scandal-mongering Bum the Nazis website suggested a racial agenda might inform such songs as Cleanse This World and White Roses. This is of course nonsense typical of those who see no irony in pointing accusatory fingers at artists such as ourselves whilst claiming to be proponents of free speech; but still the clamour of voices continues, and so we happily address the accusations.

Although it is true that our former trombonist Trevor Hardboard was indeed an enthusiastic member of the National Front for a few short months between April 1978 and May 1995, those days are distant memories, distant memories which he happily puts behind him in order to concentrate on Valhalla Imperium, his long term musical project which definitely isn't racist. Nevertheless, just as history caught up with the Führer in 1945, so too does it return to bite our long suffering comrade on his bottom, over and over until he turns his face to the heavens and asks what he must do to silence these snakes and authors of hurtful comments.

Hardboard is a big, fat Nazi, claims one barely literate article on a blog which shalt not to be named here; and yet does this accuser know Trevor Hardboard the man? Has this person broken bread with the internationally respected musician who recorded the neofolk classic The World Would Be Better Without Certain Types of People, Not Mentioning No Names or Nothin' ?

By Odin's hat, I should say not!

Only last week Trevor and I enjoyed hot dogs together, served by one of his many, many, many black friends and purchased from a van parked outside the venue in which we were performing on a bill featuring Valhalla Imperium, Pure Blood SS, Reichenschnitzel and the Goombay Dance Band.

'How much?' Trevor asked his black friend as the hot dog was handed down to him.

'One-fifty, mate,' quipped the black gentleman jovially, showing that there were no hard feelings, and that he was able to respect those who are simply exploring controversial ideas and imagery without feeling the need to call them all sorts of unreasonable names.

Would the cowardly and quite possibly Jewish author of that craven blog still have dubbed my colleague in such damning terms had he been there with us that night as we purchased hot dogs from a very close personal friend who is also a black man? Perhaps if he were, he too may have eaten heartily, and eaten not a hot dog but his own filthy words of accusation!

Of course, the apple of destiny falleth not far from the tree of Yggdrasil, and so it is that now that the Zionist eye of criticism and leftist censorship has fallen upon Pure Blood SS for the crime of simply exploring controversial ideas and imagery with our new album, something which we are apparently not allowed to do.

We have always been open and willing to discuss our fascination with Adolf Hitler and our humble considered opinion that the wrong side won the second world war, providing that discussion is conducted in a spirit of openness and without prejudice. Now it seems we are to be tarred with rude names and our words censored, but the artist who is true to his soul has ever been ahead of the curve, and ever left thankless for going where others wouldst be afeared to tread. They said that Picasso's admittedly degenerate work was like that of an untalented child; they said that Bob Marley the famous reggae singer whose records are heartily enjoyed by many of our group was just a rip-off of Elvis Presley; they said that Adolf Hitler's paintings were uninspired even though you can quite clearly see what it's supposed to be, the blind fools; now Pure Blood SS are also to suffer similar outraged arrows and slings of misfortune cast by those who probably won't even listen to Songs of Celebration Sung at the Funerals of Ethnic Minorities but will instead follow sheeplike as some other bloke, probably one with a fairly big nose if you catch my drift, tells them that it is now racist to simply wish for one's homeland to be inhabited only by those of pure white blood. Well fine, if it's racist to dress oneself in a black uniform and then march up and down in front of a Bavarian castle innocently singing a hymn of praise to the blood that runs true from the heart of the Rhine, and with none of those disco boats going up and down playing any of that thumpathumpa music, then our testimony, it seems, is worth naught, for the jury has already reached its corrupt decision; and you, dear reader, must decide whether you're content to be blinded by the so-called truth of the facts, or whether you have the courage to keep an open mind...

Friday, 11 October 2013

Dora! Dora! Dora!

I was at the crazy golf with my wife and her friend, Andrea. We had Junior with us, and Andrea had brought along her own two children. We spent the evening watching the three of them wear each other out, first with water balloons, then with twenty holes punctuated by tiny windmills and a fibreglass giraffe. It wasn't the most eventful evening I've ever had, but it was pleasant enough, and at one point I found myself imagining how terrible it would have been in the company of Dora the Explorer, my previous partner. She would have spent the evening comparing our behaviour against an internal score card delineating her idea of fun, then cajoling us because we weren't having any according to her definition. The crazy golf would conclude with a rant in which she would pose rhetorical questions of why she had bothered, and how next time everybody would have to provide their own fun because she was damned if she would ever again undertake such a thankless task.

The image amused me, although as usual I suffered a pang of conscience, a reflective moment in which I noted that nearly five years later, and still I find myself occasionally framing the present as something wonderful in relation to the tyrannical reign of Dora the Explorer. What does this say about me, I wondered. Have I not moved on?, I might ask myself before recognising this as therapy-speak and therefore meaningless.

Dora wasn't her name by the way, and neither was she an explorer, but she was short in stature with a haircut similar to that of the educational cartoon character, so that's what I'll call her.

Later, after agreeing what a good evening it had been, my wife told me that she too had momentarily imagined the disastrous scenario that would have ensued had her first husband - Junior's father - still been in this particular region of the picture. He would, she suggested, have spent the entire time talking to people on the phone, somehow offending everyone within earshot, and then spent hundreds of dollars on useless crap no-one needed as a means of demarcating the expedition as successful.

It's not that either of us have failed to move on. If anything it's probably a form of gloating, even a celebration, an expression of both disbelief and wonder at the possibly quite nauseating success of a marriage which seems all the more incredible given the complete bullshit we both had to deal with back in the dark times. We both catch ourselves wondering why we once put up with so much; and with this in mind, I can sort of understand the enduring fervour of those who feel that religion has delivered them from an unbearable situation. We're all pinching ourselves just to make certain that this isn't just a wonderful dream

Dora the Explorer's idea of fun was difficult to define. She had a handmade sign pinned on her living room wall made, I believe, on the advice of her life coach, and which stated I am the red light that calls people to stop what they are doing, to come out to play and to have fun. It was in essence a home-made motivational poster, Dora the Explorer doing her best to remind herself of something she wished to believe, namely that people would see her as someone who was fun to be with. Her life coach was some guy with whom she spoke upon the telephone for an hour every Wednesday morning at a rate of something like thirty pounds a session, something between an amateur psychologist and an employment counsellor. As a man earning twenty-five pence every thirty seconds, you would think the life coach might have pointed out the more common implications of red lights, none of which are let your hair down and be yourself.

I was working as a postman in East Dulwich in south-east London, and had been terminally single for a full decade. I've never been the sort of person who needs others around me all the time, but even so I was beginning to develop a bit of a complex. I wasn't getting any younger, and I didn't want to die alone. I told myself this period of solitude was simply the downside of having standards, but the truth is that I could never see the point of seeking a partner purely for the sake of seeking a partner, and I found it difficult to meet people with whom I had much in common.

I'd been delivering mail to Dora the Explorer for a couple of years, and yet had never met her. This was frustrating if only because she ordered quite a lot of backpacks, maps, and of course bananas and PG Tips tea for Boots, the monkey, and always I would have to write out a P739 form and cart the parcel back to the sorting office for collection. When at last I met her, having knocked without much hope of being able to deliver yet another parcel, it was quite a surprise when she answered the door. She wore red silk pyjamas - being in the habit of sleeping in until mid-afternoon - and appeared small and lively and quite cute. She smiled a lot, laughed at my jokes, and directly met my eye, which at the time I failed to recognise as a learned technique. She worked as a market researcher, in other words knocking on the doors of strangers and asking whether they had a few minutes to express opinions on public transport, nationalism, or a particular brand of suppositories depending on who required the statistics that month. In addition she had attended endless self-improvement courses run by a dubious organisation to which I shall refer in a moment. How to engage with strangers could have come from either one of these, but in any case it worked. Random women did not as a rule show much interest in me, or if they did, then I was never able to recognise it as such.

I gleaned from Dora the Explorer's mail that she had an interest in gardening. This seemed like a possible inroad as I was then in the process of transforming my landlord's plot of land from an overgrown first world war trench into something less depressing involving flowers, and as I was essentially making it up as I went along, it seemed like the advice of someone more knowledgeable couldn't hurt. I wrote a letter, trying hard to affect a casual tone whilst idly wondering if Dora the Explorer might find time to drop around to my place - which was only around the corner - and bestow upon me the benefit of her opinion. She phoned me that same evening, saying that she would be happy to offer horticultural advice, and asking would I like to come away with her to Leeds one weekend to attend this amazing course that all her friends had taken. Still reeling from the fact that my letter had done its job, I didn't really notice just how weird this request sounded.

'Well, I er...'

'I think you'll love it,' and she began to ramble on about all the ways in which it had helped her without giving any specifics.

I wondered on what grounds did she believe this poorly-quantified course would be the sort of thing I might appreciate, but still couldn't get beyond the miracle of a woman phoning me up and asking me to run away with her. I was dimly aware of this being sales patter, but I couldn't figure out the angle or what I was being sold, so I said I would think about it.

A few days later, she came around to have a look at what I'd planted. She made suggestions about flowers of certain colours complementing each other, none of which was particularly useful but I didn't care because here was a real live human female who had turned up at my flat and who seemed to like me from what I could tell, and she had boobs and everything. She offered to lend me money so that I could afford the ISA weekend, presuming finance to be the only reason I hadn't leapt at the invitation. I explained that I didn't really understand what she was proposing, and hadn't given it a great deal of thought. In any case, I was off to Mexico in a couple of weeks time, so that had to take priority for the present.

Our next date, and the first which might be termed a date in the sense of being something conducive to eventual sexual intercourse, was dinner, specifically chicken in walnut sauce cooked by myself and served at my flat. It seemed like a bad sign that she was two hours late and it took serious work to save the overcooked meal I'd  prepared, but she didn't seem to notice and I was compensated with a tantalising comment about how infrequently her boyfriends had cooked for her in the past. I didn't want to presume that I was therefore about to become her boyfriend, but it was looking good. We talked a little of gardening, parcel delivery, and of course monkey-care, exploring, and what certain Spanish words mean; then we arrived at the revelation of both coming from an art background, and Dora the Explorer had studied at St. Martin's or one of those other prestigious London art schools, although I can no longer recall whether she then told me she had dropped out after six weeks, or whether that was something I discovered later. More startling was the realisation that she had briefly powdered the nuts of a famous member of a well-known industrial rock group - for want of a less ridiculous term - and that I myself knew this person quite well, and was writing to him back during the eighties contemporaneous to Dora exploring the contents of his trousers. The coincidence was staggering - almost certainly a sign that this was meant to be, I decided.

A few more days and a drink at The Woodhouse at the top of Dulwich Hill and we became an item, as they say in celebrity tat publications. A few days after that and I was turning forty in Oaxaca, Mexico with my friend Rob Colson.

I returned to England with armfuls of folky Mexican gifts, fabric, ceramics, traditional dresses and the like. Whilst not unappreciative, Dora the Explorer seemed mildly surprised that we were still together. I guessed she'd been let down many times before, and my trip to Mexico may have been interpreted as a ruse.

Well, we were back on, and Dora the Explorer was keen to know when I would commit to the upcoming ISA weekend. This event - innocuously promoted as the ISA Experience - occurred only a couple of times a year, so there would be a long wait for the next one to come around.

'What is it, exactly?' I asked.

'It's an experience,' she told me. 'You get to meet some great people, and we talk about life and so on. If it's the money, I told you I can lend it to you.'

The weekend would cost a couple of hundred pounds, which was a lot to pay for something that was beginning to sound extremely dubious by virtue of the fact that Dora the Explorer clearly had no intention of revealing just what it was about. Following a hunch, I had a flick through Jean Richie's The Secret World of Cults - an absorbing and informative paperback I had bought a couple of years earlier. It contained no mention of ISA, but there was a list of useful phone numbers in the back. I called the Cult Information Centre on the grounds that it was based in London and spoke to its founder, Ian Haworth, a very helpful man. I explained my situation and my admittedly vague suspicions.

'I'm afraid it's not good news,' he told me. ISA, he explained - standing for the Institute of Self Actualisation - is a therapy cult founded by Ole Larsen, a former student of Erhard Seminar Training as founded by one Werner Erhard, himself a former student of Scientology and practitioner of something called Mind Dynamics. A therapy cult, in case it requires definition, is an organisation which operates through making vulnerable people feel worse about themselves, preying upon and amplifying deepest insecurities whilst demanding money for a series of spurious bullshit self-improvement courses, generally all buzzwords, mumbo jumbo, and low-level mind control. I'd read about therapy cults in Richie's book, and had become familiar with the term. On the positive side, ISA seemed fairly innocuous compared to those groups which would, for example, keep you awake in a dark room for four days straight. Seemingly it would take your money if you had any to give, or it would encourage your ISA colleagues to jolly you into earning money so as to fund further courses, but no-one would follow you around in an unmarked vehicle, and if you were skint, they lost interest after a while.

I was distraught. Happiness had at last sprinkled its magic fairy dust at my door, but it wanted me to buy all twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and it wasn't taking no for an answer.

Ian Haworth told me not to be too upset, but warned that these things tend not to last much beyond six months. I thanked him and went to work on the belief that whatever was wrong with Dora the Explorer, she would eventually see my example, and notice how I function quite normally without the need of expensive mumbo jumbo; and so she might realise that she too could do the same, and dispense with the psychological crutches.

Autumn turned to winter, and as I was working in the garden, she called me on the mobile telephone we had bought as part of her efforts to bring me forward into the twenty-first century.

'I'll be expecting you to take me to interesting places,' she said. 'I grow easily bored with relationships quite quickly, so you will need to make the effort to keep me interested.'


'Also, I would like you to meet my friend Diego.'


'He needs to talk to you about your involvement with ISA.'

Oh fuck, I thought. Not this shit again. We'd already been there, a drink with some of Dora the Explorer's friends which I had assumed was to be just that, but turned out to be a drink with about twenty or thirty self-actualised drones in a pub in north London.

I walked in and a middle-eastern looking woman pulled the face made by people in Disney films when they learn of the death of a kitten. 'Why won't you come to the ISA experience?'

It was a plea. I had made someone I'd never met have a sad. I hadn't actually said I wouldn't attend an ISA weekend, as I'd busily changed the subject whenever it arose, but obviously this had been subject to discussion amongst Dora the Explorer and her associates.

The evening was awkward. The company wasn't unpleasant, but these were broken people, therapy addicts who would never get enough group hugs, people whose shelves sagged with books about looking deep inside yourself and accepting that you're you. They spoke of success and moving forward and making changes, but it was all hot air, and not one single smile in that room was founded in reality. I was becoming slightly pissed off that Dora the Explorer wasn't letting this go and had brought me here under false pretences, but I'd learned there was no joy to be had in arguing.

Dora the Explorer, who frequently congratulated herself on her elevational levels of acceptitude and caringness and was aknowledgised amongst her peers as an enwarmed and loveingified individuperson, told me that she once had anger issues, but that the ISA Experience had taught her the art of listening to others; so she listened to me then expressed her anger at my stubborn and selfish refusal to meekly comply with her requests, a clear demonstration of how little I respected her beingness. Now she wanted me to meet another of these brainwashed knobs about my involvement with ISA, even though I had neither involvement with ISA nor even the slightest interest. This was supposedly a serious issue despite my own inability to acceptualise it as such, and this meeting felt like the boss would like to see you...

She would always do that: We need to discuss your attitude to work, and then she'd vanish out of the front door leaving me to stew, to wonder how she thought it was okay to talk to anyone in such a way. She could barely open her mouth without it representing some strategy, some definition and seizure of a moral high ground where none previously existed. It was exhausting.

'So when will you be able to meet with Diego?' So far as Dora the Explorer was concerned, the whether was not an issue. This was the power of positivuous enthinkmentation - that which you wanted to happen would happen because you wanted it, and special mental actualisation techniques of maximilitation would ensure that it was so.

I was in her kitchen as she matched specific species of baby animals to their mothers then blinked a few times. I took a deep breath because I was stood before Adolf Hitler, and I was about to tell him that I was both a Jewish homosexual and an African jazz musician.

'I'm not going to meet Diego.'


'I'm not going to meet your friend because I'm not remotely interested in going on one of your ISA weekends.'

'How do you know you're not interested?'

This was one of the weirdest questions I think I'd ever heard. 'I really believe I would know whether or not I was interested.'

'How can you? How can you decide just like that? You don't know anything about the ISA Experience. '

'I know, because I ask but you won't tell me. Can you not see how that might make me just a little suspicious?'

'I can't tell you.'

'Why not? What's the big secret?'

Typically, she was getting angry as through struggling to explain something that would be obvious even to a moron. She didn't seem to be able to understand why anyone would have a problem with her proposal. 'Don't be ridiculous. There isn't any big secret.'

'So why won't you tell me what happens at the ISA Experience?'

'Because you have to do it for yourself. That's the whole point!'

'So I just leap in and keep my fingers crossed for it being something amazing which, for some reason, you won't explain.'

'Yes!' Dora the Explorer's eyes were now popping out of her head. 'Why is that so difficult to understand, Lawrence? Why do you have to be so stubborn?'

'Oh for God's sake,' - I had begun to feel as though I was talking to someone working in a call centre in India. 'I mean just give me a clue at least - is it a lecture? Is it a seminar, or what?'

'It's an Experience.'

'That doesn't even mean anything.'

'You don't understand.'

This was going around in circles. Generally, if somebody has some deal that seems a little stomach churning from where I'm stood - a tendency to vote for UKIP in local elections, a belief in the wrong side having won the second world war, or maybe they're into wife-swapping or whatever - I generally prefer to leave them to it. If their bullshit works for them then fine so long as I don't have to know, and I'll do my best to hold back from pointing out that the king's wardrobe is lacking; but this was too much. I told her that I'd done some research and learned a little about ISA and its founder and the genealogy running back to Erhard Seminar Training.

'It's a therapy cult and you're trying to recruit me,' I told her.

It didn't make any difference, and she went into some half-assed crap about how little I really knew, my selfish and stubborn behaviour, and my failure to keep an open mind - an accusation that is almost always the last resort of a scoundrel; but at least she ceased trying to sign me up.

Ian Haworth was incorrect in so much as the relationship endured for longer than he predicted, but truthfully, six months was where it should have ended. Incredibly, it actually began to deteriorate after that point - it found a way to become even worse - and what few good things there were seemed to happen in spite of the general trend. Dora the Explorer was neither well-balanced nor a happy person. She had been broken a long time ago, and I never really found out how, seeing as her supposedly traumatic upbringing contained neither beatings, nor abuse, nor anything more severe than has occurred in the childhood of anyone I've known, and frankly the rest of us turned out fine. Her mother once left her in the car with a can of pop and a packet of crisps whilst entertaining a boyfriend in the pub, and her father was a bit of an arsehole, but boo hoo - big deal.

Still, had I never encountered Dora the Explorer, or stood mystified for three years as she - a woman who couldn't even cope with getting out of bed before noon and who was thus hardly a poster child for the self-improvement tripe she swallowed hook, line, sinker, rod, and fisherman - explained to me where I was going wrong with my life, I would never have arrived at the circumstances of meeting my wife, and perhaps I would not have appreciated the opportunity so much as I do. Later, as Dora the Explorer and I formally marked our separation with a row at the bus-stop on Dog Kennel Hill, she glared angrily at the ground and said, 'and to think I did so much good work on you, and now some other woman will have all the benefit.'

So here's to you, Dora the Explorer, delusional to the end. You taught me a lot, only none of it was anything you thought you were teaching me.