Friday, 30 May 2014


Prior to my getting married, Fiesta meant either a car, or a cheap and cheerful gentleman's interest periodical which could be purchased discreetly from the all-night garage on the Maidstone Road in Chatham, Kent. Here, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, it is an annual spring festival held in San Antonio, Texas with, as Wikipedia is my witness, origins dating to the late nineteenth century when it was held to honour the memory of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto.

I had lived in San Antonio nearly three years, and yet never attended any of the numerous events of Fiesta, principally because I dislike crowds, noise, and enforced jollity. The last time I took pleasure in boisterous public ceremony, I was ten years old and had landed the part of Jack of the Green in the May Day celebrations at Ilmington Junior School. That local scale of event makes sense to me, it being produced by and for the people of a geographically distinct region. Larger events which provide spectacle in the service of drawing attendees from far and wide seem impersonal, even potentially cynical in some cases, and once you've seen one truck customised so as to resemble Buddy the Value Dog, you've seen them all.

Nevertheless, San Antonio is a beautiful city, and as pleasant a setting as you're likely to find if public spectacle is your thing, presenting no chance of gaily decorated floats thrown into depressing relief by urban squalor or the stench of a rendering plant; and my wife had been given free tickets to the river parade; and, frankly, it had been a somewhat shitty couple of weeks - people dying, pets going missing, and at least two elderly relatives admitted to hospitals under moderately harrowing circumstances. We needed some distraction, just an evening away from feeling pissed off over circumstances beyond our control.

It took us some time to get there, a consequence of a city centre suffering no radical reimagineering since at least the early twentieth century, with none of those Gernsback style flyovers carrying forty lanes of traffic coming anywhere near. Personally I didn't mind, being in no great hurry. I was still a little shell-shocked following the disappearance of Kirby, our youngest cat, so it was all just forward motion to me. My wife had received the tickets from a company for whom she had done work, and these admitted us to a private enclosure on the bank of the San Antonio River along the stretch running through the centre of the city. Most major companies and organisations had their own sections of river, simply because otherwise it would have been something of a free for all. Everybody else had crowded across bridges or along otherwise unclaimed sections of the riverwalk.

The event we were here to see, one of the three major parades of Fiesta, was organised by the Texas Cavaliers, a voluntary organisation distinguished by sky blue and blood red uniforms which for some reason put me in mind of campy Belgian techno musicians, specifically the Confetti's. One of these Texas Cavaliers stood guarding the steps to our section of the riverwalk.

'This is a new style of music,' he smiled at us, slipping effortlessly into a series of robotic bodypopping moves. 'This is the Sound of C...'

He didn't really. He told us we were in the wrong place and should look to the other side of the Chamber of Commerce building. We did so and immediately realised that actually we hadn't been in the wrong place. We returned, and the Texas Cavalier told us we should have been more specific in our request, dutifully failing to concede that he had misheard.

'I think I know that guy,' Bess told me. 'I think he may be a friend of my ex-husband.' For a brief moment I tried to imagine Byron serving his award winning brisket and borracho beans in the corner of some Belgian techno club.

We went down to the riverside, and as usual I felt like a fraud, like we would be revealed as intruders any moment. Nevertheless we were checked from the list and given name tags. They even took our photograph, an image that would doubtless end up reduced to a few pixels in the here we are letting our hair down section of some corporate brochure. Being from England, I generally expect to be moved on or told that my security pass lacks the required clearance. In this respect I'm still not entirely accustomed to America, or at least to my own experience of America. It's not that we're any less further along the road to a security obsessed Orwellian future so much as that people seem a little more relaxed over here, in a general sense, and in Texas it's really too hot for failed parking lot attendants with delusions of authoritarian grandeur.

Folding chairs had been set up along the path beneath the palms, three or four rows of them, but mostly occupied by this point. We shrugged and queued for the free food - proper corn chips, guacamole, Oaxacan cheese, and street tacos made with those small corn tortillas, the sort of fare I recall from Mexico, and really as good as it gets in terms of food purchased from a guy stood on the pavement scraping away at a portable grill. With two small plates each, we made our way along the riverside to a line of empty chairs. These, we realised, were most likely nothing to do with the people who'd given us the free tickets, but we sat down anyway.

It was quiet for a while, just the chatter of crowds lined up on the bridges and on the far side of the river, then eventually a small motorised dinghy containing eight fully armed Marines in full camouflage rounded the corner to a swell of cheering. The Marines smiled from behind their green and black face paint and waved at us. We waved back and watched as they went further upriver in the general direction of the Grand Hyatt, like this was some cheerier remake of Apocalypse Now.

I don't know why, but the sight of US Marines always makes me happy, although I know this revelation will probably horrify those of my more self-righteous friends who might reply well, I doubt if the sight of US Marines makes the villagers of Kunar Province quite so happy. It's nothing to do with American military action or even foreign policy, but I find it encouraging to see people who take themselves that seriously without turning into a bunch of dicks, generally speaking. Military service is something I know I couldn't do myself. I can only understand people in terms of individuals. Those huge faceless demographic blocks gathered in one place so as to be labelled either good or bad, us or them, make no sense to me.

The Marines were followed by more Marines, and then a float, a float on a boat - a floating float, if you will. Texas Cavaliers stood waving from the gunwale in their bright blue uniforms, and everyone cheered. Some businessy types were stood at the centre of the float, this vanguard of the Fiesta parade. There was a sign on the side which read First Capital Bank.

I looked at my wife. 'First Capital Bank - yay!'

We indulged ourselves with a small faintly sarcastic cheer.

Other floats followed in quick succession representing other banks or business, Whataburger - a local fast food chain, school bands all honking away, small children jumping up and down and coming close to exploding with excitement. We even saw Mayor Castro waving from the prow of one launch, assuming it wasn't his identical twin brother. We stayed until it began to get dark, helped ourselves to some more street tacos whilst discussing how the term street taco sounds unfortunately like a euphemism for something much less appetising; and then we left, sated and happier than we had been when we arrived. I thought of all the people I had ever heard whine about crass, uncultured Americans with their goofy parades and flags all over the place, and understood how inane such commentary had been.

I can no longer tell if I've outgrown my scepticism regarding noisy, public spectacles, or if it's simply that Americans do them better, just getting on with it and having fun without any hierarchies getting in the way, but for something involving both armed Marines and investment bankers honking away on tubas, it was all strangely relaxing, even life affirming in its own way; and I can say this because I was there.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Everyone's Favourite Loony

I was still at school when I discovered the now endlessly eulogised DIY tape culture through Flowmotion fanzine, itself discovered through a piece in Sounds music paper. My dad had recently bought a seemingly fancy Sharp stereo system incorporating an impressive double tape deck. I had discovered that it was possible to overdub by running one cassette in the playback deck whilst adding additional sounds through the microphone or line inputs. The machine had been manufactured with the assumption of use by someone who knew what they were doing, and who would thus require neither inflexible presets nor automated features, and it therefore seemed to me like the next best thing to a proper studio. I began to record tapes of my own noisy, abstract music inspired by Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and others; and then I made copies and sold them to people I had never met through mail order, photocopying my cover artwork either at the library in Stratford-upon-Avon or at the office of an accommodating estate agent at the end of Sheep Street in Shipston.

This was how it worked. My tapes would receive the occasional review - or at least a mention - in some fanzine or other; or persons producing fanzines or tapes would send out flyers advertising my atonal crap with their own material, and every once in a while, someone would send me a cheque, a postal order, or fifty pence pieces taped to a bit of cardboard, in return for tapes which I would mail along with a stack of flyers promoting other people's efforts. It was a vast international network, a means of hearing music one would otherwise have no chance of hearing, and some of it was very good. I sent my tapes out to people in England, Europe, America, and even occasionally to more exotic seeming places such as Yugoslavia and Sweden; and I in turn received tapes of peculiar home recordings from my correspondents, with every once in a while someone asking if I would make their peculiar home recordings available through my tape label, such as it was.

The first to do this were a duo called Opera For Industry who sent me sixty minutes of screaming electronic noise entitled Hopscotch with a handmade cover featuring photographs snipped from one of the more cheap and cheerful expressions of specialist amateur pornography. It wasn't the greatest music I'd ever heard, but it had a certain nihilist energy, and it was immensely flattering to be approached as though I were a record label, rather than simply the son of a man with a double tape deck. I drew up a tidier and less contentious cover for the cassette, and released it on my Do Easy label, the name of which I'd taken from a William Burroughs novel on the grounds of that being what everyone else was doing and I wasn't going to be left out. I became quite good friends with Opera For Industry, or at least with Trev Ward, one half of the duo. We wrote letters and sent each other noisy tapes, and at one point I supported them live at Amesbury Sports Centre with anarchist punk band, the Subhumans as headlining act. I say supported, although I mean produced thirty minutes of horrible noise before a punky crowd of cider enthusiasts, which was more fun than you might imagine.

Opera For Industry eventually became better known as the Grey Wolves, and I drifted away from cassette culture, having been disillusioned with the proliferation of noise music which I had quite possibly helped nurture to some small degree. I was eager to engage myself with something a little less depressing. All those grey photocopied images of skulls and serial murderers endlessly peddled by imaginary bands named Strategik Kancer Unit or Flagellated Rektum were bringing me down.

Ten years later, I was living in Derwent Grove, East Dulwich with my girlfriend of the time. I was working for Royal Mail, drawing cartoons and printing small runs of my own comic books, and I was playing guitar in a group named Academy 23 after something in a novel by William Burroughs, although I'm glad to say that on this occasion, that specific detail had nothing to do with me. Academy 23 had been formed by Dave Fanning and Andy Martin, both formerly of The Apostles. The Apostles had been a group I knew from the cassette days, and one distinguished by their unorthodox penchant for songs rather than noise, and deeply haunting songs of such enduring quality that I still listen to them to this day. In terms of emotive power, The Apostles made Joy Division sound like Status Quo, and it was quite exciting to find myself in a later incarnation of what was effectively the same band.

I guessed it was also exciting for John McDiarmid when he came to visit. He lived in a small town a little way south of London, and like myself, he'd been a fan of The Apostles. Furthermore, he'd begun to involve himself in cassette culture - which had somehow managed to survive without me - and was starting up a distribution service - or a distro, as he called it - selling other peoples' tapes and fanzines through the mail. We had written a few letters back and forth, partially fuelled by the novelty of our both having known Trev Ward, and then he told me he would be coming up to London and would probably drop in for a visit.

Something about this bothered me, and so I mentioned it to Andy, who appeared suddenly worried. He too had corresponded with John McDiarmid.

'You do realise that he's mad?'

I sensed that Andy intended to forewarn me of something other than a person who would appear on my doorstep wearing a revolving bow tie, perhaps pulling a few funny faces and quoting popular lines from Monty Python as he came in for a cup of tea. Our boy, it turned out, had serious mental health issues, and my exact words had been sure, I'm here most afternoons so just come by. I reminded myself that those letters thus far received had suggested relative sanity beyond their being written by a man who listened to the Grey Wolves for pleasure.

John turned out to be a few years younger than myself, tall, skinny, and a little ungainly. He had the face of an old man, a wrinkled John Shuttleworth forehead, staring eyes and the stark grin of an animate skull. Infrequent bouts of insanity had weatherbeaten his face, but medication allowed him to function without too much difficulty. He was polite, almost obsessively so, and very, very funny, at least in terms of humour as dark as the indignities he had doubtless experienced under psychiatric care. To my surprise, it was difficult to dislike him, and I was reminded of claims that persons such as Charles Manson are often said to have a sort of magnetic personality. Whilst John would probably have had a tough time acquiring followers, he had a sharp, lively quality, like a west country Peter Cook after a decade in a really tough prison. Additionally he had the sort of casual interest in serial killers, high ranking members of the Third Reich, and bad guys in general that tends to come as part of the deal with Grey Wolves fandom, and I suppose a certain kind of mental illness. Similarly he was almost obsessively drawn to the music of Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and their grimacing ilk. I suspect, more than anything, this music was simply how he saw the world based on his own experience of it up to that point. Being an outsider, he was drawn to outsider art.

The story was that he hadn't always been mad. One weekend during his teenage years, rummaging through the family home in the absence of parents, he happened upon a pornographic magazine of the kind from which Opera For Industry made their tape covers. Therein he found candid photographs of his own aforementioned absent parents printed in the apparent hope of encouraging third parties to come and join in with the adult fun, as such invitations tend to be phrased. John, presumably already of a sensitive disposition, was so traumatised by this as to be driven to destructive frenzy. Police arrived, and he was carted off and almost immediately diagnosed as suffering with mental health issues. Whatever medication he was given was apparently not so rigorously tested as it should have been, and within six months was withdrawn from prescription by the psychiatric profession, by which time John was already bouncing around the inside of a secure ward with problems much worse than any the drug had been intended to treat, requiring further medication by some different drug with another set of side effects, which in turn required treatment by means of yet another drug, and so on and so forth in a seemingly endless cycle. I still don't know how much of this story was true, but on the other hand I never had any really good reason to doubt that it was.

So although John was arguably mad in the traditional sense, he had it under control most of the time, and was generally good if slightly unpredictable company. We initially got on well because even if we didn't exactly enjoy the same music, or at least not for the same reasons, we had a similar sense of humour and knew a lot of the same people, namely a loose group associated with former members of The Apostles and various others who later became instrumental in the Mad Pride movement. He was loud, wilfully abrasive, and had about him a refreshing honesty, provided you could spot the point at which he'd started telling massive lies for the sake of entertainment.

Within a few months of our first meeting, John had moved to London, possibly because that's where most of his friends lived by then. He continued with his distro, which seemed at least to give him some sense of purpose, although I was never really sure how well it did. Getting by on a disability living allowance - or something of that sort - he spent the days writing letters or poetry or whatever, buying records, occasionally trying to get something musical together at a local arts centre which had its own recording studio, just making it from one day to the next. It turned out that some arts centre employee lived quite near me, and so John was able to get a lift over to my place on Friday evenings following an afternoon spent pissing around in the studio. It was 1995 and for the first time in my life I lived in a proper flat of which I was sole occupant, so it was fun to be able to invite friends to stay, even if the couch of my front room was hardly luxurious. John became a sort of surrogate grandson, coming over on alternate weekends. I say surrogate grandson mainly because the visits reminded me of how my parents would leave me with my own grandparents every fortnight, but also because it struck me that John needed looking after.

He would turn up around six on Friday, usually enthusing about finding some rare and expensive Joy Division bootleg at the Record and Tape Exchange, and I would immediately know that he'd been living on coffee and cigarettes since the middle of the week. I would cook up a huge pot of chilli con carne or spaghetti bolognese or chicken curry - hoping to God that this wasn't going to be his only source of nutrition for the next fourteen days - and we would eat, talk crap, watch videos - Denis Leary's No Cure For Cancer being a big favourite with John - or we would nip out to the pub and continue to talk crap over a pint. We were both in our late twenties and hence at that age when everyone we knew was accessed by means of one pub or another, when phone calls were made principally for the purpose of arranging where you were drinking. At first I just invited John to tag along if I'd already arranged to meet anyone, but if they didn't already know him, this came to be a problem. It wasn't, contrary to the testimony of any number of playground jokes, that he would have a turn and start flinging his own poo around the bar, so much as that no-one seemed to know how to react, or even to realise that they didn't actually need to react in any specific way. People I thought I knew fairly well would change completely, addressing this admittedly odd-looking stranger as though he were about twelve years old, bending over backwards to empathise with his struggle at the hands of the mental health authorities, to laugh at his jokes and show how enlightened they were. John would find himself bored and start playing the mad bloke just for the sake of livening things up, turning boggle-eyed and explaining that he'd been sexually abused by members of his own family but had enjoyed the experience. He would tell people Hitler had the right idea, then laugh in their faces and ask whose round it was. It was even worse when one former girlfriend introduced him with this is John, he's mad, like a promise of almost anything being likely to happen in the next half hour; and John didn't disappoint, throwing back the lagers and delivering one outrageous proposition after another. This is John, she may as well have said, he'll be our performing chimpanzee for the evening.

My guess is that John enjoyed the attention, and particularly enjoyed the discomfort of well-meaning liberals not knowing whether to laugh with him, or to squirm at his use of the word nigger, or whichever taboo he was working that week. I understood why he did it, but still found it annoying, and felt it sometimes placed me in the position of carnival barker. More annoying was when he began to try the act on me, apparently forgetting that I had known him for a couple of years by that point. At the same time I knew that I had no way of saying for sure how much was the act, and how much was the madness showing through.

He was on several different courses of medication, including temazepam - which is generally used to treat insomnia and anxiety - and some small orange pills of which I'd always find a few fallen down the side of the front room couch after he'd been to visit for the weekend. He disliked the regime of tablets with their accompanying side effects, and often spoke of cutting down, or even stopping completely. On one occasion he actually went through with it, and was sectioned under the mental health act whilst apparently attempting unaided flight from the roof of a tower block in east London. The conclusion seemed to be that whilst the medication wasn't ideal, it was better than the alternative.

I went to see him at the hospital, the loony bin as he called it. He seemed well, in fact no different than usual. We all sat around smoking in a common room overlooking a courtyard, surrounded by patients all doing their time, watching television, mumbling to themselves. It could have been a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but it felt oddly prosaic. These were just people who weren't very well.

A girl, another patient, sat herself down next to John, ignoring us. He began talking to her, asking what she'd been doing, how she'd been keeping. She told him she had just eaten some lunch.

'It's good to eat,' John agreed amiably, as though this were something which might be subject to debate. I found myself reminded of Bob Hoskins telling us it's good to talk in a television commercial for British Telecom, and had to stifle my laughter.

John did his time, and was out a few weeks later, all sane again. He sent me a postcard:

Well thanks again for taking the trouble to visit on Tuesday last. It's at times like this when you suss out who your real friends are.

This was appreciated. The reason I'd been happy for John to come over every other weekend to eat my food and smoke my fags was that I enjoyed his company, and in turn I hoped it might do him some good to eat properly and be treated like a human being rather than a sideshow act, everyone's favourite loony. I've never really enjoyed hanging around with those for whom life is a huge and outrageous performance as they tend to be quite dull.

As time went on, John's musical ambitions came to the forefront as he had apparently given up on the distro as having been a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Between us we worked out a live set as he'd somehow managed to wangle a half hour support slot at some music venue in Hackney. I programmed a load of drum machines, and sorted out backing tapes of speech and noise, accompanying this on the Roland SH101 synthesiser I had borrowed from Andrew Cox; and John would vocalise, ranting and shouting a stream of lurid consciousness, channelling his madness for all he was worth. If nothing else, we knew our debut performance would be memorable.

The day before the gig, John phoned. I'd begun to find his calls irritating and unnecessary as they seemed to originate from someone I had never met and who didn't know me either, much less the guy who polished off an entire loaf of bread by himself every time he came to visit. The calls were infrequent but usually came late at night. He would ask me about obscure Psychic TV bootlegs, apparently having forgotten that I regarded Psychic TV as unlistenable rubbish if not actually the worst band in the world; or there was the time he called me to boast about having found an album by Skrewdriver, the racist skinhead band. I hadn't been able to tell if he was serious or not, but it was annoying either way.

This call was different, concerned mainly with the upcoming gig. We would be on stage in a little over twenty-four hours. I asked had he yet found a decent microphone, this being the one thing he would be required to supply. He said it wouldn't be a problem and then began to talk about shoes. He needed shoes for the gig, and had seen a really nice pair in some shop. He wanted to know what I thought. We somehow discussed shoes for forty-five minutes, and the next day I discovered that he'd been sectioned once again, which wasn't too surprising. He'd stopped taking his medication and had smashed up his sheltered accommodation with such force that the police had been called, or at least that's how I remember it.

The gig didn't happen, and that was that.

He knew how it worked every time he cut down on his medication, but he'd done it anyway, and there was no point my pretending I understood what was going on in his head, or that I could help. The effort of being his friend was becoming too much, not least because he seemed to want an audience above anything else. He wanted to be the mad bloke at whom other mad people would point and say woah, that fucker is too mad even for me! He'd taken the piss too many times, assuming the I'm mad and I don't know what I'm doing card to be valid in perpetuity.

We met about six months later in a pub opposite the British Museum. By this time he'd had a few CDs pressed, apparently having been given funding to do so by some sort of arts grant for the mentally unorthodox. The one I heard seemed to comprise friends and session musicians half-heartedly mucking about in the studio with John talking over the top, more or less regardless of the music, crooning Joy Division with some of the words missing, narration along the lines of well, I'm sat here in the studio and we've still got ten minutes left.... Steve's just gone outside for a crafty fag... Even as outsider art - if you'll forgive my use of the term - it didn't have much going for it. Since the gig that never happened, he'd grown his hair and bought a sheepskin coat, apparently eschewing Buchenwald chic for a sort of post-apocalypse Mick Jagger. We bought drinks and sat down and didn't talk about the gig that hadn't happened.

'I've got cancer,' he said. 'I'm going to be dead in six months.'

'Oh well.'

I didn't know what he wanted me to say, but apparently it hadn't been that, so he began to tell me how he was going to have gender reassignment to become a woman, this being something he had always wanted. I suppose he was hoping to fit it in before the cancer got too bad.

'Can you get some sort of grant for that, then? A sex change?'

He nodded and smoked his cigarette.

Later, as he became more animated he shouted out that we should have found a different pub, one without quite so many Jews in it, although it could have been niggers - I forget which. I cursed how long it had taken me to get there on a 176 bus from East Dulwich, and how long I would have to wait for one going back, and with work in the morning. It was dark and raining heavily. I cursed myself for the fact that I had bothered, and had been played for an idiot.

'This is me you're talking to, John,' I seem to remember trying. 'Do you think you could maybe tone it down a bit? Do you know what I mean?'

He laughed, and that was the end of that.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Curse of the Potato Vampire

I slashed through the top right hand corner of the sachet and slipped the knife back into my pocket. The powder fell, creamy and almost luminescent white in the sepulchral half-light, a circle on the flagstones as I walked slowly around. I had no real idea as to whether this would truly work; after all, it was just instant mashed potato, and I could think of no good reason why it should have any effect where other substances might prove useless; but then nothing about these creatures made sense.

'You fool!'

I turned as I heard the cry, as the iron-handle of the door smashed into the thick stone surround of the wall. It was the Englishman - Farquarson, or whatever his overly-elaborate and fussy name had been. 'Did you not hear a word of what I said?'

I had, but I'd failed to see the sense in whatever point he'd been attempting to communicate. I began to speak, spluttering in protest before my words were cut short as he raged forward, brandishing a wooden stake as though to illustrate some obscure hypothesis.

'Other worlds, other dimensions,' - he glared ahead at the coruscating ellipse of light at the centre of this dark, old space beneath the mausoleum. 'We cannot fight them with the same weapons.'

He thrust a battered paperback book into my hands, causing me to lose hold of the packet of instant mashed potato. The packet fell to the floor, apparently redundant. I had seen the book before, one of many forming a tower at the corner of the Englishman's desk back in his study at the university library. Bram Stoker's classic Dracula the Potato Vampire, except it wasn't. This was different somehow, same author but with the name alone serving for its title. I tried to make sense of it. 'This must be an earlier—'

'Well, it isn't.' Farquarson pulled a glass bottle from his pocket. There was a crude handmade label pasted to one side adorned with just a crucifix as though it were some corporate logo. 'They belong to an older reality, more visceral you might say, at a few stages removed from ourselves in terms of the law of diminishing returns; and that is the origin of that novel,' - he nodded to indicate the book held in my trembling hand - 'from which you may glean a more accurate description of what we will soon find ourselves up against.'

I flipped to my favourite chapter, noting the presence of familiar names. I had read the book when I was in school. It was a simple story, the tale of a potato vampire who arranges to have himself transported to the Emerald Isle, whereupon he embarks upon a terrible rampage of the arable farms of the area. Dracula had been based on the folk legend of some early Romanian farmer, apparently. The passage which had always chilled me to the greatest degree was that in which a delirious Mina Harker believes she has witnessed a terrible spectral figure eating potatoes straight from the earth of the field opposite her room. Instead, I found:

As I approached the house, I explained to him, I was startled to hear the word 'vampire' called out by a passer and looked up to see a huge bat making an ingress of the Count's window. Dracula chuckled in Romanian, his red eyes aglow from that medical condition which he had earlier described to me, telling me that he had just recently returned from a cricket match at which he had served as umpire and therefore that cry in the night would almost have certainly been a colleague attempting to draw his attention to the bat at his window. Of course he had himself been quite aware of the flapping beast, and it had startled him so as to cause him to drop his hot dog and indeed I saw there upon his lapels and around his mouth the tomato ketchup which had been so unceremoniously distributed by his startlement. My mind duly set at ease, I wished him well and took my leave.

It took a moment for the implication to sink in.

'Blood?' I regarded the Englishman, terror and disbelief vying for the upper hand as I heard myself ask, 'am I to understand that they drink human blood?' My eyes went to the ellipse as I realised what horrors may be perched upon its far side waiting to swoop through.

'Once that much was correct.' The Englishman busily pulled wooden stakes and further bottles of what seemed to be water from his great leather bag. 'They were true creatures of the night, the Victorian response to the notion of what becomes of the post-mortem soul following the industrial revolution and the death of God. They consumed the life force.'

I looked down at where I had stepped across the magic circle of powdered mashed potato. Had it ever meant anything, I wondered? Had it ever been more than some ridiculous piece of folklore?

The Englishman handed me a wreath made up from bulbs of garlic. 'In subsequent versions they are watered down, further and further, losing all former potency as they become diluted.'

'What are you talking about?'

'Soon, it is no longer the light of day they fear, but only sun, and they are able to survive if they remain in the shade, and garlic doesn't really kill them so much as give them indigestion. Eventually they have their own pop bands, and they avoid sunlight only because it makes them sparkle; until we arrive at what you and I have previously understood to be a vampire, an off-white creature of the early evening who loves potatoes but wouldn't otherwise hurt a fly, excepting a potato fly, I suppose.'

It was as though a window had opened in my mind; as though I had recalled some great central fact of my life without properly having known it beforehand. Why did we even call them potato vampires specifically? Why did we so fear a creature which rose from the dead to consume nothing but the potatoes of the living? Before I could formulate any answer within my mind, the room exploded with a terrible light as a figure came through from beyond, a girl in Victorian dress. I could hear the Englishman screaming, and I clawed at my own eyes, struggling to return them to sight.

The woman stared, wide-eyed, a half-smile formed upon her face. She tilted her head to an odd angle and spoke with an exaggerated English accent. 'Oh look! Who are these interesting people that mummy has found for me to play with?'

Oh Drossalulu, you're just so weird.

She stepped forward, eyes bulging with the strain of mannered eccentricity, her body undulating needlessly. 'Do you want to play with me?'

Too weird for me, Drossalulu. I mean just look at you!

She smiled, running the tip of her tongue across the sharp points of extended canines, then a sad face. 'Mummy broke all her dolls!'

Oh wow - an adult talking with affected childlike mannerisms so as to suggest a sort of romantic lunacy - I mean that particular brand of tired old bollocks has never before been seen in every other shit vampire film ever made, has it?

How could I know the name of this monster before me, and how could this have become so post-modern so soon I wondered, somehow aware of the unlikely possibility of actually having time in which to formulate such puzzles; and it was in that moment that I wished to God himself that we had never seen fit to peer so foolishly beyond the legend of our once charming potato vampire, our dear deathless Count so harmlessly steeling into the moonlit fields to avail himself of a few spuds, returning to the tomb before dawn to sleep off that terrible carbohydrate hangover.

What madness have we wrought?

Friday, 9 May 2014


This bloke was getting on my nerves. It seemed he couldn't stop moving, not the sharp, dramatic twitches of some tic over which he had no control, just constant motion as though he was gearing up to dance to a tune playing in his head, almost certainly something by either Kenny, Showaddywaddy, or the Bay City Rollers if his appearance was any indication. Even when I made an effort to concentrate on the letters held in my hand, I was somehow aware of Richard jiving away just outside my field of vision.

'Is there something wrong with that bloke?'

This was the question I asked King George, and although King George is only the name I still remember twenty-five years later. He delivered mail to King George Road in Walderslade, and I'd overheard another postman apparently calling him King George, which turned out to be his duty rather than a nickname as I had assumed. I hadn't yet taken my sorting test, and was yet to discover that Walderslade even had a King George Road, hence my mistake.

'You mean Rickety Rich?' King George chuckled. 'Don't take no notice of him.'

Rickety Rich - the name suggested a poorly constructed wooden tower, something that was about to fall down. The image was enhanced by the fact that the hair of Rickety Rich had apparently been borrowed from a 1972 advert for either aftershave or football, and that his mouth had been set within his face at an angle at least as jaunty as that of Gary Glitter's powder blue glam cap. His speech was mumbled and slurred, the words obscured but the tone clearly disparaging.

I was new to the job and it was 1988, but at least King George seemed to represent a friendly face. He grinned, apparently happy to throw a few encouraging crumbs my way. 'You reckon he'll last then, Rich?' He regarded me with a jovial wink.

Rickety Rich wobbled like a stage school bovver boy in a film clip of Mud performing Tiger Feet, and words sloughed from his mouth. I wouldn't last another month, was his suggestion. Rickety Rich had judged me and found me lacking. I was deemed insubstantial by a man who appeared to have trouble standing. In the end I remained with Royal Mail for twenty-one years, by which time I came to a better understanding of his verdict, or at least the criteria in which it was drawn.

Those Royal Mail offices at which I was employed between 1988 and 2009 all had a high turnover of staff because, quite simply, the work was demanding, and new recruits tended to come to their senses within a week or so, deciding that there had to be a less back-breaking way of making a living. Long term staff generally found it difficult to view new recruits without some degree of scepticism, and it never really seemed worth getting to know anyone until they had been there at least a month or two. Those who have worked as a postman during a holiday period may tell a different story, but the rest of us tended to regard them as idiots, and to resent the fact of their always being given the lightest possible duties in the hope that they might manage to turn up for the second day. One of the more annoying generic conversations a postman will have with anyone who is visibly not a postman begins with some point confirmed as understood because I was a postman too.

'Yeah? You packed it in though?'

'Oh it was only for two weeks during the Christmas holidays.'

To us, this is roughly akin to a combat veteran finding himself subject to the projected comradeship of a man who has fights outside pubs on Saturday nights. It really isn't the same thing, and the suggestion that it could be is sometimes insulting. Sorry.

Having joined Royal Mail in Chatham back in 1988, I transferred to Coventry, then to Catford a year later, before finally settling at East Dulwich in south-east London. I was therefore the new boy on four separate occasions, and in fact became an old hand at being the new boy. By the time I arrived at East Dulwich, roughly Autumn 1993, I had learned that it was initially best to keep oneself to oneself for as long as it took. Premature efforts to make an impression and accumulate friends tended to backfire.

Nevertheless, despite having studiously refrained from introducing myself as an old hand of five years good standing, arriving in East Dulwich I managed to make enemies almost immediately. A bullish postman of Turkish extraction known as Wiggy - although admittedly not to his face - took an instant dislike to me on the grounds of my working next to a postwoman called Debbie, whom he viewed with disdain. I spoke to Debbie and laughed at her jokes and had therefore allied myself with the enemy in the eyes of this Mediterranean man-child. I never found out what he had against Debbie, but I imagine it was most likely something that would have made a lot more sense in the playground of an infants' school than at a place of employment, because that's the sort of man he was.

My other enemy was Geoff Robinson, so it initially seemed. He was tall and imposing, the face of an unshaven Easter Island statue and a Newcastle accent so broad you could have used it to thicken sauce. He gave the impression of being perpetually pissed off about something, and although I could barely understand his tersely delivered pronouncements on who was a useless bastard that particular day, I understood enough to know that he viewed me as a new boy, a waste of space, a crème de menthe sipping pooftah, or something in that direction. Naturally I avoided Geoff as a general principle, taking occasional consolation from others observing that the man could be a bit of a miserable bugger at times.

My first Christmas at East Dulwich, a few of us went out for the inevitable drink, starting just after lunchtime in The Magdala on the corner of Pellatt Road, back when it was a pub rather than whatever the hell it's supposed to be now. Most of the party were my age or a little younger - Rodney, Danny, Jason, Ben, Graham and a few others. We slurped lager, played pool, and in my case got drunk fairly quickly. Someone put some old ska record on the jukebox, probably Too Much Too Young by The Specials which inspired me to a few stupid minutes of drunken moonstomping whilst going on about my Coventry heritage. I remember Graham finding this funny, egging me on, urging me to express the ways of my people. It grew dark outside, it being December, and I realised that Rodney and Jason were talking about moving on to some pub along Grove Vale.

I was sat at the bar, now listening to Geoff Robinson explaining something or other. I looked around. There was no-one on any of the pool tables, and none of my party were in the other side of the bar either. I had no memory of their leaving, or of how I came to be there with Geoff Robinson. I struggled to understand what he was telling me. He was drunk, but happy drunk, or at least no longer the growling Geoff I knew from the sorting office.

'I tell you this, Lal,' - he waved his finger at me, making some point. It was weird being called Lal by someone I didn't really know. 'I tell you this Lal, I don't care what the coppers said, I did not lay a fucking finger on that woman.'

I recalled how I had been uncomfortable to find myself suddenly sat at the bar with Geoff, and how did you end up living down here in London? had seemed like a reasonable conversational gambit, not least because I was genuinely curious. He was still answering the question, and the statement of his being innocent of some implied crime was apparently part of the answer. I wondered if I should be glad that I hadn't understood much of his account, and I found it strange that my impression of the man had apparently turned out to be wrong.

He'd never really taken any strong dislike to me, he just had a dour outlook and didn't really like his job. None of us did. I had been a new boy and that was it.

He kept talking, further reiterating that he did not lay a fucking finger on that woman, and I couldn't find my opening, the one which would allow me to either change the subject or to get out of there. More worrying was that I couldn't tell if the information to which I had been made party was of such a sensitive nature as to have inducted me into some secret club, the kind which might define my sharp exit as a form of betrayal. I'd heard rumours of Geoff having either been in the SAS, or claiming to have been in the SAS, and although I wasn't as drunk as my new friend, I was not so sober as to understand what the hell was going on.

After this, whilst it would be untrue to say Geoff became a necessarily warmer, more likeable figure, I found him easier to get on with, and I had less difficulty decoding the accent. He remained dour, but I learned that at least some of this served as emphasis for his sense of humour.

'Are you happy, Geoff?' I asked on one of those days when the workload had increased to such unmanageable extent as to cast the atmosphere of a slaughterhouse over the entire office, no-one talking, everyone too pissed off to even stick the radio on, just the thump-thump-thump of mail hitting the backing of sorting frames. I asked because he'd been quietly singing something to himself, and it had sounded suspiciously like What a Wonderful World.

'I'm so happy I could burst.' He answered, pronouncing the last word as borst with the sort of weapons grade sarcasm that could bring down a plane.

We never became what you would call bosom buddies, but for a man who could have frowned at an Olympic level, he was often a surprisingly cheery sight, particularly once the working day was over. I would run into him nearly every other time I went out to the shops at the bottom end of Lordship Lane, always just out for a drink, or on his way back from one, but happy to stop for a chat and mutual griping about whatever madness had gripped the office that day. Sometimes I would find him already in The Foresters as I finished my walk, at least on those days when the work had been of such absurd volume as to necessitate a medicinal pint prior to going home. He was usually in there with George Stone - or Snowy as he was occasionally dubbed due to his full head of snow white hair.

George was a large man, no stranger to either the full English breakfast or the boozer, in which he had sought increasing degrees of comfort since the death of his father a few year's earlier. Despite this he was for the most part a large, cheery man with a sharp sense of humour and impossible to dislike. He and Geoff would welcome me like an old friend, despite our just being three blokes hating their jobs in a pub, and that we'd all seen each other mere hours before and had barely exchanged a word. We would have a drink, and I would find myself wishing I could get away, disliking the sensation of being drunk, but reluctant to leave such good company.

They would talk about this and that, arguments I didn't quite follow concluding with don't give me all that, from George, then a refutation of Geoff ever having been in the SAS, then off into even more bewildering territory about whether certain domed structures along the English coast contained radar installations or, as Geoff insisted, rockets pointed at Russia. This was one of the things I appreciated about Geoff - even when you were effectively certain that he was making it up, he never seemed to care how flimsy the story had begun to sound and would continue undaunted, digging himself into an even deeper hole and obviously enjoying every second. These were the sort of conversations that only really made sense with a pint in your hand.

George would roll his eyes and shake his head as Geoff rambled on regardless.

By the end of my sentence at Royal Mail, I'd worked with Geoff Robinson for sixteen years of my life, and as East Dulwich was a small office, he'd come to be one of what I suppose I regarded as the old guard, the group you could trust, those who had first taken to their employment back when a job was about earning a wage rather than scratching out an existence with the employer least able to get away with paying you as little as possible in the name of important market forces. East Dulwich was a divided office populated by all sorts of factions. I'd spent most of my time doing what I could to avoid falling out with anyone and had avoided most of the playground politics of big fish in small ponds - if that isn't too many metaphors in one go - but it didn't last, and my final few months were something of a drag as persons such as Wiggy - presumably now balder than ever beneath that hilarious syrup - decided that Rickety Rich had been right all along, that I was the enemy. Geoff had left by this time, but remained a frequent and oddly reassuring sight flitting from one pub to another, still somehow dour with a cheery grin; for all his faults, still a cut above the rest of them.

I haven't seen Geoff for a few years now, and the other day I learned that he had passed away about a week ago, the end of March as I write. It was cancer, which somehow doesn't seem too surprising. He may not have been a saint, despite never having laid a fucking finger on that woman, and I'm not even sure it would be right to exactly call him a nice guy; but he had a directness that I grew to appreciate, and he was very funny, and he was generous and never stingy with his tabs, as they probably say in Newcastle. Simply, it was good to know that he was just around, out there somewhere, except of course now he isn't. Somewhere in heaven is a pub where the angels shake their heads to hear such terrible agricultural language, at least those who can understand what the new boy is saying; and our world is, against all odds, a slightly poorer place for this.

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Really Massive Corner Shop

Dan Patrick, Houston Republican candidate for lieutenant governor recently induced an outbreak of frowning upon the brow of Congressman Joaquin Castro - identical twin brother to Julian Castro, Mayor of San Antonio. I say recently, but I don't actually care enough to find specific dates, so let's take it as read that the following events occurred at some juncture later than Achitometl's ascension to the throne of Culhuacan in the Valley of Mexico in 1388, but not later than the present. Anyway, Dan Patrick had apparently posted a picture of himself stood next to a man dressed as a beaver on his facebook page, dignifying the image by stating to my great delight after our (primary election) win Tuesday, I got a call from the owners of Buc-cee's who said they wanted to meet and support me, thus accounting for the beaver, this being the mascot of Buc-ee's, which Wikipedia identifies as a chain of convenience stores located in the Central and Gulf Coast region of Texas. Like so many Texans, I love Buc-ee's, Patrick added. The service is great, the food is great, especially my favorite, the pastrami sandwich, and of course my wife loves the clean bathrooms.

Well of course she does.

Buc-ee's owners Don Wasek and Arch Aplin have contributed over sixty-thousand dollars to campaigning Republican candidates over the last few decades, so it probably isn't such a big surprise that they should back Patrick; although some guy called Jeff Nalado, acting as general counsel for Buc-ee's has publicly stressed that the owners of the chain are the ones supporting Patrick, not the corporation itself, and that as a company, Buc-ee's does not support political candidates.

Nevertheless, Congressman Joaquin Castro was sufficiently disgruntled to state that he would not patronise Buc-ee's, objecting to their support of what he called a fearmongering immigrant basher.

I am disappointed to learn that a popular and well-respected retailer would lend its corporate brand to a candidate for state-wide office who has built his career around dividing Texans and bashing immigrants, solely for his own political gain, he further explained in a written statement; and so arose a number of online campaigns in support, all calling for a boycott of Buc-ee's, and in turn the inevitable responses from those vowing to make an extra effort to shop at Buc-ee's on the grounds that anything which pisses off a few liberals must be worthwhile, responses such as this from some guy on facebook, a Libertarian both politically and grammatically, although I've helped him out some and fixed up the punctuation here and there:

For those of you who attempt to hurt a business based on its political affiliation, you are practising the same discrimination you rail against. You may as well hang a black man for being black or refuse service to an atheist. I am a Libertarian, but I have seen this too many times from the democrats' side. They accuse Republicans of fighting dirty while pulling crap like this. This man is proudly standing up for what he believes is best for Texas, and you go after his family by trying to take food off his table.

How dare you?

How dare any of you?

You are committing the most cowardly version of assault there is. You would be committing less of a sin if you simply kicked his ass. At least that would not steal from his family. You claim to want what's best for Texas. What happened to us being the friendly state?

If you were born here and are acting like this, I will be happy to escort you to California where you will be welcomed with open socialist arms. Chances are, though, that California is where you originate from because they have invaded Austin and brought with them this type of bullshit. Look around Texas. You won't find this crap anywhere but Austin. Texas has conceded that city to the liberals who believe government can run our lives better than we can. Personally, I have rarely had the opportunity to shop at a Buc-ee's, but because of this, I will stop in every time I see one from now on to help counteract the loss of income from you ill-informed tyrants. And, it will make me feel good knowing that I've helped to punch a bully in the mouth.

You hypocrites! You demand freedom from government oppression while dishing out your own version of capitalistic oppression. I would like to personally dress up in a beaver outfit and beat the shit out of each one of you liberal oppressive if you're successful we'll bring you down so we can give your money to who we want pieces of crap, just so you could get your picture in the paper getting your ass kicked by a theme park icon.

It could of course be a parody, but how does one even tell? It is an argument I have encountered on a few occasions, all of them through a computer and not one in real life thankfully, an argument amounting to will no-one think of the poor starving millionaires asking only to make for themselves an honest gold-plated crust? It is the argument of someone who has thrown themselves wholeheartedly into helping out with their own exploitation, pulling the wool down over their own eyes and paying for the privilege, secure in the knowledge of having done the right thing.

The conscious choice to not buy a sodding Three Musketeers bar at a Buc-ee's outlet, or even to suggest that others might refrain from purchase of sweeties at the same, is not simply akin to invasion by dangerous totalitarian Communists, it is the exact same thing; and even more exhausting is that it is telling people what is best for them, and what is best for them would be their cutting out all of this telling people what is best for them.

I generally dislike politicians regardless of their hue, but I like Castro on the grounds that he and his identical twin brother have occasionally got into trouble for pretending to be each other at important functions - which at least suggests personality - and because he's pro-Mexican. Furthermore, I would suggest that political office is one that in an ideal world requires intellect, and that intellect tends not to be found in the man or woman who spends too much time blaming local problems on all those brown people coming over here taking our jobs and eating their funny food and that. Someone once attempted to explain the somewhat right-leaning immigration policy of UKIP - an unpleasant English fringe party - to me by means of an example so simple that even I would understand it. You know that Mexican border about a hundred miles south of you, he began, presumably failing to realise that I live in a city with a 63% Hispanic or Latino population, and that I would be a fucking idiot to live here if I didn't like Mexicans. The argument was unconvincing.

This war of words between Patrick and Castro served to elevate the Buc-ee's phenomena a little further within my consciousness, it being something which had nagged at me for a time without my quite knowing why. How had this debate become so heated? Why would anyone care so much as to wish to dress up as a beaver prior to the dispensation of rough street justice? I had a faint impression of a world divided into two, those who had been to Buc-ee's, and those who were yet to have the opportunity to visit the store in question, like it could be considered an experience. I knew that I myself had been to Buc-ee's, and furthermore I'd been to the most amazing Buc-ee's in the known galaxy, the one situated just past New Braunfels as you head out towards the People's Republic of Austin, about which Wikipedia states:

The New Braunfels travel center is the largest convenience store in the world at 68,000 square feet. The store features 120 fuel pumps, 31 cash registers, 4 Icee machines, 80 fountain dispensers, tubing and water gear for the Guadalupe River, and a farmer's market that features Grade 1 fruit and produce.

The New Braunfels, Texas store was named the 2012 Best Restroom in America by Cintas.

Isn't it just a really big motorway service station?, I wondered to myself, barely able to recall anything of my visit, or visits as I had a feeling my wife and I may have stopped there several times.

If it was really so amazing, why couldn't I remember?

The first expression of this corporate entity I'd noticed when I came to live in Texas was its mascot, a cartoon beaver wearing a baseball cap drawn as though by an enthusiastic ten-year old who had learned how to copy the Disney characters, but still didn't quite understand what made them tick. Buc-ee, who is depicted from the shoulders up on the signs at an uncomfortable angle, like he's broken his neck but has learned to live with it, was inspired by the better drawn and significantly cuter Bucky Beaver who advertised Ipana toothpaste back in the 1960s, and even had his own spaceship. I'm not sure whether the name was revised so as to avoid any perceived breach of copyright, but it seems an ill-considered change to me. The hyphen, the phonetic ee, the possessive apostrophe - as a name it's a mess, something that might work sprayed wildstyle on the side of a New York tube train, but awful as a molded plastic logo beneath that funny looking beaver. It aspires to be cute but, to paraphrase Bill Griffiths, ends up exuding a kind of desperation that cuteness only accentuates. Poor Buc-ee - he makes even Chuck E. Cheese seem like he knows what he's doing.

Determined to penetrate the mystery of the world's biggest corner shop, to quantify the appeal that had apparently thus far eluded me, I had to ask myself what is the magic of this thing we call Buc-ee's?, and so a visit took place. My wife and I were going to Austin anyway, so it wasn't like it was out of our way. We passed the billboards announcing that we were approaching Buc-ee's with merely five miles to go, then only two more miles, then the mystifying and faintly sinister the eyes of Buc-ee's are upon you, which delivers no real information and is probably funnier if you follow their semi-regular series of purportedly humorous billboards carrying messages like don't stay thirsty, my friends, and ice, beer, jerky: the three food groups.

Ha ha.

The store when we came to it was indeed basically the world's largest gas station - or petrol station, as my English upbringing still compels me to term it, albeit to a lesser extent. We parked and entered a vast room in which one could have concealed a couple of jumbo jets had the ceiling been a little higher. We were in the company of what seemed like thousands of people, all browsing aisles of beef jerky, fruit, pickles, sweets, cakes, nuts, corn chips, and chocolate bars, with chiller cabinets full of ice, beer, sandwiches, and food in the shape of Texas. My wife went to use the rest room and I looked around for a dining area, a restaurant or café or something that would distinguish the place as being at least on the same level as a Happy Eater. The closest was the food bar specialising in pulled pork which I suppose once it had been pulled by one of the attendant pork pullers could be consumed off the premises, perhaps as one drove away, cheerfully washed down with the first of many beers. I didn't make too close an inspection, as I am yet to discover just what pulled pork is, and am at present still making the most of this state of innocence. My wife came back and we went further into the store, inspecting the aisles of clothing, T-shirts, barbecue aprons, and baseball caps with amusing slogans relating either to the excessive consumption of beer, shopping at Buc-ee's or amusing marital dysfunction. The clothing department was decorated, as are a surprising number of things in Texas, with barbed wire motifs and the skulls of longhorn cattle. For a moment I considered the possibility of whether the skulls might themselves be on sale, even if there might be one with the Buc-ee's logo painted at the centre of the forehead; but I knew I was letting my imagination run away with me, although such a thing would certainly have brought the store a little closer to the nirvana promised by its reputation. We went ahead, leaving the clothing department behind, passing rack upon rack of country music CDs in search of further material at which to scoff.

For those who like myself have never seen the show, I understand Duck Dynasty to be a documentary series about the lives of amusing rural folk typical of the poke them with sticks and watch them jump freak show that is disingenuously referred to as reality television. Duck Dynasty merchandise is everywhere at present, and Buc-ee's hasn't been left out of the loop in this respect. Camouflage tins of beans sporting pictures of bearded men seemed incongruous near the entrance, but deeper into the store such material blends in with the rest. At the far end, in amongst bags of animal feed, fishing equipment, and everything a hunter might require aside from an actual firearm, the Duck Dynasty promotional products become as one with everything else in a vague sea of green and black. The absence of guns came as no surprise given that they're really not quite so ubiquitous here as everyone seems to believe, but much of the other stuff was astonishing, mainly because I had no idea what any of it was for. I took a photograph of something called a Redneck Timer because its purpose seemed unusually ambiguous, but I left it at that because there didn't seem much point in filling up my camera with endless images of the incomprehensible.

More surprising was how I found that as we left I had experienced a reversal of opinion regarding Buc-ee's. The light hearted slogans of the T-shirts hung upon the wall had somehow got to me, or at least the spirit in which they were presented as something you might want to wear had done its work. Buc-ee's was really just a big, stupid gas station selling meaningless crap to numbskulls, but it didn't know that it was just a big, stupid gas station selling meaningless crap to numbskulls. It believed itself to be something else, and stupid though it certainly was, pointing this out felt akin to kicking a child, or at least kicking somebody with the mind of one. Buc-ee's didn't really care that I had come with the intention of disproving the existence of God, it just hoped I had enjoyed myself and thanked me for my visit.

Outside I posed for photographs next to the bronze sculpture of Buc-ee the beaver. It wasn't a great sculpture, bearing no resemblance to the poorly executed cartoon mascot, and my wife and I agreed that the big beaver teeth were really the only feature that distinguished the sculpture from one of Popeye or any other cartoon character. Nevertheless, we still had to wait for the three families in front of us to have their pictures taken with the unconvincing statue. My photographs show a fat English guy stood next to a brown blob of bronze. Neither of us came out of it looking good.

In conclusion, whilst Buc-ee's may indeed stock some half-decent things to eat, drink, listen to, wear, or fire at ducks, and is very probably good of its kind, aside from maybe a choccy bar, there wasn't much I would have wished to buy anyway, so I guess that would be me also filling up on the bread stolen from the mouths of an innocent millionaire's children.

If people wish to give their money to possibly horrible politicians then that's what they should do, and hopefully the rest of us will have more sense than to vote them into office. If you dislike the way someone is spending their money, then there's no reason why you should be required to give them any of yours. Neither is there any reason why you should be prevented from telling anyone about it. It's not that complicated, and it really is just a very big corner shop, and nothing more.