Friday, 31 January 2014

The Man Who Liked What He Saw

I would guess it was sometime around October 1990 that I took a room in a shared house in Boyne Road, Lewisham. For legal reasons the place had been divided into separate floors, each with its own kitchen and bathroom, amounting to a total of five rooms all sharing the same front door. I was upstairs with the largest room of the house overlooking a quiet, moderately leafy street. It wasn't ideal, but I was in my twenties and that was what I was able to afford at the time, plus my landlord was an amiable Indian and I got on well with him. This was an important consideration because my previous landlord had been an absolute tosser.

Another consideration was the people with whom I shared facilities. In Chatham these had been an extremely elderly lady whose door would slam shut like the cork barrier of a trapdoor spider whenever I emerged from my room, presenting the slightly eerie realisation that for some reason she had the shared hall and stairwell under surveillance at all other times; and an ageing and stumbling alcoholic who would grunt to himself and block the toilet with bloated drinker's turds, as my friend Carl identified them when he came to visit. Needless to say, it had been kind of depressing. It's not that I necessarily wanted to hang out with my housemates, but it would have been nice to live with people who didn't provide such a vivid and constant reminder of one's own steady progress towards the grave.

Happily my housemates in Boyne Road were around my own age. Krishnan was a beefy Sri Lankan who spoke very little English, but never gave me occasion to grumble and so we got on as well as we could in the absence of a common language; and Freddy Okello who occupied the room adjacent to mine and was from some place in Africa. Twenty-five years later and my best guess is that it was probably Kenya, having long since forgotten what he told me. Freddy seemed initially a little sullen or even suspicious, and it startled me to realise that all the black people I knew had either parents or grandparents from the Caribbean. I had never before met anyone from Africa. With hindsight I would say I like Africans as a general principle, or at least I liked those I met in London, but of these Freddy was the very first, the mysterious ambassador for a culture about which I knew next to nothing.

Amongst at least a few people with whom I worked at Royal Mail, Africans had a poor reputation and were viewed as lazy, dishonest and untrustworthy - burdened with all the usual sins that tend to be unfairly heaped on members of a conspicuously non-native population. Whilst the Africans I encountered tended, rather oddly, to conform to a certain type despite hailing from a number of different countries, they were no more lazy, dishonest or untrustworthy than anyone else; and generally they were often blessed with a disconcertingly cheery disposition, a disarming directness emphasised by English spoken with more or less equal stress on each syllable. My favourite was a tiny little man called Alfred, of indeterminate age and resembling a walnut.

'I have never been so depressed in my life,' he would explain with a beatific smile that turned out to be just how his face was made. 'I think I will go home and kill myself.' This was simply Alfred's sense of humour, a reasonable response to working conditions at Royal Mail during the Crozier years. At other times his voice would ring across the sorting office, an indignant upper register protesting how back in Africa he had been the king of his village and was not being paid sufficient quota of goats for such demanding work. It was funny, a safety valve evolved from sarcastic retorts to the casually racist. I found it difficult to understand why anyone would dislike Alfred, although some did.

Returning to Freddy, ice was broken when he realised the new tenant had no strong objection to his cadging the occasional cigarette. At the time I was in the habit of making my own from rolling tobacco, which provided an action he could mime in preference to asking out loud and thus, I suppose, acknowledge his scrounging ways; I didn't mind. Usually I was home from work around midday or early afternoon, and although tired, I was generally glad of the company. The knock would preface Freddy grinning around the edge of the door, then entering as though sneaking in like he was late for class, rolling an imaginary cigarette hopefully between his fingers.

'Sure,' I would nod and head for the kettle. 'Come in and sit.'

Over the first few months at Boyne Road I built up a vague picture of the story of his life, although his accent was quite strong and I sometimes found it difficult to follow. He was pursuing some business course at Lewisham college, quite obviously on the insistence of his father. His family now lived in west London. He was the eldest sibling with a quota of brothers and sisters that ran to double figures, and he was taking this course having been told he would soon be head of the family.

My mind boggled at the thought of this. I considered the slightly scruffy stranger sat in my room politely smoking my cigarettes, the worn sweater and his hair always in need of a trim. 'What age are you, Freddy?'

'I am twenty-two years old.'

I realised that this explained the impression I had of his being a not particularly happy bunny. He smiled often, but like the more recent Alfred, this was apparently just how his face was made. He expressed no displeasure with his lot in life, but frequently seemed preoccupied, apparently resigned to making the best of it. His ambitions were vague, no more specific than to do well.

'Look at this guy!' He would point to a photograph in a copy of yesterday's Evening Standard, usually some businessman or entrepreneur. 'He must make a hell of money!'

The first time I heard Freddy use this expression, I tried to set him straight, suggesting that he meant a hell of a lot of money. He didn't seem to follow what I was saying, and continued referring to the fiscal abundance of his dreams as a hell of money. I wondered if maybe this was some cultural quirk, an unfamiliar pattern formed from what he meant and what he said failing to meet in the middle. Being young and fairly stupid, I had assumed that most people, given the chance, would probably think pretty much as I did, and I worked with the assumption that this was as true of Freddy as anyone.

Inevitably I quickly discovered this to be wrong. I had been reading a magazine article about Cosey Fanni Tutti, performance artist and former member of the arguably musical group Throbbing Gristle. Freddy helped himself to my tobacco and I went to fill my kettle from the bathroom, then he picked up the magazine and began to read. The photographs showed Cosey Fanni Tutti performing naked in some gallery, engaging in the sort of routinely transgressive behaviour in which performance artists tend to engage.

'Who is this woman?' Freddy was horrified. 'Is she a prostitute?'

'She's an artist!' My hackles rose. I'd enjoyed a brief correspondence with Cosey Fanni Tutti some years before, just stuff about art and music and the records she made with her husband, Chris Carter, so I made it my job to take the insult personally. Also I was still to grow out of the idea of artists as a special order set above the common herd of humanity, and that they were here to show us the way, even if that way was to be signposted by a broken deck chair marinating in a bathtub of tomato soup.

Freddy didn't buy it. 'She is an artist? Then why is she—'

Words had failed him. He held out the magazine as though fearing contamination, like he too might end up rolling around on the floor of an art gallery, crying and wailing as someone emptied buckets of jam over him. I mumbled some rubbish about pushing back the boundaries of art, but I hadn't been in from work very long. I was tired and I didn't really care that much. This was not something over which Freddy and I were likely to see eye to eye.

The months passed, and suddenly the two rooms on the ground floor were occupied, having been vacant when I first arrived. Freddy and I watched from the upper landing as two girls and a young man moved in. This being the 1990s, he was either a DJ or he worked as a reviewer for some magazine aimed at DJs. In any case, a lot of records came for him in the mail, house or early techno twelve inches he would play late into the evening, and all with the exact same beat pumping up through my floorboards - sixteen beats to the bar, and always with the bass doubled up on the final hit.

Bom. Bom. Bom. Bom.
Bom. Bom. Bom. Bom.
Bom. Bom. Bom. Bom.
Bom. Bom. Bom. Bom-Bom.

Over and over.

I had a brief conversation with him and expressed polite curiosity about his work. I liked some of the earlier acid tracks from Detroit and Chicago, so I wasn't entirely ignorant. He admitted that the original genre had bifurcated in so many directions that even he was no longer able to keep tabs on it all. I found the late night music a little annoying, but I was young and less easily aggravated, and only once did I traipse down the stairs in my dressing gown, groggy at two in the morning, to growl that I was a reasonable man who had to be up for work at five. It did the job, so I suppose I must have appeared sufficiently terrifying.

One of the two women was the girlfriend of the DJ, and the other was her friend. I rarely saw them, and so never formed an opinion regarding their existence beyond that I probably wouldn't have much to say to them. Freddy on the other hand expressed quite an interest. As he exited the bathroom one evening, a glance down the stairs towards the ground floor provided him with a vision of the two of them as they stood talking.

Next day he chuckled as he drank my tea and cadged another cigarette. 'They were wearing just T-shirts, I tell you. They were standing where I could see them!'

I tried to imagine two youngish, allegedly attractive women living in a house of unknown males of exotic nationality. Perhaps they had decided to wander around without underwear trusting that if they heard movement upstairs they would be able to hide in time. It seemed unlikely.

'What? You mean to say they—' This time words failed me, so I gestured, waving hands around my hips to mime an absence of knickers.

Freddy grinned like the caricature of a scheming old time salesman. 'I could see everything.'

I still didn't really believe him, and assumed that he had rushed from bathroom to bedroom and imagined some of the details in poor lighting.

'They didn't see you?'

'No.' He looked away, new thoughts crowding onto his face. He made a noise of obscure pleasure. 'I like the twin peaks.'

He chuckled to himself.

'Twin peaks?' I'd never seen the television show and was confused by what seemed like a change of subject.

Freddy held hands out in front of himself, rubbing fingers and thumbs together to tweak an imaginary pair of nipples, basking in the warmth of his own lurid thoughts.

The next day he was less happy. He seemed lost as he came into my room. 'I could not sleep. I was awake all through the night thinking about those twin peaks. What do you think I should do?'

I thought he should probably forget about it. In an ideal world he might introduce himself to our downstairs neighbours, quickly assess their availability and then proceed accordingly; but I had met our downstairs neighbours in so much as I had spoken to the DJ. I was fairly sure they would regard Freddy as some weird, crazy African, and as I realised this I saw that we had a great deal more in common than I first believed. We were both awkward figures forever stood on the periphery of where we wanted to be, except neither of us had yet quite worked out where that was.

'What do you think I should do?'

I guessed he really felt the need to know what I thought.

'Just relax and see what happens.'

I hoped that nothing would happen, but didn't want to say anything too discouraging because as a woolly liberal I feared it would sound like stay away from our white women, you!

Freddy failed to emerge from his room the next day.

The day after, I learned that the storm had broken. Freddy still wanted to know what I thought he should do, but now he seemed to expect advice along the lines of changing his name or leaving the country. Something had happened. He tried to describe the events of that fateful evening, as they would have said in the television dramatisation, but the account was halting, requiring assembly as he went along. He was looking at the floor, and he sounded as though he'd been sobbing. It took us ten minutes to get past the slightly horrifying assertion that he hadn't meant to do it, but hadn't been able to stop himself, whatever it was. I felt myself pulled down into a bewildering potential maelstrom of police enquiries and tabloid journalists to whom I would reveal that he had just seemed like an ordinary bloke. When the jigsaw image of what Freddy actually had done was assembled over the course of the next half hour, the events of that fateful evening were thankfully not so severe as anticipated.

Freddy, once again commuting from bath to bedroom with a towel around his waist, had gazed hopefully down from the landing and been rewarded with a second vision of our two female ground floor neighbours once again in conversation outside of their rooms wearing nothing but T-shirts.

'I like what I see!,' Freddy had proclaimed loudly with, I imagined, his usual robustly African emphasis, no syllable taking precedence over another. It had probably sounded much like some Biblical king expressing his most heartfelt approval. The neighbours looked up, horrified, then scurried into one of the rooms; and that was it.

'Do you think they will call the police?' His head moved from side to side, seeming almost punch-drunk with the horror of his own deeds.

'No. They would have done it by now if they were going to.'

This was bizarre. It was a crime of embarrassment and nothing stronger. Perhaps I like what I see was a particularly weird greeting, but then it hardly seems sensible to wander around in the communal part of a shared house with less than the minimum of clothing unless you're a confident, practising naturist. Nevertheless, Freddy had now been awake for something like forty-eight hours, terrified, knocking back the whisky, and waiting to be arrested. He'd even bought his own ciggies.

I later spoke to the ground floor neighbours on his behalf and was told, as I suspected, that they had been mildly freaked out, but were more embarrassed at their own state of undress than anything.

As Freddy sat guzzling tea and smoking his cigarette with an unsteady hand, staring into space like the suspect on a cop show, I considered for a moment the pressure bearing down upon him - a likeable young guy in his earlier twenties with his entire life already mapped out by a stern and traditionally minded father. He'd grown up in Kenya - or wherever it was - and now here he was stuck in freezing, exhaust-choked Lewisham sharing a bathroom and a crappy kitchen with a former Tamil Tiger and a man unable to tell the difference between an artist and a prostitute. Try as I might, I couldn't see how this would constitute an adventure in anyone's book.

Freddy eventually finished his course and moved away, his place being taken by a six foot tall white teenager who liked football, drove a van, and who, perhaps strangely, seemed somehow much more alien to me. From time to time I still wonder what happened to my housemate and friend, whether he ever found a way to make the hell of money he desired, how well he took to the responsibility imposed upon him by his father, and how that all worked out. I met many people called Okello in the years that followed, but it turns out that in Africa it's a fairly common surname, and none of them were related to Freddy. Wherever he is and whatever turned out to be his lot in life, I hope that he likes what he sees.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Englishness in Texas

I often wear a Stetson. Explanations for this millinerial choice posited by those of my friends who have neither lived in Texas nor ever worn a Stetson tend to vary, including my going native, irony, and it being a knowing wink to an episode of Doctor Who in which Matt Smith wears just such a hat, despite my strong dislike of the show in question. In actual fact I've been wearing hats quite similar to the Stetson at least since 1999 when I first travelled to Mexico and discovered it to be a good means of keeping my distinctly pale face from burning in the hot sun as I dislike having to apply sun-cream. In addition, such headgear also provides good cover during showers of rain, and has proven useful as a means of pooling coins, keys, and other metal objects when travelling through airport security; and it really is that simple.

I purchased my current Stetson at a branch of Cavender's Boot City, a chain of warehouse capacity stores specialising in western wear, as they call it. I guess my friend Dave probably wandered into a branch of Cavender's when he came to Texas in November. Dave was a tutor on the art foundation course I took at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further education back in England in the 1980s, just after I had left school. He and his wife had come to America, and had hired a car so as to tour a number of the western states over a period of a few months. Texas was their final port of call, so my wife and I took them to our favourite Jim's diner for chicken fried steak.

'There was this store,' Dave explained to us as though bringing back his report from the new world, 'and there were hats and boots as far as the eye could see, just hats and boots and nothing else.'

It had made an impression on him, as had the real live cowboy he'd met in New Mexico a few weeks earlier. As we ate, he described these wonders, and we couldn't work out whether it had occurred to him that, living here, we found neither cowboys nor their apparel out of the ordinary. We guessed that he was most likely setting his thoughts to order, thinking aloud, a hypothesis supported by some of these selfsame thoughts later cohering as Boots On The Ground, the blog he'd been keeping as documentation of his trip across America. I am referenced in Boots On The Ground as the Englishman in Texas, presumably to preserve my anonymity when Dave asks so who is this particular Englishman, with his self-styled moniker and blog of the same name? He attempts to answer the question by explaining that even after two years exposure to American life in San Antonio, he remains resolutely unaffected, having neither adopted any accent or phrases nor shaken off a predisposition towards serving tea as his afternoon beverage of choice!

The most puzzling thing for me was that I didn't really recognise myself from any of this. An Englishman in Texas was picked without much serious consideration as a reasonably descriptive title which might negate the requirement of at least some explanation. It was never a mission statement, nor an intentional reference to any song by that bloke from the Police; and the tea in question was brewed in a teapot I had purchased only a month earlier in Boerne, a town some thirty miles north-west of San Antonio. It was the second time I had used the teapot and I haven't used it since because I prefer coffee.

Nevertheless, a certain impression was either given by myself or taken by my visitor, and one that puzzles me a little. Complete strangers and even members of my extended family occasionally try to engage me in conversation about what is going on with the English royal family, or they will refer to some old country event so newsworthy as to have crossed the ocean perhaps believing I might be personally acquainted with those affected. At least one person, fully cognizant with the fact and duration of my marriage, asked how I was enjoying my stay in Texas, like being here is just a phase I'm going through. Others have launched into bewildering Dickensian caricatures in my presence as though I too am quietly amused by my own nationality. It becomes exhausting.

'Still black, I see,' I might say to our African-American mailman. 'I'm glad that's working out for you. Keep it up!'

No less exhausting was an encounter in an antique shop in the previously mentioned Cotswold town of Boerne. It isn't actually a Cotswold town, although I tend to regard it as such for its being one of a number which remind me a little of that region of England on the Gloucestershire-Oxfordshire border. Boerne was built from limestone in the nineteenth century by German settlers and does not resemble the typical American town as commonly seen on television; and the shop wasn't exactly an antique shop in the sense of selling antiques. I was on the look out for Christmas presents, and was considering an old ceramic teapot with a human face and the characteristics of a lemon, presumably made so as to appeal to fans of lemon tea. It had put me in mind of the ceramic pots collected by my father, pots combining human facial features with assorted vegetable characteristics and intended to store piccalilli, chutney, horseradish and so on. The price seemed reasonable and I had told the proprietor I would think it over and perhaps return, and so my wife and I continued to browse in the other shops along Main Street.

As we reached the end of the block, we entered another shop. A woman in her early fifties - I guessed - with long red hair was sat behind the counter, speaking to someone on the phone as a compact disc of The Smiths played in the background. We looked around the clutter of the store and, seeing little that immediately caught our eyes, went into the room at the back.

'Does she sound English to you?' I asked Bess.

We both listened, but neither of us could quite place the proprietor's accent beyond that it was clearly not American. We browsed further and the phone call came to an end.

'I'm sure she's from England,' I said.

'Go and ask.'

'I don't like to.' I didn't know why, but it struck me as a thin premise upon which to open a conversation. I was curious, but not actively interested.

My wife gave me a prod, possibly inspired by her occasional fear that deprived of the company of countrymen, I might pine and whither away to nothing, requiring a restorative course of Marmite and warm beer. 'Go and ask her if she's from England.'

I knew it would bug me if I didn't find out, so I shuffled up to the counter, half-wishing we hadn't entered the store. The woman wore orange lipstick and green eyeshadow which I found unsettling. Her appearance spoke of someone who clearly regarded themselves as a bit of a character.

'Excuse me, I hope you don't mind my asking but' - I hated myself for falling into the usual bumbling Hugh Grantisms - 'are you from England. It's just that I noticed your accent—'

'I am indeed,' she grinned. 'And so are you!'

She explained that she was from Manchester with the inflection of someone who clearly regarded themselves as a bit of a character, and I wished I hadn't asked. There is a specific brand of regional pride found in certain persons from the north of England I have never quite warmed to, a peculiar inverted snobbery based on the bumptious proposition of their being collectively more down to earth than anyone else, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. It seemed like this woman subscribed to this view, telling me how she had been in Texas for two decades and yet still never missed an episode of Coronation Street, a long running soap opera set in Manchester. I couldn't actually remember when I'd last seen Coronation Street, but it was probably not much later than 1985.

'So are you a City supporter or do you prefer the scum?' she asked. It took me a moment to unscramble the question as referring to my preference for either Manchester City or Manchester United football teams.

'Well, I don't really—'

'Who do you support then?'

I could have said either Gillingham or Millwall on the grounds of these being teams to which I will admit a minor degree of loyalty through mainly geographical and social associations without ever having felt the need to attend a match, but it didn't really seem like a conversation worth having. 'Well, I'm really not so big on football—'

'You like rugby then? Or is it the cricket?'

I indicated the dusty stereo system behind the counter. 'Is that the Smiths you're listening to?'

'Aye.' She seemed pleased. 'You like the Smiths, do you?'

Whilst I would agree the band had recorded some great songs, I've generally come to regard them as an overrated institution, but again it didn't really seem like a conversation I wanted to get into. 'So have you read Morrissey's autobiography?,' I asked, steering the subject like a canoe over the rapids.

The story of the former Smiths' vocalist's life had just been published by Penguin back in England, so this seemed a safe conversational gambit, at least equivalent to discussing the weather.

'I've got it on order. I can't wait.' She grinned and then nodded her head to emphasise some point or other. 'I love Mozzer, me.'

I shuddered inwardly at hearing the nickname, the use of which denotes the true fan, specifically the true fan of a man who had in my view come to epitomise the most parochial aspects of English culture. For all that Reel Around The Fountain was but one of many cracking tunes, this is the man who wrote crap like Bengali in Platforms and America Is Not the World, a song carrying the startling proposition that the United States is a land of fat people who eat hamburgers.

'So have you read it?' she asked.

'Not yet.'

I glanced at my wife, a silent plea as I pointedly orientated myself towards the door; but Bess seemed genuinely interested, apparently believing I'd found a kindred spirit; and so we listened as the woman expanded upon the theme of herself as a bit of a character, turning to those subjects to which English people always turn when their paths cross in foreign lands. As I listened it occurred to me that of all the things of the old country my kind are supposed to miss, there are very few which I miss at all. Furthermore, I don't understand why anyone would come to live here if they're going to spend the rest of their lives pining after sausages in batter or The One Show. I don't understand why anyone would wish to live in a distant land if they weren't going to bother engaging with it, and preferably on its terms rather than those they've brought with them.

We left the store, stepping quickly through a hole in the conversation, and crossed the road. I had decided that I would return to the first shop and buy the strange lemon teapot with the human face, but first we dived quickly into a third antique emporium, this one thankfully run by a Texan from whom I purchased a teapot for myself, a more traditional kind with a plain brown glaze from which I would serve tea to my two English visitors in but a few weeks time.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Austin, TX

For those three people still unaware of the fact, Texas does not enjoy a uniformly good reputation either in the context of the United States as a whole, or the world at large. All the sins of America as perceived by those who have never been here are apparently amplified tenfold  in Texas where there's a McDonalds franchise on every street corner, just next to the Baptist ministry. So far as the rest of America is concerned, the essence of Texas seems to be a burger-chugging George Bush-voting white guy stood growling outside the local abortion clinic with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other. This is not so much because one can expect to find such people here as that a certain type of person tends to view such lazy stereotypes as convenient because it saves having to think, or even to know anything; and no-one will argue back because
in certain politically decrepit circles defence of a southern state is deemed tantamount to a love of Ted Nugent, slavery, and marriage between siblings. Many times I've tried to point this out to people, only to have them calmly admit that whilst it's true they've never been to Texas, their views are informed by an understanding of ours being a land of gun-toting racist hillbillies, which really isn't anything like an answer.

I know you're not like them, one facebook inhabitant told me, but living down there you've certainly got your work cut out LOL, because apparently I secretly knew that he was right.

LOL indeed.

Terrible acts perpetrated by arseholes may occur in other states because arseholes often perpetrate terrible acts, but down here they happen because Texas. It's exhausting, and not least because absolutely truthfully I haven't found the general populace to be significantly different in character to that of the United Kingdom, except they seem happier, healthier, and generally have better manners; and there are a lot more Mexicans here, which is a good thing.

The exception to the commonly held dim view of Texas seems to be the Peoples' Republic of Austin - as it is amusingly referenced in Richard Linklater's Bernie - the state capitol which is widely perceived as bohemian and adventurous, a liberal oasis with a much lower rate of lynchings than is to be found amongst all its gun-toting, Darwin-hating neighbours. Austin was where Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were headed in Easy Rider so, y'know...

My wife and I had already explored Austin in search of the Museum of Contemporary Art - as it was identified on both the map and the single signpost marking its existence - or The Contemporary Austin - as it is daringly named in real life, suffocating terms like museum and gallery presumably being eschewed for their evocation of the old, terminally dated, and anything else which happened more than three minutes ago. This was back in July when we followed a winding road along the bank of the Colorado River in search of a cultural experience. We found an art school - which was closed - and a nature reserve containing at least one peacock, but nothing resembling a gallery, nor any sign which would indicate our being on the right track.

In December we made our second attempt with the aid of a more detailed street map, and again we ended up back at the art school, or whatever it was. This time it seemed that a wedding was in progress in the main building. We went forward, determined to find something that would at least definitively prove we had come to the wrong place. People milled around, possibly catering staff. A young man in his early twenties scowled at us from behind a pretentious neo-Victorian moustache, letting us know that our kind didn't belong, or some related sentiment.

'You've got to be fucking kidding,' I growled loud enough for him to hear, because more than anything his moustache had annoyed me, and I was irritated by the notion of an art gallery so exclusive that it didn't want to be found.

We walked around to the back of the building and saw nothing to either confirm or deny our being on the right track. Returning to the parking lot, we noted the presence of a second, smaller building and a number of large sculptures amongst the trees. Within the building was a medium-sized room within which were hung brightly painted canvases, abstract designs which reminded me of Christmas wrapping paper. This, we felt certain, could not be the promised gallery, because there was so little of it, and whilst those few works on display were not actively offensive, neither did they seem to warrant our having driven eighty miles from San Antonio.

Motoring back into the centre of the city, we discovered that The Contemporary Austin occupies two sites, and although it remained to be seen whether we had actually visited the first of these, we had now found the second, its location distinguished by the unusually conventional means of a sign on the side of a large building.

Bess paid ten dollars for the two of us and we and went inside. The exhibits included a twenty-three minute video piece by Liam Gillick, whom I noted with interest had attended Goldsmith's college in London, a five minute bus ride from where I had once lived in Lewisham; and Burned Bridge Junction (Congress) by Marianne Vitale. There were no other exhibits.

Whilst Gillick's video piece may have been wonderful, neither my wife nor I felt inclined to sit and watch footage of what appeared to be the Colorado, a river we were both entirely capable of appreciating under our own steam; and myself having completed a fine art degree specialising in video back in 1987, it still seemed too soon to renew my acquaintance with a medium I had grown to dislike quite intensely.

Marianne Vitale, so the brochure informed us, transforms decaying elements of rural life into rugged visual poems. This referred to two intersecting
replica bridge structures built from burnt wood and taking up the main space of the building. It looked okay, but aside from the novelty of its residence within a gallery that charged five dollars admission, there was not a lot to say about it. As my wife went off in search of the lavatory, I strolled around Vitale's work and waited to feel something. I walked up to it and sniffed, but even the charcoal tang of smoke was faint and unremarkable - nothing I could really savour. Five minutes passed and the burned bridge failed to inspire me towards any strong feeling.

'Are there any more galleries in here?' my wife asked back at the reception desk. 'I mean it's just the bridge and the video, right?'

The assistant held open the brochure, turned towards us so we could see photographs of the other site, the Laguna Gloria from which we had just come.

'We saw that,' I said. 'There was something like a wedding there.'

'Yes. That sounds like the place.'

'We thought we'd wandered onto the grounds of some guy's house.'

She began to tell us about the sculpture park, but we had already lost faith in The Contemporary Austin as an institution. The art was dull, of a kind which communicates principally to other artists, and we had paid ten dollars to see it; and rugged visual poetry was really stretching a point. It was a burned bridge, and a scaled down replica of something which may well have appeared almost magical in its original setting but was dull within the confines of an art gallery, and was at least as pleased with itself as a possibly ironic neo-Victorian moustache, and it was defended by the somewhat tired premiss that if you don't like it, then you're too stupid to understand and should probably stick to Thomas Kinkade.

Artistically unsated, we wandered a little way up the street towards the capitol building, comparing notes about what we'd just seen and whether it had truly been as pointless as it had appeared. This didn't really require a lot of discussion, and as it was freezing cold we returned to the car.

It was still early afternoon, and so next we went to The Bullock Texas State History Museum on the grounds that it was near and would be warm inside. We might have gone there first but Bess had not believed that I would find it engaging. Whilst there was more reading than I really like in a museum, and too many of those annoying interactive touches designed to draw in the terminally uninterested and fool them into learning something, the core material was fascinating, not least because so much of it contradicted the received wisdom of the character and history of this state and its people.

Since the arrival of Europeans, Texas has been part of Mexico, an independent republic, and then part of the United States - a contested land won and lost during a succession of revolutions and annexations. Inevitably not all of this history has been group hugs and slumber parties, but there's very little human history which has passed without any kind of trouble or injustice. Texas may have more than its fair share of arseholes, politically speaking, but then last time I looked, political figures imposing extreme and reactionary policies upon voters was not an exclusively Texan phenomenon; and nor does mere residence in Texas necessarily mean that one voted for or agrees with whatever people who've never been here are saying we as a homogenous group have done this month.

So, just for a change, it was nice to find the good in Texas represented alongside the stuff everyone already knows about - the rich Mexican culture of the south, the space programme, the great artists, musicians, writers, and so on; and then there's the historical smallprint of civil rights activism which, for some reason, never seems to warrant a mention in the usual places, and details such as the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty of Fredericksburg, one of the few treaties drawn up between First Nations people and European settlers which was never broken.

It may not sound like a lot, but it's always nice to be reminded how there is much that is good down here, and that the stereotype of Texas as the source of all things bad says more about those who peddle that stereotype than about the cultures to which they lazily refer. This sort of deal might once have been the job of contemporary art, but I guess times change.

Friday, 10 January 2014

From the Mind of Dennis Hydrogen, Writer

October 2013 and on that fateful day Herman's Hermit are riding high in the pop charts with Get the Fire Brigade just as Sir Edmund Hilary conquers the world land speed record and Henry Kissinger is ejected from the Belarus peace conference for disorderly conduct and calling people names and that. Meanwhile in the important world of Doctor Who blogging and having an opinion on The Doctor Who Show, Project Mondas ran a review of a television programme originally broadcast in 1966, Martin Prophylactic talked about sexism in Cyberman society on The Fez and Bow-Tie Titterbox, Blogter Who Blogtopia took an in-depth look at Cloister Kitchen's review of The Green Death, and I, Dennis Hydrogen, Writer exposed season seven's The Krotons as a metaphor for societies in which crystal monsters from space prey upon some cavemen by telling them that they will teach them some stuff but really only doing it so they can eat them.

Yes, Dennis Hydrogen, Writer, I hear you cry, but what was exactly happening in The Doctor Who Show on that fateful day? We know we can look it up on one of the four-hundred existing blogs, but what we really need is for a REAL WRITER such as what you are to cleverly tell us the truth behind the facts.

By the mighty beard of my neck, I respond intelligently, calmly tapping my toe to some cool sounds by the band Spin Doctors, about whom I have written an insightful book of facts, this I shall do!

It was on that fateful day in October 2013 that we first read The Very Important Story, and the world held its breath. Not since Resurrection of the Daleks had we seen such a radical reimagining of the trope first brought to us by the immortal words of Terry Nation on that fateful day, and that radical reimagining arrived in the form of the Dogleks with their distinctive cry of Dogsterminate echoing around the playgrounds of the universe back when we were all eating Spangles and pretending to be Jimmy Savile and that, jewellery jewellery jewellery and now then, now then, now then which is like really iconic in Englishland, just like that delicious mushy pea which is regarded as a delicacy by both the Queen and Verity Lambert & Butler, whom you probably won't have heard of, but I have. The story is an unusual one, although this is not in itself surprising because Doctor Who Show can tell every single kind of story that has ever been invented. That's the magic! The Very Important Story was a new paradigm - in the immortal worlds of the pie-eating Dalek on the one with Winston Churchill - because it was not a wonderful children's television serial which adults adore but a short and sarcastic tale which was read by only seventeen people. The self-published books of I, Dennis Hydrogen, Writer are read by many more people than just seventeen people, I can assure you of that as a true fact!

In The Very Important Story, Matthew Smith buys some ice cream from Davros who, in the immortal words of Aristophanes, no longer lives on Skaro but now operates his own ice-cream van, on that fateful day. That mysterious traveller in time and space known only as Doctor Who is then prevented from his ice-cream consumption by River Song, and Rory is revealed to be the Master, which is very clever.

The Daleks are a bit like the Nazis when you think about it, I suppose.

Friday, 3 January 2014

SWP Confidential

It was 1991 and I was living in Lewisham whilst working as a postman in Catford. I'd been in London for a little over a year - Catford and Lewisham being neighbouring boroughs of the same in case that isn't obvious - occupying a room in a shared house up behind the bowling alley; and whilst it wasn't that I had necessarily found life in the capital difficult, I seemed to be stuck, rapidly sinking into a behavioural rut. I wasn't uncomfortable, but neither was I really heading anywhere.

Working as a postman in Catford was fairly demanding. I had at last secured for myself a regular route - meaning that I delivered mail to the same group of streets week after week rather than finding myself constantly moved from one unfamiliar set of addresses to another. Unfortunately this regular route was Lushington Road with all of its adjacent blocks of flats which required a great deal of climbing on my part. At one point I measured the average height of the steps in the flats, and then counted them all so as to reach a rough idea of the vertical distance travelled each day in order that people in third floor accommodation should receive their quota of rent demands, eviction notices, and leather sofa advertising material. I can't recall the exact figures as calculated, but it turned out that I scaled the equivalent of Mount Everest about once every nine months or something like that. Hardly surprising then that although my working day ended at around one in the afternoon or earlier, by that time I was usually knackered, fit only to stumble home and bum around in my one room for the rest of the day, drawing comic strips, drinking coffee and listening to records.

I saw my friends most weekends, and I saw my friend Andrew Cox most weekdays as he too lived in Lewisham and would often drop into the White Horse for a drink after work; but aside from these, I didn't have much of what I myself regarded as a social life, at least not by the standards of a young man in his late twenties. It was therefore fairly easy to start a conversation with me, because no matter who you were, I would probably be happy to talk to you. I often went for days without speaking to anyone outside of working hours, and the few conversations I had were valued as much for the fact that they had occurred at all as for actual content; and thus was I briefly drawn in by the Socialist Workers Party.

The SWP as they tend to be abbreviated would regularly set up their stall on Saturdays outside Lewisham's Riverdale Centre, within yards of the bus-stop from which I would alight after a hard morning's climb in Catford. I would pause and buy one of their papers, initially out of curiosity and partially because the transaction presented an opportunity to grumble about my job, specifically whatever ludicrous proposal Royal Mail management intended to impose upon their workforce that month. Socialist Worker itself was a weekly tabloid printed on low grade paper presenting whatever concerned Socialists at time of going to press - who was on strike, who had threatened to strike, what was thought of this or that government initiative and so on. The paper was thin and a little depressing in so much as there wasn't a whole lot of good news out there for the fans of Socialism, or so it seemed.

The paper sellers tended to be the same people - representatives of the Deptford branch of the SWP as I later discovered - tall, slightly plummy voiced men a little older than myself, one of their number distinguished by the sort of scarf he would have worn were he studying something at Oxford in the 1940s - a present from Mumsy, I decided. They were conspicuously middle or even slightly upper class and did not seem to be aware of this, or that when they asked about my life as an employee of Royal Mail - the uniform being a give away - their tone was condescending, as though I were a stupid person who would respond well to issues discussed in terms of beer, tits, and football. This, I suppose, was their understanding of the working classes, or perhaps part of a self-conscious effort to be seen as something other than stuck-up lefties, as perhaps they feared they might be perceived. But for the variant political subtext, they communicated in sentences that resembled Sun newspaper headlines

'Maybe you could take some copies of the paper and sell them at your office?' it was suggested to me.

I tried to imagine how many times I would be told to stuff the publication up my arse, and quickly declined. Aside from anything, I liked most of my colleagues, and didn't feel as though any of them required further education upon the lot of the working people because that was what we were. I had a good friend named Micky Evans, a committed union man who had worked at the dockyard back in the 1960s, and who once told me 'when people start on about your Karl Marx, they imagine him stood on the picket line with a fag hanging from his gob, but it weren't like that...' It would have felt somehow insulting trying to cajole Mick into purchase of a copy of Socialist Worker, and of all my colleagues, he would have been amongst those more sympathetic to its politics.

Somehow, because I was roughly socialist, a worker, and socially adrift, two of the paper sellers ended up at my flat one Saturday morning. I have no idea why I would have given them my address, but apparently I did, so there it was. I'd just arrived home from work, and I was not pleased to have these people as guests. The first was Scarf Boy - he who most obviously appeared to have immersed himself in cloth-capped working man culture as penance for a more luxurious upbringing. I can't remember the name of his friend either, but I'll call him Billy Boast for the sake of convenience because he was a worthy-but-dull struggling musician in the Billy Bragg mold. He wore a keep music live badge and spoke of songs with a good street message. I was never quite sure which streets he was referring to, although it probably wasn't Lushington Road, the message of which was usually got me giro, postie? He was a little wrinkled and lacking some teeth. I pottered around my single room silently resenting the intrusion, readying a pot of tea as Scarf Boy and Billy Boast condemned the imperialist forces of imperialism for their genocidal imperialist war waged upon the much misunderstood Saddam Hussein who was at the time causing a hullabaloo in Kuwait.

'I dunno about that,' I mumbled. 'I saw something on the news about the oil fields,' I tried to explain before being interrupted.

Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait had set more than seven-hundred oil wells ablaze, and I had been horrified by the footage of massive areas of the country blacked out by clouds of thick, choking chemical smog. I was not particularly well informed about the situation, but it had never struck me as unreasonable that one might regard the deposition of Saddam Hussein as a good thing.

Billy Boast flung his hands aloft in general exasperation at having to deal with persons such as myself. 'You know, this is what really gets me,' he whined. 'They put a few pictures of oil-covered seagulls on the front page and suddenly all the liberals are lining up to kiss Thatcher's arse.'

I was aware that I had been directly insulted in the comfort of my own rented home, but was unable to articulate my objection. I just wanted these people to leave, and to cease their attempts to rope me into their cult. My problem was that whilst agreeing with some of what they stood for, I knew I didn't agree with all of it, but neither did I find it interesting enough to be worth arguing over. I had a hunch that I should probably care more than I did, but somehow I just couldn't. My life was not so lacking in difficulties or situations requiring struggle that I needed to actively seek it out.

Around the same time I learned that a friend I'd known whilst living in Chatham was now resident in New Cross, just a bus ride away from where I was living. This was Rajun Amin, former guitarist of a band I briefly passed through. He was a nice guy, endearingly silly, and we tended to laugh at the same jokes, so it was good to renew his acquaintance; and by peculiar coincidence he turned out to be a member of the SWP branch to which both Scarf Boy and Billy Boast had sworn a blood oath.

'You should come along,' he told me. 'Give it a go.'

I explained my reservations as well as I could, which were as they are now: I distrust those who feel they can be that certain of easy solutions to complicated problems, particularly when lacking direct experience of whichever struggle they've adopted as their own; and I dislike public school types pretending to be cheeky Cockney barrow boys. Rajun understood completely, and assured me that such people were in the minority within the SWP as he had experienced it.

'Just try one meeting,' he suggested. 'It'll be a laugh.'

The meetings were held upstairs in a pub, specifically The Centurion in Deptford as was, so I went along because Rajun was going to be there and at least I'd be able to have a drink.

Rajun was indeed there as I arrived on the evening of the meeting still in my Royal Mail uniform for some reason, but unfortunately he was there with his girlfriend, Charlotte. I'd met her once before at his house in New Cross. She was so painfully upper class as to make Emma Thompson seem like Irene Handl, and she was unable to keep herself from grinning directly into your face at closer proximity than was comfortable. I had no idea what Rajun saw in her - particularly given her resemblance to Jilly Goolden - and I had the impression that his other friends took a similar view.

'Hello!' she squealed, recognising me from our previous encounter. 'I'm going to the Gambia!'

I already knew this, but from the way she grinned I could see how this was important information, and Charlotte wasn't going to risk the possibility of anyone not knowing. I was quite clearly expected to be impressed, but I wasn't sure why. 'That's nice.'

She repeated the announcement twice that evening, each time delivering it as though it was the first time she had told anyone, each time beaming with semi-religious fervour. Maybe she thought I hadn't understood, which would at least have been consistent with the general attitude of the other members towards their newest potential recruit. Scarf Boy and Billy Boast milled around, keen to make it clear that I was their find. I still can't recall why I'd turned up in uniform - either I'd been doing overtime or had been so knackered after the morning's work that I'd spent the afternoon asleep and never found time to change - but it was definitely a mistake. Soon I was surrounded by overly earnest Socialists fascinated and impressed by the concept of manual labour - an actual worker in their midst, a real salt of the earth type. Which was my favourite football team, they wanted to know, and did I like that rappers' music?

Rajun, being of Asian heritage, seemed to be their token representative of the ethnic minorities, and so I was, I suppose, either Andy Capp or Arthur Seaton, improbable as that may seem.

Billy Boast made a few boring observations about real ale and the music of the kids from the street with a good street message and that, and then we dutifully filed upstairs for the meeting. Some guest speaker droned on about something or other for half an hour or so, and then one of Charlotte's friends took the floor and read the minutes of the previous meeting with updates where appropriate. Three copies of Socialist Worker had been sold at some political rally or other, and this was reported as a triumph rather than indicative of general public indifference. Then an argument broke out over the phrasing of some minor point, escalating to a peculiarly heated passive-aggressive exchange over some point of seemingly little consequence. 'I understand why my respected comrade takes that position,' one of them bleated from his place amongst the audience, looking to us as though this mattered, 'but what I believe he fails to appreciate in this instance...'

I realised that I had no idea why I was there. This was essentially a cult, as signified by the heavy and quite unnecessary use of jargon. Everyone was a comrade, and our animating force was the struggle, specifically the class struggle. It therefore struck me as odd that I myself seemed to be one of the few present whom, it might be argued, actually belonged to the class that was doing the struggling, otherwise Scarf Boy and Charlotte seemed fairly typical. These people were imposters, the guilt-ridden white and upper middle classes seeking purpose in the plight of those stuck in the sort of jobs they themselves would never be required to do. As I made my way to the exit I passed Billy Boast talking to an older woman who wore dungarees and spoke with a South African accent. She was an artist of some description, and I had already overheard her discussing her work, specifically its featuring in an exhibition held in what I presume to have been her home country.

'Yeah, but just who is this going to be for?' asked Billy Boast, sceptical. 'Who will see it?'

'It's for the bleck people, of course,' she explained.

'Are you leaving?' Rajun seemed disappointed.

'Yes.' I looked around the room, noticing that everyone else had settled in for the night. 'I have work in the morning.'

Charlotte homed in on me with a glass of white wine. 'I'm going to the Gambia!'

With hindsight, it's not that I disagreed with anything those people purported to represent. My problem lay with their basic dishonesty, an inability to accept themselves for who and what they were, pedigree warts and all; and their seeking salvation in the misery of others, not through any genuine desire to build a better world, but because it helped them feel a little better about themselves and their resented privilege.

I tend to believe that all major evils of human society are born of the mindset in which one individual believes they know what is best for another regardless of the qualification of either experience or insight into how that other may live their life - theory or ideology held as having greater currency than subjective experience. This is why I tend to dislike certain political ideologies, and particularly those which instil an individual with the confidence sufficient for him or her to define what is best for a person living on the other side of the world, or in circumstances of which they have no direct experience. Such ideologies tend to be easy to spot because they propose easy solutions to complex problems, solutions so easy they can be reduced to slogans in pursuit of popular support; because popular support is usually the entire point.

This is annoying for me because I am roughly speaking a Socialist, and could hardly realistically be anything else having spent some years on the wrong end of the shitty stick of capitalism. I would very much like Socialist principles to inform the governments of at least the two countries in which I've lived, but unfortunately it's probably never going to happen because the loudest voices of true Socialism - as opposed to whatever the hell the English Labour party has been doing since the mid-nineties - will always be some whining upper-class tofu-scoffing moron trying to rant past their own guilt at not having been born and raised in a drainage ditch; and as modern politics has apparently been reduced to point-scoring and rabble-rousing, such people seem inevitably to have the loudest voice; and it is because of them that those who don't understand Socialism so often claim to hate it, because no-one likes a scarf-wearing smart-arse trying to be your mate.

Ultimately the SWP taught me was that I wasn't so desperate to make new friends as I believed at the time; and that sadly the enemies of Socialism - as a force for positive change rather than a means of seeming like less of a tosser - include many of its own supporters.