Monday, 30 June 2014


Gus was our oldest cat. She was seventeen. My wife found her in August 1997, one of two eight-week old kittens apparently abandoned in the pouring rain at the side of a road out in the country somewhere. She took the kittens in and they were named Bella and Gus, short for Asparagus, after two cats in a poem by T.S. Eliot, unfortunately necessitating a lifetime of explanations that Gus was a girl, albeit a stocky girl who would have been described as something of a tomboy in human terms. Her sister passed away at the age of eight, but Gus continued, growing surprisingly old for a cat - for which the average life expectancy is fourteen - in stately fashion. She was pleasantly round and solid without being fat, with a personality unlike that of any other cat I've encountered.

Her beetle brow fostered the impression of a failure to be amused in the same sense as Queen Victoria, and it seemed fitting that Bess's mother would occasionally refer to Gus as our Victorian cat.

On the occasion of my wife moving house, Gus had the feline equivalent of a nervous breakdown, retreating into the darkest corner beneath the bed and refusing to come out for either food, water, or lavatory breaks. After three days my wife, at her wits end, called in a cat psychoanalyst - this being America - who, against all perhaps justifiably cynical expectation, somehow talked Gus down and set her straight once more. By the time I turned up, Gus had settled into old age, not exactly a lively or demonstrative cat, but one who seemingly knew what she liked, who moved slowly but with unstoppable conviction - the sea lion of the couch as we termed her due to her small ears and general build. She would lick a spot on your hand or arm when the mood took her - this apparently being a tic of cats which have been separated from their mothers too soon - and would keep working that spot for the next few hours if left to her own devices. Stranger still was her spanking habit. She would hop upon the arm of the couch as my wife sat, wearing the hard stare which let us know that she was ready for her daily session. Bess would pat her rump just above the tail, sending Gus into paroxysms of delight. Bess would pat harder, and Gus would grab the arm of the couch with both paws rubbing her face against the material, squeaking and quacking with pleasure.

'I feel kind of dirty,' Bess would shrug, pounding away at a now delirious Gus with one hand, 'but she likes it so much.'

Sometimes I'd have to say that's enough, if it had been going on for more than ten minutes with such vigour that I could no longer hear the television over the slapping and Gus's happy meows.

Over the last couple of years, she slowed down somewhat, although came to appear regal rather than old in so much as she continued to keep herself clean, and never acquired the decrepit look of some elderly cats. She spent a lot of time sitting out on the porch in the sun, often with another old cat - a friendly stray who seemed to have adopted us, and whom we named Selma after Homer Simpson's sister owing to a deep, discordant meow which suggested a nicotine habit of at least two packs a day. We liked to imagine them as two old ladies sat in the sun discussing days gone by.

A couple of months ago, Gus stopped eating. We took her to the vet, and found that dental trouble was making it difficult for her. We had her treated, and things got back to normal, although her behaviour became increasingly erratic over the last week. She began to seem disorientated, and her appetite vanished once more. Fearing the worst for the second time in a matter of months, I picked her up, hugged and kissed her and put her in the cat box. The vet said that her kidney's were pretty much gone, and that at best she had weeks to live, so she was put down to save her further suffering.

We are all still devastated. It feels as though Gus has always been around, and life without her seems unthinkable. She was the heart of our household. We loved that cat.

Friday, 27 June 2014

While My Castanets Gently Weep

'So, tell me a little bit about the Chekists.'

We were in some pub off Charing Cross Road and I had my little black notebook with me. It was open on the table and I was ready with my pen. This wasn't an interview or anything quite so glamorous, and I was never a journalist by any description. Both Joe and myself were members of a group called Konstruktivists, formed back in the early 1980s by our mutual friend, Glenn Wallis - minorly famed as the fifth member of Throbbing Gristle, depending on who you ask; and also a founder of Whitehouse, arguably the original power electronics outfit. Glenn wasn't with us, but I'd agreed to put together a short, occasional newsletter about the group as I was the one with some sort of fanzine credentials. It was to be published as Konsort in keeping with our imperious leader's love of words beginning with the letter K, and his nibs had suggested I pump Joe for information.

'What do you want to know?' As ever, Joe seemed to have an angle here, some understanding I could not quite follow. He was probably basking in what he'd mistaken for admiration, which truthfully hardly even ranked as curiosity. I had yet to hear a minute of his own music which didn't sound like the work of someone else, and I was still to be impressed by the famous names he would drop into conversation as casual acquaintances.

'It's just a little four page thing,' I tried to explain. 'Just tell me something about what other music you've done.'

I recalled that before joining Konstruktivists, Joe had recorded under the name Batra, which I still can't help but associate with Godzilla films as it sounds like the name of one of the monsters. Presently I knew he was working with some other guy as the Chekists. I mentioned this, and Joe somehow heard me preface the question with what our readers will be interested in hearing is...

'Well, of course there was Public Safety Unit.' He smiled as though caught out, like he was Michael Winner and yes it was true, he had been at that restaurant on a date with Raquel Welch. I guessed it made him feel a little bit famous to be asked for this sort of detail.

'Public Safety Unit?' I somehow managed not to groan out loud. I felt almost certain that Public Safety Unit would be characterised by militaristic electronic beats and barking snippets of Generals ordering bombs to be dropped, insurgents to be pacified, and seabases to be monitored. This was the sort of thing Joe liked, and which inspired his music. It was fine in itself, I suppose, but not terribly original. I had, some months before, sat in a different pub listening to him and the bloke out of Lustmord comparing notes on footage of tanks and related military activity they'd both recently taped off the telly for use in live shows. It was one of the dullest conversations I'd ever heard.

'That's interesting.'

Far beyond our crazy world of showbiz, the Public Safety Unit had been the means by which President Idi Amin had rooted out enemies of the Ugandan state. Again Joe smirked like Michael Winner and explained how he always named any band of which he was founder after an authoritarian secret police force. Similarly the Chekists had once been a Soviet organisation responsible for executing dissidents. This was, I guessed, one of those details Joe imagined his many, many fans would appreciate, nudging each other with knowing smiles.

So the Chekists were Soviet secret police! Ha ha! Oh that Joe!

I rolled the revelation around in my head. I had assumed Chekists was simply a lame name. It sounded like a group of people who went around checking things. Did this new information really make any difference? I decided not, and that it wasn't worth writing any of this down. It just wasn't that interesting.

'We have a track on a seven inch compilation coming out soon, just something a local label are getting together.'

'Really?' This sounded more like it.

'Our track is called Filing Down Your Teeth!'

Of course it is, I thought, and Joe smiled happily as his many imaginary fans rolled their eyes indulgently. Oh that Joe!

Somehow, I just didn't have it in me to be impressed, which is probably why I always had the impression he just didn't like me that much. He would phone quite often, but mainly, so it seemed, in order that I might ask him questions about his work. Through Glenn he had come to know Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, formerly of Throbbing Gristle, and I always got the impression that he really wanted to make sure that I knew this.

As I was saying to Cosey the other day...

We liked some of the same music, but it always felt as though I was talking to an aunt who had bought me a Shoot! annual for Christmas because I was male, and regardless of the facts of my being forty years old and without any real interest in football; and somehow we were in a band together, the Philthy Animal and Fast Eddie to Glenn's Lemmy, except Joe seemed to regard me as our Ringo, the bloke Glenn had met in the pub and who would from now on be playing the castanets whilst siphoning off a third of both the royalties and the credit.

Possibly my impression was wrong, and I certainly wanted it to be wrong, but nevertheless it has remained as it is.

Later, we recorded an album called Forbidden at a studio in Harlow, Essex. I was a postman at the time and unable to take leave at short notice, so for three days I raced around my walk in Catford, south-east London in the mornings, raced home to Lewisham for a bath and a change of clothes, then spent an hour and a half on trains and buses getting to Harlow to find that the album had been more or less recorded in my absence, and all I had to do was to add guitar parts to tracks I had never before heard to prove that I'd been there. This wasn't in itself an inconvenience as I'm all for a bit of spontaneity, but it was annoying to find that in at least one case my improvised doodling as I tried to work out what I would play had been recorded and was to be considered my finished contribution due to time restrictions.

The album turned out okay, but it never exactly felt like something of which I should be proud, and ultimately I couldn't see the point in either my having played on it, or the considerable effort expended on my daily sixty miles round trip to a studio in a town made of Lego bricks. The material that Glenn and I had done on his portastudio in his spare bedroom sounded better to me.

I put together the cover artwork for Forbidden, aided greatly by my friend Carl, a professional designer. Although heavily distorted, the images on the cover are of myself, Glenn, and Glenn's young daughter. I asked Joe to send some photographs of himself for inclusion, and I asked him each time he phoned to tell me that Chris and Cosey were thinking of buying a new sofa or whatever; but he never got around to it, and seemed to have lost interest in the album since our label had started making noises about putting out Chekists material.

The album came out, and people bought it, and we got paid, albeit not in sufficient quantities to have anyone thinking about buying a yacht; but it did it's job, whatever that was. Joe didn't seem too happy about the cover artwork, now disgruntled that I had neither consulted him nor even asked for a picture by which it might be shown that Konstruktivists comprised persons other than just Glenn and myself, somehow having failed to notice that I had done both of these things, and several times; but beyond this, he didn't really seem to care that much. Neither did I.

Years later, I took out the compact disc for a listen, hoping it may have improved with age. It hadn't, in so much as the disc was now an off-putting bronze hue, having degraded due to a chemical reaction with the ink by which the label design had been printed. So whatever qualities the music may once have had were lost to an unreadable digital mush of degraded zeros and ones. The signal had become noise, and none of it really seemed to matter so much as it had once done, at least not to me.

Oh well.

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Serpent Chiropodarium

Aleister Crowley once wrote that the anathema of perception is mortality's most rueful vice, and so it is with Rory Williams, the most delightful character companion from Doctor Who, the metatextual alchemic serial gifted to a grateful humanity by the benevolence of Mr. Stephen Moffat esquire, that wonderful, infuriating man. Rory, perspicaciously portrayed by that most eminent thespial gentleman Mr. Arthur Darville, was first introduced as the hermeneutic partner of Amelia Pond in The Terrifying Eye of 2007, and all of our lives were changed irrevocably forever hereafter as he first quietly intoned those immortal words.

'Er Doctor, this er... well...'

Quantum uncertainty in a nutshell, my dear Watson! Quantum uncertainty woven into a philosophic magikal whole with the Thelemic current of the aeon in this, our age of Horus, and exactly as Crowley predicted! Indeed, if we turn to the works of Austin Osman Spare - whom you possibly will not have heard of, but I have - we see in his Liber Aegis Zos a representation of this Arthurian theme, the great defender, arisen as plastic, as an holistic avatar of the modern age if you will, returned to hold the sword aloft for the land of his birthing, both ovarian and gnostic, manifest as the delightful Rory; or should that be Roary? The one who roars as unto the death knell of unregenerate longing blown out from the trumpet of Ezekiel himself, blown sevenfold as described in the Book of Revelation of Saint John. Darville has seven letters, but of course that is mere coincidence, nothing more than Ananke playing with us for her sport. Add the letters of Arthur and Darville and we arrive at eleven, the accursed number found upon the reverse of the Hermetic Qliphoth.

In the biblical era, of course the trumpet through which Rory the Roman didst roar would have been of ram's horn.

Yes - Ram's horn. Please feel free to keep telling yourself it's all a coincidence if it makes you feel any better, perhaps a little more in control of your own destiny - like in Destiny of the Daleks, Terry Nation's own Ulysses if I might make so bold.

So where would this leave one such as myself, a humble seeker after truth? How can I take rest when the Moffatian motif of Rory's trousers falling down at inopportune moments over and over forever transcribes a transdimensional zen mandala upon the inadequate plane of my consciousness, leaving so little gold which may be woven into the precious metatextual lead of the mighty work I intend to unleash upon the world, and which will be a bit like Dinosaurs on the Spaceship but with more of a gnostic subtext. I'll probably do that as a Kickstarter or something, by the way.

Dear oh dear - how delightfully rakish of me! What larks!

As ever, the answer lies with my dear Austin, delivered as unto precious bon mots, philosophic Ferrero Rocher with which the ambassador of proto-noumenal cognition spoils us:

Quietism, Buddhism, and other religions, everything which denies the flesh—is the great inferiority to God in ourselves, an escapism seeking sanctuary through fear of life and inability to accept this reality. They were hurt? Or was the odalisque unsatisfactory or too expensive? They expected too much for too little, or were too mean to pay—therefore: All is illusion. But the Stoic smilingly awaits the next shower of shit from heaven. Stoics are not Saviours, Saints or Heroes and are often confused and weary, yet they prefer to find their own way and to accept life as they find it. The schizophrenics, the melancholics and psychotics—they at least are secretive and inflict no religions on others. They prove the possibilities and utilities of as if when totally accepted.

So as one door to perception opens, another closes [Arthur + Darville = 11], but alas and alack I must away. Further golden keys will most surely be revealed within Machen's divine The Chronicle of Clemendy of 1888, but as for which doors they shalt unlock must form the subject of another essay for another time once I have digested the aforementioned treasure; but my reading gets away with me, and the bedside tower of literature doth reach for the heavens in the manner of that other well known tower. Presently I shall dedicate my attentions to Doctor Who and the Giant Robot as set down by the most loquacious Mr. Terrance Dicks.

What ho, peasants!

Friday, 13 June 2014


scab noun \ˈskab\ 1: scabies of domestic animals. 2: a crust of hardened blood and serum over a wound. 3a: a contemptible person. 3b (1): a worker who refuses to join a labour union. (2): a union member who refuses to strike or returns to work before a strike has ended. (3): a worker who accepts employment or replaces a union worker during a strike. (4): one who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms.

It was the first day back from my holiday. I'd been to Texas, and had stories to tell. I had come in to the sorting office half an hour early on the understanding that whoever had been covering my duty would probably have left a ton of work for me. Happily there hadn't been so much mail left behind on the Saturday as I had anticipated, and it didn't take very long to get it all sorted into my frame, so as the sun rose and the clock approached six, I wandered out onto the loading bay for a smoke. The others were wandering in. I'm not really looking for lengthy conversations at that time of day, but I said good morning to a few of them. Some failed to return my greeting, which did not seem in and of itself unusual.

The clock above the entrance always ran a few minutes fast, which management insisted was not part of some deliberate policy to have us all racing around like blue-arsed flies even more than we were already doing. It struck six and I returned to my sorting frame. A couple of years earlier, Jimmy Axton had retired and bequeathed to me the thermos flask from which he'd frequently poured me out a cup of coffee simply because he was a nice guy. It seemed a tradition worth preserving, and so as I decanted my first coffee of the day from Jim's old flask, I would usually also pour one out for Danny who worked the frame behind mine. I liked Danny and it seemed like a nice thing to do.

'Coffee, Dan?'

'No thanks, Lol.' He walked away, and I immediately recognised the ambiguous concern that had been lurking at the back of my thoughts as I'd stood upon the loading bay, ignored by my fellow postmen as they entered the building. I was a scab, and had as such become an untouchable. Milk would now turn sour as it fell beneath my shadow.

I had joined the CWU, or Communication Workers Union, almost immediately after joining Royal Mail as a postman back in 1988, every month paying my four or five quid - or however much it was - on the understanding that whatever fast ones the management tried to pull, there would at least be a body of people making it difficult for them. The management tried to pull quite a lot of fast ones over the next few decades as new business practices were introduced and it was decided that the most important aspect of Royal Mail was not the delivery of letters and parcels so much as the profit which might be made for the shareholders.

Accordingly the CWU rose to the bat most of the time, and would occasionally stage a strike. I think the longest I can recall lasted about three days, during which a terrific backlog of undelivered mail built up to such volume that it took us months to get back on an even footing. More often than not, industrial action - if it came to that - would be conducted as a one day strike every few weeks until things started moving, which they always eventually did by some definition.

The problem was nearly always the same. We, as a company, were not making a profit, or we weren't making the sort of profit which those upstairs hoped we would make, despite this claim usually running contrary to what was being reported in droning financial circles. Royal Mail has to change with the times, we were told over and over, mainly because that's the sort of thing business management people say in order to make themselves appear dynamic, thrusting, and hence profitable. The advent of email means that no-one will send letters any more, they warned us, and yea there shalt be rude internet sites meaning that single gentlemen of certain interests will no longer send for specialist materials in discreet brown envelopes, so think on, because the end is nigh.

Whilst the number of handwritten missives posted by 1950s schoolboys to doting aunts and grandmothers in thanks for the penny whistle or spinning top decreased as predicted, this reduction was counterbalanced by the explosion in parcels as all the single gentlemen of certain interests began to order everything off Amazon, just like everyone else. It wasn't the Royal Mail which got shafted by the rise of the internet, it was high street shops.

Royal Mail was working just fine, had been working just fine for a very long time, and as such did not require change, particularly not at the hands of people whose experience of the situation was limited to a series of surreal flip charts in some antiseptic boardroom. I suppose the real issue was that Royal Mail had been working just fine as a public service, which was viewed by the increasingly right-wing British governments of the nineties as an inherently bad thing, carrying the sort of loser mojo you would associate with scruffy trendy leftie do-gooder dole scrounger layabouts who hate success and want to turn the clock back to when Michael Foot was prime minister and everyone was on strike, even the Queen; and Michael Foot looked like a scarecrow, innit?

Ha ha.

Change meant mechanisation and massive loss of jobs, sometimes described as streamlining because it sounds friendlier and achieves at least a little distance from the truth, namely business being more important than people, and that people are only ever as valuable as the tasks they perform. It may possibly be a little early to invoke Adolf Hitler in the context of this monologue, but the euphemistic capacity of the term streamlining is probably evident when one considers that all the Third Reich were really trying to do was streamline the population of Germany, and eventually the world.

When I joined Royal Mail in Chatham, Kent back in 1988, most of the walking duties comprised two to three hundred delivery points or addresses, with the average length of first post delivery being two and a half hours. Because these routes had mostly been worked out by the fairly obvious method of having a bloke walking around them and seeing how long it all took, that which was expected of the individual postman or postwoman was generally that which they achieved without difficulty. As the supposed need to change with the times and streamline anything that moved was wrought from above, delivery duties were expanded in size so as to require less staff - so the theory ran - meaning that the less efficient humans could be disposed of, either by means of redundancy payout, staring at them long enough until they screwed up and could be legitimately sacked, or just making the job so laboriously unpleasant and so beyond the means of regular organic work units that they gave up and handed in their notice. Hooray.

By the time I was working at the East Dulwich sorting office in 2009, the average walking duty comprised around eight-hundred delivery points, taking an average three and a half continuous hours providing you didn't stop to tie up your shoelace or scratch your arse or whatever. These duties were worked out by a person with a computer programme and a map of the area. This presumably dispensed with the inefficient method of paying a puny human to make a decision which would inevitably be subject to his or her weak human physiology; and if the robot had somehow decided that Postman Patrick could quite easily deliver the mail to five-thousand addresses in just under fifteen minutes, then the problems that inevitably arose would be attributed to Postman Patrick lacking the necessary yes I can attitude of today's thrustingly modern Royal Mail.

Anyway, as is hopefully needless to say, since the very beginning, I'd always done as my union asked, never once breaking a strike. On a few occasions I even bothered showing up to man the picket line, which tended to be a somewhat lonely occupation as those most vocally and grunty about strike action generally stayed home and had a lovely day off with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly. Worse still, striking attracted representatives of the SWP, or Socialist Workers Party, usually the youngest and most overly earnest members of the cult eager to offer support and relieve some of the terrible guilt of having grown up wealthy and middle-class through adopting someone else's misery. It was always astonishing to see how little they realised how much they were hated by those of us who worked our crappy jobs for a living rather than as a lifestyle statement. It was also impressive how often they came back to wave a scarf and chant rah rah rah up the jolly old workers despite being told to piss off.

Our infrequent strikes were, more often than not, implemented in protest against proposed cuts and streamlining. In practical terms, each day taken off as a strike day would mean twice the quota of work to deliver the following day, and as by 2009, our office frequently received a much higher quantity of mail than we could deliver in a single day even without strike action, this meant the system immediately became clogged up for weeks to follow as everyone struggled to catch up with themselves. Then the strike would be declared over, and we would find that this was because the union had come to some arrangement with the management. Generally this meant that the bad thing we had wished to nip in the bud had been postponed, and would be back again next summer under a different name, or worse still when the announcement was made: good news, colleagues, we've fought your side and thrashed out a deal, and here's what has been agreed, followed by a list of promises which actually sounded one hell of a lot like the crap we had all been striking against in the first place.

Strike action, whilst I was at Royal Mail generally served to delay the inevitable ill-considered changes by a few months, left everyone with a gaping hole in their pay packet, and meant that the work itself would be ridiculously demanding once we went back to work and spent weeks struggling to cope with the tidal wave of rubbish spewn forth from direct mailing companies which had continued to churn out sofa advertising whilst we all had a lovely day off with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly. Additionally there was the possibility that Royal Mail wasn't actually that bothered by our striking. All of the work was still delivered, generally without any costly overtime resulting from industrial action being paid out - the denial of which being something else against which we had striked without success - and despite certain pinstriped types weeping about business opportunities lost through our selfish behaviour, it was one less day of wages wasted on one hell of a lot of people so, you know - big savings for them upstairs!

Even more aggravating was that striking was only one available option in terms of industrial action, and it was the one least likely to work because no-one could afford more than one lovely day off with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly in a row. The other option was working to rule, which wasn't so militant as that may sound. Working to rule meant coming in to work at the designated start time, working until one's designated finishing time, and taking the half hour break guaranteed by employment law. Surprisingly, this method was incredibly effective in terms of making a statement because, since the first wave of streamlining, the job had become impractical with each postman or postwoman required to process and deliver more mail than is possible during the available hours. So many of us began to come into work a few minutes early in order to get a head start, and in order to avoid leaving ourselves with a surfeit of mail which would have to be delivered the following day, and which would have to be delivered during ordinary working hours due to restrictions on overtime. To add to this, certain more senior postmen, having been in the job since the days when even management had regarded it as a public service, tended to have the cushier delivery routes, those with less steps, shorter garden paths, fewer blocks of flats, a lower quota of delivery points, or which were geographically nearer to the sorting office. Amongst these senior postmen, at least at East Dulwich, were a number who had spent many years racing around their second delivery in order to get home as quickly as possible. Some had it down to a fine art, and one whom I'll identify as Grumpy Bollocks frequently blew up into the sort of temper tantrum one would expect from a child of five if anything were to threaten his being indoors by eleven. If it was twenty past ten, and you found amongst your own work a missorted letter for this fellow's route, you would find a way to lose it or sneak it back into the system rather than incur the wrath of this terminally grumpy man-child by passing him the letter in the expectation of him doing the job for which he was paid.

Even more aggravating was that Royal Mail management, and particularly the streamlining enthusiasts knew that this was going on, and that whilst Royal Mail staff aren't insured to be at their place of work prior to their official start time or whilst working through their meal breaks in pursuit of the earliest possible finish, anything that gets mail delivered without the necessity for paying out overtime can only be viewed a good thing, so a blind eye is turned, except in cases where a particular postman is noted to be at home by eleven each day. The fact of this being due to his coming in early and racing around at ninety miles an hour is neither here nor there, for all the streamlining evangelist can see is a man who is paid until one in the afternoon finishing two hours before time, and therefore someone who could probably be reasonably expected to take on a few more streets in addition to those to which he presently delivers.

At our office, duties were signed for by individual postal workers on a roughly yearly schedule to keep up with the turnover of staff, and to appease those senior men feeling they might be entitled to whichever marginally cushier number had become available. As the first and second delivery were amalgamated into a single more profitable megadelivery, certain routes were doubled in size thanks largely to those crusading individuals turning up at half past four in the morning and flying around their delivery at half the speed of light, presumably fearing transformation into a pumpkin if they should fail to be at home with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly by noon. You could track the careers of certain postman through a series of walks that had doubled in size due to their cutting corners year after year. Not only was there no sense of guilt experienced by these people who were essentially screwing up the job for the rest of us, but the sense of entitlement was incredible. I once heard Grumpy Bollocks complaining to our manager about an additional bundle of his mail which had emerged from the sorting process after he had tied up in readiness to leave the office. 'It's not on,' he growled. 'I'm supposed to be picking my boy up at half past!'

To get to the point, or at least to this segment of it, the upshot of this was that by about 2003, there were very few duties at East Dulwich which could be done in the allotted time by a postman or postwoman beginning work at six, taking their meal break, and finishing work at their proper finishing time. Working to rule therefore always had a dramatic effect, guaranteeing the necessity of leaving some undated mail unsorted at the end of the day, so that everyone could cope with what they had and complete their delivery. This would mean that the second day would then end with twice the unsorted mail left over as on the first day, and so on until presumably, the crust of the earth would crack beneath the weight of all the undelivered Viking Direct catalogues of south-east London. This practice could, in theory, have been continued indefinitely, and by rights should have done. The important mail got delivered, so no-one ended up hating us, no-one lost a day's wages, no-one had to get up at fucking three to start work, no-one had to run around like a blue-arsed fly for eight hours non-stop, and it terrified upper management more than strike action ever had, because technically we weren't doing anything we shouldn't have been doing; quite the opposite in fact. The only casualty of a work to rule was that no-one got home at eleven in the morning, which is annoyingly why the work to rule would tend to last about three days before a few of them were suddenly back to beavering away an hour and a half before their official start time, chasing the early finish.

'We've made our point,' Grumpy Bollocks would announce, apparently having forgotten he was simply a postman like the rest of us. 'Let's crack on - get back to normal.'

By around 2003, I'd had enough. I had been in the job for fifteen years and it wasn't getting any easier, and following another couple of days of working to rule over something or other, I decided the situation was getting ridiculous, and I was going to stick with it and work the hours I should have been working all along. When I'd first started coming in early some years before, fifteen minutes had been enough to give me that head start I needed to have everything delivered by the end of the day. By 2003, most days required at least an hour, sometimes an hour and a half to stay on top of the tsunami of junk mail and crap choking up our sorting office. So I stopped, as did a few others. We started at six - our correct starting time; we took our meal breaks; and if we were still walking around out there at two o'clock in the afternoon - the official finishing time - we brought the remaining mail back to the office so that it could be delivered the following day.

By this point the climate at East Dulwich sorting office was such that this was considered weird, disruptive behaviour by some of our colleagues. 'Look at the six o'clock boys,' one particular tool laughed as we all turned up one morning. He himself had been there working for free since 4AM, and yet we were the fools, apparently.

The office was divided into two main factions. In fact it had always been divided into two main factions, but I'd managed to ignore this detail for the first ten years, either keeping myself to myself or just doing whatever it took to avoid the playground politics. Roughly speaking, the divide was split between the old guard and the newer recruits, although there was some crossover if the old guard saw some potential in one of the new people. The old guard were mostly older and generally white blokes whose main interests in life were football, cars, and being home by eleven in the morning even on the heaviest days. They all had a surfeit of opinions about everyone else, how others should do their jobs and so on. They made the difficult decisions about who was effectively useless, who needed to work a bit faster because they were holding everyone else back, all the stuff that you would traditionally expect to be the role of the manager. Their support of the union seemed to come from a love of hierarchy and moral high-ground.

Near the top of this hierarchy was Wiggy, a PHG - or Postman Higher Grade - one of those who remained office bound, who dealt with the public, with registered mail, with overtime sheets and so on. Wiggy, a man who seemed to hate the universe which had cursed him with what was presumably a Kojakesque appearance beneath his unconvincing hairpiece, conducted himself as very much the Daddy of the sorting office in the vein of Ray Winstone's character in Scum. He submitted our overtime sheets to the wages department, as well as the paperwork pertaining to household delivery items - the crappy pizza advertising and related leaflets we were also obliged to deliver - so if he didn't like you - and there were quite a lot of people he didn't like - it was a matter of luck whether you received your full wages that week. Wiggy had taken an immediate dislike to me when I first began working at East Dulwich, apparently on the grounds that I had been assigned a duty sat next to one of his enemies; or maybe it was that I was too fancy or something, not one of the gang. Eventually he thawed, I suspect because I spoke to more or less everyone there, and to continue whatever juvenile beef he carried would have made him look like an idiot. I got on more or less with everyone, because life is too short to hold the sort of grudges you're supposed to grow out of when you're ten, and I was there to do a job and to get paid for it, not to make friends.

The last strike of my employment approached during the summer of 2009. The management had already taken more duties out of the office than was practical for an office which was about delivering mail rather than just saving money. We were again faced with the possibility of strike action, which no-one wanted. We were overworked and we'd had enough. Whilst the CWU may have made differences in a great many areas, we saw very little of this at our office. We no longer even had a CWU representative at our office because it was a thankless task, and those who cared the most vocally were apparently bothered that union meetings would impinge too greatly on their being at home with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly by noon. Every so often one of the union people would turn up from Mandela Way, or wherever it was, and spend ten minutes begging us to desist from coming in to work two hours before our time, to cease chasing the early finish, to basically cease helping out in our own exploitation. Grumpy Bollocks, or whoever had called the union in to address some management proposal which would prevent his being at home with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly by noon, would grunt that this was missing the point, adding that no-one could tell him how to do his job. Aside from this, our dealings with the union were limited to some person coming around with a clipboard every few months to ask if anyone was interested in the great rates on car insurance that the CWU had wrangled for us.

Being 2009, I had recently come close to breaking point. The job was eight daily hours of tearing around, heavy manual work which left me exhausted for the rest of the day. I had just escaped from a toxic relationship as the personal combined cash cow and scratching post to a sociopathic upper-class therapy addict with anger issues, and I was now living in a flat the size of a rabbit hutch which ate up two thirds of my wages even before utility bills and council tax. On top of this, the CWU which had in recent years distinguished itself mainly by offering me cheap car insurance, and by agreeing to numerous changes in terms of employment against which they had initially asked us to take strike action, was once again proposing another series of lovely days off with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly.

'I'm not doing it,' I said. 'Not this time.'

I couldn't afford it. I was single and a representative of the demographic with the highest suicide rate in the capital. I was struggling as it was, and unlike Grumpy Bollocks and so many of his colleagues, I was not living either in a multiple-income household or with my parents. Life was becoming effectively impossible in London, and I was planning to move and start anew, and I was simply not going to jeopardise that for the privilege of still paying off rent arrears two years down the line and a strike which wasn't going to make the slightest bit of difference.

Much to my relief, I was not alone. Even Grumpy Bollocks, Wiggy and the others saw that this would be a futile gesture. The CWU was a spent force, and everyone knew it. Bollocks to it, was the general grunting consensus.

The day of the strike came and I turned up for work. There were seven or eight of us, mostly the more economically vulnerable members of staff, less so those commuting from three bedroom houses in north Kent. We sat around for most of the morning, sorting what mail had arrived in readiness for delivery the next day. We knew we were technically scabs, but no-one felt the term really applied. Had our colleagues been committed union members interested only in the greater good, rather than a cultish group of self-centred nest-feathering shitehawks, things may have been different. It didn't feel particularly great to break a strike, but at least I would be able to pay my rent.

It was upsetting when I returned to work that morning and found myself ignored by those who had blustered about having had enough and how this time the union could stick its useless strike up its arse. I can't say it was because I would have done the same in their shoes. Some members of staff habitually broke strikes. There were always one or two, a drop in the ocean which made no difference to the general efficacy of our industrial action so far as I could see. I would continue to talk with them regardless, if it was someone I had any reason to talk to. If someone worked during a strike, I presumed in our case that they would have their reasons. I couldn't see the point in the silent treatment given that I was no longer a ten year old boy, and this was a somewhat McCarthyite sorting office full of postmen all bending over backwards to work for free when it meant being at home with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly by noon. Parallels with the plight of the Welsh mine workers in the early eighties were few and far between, and would have been pretty insulting had anyone dared to draw them.

It was upsetting when I returned to work that morning and found myself ignored, but for the most part it was by people I'd never really liked in the first place, those with whom one would agree just for the sake of keeping the peace.

'Slag,' Wiggy muttered at my back as I walked past, reverting to more honest type. He was the main suspect for whoever had anonymously vandalised my sorting frame, removing photographs of my fiancé and other personal belongings. It seemed like the sort of thing he would have done. One of the postwomen had told me how Wiggy once brought a Christmas card to her, apparently handed in at the front office by one of the people to whom she delivered mail. The card was in an open envelope. The next day, the woman had asked my colleague if she had received the card with the five pound note inside. It was at least a relief that I was no longer obliged to pretend Wiggy was anything other than a sad and vicious little man.

I still regret that my coming in that day alienated Danny and maybe one or two others, but then it was as much their choice as mine whether or not we remained friends. I've stayed in touch with the people with whom I would have stayed in touch regardless, and the rest I don't miss. Ultimately, I don't suppose any of it really mattered given that at the time I was two months away from handing in my notice, and experiencing a generally stratospheric improvement in the quality of my life. It took six months of nagging phone calls to get paid for the final two weeks, which I expect was Wiggy teaching me a lesson; and it was a shame to end twenty-one years of service on such a sour note, but that was just the way it had to be. I pissed off some people who had never been on anyone's side but their own, and it's still hard to really care about that aspect.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Day I Met ZZ Top

I am familiar with the notion of borderland as sacred space from having read about Mexico before the Spanish conquest. Borderlands for the Mexica were dusk, dawn, and numerous points of the calendar at which one kind of time became another. Such junctures, so it was believed, were weak spots where sacred forces might be in flux, realms of neither one thing nor the other, and this was where the ordinary and readily understood laws of the universe broke down. I found myself in one such space for most of the summer of 1984.

My recall of the exact sequence of events is poor, which is of course understandable given the breakdown of reality, or at least of reality as I had understood it up to that point. School had ended with my fifth year of secondary edumacation in the summer of 1982. Shipston-on-Stour Comprehensive had no sixth form, due either to lack of funds, or it hardly being worth the effort given the quality of students. Those of us who had been coaxed into either taking A levels - or retaking those exams I would have passed at school had I been paying attention - signed on for a catch-up year at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education in Stratford-upon-Avon. A few of my friends were also there, and stranger still, we now found ourselves compressed into a single scholastic stratum with kids who had been in the year above our own at the school; because as I say, it was a borderland wherein the ordinary and readily understood laws of the universe broke down. We were stood at the threshold of our respective futures, in a manner of speaking, although loitering would be a better term; and none of us were under any illusion that those futures would contain yachts, private planes, or expensive Italian sports cars. This state of flux endured for two years, ending as I wandered off towards Maidstone in non-committal pursuit of a fine art degree, so 1984 was arguably the last year of my childhood.

Back at school there had been the four of us in our little gang: myself, Graham, Eggy, and Pete. We had been drawn together by a shared sense of humour, and the fact of our being the only kids in the entire town who preferred Joy Division and The Stranglers to Iron Maiden. Typically we formed a band, having understood that musicianship was no longer necessary for such an undertaking. Two of us could sort of play, and we were somewhat lacking in terms of instrumentation, but these were fairly minor considerations given that the main point was keeping ourselves entertained, which we managed extremely well. The music, such as it was, was recorded on an endless succession of cassette tapes, taking the form of whatever we felt like doing at the time, anything from puerile noise to a sort of sarcastic variation on the Oi! music then regularly championed in Sounds music paper.

Unfortunately, when Pete finished school in 1981, his family moved to Eastbourne on the south coast, leaving the Pre-War Busconductors - as we called ourselves - limping along without our least musical but otherwise most entertaining member, the only one of us who could really sing; and as the borderland years closed in, we all moved on. Pete had been a year older than the rest of us, but had crossed the generational gulf through being Graham's neighbour, and now we found ourselves as one with his former classmates, these strange older kids previously seen only from afar but now sat next to us in class at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education. Suddenly we were hanging out with Anders Longthorne and Mark Lewis, and our entire world was changing, sort of. I'd barely known these older kids had existed when I was at school, or even that there even were other kids who would refuse on principle to allow Electric Light Orchestra records into their homes.

Girls still being some years away, we discovered drink together, mounting expeditions to The Black Horse to ask for bottles of lager in deeper voices than those with which we spoke to our parents. Anders Longthorne, being older and taller was pretty good at this. It probably also helped that he didn't really care whether we got served or not. It was just something to do.

Anders was an enigma, the son of some guy who had worked for NASA in America, who hung large framed prints pertaining to the moon landing around his home, and yet who lived in Shipston-on-Stour, England - the middle of nowhere so far as the rest of us were concerned. Even without the peculiarly Scandinavian Christian name and exotic heritage, Anders was immediately memorable for being one of the most toxically sardonic human beings ever to walk the earth. When I first read Peter Bagge's Neat Stuff comic, Buddy Bradley immediately reminded me of Anders whom I viewed as having originated that same distinctive blend of hard, dry wit and nihilism.

'My life is shit,' he once chortled with casual venom, selecting a Mars Bar from the display in the newsagents. 'I may as well be fat and shit.'

He'd introduced the rest of us to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver - possibly so as to furnish us with all the required references for when he affected the insane intensity of Travis Bickle for comic effect. 'I'm gonna get myself organisised,' he would tell us. 'I'm gonna clean up this town,' he promised, laughing to himself and playing imaginary ZZ Top guitar riffs. ZZ Top, along with Motohead, Statas Quo and Judas Preist were one of those long hair bands identified in biro on the denim jackets of every other kid at school, so we had shunned them on principle; but Anders liked them, and didn't really care what the rest of us thought; and we realised that he was right.

His best friend was Mark Lewis, generally identified as Louie. No-one could quite work out why they were friends as they seemed to spend most of the time taking the piss out of each other. Possibly they had been brought together through mutual appreciation of ZZ Top.

Somehow inevitably, we formed a band, or at least Mark drafted the rest of us in to provide his backing, in a few cases without actually telling us. The band was called Louie & the Bum Ticklers - a name which held no promise of success, but no-one really cared enough to object.

Eggy, being our one bastion of social responsibility and the sort of wholesome activities of which a parent might approve, was a member of the Sea Scouts, which allowed him - and by association the rest of us - access to the scout hut situated on the London Road, near the Coach and Horses pub. It didn't seem like the scout hut was ever really used for much, at least not so far as we could tell, and so we became regulars, just hanging out because it was something to do. One evening, having returned from The Black Horse with more cider than seemed advisable, we staged a Monopoly tournament at the scout hut, discovering in the process that Monopoly can be a lot of fun when you're seventeen and too drunk to stand. Later that evening I regurgitated the contents of my stomach from my bedroom window, learning all of the usual valuable lessons that come with preliminary forays into alcoholism.

'Somebody had one too many last night, I reckon,' my dad observed over breakfast. 'They lost their guts all over the pavement outside.'

It appeared that he considered this funny, but I was not identified as a suspect which was odd seeing as it hardly required Sherlock Holmes levels of deduction to penetrate this particular veil of mystery. Later I went outside and noted the acidic cider trail etched down the brickwork from my first floor bedroom window to an incriminating and now dried out dusting of diced carrots and tomato skins on the pavement. The stain was such that it remained visible for many years to come, and may still be there now for all I know, a silent memorial to my bankrupting Eggy with all of his fancy hotels neatly lined up along Park Lane.

We also used the scout hut for Louie & the Bum Ticklers rehearsals, sneaking down there with crappy practice amplifiers and the cheap Teisco Decca guitar I'd bought from Andy Scrivener for a tenner. I had the impression that almost everyone involved in the enterprise aside from Mark and myself regarded it as distinctly lame, something we should have outgrown, but nevertheless we all gave it our best, such as it was. Graham, Mark and I chugged out three note riffs on our guitars, Anders kept a rhythm on cardboard boxes and other household objects lazily adapted to percussive functions, and Eggy sang the lyrics from an exercise book whilst trying not to laugh. It wasn't that Mark's songs were necessarily hilarious, although they were intended to be at least amusing, but Eggy was a vocalist distinguished by enthusiasm rather than ability, and he had a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. It was fairly easy to make him laugh so much that he couldn't breath if the circumstances were sufficiently stupid.

I drew a cover for our tape Down in the Pool Hall featuring four cartoon characters bearing no real resemblance to ourselves. The eight songs listed on the inlay, all, so far as I recall, recorded in that echoey scout hut, were Derek Griffiths, Wah, A Kid Called Grez, Heavy Metal Rebellion, Shipston Hero, Meat Head, Stereotype, and Pool Hall Blues. Being as the cassette resides in a cardboard box on a different continental land mass to the one upon which I am presently settled, I can recall only one of these songs.

Wah was about a student who took the same mathematics class as Mark, Graham, and Anders at the South Warwickshire College. He was substantially overweight and excessively spotty, possibly owing to the masses of chips with which he was observed stuffing his face each lunchtime. Additionally he had massive red lips resembling the kind which can be purchased from joke and novelty retailers, and he had an apparently odious personality to match. His nickname was Wah Wah in reference to a sound effect used on Family Fortunes, a popular television game show. The contestant would provide an answer which, if wrong, would be suffixed with a car horn style electronic wah wah and the announcement our survey says, followed by the correct answer. I never found out quite how this related to the target of our song because I wasn't in the same mathematics class, but I remember the chorus well:

Wah me old chip scoffer,
Wah my only mate,
You gotta purse them lips, Wah,
And suck them chips right off that plate.

I suppose it qualifies as bullying of a sort, particularly if you accept the notion that we live in a world in which nobody is a dick. Unfortunately though, this is not the case, and we in fact live in a world in which a great many people are dicks, and as Louie & the Bum Ticklers, we simply chose to acknowledge this with the gift of song. Specifically we chose to acknowledge this with the gift of songs that no-one would ever hear, which is still better than going around thumping people you don't like the look of, I would say.

Hanging around with Mark and Anders was fun, a prelude to the world beyond Shipston-on-Stour. Anders had passed his driving test, and would sometimes borrow his dad's car so we could drive through the town square feeling superior to the local bikers. We would wind down the windows whilst playing electro compilations on the Street Sounds label or the Grandmaster Flash greatest hits tape to underscore the point that we were different, and that although we didn't know what the future held, we presumed it would be better than this.

One small part of that future contained our meeting with ZZ Top. Mark had told us that he personally knew the members of ZZ Top and frequently spoke with them by telephone. Being as ZZ Top had sold millions of records and were a huge, globally popular rock band from Houston, Texas, the idea was so patently ridiculous that only Anders bothered to argue, as ever relishing the opportunity to give his friend a hard time. 'Come on, Louie, you moron. You don't know what you're talking about.'

'You don't have to believe me if you don't want to.'

'Well that's lucky, because I don't, and you're a moron.'

'Billy and Dusty don't think I'm a moron.' These were the names of the bassist and guitarist of ZZ Top, and Mark would underscore his observation with his weird, unique spoken chuckle, sh sh like the word shucks but without the -ucks, twice and in quick succession.

'Oh piss off.'

I could be getting some of these details in the wrong order, but that was roughly how I remember it. It seemed to be some private joke between the two of them, an argument they kept going because it gave them pleasure. It carried on in the background for weeks, culminating in the peculiar proposition that Mark would arrange for ZZ Top to come to Shipston-on-Stour and pay us a visit.

'You're out of your mind, Louie.'

'We'll just have to see what you say when the boys turn up.'

'I'll still say that you're out of your mind because we both know it's never going to happen, you stupid bastard.'

Mark remained nevertheless optimistic.

Sh sh.

The day came, and Graham, Eggy, and myself met at the scout hut as usual. We went inside and set up, which wasn't a big deal as it only really involved plugging in my small practice amplifier and turning it on. None of us commented on the fact that neither Anders nor Mark had yet arrived as it didn't seem significant. Neither did we discuss this being the proposed date of our promised audience with ZZ Top because we were all seventeen or thereabouts, none of us believed in Father Christmas, and it was obviously just some private joke, just the older kids taking the piss out of us.

Two figures entered the scout hut, swaggering like John Wayne. They both wore large black hats, sunglasses, and had long, obviously false beards.

Eggy began to squeak with laughter. 'You stupid buggers.'

'Hey guys,' said the taller one in a fairly poor approximation of an American accent. 'You seen Mark and Anders? They told us to meet them down here.'

'Yeah,' said the other helpfully. 'We're ZZ Top.'

'Very funny,' I said, trying not to laugh.

'What do you mean?' The taller of the two regarded the one who was about Mark's height. 'They said they would be here.'

It carried on for a few minutes. When Anders adopted some ludicrous position for the sake of argument, nothing on Earth could induce him to let it go. Short of pulling off the false beard, there was nothing we could do until they got bored, which eventually they did, and so they left.

A minute or so passed and Mark and Anders turned up, apparently in high spirits.

'You'll never guess who was here just now,' said Eggy with immense sarcasm.


'ZZ Top!'

'Oh man, and we missed them!'

Mark chuckled. 'I told you, and you didn't believe me.'

Sh sh.

The thing that had impressed me most was the amount of effort and preparation that had gone into those few minutes, building the story up weeks beforehand, then getting hold of some pretty serious false beards, and all towards ends that were ludicrous at best; and that ludicrous at best had been the whole point.

As previously stated, the two years from the summer of 1982 to that of 1984 were, by some definition, my borderlands, a period of general uncertainty during which I discovered both alcohol and sexual intercourse, and put away at least some childish things - although it was nevertheless annoying when I came back from the first term at Maidstone to find that my dad had given all of my Micronauts to Oxfam. In terms of this metaphysical borderland, ZZ Top might therefore be regarded as loa, expressions of sacred forces which briefly intruded upon my small world, channelled through the agency of Louie and one of his Bum Ticklers. Were I the kind of writer who casually invokes the concept of psychogeography, having picked it up from Alan Moore rather than Guy Debord, I might be inspired to suggest that ZZ Top, heralds of my eventual Texan future, had come to plant the seed by which I would grow myself some flax, weave a pair of comfortable shoes, and walk that fateful path as a sharp dressed man. Even aside from my spending the next decade resembling a twelfth century serf, the suggestion would quite clearly be rubbish, because it wasn't ZZ Top. It was just Anders and Louie up to their usual ridiculous bollocks, and in many ways that was better.