Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Winningest Way to Manage Your Money

In September 2005 I got into a relationship with a female Hobbit who lived in a burrow with a circular wooden door situated off Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. I suppose, were I a better man, I would conceal her true identity by identifying the woman as, for example, Dora the Explorer or Edna Mode from The Incredibles in satirical reference to her stature and general appearance; but apparently I'm not, so Frodina Baggins will have to do.

The other major event of September 2005 was that I went to Mexico City with my friend Rob Colson. I had grown accustomed to travelling alone to Mexico, and was not sure how it would go with another person coming along for the ride; but it worked out well, and Rob and I became much closer friends than we had been before we left. When I'd first met him as an acquaintance of the artist Keith Mallinson some years before, I hadn't been quite sure what to make of him. At times he came across as abrasive, didactic and occasionally lacking in humour; but by the time we came back from Mexico we had both grown some, and I saw that my initial impression had been wildly inaccurate. We had formed a bond.

Life back in England was strange. I now had a girlfriend whilst Rob was recently parted from one. I had serious reservations about a relationship in which the other partner was repeatedly vanishing on obsessive quests for ancient rings forged by wizards in the hearts of mountains, whilst Rob was wrestling with freelance work and uncomfortable loneliness of the kind which life in London tends to accentuate. Time passed, and things became gradually but steadily worse for the both of us until suddenly Rob had a partner, a likeable girl named Ade whose claim to fame was that she'd once appeared in a Musical Youth video. Months passed and the couple announced that they were to be married. No-one was too surprised, and neither did it seem too soon for such a decision.

Frodina insisted that all four of us get together, that I cook us a meal around my place just like the couples you see on television. Her adventures in the Mist Land of the Orc-Lord had left her with a taste for matchmaking, for dabbling in people's lives, moving them around as though they were pieces on a chess board - or at least pieces on a chess board on a table next to which an orange crate had been conveniently provided for her to stand upon. She was a little too late to tamper with any significant aspect of Rob's relationship, but possibly she enjoyed the prospect of herself and Ade discussing health food and feng shui over a glass of mead as the menfolk strolled about the garden comparing golfing averages. In any case, I enjoyed cooking, and Rob apparently enjoyed my cooking, and so it was a date. I worked in the kitchen whilst Frodina helpfully criticised my uneven selection of cutlery until the happy couple arrived and we were ready to eat.

We ate at a table set outside in the garden seeing as the weather was warm. We talked about this and that until eventually we were done, and all sat smoking fags and relaxing, aside from Frodina who had never smoked and was not psychologically suited to relaxation.

'We have a favour to ask.' Rob almost laughed. I could see that he felt awkward. 'We were wondering if you could do the invitation?'

'Your wedding invitation?'


'Sure.' I was flattered, except I immediately realised I didn't actually know what I was being asked to do. 'You mean like the whole thing?'

Rob shook his head. 'Just a painting. We were thinking of one of the both of us if you could do that.'

'We're getting them done properly, so the time and date and everything will be on it,' Ade explained. 'We just need a nice picture.'

I felt happy to have been asked. I had found myself growing oddly protective of Rob over the last year or so, although I don't think he realised this, and it was an honour to be asked, to be able to do something for him and his girlfriend.

'I'll need some photographs to work from, but I'll be happy to.'

They were talking amongst themselves now, following another tangent. Rob regarded his wife to be. 'Of course my name will need to be in a much larger font as it appears in the invitation.'

'Well, you are the man after all.' Ade feigned serious consideration. 'Your name should appear at least twice as large as mine, and mine should probably be in a less impressive typeface,' - she wheeled a hand in the air - 'maybe Comic Sans, or that really crappy lettering you always used to see on newsagents' hoardings in the seventies.'

Frodina laughed because we were all laughing, and she knew that something funny had been said, and that laughter was therefore the appropriate response. This was a relief as I had doubted her ability to spot the joke, and anticipated testy remarks on the subject of equality. She often used the phrase strong woman when referring to female friends, which always struck me as redundant bordering on condescending given that it seemingly presupposed most women to be weak.

A few days later I arrive at my girlfriend's place. It is late afternoon and I have spent most of the day painting Rob and Ade, retouching the image over and over in a painstaking effort to bring it closer to how they appear in real life. The circular wooden door swings aside and I enter the burrow. I am excited and I tell Frodina that my painting is going very well.

'How much are you charging?' she asks.

I have been dreading this question, so I pause and throw myself into the answer, delivered loud enough to hopefully discourage haggling. 'I'm not charging them anything because Rob is my friend.'

She makes a noise. It is neither kindly nor indulgent. It is a long, long way from you old softie or any equivalent. It is Frodina finding that the rest of the world has once again failed to measure up to her own exacting standards.

'Is that a problem?' I know I should keep silent, but suddenly I'm quite annoyed. I'm tired of her endless judgement.

'Just because they're your friends, doesn't mean it's okay for them to rip you off.'

'How are they ripping me off?'

'You're working for free.'

'That's my choice.'

She heads for the kitchen, clearly exasperated, and when she speaks her tone rises with growing anger, turning the veiled insult into a question. 'I'd like to think I'm in a relationship with someone who is good with money, who isn't an idiot in that respect?'

'I am good with money. How am I not good with money?'

'Yet you're happy to give away art for free.'

'They're my friends. Do you not see what that means?'

I pause to consider that of the two of us, I am the one who has held down a full time job for the previous two decades, whilst Frodina lives in a house bought for her by her mother, has no regular income, and has been many thousands of pounds in debt for quite some time. I recall the occasion when we went to the large branch of Waterstones book store on Oxford Street. I purchased the new DBC Pierre novel, and Frodina spent twenty pounds on a self-help title called something like The Winningest Way to Manage Your Money with a strapline promising that your days of frittering away all those lovely pounds and pennies on shit you don't need would soon be over. I'm still surprised that the entirety of the situation as a discrete space-time event didn't collapse into a superdense irony-singularity. Of course I didn't say anything, because to draw attention to her buying yet another self-help book was to draw attention to the fact that none of them were working, which was the last thing she wanted to hear. I considered all of this but there was too much information to condense into a sentence which would in any case be wasted because I was already wrong.

I shrug. 'I like to do things for friends if I can. Rob has done plenty for me and, quite simply, I wouldn't be able to look myself in the mirror if I charged him for this. It would seem dishonest.'

Like a Transformer, she goes into battle mode. It is not enough to have a different view, or even to prove by some means that her view is the superior one. She will not rest until her opponent has been crushed and humiliated with every bullshit move in her psychological armoury.

I leave, and as I do so I slam the wooden lid of the burrow, causing much consternation in the shire as old Jethro Woodwyrt leaning upon the gate of the next dwelling snaps his clay pipe in half in astonishment. I walk away and it feels good.

Months later we sit through the marriage ceremony in Hampstead, then go on to a reception somewhere in Hackney. I have the chance to speak to Dave and a few of the other friends I know from the vague circle occupied by both myself and Rob, but Frodina - unable to function unless she's making somebody do something her way - requires constant attention and maintenance. It is the last time I see Dave, or Rob, or Ade. I know that everything familiar is coming to an end.

Years later, I escaped the shire and the passive-aggressive clutches of Frodina Baggins, happily leaving behind what had probably been the worst years of my life. I discovered that it hadn't worked out for Rob and Ade either, which struck me as immeasurably sadder than my own situation. I still work for free for friends because I dislike what few creative abilities I can claim for my own being reduced to commodity as something measured by the same essential value system as my ability to, for example, clean a lavatory bowl or stick a leaflet advertising pizzas through someone's letter box. Try as I might, I have never been able to see generosity as a failing, and sadly this is probably why I don't own a yacht.

Oh well.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Lennytown Express

It strikes me as peculiar that I live in a world in which the complete works of Led Zeppelin can be stored on an After Eight mint, Louis Armstrong has set foot on the moon, and yet the span of my own life has encompassed a not quite industrial age during which one man was once required to milk a hundred or so dairy cattle by means of bucket and stool. I don't actually recall my father milking all of those cows by hand, and in any case I doubt it would have been just him on the job, but I vividly remember the day when trucks arrived at the farm bringing with them the new mechanised milking machinery; and I recall being aware of this representing a significant change to the way things had been done before. The waste ground at the side of our tenant housing was briefly occupied by huge metallic structures, great angular beams of sculpted aluminium or steel shining in the sun and awaiting installation in the milking parlour. It was impossible for me to even guess at what function these things would soon perform, and it seemed as though they could have been deposited in our midst by a spaceship from a futuristic civilisation.

The building work began, and one by one the silver machines went into the building, leaving in their wake great mounds of sand at the back of the landing site, near the workshop. Being about five years old, I began to carve out channels in an effort to control water I had bought from the standpipe in a bucket. The gutting and refurbishment of the milking parlour yielded lengths of old piping, possibly lead, which I would bury in my mountain of sand, pushing the end of one limescaled length up against another in an effort to carve out my own private sewer system through which water would course according to my will alone.

Inevitably the fun was not to last as Alan, who was probably about ten and who lived in one of the other tenant houses, saw me building my kingdom of sand and irrigation, and decided I could use a little help. I disliked his plans for my water system, none of which seemed to represent an improvement so far as I could see, and I had been doing just fine without his advice. Worse was that he somehow managed to get out of me that I had recently inherited a Mamod steam engine.

Mamod of Birmingham began making their tiny replica steam engines in 1937, and the toys had been popular ever since. My father had been given one of their stationary engines, a boiler of either tin or copper mounted on a metal base, heated by a small fire lit beneath, and driving a wheel which could be used to provide motive power for the similarly popular Meccano construction sets to which most male children aspired during the 1950s and 1960s. On the other hand, one could simply fire the thing up and watch the wheel spinning around for the sheer thrill of it. Steam had mostly been replaced by electricity or diesel as the driving force of industry by the time I was born. A few steam engines were supposedly still in operation, working out their last few years prior to retirement, but we all knew what a steam engine looked like, what it could do, and even how it worked. It made for a great toy. My father's steam engine was red and black, the paint slightly chipped, but otherwise beautifully hand-crafted and very robust. Alan took it to pieces, and then explained which parts of the gutted engine I would be allowed to keep. The shinier parts were to remain in his hands, payment for his sterling work in destroying the steam engine. With hindsight it seems almost like some genetic imperative to strip the copper piping out of abandoned buildings for sale as scrap had driven his hand even before he fully understood what he was doing, although an equally valid explanation is that he was simply an evil little tosser.

When my father got wind of the enforced privatisation of the steam engine which had brought him such pleasure as a child, he said nothing, but then he didn't need to as his brow darkened to an Old Testament hue of righteous fury. We got on with Alan's family, but mainly because there were only four families living on the farm - including that of Mr. Harding, the owner - so we were obliged to get on whether we really liked them or not, and so far as I am able to recall, we sort of didn't. I don't know whether Alan was punished, although even if he was, he was a repeat offender so I'm not sure it would have made much difference.

A couple of years later - I would guess around 1974 or maybe 1975 - I was bought a brand new Mamod steam engine for Christmas, and even better, this was a steamroller, the mobile kind which I knew a few of the kids at school in Ilmington also owned, although most of them seemed to have the traction engine variant. It was wonderful. One filled the tray with methylated spirit - or wood alcohol as it is known here in the US - set it to burning beneath the cylindrical boiler, and as soon as you had steam you were away. It almost seems strange to refer to it as a toy steam engine given its operating on the same principle as the real thing. It was simply a scaled down steam engine and was therefore quite different to toy cars of the day, none of which ran on a tiny internal combustion engine. By this point I was either wise to Alan or he'd been sent to borstal or something, so his help was no longer a problem.

The first public event to which I took my engine for the appreciation of other kids was at our school. Mr. Davies our teacher had told us we could bring in our steam engines if we so wished, and we would get them all going in the playground. Apparently being the last steam generation, we made quite a show of it with fifteen or so different engines brought along by various kids, mostly traction engines, my steamroller, and a few of the older stationary versions similar to that which had been asset-stripped by Alan the tosser. My best friend at the time was Matthew Beecham, a boy from the year above my own with an unusually dry sense of humour.

We stood looking at the miniature engines lined up on the tarmac. The presence of wheeled variations seemed to suggest the possibility of a race, which had apparently dictated the arrangement despite that half of the kids were bent over stationary boilers fiddling with their matches and cigarette lighters.

Matthew pulled his characteristic face of incredulity and drew my attention to Len's steam engine. Len was one of those kids whom we knew with some certainty would never get the call from NASA, but he had a rounded, likeable quality that inspired empathy. Oddly, his short blonde hair and squinty face made me think of those kids who apparently did so well selling American Seeds that they just had to tell us all about it on the back covers of imported Marvel Comics. Len made me think of potatoes and 1955 and The Waltons, and in a good way. He did not quite belong to our modern world, and neither did his red and black steam engine. It was a stationary model, and one that had lost its shine some years before. It seemed possible given that Len's family weren't millionaires, that it had been put to actual work for most of its life, perhaps sharpening knives with the Mamod grinding wheel in the name of supplementing whatever bacon Len's dad was able to bring home. Len's engine, in comparison to our cleaner, newer, better-oiled models, was identified by Matthew as an old banger, and was accordingly already belching out smoke of an entirely more ominous caste than that of the other engines.

Gradually the trill of tiny whistles sounded across the playground as our boilers built up motive force. We engaged the gears and a few of the traction engines began to trundle off in the general direction of the monkey bars.

I'm not sure if either Matthew or myself had yet learned to say fucking hell, but if we had, then one of us probably did.

Len's engine popped and spat angrily, its chipped red base plate vibrating on the ground as it began to surge forward like a drunk relative at a Christmas party, overtaking at least one of the traction engines. Matthew describes himself crying with laughter, which I don't recall, but probably because I was stood watching with my mouth hanging open as Len's stationary engine somehow overtook its wheeled brethren.

We all felt a bit sorry for Len, although I don't remember him being particularly ashamed of the performance put on by his engine, or even
particularly traumatised by the pleasure that his old banger had brought us. We recreated the incident in conversation over and over.

'Here comes the Lennytown train.' Matthew would furrow his brow into grim resolve, then piston his hands to invoke the mighty power of steam before stalking angrily forward with onomatopoeic determination. 'Lenny-puff-puff, Lenny-puff-puff, Lenny puff-puff—' He reached up a hand to pull the chord, letting out a blast of an imaginary whistle, an elongated falsetto Le-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-n! Le-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-n!

The story still brings us pleasure even now, or did when we met up around 2007 or thereabouts. Len should be proud to have given us such a lasting and happy memory.

In 2011, I moved to Texas, bringing my Mamod steamroller, and still with its box too. Having acquired a stepson I liked the image of my passing it on to him, just as my father had attempted to pass his own Mamod steam engine on to me. The problem is that I'm not sure Junior would really appreciate it, which isn't necessarily to cast aspersions on him so much as to acknowledge the fact of a working die-cast metal steam engine being so far outside the realm of his experience that I don't think he would know what to make of it, and so it would join that legion of more contemporary physical and technological novelties which hold his attention for a half day before he returns to the games on his iPad. He has grown up under circumstances bearing little common ground with my own, just as the world I entered was at least a little different to that from which my father sprang forth; and yet those worlds were perhaps not so distant from one another, for technological progress had none of the breakneck momentum it has acquired in recent times. Even if my world had moved on from steam, I understood the principle just as I got the jokes in the comics I once read, written by people referencing their own austere childhood years immediately following the second world war.

This is a different world, and I live in a very different part of the world, which is to acknowledge nothing more qualitative than the influence of change. Sometimes it is simply enough to be able to look back and see how far we have come, and that is probably more important than who gets it and who doesn't.

Friday, 12 September 2014


It is August 2011 and I've been in the United States a couple of months; and I've also got married and become stepfather to a nine-year old boy in that time. Everything is different to anything to which I am accustomed, and on occasion it feels like I'm living on a different planet. At this precise moment, having only just woken up, my most immediate concern is that the bedside table is just a little too far away from the bed. This concerns me because it means that nothing on the bedside table - alarm clock, reading glasses, earplugs, glass of tea, crappy science-fiction novel - is quite within comfortable reach, and it also concerns me because whilst I know this to be a problem which would take less than a minute to solve, I know this to be precisely the sort of problem I will never get around to addressing. My personality has doomed me to suffer the yawning gulf between bed and bedside table for at least as long as my wife and I remain in this house.

I reach out and miss, as usual, and there follows the sound of something hard hitting the floor. Cursing, I rise from the bed and pick up my wristwatch. I look at the time. The watch has stopped.


The watch was a present from my mother, something connecting me to the world as it was before K1 visas and wild leaps in the dark. There is something horribly symbolic about this, and from this point on each time I think about my watch falling to the hard wooden floor, I will think of it in unnecessarily dramatic terms borrowed from the fourth volume of Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore - swarms of tiny broken cogs and springs cast cinematically to the floor; and the djinn refusing to return to its oil lamp, Pandora's futile efforts to cram all that crap back into the box, or the man in the child's joke crying with laughter as he tells me I should have seen the monkey trying to put the cork back in.

I feel terrible.

'Take it to Walmart,' my wife tells me. 'It's probably just the battery.'

I consider asking how likely it would be that the battery just happened to run out of juice as I dropped the thing, but I say nothing because it's hardly her fault; and I suppose it might be worth a try.

A few hours later I am in Walmart at the jewellery counter. I have explained to the girl what happened, although she doesn't seem that interested. Either she is confused by my accent, or I've given her  more information than she needed. She pops off the back and prises the battery free from its housing, and meanwhile there is now someone here who isn't at all confused by my accent.

'Why you must be from England!'

A jovial older woman who walks as though there's something wrong with her leg grins at me. It is the grin of someone generally addressed as Mawmaw as she calls ranch hands in for their supper, a nourishing stew with chitlins and grits and vittles, whatever those may be.

I smile an encouraging smile, because although I have a feeling I'm about to experience that conversation yet again, it's difficult to take ill against someone who seems so clearly delighted by one's presence.

'Yes, I am from England.'

She asks which part. I tell her Stratford-upon-Avon because she will almost certainly have heard of the place and it seems more likely to facilitate conversation. I spent the first two decades of my life within ten miles of Shakespeare's birthplace, but lived in London longer, and concluded with a couple of years in Coventry before moving to the United States. I think of myself as being from London, but it seems best to give a simple, populist answer.

She asks how I like Texas, clearly expecting cute complaints about being unable to find a pub that serves Marmite or uncertainty as to whether my prayer mat is correctly orientated towards Buckingham Palace. I tell her that I like Texas very much, because I do. I find the people generally a little more pleasant than the English, and the weather is less depressing.

'Well,' she chortles, apparently taken aback, 'it's a fine country, I guess.' The tone of her voice becomes conspiratorial. 'It'll be an even finer one when we get rid of that damned Obama!'

I find myself shocked by this, not quite so much the sentiment as the thematic thrust of the sentence, clearly a revision of that damned nigger! I'm suddenly annoyed by the presence of this idiot, and annoyed with myself for having failed to recognise her as such. It's the assumption that I find aggravating, the assumption of our all being in agreement regarding that damned ni—that damned Obama and our supposed desire to be rid of him.

I glance over at the girl behind the counter, still fiddling with my watch. She is black. She can't really have misread the situation, somehow believing I might know this woman, but she has no way of knowing whether I too wish to be rid of that damned ni—that damned Obama. Then again, maybe she didn't hear; or maybe she too wants rid of that damned ni—that damned Obama; or maybe she doesn't care.

It doesn't make a great deal of difference to me in the sense that I'm not eligible to vote, but generally speaking, I like Obama. For one, he's the first black president of a country which still had widespread racial segregation laws as recent as 1964; so his election seems indicative of something positive to me, regardless of whatever else the man may have done. Of course there are those who would probably describe this as an inverse form of racism, typical of a wet lefty liberal tofu-scoffing PC thug commie apologist like myself, but such persons - at least in my unfortunate experience - also tend to spout crap about white heterosexual males being the last minority which it is still apparently okay to oppress, so their testimony is really worth no more than that of a sophisticated mobile telephone.

I don't follow politics inordinately closely because I find the small print fairly dull and almost always unpleasant, but nevertheless I fail to see why anyone would object strongly to Obama on grounds other than that he's American - if you're from somewhere else and dislike America as an institution - or because he occasionally gives the appearance of favouring regular people over people with more money than they need, in the event of that not being your scene. I expressed this admittedly casual support by sharing a pro-Obama campaign meme on facebook during the last Presidential election. Inevitably an English person I don't actually know responded with a sneering well, what about the tent cities?

I replied with a dismissive and hopefully annoying sure, because I wasn't interested in an argument, and particularly not one fought in the name of point scoring as indicated by an opening salvo equivalent to I suppose you think it's good that tiny babies are being roasted alive? I suppose you think that's a good thing, do you? Perhaps I am indeed an over-privileged and uninformed moron on the grounds that I don't spend twenty-five hours a day quivering with indignation, but the bottom line was that I would prefer to live in a country governed by Obama than a country governed by a man who believes the Earth to be only six-thousand years old, or who is at least popular amongst those who believe the Earth to be only six-thousand years old, and for reasons that really should be obvious. I nevertheless regard the majority of politicians to be essentially corrupt, so it struck me in this case as patronising to assume that my support equated to blind adoration; but of course, that's the internet for you.

In any case, those who dislike Obama probably need to cheer up a little given that there's so many of them. Obama is referred to as the worst president we ever had by some, even as a dictator by those who apparently can't tell the difference between concentration camps, news blackouts, and a politician saying things you don't like whilst raising certain taxes. National Enquirer regularly plasters a haplessly grinning Barack across its front cover, explaining how once again he's been caught having a sneaky peek at someone's tits and the Obama marriage is in ruins, and what we really need to do is to tie weights to his feet and drop him in the sea, and then at last we will be free... free, I tell you... ha ha ha...

It was the same with Tony Blair, I suppose. I don't know anyone who didn't spend the day punching the air when it was announced that he had become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, ending what felt like four-hundred years of Conservative government; but was anyone really under any illusion that he wouldn't ultimately turn out to be just another shiny-faced three-timing insurance salesman? That's what politicians do; and despite his apparently being the most evil man who ever lived, I still think Obama is probably okay in context of the menu as a whole.

I didn't say any of this to the woman in Walmart for the same reason that I didn't bother responding to Mr. what about the tent cities? Happily she had already moved away, chuckling to herself and probably composing some anecdote about the British guy at the store by which to entertain the ranch hands as they tucked into their stew and chitlins and grits and vittles.

I like Obama, personally, I imagined myself saying to the girl behind the counter in an effort to disassociate myself from the woman, but thankfully I had the sense to keep my mouth shut, given that such a defence would only continue the cycle of assuming stupid shit about complete strangers. Hey, great - you know I really love the music of Bob Marley!

She handed back my watch. 'It was the battery. I put in a new one for you.'

I looked. The second hand was moving again.

It seemed like an incredible thing.

The world was set to right.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Farewell to the Saxon Chief

Photograph: André Vocáse.

I started at Maidstone College of Art in September 1984, beginning a three year fine art course at the end of which I would, in theory, have letters after my name. I was eighteen years old, and it was the first time I'd lived away from home. On the Queen's Road at the back of the college was a pub called The Saxon Chief. I suspect it may have been one of the tutors from my course who first introduced me to the place, one lunchtime taking a few of us along so as to continue some rambling discussion about something or other. I'd only been drinking for about a year, having discovered the wonderfully redemptive effects of alcohol during my art foundation course back in Warwickshire, but now I began to appreciate booze in a new light. It wasn't just the drink, the mild euphoria, the feeling of finding oneself somehow living out the inner life of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting as the evening wore on; it was good conversation and company, the discussion of things which really seemed to matter at the time and then laughing until your guts hurt upon realising how idiotic you must sound. If not a way of life, it was at least as important as sleep and food, at least for the duration of those formative years. Happily, having a fairly low tolerance to alcohol, three pints was usually more than enough to see me staggering into oncoming traffic singing Sham 69's Who Gives A Damn...

Running for the bus in my flash blue suit,
Someone shouts out poof, so I put in the boot.
I don't wanna wear it, it's my boss that tells me to,
So when you laugh at me, you only laugh at you.
Anyway, who gives a damn,
I'm doing the best I can...

I would generally be sick halfway through the fourth pint, a sure sign of my being as refreshed as I was likely to get, and so thankfully I never evolved into one of those twelve-pints-a-night gentlemen, not least because I drank for pleasure more than habit, limiting my intake to maybe a couple of lunchtime sessions and weekends.

Naturally it was around this time that I also took up smoking. We were in the Ten Bells in Leeds, arguably my first true local. Jane Newland offered me a ciggie, not knowing me well enough to realise that I didn't smoke, and despite years of opposition to the habit, I immediately saw how a pint and a fag just seemed to go together.

Thirty years later, a friend from Maidstone posts a photograph of a
rubble filled hole in the ground on a popular social networking website. He asks his virtual audience to take a guess as to the name of the drinking establishment to which these bricks once belonged. It is of course The Saxon Chief.

I recall the extended lunchtimes there, even drinking with David Hall, the head of our department and himself a minor legend in the history of video art but crucially a little more jovial in such surroundings. I hadn't been able to recall the actual name of the pub until someone correctly identified the bricks in the photograph, and yet I can still remember the face of the landlord who laughed and joked and didn't really seem bothered by the eccentricities of his art college clientèle. One lunchtime, Martin de Sey, Paul Mercer, and myself went around the pub collecting empty glasses, piling them on our table so as give the appearance of having necked the lot between the three of us, then spent the next hour talking complete bollocks as Jane Hanley caught the performance on video. At the time I hadn't heard Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's scatological improvisations as Derek and Clive, but as soon as I did, I immediately recognised the parallels.

'You know, one time I was so drunk,' Paul explained with gruff conviction, 'that I was sick in my own eyes, and I couldn't see.'

Martin and myself nodded sagely to show for the benefit of the camera that we understood exactly where he was coming from, to show that we all knew the inconvenience of throwing up in one's own eyes after a night on the sauce. We were trying not to laugh, although Martin managed better than I did, maintaining an authoritative poker face with his sharp tie and sunglasses.

'So, Martin,' Paul opened, introducing a relatively fresh plot twist after the camera had been running for at least half an hour, 'what's it like being blind?'

'It's not so bad really.' Martin sipped thoughtfully at his lager. 'You're spared a lot of the troubles of the world because of course you can't see them.'

I don't recall whether we laughed so much as we thought we would when we played back the recording, but maybe it doesn't really matter. It was of the moment, and I have no means by which to view the VHS tape even if I felt inclined to do so, and our pub is now a hole in the ground. Similarly the art college, or at least our corner of the art college was absorbed into the Kent Institute of Art and Design not too long after I left in 1987, and now, more recently, it is to become a sports and leisure centre. My past has been paved over and put to better, or at least more politically progressive use.

The institution of the English pub has been dying for years, at least since the terminal kick in the economic nadgers delivered by the smoking ban of 2007 which made it illegal to smoke in any enclosed workplace. The smoking ban was pretty much what finished off my own relationship with the pub, given that I lived in London at the time and it was already sufficiently difficult finding a pub that wasn't horrible without being obliged to go and stand out in the shitty English weather whenever you fancied a ciggie. The Camberwell Grove Tavern, for one example, a previously popular and homely establishment with proper red flock wallpaper became some sort of brushed steel pizza bar with slogans projected on the newly whitewashed walls and gumball dispensers for a dwindling clientèle of fedora wearing tosspots in skinny jeans.

I mentioned to Larry at work that I'd heard of yet another recently closed pub on Lordship Lane being about to reopen. 'I don't know what the deal is,' I said. 'I don't know if it's going to be another wine bar or what the theme will be.'

'They should theme it as a fucking pub,' he suggested.

There didn't seem to be a lot of point smoking outside any of these newer drinking establishments when there was no good reason for anyone to go inside in the first place.

I gave up smoking a long time ago, although I've resisted the slide into evangelical campaigning against the habit to which so many reformed tobacco addicts seem prone. I gave up because it had begun to affect my health, and regardless of whether or not the anti-smoking crusaders may be justified, the general thrust of their chosen cause drives me up the wall. It's the assumption that smokers really need to be told that their habit is bad for them, as though this might be a new discovery, a best kept secret. It is the assumption that the only factor informing a person's failure to quit tobacco will be a simple lack of willpower; and such feckless pronouncements are particularly galling when delivered by a person who has never smoked.

It is 2008 and I am shaking my head in disgust at a television news item describing the electronic retouching of black and white films so as to present new non-smoking versions of Humphrey Bogart and others.

'What's wrong with that?' asks Dora the Explorer, as ever keen to side with the winning team.

'It's ridiculous,' I tell her. 'It's rewriting the past. I mean what's James Dean without a fag hanging out of his mouth?' As ever I have failed to foresee that she won't understand my point at all.

'I think it's good. He'll be much cooler for a start.'

'So James Dean will be cool because he just says no to drugs?'


I go outside for a smoke, standing in her doorway with light rain spitting against the right side of my face. There is nothing I can say to her. Somehow I am in a relationship with the head girl, an all-round jolly good egg; and standing outside in the rain is what makes it just about bearable.

Even now that I have given up, and now that I have given up without really suffering much in the way of cravings, I still miss those moments when all action stops and you take a break with a cigarette. The cigarette defines the moment as contemplative, like making up a rolly from the butts at six in the morning because you're all out of tobacco, and you've been up all night struggling with a painting or a piece of writing or whatever, and not even fifty cups of nocturnal coffee can disguise the foul ashtray bouquet of a mechanically reclaimed cigarette, a Frankenstein snout which nevertheless tastes amazing because it's the right moment; or when your boss has asked you to perform a task so unreasonable that the only proper response would be to punch him in the head, and so instead you step outside and really think about your life; or the cigarette that obliges you to stop and look at something instead of running past; or the cigarette that just about keeps you from whacking either yourself or that aforementioned boss or Dora the Explorer over the head with a length of lead pipe.

When you smoke a cigarette, you are momentarily in control of your own life, even if only in a very small way and for a short time, and for many people that's still better than nothing.

Dora the Explorer very much approves of the changes made to the pub at the end of her road. It was once called The Plough, and was notable for having stood on the corner of Barry Road for several hundred years during which time the highwayman Dick Turpin numbered amongst its clientèle. It was predominantly red inside, but it served beer thus providing all functions which might reasonably be expected of a pub. Every once in a while, delivering mail whilst somewhat inconvenienced by my having enjoyed a triumverate of cold, refreshing drinks the previous evening, I would stop in as The Plough opened for the day and I would have a Bloody Mary just to sort me out, which it always did.

Then one day something called the Just So Pub Company stepped in, transforming The Plough into something for all the family, rebranding the place with typically twee arrogance as The Goose & Granite, complete with a small plaque giving account of the history which had recently been bulldozed. Dora the Explorer considered the changes an improvement, explaining that the establishment as it was had not been women-friendly. However, having actually frequented the place prior to its transformation, I'd seen plenty of women, just none that belonged to an expressive dance workshop. What Dora the Explorer meant was that it had been a red, smoky hole full of working class people who read The Sun and probably used sexist language.


The hole in the ground that was once The Saxon Chief attracts comment though the social media channel upon which it is posted. We talk about the influence of the smoking ban on the decline of the English drinking establishment, and one particularly astute individual points out that the problem has been exacerbated by the unreasonable demands and costs brewery chains have imposed upon those who run their establishments. It was further suggested that the pub as an establishment needs to evolve, a sentiment which I have little doubt has informed those places now serving sausages with caramelised onion gravy or with their gumball machines newly installed next to the bogs. Personally I don't buy it, this supposed need to evolve, given that its results so closely resemble a need for pubs to appeal to people who never actually liked pubs in the first place, with changes implemented at the expense of the custom of those who did. It's empty management speak to which I object as a former employee of another business which worked just fine, but which needed to change with the times, and then ceased working just fine once it had done so.

There is hidden between the strata of upper and lower management across the broad span of commerce and industry an entire class of useless people who perform no actual function but to justify their own employment, and their rallying call is most often a call for change because this makes them appear progressive and forward thinking in the absence of their performing any task which actually means anything. It's like wearing an I Hate Bruce Springsteen T-shirt in the belief that it will make you appear critically sophisticated and therefore a person of discerning tastes, as opposed to merely weird and useless.

That said, pubs almost certainly need to evolve into places in which a pint doesn't cost so much as to drive all of their patrons off in the general direction of the nearest off license. A few stray housewives popping in for a bit of pie and a coffee aren't really going to solve this problem, and in any case might be better off sticking to their regular cafés and tea rooms. There needs to be an establishment in which we can drink so much that we can barely stand and still conclude the evening stood on top of a bus shelter wearing a traffic cone and swinging our trousers around our heads, because that's what you need to do when you're eighteen. There needs to be an establishment in which we can briefly drink away the crushing misery of forty years spent on the bins or sweeping the road. There needs to be an establishment in which we can drink without having to suffer the sight of the boss stuffing his face with artisan crisps at the next table. It's war on the working classes, just as it has always been - basic asset-stripping because the working classes are still an economic resource, and let's face it, they're not exactly generating much capitol sat at home watching Britain's Got Talent since the entirety of British industry was force-evolved into a single nineteen year old genius with a laptop.

It's the same basic process as that which has befallen the leisure centre formerly identified as Maidstone College of Art, a reduction of society to its most basic fat-free consumer functions, buy or die. I take a fairly dim view of the art establishment, and I have no means of gauging what my three years at art college have meant for me in the long term beyond that they meant something, and that my time in The Saxon Chief with two friends pretending to be significantly more drunk than we really were was undoubtedly better spent than it would have been in training to become an estate agent. I am not of the belief that everything in society must quantify its value or purpose in terms that can be understood by an economist, because a world in which everything must justify its function may as well be Stalinist Russia regardless of whether or not that function is justified by capitalist values. A world in which we can just try shit out for a while and not have to worry about picking up the tab will be a better, richer world than one without; which is why higher education is now reduced more or less to a means of generating debts which will keep our financial institutions running for years to come, because apparently we don't need thinkers, just people who will keep on buying stuff.

Every year that little group of refugees stood outside puffing away in the pouring rain gets smaller and smaller as they each decide they can no longer be bothered, and one day they will all be gone, and the wankers will have won.