Monday, 31 March 2014

The Self-Blowing Internet Trumpet

A little over a week ago I received a message from my friend Nick Sweeney inviting me to participate in something called The Writing Process Blog Tour. It seemed potentially somewhat spammy as an idea, and as a general principal I dislike the great majority of writers' blogs. The process of writing, I feel, does not need to be of inherent interest to anyone other than the individual at the wheel, so to speak; and those How I Done It style self-blowing internet trumpets wherein a person of whom I know nothing facilitates for my edification a fascinating glimpse into the daily life and inspiration of his or her undiscovered genius serve only to ensure that I will never read their work, because life is simply too short to care about where someone with no impact upon one's existence gets their ideas, such as they may be. Equally, I tend to avoid the work of those who qualify themselves with declared epithets - Banzai Turnpike, Writer or Jedbert Aggrandizer, Journalist. If the person is indeed a writer, an artist, or whatever, then this will be apparent from their work and requires no formal declaration, particularly not one carrying the insistence of a small child putting a cardboard box over its head and screaming I am a robot! The process of writing is not, I would suggest, inherently interesting in and of itself, and so I prefer to keep it in my pants, figuratively speaking.

Then after another few hours I decided it would probably be fun to respond - at least fun for me - and it might get a few more cyberbums on virtual seats, and was therefore probably the sort of thing for which I should make the effort to engage my enthusiasm; and so here we all are, pretending to enjoy ourselves.

Nick Sweeney, to whom none of the above reservations apply by virtue of his consistently delivering the goods, has written a very fine novel called Laikonik Express which is published by Unthank Books. See more from Nick at

Each participant in The Writing Process Blog Tour will attempt to answer the following four questions.

What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am working on the cover painting for Liberating Earth, a short story collection edited by Kate Orman to be published by Obverse Books at some point or other. In terms of writing, I am presently transcribing and editing five diaries kept whilst in Mexico City from 1999 to 2005, to be self-published mainly for reasons of vanity some time soon. The work which I really should be getting on with, from which I find myself continually sidetracked, comprises fifteen or so short stories, three novels, and two novellas. All of these exist in completed first draft form requiring editing and rewrites to greater or lesser degrees. The novellas both feature the character Señor 105, a surreal Mexican wrestler created by Cody Quijano-Schell. The novels are called Golden Age, The Small Men, and Early Morning - all science-fiction for the sake of argument, although I like the term blue collar science-fiction because both Harvey Pekar and Charles Bukowski have been an influence. Once I've finished all this stuff I'll try to figure out what to do with it.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
It revives the non-ironic use of gnomes, has no desire to be made into either film or television, nor to be part of any existing popular trend.

Why do you write what you do?
Because if I didn't I would explode, no-one else seems to be writing it - possibly excepting Cody Quijano-Schell, and because I wish to read it. My ultimate, possibly unrealistic ambition is to produce fiction of such astonishing power as to shame others into either giving up, or at least making a bit more of a fucking effort.

How does your writing process work?
I write in blocks of around eight-hundred words a day inspired by the technique of A.E. van Vogt. I try to let the narrative develop itself, bringing in whatever element is necessary to either move the story forward or to at least ensure that I continue to enjoy writing it. I keep to this regime regardless of inspiration until I have produced something which can then be carved into a form suggesting both purpose and foresight on my part. Throughout the process I try to remain aware of my own capacity for bullshit, in order to keep myself from propagating any more of it.

Next week, Andrew Hickey and Richard Dominic Flowers will be on this branch of The Writing Process Blog Tour. Andrew is author of the forthcoming Faction Paradox novel Head of State, and of a great wealth of excellent self-published material, both fiction and non-fiction. Richard is working on an ambitious series of possibly Discordian novels - or at least that's how it looks to me - under the heading aNARCHY rULES, of which I have read the first, which is tremendous and promises much for those volumes to come. He was also one of the first people ever to provide constructive criticism of my own writing, and as such should probably be mentioned on one of those were it not for etc. etc. lists. Andrew and Richard will be answering these same four questions on their blogs, respectively Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! and The Very Fluffy Diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant.

Friday, 28 March 2014


At some point during the summer of 2010, having decided there was nothing else for it, I signed up with an employment agency called Parkhouse Recruitment. The job situation in Coventry could be described as an employer's market, meaning that there were very few jobs available for anyone who wasn't already in work, or who lacked the necessary can do attitude regarding jobs paying significantly less than they might otherwise receive in benefits.

The term employer's market implies that it was just one of those things, and that we should all be happy for those lucky employers who get to choose the one person they deem best qualified to press a button causing a blob of paste to come out of a spigot every four seconds from a group of two million applicants. It implies that we should all be happy for the one lucky jobseeker who ceases to number amongst those dole scrounging chav sponge monkeys busily bringing a once great nation to its knees by stealing from the honest pockets of hard working shareholders.

Anyway, I had failed to find a job, and those I might have considered were mostly only available through employment agencies, because employers apparently felt it unfair that they should be expected to treat their workers as anything other than disposable labour units to be hired and fired as the almighty market dictates. I was reluctant to approach an employment agency, because they have a habit of keeping the lion's share of whatever you earn from whoever hires you; but it was that or another six months spent explaining to a twenty-two year old Department of Work and Pensions clerk with an overinflated sense of his own power just why I felt that cleaning the bowls of a busy public toilet with my own face for twenty pence an hour was beneath my dignity.

Nevertheless, I dutifully trudged along to the tower block that Parkhouse had borrowed for recruitment purposes in the pedestrianised centre of Coventry. There were twenty or thirty of us, mostly Asian, which I suppose identified our group as hanging from the lower branches of the socioeconomic tree, the ones who couldn't afford to be too choosy. Expecting interviews, we were simply given forms to fill in, most of which seemed to relate to ensuring potential employers that Parkhouse would not be supplying them with car thieves, compulsive arsonists, or the sort of greed-driven leftie maniacs who would kick up a fuss should we lose limbs or heads in industrial accidents occurring on their premises. As it turned out, it didn't even really seem to matter whether we could speak English provided we were able to follow basic instructions. The young Indian guy sat at the next desk told me we would probably be sent to a Parcel Force depot in Leicester. This was a good thing he suggested. He'd been to the place before, and the work was relatively light providing you didn't mind a shift beginning at midnight and ending at eight in the morning. Even without the issue of how I would get to Leicester, I didn't like the sound of this. I'd spent the previous two decades working relatively antisocial hours, and felt I had done my time.

Ellie, a chirpy blonde who looked to be about twenty-five years of age gathered our application material and promised to phone as soon as work became available. A few days later, the call came, or at least a call came. It wasn't work - although that would be happening very soon, she assured me - but I needed to fill in some of my forms again, as those copies already submitted had been lost due to an administrative error. A few more days and I was given my security pass, the passport photograph I had supplied stapled onto a square of card. It didn't look particularly authoritative, but it would apparently get me into the building once the work began to flood in which - thankfully - probably wouldn't be anywhere quite so far away as Leicester.

A few months before, I had attended the signing in day at another agency, and found myself in a room with a bunch of seasoned brickies and plasterers.

'Everyone got a hi-vis?' the recruiter had asked, prompting a mumble of concurrence from everyone except me. I wasn't even sure what he meant, although I guessed he could be referring to the kind of fluorescent plastic waistcoat worn so as to prevent a loss of profit resulting from fork lift drivers accidentally running over any agency workers they hadn't noticed stood on the loading bay at three in the morning; but I wasn't going to ask because my ignorance would reveal me as someone who probably wrote poetry and enjoyed pressing flowers. After a few more minutes I realised that, contrary to that which had been stated in the advertising, the only work available here was to be on a building site. I seriously doubted that I would be physically up to the demands of such work, and I lacked the requisite experience of my fellow applicants. Furthermore, it saddened me to realise that men who had laid bricks and built homes - surely the very definition of useful - were now reduced to seeking a living through an employment agency.

Ellie now asked me that same question, whether I was in possession of a hi-vis jacket, and this time I understood what it meant. I didn't, but I found one for about thirty quid at Go Outdoors, a warehouse-sized camping supplies outlet. Duly equipped, I turned up as requested at six in the morning at the Baginton National Parcel Force depot on the outskirts of Coventry, about four or five miles from home, or twenty-five minutes by bike. It was a long time since I had been the inexperienced new recruit, the guy whose job was to do as directed and try not to mess it up, and cycling past the unpleasantly aromatic Walker's Crisps factory each frosty morning before sunrise emphasised the resumption of my status as a cheap industrialised labour unit, but there wasn't much point resenting the fact.

The workers from the previous shift trickled out from the gate, and our lot filtered in. I showed my identity card to the security guard who confirmed that yes, I was indeed expected that morning; and so I was allowed on through with all the others, all filing into a building that could have been an aircraft hanger.

'I like your jacket.'

This was a full-time Parcel Force employee, a middle-aged woman. It took me a moment to recognise this as a straightforward statement. She really was admiring my hi-vis tabard. The compliment had confused me, and I had initially taken it for sarcasm because I couldn't imagine what it would be like to admire the hi-vis jacket of a complete stranger.

'Thanks.' I dispensed a diplomatic smile, hoping that this would suffice and followed everyone else into the building.

There were thirty or forty casual staff, and countless full-time employees. The better jobs entailed processing large packets and parcels as they were ferried into the depot on a line of large automated trolleys drawn along a chain-track set into the floor, specifically scanning barcodes and sorting by region - Scotland, Wales, Greater London, North-east and so on. A little further down the industrial pecking order were those employed in loading these parcels onto the conveyor belts of the appropriate bays set around the circumference of the depot. Each belt was mounted on a hydraulic boom which could be extended into the back of a trailer.

At the lowest end of the food chain of labour were those who, like myself, ended up in the back of a trailer, stacking whatever came down the belt until the thing was full and was thus ready to be driven off to another part of the country.

The steady running of the conveyor belt was dependent upon the removal of the item that had arrived at its end, as detected by a beam of light. If one failed to take the next parcel, the belt remained stationary. This prevented the possibility of employees buried alive beneath a mountain of packets, having paused for a second to adjust a pair of ill-fitting underpants. Unfortunately, this stop-start motion also tended to result in blockages out in the depot as a great many more objects were piled onto the belt than that with which one person could reasonably cope. As soon as a blockage occurred, a warning light outside the bay would draw the attention of Marcie, a stern but efficient woman resembling Peppermint Patty's friend all grown up and somewhat embittered by life in the West Midlands.

'Get this belt moving.'

It was never anything like a request, and her tone made it clear that you could be replaced very easily, which was of course the entire point of agency staff. The problem was that in order to keep the belt moving one had no choice but to cut corners, even to ignore the care which any sane person would take in such a job in an effort to avoid stacking the extremely heavy on top of the extremely fragile. The sound of unsuspected glass objects smashing inside some parcel as another was hoisted on top was a more than hourly occurrence, because you didn't actually have time to break wind, let alone subject each item to any sort of inspection. This was regarded as simple natural breakage by Parcel Force staff, something that statistically could not be avoided, particularly considering the weight of some of the objects being sent by mail. It was not unusual to find a complete motorbike engine mummified in polythene wrap on the belt, or the entire fibre glass siding of a car. Legally we weren't allowed by eminently sensible European law to lift such weights by ourselves, and officially we were expected to seek assistance, but again this proved impractical if you were to keep the belt moving and thus also keep your job. It was tough and exhausting, and it went on from six in the morning to two in the afternoon with two half hour breaks. My time at Royal Mail had amounted to twenty years of humping heavy weights in pouring rain whilst a man in a suit told you to pull your finger out, but this was much worse, much more demanding.

I lasted three days, then told Ellie that I'd had enough for one week. Perhaps conveniently it turned out that the National Parcel Force depot rarely required its complement of agency workers outside of the three heaviest days of the week, and I wasn't needed again until the following Tuesday; so it sort of worked out, aside from the fact of eighty or so pounds seeming a poor weekly wage for something quite so physically strenuous. It was almost a quarter of what I had earned working a five-day week at Royal Mail.

I went back of course, reasoning that a two or three day working week was manageable, despite those two or three days occasionally resembling some sort of conflation of the various tasks famously allotted to Hercules with what happened to Apprentice Mickey in Walt Disney's Fantasia. Over time, the job became, if not exactly bearable, at least do-able, and it was better than signing on. A social element would have made the working day more pleasant, but wasn't really practical whilst I was stuck grunting and sweating in the back of a trailer for the best part of the morning, even aside from the registry of my fellow agency workers being more or less different from one week to the next. Marcie was likeable in a gruff sort of way, consistent and thus trustworthy if not particularly warm or sympathetic; but it was clear that she was under at least as much pressure from the amoral boardroom counting machines as that which she applied to us, and even when she called you a useless arsehole, you knew it was never personal. The only other regular agency worker was Billy with his coke-bottle glasses and displaced Manchester accent, always borrowing just two pound coins for the canteen or the drinks machine, always delivering some weird announcement to no-one in particular.

'As soon as I get home I'm straight on facebook to all me mates!'

It wasn't just reportage of plans made for the rest of the day. It was offered as a mission statement, not so much what Billy would do as what he was, and God help the fool who tried to stop him. I always wondered who he was talking to; and I also wondered how someone so seemingly undernourished, how this weird little chain-smoking Bash Street Kid as written by Alan Bennett could spend all morning lifting concrete blocks onto a conveyor belt without complaint. He would lecture me during tea break, although I didn't mind. He would share tales of similarly tough agency work undertaken at other depots, day shifts enthusiastically grasped immediately following a night shift. I think he just liked to stay busy.

'As soon as I get in there,' he told me, referring to some new warehouse full of heavy machinery in which he'd made himself a permanent fixture, 'I get straight to that radio and it goes on Mercia!'

It seemed that his speciality was doing things immediately upon arriving somewhere. I'd never listened to Mercia, a local radio station playing what I imagined, perhaps wrongly, to be the usual mix of Spandau Ballet, Dire Straits, Status Quo and other favourites of those who don't really like music that much. It was strange to hear it held up as a proud standard of all that must be considered right and true, a cause in which Billy believed with some passion.

I lasted as long as I could at the National Parcel Force depot. The work became no easier, although I almost got used to it, and after a few weeks stuck in the back of trailers, I graduated to being given other duties every so often just to break things up a little. It was whilst humping parcels, motorbike engines, and other crap from the automated trolleys onto the belts that I lifted a crate which turned out to contain the smashed remains of a dozen bottles of red wine. I was soaked through and I smelled like an alcoholic, but it got me out of work for thirty minutes, and Marcie found me a Parcel Force uniform from the store as replacement for my own sodden clothes. I kept the uniform on the grounds that no-one asked for it back, and I continued to wear it to work in vague hope of being mistaken for a full-time employee and someone who might therefore deserve a slightly cushier number every once in a while.

No-one was fooled, although I was mistaken on one occasion for an Australian.

'No,' I explained, entirely bewildered. 'I'm English.'

'Oh I thought what with your vest,' - her words trailed off as she contemplated my ridiculous fluorescent tabard. 'It's really different.'

This wasn't even the same woman as before, so clearly my stupid bright yellow waistcoat was somehow so different to those worn by everyone else as to be worth noticing. Mine was purchased from a place specialising in sports and camping supplies. Everyone else, it turned out, wore the regular Parcel Force issue which was given free of charge even to agency staff. I could, I realised, have saved myself thirty quid and at least two weirdly bewildering conversations. I didn't even understand how anyone would notice the minor differences between their reflective jackets and mine, much less have so little going on in their lives as to consider it a worthy topic of conversation; and why Australian in particular? It didn't look identical to the kind worn by everyone else, but it's not like I'd accessorised with a hem of corks and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo sew-on patches.

At the point at which I'd had about enough of the slog, I found myself unexpectedly assigned to the International Parcel Force depot, a different warehouse sized building accessible by the same security gate. Whilst the change initially struck me as an immense pain in the arse - beginning somewhere new all over again - I got over my reticence when I realised the work at the other depot was conducted at a more humane pace with more reasonable demands on the individual. For some reason even the atmosphere was more pleasant, and instead of the vast industrial cavern I found myself walking in a brightly lit labyrinth of staircases, ladders, overhead walkways, and mysterious elevated tracks carrying packets here and there. It was like a chocolate factory designed by Jules Verne, which seemed preferable to industrial Tolkien.

I was introduced on my first day to Jim, as I'm fairly certain I remember him being called, a man in his fifties with a slight Irish accent, and an archetypical old boy of the kind with which a previous girlfriend had told me I was obsessed. The accusation had annoyed me, particularly coming from someone whose only experience of the working classes was when ordering room service or asking how soon something could be repaired. It wasn't that I was obsessed with old men as she had so cluelessly put it, but in every place I'd worked, the funniest and usually sharpest of my colleagues were almost always those of either my parents' generation or older. Jim fitted this bill, not least because he was very funny, and had perfected the art of taking the piss out of whoever was available without a hint of mean spirits. He took me under his wing almost as though I were an apprentice in the traditional sense, possibly being well-disposed towards me because I'd been a postman for so long. The international parcels tended to be of the kind sent by individual people to family members living in England, and less in the line of heavy machine parts as had been common at the national depot. Loading up an international trailer was therefore a slightly more relaxing affair conducted at a more reasonable pace, so much so that on slow mornings I was able to catch up on my reading; although shame obliged me to drop the habit on the morning when a slightly disgruntled supervisor visited my trailer to point out that my quota of parcels seemed light that morning because I hadn't actually turned on the belt, and the entire depot was now held up, waiting on Mary Shelley and myself to pull our respective fingers out. I saw the same supervisor a few hours later in the canteen reading something or other by Isaac Asimov, which I guessed accounted for why he hadn't been quite so angry as he might have been. It seemed like a good sign.

Occasionally Jim and I would swap roles to break the monotony. He would extend a boom into the trailer and I would load the belt, or scan the packets using a small computer which strapped onto my forearm and was linked to a laser scanner worn on the tip of one finger. It made me feel like a character from a Judge Dredd comic strip and appealed to my inner child.

These duties alternated with stints in the customs inspection room, watching as customs officials opened random packages of samurai swords, firearms, sex aids, or - most gruesome of all - parcels of bush meat sent from Africa by people who hadn't quite realised that bits of monkeys might not be quite so fresh by the time they reached England. For some weeks I had noticed a terrific eye-watering stench would occasionally pass through the depot like a huge smelly ghost. This turned out to be the signifier of each newly discovered consignment of bush meat. There was an element of novelty to working with the customs people, but the duty involved very little beyond standing around in a hot room for three or four hours at a time, and quickly became boring, almost as undesirable as working over at the national depot in its own way.

I spoke to Ellie on the phone and told her that if possible I'd prefer to not work than be sent to the National Parcel Force depot again. As with Royal Mail, it was an environment in which productivity demands had become such as to make it impossible to do the job as it should be done. She didn't seem to like this, but accepted that it would at least save her phoning with offers of work I was only going to turn down.

My time at Parcel Force ended with a few months in the arrivals section of the international depot, unloading trailers as they came in from the airports. It was harder work than before, but not unreasonably so. I would spend the morning extending a boom into the back of a trailer of parcels from China, India, or America whilst listening to my CDs of David Sedaris or Tony Hancock. Sometimes there would be two or more of us unloading a trailer together. Most of the others were okay, and they were at least an interesting mix. There was a young liberal democrat councillor from Ryton-on-Dunsmore, and an amateur boxer who didn't seem to like black people much, but was otherwise okay provided he could be kept from straying into his default conversational racism.

'I can't stand that bloke,' he scowled, glowering at a young guy of obviously Indian origin working over near the peculiar overhead monorail by which large bags of parcels were carried across the depot. 'He's so arrogant.'

Typically, I found myself getting on better with the supposed purveyor of arrogance than the amateur boxer. It turned out that he wasn't even remotely arrogant, but was simply a guy trying to get on with his job.

Eventually the work dried up and Ellie stopped calling me, aside from requesting that I come into the office to fill in my application forms a third time as they had been lost yet again. Given that I'd been on their books for a good nine months, I wasn't entirely sure how this worked. It also turned out that she now required references from previous employers. I did what I could, submitting an email from my old boss at Royal Mail, which for some reason turned out to be unsatisfactory. Ellie sent me a text message which read I'm sorry but I cannot except this. I couldn't bring myself to care about why I  needed to submit an application to do something I had already been doing for the best part of a year, but I was slightly appalled that the particulars of my employment were in the hands of someone unable to distinguish between except and accept. I was a manual worker, a man paid to lift up heavy objects and put them down somewhere else, and Ellie herself was paid through my doing this. Parkhouse people, so the website states, are chosen for excellence - and hired for their passion, attitude, pride and fun, but apparently not for their understanding of basic grammar or spelling; but then I had endured six months of my name rendered as Lawerence on pay slips, so it wasn't a huge surprise.

My problem, so I gather, was that Parkhouse preferred workers who would take whatever jobs they were given without question, and I had limited myself by refusing work at both the National Parcel Force depot and weird shifts in neighbouring cities. It was disappointing, but at least it meant an end to my turning up as requested only to find that I hadn't been added to the list that day, contrary to promises made during the previous evening's phone call; and it was an end to work which, if pleasant enough in its own way, paid so little that I could quite easily blow half of my daily wage in the canteen at lunch.

It was marginally better than being on the dole, and I could happily have carried on indefinitely at the international depot had I not made other plans, and that's about as much as can be said about it.

Friday, 21 March 2014


I acquired a more than passing interest in the Nahuatl speaking cultures of Precolombian Mexico sometime around 1994, and by 1996 I had learned enough to realise that this was something I would have to start taking seriously in order to achieve a more thorough understanding. I drew up a contemporary continuation of the Mexican Tonalpohualli calendar, and began to conduct my daily life with some consideration of Nahua Gods and related sacred forces. To be absolutely clear here, I don't mean to imply that I had chosen to believe in something which, one might rightly point out, would seem a little lost in the context of 1990s south-east London; but then nor do I wish to suggest I would ever engage in anything quite so dry and cynical as a mere thought-experiment. A better way of putting it is to perhaps say that I made an effort to regard my environment and the world in general in terms that would have made sense to a fifteenth century Nahua, principally in order to gain a better understanding of Precolombian thought by treating it as something which had existed for a reason, rather than mumbo jumbo to be pinned out on the dissecting table of objectivity.

Whilst I have a lot of time for Richard Dawkins, his general dismissive view of religious systems isn't always either helpful or interesting, often amounting to a set of one-size-fits-all refutations which, whilst perfectly logical and effective for his purposes, amount to what may as well be an attack on traditional Inuit clothing based on how it looks terrible on the catwalk and proves uncomfortable when traversing the Sahara desert.

Anyway, to return to the point, there I was in south-east London at the end of the twentieth century trying to think myself into the world of someone born in Tenochtitlan five-hundred years earlier. In practical terms, this amounted to eating Mexican food, following the calendar already mentioned, keeping an eye out for coincidences, and painting the Gods, characters and concepts upon which I had fixated as though they were real, rather than mere subjects of anthropological study. I say as though they were real, and should probably qualify this by stating that I came to believe that the Gods and spirits of Mexico are real in all senses that matter, by which I mean that as ideas they are real, and the ideas are the most important element. I don't for a second believe in anything that contradicts the established laws of physics, or in disembodied superhuman intelligences sat in judgement upon the more comfortable clouds, but I do think that a helpful religious system is one that provides a useful way of thinking about things, or of seeing the world, and a way that can under certain possibly subjective circumstances be considerable more useful than the rigorously and sometimes puritanically rational. For example, one might dismiss the First Nations view of respecting the Earth as superstitious anthropomorphism, and suggest that sacrificing valuables to the land in hope of an abundant crop is obviously ridiculous. The same land reduced to mere material commodity might just as well be turned into a huge toxic waste dump gratuitously formed into the profile of Margaret Thatcher when seen from above, unless long term ecological consequences are taken into consideration; but humanity doesn't have a particularly good track record where long term consequences are concerned, and therefore the superstitious theological view, for whatever reason, happens to represent a particularly useful way of thinking about the land in question regardless of whether or not the earth is genuinely grateful for all those human hearts buried earlier in some corner of the field.

So with this in mind, I painted pictures and paid attention to my daily calendar, noting with some pleasure those minor coincidences such as the cold, wet, miserable day when my friend Paul came over to record DIY techno on my somewhat coal-fired studio set-up, which turned out to be a day theologically distinguished by the patronage of Tlaloc and Huehuecoyotl, respectively the Mexican Gods of Rain and Dance. That isn't to say that these coincidences necessarily meant anything in the real world, but they were fun all the same.

Along similar lines, I sometimes wondered what my Nagual or companion animal spirit might be, suspecting it was probably a frog as there were always a ton of frogs in the garden who, from what I could tell, seemed to think I was okay. Of course, the idea that I might have an animal spirit, or even that there could really be such a thing, as the Nahua believed and continue to believe, was essentially either ludicrous or at least not to be mistaken for anything belonging to the real world, but still it seemed an appealing idea on some level.

My fascination with Mexico led to my visiting the country first in September 1999, and then again on four more yearly occasions. By the time I met my wife, my gaze was already set firmly upon the Americas, albeit the Americas a little way south of Texas, and so it took about three seconds to decide whether or not I wished to move over here.

We were married in July 2011, and I began the process of settling and acclimatising to a country and environment which, despite all of my preparation, was nevertheless very different to anything I had known before. The heat was phenomenal compared to that which I was used to, the shops were all different, the food was unfamiliar, all of the punk records, science-fiction novels, and Mesoamerican textbooks which had defined my growth into whatever the hell I am today were five-thousand miles away along with all of my friends and family. Additionally, I had never been married before, and neither had I been a parent nor a stepfather, and whilst Junior was lively, imaginative, and essentially likeable, he was often hard work, and - as with many children - very rarely ever so cute or funny as he believed himself to be.

I had made a huge leap entirely on the possibly insane anticipation of it somehow, against all odds, working out. The most sensible thing to do seemed to be to throw myself into work, and so I got started on the garden, or more accurately the back yard - a desiccated football pitch of scorched earth with chain link fence surrounding containing rusting barbecue equipment. Physical labour, as I had already discovered on a number of previous occasions, tends to be more philosophically productive than sitting around thinking about things, and I felt I needed to get my hands into the soil, to symbolically root myself to this corner of Texas and mark out my territory. This was to be my building something upon which I could stand steady, and so I began to work on a lawn.

I dug every square foot of soil which had reduced to grey dust and limestone rocks in the August heat, collecting in the process a mountain of stones by which I eventually marked out the borders of my projected garden. The work was tough, but helped by the fact that every waking minute had become something akin to an adventure in this new and unfamiliar land. Amongst the first of many, many surprises was the discovery of grub worms, fat, white insect larvae about an inch long living under the soil and generally regarded as a menace hereabouts for their voracious consumption of plant roots. I was startled to realise that these insects were larval to a bright orange and largely nocturnal beetle resembling what the Precolombian Nahua had described in Bernardino de Sahagún's sixteenth century Florentine Codex as the pinauiztli beetle.

The pinauiztli beetle is listed specifically as a creature of ill omen, and I had discussed its identification in correspondence with English Mesoamericanist Dr. Eleanor Wake some years earlier. The elusive identity of this insect had been of sufficient mystery and appeal as to make it into at least one draft of my novel, Against Nature; and  having wondered about the creature at some length, it seemed I now had a garden full of the bloody things.

Another resident of the yard was a lizard, specifically a Texas spiny lizard of the species Sceloporus olivaceus whom I had first noticed as a swiftly moving shape out of the corner of my eye. In traditional Nahua terms, the lizard - or cuetzpallin - is a fairly important symbol of plenty and as such stands as one of the twenty pictographic stars of the Tonalpohualli calendar. As with many of these Mesoamerican symbols, the important detail is that which they represent, and so a lizard seems well chosen as an avatar of plenty. As I have seen since living here, lizards come out in their numbers in Spring as the air warms and crops begin to grow; and if this seems too simplistic a parallel, it might also be noted that abundant crops will attract abundant pests, which in turn draw the lizards out of hiding. Agriculture was roughly how I came to meet my own particular little four-legged friend who, as I started to notice, would emerge each day as I began to dig up another patch of yard, and wait for what grub worms I tossed aside. My hope was that they would perish under the punishing heat of the midday sun, but it turned out that I was serving dinner.

Ever since I was a dinosaur-obsessed child I have liked reptiles and amphibians, and when I kept the garden in London, it had been gratifying to read in an issue of New Scientist that, contrary to the received wisdom, the higher cold-blooded animals were entirely capable of both affection and recognising those humans who bought them food or who kept the tank at just the right temperature. This seemed to be borne out by the larger frogs who gathered around the small pond I had made and who, after several weeks of my bringing them whatever worms I had found whilst digging, could no longer be bothered to hop away, but rather sat regarding me, waiting for my exit before pouncing upon whatever I had bought. This peculiar bonding repeated itself now in Texas as the lizard grew accustomed to my presence, becoming a little bolder each day. Of course, it may have been that I was visited by more than one lizard, but it seemed unlikely, for if that was so then they would all have to have been the exact same size, and worked in shifts with never more than one of them turning up at the same time.

I'd never seen lizards in the wild in England, although my friend Lucia told me that some had been seen on her allotment in Forest Hill, thus happily putting the dampers on Lewisham Council's plans to build yet another complex of overpriced luxury rabbit hutches for the benefit of overmoneyed Time Out subscribers and people who care about Damien Hirst. I had seen lizards in Mexico, but never at close range like this, and I was fascinated.

My guy was full grown, and about six inches in length, and he became so accustomed to me that I was almost able to feed him from my hand, as is apparently not uncommon. What astonished me most, aside from his obvious intelligence, was how birdlike his movements seemed, and how adorable I found him. Cold blood is generally painted in at least the school textbooks of my youth as representing the short straw in the metabolism draw, but this, I suggest, is a conclusion that only makes sense if you have no direct experience of reptiles.

I took photographs of my lizard, and told my wife about him. We wondered whether to tell Junior, then going through a slightly unfortunate phase during which he tried to make everything into a pet, worst of these being hermit crabs brought back from the beach at Corpus Christi. Thankfully he's since grown out of it, and has even developed a healthy and prescient degree of concern for animal welfare, but it was touch and go for a while, and my heart would cloud over with dark thoughts each time he ran off into the bushes after some defenceless critter yelling who wants to help me catch it?

'Let's not tell him,' I said. 'I don't think I could stand to come back from the store and find that lizard stuck in a tank in his room for no good reason.'

Bess sighed in concurrence.

'Besides,' I added, fitfully scratching at the rash of my own mild irritation, 'he'll only give it one of those names.'

At least a few years of the boy's development had been characterised by his bestowing bluntly descriptive names on any animal he encountered, followed by testy behaviour when the rest of us failed to fall into line with the identification of Swimmy the fish, Chirpy the bird, Jumpy the rabbit, Fuzzy Larry the hairy caterpillar and so on.

I thought of the lizard, recalling the dominant pattern of the scales on his back. 'Junior would probably call him Stripy.'

I sighed at the idea, but next day as an increasingly rotund Stripy waddled back to where I'd been digging for the day's grub worms, I realised I quite liked the name. It was cute, and I had begun to feel protective towards the little fellow. I had even begun to worry about whether my supply of excavated grub worms represented too generous a cornucopia, whether he might explode; but online research disabused me off this notion.

Eventually many months later, I'd finished the digging, and although I still saw Stripy - or a lizard which was probably Stripy - from time to time, Winter was on the way, and it was clear that we shared similarly dim views of the colder months of the year and were responding accordingly. I'm not saying that I had at last found my Nagual, or my animal spirit in Stripy, but my reclaiming the yard, turning the Earth back into something in which plants would grow, could be argued to have had a ritual purpose, and so it seemed useful, or at least entertaining to believe that I had; and the important detail is that it worked, and this place has become my home.

Today, after two weeks of grey skies and biting wind which could be quite adequately equated to the fourth level of the Mesoamerican underworld - Itzeheyacan or Where the Wind is Like Knives, the air is suddenly and dramatically warm, so warm that, having grown up in England I half expect to hear the steady buzz of bees and a distant lawnmower. Out on the trail, cycling my usual fifteen miles a day, I find that my limbs are much stronger, newly energised by not having to fight against the cold. I've not yet seen the first lizards of spring, signifying the harvest, plenty, cups which runneth over and all that good stuff, but I expect it's only a matter of time before I do.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Conversations about Weather

As a teenager living in the small market town of Shipston-on-Stour, I augmented my five pounds or so weekly pocket money with the wages of a paper round, six days a week for Martins newsagent delivering mainly to Callaways and Springfield Road. Most mornings I would cross paths with the old couple who handled the local milk round, and whichever one of them I saw first would always greet me with some casual observation regarding the weather. The sky would be blue, prompting a prediction of a pleasant day ahead. If it was grey, I would be told that it looked like we were due for some rain.

I was fourteen, and I really didn't care. The weather would do whatever it was going to do, and I could see no point in discussion. Even at that age I was easily irritated by what I considered to be inane conversation, despite most of what came out of my own mouth arguably belonging to the selfsame category. I told my mother as much, expecting support, understanding that she too had little patience with meaningless chatter.

She frowned, apparently bemused, and explained that weather-related conversation is a valuable institution, something which should not be taken lightly. Years later, I have come around to sharing this view. No-one is really that interested in the weather, but it's either that or greetings along the lines of I acknowledge that you and I have little in common and so wish to impress upon you that I have as yet formed no explicit objection to anything you may say whilst reminding you that any subject discussed beyond a certain level of detail is likely to be a source of embarrassment for both of us, and so with this in mind I offer you both my greeting and fervent hope that you may judge this encounter accurately in terms of how interesting I'm likely to find whatever you say next.

Conversations about weather - possibly excepting those occurring between meteorologists - are for the most part more about social interaction than exchange of information, a means of establishing that we're talking roughly the same language; and apparently the English are known for them.

Sometimes my wife will comment upon the weather, and for a moment I'll wonder if she is simply trying to make me feel at home, but I realise this can't be the case because - aside from the obvious point that I actually am home by most definitions that matter - she never tries to engage me in discussion regarding members of the Royal Family or football teams. Probably it is because the weather here in San Antonio is of some interest to me, it being quite unlike that which I experienced for the first forty or so years of my life, because it seems fair to say that England is significantly colder than Texas.

I grew up on a dairy farm, living for my first decade in the house which came with my father's job. Heating was provided by a single fireplace and warm clothing, and due to subsidence there were cracks in the walls of the house through which one could pass a newspaper, provided it wasn't rolled up and there hadn't been much happening in the way of news that week. In winter it snowed at least enough for the construction of life-sized snowmen to which we could have commuted by sledge had we so chosen. Of course, being young and unable to remember previous lives lived in ancient Egypt due to there being no such thing as reincarnation, I lacked an understanding of the wider context of climate, and it didn't seem so much that it was cold as simply that this was how things were during the months around Christmas. I knew there were warmer places in the world, but I was unable to relate them to my own experience.

As I grew older, I came to dislike the cold weather more and more, not least following one frozen day in the winter of 1984 when I left the home I shared with two others in Leeds village, Kent, heading for art college without too much thought wasted on why no water had emerged from the bathroom tap that morning. I understood that the pipes had frozen, but assumed this was simply an inconvenience which would pass once they were thawed later in the day. I didn't know to leave the taps open so as to prevent the pipes bursting when the thaw came, but the lesson was learned that evening as I returned home, looking out from the window of the bus as we passed our house to see something that resembled the frozen tomb of the Cybermen from the Doctor Who story of the same name, ten foot icicles each as thick as a human being drooping majestically from the window of Reuben's bedroom up on the first floor. Several villagers had strapped snow chains to their feet and were stood around taking photographs, having braved the weather on the promise of a sight to remember.

Between the farm and moving away from home, I had lived in a house with central heating and had thus become spoiled, accustomed to certain minor luxuries such as not freezing one's knackers off for nine months of the year. As a student I was reacquainted with the living conditions of my formative years, spending most winters huddled over a series of portable gas fires, shivering in five layers of clothing as the winter sun crept reluctantly above the tree line before sinking back down again in the late afternoon.

In 1988 I took a job with Royal Mail, becoming a postman and so resigning myself to pounding pavements in all conditions for six days of the week, painfully aware of having once celebrated the final day of my paper round with the promise that I would never do anything like that ever again. During the next twenty-one years I reached an unprecedented degree of intimacy with the elements, wind, rain, snow, sleet, and - most hated of all - the cold, and in particular the sort of cold that gets into your bones and stays there, which can only be shifted with a long and dangerously hot bath. The two dominant sacred powers of the Precolombian Mexican world were held to represent not good and evil, but hot and cold - roughly speaking - with cold as a force in its own right rather than a simple absence of heat; and two decades as a postman gave me some insight into how the Mexicans may have arrived at such a belief.

As years passed I came to resent English winters more and more, usually suffering mild depression each October as I began to contemplate the dark months ahead, the freezing wind and rain winding down to a little over a six hour day of dark slate skies in place of anything one might properly identify as daylight, coupled with the absurdly increased work load around Christmas, and the promise of at least a few days during which I would leave for work hours before dawn and arrive home exhausted and freezing cold long after the sun had set. Needless to say this presented a considerable impediment to my ever feeling even remotely Christmassy, and Lenny Henry wearing reindeer antlers and shouting katanga, my friends somehow just wasn't enough to get me there.

Whilst it would be ridiculous to suggest that I moved to Texas for the sake of living somewhere with warmer weather, I wasn't exactly upset by the idea. I had already been to Mexico City a few times and come to appreciate the more equatorial climate - even the less frequent grey skies being brighter, even cheerier due to the angle of the sun; and tropic rainfall as a spectacular and dynamic event of almost Biblical passion in contrast to the month after month of English drizzle and damp. Amongst all other considerations, Texas was a step in the general direction of Mexico, which was as such very much the right direction so far as I was concerned.

On the other hand, the heat can reach such extremes in this part of the state as to present its own problems, so it was never really a case of swapping six foot snowdrifts for afternoons spent on the beach drinking piña colada from a coconut shell. The outside temperature reached 107°F during my first August in San Antonio, staying close to this figure until the end of September, meaning that outdoor activities were best undertaken well before midday. The few occasions when I stayed out gardening until two in the afternoon, even working in the shade, I suffered a terrible heat stroke which knocked me out for the rest of the week; so the situation is comparable with that of the old country in so much as each has a few months of the year during which the elements drive us to seek cover, but the months are different and Texas depends on air conditioning rather than central heating to get us through the chewy part.

Texas winter on the other hand has no direct comparison. Some days resemble those of the finest English summer, and warm spells can last for weeks at a time; then suddenly we'll wake to frost and a freezing wind that cuts into your bones as sharp as anything arisen from the North Atlantic.

Typically, when I now speak to members of my family on the telephone, weather is almost always amongst the first subjects to appear on the table.

If it is summer, I'll try to describe the climate here in terms of eggs fried upon pavements, the planet Venus, or the experience of walking into a pizza oven, although I know that San Antonio is temperate compared to the outdoor furnace of Houston, and that my descriptions will inevitably prove inadequate, sounding like I'm reading aloud from a science-fiction novel.

If it is winter, I'll ask about the English snow, the wind, the rain, the arriving indoors with face stinging from hail and rainwater seeping into shoes, not because I like to hear about these things, but through genuine admiration for anyone able to endure such a climate, and I still like to remind myself that it's December and I'm probably stood outside in a T-shirt and shorts unless it's one of the cold patches. Furthermore, I fear that my descriptions of the Texan non-winter will sound like I'm crowing.

Frost and ice are mild here, of a severity that would barely merit comment in England; and yet as I venture outside I see that everyone else is wrapped up in anticipation of Arctic conditions, and I feel like Superman, freshly arrived from Krypton and enjoying his strange, new powers in this unfamiliar environment; but because San Antonio has so little experience of the conditions that would be recognised as winter in England, no-one is prepared, no roads are gritted, and so it all evens out.

Then the wind comes, and it seems so strong that I end up staying inside, taking shelter, just as I would have done in Coventry, wondering if I have acclimatised so quickly that what would once have barely seemed noticeable now feels to me like a scene from The Day After Tomorrow. So I'm caught between two meteorological worlds, scoffing to myself as neighbours regard their own breath misting upon the air with abject horror, yet nevertheless finding myself donning three layers and bracing myself against the icy wind. It seems peculiar, and I long for the baking summer, sweating indoors with the air conditioning on full, occasionally going outside to gather up the eggs I've been frying on the pavement, but it has at least given me some reason to talk about the weather, and tomorrow may be warm once again.

Friday, 7 March 2014

My Postcard from Harvey

In September, 1987 I moved from a house I'd shared with other art students in the village of Otham, near Maidstone, Kent to a bedsit in Glencoe Road, Chatham. By coincidence it turned out that I had moved to within a hundred yards of the home of Bill Lewis, renowned local poet, writer, painter and associate of Billy Childish. I didn't know Bill, but I recognised him from readings, and we knew some of the same people; so once the opportunity arose - in Gruts, café on the High street at which we had both become regulars - I introduced myself.

For a short while we were each semi-regular visitors at the other's house, drinking tea, talking about art, religion, the supernatural, and whatever other common preoccupations we shared at the time; and somehow this led to Bill selling me a big stack of American underground and ground-level comics from the late seventies and early eighties, the work of Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffiths, Skip Williamson, and a host of others with whom I was less familiar. He sold me these comics as a job lot, and although there were a few titles I found initially mystifying, the price was good, so it would have seemed churlish to pick and choose. Within the pile were two issues of American Splendor which stood out due to being magazine sized, autobiographical, and written by someone of whom I'd never heard - Harvey Pekar - although one issue featured art by Crumb and was thus of obvious interest.

Because American Splendor seemed less conspicuously humourous from a cursory glance, and was concerned with the mundane daily existence of some guy from Cleveland, it took me a while to get around to reading it as I worked my way through Bill's stack of comics, but when I did, it had a profound effect upon me. I was poor, single, living in a strange town, moderately fearful regarding an uncertain future, and had just started working at a job I was not sure I really liked too much; and so Harvey's Awaking to the Terror of a New Day in American Splendor issue three really struck a chord. The story is nine pages of introspective musings upon one man's struggle to make it through a single day of which it has become tough to find the positive aspects. It's about the point at which you realising you're not so much living as merely surviving, and it somehow seemed that a middle aged Jewish guy from America had said more to me about my own life than Morrissey or any other supposed voice of a generation. I became fixated on the comic, and quickly hunted down all the back issues I could find.

Harvey's autobiographical tales often appeared to have very little in the way of subject matter, but the art is in the telling; and somehow these stories just had to be comics, even if truthfully they were barely ever more than illustrated prose. As raw text, the emphasis would be all wrong, but with an artist underscoring each seemingly unremarkable scene of Harvey trudging on through his life, somehow the pace is exactly right. Harvey's stories often felt oddly profound in their zooming in on some seemingly inconsequential event as though it were of cosmic import. My favourite example remains Stetson Shoes, drawn by Gary Dumm and also from that third issue, an account of Harvey buying a pair of shoes from a second-hand store. It's sheer simplicity, the satisfaction communicated as our man finds that the shoes fit and are a good price, is a thing of beauty, despite how absurd that may well sound.

Harvey Pekar saw value in the most unlikely places, with no subject so trivial as to be undeserving of attention, and his rambling, doubtless indulgent strips probably need to be read to be truly appreciated. There is no angle to his writing. He offers no zen parables on the minutiae of modern life, and there is none of the ruined melodrama of Bukowski. He wrote about the pleasure of finding a cheap pair of well-made shoes when they were most needed simply because it was a small but significant moment that would be lost in almost any other narrative context; and his work endures because it's honest, and because most of us inhabit the same world.

On more than one occasion I've seen the Pekar name employed as a yardstick by which to beat at the supposed inherent tedium of narrative realism, but the argument has not thus far ever been much less than moronic. Endless retellings of Superman are the art form at its most elevated, so it is claimed, but to reflect on daily existence, to experience wonder at the purchase of a pair of shoes shows a lack of imagination; and so imagination is presumably easily identified because it wears a cape, flies in a spaceship, or delivers snappy Samuel L. Jackson style one-liners just like on the telly; as opposed to an ability to take pleasure in whatever is there in front of your eyes. It's the cretinous Doctor Who obsessive swearing he would rather gouge out his own eyeballs than sit through a Mike Leigh film, because real life is boring, yeah? It's the fundamentalist Christian stood before the Grand Canyon, entirely unable to appreciate it as it is, or to articulate any sense of wonder that doesn't invoke his or her belief system. It's the child who screams and refuses to eat any more green beans and yet still has room for a bright turquoise bubble-gum flavour ice cream cone. It's terminal adolescence offered as a statement, because it's either that or accept it as a failing. If a person is unable to engage with either a Harvey Pekar story, or at least a story of its type, then I feel genuinely sorry for them, and for their inability to deal with our world without first spooning on the sugar.

In 1991, I had the big idea of writing to Harvey Pekar and offering my services as a cartoonist. I sent him photocopies of my work, and crossed my fingers, prematurely excited at the thought of illustrating the prose of someone who had been such an inspiration. Of course, I knew it probably wouldn't happen, but when I received a handwritten postcard from Harvey himself it still felt like an occasion for celebration, regardless of the fact that he had effectively told me thanks but no thanks; specifically:

Dear Lawrence,
Right now I'm set as far as artists are concerned, because my next two projects are being entirely done by Frank Stack (a 200 page graphic album) and Joe Zabel and Gary Dumm (a 32 page comic). I appreciate your interest in my work however, and think the stuff you sent me, the writing as well as drawing, is good.
Sincerely - Harvey Pekar

Like so many of Harvey's stories, this one doesn't so much have either an end or a conclusion as a point at which it simply draws to a halt. I no longer produce comic strips, although I do write, and Harvey passed on at the age of seventy back in 2010. I still get a tremendous thrill when I read the postcard, and think of that guy in Cleveland, Ohio going through my stack of photocopied comic strips. It seems a small yet wonderful thing.