Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Last Day

It was my twenty-first year working as a postman for Royal Mail. Back when I began at the tail end of the 1980s I had been warned a couple of times about getting out while I could. Find something else while you're still young, they told me. Once you've been in the job five years that's it - they'll take out your brain and you'll be stuck doing the same old shit until the day you die. The warning came to mean more as each year plodded by with a hole in one shoe and shooting pains in that shoulder which bears the weight of the delivery bag. After about the fifteenth year I really began to appreciate what had been meant by that warning, but it didn't seem like there was much I could do about it. It was a job, not a lifestyle choice. My options were limited.

The work was tough, and became tougher over the years. Management initiatives obliged workers to cut corners in order to get the job done in the allotted time so as to avoid disciplinary action or even the sack; and these were corners of the kind which would occasionally result in serious injuries to backs, knees, legs, or hips. The job crippled a few people I knew for life. Some grumbling problem with a knee might heal in six weeks, but not when the first week back on the job made it worse with tough, demanding work and long hours on your feet carrying anything up to a hundred kilos of mail each day; and no there weren't always light duties to which one could be assigned for a recuperative period, and yes it was either suffer or pull a sickie and risk dismissal for excessive sick leave; but just so long as we were knuckling down to whatever new working practices kept the economists happy, that was the main thing.

It had become unbearable, but by 2009, the end was in sight. It was time for me to go, and to keep my fingers crossed for whatever the future held turning out better than the crippling present: slogging my nuts off just to afford the Camberwell based Quality Street tin which took most of my wages in rent, and in which I lived mainly because it was close to the work I had to do in order to pay the rent. I handed in my notice, which didn't feel so weird as I always thought it would have done, as my life had become pretty weird by that point anyway; but at least it was changing at long last. I'd spent the previous three years trying hard not to dwell on certain paragraphs from Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly because they were a bit too close to home:

Arctor had hit his head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet directly above him. The pain, the cut in his scalp, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleared away the cobwebs. It flashed on him instantly that he didn't hate the kitchen cabinet: he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.

Probably he should have regretted his decision. He had not. 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 handed in my notice and realised how few of my colleagues I would genuinely miss. Half of the office had stopped talking to me anyway. There had been a strike, and everyone but everyone had agreed that it was bollocks, that a work to rule would be far more effective, and that they weren't going to honour this strike, not this time. We had all had enough. Then the strike came, and everyone went on strike because hey it was a day off. I went into work regardless for reasons already stated, and because I couldn't afford not to. It was strike and make myself homeless whilst remaining on good terms with people who had probably never really been my friends in the first place, or do my shitty job and just about keep a roof over my head.

I had expected the traditional last day I'd seen when old boys packed it in, everyone called off the sorting for a few minutes, a speech, some jokes, and everyone patting Ron or Jeff or Snowy on the back. When my time came I knew not to expect that, because to most of the staff I was just another scab. This made it easier to leave. Andre, who hadn't said a word to me in three months, shuffled up once all of his mates had left to do their deliveries. He shook my hand and muttered that he was sorry about how things had turned out. The people I liked were sad to see me go, or were at least happy for me, and thankfully I had taken Woodward Road as my regular delivery route for those last couple of weeks. The position of the Woodwarde Road sorting frame meant that I was at least among friends. We laughed and joked as usual, as we did most mornings, and I still couldn't quite take in that this would be my last time here, the end to something which had endured for the entirety of my adult life.

The conversation somehow turned to getting caught short whilst out on delivery. I began the job working in Chatham in Kent, a town with many, many alleyways, and with a much earlier starting time than came to be the case in the London offices. It had been fairly easy to find somewhere to take an early morning leak if necessary; but the situation was very different in London, obliging delivery staff to race back to the sorting office in the absence of an accommodating café or public convenience. It being my last day, I decided that I might as well confess my guilty and possibly disgusting secret. I kept an empty plastic two pint milk container in my delivery trolley. If no other options were available, it usually wasn't too difficult to find a dark corner around the side of someone's home in order to make use of this improvised portable urinal. Naturally this set Terry chuckling, it being exactly the sort of thing that tickled him. Jokes were exchanged as we worked, expanding on the theme and making each other laugh all the more. We decided that Royal Mail should commission delivery trolleys with a built in urine storage facility. A strategically placed hole in the side of the trolley would provide access, so one could appear to be simply stood by one's trolley inspecting letters without any member of the public realising you were actually having a sneaky piss.

'What about the postwomen?' I wondered.

Terry explained that their needs could be met by means of some sort of extendible hose attachment with a funnel on the end. By this point I was, as usual, crying with laughter. This was the sort of shit I really was going to miss.

Eventually I had all the mail in the frame. I tied it up, stowed it away in the trolley, and left without ceremony. The few who I liked, who had made working at that place bearable, all wished me well, and I have since kept in touch with them by one means or another. The rest left a bad taste in the mouth, not so much because I had let anyone down - as was clearly the view - but because I felt they had let me down. I had expected better of them than playground politics.

Not talking to you. You smell.

Yet in a sense it helped, serving to cauterise twenty plus years worth of memories, rendering them down into something finite, something which had happened and which no longer really mattered by any terms I could have anticipated.

It was sunny as I pushed the trolley up Woodward Road and began pulling bands from bundles of mail. The load was relatively light for a Saturday, but I didn't feel like rushing around. For once, I could afford to take my time.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Breakfast in Catford

It was coming up to half past nine and I'd made it back to the sorting office in good time, these being the days of the reasonable workload, the two deliveries, back when Royal Mail gave a shit about its people. I pulled open my locker and stuffed my delivery bag and jacket inside.

'Ah - young Lawrence.'

I turned and saw that it was Ernie, one of the old boys tending to his own locker. I liked Ernie. He was a man of few words, and he always gave an impression of finding himself quietly amused by something.

'Hello, Ernie.'

'We'll have to stop meeting like this.' He forced something down inside his locker to make more room. As ever, it was not entirely clear who he was speaking to, whether these were just words he liked the sound of. 'People will start to talk.'

I twisted the key and pulled it from the lock. I went for the stairs as Ernie continued with his monologue.

'Lawrence and Ernie, they'll be saying. Lawrence and Ernie.'

The second door at the top of the stairs led into the canteen whilst the first led directly into the kitchen. When I transferred to Catford in September 1990, the kitchen had been off bounds, the exclusive domain of two cooks employed by an agency called Centra, or something like that.

Breakfast had been good, at least of the standard to which I had become accustomed from working at two previous sorting offices. Breakfast up until that point - and keeping in mind here this would be breakfast for someone who began work well before 6AM - had been two sausages, a fried egg, chips and baked beans, every day without fail, six days a week, forty-nine weeks a year. It wasn't exactly health food, but the work was such that it cancelled out the supposed drawbacks of what was basically a lard and salt regime.

Unfortunately Royal Mail had decided it could make savings by dispensing with Centra contract catering given that our office was supposedly too small to justify a full time canteen. Centra went, as did the chips of my traditional two sausages, fried egg, chips and baked beans, and staff canteen became a Royal Mail duty immediately bagged by Alan Durkin who was fed up of walking around in the pouring rain all morning and had the seniority necessary for the procurement of just such a cushy number. Alan's menu tended to focus more on the egg on toast aspect of breakfast catering, and whilst he made a reasonable job of it, no-one was too worried about him being headhunted by any of those expensive west end eateries.

Now the first door, the kitchen door, was left open so we could place orders as we went through to the canteen. Requests shouted through the hatch would usually be ignored or forgotten. There was only one of him, as Alan Durkin reminded his customers with some frequency, and he had only one pair of hands, one of which usually had a fag on the go.

Today the cigarette was cemented to his lower lip in the manner of Andy Capp in the newspaper cartoon by Reg Smythe. A grey cylinder of ash precariously held its shape at the end of the cigarette as sausages, mushrooms and bacon sizzled in the frying pan immediately below.

'What the fuck do you want?'

I always enjoyed the thrust with which he made the enquiry as though asking who you were and what business you might have in his kitchen.

'Just beans on toast and some bacon please, Alan.'

'Right. About five fucking minutes'

I tried not to think about the ash that could so easily join whatever ingredients he was presently bullying into resembling breakfast.

Alan had been nicknamed Teenage Mutant Ninja Durkin, although most people stuck with just Durkin, content that it already sounded vaguely insulting. He was of a certain type, probably not an alcoholic, but giving it his best shot most evenings and at least a few afternoons. He was loud and impressively offensive, and yet somehow difficult to dislike. The jokes weren't that funny, but you still had to give him credit for trying. Wherever you stood in the sorting office, you were never more than a minute away from Alan making some appalling observation far too loudly.

'We've had a great evening, I'm sure you'll agree, ladies and gentleman,' Billy Playle announced loudly in the wake of one particularly salty Durkin zinger. 'The strippers will be on later, but first I'd like you all to put your hands together for the comedy stylings of Mr. Alan Durkin!'

'Fuck off,' suggested the target of the satire.

'Take my wife,' Billy continued, effecting gruff Durkinesque tones. 'Please...'

I took a seat in the canteen. Micky Evans was setting some of the younger postmen right about the Kray twins, recently subject of a film starring those two blokes out of Spandau Ballet. We had all taken passing interest because some pub on Catford Hill had recently been host to a violent incident relating in some way to the Richardsons. I had never heard of the Richardsons before I came to London, but apparently they had been the south London rivals of the Krays back in the sixties - or something like that. The Krays were of course big names in organised crime, and specifically names which actually made them sound like supervillains.

Richardsons could have been a string of newsagents, so far as I was able to tell, which was possibly why no-one had made a film about them starring those two blokes out of Spandau Ballet.

Anyway, some of the younger postmen had an impression of the Kray twins as not having been much different to Robin Hood apart from there being two of them. They were the lovable rogues of murder. Micky Evans had worked in Deptford at the dockyard in the sixties and recalled in some detail how the management had called in the Krays to help break up a strike.

'They were cunts,' Micky explained. 'Don't let no-one tell you they was anything else. They were horrible cunts.'

Dudley the cleaner stood a little way away, wiping at a smudge on the window with a cloth.

'When I'm cleaning windows,' Tony sang, invoking George Formby and smiling innocently as Dudley turned to glare at him with those sunken Boris Karloff eyes.

Troy was meanwhile readjusting his worldview in accordance with the new information recently supplied by Micky Evans. His name was Mark, but everyone called him Troy following someone pointing out the resemblance to Troy Tempest, the submariner and puppet star of Gerry Anderson's Stingray. It was the eyes and the apparently permanent five o'clock shadow. Also he was quite short. The nickname had stuck with such tenacity that I'd spent my first six months at Catford actually believing it to be his real name.

'When I'm cleaning tables,' Tony sang, now adapting the words of the song to new domestic duties with a cheeky grin.

Dudley looked up from wiping some crap from one of the tables with his cloth. He stared at Tony. He said nothing, but you could tell he was thinking wanker. I could hear some chuckling under the general noise of conversation, a tinny radio, and Alan Durkin telling someone or other to go and fuck themselves.

'Uh oh! Here comes the fat kid!'

His name was Scott, but everyone knew him as Earthquake. He was young and massive with the voice of Bernard Bresslaw. He ran into the canteen and stage dived our group like an enormous happy dog. Chairs scraped quickly back across the floor and only Troy was caught beneath the guffawing mass of our very own delivery manatee.

'You stupid cunt!' Troy groaned, clutching his ribs.

Earthquake chortled and picked himself up, setting chairs straight. Order resumed. 'You still waiting?'

Troy nodded, glancing over towards the hatch.

Earthquake began telling us about the time he'd been taking a dump downstairs, listening to someone evacuate their bowels in the next cubicle along. He had emerged, washed his hands, and watched as a grunting Teenage Mutant Ninja Durkin emerged, returning immediately to the canteen without stopping to wash his own hands.

'That's why I don't bother.' Earthquake sent a distrusting glance towards the kitchen. 'I just have a sandwich or something instead, you know?'

'Troy!' Alan Durkin called out.

A plate was slapped down on the counter. Troy went over to fetch it, and as he sat we could see he now wore a sour expression. He was studying the bacon and eggs as though anticipating fag ends, fingernails, toilet paper, even fecal matter. 'I've gone right off it.'

'When I'm moving chairs...'

A few more people laughed this time.

Dudley stood glowering at his nemesis, hands upon the back of a chair he had been moving over to an empty table.

'Why don't you fuck off.'

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Raven

The first time I moved house, in fact the first time I left home - which was for the purpose of attending college in Maidstone, Kent - with all of my boxes of crap and ephemera unloaded from my dad's car, I set up my stereo and my turntable - or record player as would be its correct title. I wanted to listen to music whilst unpacking and lining up crappy Doctor Who novelisations on a window sill recently washed clean of mildew by some friend of the landlord, and I chose The Raven, the fourth album by the Stranglers.

Ever since then, each time I move house I baptise each new address with The Raven. There's something special about the record. Longships is well placed near the beginning of side one, and has an optimistic thrust without resorting to happy-clapping. It suggests a future full of new and exciting possibilities, and the album as a whole - after more than thirty years - still manages to sound as exciting as the very first time we all piled around Graham's house and sat listening to his copy on the day of its release. Somehow, at least in terms of my own private mythology, The Raven sets things up for the future.

I am now living at the fourteenth address since leaving home three decades ago, the second address to terminate with a country other than the United Kingdom. It has taken me nearly three years during which time I have shipped my record collection over from the old country, bought shelving, set it all up, sought out a new turntable, then an amplifier, and most recently a preamp because regular stores no longer sell amplifiers with phono inputs suited to the low level signal put out by a record player.

Just an hour ago, my preamp arrived in the mail. I am at last sat here listening to The Raven. The unpacking and sorting out and moving in and settling have been long dealt with, but this one undertaking was still to be done.

The Raven still sounds as wonderful as it did that first time.


All is right with the world.

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Texas Chainsaw Defriending

Facebook, for those recently emerging from a lengthy spell of suspended animation and blissfully unfamiliar with the same, is a social networking site. You have your basic facebook account, with people you know - by one definition or another - signed up as your friends. You can exchange messages with your friends on facebook, just as they can exchange messages with you. If one of your friends pisses you off by - for example - suggesting that John Patitucci is a superior jazz-fusion bassist to Jaco Pastorius because Jaco Pastorius plays like a wanker, then you can defriend them. Once defriended, your cloth-eared acquaintance will no longer be able to spread his or her wrong-headed pro-Patitucci lies on your page, nor send you messages. You are effectively dead to one another. That's how it works.

I'm reluctant to write at length about events which have no real existence beyond the internet, mainly for fear of going down the road towards unreadable self-involved blogs written about what someone who poos their pants said on some other blog or on facebook or on Tossr or some other place which doesn't really exist and doesn't matter. I'm reluctant, but sometimes you just have to squeeze out that last drop of poison.

I met Haunty Ghostbum in September 1984, the month in which I first left home and the security of almost everything I had known and understood since being born. I was young, naive, and probably easily impressed. Haunty was a little older than me by a year or so, and he was a fellow student at Maidstone College of Art. I thought his films were terrific, and the music he produced seemed like the work of a genius. He was worldly, talented, funny, and had experienced sexual intercourse with lovely naked ladies on occasions numbering in double figures. He had spiky red hair, obvious confidence, and was a close approximation of the person I believed I wanted to be. Either we became friends or he had a vacancy for a worshipper - I'm not sure which is the more accurate statement, but at the time it felt like the former.

His name wasn't really Haunty Ghostbum, but that's the one I'm using here for the purposes of anonymity and mockery; but if it had been he would have spelled it Hornty Ghostbum, because it's cute to contrast one's darker, more Byronic affectations with the conviction that this life is but a chapter of Winnie the Pooh. Baby talk can be very handy for those who take themselves far too seriously. It implies a sense of humour without the necessary work of having to say anything which is either interesting or funny, leaving one free to get on with the business of being a self-important cock.

Anyway, Hornty and myself were good friends for a couple of years. We drank beer in pubs and laughed loudly at each other's jokes. We helped each other out with our work at college, and told ourselves we were apart from the common herd because we were the real thing 'n' shit. We were starving artists and therefore more valuable as people than all those other wankers. We suffered as we played our Swans albums, and we didn't have rich mummies and daddies to support us, as Hornty testily observed. Actually, it was even worse for Hornty because even though he didn't have rich mummies or daddies to support him, the local council didn't see it that way for reasons I never quite understood, so he didn't get much of a grant either. He was therefore forced to work for a living to support himself whilst taking the course, and he was forced to take speed in order to work a night shift contemporaneous to turning up at college during the day; and then some drug dealers put heroine in his speed and made him be a junkie like the skinny man on the telly adverts that you used to see in the eighties. Our pampered, rich mummy and daddy having fellow students - what the hell did they know about anything?

Based on not much more than having some of the same records, our friendship became strained as we came to the final year of the course and I learned how to hold civilised conversations with people of different hairstyles, musical tastes, and even those supported by rich mummies and daddies. It became strained but it held because I guess he had pissed off just about everyone else he knew by that point; or at least they had fallen out with him, which was mostly their fault. He had enemies. Even the people with whom he shared a succession of houses were enemies, with their slightly different dress sense and failure to recognise his dark genius. Girlfriends were enemies, or became enemies after the first six to eight months, by which point the current controlling harpie castratrix was usually no longer able to understand the profound depths of Hornty and his frowning seriousness, leaving him no choice but to start shagging someone else and write a few grimacing songs about the evil one who had understood not the tenebrous passion of his troubled genius. Every six to eight months it seemed like there was some new raven-tressed and back-combed Elvira, and I could only watch and admire his apparently hypnotic charm as all those notches began to diminish the structural integrity of his bedposts, I who had done it with a lady about a year before and without so much as a tickle since. He even made moves on the girl in my house during the months when I let him sleep on the couch in our spare room. He'd been made homeless by some enemies or something that absolutely couldn't have been his own fault, and there he was in my kitchen sliming all over Claire, apparently unaware of her finding his advances obvious and faintly ridiculous.

I felt a little as though my hospitality was being abused.

'You're pissing me off something rotten, Lol,' he growled at me before retiring for the evening, Lol here being the short form of Lawrence, an abbreviation I've never enjoyed.

I joined his band but was found to be lacking musical ability. It was a fair judgement and so naturally I was asked to leave. I had let him down, Hornty told me. He had pulled strings and had words so as to get me in the group, and I had let him down. I had betrayed him. I had peed upon his cornflakes like the traitorous cow-son I undoubtedly was. It was definitively the end of our friendship, although only now, thirty or so years later, have I realised this.

I moved to the Medway towns as my degree course came to an end. I would visit Hornty, but he had new friends. He never came over to see me in my bedsit, not once during the entire two years of my time in Chatham when even his girlfriend of the time - whom I didn't know particularly well - visited me, although it wasn't exactly a social call. He'd spent a year working on her, raising her up. He was turning her into Jarboe of the Swans with the braids and everything - a perfect complement to his supermarket's own brand Michael Gira. He was pushing her towards art education, but she had probably been trying to control him without even realising it, and so he had been left with no choice but to knob some other girl he'd met in the pub. She was distraught, and she no longer had quite so many of her own friends because Hornty had made them all go away for her own good, helping her to see how they weren't really her friends. The fact of her having turned to me of all people didn't say much about her situation. I listened and agreed that Hornty had been a complete tosser, because he had, and I'd begun to recognise the pattern, the six to eight months cycle.

'I don't even want to go to art college,' she told me. 'I'm not interested in it. Can you understand that?'

I could.

I moved away and what small thread of contact we had maintained reduced to nothing. My friend Carl encountered Hornty by chance and so my name came up. Carl mentioned that I was in a group called Konstruktivists and seemed to be doing well for myself. This seemed to make Hornty angry, for some reason.

Cyclical nostalgia brought me back into Hornty's orbit years later, a few evening-sized snapshots of his decline spread across the nineties. I always believed we would laugh and catch up on old times and become friends again just as we had been in my imagination, but he always came back with some weirdly confrontational performance - the continuing saga of his endless suffering, the latest teenage girlfriend as we both hit our mid-thirties. She had probably trapped him into being a daddy. He'd probably insisted on wearing a rubber johnny but she had controlled him not to, and now he would be forced to get out the old vodka telescope and look for someone else. How the hell could I ever hope to understand such pain, such struggle? I with my fancy London ways and sipping alcopops with the drummer from Menswear in Camden Town and thinking I'm all lush but really I'm not - what the hell did I know about anything?

The band for which I played guitar supported Hornty's grimacing karaoke turn - the same under-appreciated songs about enemies and self hatred and all that good stuff wheeled out for their tenth anniversary with a backing tape because no fucker who ever joined his band was still talking to him by the end of the year; and he managed to work an entire decades worth of passive-aggressive into that encounter. I wrote about it at length, then glued the essay to the internet with certain reservations. I needn't have worried. Hornty was never really interested in anything occurring external to himself, and so naturally he never read it.

Then facebook was invented, and here we are again. Hornty now operates as Hornty Ghostposterior because it sounds more Victorian and more serious. He tags me in a picture of the new girlfriend for reasons that I don't really understand but which feel weirdly like bragging. My Sally, reads the proud caption, then, tagged in this photograph: Lawrence Burton. We catch up, and I tell him that I've written a novel which has been published. I describe some of what it is about.

It sounds like my novel, he observes, presumably as a compliment and as ever surprised by nothing. So I look up his novel. It is self-published on Amazon, moody photographs of Chatham interspersed with lines of dark, pensive poetry. I fail to see any common ground between what we have done.

He announces the publication of his novel on a facebook page made for the purpose of promoting his work, mostly downloads of those same songs from the late teenage years three decades earlier, still with the same old bollocks about enemies and introspection and suffering so much more than anyone else. I have written a book, he tells us, it is of course quite horrid, because we all know him so well, all of us fans.

Oh that Hornty!, we exclaim as one, our hands batting the air as we pull faces of amused indulgence, what is he like!

Uncle Lawrence is being mean to Hornty, he later observes in response to something else, referring to himself in third person and still apparently talking like a character out of Winnie the Pooh. I inspect the sentence I have written once again and cannot see how it has been taken out of context, how it can have been read as any sort of criticism. Later I discover that he's drunk most of the time, and such misunderstandings are now common.

The new girlfriend and I become facebook friends in accordance with Hornty's wishes, that I may thus appreciate the girth of his creative magnificence and how he has all the really fit birds beating a path to his door. He spends his time painting and sharing virtual cigars with fellow artists, mostly the people he spent the eighties slagging off, so I suppose he can no longer afford to be so choosy. Because the new girlfriend and I have become facebook friends in accordance with Hornty's wishes, I notice her becoming distinctly upset and unhappy around the six to eight months mark.

I hope this won't seem too nosey, I enquire, but I was just wondering...

History has of course repeated, and this time the inside story is worse than I could have imagined. My advice to the new girlfriend amounts to run and don't look back, and I decide I want no further association with Hornty or any of his manipulative self-involved bullshit. I could defriend, but instead I unfollow - meaning we remain facebook friends but I no longer see anything he posts. There's always a possibility that he might once again turn up in response to something I have said in a status message, but as he doesn't really seem interested in anyone else other than as mirrors in which his genius may be reflected, it seems unlikely.

I make no online reference to him for many months.

On the 23rd of October, 2014 I watch the beginning of a television show which inspires me to opine online as follows:

I've just had a look at Peaky Blinders. I made it to about seven minutes and that seemed like plenty. Looked like a Nine Inch Nails video or a steampunky Who episode, grim, gritty, high contrast picture, shaky camera, and a Nick chuffing Cave title song. All that's missing is Cucumber or James bloody Nesbitt. Are there any really good reasons why I need to bother with any of the rest of it? Anyone?

Within forty minutes Hornty Ghostposterior returns from the wilderness to set me straight, although I initially simply assume him to be drunk and having a fight with himself.

Or would you rather have Big Bang Theory, which puts us all in the gutter. Nothing is perfect. Ooòo crossss!!!!

This is the most bewildering part of his commentary. The Big Bang Theory is a situation comedy of which I have seen roughly five minutes in total, five minutes I disliked with sufficient venom to put me off watching the thing at any greater length. I have no idea why Hornty offers this particular show as counterweight, and wonder if it could even be that he suspects I'm probably a fan given my fancy London ways and sipping alcopops with the drummer from Menswear in Camden Town and thinking I'm all lush but really I'm not. All I can tell for sure is that he is angry, or at least crossss with me. Ooòo crossss!!!!, he taunts, presumably mocking what he anticipates as my reaction to the righteous truths he hath brought forth down from Mount Sinai on carven tablet. That'll teach me to take the piss out of either cod-gothic-bollocks or possibly Nick Cave. How do I like those apples!? Minutes later he announces that something or other is ironic, but it's anyone's guess as to what that could be.

Next day he declares on his facebook page that he has defriended me, cast me out into the wilderness that I may no longer take succour from his announcements about having recorded the four-hundredth version of a song he wrote in 1983, and then he deletes the declaration. We are not friends. I guess maybe we never were.

I am surprised by how much pleasure this realisation brings; and I am surprised at how much fun I have writing about it.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Last of the Sumer Wine

The Goddess Ishtar did one day come out from the wood crafted door of the ziggurat and began to wash the step, cleaning desert sand and mud from the brick with a pale of water. Hidden near to the ziggurat within a mulberry bush were Enkidu, Gilgamesh, and Utnapishtim. As ever, Utnapishtim wore upon his face a faraway look as though lost in thought. Enkidu on the other hand jostled forth, regarding the Goddess with lascivious intent. He licked his lips and rearranged his crude woollen headpiece saying, 'By heck, Gilgamesh, were it not for the dampness of my sandals, I would believe that we were in heaven.'

'Well, she certainly is a vision,' conceded Gilgamesh. 'I'll give you that much.'

Ishtar, sensing the consideration of unseen eyes, paused in her work and looked out from the balcony, her gaze ranging across the great city of Uruk from one doorway to the next. 'Who speaks? Who is here that dare not show themselves?' She raised up the wooden handle of the implement with which she had been making her work. Her lips pursed together as though she had eaten of some bitter fruit.

The mulberry bush sneezed, rattling its leaves and boughs before coming to bloom with conversation.

'You stupid great lump!'

The thin, high voice of Utnapishtim came forth like a timid bird, halting but not quite apologetic. 'Well perhaps if we had not taken such a route through the marshes. It plays havoc with my sinuses.'

'I'll play havoc with your sinuses in a minute!'

A third voice offered amused commentary. 'I think he means to punch you on the nose, Utnapishtim.'

'Yes, well that's his answer to everything.'

'Well, he is a wild man, after all. Pinched from clay of the stuff of the firmament by Aruru, unless I'm very much mistaken.'

'I'll pinch you in a minute!'

Ishtar's brow turned dark and she called out, 'All right you three idiots, I know you're there. You may as well show yourselves before I set the temple guards on you.'

Enkidu emerged, turning back to his two companions as they followed, and yet keeping both twinkling eyes and an unseemly smile trained upon the enraged Goddess. 'My lady beckons! Methinks the time has come when my rustic charms have at last worked their magic, as unto the shepherd's crook upon his wandering flock.'

The lady Ishtar stepped back a little way, fearful of the trio and yet reluctant to reveal that fear. 'Yes, it's the wandering that bothers me - the wandering hands!'

Now Enkidu ran forward to the base of the temple, gazing up with eyes made heavy by devotion, and by the strong desire that he might plant his wild, manly seed within the fundament of the Goddess. 'You know you're gorgeous when you're angry.'

Gilgamesh, now fully emerged from the bush and stood alongside the taller third of their group, showed a face of great wryness. 'Not just when she's angry either, but most other times as well. That's our Enkidu for you. He's nothing if not consistent in his affections.'

Utnapishtim effected to shudder as though stricken with thoughts of death. 'Please - I'd rather not give too much consideration to his consistency. I'm sure the bit about the clay was a euphemism.'

Ishtar was again at the edge of the overhang raining blow after blow down upon the hapless and yet happy wild man. 'You're disgusting, you are! Get away from here!'

Enkidu's great hair-covered paws reached upwards to the heavens, his fingers opening and closing like grapples. 'You know that wrinkled flax robe drives me wild.'

'You're already wild, you fool!'

Friday, 28 November 2014

Everyone Loves Sid

My wife told me we'd be going to Brackenridge Park on Wednesday evening because Sid had hired a clown. Our Wednesday evenings at Brackenridge Park had been a regular event over previous summers. Bess's mother would pick Junior up from school, and Bess herself would come home from work, and we would all meet at the park to watch Sid run and to cheer him on. Every Wednesday runners from all over San Antonio would meet to run two miles through the woodland surrounding the park between half past six and seven; and Sid was always amongst them. For innumerable reasons we had fallen out of the habit this year, although Sid was still there every week, and this time he'd hired a clown.

'Why has he hired a clown?' I asked.

'To keep the kids entertained,' Bess told me.

It seemed as good a reason as any, so I didn't give it any further thought.

Sid is probably the closest I have to a father-in-law. My wife's biological father is still alive, but the two of them have had a chequered history. He separated from Bess's mother a couple of years after the birth of their two children, and eventually ended up getting remarried to Johnny Cash's cousin. My wife still speaks to him, although they've never really been what you would call close. Bess's elder brother on the other hand won't even acknowledge the fellow's existence. I met him once, but the last couple of years have not been kind. He didn't understand who I was, and he didn't even seem to recognise his own daughter. He has good days and bad days, and that was one of the latter.

Sid isn't really my father-in-law. Aside from the above, he and Bess's mother never married, and to be honest I'm not even sure quite what shape their relationship has taken over the years and I'm not inclined to pry. What is certain is that he has been a good friend to the family, and that everyone thinks he's great. My wife has a theory that she was initially coaxed into running as a pastime in the hope that it would soak up some of the excess energy which made her such a lively child. Whilst it's debatable whether this actually worked, it instilled in her a lifelong appreciation of running, and by association a generally high standard of health. Sid took Bess under his wing when she was about eight and got her running regular marathons, and he did the same for her brother who memorably aced the full 26.2 miles in three hours and ten seconds at the age of ten, beating Sid's own personal best of three hours and twenty-nine seconds. Sid, now into his seventies, continues to run, having been a runner all his life, and has been known to finish the two mile Brackenridge Park circuit in thirteen minutes.

I first encountered Sid three years ago when I came to live here. It was a memorable experience, although we barely exchanged a word when we first met one afternoon at the IHOP restaurant on Broadway. Being from rural Warwickshire in England, I don't have a wide experience of Jewish people beyond a few isolated individuals and whatever I've picked up from the media. Whilst I'm aware that this will probably sound ridiculous to some, just as it now does to me, I never imagined that Texas would have any sort of significant Jewish population, but it turns out that it does. The only reason this makes any difference at all is because this made Sid appear quite exotic to my eyes, as I suppose I may also have done to his. He seemed characteristically Texan in most respects, improbably tall and with a tendency to deliver slow, thoughtful sentences punctuated by lengthy, possibly contemplative pauses. Contrary to the image fostered by all those John Wayne films, there is gentle quality to the stereotypically huge Texan male, and it is a quality one might not have any good reason to anticipate; but as I have found again and again, nothing in this state is ever quite as it may appear from the other side of the border. Hollywood Texans will be brash and demonstrative, but the reality is that most of the year is far too hot for such nonsense, and I've yet to meet any significant quota of Texans so insecure that they feel a need to live up to the bullish stereotype.

Sid has therefore been the most characteristically Texan man I've thus far met in many respects, and he's also Jewish, which makes him immediately interesting and exotic from my point of view; although it's difficult to quite say why this should be without my worrying that it will sound a bit weird. Never mind.

We arrived at the park, myself, my wife, and Junior. We fed the ducks, and then wandered around to the trestle tables set up for the runners who, finishing the two miles, would soon come along for water or soda or something to eat. There weren't too many people yet, but there were some younger children and the clown.

'Sid hired Daisy Bee!' my wife exclaimed, incredulous.

'What language are you talking?'

She indicated the woman in the face paint and huge red shoes presently bending colourful balloons into animal shapes. 'That's Daisy Bee. She costs a fortune. We hired her for your second birthday, do you remember?'

My wife now glanced back at her son, who didn't remember and so shook his head. I didn't remember either, all of this having been before my time.

'She costs a fortune?'

'Like a couple of hundred dollars, but she's very good.'

We took to a bench as the first of the runners arrived, exhausted but happy to have crossed the finish line. The notion that Sid had splashed out on a top of the range clown just for the random entertainment of what was presently only a handful of children began to seem a little thin, and particularly given all the hot-dogs presently being barbecued, and the big, square birthday cake on the table.

Realisation dawned.

It had been Sid's birthday the week before, but it seemed he had decided to celebrate tonight, here and in the park. Being Sid, this was a detail he had neglected to mention. Always the man of mystery.

More and more runners arrived, swelling slowly to a crowd. We looked over towards the finish line hoping to see Sid - head and shoulders above everyone else - just as it had been when our Wednesday evening at the park had been a regular fixture. It was getting dark, and although we couldn't see him, his name bobbed up from the hubbub of conversation.

Daisy Bee was now making balloon parasols, shrieking away to a growing flock of giggling children. 'I don't know what he looks like,' she told one of the runners as she worked the balloons. 'All I know is some guy called Sid hired me.'

The sound of the crowd swelled on a moment of excitement. Sid had been spotted. We looked over towards the trees and saw a tall man. Somebody had stuck a large novelty pimp hat upon his head, all floppy dayglo felt and feathers. He came towards the tables at his usual leisurely post-athletic pace to a wave of applause. It was like being backstage at a rock concert, but with running as the medium which had brought us together. Everyone loves Sid, I thought to myself.

By the time we'd made our way through his crowd of fans and admirers, he'd already swapped his flamboyant hat for an elaborate Daisy Bee creation, something like a papal mitre in coloured balloons.

'Mr. Burton,' Sid smiled and observed the usual lengthy pause before concluding the greeting. 'Glad you all could make it.'

'Happy birthday, Sid,' we told him.

We talked a while amongst the chaos of backs slapped and cake passed across shoulders on paper plates. Sid introduced us to Mark, his nephew who had come all the way from Memphis to be here this evening; and he introduced us to everybody else as his family; and I'd never really considered it before, but I guess we were.

Everyone loves Sid.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Red Christmas

I sometimes wonder whether it's really fair to preserve the anonymity of a former partner specifically by referring to her as either Dora the Explorer or Edna Mode from The Incredibles, cover identities chosen because she resembled both and I take cathartic pleasure from the admittedly venomous intent of such references. Perhaps, on consideration it is both childish and unfair, and after all, neither Nickelodeon nor Pixar have ever said a bad word about me, at least not so far as I know. Perhaps I need to take a different approach to this...

I met Dora Mode from The Explorables during the summer of 2005 as I was delivering her mail. By October we were romantically involved, and by November I'd been asked if I would like to spend Christmas with her at her mother's house in Richmond, Surrey. I was overjoyed and I said yes, taking the invitation as an indication that this relationship would be going somewhere, or at least that it would probably stop being quite so shit at some point in the near future.

The mother in question was old, frail, and in her nineties. She came from a wealthy upper class family, and had once worked as secretary to someone significantly ministerial in France. I had the impression she may once have been the just sort of girl to catch the eye of Cary Grant as he played the fruit machines of Monte Carlo, a giggling débutante who could probably knock back her own weight in cocktail olives on one bar tab - for all of her possible failings, an ultimately good natured soul. Unfortunately she was also the cause of everything bad that had ever happened to Dora Mode of The Explorables, at least according to the whining testimony of the endlessly wronged child.

We stood on the doorstep late Christmas Eve. The door opened. The old woman was clearly delighted to see her only daughter, but the feeling was less than mutual.

'Hello Mum,' Dora Mode of The Explorables chirped with the weary resignation of an Ealing comedy policeman catching a serial safe-cracker once again up to his old tricks. She breezed through to the kitchen and began removing things from the fridge, checking the sell-by date on each and registering trace elements of disgust with tutting noises. 'Oh Muuuum,' she whined, barely able to conceal either her revulsion, or the pleasure she took in her revulsion.

Christmas morning came as a welcome distraction from Dora Mode of The Explorables' seemingly endless round of complaints and observations regarding the myriad ways in which the frail old woman had let everyone down - the numerous criteria by which she had apparently failed as both a mother and a human being. Of the many criticisms expressed, there were few I could really see as being either justified or worth worrying over, or as necessarily having any bearing on anyone other than the old woman herself. My girlfriend ground her teeth with unalloyed rage over the state of the vast mansion which was her mother's home. The place could have been in better shape: a cracked window pane here, maybe a careless splash of paint intruding upon a skirting board there or a washer requiring replacement. I had the impression that Dora Mode of The Explorables was mainly concerned about how much work would need to be done before she could sell the house once she had inherited it, and the rest of her testimony was just the usual passive-aggressive coercion by which she interacted with people, that being her principal means of communication; but as I say, Christmas morning had come.

Dora's mother beamed and clapped her hands softly together like a charming Victorian child. 'Oh goody!'

I opened one present. Dora Mode of The Explorables had bought me a green and black knitted woollen sweater with matching gloves and hat. I liked the sweater but the gloves and hat seemed weird, something that would be worn by a website designer named Toby as he dropped Jessica off for her violin lesson, a man who was like really into Dylan at the moment, yeah?

A few weeks after the relationship had been declared official, Dora Mode of The Explorables had told me that she was not going to try to change me because - in her own words - she had learned from past experience that it never worked. I had foolishly said that I didn't really mind, and so she took this as an enthusiastic invitation, and I became her project.

At the time I favoured plain white shirts with a suit, a little worn but not actually scruffy - dark jacket and trousers and occasionally with a tie if I was feeling a bit snazzy. I never felt comfortable with any sort of affected Bohemian look, and still believe that a person who is truly able to express their personality through the way they dress probably doesn't have much of a personality to express. Additionally, the suit had worked well for me in Mexico. I guess I didn't look so smart as to suggest I was worth robbing, but neither did I seem like a tourist - smart but not officiously so. This was what a couple of people told me in any case. Dora Mode of The Explorables said that I dressed like an old man and that I needed to get with it, and it didn't seem worth arguing because I was usually either wrong or just plain stubborn.

I liked the sweater, but at the same time it made me feel sad. My one true love had given me a present which could quite easily have come from one of those aunts seen only every few years, usually at either a wedding or a funeral. It didn't say much for our relationship.

The other present was a box about the size of a packet of Jacob's cream crackers. This seemed more promising, more suggestive of possibilities. The present turned out to be four short lengths of curved track for a Hornby clockwork model railway of the 1920s, still in the original slightly dusty box. The track was, so far as I could tell, made of tin and was a little rusted. At some point during the previous three months I'd told Dora Mode of The Explorables how I had loved model railways as a child.

'I hope it didn't set you back too much.' I was trying to work out why someone would shell out what I presumed would have been steep collectors' prices for something of such esoteric interest, something which made no sense in isolation.

'I found it in the store cupboard at the back of the toy shop. It seemed a shame to throw it out, but I could never quite work out who to give it to.'

Merry Christmas. Here's something I stole from work.

She elaborated, returning with relish to the recurring theme of how she felt she had deserved a little payback from that place. She often spoke of the one previous job I recall her mentioning in such terms as the sort of grinding shit we all have to put up with from time to time as we work the post, the buses, security guard, canning factory, on the bins, street sweeper, or a couple of months behind the till of a toy shop in West Dulwich. We've all been there. We've all had to carry that weight.

Christmas dinner came and went, most of it taken up with Dora Mode of The Explorables' commentary regarding how her mother had ruined Christmas dinner in addition to everything else.

'I would have enjoyed some bread sauce,' the old woman sighed quietly to herself as her only child launched into further critical discourse punctuated with resentful mouthfuls of turkey.

Christmas came and went, and then came and went again. The second year was at Dora Mode of The Explorables' home, with her mother being delivered by taxi on the morning itself. The day was about as festive as its predecessor and by this time I realised that the old lady and myself would have enjoyed it more without the presence of the one person we had in common.

The last Christmas was preceded by my announcing that I was looking for a flat of my own. I had moved in with Dora Mode of The Explorables because there didn't seem to be any other option, and I hoped it might be the detail our relationship had been missing, the element which finally got everything working. Nevertheless I had also feared it would prove to be a mistake, and sure enough it was. After about six months I felt like killing myself, by which I don't mean that I was having me a big ol' sad, but that some days I would lay in my hot bath after work and consider all that I had heard about its benefits as a crucible in which one might open up a major artery or two. Life with Dora Mode of The Explorables was dark and joyless beyond anything I had been able to imagine, and I knew that escape could only be affected by means of gargantuan effort. I wasn't sure if I had the willpower left to do so.

It turned out that I did. I reasoned that a leap in the dark would land me in a better place, because nothing could be as terrible as the present; and so I began looking at horrible flats the size of rabbit hutches for which I could barely afford rent. I told Dora Mode of The Explorables that this would be the best thing for our relationship, because we would no longer be living on top of one another. We would have room to breath.

The first few places I saw were unbelievably bad, but I kept on looking because I knew that once I was gone, I would never have to see Dora Mode of The Explorables or deal with her aggressive and psychotic insecurity ever again. All I had to do was keep her happy for another couple of weeks, or if not happy, at least disinclined to hump all my shit out onto the street and set fire to it.

I had already ruined the last Christmas with my stated desire to move out, but regardless of this, I bought her a tin opener and a stuffed owl. I had, against all expectations, found a flat in Camberwell which if extortionately priced and tiny, was at least clean and had not recently been used as a shooting gallery. I was on the home stretch, just a few weeks left in which to sit and wait for the end of my sentence.

Dora Mode of The Explorables had once phoned me at work, asking me to come home and open a tin of cat food. For some reason she was unable to open this particular tin of cat food under her own steam, so I had to suspend everything and cycle back because this was the sort of thing a truly loving boyfriend would do for his sweetie, and because I had no choice, and my obstinacy and selfishness had been noted.

'Pringle is meowing,' she informed me testily, apparently adding animal cruelty to the list of my crimes.

So I bought her a tin opener for that last Christmas, an expensive model from a pretentious kitchenware boutique that had recently appeared at the lower end of Lordship Lane. It was well made, an ostentatious precision tool by which even Dora Mode of The Explorables' feeble hands would be able to open the toughest, craggiest tin of Whiskas. It was to be my replacement.

The stuffed owl was something to which she had specifically directed me with the words I'm going to tell you what I want for Christmas this year so that you don't mess it up again. We had seen the owls in one of Dulwich's many gift shops, suppliers of pretentious knick-knackery to the overmoneyed and vacuous. They were hand sewn from recycled materials, and each one sold funded the travel expenses of either Sting or Bono visiting a deprived village in Africa, or something of the sort. Dora Mode of The Explorables resembled an owl in a certain light, and seemed to have a thing about the creatures. I suspect she regarded an owl of some description as her spirit animal, but had probably decided I wouldn't understand and so had never deigned to discuss it.

Her world was informed by all manner of personal esoteric beliefs, mostly derived from wishy-washy new-age sources and self help literature - feng shui, the power of positive thinking, whatever drippy motivational crap was filling column inches that week - which could be adopted without having to think too hard about any of it. Anything which provided an explanation for why her life hadn't turned out quite how she wanted besides that which involved her own agency was always welcome. If she appeared unemployable, it might be a misaligned chair blocking the flow of ley lines emanating from the front room. She once took all the doors in the house off their hinges so as to allow for the free passage of positive energy, then had to put most of them back on when winter turned the place into an icebox. One element of this custom mythology was the colour red. Its apparent significance explained a home-made motivational message handwritten on a piece of paper and blutacked to the wall behind the telephone:

I am the red light that calls people to stop what they are doing, to come out to play and have fun.

Dora Mode of The Explorables' life coach had probably drawn this one up for her, or out of her or whatever. Unfortunately, Dora Mode of The Explorables' presence was not something which caused people to have fun in my experience, quite the opposite in fact; and no amount of motivational mantras were going to change that. I often wondered if it ever occurred to her that the associations of red lights were generally quite different, mostly serving as a warning or else prohibiting some action, both of which struck me as greatly more suited to her personality. Anyway, the point is that she liked red so I coughed up the twenty quid, bought the owl, and wrapped it in red paper.

The last Christmas came.

She opened the package containing the tin opener, and regarded it as though I'd bought her a butt plug for Christmas. She had taken it as a token of my sarcasm, which surprisingly it wasn't.

'That isn't your main present,' I squeaked, trying hard to appear confident, or at least to avoid sounding like I was delivering the apology she would almost certainly soon demand.

She opened the second box, carefully so as to avoid tearing the precious magic red paper. The stuffed owl sat inside its clear plastic packaging. Dora Mode of The Explorables stared at it for a moment before speaking. 'Did you keep the receipt?'

I tried to work out what could be wrong, given that she had specifically asked for this one. I felt a surge of panic bordering on terror. 'Yes. Do you not like it?'

'I wanted the red one.'

There had been a number of owls in the shop, all different colours, and I recalled that she had been looking at a red variant when we were there on the browse. The one I had bought was the last owl left, and was pale blue in colour.

I handed over the receipt and we didn't discuss it again. The next day I noticed that the red wrapping paper had been carefully flattened out and pinned on the wall as though it were a poster.

Months later, once we had separated following one of the most enjoyable rows I've ever had the pleasure to inspire, she admitted that the tin opener had come in very useful. She had grown determined to view our split as a trial separation at the end of which we would surely be reunited, all the stronger for the experience. She may simply have been scratching around for whatever she thought would make me happy, or she could have been telling the truth.

Years later, once the nightmare was finally over, I sold the vintage model railway track on eBay. It turned out that it wasn't in great condition, despite having the original box, and two lengths of the track that would have originally been included were absent.

Some bloke gave me a fiver for it.

Maybe I should have bought her a butt plug.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Bat Problem

One of the more aggravating aspects of being a postman - as I was for over two decades of my life - is dealing with dissatisfied members of the public, and managing to keep from losing one's rag in the face of severe provocation. Those to whom we deliver mail might find themselves justifiably aggrieved at a perceived drop in quality of service, in which case it always seemed important to listen carefully, and to reach for a full understanding of the nature of the complaint in order to resolve it. On the other hand the supposedly injured party was often simply some nutcase lacking the intelligence to spot when something was actually their fault and who, ill-suited to anything resembling responsibility, has decided that the most sensible course of action is to pick a fight with some poor fucker in a blue shirt. Generally such nutcases were easily identified by either the available evidence or basic common sense, and at least a few Royal Mail employees have held to the view that under such circumstances a little retaliation is sometimes justified because, contrary to the popular business mantra, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is very much mistaken; and sometimes the customer is a complete arsehole.

With regard to giving back a little of that which one has received, at the lowest end of the scale we have what might be termed permissible sarcasm, as deployed in situations where the complaint rests upon some factor beyond anyone's control.

'Excuse me, Postman,' the woman calls from her doorstep as torrential rain sluices across the garden path in sheets. She holds in her hand an envelope which has just come through the letterbox. 'Could you please tell me why my mail is wet this morning.'

Charlie Carr, a gentle old alcoholic presently soaked to the skin, having been working in the pouring rain for the previous hour and a half, smiles with the patience and good grace of John le Mesurier as he explains, 'I do apologise, madam. I really have no idea.'

Others have occasionally taken a more proactive approach, notably John Haddock who routinely told disgruntled members of the public to stuff contested or otherwise contentious items of mail up their arses, often reiterating the suggested direction of insertion with a helpfully illustrative hand gesture. Sadly, he had usually been given good reason for the suspension of the conventional etiquette of the complaints procedure.

Whilst certain complaints may be justified, others have ranged from the misinformed to the just plain annoying; for example, the albino gentleman in Crystal Palace Road who would regularly traipse up to the sorting office to complain that his mail, once through the letterbox of his front door, had landed on the wrong side of the hall he shared with the other tenant. After the third or fourth time he showed up to make the complaint, the boss himself went to the front desk and told the guy to piss off and to not bother coming back if he wished to continue getting any mail at all.

For some reason, I myself rarely had any significant trouble with enraged members of the general public wishing to know what was keeping the postal order that had been mailed to them back in 1963 or the like. Most times when people complained directly to me, it was usually something I was able to resolve, with a couple of exceptions.

There was the woman at the upper end of Lordship Lane who began to receive abusive mail from an unbalanced acquaintance, and because the unbalanced acquaintance was concerned that the abuse should reach the one to whom it was directed, had written additional instructions and advice on the back of the envelope for my benefit. By this means she informed me that she knew what was going on with the mail, and that I had better pack it in because she was watching, and she knew where I lived, and she was personal friends with the postmaster general, despite the fact that he hadn't existed since 1969 when the position was abolished under the Post Office Act.

The first of these letters was quite entertaining, at least for me, but they came every few days, each time with a weirder and more threatening message scribbled on the envelope for my benefit. Eventually I told the boss, and he had some Royal Mail internal security people investigate. The letters stopped.

The next campaign of this kind came a few years later, written upon the envelopes of mail addressed to someone living at 2, Glengarry Road. The messages implied that I consistently misdelivered this mail to some other specific address, and the person living there was reposting the mail with helpful words of advice scribbled across the envelope: Why don't you learn to read?, in the crabby handwriting of someone apparently shaking with anger, or buy a pair of glasses!

The problem for me was that, regarding setting this one right, the mechanism of whatever postal screw up had inspired these messages was unclear, although it seemed reasonable to assume that I had accidentally delivered these letters to an address other than 2, Glengarry Road. I rang the bell at 2, Glengarry Road and the door was eventually answered by a woman of considerable age. I explained that I was apparently in the habit of misdelivering her mail and apologised for the testy annotations written by some anonymous third party. I tried to assure her that I would do my best to make sure that it did not happen again. I had been delivering to this particular route of around eight-hundred houses regularly for at least a couple of years. I knew most of the people to whom I delivered mail by name, and it's not like I ever had days where I thought to myself, you know, I don't think I'll bother reading the addresses this morning. I'll just stick this crap in any old letter box. I doubt anyone will notice.

The old woman didn't seem to quite know who I was or what I was talking about. She held the letters in her shrunken hand and stared at them. 'I think these must be for Donald,' she said eventually. 'They aren't mine.'

I could see past her that the house had been divided into two flats, upstairs and downstairs, as were a few dwellings of this type along the same road. She was not the only occupant.

Still, despite my best efforts, the letters kept coming back to me every couple of months, the same address and the increasingly abusive comments: It's no wonder Royal Mail is failing so bad when they employ idiots like you, and then the bewildering have you got a bat problem? in furious upper case. My eyesight, intelligence, and parentage had been called into question and it was beginning to piss me off.

About twenty yards from 2, Glengarry Road was 2A, Glengarry Road, another house divided into flats stood upon the corner with East Dulwich Grove. It had occurred to me that the most obvious possible mistake was that I had been mixing up the mail of these two addresses, so I had been extremely careful to avoid doing so. I therefore assumed that if, despite my best efforts, I really had still been delivering mail addressed for one to the letterbox of the other, then I probably had a brain tumour or some major cognitive dysfunction. I called at 2A, Glengarry Road with the letter addressed to 2, Glengarry Road, the one which had been returned with the suggestion that I might have a bat problem. The girl who answered the door denied ever having accused me of having a bat problem and, to my surprise, recognised the name of the person to which the letter was addressed. He lived in the flat above her own.

At last I understood.

An individual living at 2A, Glengarry Road was sent mail by a person or persons who had assumed that the A detail referred to his occupation of a flat within a building rather than to the building itself, and was therefore wrongly addressing his mail to 2, Glengarry Road, which is where I'd been delivering it. Whilst I was able to remember the names of many people to whom I delivered mail, this tended to break down where multiple occupancies were concerned, there usually being too many names to recall, and so many tenants coming and going that it was difficult to keep track.

Therefore there was a person living at 2, Glengarry Road other than the old woman, and a person who had accused me of having a bat problem because his receiving incorrectly addressed mail was apparently destroying his life, and somehow this was my fault. There followed another few months of my keeping an eye on the names at the two addresses before I at last worked out who I was dealing with.

His name was Donald Jones. He was in his late fifties and had already distinguished himself as potentially seeming a little rude. He always wore a battered leather jacket and leather trousers, all fully zipped up as though having recently arrived by motorcycle. He had a sour, unkind face, and walked slowly as though having shat himself. I'd said good morning to him a couple of times, as I did to everyone because there's never a good reason not to, but he would never respond, instead regarding me with apparent disdain as though I'd greeted him with what's up, gangsta? I didn't bother after that. It's not like you have to be friends with everyone.

The day finally came. He shuffled towards me along the pavement, as ever in the leathers.

'Excuse me, might I ask if you've been having some problem with your mail of late?'

He spoke with the voice of a tiny rodent, a faint noise like someone drawing back a curtain in an old house. 'The letters for next door keep coming to us. Our regular postman—'

'I've been your regular postman for about three years now. By next door I assume you mean 2A, Glengarry Road.'

'No, I live at—'

'You live at 2, Glengarry Road. I know. You're getting mail for the house on the corner though?'

The uncomfortable half-smile faded a little. 'I know it's not you. When you're on holiday and they put another postman on—'

'Oh you see but it is me, because I haven't been on holiday since about September. You see the thing is that in situations such as this I tend to recommend that when a wrongly delivered letter comes to your house, a letter which should have been delivered next door, the best course of action is usually to walk twenty yards along the road and deliver it yourself instead of writing silly messages on the envelope before walking two-hundred yards to the nearest pillar box in order to make a point.'

His faint little voice began to crack, and I wondered if he was about to start crying. 'It happens every day,' he squeaked. 'It's too much. It's all the time.'

To my surprise, I was enjoying this. 'And that would be where you're wrong because, as I say, I've been delivering to both addresses uninterrupted since September, so I know that when you say every day you actually mean that it's happened maybe a few times, perhaps every six weeks or so.'

He made another noise. He seemed to be physically decreasing in size.

I continued. 'Whilst I appreciate that the offending letters of doom should have been addressed to 2A, Glengarry Road, they weren't and have therefore been correctly delivered by myself because that's my job, so all the shit you've been writing on the envelopes about how I need glasses or should learn to read has been somewhat off target, and I can really do without having remarks of that kind directed at me first thing in the morning, do you know what I'm saying?'

I paused for breath and to take stock of whether I'd said all that I had intended to say. I was finding this encounter strangely cathartic. Ordinarily I find myself tongue tied or babbling incoherent crap when speaking in anger, but for once it felt like I was channelling Peter Cook at his most acerbic. It felt great.

'As for whether or not I've got a bat problem - that doesn't even make sense. I mean I suppose you were once again trying to make some biting commentary about my supposedly terrible eyesight somehow based on my delivering letters to the addresses which are actually written on the fucking envelopes, but it doesn't really work, does it? Have you got a bat problem? You really need to get back to your team of writers and have a word with them about that one.'

He mumbled sorry about a thousand times and wilted off in the direction of Lordship Lane, shell-shocked by my righteous testimony. I had met his kind many times before in and around Dulwich, always the most vocally liberal until some underclass minimum wage functionary short changes them at the whole food joint and they turn into the Duke of Wellington horsewhipping a shopgirl. Donald had clearly imagined I would be chastened, perhaps even devastated by the force of his vicious satire, that I would wither as I faced the terrible truth of his learn how to read and have you got a bat problem? Being a shit-thick blue collar manual labouring schmoe I would be too busy thinking about beer, tits, and football to ever defend my crime, and so he had looked as though he'd quacked his pants once he realised I wasn't quite the thick working class tosspot he'd bargained for.

Years later I discovered that Donald was supposedly an artist of some note, or at least of some note amongst the sort of people who make it their business to note such things. He suffered from some kind of debilitating illness which was to account for the tortoisey quality of his shuffling gait.

Donald's partner was described by Edna Mode from The Incredibles - with whom I was romantically involved at the time - as my mate Steve, which meant that she had met him at a private view and they had exchanged pleasantries for about a minute. He and Donald worked together as artists, and as usual I was supposed to be impressed by this. My mate Steve produced mosaics and sculptures, and had been in Time Out or something of that sort. I looked him up on the internet, and immediately recognised the guy. I often passed him on the street whilst out on delivery, and we always said good morning to each other because I assumed he was probably someone to whom I delivered mail, and when you pass someone on the street every day, after a while it becomes more embarrassing to ignore them than to exchange a polite greeting. Of course I didn't realise my mate Steve was Donald's partner until I looked him up following some unrelated suggestion originated by Edna Mode from The Incredibles. This explained why I had seen my mate Steve with such frequency, specifically that he had been visiting his partner, and it explained the sculptures I had noticed in Donald's front garden on one occasion, two concrete pillars decorated with shattered fragments of colourful ceramics.

The pillars were, I suppose, totem poles shaped so as to resemble mugs and cups stacked on top of one another, because they had been commissioned by Blue Mountain Coffee in Northcross Road, so mugs and cups - coffee and tea - do you see? Donald and my mate Steve also provided the mosaic design at the front of the coffee place, yet more fragments arranged to depict cups and spelling out words like coffee and aroma, which is quite ingenious when you really think about it.

I'd almost made Donald cry, and now I saw him in a new light. He was a sensitive artist and there was someone who loved him. Yet still he was the man who had asked me whether I had a bat problem, who had asked me whether I was able to read.

More than a decade later and it seems that whatever was wrong with Donald got the better of him, and so he is no longer with us, and once again I find myself thinking ill of the dead. I'm sure he was a lovely man to those who knew him; but that isn't the same as saying he was incapable of being a dick; and in all honesty I don't think I've ever enjoyed educating someone as to the extent of their own petty, mean-spirited bullshit as I did during those few minutes.

That was a great day.

Friday, 7 November 2014


Signing on for a three year fine art degree at Maidstone College of Art back in September 1984 was a big move for me. I'd just turned nineteen and probably had not previously been away from home for longer than a couple of days. I was loosely familiar with beer and the genitalia of one specific member of the opposite sex, but I was otherwise generally naive; and now I was living in Kent amongst complete strangers. Home was Warwickshire, which may as well have been on Mars, or so it seemed at the time.

Whilst I was doing my best to remain open-minded to new experiences, I had developed a general scepticism regarding poetry as something which really wasn't for me. What poetry I'd been obliged to read at school and then in further education would, so I believed at the time, have worked better either converted to prose or set to music, and poets themselves seemed a self-involved bunch. Admittedly I didn't have a great wealth of experience with poets amongst my vague circle of friends, but I'd watched The Young Ones on the box, and Steve the poet with whom I now shared a student house in Leeds Village was doing nothing to disabuse me of the impression fostered by Rik Mayall directing condescending odes at his enemies. Steve was both funny and amiable at a certain level, but I always had the feeling of everything being part of some larger chess game to him. He was barely able to buy a packet of crisps without it resembling strategy. His poems, so far as I could tell, amounted to everybody stop what you're doing and look at me. He almost certainly would have told me about the Medway Poets, about Billy Childish and Bill Lewis - these being people he clearly admired - but it wouldn't have made much sense to me. As I say, I wasn't really drawn to poetry as a medium.

Traci Emin, a noisy Turkish girl in second-year printmaking was in the habit of scaling tables in the college canteen to announce some event or other, and she would do this roughly every two or three days. The events for which she evangelised were rarely ever anything which caught my interest, and I wasn't sure what to make of the girl, so I generally paid her no attention. She knew Carl, then Student Union president, one of the first people I got to know at Maidstone, and still a close friend today. Carl had briefly introduced me to Traci, just as she barged into our conversation to haggle over Student Union business of some kind. She scowled at me and observed isn't your 'air 'orrible! with her wonky gob, dropping the aitches like a younger, vaguely Turkish Irene Handl.

Charmed, I'm sure, I didn't bother replying as I began to weep bitter internal tears of self-loathing.

Now she stood on the canteen table bellowing like a lonely mountain goat, and the words resolved into something about a poetry reading in one of the lecture theatres. My curiosity outstripped my scepticism as I recognised the name of one of those who was to read - Billy Childish. I didn't know much about him, beyond whatever it was that Steve had told me, but apparently he was a local name of some distinction. I now realised that I had read about his band, the Milkshakes, in Sounds music paper a year or so earlier. I'd never heard their music, but it seemed like it might be interesting to watch some bloke who had been in Sounds reading out his poems, and it was something to do.

The hour came and the lecture theatre was dark with just a table at the front. Billy Childish had short, severe hair and wore what appeared to be his grandad's demob suit. He didn't smile. He didn't look like a man who had ever found any good reason to smile. In the midst of flourishes of artistic flamboyance, he appeared streamlined, efficient, even ruthless. He rattled off his poetry as though reading out a statement in a police interview room. He demonstrated neither charisma nor stagecraft, a deficit which seemed curiously highly charismatic in its own way. He sounded bored, as though he was trying to get through the fucking things as quickly as possible. The performance was, in spite of itself, incredible.

Then there was Bill Lewis, loud, theatrical, and intense. It was poetry performed more as I had anticipated it would be, and yet it was impossible to keep from being swept along by the force of his words and their delivery. He had a presence with which one could not argue.

Traci later made an announcement to the effect that she was selling various books of Billy Childish poetry. I had a hunch that I would regret it if I didn't go and see what she had, and so I did. I ended up buying the lot - Poems from the Barrier Block, Prity Thing, Will the Circle Be Unbroken and five or six others. Poems from the Barrier Block was a proper square bound collection, but the others were slimmer volumes of cranky dyslexic verse - if you could really call it verse - all hammered out on a broken typewriter. There were few concessions to grammar or spelling, but for want of a better qualifier, you could tell it was the real thing, the genuine article:

t.v. poetry scotch n piss

the t.v. said - 'we wanna make a film'
they said 'you read with this group of poets'
so i said 'yeah'
n they get us to do some readings
n this producer said to me -
'yeah great stuff - this is your program - you make it - we just film it' n i said 'yeah'

the contract said -
they give us a couple of qwid
for the filming then they could
use the film anytime they liked
with no payment
they said time place n the way to dress
this was ment to be a documentary about the real stuff

well a thew qwids a thew qwid so i said 'yeah' n signed
i got a cigar of one t.v. bloke n a double scotch of another
i went to the bog

i couldnt find the gents so i went to the ladys
i put me scotch down n had a piss
most of it got in the bowl
but some spatered in me scotch

it stank of piss but i drank it anyway
Reproduced without permission and probably (c) Billy Childish June 1982.

The oldest of the books I had bought was called The Man with Wheels, dating from 1980 and revealing Billy's formative interest in Kurt Schwitters, which made one hell of a lot of sense to me. I could see the progression. His poems were made of the dirt and the rubbish. They were unvarnished - raw and invigorating. Poetry had been men in silk cravats scoffing vol-au-vents and spicing overly elaborate love poems to unremarkable girls with a naughty word here and there, not so much to let us know that they were themselves from the mean streets, but that they knew at least one chap who was, and he was a really splendid fellow with his working class accent and leather jacket. Whatever Billy Childish was doing, it bore no relation to such distractions. It was not something in which he dabbled for the sake of something to do. It seemed like he was writing in an effort to keep himself from braining someone.

Some of the books were signed for Traci, with love - Billy, or addressing her more intimately as Dolli. The two of them had been romantically involved for a while, and I guess that this was around the time they began to drift apart; and so she sold me his old stuff, the books he'd had printed and had dedicated to her.

Over the next couple of years I became acclimatised to Kent, it being the county in which my adult personality was formed, adult in this case quantifying age rather than development. Finishing at Maidstone, I moved to nearby Chatham because half the people I knew seemed to live there by that point, and the town had some great bands. In fact the town had a scene in the sense by which Liverpool and Manchester have on occasion been described as having scenes. There were pubs which put on gigs, bands which played live and even put out records, fanzines, poets, artists, and people generally doing their own thing regardless of whether anyone else liked it.

Alun Jones of the Dentists said that Chatham, or specifically the larger Medway conurbation of which Chatham was part, was in some respects like a northern town transplanted to the south of England. At the time I rolled my eyes a little, having come to resent the popular cliché of the north of England as some sort of cultural Mecca inhabited by a friendlier, more down-to-earth, somehow more valuable people. I've never found people in the north of England significantly friendlier than those in the south, nor more culturally vital, and as for down-to-earth...

What would I need with your fancy book learning and your so-called toilet paper and indoor lavatories? I'm down-to-earth, me.

Nevertheless, Alun was right. Medway was a reasonably tightly knit community with its own distinct identity founded upon a major naval dockyard established in the 1500s and significantly expanded during the industrial revolution, around the same time as all those sprawling northern towns founded upon coal, iron, weaving and Hovis advertsing. Even in the 1980s Medway felt like the setting of Ada's Apron or some other typically harrowing television drama in which pramfaced chain-smoking schoolgirls made veiled references to men's cocks and disapproving matriarchs would address each other as chuck from across the washing line. It was the rain-soaked rooftops of utilitarian housing, row after row after cramped bricky row of hardened smokers coughing up their lungs in time to Herman's Hermits. You get the picture.

Within weeks of my settling in to the septic tank I had rented in Glencoe Road, I discovered Gruts café, a small establishment just before the railway bridge on Chatham High Street. A couple of summers earlier, my friends and I had discovered Ivor Cutler and had become so quickly and dramatically obsessed with his haunting monologues that by the time school came back around in September we were having trouble shaking off the soft Glaswegian lilt we'd developed during the holidays.

I walked past the café a couple of times, deeply impressed that there could be an eaterie named after one of my favourite Ivor Cutler pieces. Eventually I summoned the courage to go in, probably having at last spotted someone I vaguely knew sat on the other side of the glass. Being unemployed and without access to a television by which I could watch children's programmes and other daytime broadcasting at the taxpayer's expense, I became a regular customer at Gruts; and given the pitiful state of both my cooking and the cupboard which served as my pantry, the toasted ham and cheese sandwiches prepared and served by Gerald and Caroline - mine hosts - were probably what kept me alive long enough to see the nineties.

I had mastered the art of sitting around in pubs a few years earlier, and had reached the stage at which one realises that it can sometimes be fun to walk in a straight line or to wake in the morning without a splitting headache; and so I quickly adapted to the Chatham equivalent of café society because it was cheaper than the pub and better than sitting at home. Of the regulars I already knew there was the aforementioned Alun of the Dentists and Prez of the Martini Slutz, one of the most entertaining bands I've ever seen live. Tim Webster of the Sputniks and later Johnny Gash ran his own musical instrument repair business out of a workshop over the road, and would wander across for lunch with his apprentice, Tim O'Leary - lunch being one of Gerald's guitar maker's fancies, which Tim O'Leary recalls as being possibly the best egg mayo baguettes I've ever had.

Bill Lewis has written of Gruts as having been known as the poets' café. I don't remember this at all, although maybe that's because I was never a poet. The description is probably justified by the regular presence of himself and Billy Childish, and even Sexton Ming on a couple of occasions. I got to know Bill Lewis fairly well as it turned out that we were almost neighbours and had mutual interests. Any idea I've ever ripped off from an American underground comic artist can most likely be traced back to the huge stack of comics by Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, Skip Williamson and others that Bill sold me. Bill would drop around for tea and tell me about Sandinistas and his time in Nicaragua, tales from a world I was yet to discover. I tried to paint his portrait, but my efforts were so awful that I threw the thing away. Like Billy Childish, he seemed in some ways a man out of time, someone who always seemed like he should have known Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce; but it was only that he contrasted so dramatically with the feckless apathy of our respective generations.

I had never been introduced to Billy Childish and was slightly in awe of him. He was an imposing presence before which I was sore afraid, suspecting that whatever came out of my mouth would probably be dog shit.

Excuse me, Mr. Billy, I think your poems are really ace!

Happily the fears of my inner teenage girl fell by the wayside as Billy spent so much time in Gruts that my self-consciously marinading in silent awe whilst attempting to effect nonchalance in the presence of relative greatness became impractical, and obviously ridiculous. Aside from anything, it turned out that he was, if not exactly a nice guy by conventionally sappy terms, thoughtful, ruthlessly honest, and very, very funny. He was also pretty good at chess, a game I'd only recently been taught by Tim Webster and Prez one afternoon as we sat in the café slurping tea and smoking. The game became something of an obsession, and I took to playing every day, but unfortunately everyone else was better than me. I played Billy, and the match was over in about four minutes. He wiped me off the board. He'd spent most of that time staring out of the window or talking to Gerald. His matches against Alun, Prez or Tim Webster lasted longer, and were more enjoyable for the spectator. I seem to recall that he usually won, although I could be mistaken.

An exchange student from Germany named Andreas became a regular for a couple of weeks. He and Billy would talk about Hamburg, and he too was drawn into the never ending chess tournament. After one particularly long, drawn-out game he beat Tim Webster and Billy bought everyone a round of tea in celebration.

'I don't get it,' I said. 'It's not like this is the first time anyone has beaten Tim.'

'I know.' Billy sported the faintly disturbing smile of Harry H. Corbett. 'But this is the first time he's had an international thrashing.'

Gruts became much more than just a place to hang out with friends and talk crap. It became our place, almost a livelihood. Poets and writers sold their work from a small bookcase next to the counter, and Billy's own Hangman Records had taken to releasing an album more or less every month - beautifully pressed brand new long playing vinyl records of himself, Sexton Ming, the Pop Rivets, and others, and these were joined by releases from the Dentists' Tambourine label. Even the subject matter was locally sourced in Wally the 2nd Hand Salesman - one of the noisier compositions on Sexton Ming's Which Dead Donkey Daddy? album - being named for Wally, the proprietor of a junk shop just on the other side of the bridge. Billy had gone in there to give the man himself a copy of the record, so he told us. Wally had mumbled some token of potential gratitude and tossed the album into an open trunk full of rusting nuts, bolts, spanners and the like. He didn't really seem like a big record collector.

'Well, that's nicely filed away for future reference,' Billy observed, although I'm not sure if that was what he said to Wally or simply part of his account as told to the rest of us.

The albums were a fiver each, which meant that Gruts actually served as a better record shop than Our Price a few hundred yards along the road, not that Our Price was really up to much in the first place.

At one stage, I hung a load of my own pseudo-Futurist paintings on the walls of the café, following on from previous exhibitions by Billy and others. Mine weren't for sale, but the main point was that they were seen, and this even drew interest from the local newspaper, the Chatham Standard, who sent Judith Mullarkey along to do a short feature on me. The first entry in my comments book came from Billy:

I've seen this man's work before, and I said, and say it again - to the funny farm with him!

Sometimes we would watch the local crazy woman as she passed by outside, shouting mysterious accusations at the river. She too seemed to appreciate the art, and once dutifully came in to hand Gerald a drawing she'd produced of crabs at large on Easter Egg Island, according to the caption. Her technique wasn't great, but you had to admire the spirit in which it was done.

For a while life seemed to revolve around Gruts to the point that my friend Carl phoned the café on a couple of occasions, knowing I would be there, sat on my arse and weighing up my employment options. As I had no telephone, it was a better option than calling directly at my bedsit in the hope of my being at home.

It felt like being part of a family, and at the same time, because of all the stuff that was going on in and around Medway, it felt like we were part of history even at the time. It felt as though one day we would all be looking back and recalling where we were when we first heard Billy's calypso cover of Anarchy in the UK.

We were in Gruts, obviously.

He'd just bought in a freshly minted stack of the Blackhands album, and Gerald had stuck it on the record player so we could all have a listen. Some people remember seeing the Beatles at the Cavern Club, and some of us remember Gruts.

Naturally it didn't last, there being a limit to how much tea anyone could reasonably be expected to drink in a single afternoon, and although the place was nearly always full, or at least rarely ever empty, whatever Gerald and Caroline were making out of it wasn't enough. They closed, and it became the Bridge Roll, a well intentioned but similarly doomed tea room style café with laminated Gingham tablecloths run by a couple of middle-aged women, whose enthusiasm reminded me of my grandmother once harbouring an ambition of being known as good for a cup of tea and a bun amongst long distance truck drivers. The Bridge Roll wasn't terrible, but the new decor had the feel of something aspiring to the custom of a better class of diner, or at least better than we were.

Like all good things, it was over.