Friday, 29 March 2013

History Lesson

My knowledge of American history is assembled piecemeal from a wall full of books about pre-Colombian Mexican pot sherds, watching The Rockford Files and The Waltons, the recorded oeuvre of Ice Cube, and reading Mad magazine when I was a kid - well, not so much Mad magazine itself as the paperback collections with which Ballantine Books generously flooded English book stores in the 1970s. Surprisingly this means that my knowledge of American history has turned out to be marginally more comprehensive than that of my wife who was born here. Mad taught me about Millard Fillmore, Mr. Clean, Jack Paar, and how a reluctantly dieting Teddy Roosevelt once asked his niece to sneak into the kitchen, speak softly, and carry a big sticky, gooey sundae back before anyone found out. In her defence, my wife knows more English history than anyone I've met. If ever I need to know anything about King Shakespeare or that guy who burned a cake and caused the great plague, I just ask Bess. In this respect - and not only in this respect I hasten to add - we complement each other.

The sum of our American historical knowledge was expanded this morning when Junior portrayed Daniel Boone in a short pageant put on by the third graders of his school. There were seventeen of them in all, each dressed as a character of his own choosing, each delivering a short speech explaining who they were supposed to be and why they were famous. This was a yearly presentation which had previously taken the form of living waxworks. The children would stand still, delivering their speech each time a fake button was pressed, but that version was apparently abused by older boys who would press one child's notional button over and over in order to see if they could make the kid explode. The non-interactive revision was itself surprisingly entertaining, and I don't feel that we've missed out.

So for fifteen minutes we were treated to a parade of nine-year old boys wearing stick-on moustaches, false mutton chops, and the obligatory stovepipe hat for Abe Lincoln, and for the first time at that school I felt that I was watching something which the performers actually enjoyed. Previous and lengthier occasions have featured selections of seasonal songs and the sort of scripted jollity I recall hating when I was a kid, mostly delivered with faces suggesting  performers enduring the same discomfort I'd felt at their age; and worse, all of this punctuated with the self-aggrandising, simpering oratory of a Principal who probably imagines himself melting hearts with the homogenised warmth of his testimony. Today he managed to keep it short, just a few words about the performance and how he too knew the agony of stage fright, before apparently remembering we were there to see our children rather than him.

Of those historical figures brought vividly to life before our very eyes as though by the agency of an actual working time machine, the stand-outs for me were Junior's Daniel Boone, George Washington, Sitting Bull, an extremely cute Wright brother, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Walt Disney and a kid who could have been either Neil Armstrong or Steve Albini - renowned singer and guitarist of both Big Black and Shellac - but who was almost certainly Neil Armstrong now that I've got that admittedly thin observational joke out of my system. There were others, but mostly faces from stretches of American history with which I am entirely unfamiliar, a couple of renowned baseball players for example. I personally would have appreciated an Oliver Hardy and a Nixon just for the hell of it, but it was impossible to fault the choices made, not least because they had been made and enacted with such infectious enthusiasm.

American history is a fascinating animal - chock full of screw-ups and moments for which there will never be an apology of sufficient strength, just in case anyone is so stupid as to think I might not be aware of that, and there's usually at least one - but we're hardly unique in that respect, and whatever the small print may have been, the culture at least makes the effort to put on a brave face, to give an impression of looking forward. American history, or more properly, the American history of the last few hundred years, is in part a story of triumph over adversity and people motivated largely by altruism, and even if the precise details are to be doubted as Disneyesque sentiment, the overall impression remains a positive one, even to someone so prone to cynicism as myself.

Rightly or wrongly, this was what I got from watching a bunch of nine year old boys grinning and chuckling to each other in false moustaches and 1930s trousers. If there's anything that distinguishes America from England it is, in my experience, that over here, what you see is what you usually get; which I believe is why, quite incidentally, it is not unknown for American culture to be described as crass in some cases, usually because it's exactly the same deal as English culture, just lacking the veneer of bullshit. It's probably no coincidence that those most suspect of American institutions tend to aspire to some nebulously European neo-classical ideal inherited from Washington's era when perhaps it meant something more than just a more effective means to sell used cars.

I'm not even sure what I learned today, but considering that it was taught by a bunch of kids who probably would have picked that Gangnam Style bloke or Pikachu as historically significant had  twenty-first century names been an option; and that it was taught in the halls of an institution with all the soul of a debt collection agency and yet which has somehow mistaken itself for Harvard; and that Bess and I walked back to the car with big wide eyes all afroth with joy and fuzzy stuff, I'd say it was probably something important. Anything that stops me sneering for an entire fifteen minutes can't be entirely without value.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Evil Morons with Too Much Money

One evening back in the very early 1980s, Pete and myself were at Graham's house doing whatever it is you do when you're fifteen, but doing it quietly because Graham's parents were downstairs trying to watch something soothing like Terry and June or perhaps Ask the Family. As it was the middle of the week I'm guessing we had convened in order to see one of the various BBC2 music shows whilst our respective parents stayed stubbornly tuned to other channels, and Graham being the only person we knew to live in a household blessed with more than one television set. This magical second television set was a portable which lived on the dressing table in Graham's parents' bedroom, and once Riverside or Something Else or whatever it was we were watching had finished, then came Dallas. None of us were regular viewers of the popular US soap about millionaire Texans, but we found the theme tune entertaining, and so as the titles began, all three of us went at it on the air drums. We each had our own imaginary kit, and we sat in a line at the foot of the bed pounding those notional snares, stamping away at incorporeal foot pedals, giving it some John Bonham. Graham's parents were of course delighted to hear what sounded like an unusually violent rugby match being played just three feet above their heads, and Mr. Pierce quickly came upstairs to congratulate us in person.

It seems peculiar to think that the millionaire Texan, once as remote an animal as any unicorn or talking elephant unwittingly dyed blue whilst playing with his mother's fountain pen, is now a beast which I encounter on an unfortunately regular basis; then again, I suppose it isn't at all peculiar given that no school age child can realistically be expected to know where they will be or what they will be doing by the time they hit forty.

This being said, the second graders at San Antonio Academy for Prestigious Children seem to have a few ideas in that direction. Bess and I had turned up to collect Junior one day last summer when we saw the project work proudly displayed on hall notice boards, our eight year old Texans responding to the question what do you want to be when you grow up? Some wanted to be attorneys, investment lawyers, or simply to take over dad's business as CEO. No-one harboured the desire to be an engine driver or an astronaut or a dinosaur tamer, or if they did I guess they understood such an answer would be more trouble than it was worth, inviting only further questions about how they might have come by such a dangerously liberal attitude.

It was profoundly depressing.

San Antonio Academy for Prestigious Children - as I'm calling it because these people didn't get rich through being nice - is the private school where the dwellers of the Bubble send their offspring in order to set them on the road towards becoming attorneys, lawyers, CEOs, persons of a certain standard. The Bubble is that part of San Antonio falling within the 78209 zip code settled by the conspicuously and unpleasantly wealthy, their colonial style ranch houses distinguished by lawns which remain perfect even when the summer heat soars into the hundreds, each formerly embellished with a tidy little warning which read not keep off the grass as you might anticipate, but no socialism. This was something to do with the election; you know - just in case.

I'm no stranger to the outrageously wealthy, and as a postman in East Dulwich I shot regular breezes with a surprising number of Lords, Ladies, a Baroness, and at least one Lady Asquith, who was lovely and still able to recall D.H. Lawrence dropping around for a cup of tea and a bun back when she was a girl - which was obviously exciting for me, what with my being a big fan of frowning David Herbert. As a rule, these representatives of the aristocracy were mostly pleasant and entirely lacking in ostentation. Regardless of the evils of the English class system, those inhabiting the upper reaches often seem unassuming and likeable, as tends to be the case with people who don't feel they have anything to prove. It's the ones busily screwing their way up the totem pole who are usually the arseholes, and this is as true here in America as it was back in England; except there's no such thing as aristocracy here, much as the Bubble beings might like to believe otherwise, but then these are people who never quite got the subtle distinction between class and just having too much money.

The 09ers, San Antonio's self-proclaimed elite define themselves by zip code; by raising pretentiously-titled children through the agency of nannies; and by sending little Winchester Jnr. IV or whatever the hell he's called to the most expensive school they can find, whereupon he will be guided along his course towards greatness, destiny, excellence and other slightly overused qualitative nouns by a Principal who oozes all the sincerity of a 1970s game-show host but compensates with portentous speeches delivered at school functions. The place costs so much it just has to be some classy shit, right? Plus they have them in those cute little uniforms saying yes sir and no ma'am like toy soldiers, which is somehow more important than the slightly weird statistic of such an establishment not actually requiring its teachers to hold any formal teaching qualification. Anyway, every few months the children assemble to sing seasonal medleys of show tunes prefixed by our edumacational ship's captain waving his hands and invoking Gahd - this being his pronunciation of God - in an implausible show of humility presupposing that the entire institution isn't just a stay-rich-quick scheme. The parents smile and struggle to recognise their own children from photographs supplied by the nanny, and feel duly secure in their status as the cultural elite, the movers and shakers. Those working in the medical profession attend such functions in their scrubs, fresh from performing unfeasibly expensive life-saving and Oscar-nominated operations because as you know, it takes many, many hours to change out of a green overall into civilian clothes, precious hours that could be better spent resurrecting the dead. We're not talking fucking bus drivers here. These are the people who matter.

Except they really don't; they just have too much money which is a different thing altogether, and that which they have taken to signify class - or at least a better standard of person as I recently heard one 09er define his kin without a trace of irony - amounts to face-lifts and surface and having a bigger swimming pool than anyone else. In fact I don't think I've ever seen quite so much surface expressed in a single demographic: cut one of them in half and you'll just find layer after layer of emergency surface held in reserve all the way down to the bottom. As a group, they don't seem to have quite grasped that riches beyond imagination make no difference if you're a selfish, lying, vacuous, lazy, alcoholic, gambling, adulterous, strip-joint patronising parasite with the emotional development of a six-year old and the personality of the turd that just won't be flushed. Neither do they seem to grasp that these unpleasant qualities are difficult to conceal through simple membership of a country club.

These are people who, like Donald Trump, seem to believe that gold-plated taps signify success, and whilst I have no doubt of Trump being a lovely guy, he's really not someone I'd want to hang out with for too long. These are people like Jon Thomas Ford, the 09er convicted of strangling his former girlfriend in 2012. It made national news, but no-one here was too surprised when he was sent down as guilty, and the consensus would seem to have it that he never once considered the possibility of not getting away with it, because that's how it works in the Bubble: money will find a way.

The 09ers, these Ewingistas are heirs to the fundamental mistake of American capitalism that a will equates to a way, that all is fair in business, and that being a ruthless bastard is a sign of character. It's money as more important than people taken to the extreme at which point the people and their money become the same thing regardless of whether one is buying or selling. This, I presume, accounts for no socialism warnings, most likely planted by the hired Mexican gardener as a statement against something the owner probably can't even spell, much less understand. The simple logic runs that those who have worked hard for their money should be entitled to keep as much of it as possible - socialism apparently being a threat to this - which would be fine but for the extremely loose definition of hard work which tends to apply in so many cases, and the basic evil of those who cram their mouths with cake for no reason other than to deny those who have none. Having been a postman for more than two decades, I feel confident of being able to recognise hard work when I see it, and the only ones in the Bubble doing anything of the sort are the Mexicans who tend the lawns and borders.

This is why I have as little to do with the 09ers as possible, although I share their postcode, and Junior has certain familial ties which oblige my wife and I to occasionally grit our teeth and shake a few hands. Many of them may be nice enough people in their own way, but not in any sense that necessarily sets them above any other social stratum; and having few real interests outside matters of wealth and status, they generally aren't that interesting as people, and their instances of generosity tend to be slightly predatory.

Dallas from what little I recall, was presented as a caricature, and had I given the matter serious thought, I probably would have concluded that such people could not be real. Three decades have passed and I now live in the same state as the fictitious Ewings, and I occasionally get invited to pool parties by people who resemble those characters, although maybe not quite so likeable in a few cases - thinking here of a repulsive octogenarian gambling millionaire with a trophy wife more than forty years his junior and their demonic third grade kid on a $200 a week allowance, which is probably another story in itself.

The difference is that now I've seen them with my own eyes, I know that these people aren't real.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Trouser Conflagration

Mandy once had a flatmate called Andrea, and Andrea was dating Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian. Anyone already bewildered should probably note that I'm referring to Japan the 1980s new wave band rather than Japan the country. The notion of an entire country designating a single individual as its drummer is clearly absurd, even without bringing up the fact of Japan the 1980s new wave band being from Catford. Of course, Mandy and her friends were eager to meet Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian, but each time he dropped Andrea off at the pub or a friend's house, it seemed like he always had somewhere else to be and would rush off without saying hello - probably had to go and do some drumming or something. Inevitably, as time went on and Andrea's boyfriend - Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian - continued to shun his fiancé's friends, questions were asked, questions which Andrea countered with photographic evidence of the relationship as something real and not just a load of stuff that had happened inside her head. Unfortunately the evidence was not unanimously accepted as convincing due to the picture of Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian, having quite clearly been cut out of a magazine. 

Telling lies can be a lot of fun, and as hobbies go there are probably worse. Anyone who's ever been in a band will tell you that an accomplished liar is worth at least two and a half averagely competent guitarists, unless you plan on spending the rest of your life performing Splodgenessabounds covers to an audience of three visiting French students who got lost on the way to the bureau de change. In this crazy music business, the very practice of telling lies can sometimes be equivalent to a fifth band member - conditional to the band in question being a quartet.

At the age of fourteen I formed a group with three of my friends. We called ourselves The Pre-War Busconductors and we weren't particularly musical, but then tunes weren't really the point. It was more about making a racket and coming out with stuff that made us laugh until our sides ached. It was about the performance, which was awkward given that we never played any gigs, nor let anyone who wasn't actually in the band listen to our cassettes. We got around this by becoming our own audience. Everything was taped on a mono portable cassette recorder, and we differentiated live from studio recordings by clapping and cheering at the end of each song, whistling, shouting out requests, telling ourselves to piss off and so on - just like it would have been at a real gig. I'm pretty sure Peter Frampton did the same thing. I know his live album was supposed to be some big deal, but I've never met anyone who was there.

At the age of nineteen or thereabouts I played guitar for a group called The Dovers, formed with my friend Carl who sang and jumped around. Although we played live gigs before audiences comprising people who weren't other members of the band, we nevertheless took great pleasure in making things up - tour posters listing dates all across the globe, the Budokan, Madison Square Gardens, Shea Stadium - all regrettably cancelled but for the one solitary gig at the Blue Lagoon in Chatham. Carl had a gift for telling fibs, of which my favourite  was the suggestion that we change the name of the group to Live Dinosaur on Stage in hope of fooling people into turning up expecting to see a real live dinosaur.

I know at least one musician who has claimed with a straight face to be secretly working for the KGB, and there's Sun Ra who insists he's from Saturn, and Malcolm McClaren desperately scrabbling to get just one person to believe the Sex Pistols were his idea. Then there was this other band in which I played, one which remained obscure in England whilst having sold many thousands of CDs in Germany and the far east, at least according to our cover story. The theory ran that the potential punter would be encouraged to believe every other person in the universe was into us, had bought our CD, and had been playing it constantly. Everyone thinks we're amazing, we were saying, but apparently you didn't get the memo, so you must be different; you probably smell a bit funny or something - the you in this instance being the entire population of the British Isles. It was a sound enough concept - sort of like when Adolf Hitler visited Rome and Mussolini had forty miles worth of fake buildings painted on wooden panels either side of the railway track in order to make the city seem all the more impressive, except we were selling shirty punk rock rather than an illusory testament to Fascist ideology expressed in architectural terms.

In case I appear to be taking any sort of moral high ground here, I still burn with embarrassment to recall when fifteen years ago I told John Eden how some of my mother's side of the family were from Mexico, which obviously they weren't. I suppose it was at least original. I'm uncertain of general trends, but in terms of lying about one's nationality in pursuit of kudos, I get the impression that pretending to be Mexican is fairly rare.

Race is of course another matter, particularly with the potential anonymity now afforded by the internet, which leads us to the self-proclaimed cult film and TV forum for black people. This was a message board run by a white man posting in the style of what I suppose he imagined to be an amusing black persona, for example dismissing those opinions not to his liking as lickle white bwoy shit or some such, because as you know that's how black people speak. I posted there for about a year but managed to get myself banned before I realised it was an elaborate and weirdly pointless put on. As I do actually have black friends - by which I mean friends outside the context of some guy who serves me a burger or drives me to the airport - it struck me as sad and possibly a bit insulting when I discovered the truth, vaguely akin to a clutch of drunken white media studies students quoting Samuel L. Jackson zingers and addressing each other as my nigga.

As lies go, I'd mostly characterise the above as tics - or at worst, errors of judgement - small fictional flourishes that don't really hurt anyone and make life a little more colourful for those involved. However, from what I was told, Andrea's delusion always seemed like a different kettle of prevaricating fish - the kind of lie that inspires only pity and suggests something fundamental has escaped from the author's psychological menagerie. When a child claims to have seen a dragon, not for a moment considering the possibility that stating something as truth will not in itself make the story seem plausible to others, it can be cute. When an adult does the same thing, it's just weird and disturbing.

My own personal Andrea introduced himself as John Schölle. He had placed a postcard in the window of Gruts cafe in Chatham back in the late 1980s. The postcard made some promise I didn't quite follow about organising a sound system and wishing to enlist the help of interested parties. I knew a sound system to be something to do with reggae, of which I've never really been a huge fan, but I got the impression that there was nevertheless some sort of musical common ground - at least in the more unorthodox recordings of Scientist and the like - so I called the number and went around for a cup of tea.

The guy lived three streets away from me, so it turned out. He was a few years older, living with his girlfriend Janine and a hyperactive dog called Jack. He played and recorded music that wasn't a million miles from the sort of material I'd been doing, and we both enjoyed a lot of the same things, and it seemed to me that we hit it off straight away - which was nice because he was one of the funniest people I had ever met. His sense of humour struck a fine balance between raucous and deadpan and found its most vivid expression in a series of plays he set down in an exercise book for his own amusement.

These plays were, very roughly speaking, a conflation of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Derek & Clive. One of my favourites involved two men fighting over a packet of biscuits whilst shouting at each other through a letterbox for the duration of the notional performance - I think the pivotal biscuits were custard creams. Another play was entitled Three Empty Chairs and featured Ted, an ageing bully regaling his indifferent companions with unlikely accounts of former glories, each conversational turn inspiring a fresh revelation of better days and what people used to call him. At one point the electricity meter runs out, plunging the room they share into darkness. Someone asks for a tanner for the meter and our man explains, 'I used t'ave tons of loose change when I was a youngster... Rattler Ted they used to call me.'

Reasoning that John probably wasn't going to do anything with Three Empty Chairs - which I regarded and still regard as a masterpiece - I had a go at turning it into a Pinteresque cartoon strip, but gave up after thirteen pages. The play was long and I lacked patience, and although John said he liked what I'd done, he later confided to Carl that it had pissed him off greatly. I still don't know why he couldn't have just told me, but never mind...

Similarly entertaining were The Joneses, John's imaginary band parodying The Smiths - amongst others - without quite sounding like a parody due to the incongruous use of sped-up tapes, armpit generated farting noises, and a drum machine. It was really more of a grotesque than a parody in the strictest sense, a sort of precursor to Chris Morris with jangly guitars:

A man at work keeps touching my knee.
Is he dangerous?
I'll wait and see.
Ooooooh horror at the office.
He's after my orifice.

Then there were John's videos, crash edited on a domestic VHS from footage off the TV, old films and what have you. They were funny in a way, but mainly just odd, although you could tell John loved putting them together, amusing himself regardless of how ludicrous the results might seem to others; which was what I liked about him.

So that was John Schölle, except after about six months I realised Schölle wasn't even his real name. We recorded some tracks together, but I still didn't quite get the sound system angle. He gave me a tape made by someone who had written to him, beefy electronic rhythms from an individual calling himself C.S. Teknono - the initials standing for Christopher Smith - who would be helping in setting up this mythical sound system. I loved the tape, then about a month later I bought Major Malfunction by Keith LeBlanc and recognised it as the same material. I told John and we sat down to listen to the album. He rubbed his chin and seemed uncomfortable, and I genuinely believed he'd been hoaxed by this Christopher Smith, what with my tending to look for the best in people and having failed to put two and two together regarding John already being quite the fan where Keith LeBlanc was concerned.

Months passed, John and Janine got married, and I failed to spot his increasingly erratic behaviour. He seemed often unreliable, failing to show at agreed meeting times, and I only began to regard this as peculiar when my friend Carl and I visited him one day. We had been invited but nevertheless John didn't appear to be in. It wasn't the first time he'd let us down, but listening at the door we heard sounds of movement which stopped dead as we resumed knocking. So he was in but hiding from us. It was hard not to take that personally, and I gave up on the guy and eventually moved away from Chatham, increasingly flaky friends being one of a number of factors that had contributed to the diminishing appeal of the Medway towns in my eyes.

John and Janine resurfaced in Beckenham about five years later, by which time I was living in East Dulwich. With John being difficult to dislike and easy to forgive, we resumed the sporadic habit of an occasional drink to lubricate rambling conversations about music, art, films, literature, and Derek & Clive. Inevitably after another few months, he once again dropped off the radar - no reason given, just the sound of a telephone left ringing. If I was really that much of a pain in the arse, I concluded, hopefully he would know better than to bother next time around.

Another five years and he reappeared for one single raucous drink at The Uplands during which he told me that he and Janine had separated - which seemed a shame - and that he was living with his mum in Peckham on disability benefits, prevented from working by  some psychological condition - which actually made a lot of sense. Then he vanished again, up until his most recent manifestation about a year ago, now reduced to an internet presence, just a YouTube account living in Leicester and apparently spending his days editing segments of old films into faintly amusing clips. I responded to his slightly cranky email with little enthusiasm, and then forgot about it.

John was a comet, his eccentric solar path bringing him around roughly twice a decade leaving observers bewildered as he once again buggered off back to giggling obscurity. It always seemed a shame, because aside from his being a genuinely talented musician, and his plays so impressing my friend Rob that there was even talk of getting one performed before an audience, John did a convincing impersonation of being great company. It wasn't like he really needed to make stuff up in order to appear interesting; he was already more interesting than most people; but for some reason he just liked to live a life of reckless invention. As with Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian, specifically his short-lived relationship with Andrea, I guess you just have to enjoy it for what it is while it lasts, because even if it's just a story, at least it was a good one.

Friday, 8 March 2013

What I Learned from Being Punched in the Face

Although this hasn't been true of late, life can sometimes appear very grim and I have generally found this is often down to my not listening to enough rap music. Of course, my eviction from the flat in which I had lived for a decade back in 2006 can't be blamed directly on a dip in my listening habits with regard to the Ice Cube back catalogue; but as a soundtrack to daily existence, rap really gets you through the tough bits, and the surlier and more offensive, the better it serves as a sympathetic if slightly volatile imaginary friend.

I listened to one hell of a lot of rap whilst working as a postman for Royal Mail. When a manager half your age tells you that your refusal to work unpaid for an hour past your official finishing time may result in a formal warning for delaying the mail, rap is your friend, or if not actually your friend, at least someone who is just as pissed off.

One day, as I was sorting mail, Graham wandered up to me, as was sometimes his habit when at a loose end.

'What's that you're listening to?' he asked, eyeing my CD Walkman.

'Black Rob,' I told him.

'I've never heard of him.'

'You know Rob Grieg,' I said, referring to the young postman of that name assigned to the Forest Hill end of Lordship Lane. 'Well he's a bit like that, except he's black.'

I don't think Graham really got the joke, or possibly he just didn't think it was funny, but it was probably a miracle that we were talking at all so I didn't press the issue.

When I first transferred to East Dulwich sorting office back in 1993 or thereabouts, I found myself working next to Graham. He struck me as odd and a little manic, and I found him slightly abrasive. He wasn't rude, but he laughed at certain jokes more forcefully than seemed appropriate. Being new to the office and thus keen to avoid making enemies so soon, I tried not to let myself become irritated by him; and I would have succeeded were it not for his laugh, a booming hurhurhurhurhur that you could hear just about wherever you were in the building, usually in response to things that never seemed particularly funny. I tried hard, but I just couldn't get past that hurhurhurhurhur. It brought out the worst in me.

I took to echoing Graham's laughter as some sort of coping mechanism. 'Hurhurhurhurhur,' he would guffaw from some unseen location on the other side of the sorting frames in response to Ronnie Jeff observing that someone or other was a bit of an arsehole. 'Hurhurhurhurhur,' I would repeat in the assumption that, being unable to see me, Graham would have no idea who was responsible.

I found another reason to resent Graham. He was an almost supernaturally fast worker, and this was why he so often had time to wander the office asking about listening habits whilst the rest of us hadn't even got around to sorting through our packet bags. I never found out how he did it, but I assume he was hyperactive by some definition. Any walk he was on, he would finish at almost twice the average speed; which was fair enough except it made the rest of us look bad. This also meant that any walk to which he was assigned for any length of time would usually end up with a few streets added because he'd made it seem too easy. We would mutter and grumble amongst ourselves, lamenting all those once cushy routes which had been expanded to unreasonable length because Graham just had to get back to the office before everyone else so he could stand around gurgling hurhurhurhurhur and doing that weird thing with his hands - like high speed counting using just fingers, not quite the full Lady Macbeth but along those lines.

It wasn't that we didn't get on so much as I never knew what to say to him. We didn't have anything in common aside from moaning about work, and given that a percentage of my moaning would have related directly to his presence, that particular vehicle had limited mileage. Sometimes he would mention listening to Led Zeppelin or dub reggae or something very much outside the norm in terms of the general musical tastes of our office, but it wasn't really enough to fuel anything beyond the most casual of conversations.

In September 2001 a few of us went out for a drink at The Foresters* one Saturday evening. Dave was moving on to better things and so this was his leaving drink, and I guess about fifteen of us showed up: Terry, Andre, Steve, Joel, both Dannies, Geoff - who had most likely been in the pub since midday and hadn't got around to leaving - and of course Graham.

This was awkward. I had been avoiding Graham at work, knowing myself too well and how easily irritated I can get. Some people have pointed out that I have a bit of a sharp tongue and am prone to acerbic commentary, which I didn't really believe until my mother told me how her friends used to be scared to visit when I was a child apparently due to the mighty force of my prepubescent sarcasm. Anyway, we dutifully observed the tradition of each sticking a tenner in a communal pint glass which would serve as a pot and thus ensure no-one need know the misery of being able to walk in a straight line by the end of the evening. The first drinks arrived and we started, embarking upon the customary slagging off of those who hadn't bothered to show. I wasn't thrilled to be sat at the same table as Graham, not least because he insisted on talking to me, cracking jokes and being annoying. My responses were short and functional, conversational place-holders which failed to compensate for the fact that Graham, regardless of perceived faults, actually wasn't an idiot.

Unfortunately, as well as not being an idiot, he was additionally able to down ridiculous quantities of the sort of booze which often leads to concerns voiced loudly and without inhibition followed closely by a punching of available faces, offending or otherwise. After a while, he grew quiet, both sullen and conspicuously refreshed*, and I assumed he would probably just go home. He didn't, and at the end of the evening as we all made to leave, he at last decided to voice his objections in the strongest possible terms.

'So you think I'm a cunt, do you?'

He gave me a slap and was immediately restrained by the others.

I feigned craven innocence, shocked, concerned only to learn what I had done to give offence whilst experiencing a sudden and chilling insight of my absolutely having deserved it; and although the it in question had felt like a slap, nothing worse than you would dish out to a mosquito, I had - against expectation - a black eye the next day. One of the Dannies took Graham around the corner, launching him off in the general direction of home, and I headed back up Lordship Lane with Andre, Joel and Terry; and everyone was on my side, with the possible exception of myself.

What the hell was Graham's problem? they asked, incredulous. I tried to explain that I'd been relentlessly returning the hurhurhurhurhur since at least January, and I'd known all along that I really should have just risen above my own intolerance given that Graham wasn't actually harming anyone, but by then I'd had an entire three pints of weak, fizzy lager and the case for Graham's defence just came out as a series of burps.

I woke the next day to the previously mentioned black eye and an awareness of having annoyed someone so much as to inspire violence. It was sobering.

I called one of the Dannies and got Graham's address, which I knew to be elsewhere in East Dulwich, just not the house number. Danny told me to leave it as Graham probably wouldn't even remember, but I went anyway, reasoning that I owed the guy an apology regardless of his recollection of the previous evening.

He came to the door, apparently pleasantly surprised to see me, not the faintest suggestion of either hangover or lingering resentment.

'Listen, Graham,' I said, 'I deserved that, and I'm here to say sorry for the way I've been acting of late.'

He laughed an amiable hurhurhurhurhur and made a dismissive gesture. 'I'm the one who should say sorry, mate. I was on the cider all day and I hadn't had anything to eat. I should know better by now.'

We shook hands, and every snarky opinion I'd ever formed regarding his character was immediately revealed as my own bullshit. We didn't exactly become buddies after that, but I no longer found him so abrasive, and we were at least able to hold a conversation. Years later he was absent from work for a few months for mysterious reasons that resolved into his having been stabbed by his own father. This seemed to confirm the conclusion I had drawn: Graham probably didn't have a great life, and most of it seemed to be spent either in the pub or at work. He had drinking buddies, but I've no idea if they were friends as I would understand the term; and the latest sour cherry upon the cake of Graham's existence was that his own father had sent him to the emergency ward.

I might have understood some of this picture much earlier had I bothered to use my brain, but instead I took the piss because his laughter got on my nerves, like he really needed that on top of whatever else he didn't have going for him.

Just two days after being awarded my somewhat deserved black eye, I went to spend a couple of weeks in Mexico City. Airline officials frowned at my passport photograph, and then at the blanco who had apparently recently been contestant in a face punching competition, but no-one said a word. I've found the best way to get around in Mexico is to avoid looking too much like a tourist, or like anyone who might be worth bothering with - as though the cheapest hotel is the most you can afford but you've still made your best effort to appear respectable - your best not being that great. My suits were from Oxfam, so it wasn't like I had to dress any different, and they did the job. The Mexicans to whom I spoke assumed I was probably German, or I was involved in some sort of mediocre business, but no-one seemed to think it likely that I was there on holiday. I also like to think that my walking around with a black eye helped in some way, perhaps conveying the impression that I got into scraps all the time and would therefore not be worth the effort.

Graham wasn't exactly a friend, but he ended up teaching me a huge lesson probably without realising it, and hopefully I'm less of a tit these days as a result. To some extent this does seem to have thus far been the proverbial story of my life - that which you most need is often to be found in the most unlikely place, and is rarely that which you think you need; and sometimes the thing you need turns out to be a punch in the face, which probably brings us back to rap...


The Foresters: A once decent pub since reimagineered as the sort of twee yuppie wine trough full of laptop wielding tossers that has been driving regular people out of East Dulwich since at least 2005.

Refreshed: Colloquial euphemism for an advanced state of inebriation, for example: Gary, having finished off his ninth cold drink of the evening, was now so refreshed that he could barely stand.

Friday, 1 March 2013

On Camels Failing to Pass Through the Eyes of Needles

A moral high ground is so often adopted where Stuff is concerned, specifically the possession of large quantities of Stuff. We see someone whose shelves sag with the bulk of whatever crap they've accumulated over the years, so we frown and shake our heads. Conversely, we greet the same person sat smiling beatifically in a bare room whilst contemplating a grain of corn with contemplative one-handed applause. We admire their wisdom, their having shaken off the need of material distractions, and then we go home and listen to John Lennon telling us how fab it would be if we could just live without Stuff, just like he did. You can't take it with you when you die, well-wishers remind us, as though anyone in the entire history of the human race with the possible exception of certain Pharaohs ever failed to grasp that particular clause of the mortality contract.

Of course, there are those who really do have too much Stuff, who make compulsive purchases in the doomed hope of achieving an elusive happiness, who accumulate vast libraries of overpriced tat they will never read or watch because, having failed to develop critical faculties, they are obliged to assess value by the criteria of whether or not something has a Doctor Who logo printed on the cover - to specifically identify one road I might have travelled but for the grace of having become a fully grown man. There are those who really, really don't need a jet-ski, or another pair of shoes, or two houses, or books explaining what J. Michael Straczynski was trying to say with Babylon 5. Having long known that neither the simple purchase nor possession of an object has ever done much to raise my spirits during times of sorrow, I'm pretty sure I am not one of those people. At least I hope I'm not one of those people, even though it's true that I do have one hell of a lot of Stuff.

I justify my ton of Stuff - mainly records, compact discs, cassettes, books, and comics - by periodically getting rid of anything I have in my possession just for the sake of it. If I'm unlikely to look at or listen to some vaguely cultural artefact again, there's not a lot of point in keeping it, and I try to avoid buying anything through either boredom or habit; but that said, I still have a lot of Stuff. The occasional purge is okay, but there's no point in getting rid of things just for the sake of a purge. I've done this before, mainly with books, and only ended up buying them again, which has at least helped refine my sense of what I can live without.

Girlfriend number three was a big fan of getting rid of Stuff, or decluttering as she called it, having presumably read the term in one of her four million self-help books. She was also a big fan of television programmes like How Clean is Your Arse? and Well, I Just Hope You're Satisfied in which self-proclaimed advice gurus hector and bully regular people into feeling worthless for the sake of ratings.

'Oh Doctor Gillian,' number three would chortle, inadvertently commending a bum-faced snake oil peddling televisual quack for reducing a fat person to tears over a bag of sodding Maltesers. 'What are you like, Doctor Gillian?' number three would titter at the screen as though sharing in some private joke communicated by means of long-distance telepathy, simultaneously earning the dubious distinction of being the last person in the entire Milky Way galaxy to believe in Gillian McKeith's medical qualifications. For whatever reason, somewhere along the line, girlfriend number three had learned to associate distress and abuse with self-improvement, apparently missing the crucial point that telling somebody off is never really an end in itself and is more productive when there's a subject. Of course, she saw all my shelves of books and comics and, unable to appreciate the skips full of cranky UFO-related literature that I had already Joseph Stalined from my own personal timeline, she helpfully set me a challenge. Each week I was to pick five books I didn't need and give them to Oxfam, and she would be checking up on me.

One week later she checked up on me and found that I had failed to pick five books or to give any away. I explained that this was because I had no intention of accepting her idiotic challenge regardless of what conversations may have transpired inside her head. Besides, I didn't exactly need any of them, I just liked having them. It didn't strike me as difficult to understand.

By the time I fled the house and my nonsensical entanglement with girlfriend number three, aided and abetted by a genial chain smoking Irish motorist and his van, I was painfully aware of just how much Stuff I had accumulated, having moved three times in as many years. The fourth move was to my mother's house in Coventry, an undertaking distinguished by the additional task of my having to carry all that Stuff up a flight of stairs.

By this time I'd met Bess, and we had drawn up tentative plans to marry and live together in Texas, so I spent eighteen months selling half of my Stuff on eBay in order to afford shipping costs for the other half. I suppose the point of my describing all this is to set forth the thesis that by 2009, if I owned a particular book, record, comic book or whatever, then I owned it for a reason other than pure sentiment. After twenty years of carting Stuff around, you tend to hang onto the things that repay your investment.

Anyway, to gradually approach the purpose of all this, in 2011, I had sold about as much as I could on eBay, and all the immigration papers had come through, so I crammed a couple of suitcases with books and compact discs and flew to San Antonio, Texas. For nearly two years I lived with access to just a small percentage of my Stuff, specifically that which I was able to bring back as luggage following two return visits to the United Kingdom. As for the rest of it, I hadn't even started the process of packing and shipping before I left England, there having been too much else to do; and Bess and I had not at the time agreed upon where we would live once married, so there hadn't even been an address I could have given the shipping company. After a year, I went back for a few weeks and discovered that this wasn't really sufficient time to sort out the shipping, so I ended up spreading all the paperwork, handshakes, and shoving things in boxes over two visits, the second of these occurring in November 2012. As it happened, I didn't actually get all of my Stuff in those forty boxes of approximately 20kg each, but I got most of it, enough for what remains at my mother's house to constitute luggage following the next few visits.

So after nearly two years of getting by on a bare minimum of Stuff - just a few essential Ice Cube albums and Clifford D. Simak novels - the van has been and gone, dropping off forty boxes packed three months earlier in cold, wet England. I haven't yet built the shelving to accommodate all of this Stuff, so it remains in the garage for the moment. So far I've opened just one box out of curiosity, mainly to assess the chance of everything still being in one piece, and so this week has been soundtracked by old favourites not heard for at least two summers: Dandy Warhols, Dizzee Rascal, DJ Rap, DMX, Tha Dogg Pound, Dresden Dolls, Električni Orgazam, El-P, Eno, Eminem, and Eels - who for some reason I've only just identified as being Nirvana directed by Tim Burton, which probably accounts for why I was never too sure about that album, but anyway...

It's been great having all my Stuff once again under the one roof, although at the same time it's been quite strange. Another one of those massive jobs that has been years in the planning no longer requires my attention, and at the same time, I realise there's no longer anything like so much of me left back in the old country; and strangest of all, opening up just that one box felt somehow like going through the house of somebody who died. Whoever I was two years ago, there's probably an argument for my now being someone slightly different, and certainly less pissed off.

At a push, Stuff might be considered an extended phenotype of sorts. Ownership of No Limit compact discs or the novels of D.H. Lawrence probably isn't encoded in my DNA, but it might be possible to trace a line back in that general direction, at least allowing for a major diversion through nurture and the like. Birds make nests, and chimpanzees poke sticks into holes in the ground, and as my mental faculties aren't quite up to eidetic recall and replay of the entire Scarface back catalogue, I have these material extensions of memory which I carry around from place to place.

This is what I meant by there no longer being much of me left back in England. If I am by some definition comprised of all this Stuff, most of it's now here in Texas.

To possess Stuff is only human nature. We like to have things around us, and anyone who regards that as necessarily bad is probably an idiot, or at least not someone with whom you would want to spend an entire weekend. I appreciate love, friendship, wildlife, cats, thought, a beautiful sunset and all of those things that you can't stick on a credit card without feeling the need to use my appreciation to score points; but I can also appreciate a lovingly maintained vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti album, or Philip K. Dick's novels arranged in chronological order; and if you can't understand that, then you have my pity.

Like water being wet and the rest room facilities of which bears traditionally avail themselves, it always struck me as self-evident that a man lacking qualities beyond the contents of his wallet cannot, by definition, enter the kingdom of heaven; although as for why anyone would wish to thread a camel through the eye of a needle - I never really got that one.