Friday, 31 October 2014

The Dark Side of the Moron

KHOU-TV is a Houston television station which hosted this news item on its website dated to the 18th of June, 2014.

WEBSTER, Texas — A Webster man says his apartment complex manager told him his American flag was a threat to the Muslim community, and that he has to take it down. But he's not giving up without a fight.

Stepping onto Duy Tran's balcony in Webster, one thing is clear: 'It means a lot to me,' he said.

He's talking about his American flag that he proudly put up when he moved in just a few days ago. But then an apartment manager at the Lodge on El Dorado told him he had to take it down.

'What really stunned me is that she said it's a threat towards the Muslim community,' said Tran. 'I'm not a threat toward anybody.'

The story can now be found at a number of different internet addresses, posted and posted again weeks and even months after the original report. One might imagine this repetition would run contrary to the function of news, which should surely serve to reflect that which occurs in the present, or at least which has occurred since the last time we either opened up a newspaper or were too lazy to find the remote when the news came on after whatever we were watching on the box; but of course news isn't really the point here.

I came across the saga of Duy Tran and his massive flag the day before my birthday when it turned up on social media, rediscovered by a friend who had previously given me no impression of having gone in for this sort of thing.

Soooo wrong, observed her friend Beryl the Peril in response, although I have omitted the pointless ellipsis of seven or eight dots which originally followed Beryl's offering for no apparent reason. Obviously it wasn't really Beryl the Peril from the English children's comic The Topper who made this observation, but I'm going to pretend that it was for the sake of preserving the anonymity and dignity of those involved.

Your mind on Liberalism, quoth Mickey the Monkey somewhat philosophically. Damn shame.

That's the flag of the country! raged Tiny the World's Biggest Dog, but with more exclamation marks. If Muslims are offended... fuck off out of the country! Grrr - this makes me so angry! Although he rendered fuck as f*ck just in case Nancy and Sluggo were reading, and out was capitalised for emphasis possibly in case any of those America-hating Muslims were reading and thought he might merely be joking around.

Clearly feeling this statement had articulated her innermost thoughts quite well, Beryl the Peril came back with, Thanks Tiny... you said it! and there were those three little dots again because free form poetry is always easier than forming coherent sentences in the language of one's own country innit.

Say what?!! boggled Desert Island Dick, startling Olly the Octopus with the force of his exclamation. I'm with you, Tiny. Muslim is a religion and if the country's flag threatens you, get the fuck out.

At this point I interjected with some of the typically incoherent Osama bin Laden-loving liberal shit that you would expect from a Commie faggot such as myself. My suggestion was entirely ignored by the next contributor to the debate, Splodge, Last of the Goblins who proposed, Yeah - what Tiny said. Go away.

That wasn't the end of the discussion, but I felt I had seen plenty and so withdrew my virtual presence from the thinktank. Regarding Duy Tran's claim that his apartment complex manager told him his American flag was a threat to the Muslim community, and that he has to take it down, the news report had this to say:

We tried to ask a manager if that's exactly what was said, but she just handed us a statement, refused to answer any questions, and called an officer to escort us off the property, before we could press any further.

The statement was then quoted as follows:

While the Lodge on El Dorado admires our resident's patriotism, we must enforce our property rules and guidelines. Such guidelines maintain the aesthetics of our apartment community and provide for the safety of all residents. The apartment community already proudly displays our country's flag in a safe and appropriate manner at the entrances to our community.

Nowhere is it stated that any residents of the apartment complex, Muslim or otherwise, had complained, and neither is there stated any official apartment complex ruling against the display of material which may offend Muslims, which suggests to me that such a ruling probably doesn't exist. Using the amazing powers of my imagination I can envision a scenario in which the manager of an apartment complex probably doesn't want tenants hanging whatever the hell they feel like hanging from the balconies of their dwellings - throw rugs depicting Axl Rose or the logos of football teams for example. Perhaps she therefore decided that exceptions could not be made, not even for the flag. Perhaps she simply didn't like Duy Tran as a person and was winding him up for kicks. Perhaps he's an arsehole who deserves to be wound up regardless of his being head over heels in love with the flag, or perhaps this manager is a woman who simply takes her job far too seriously.

In any case, it hardly matters because the job is done, and a complete non-story about a lady telling a man not to do something has got our sabres a-rattling. No actual Muslims were involved but still who the buggering fuck do they think they are telling us what we can do why I oughta wah wah wah...

A little over a year ago I left my local supermarket and found that somehow I had been charged thirty dollars for a watermelon that should have cost two. A mistake had been made, so I went back, explained the situation, and it was corrected. This event somehow didn't make the news, but then I had been erroneously overcharged by a Mexican lady rather than a person who believes in Muslim - as Desert Island Dick would probably phrase it - and no flag desecration had occurred.

I am depressed by stories of this kind, which aren't really news so much as poking at a nest of morons with a stick in order to get them riled up, either raising wrath against this year's popular hate figure, or just keeping everyone's eye on a ball other than the one which is really being played. I am depressed by stories of this kind because they have all the subtlety of war-era Nazi posters depicting Jews eating Aryan babies, and yet people are still falling for this shit because it's easier than thinking, and it's certainly easier than addressing oneself to real problems. I am depressed by stories of this kind because they are keyed to the primitive pseudobrains of individuals like Frank Silva Roque who, on the 15th of September, 2001 shot Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station attendant in Mesa, Arizona in retaliation for the destruction of the World Trade Centre. Sodhi had not been in any way involved in the destruction of the World Trade Centre but was of the Sikh religion and therefore wore a turban and a beard. One might perhaps cite Roque's low IQ and alleged mental illness as mitigating factors in the killing, but neither low IQ nor mental illness are exclusive to those with a rabid and irrational hatred of anyone different, persons who are into Muslim for example.

My view is that if you can't cope with multicultural society - something which will by definition include a certain quota of brownish people or darker - then maybe you're the one who should consider fucking off; and while we're here, if it were possible to convert irony into rocket fuel, we could probably get to fucking Mars on the strength of certain Americans making declarations about who owns this land and who has a right to be here. Regardless of the morality of whatever is going to happen with Syria, Iraq, ISIS, and everything else, can we at least try not to turn into drooling animals baying out for blood? Isn't that just the sort of thing we were supposed to be against, or was that all just another arbitrary justification we can no longer be bothered to maintain.

How did we get to be this stupid?

Perhaps it's because such an overwhelming majority of the populace of the developed countries are essentially children, or at best, teenagers. We dislike that which is unfamiliar, a category encompassing more or less everything. Someone gives us a taco, and we wrinkle our nose, take a reluctant bite and start crying because it isn't a McDonalds cheeseburger and life is soooo unfair. We are intrinsically pathetic, and we have just enough intelligence to understand this, and so we compensate for our overwhelming inadequacy by making demands in as loud a voice as possible and discussing everything in terms of absolutes because we believe it makes us appear decisive, as though we know what we're talking about. Worse, we take pride in our stupidity, wearing it like a badge as though it's some sort of achievement.

I don't need fancy books to tell me how things work. I studied common sense at the university of life. I am a plain-speaking man.

We watch crap television or films for entertainment, somehow equating this with imagination, having confused it with the same CGI explosions and spacecraft we've seen a thousand times before, and we pretend these things are important just as we did when we were five. If we even read books, we mostly read books that may as well be crap television or films. We are interested only in things which pass the time and provide distraction. We are not interested in anything external to the restricted sphere of our experience. Worse still, never mind those damn liberal know it all thugs tellin' me ah cain't say the word nigger no moh, how about it no longer being permissible to point any of this out just in case some inbred right-wing thickie experiences a sudden dearth of self-esteem? How is that fair?

At the risk of appearing pompous, over the last twenty or so years I've tried, where possible, to broaden the horizons of my own experience, or I've had the horizons of my own experience forcibly broadened by circumstance. I've tried to educate myself, to make myself better if only to stave off the potential horror of reaching fifty and realising that I'm still the same basic boring lump of shit as I was in my twenties. I would say these efforts have worked up to a point, in that I am now at least able to form coherent sentences, and I have a fairly thorough understanding of how little I actually know and how little I have really done. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know, as Einstein said.

The depressing aspect of this is watching morons attempt to form sentences, to pass judgement on subjects which they don't understand, of which they have no experience beyond what they read in a transparently unreliable newspaper or what some bloke said in the pub or on facebook, or which they didn't actually read but they saw the film with Vin Deisel and it like totally ruled LOL.

Wisdom may as well be the courage to admit that you don't know, or just knowing when to shut up. Even this seems to be a difficult lesson to learn, and so many times I again find myself in discussion with someone who believes that actually knowing something is merely a different way of looking at the world, and they never seem to realise that it's basically dog shit coming out of their mouths, as Louis CK expressed it somewhere or other. Half of the time it doesn't even come out of their mouths in the right order.

Oh there we go. Another Obama dick rider defending his boyfriend! Lol your a loser!

If you love your country so much, at least learn how to conjugate one of its principal languages, you thick fuckers; and whilst we're here, there and their are different words with distinct and unlike meanings.

Read a book.

Have a conversation with a person whose views are different to your own.

Spend a few hours a day outside your comfort zone.

Don't be taken in by the bullshit you tell yourself because it's comforting. Stop treating facts as a fucking obstacle to understanding.

Shut up.


But mainly, just shut up.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Motorway to Roswell

Motorway to Roswell has always been one of my favourite songs by the Pixies. It serves as a great example of their ability to turn something weird and cranky into raw heartache of such power as to sidestep all possible objections, tapping directly into the seat of one's most basic emotional responses. It takes the folk myth of an alien spacecraft crashing at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and turns it into  a thing of crushing sadness without once acknowledging the potential for absurdity, specifically that no holiday ending inside a crate on some military base could be deemed a success. Maybe it is this very absurdity which invokes the profound pathos of the song, which in turn summarises the gulf between that which people wish to believe with such fervour, and that which is actually there.

For those who missed the four million docutainment specials on the increasingly dubiously named History Channel, the front page of the July 8th, 1947 edition of the Roswell Daily Record ran a story about the debris of a crashed alien saucer recovered from a ranch some thirty or forty miles north-west of the town it served. The next day, the same paper followed up the report with a retraction, claiming the wreckage had simply been the remains of a weather balloon; and so the mechanism of rumour, conspiracy, and implied cover-up went into overdrive, expanding the narrative to incorporate alien bodies whisked away to secret military locations.

My wife and I were heading north on Route 285, two lanes which could be considered the real Motorway to Roswell, at least aside from the fact of 285 being a highway rather than a motorway, and that motorway is in any case an English term which has little currency in the United States. Inevitably I couldn't get the song out of my head as we left the interstate at Fort Stockton heading for Roswell. It was our birthday, and this road trip was a present to ourselves. I use the plural rather than the royal we because my wife and I were both born on the 17th of September, albeit the 17th of September of different years, a coincidence which means that neither of us is ever likely to forget the other's birthday, and which additionally tends to support the thesis that astrology is all bollocks, should the thesis require such support.

This was the furthest west I had travelled and the longest journey I had ever made by car, a round trip of 1,200 miles, nine hours each way, roughly Land's End to John O'Groats and back in terms of the British Isles. I'd filled two vacuum flasks with iced tea and instant coffee respectively, packed coolers with the pasta salad and sandwiches I'd prepared - corned beef for myself and salami for my wife - and selected listening material for the trip - spoken word albums by Jello Biafra , Henry Rollins and David Sedaris plus some stand-up material from Lewis Black and Louis CK. It was to be an adventure. Travel is the closest I come to religious experience.

The hill country with which I have developed some familiarity over the last couple of years gradually gave way to the mesas of West Texas, a region of long, low hills with flat tops and steep sides spread across an expanse of semi-desert scrub. We were at the northern limit of the Trans-Pecos, itself representing the upper reaches of Mexico's Chihuahuan desert. I had seen this sort of land before, but only in films - mostly dusty westerns - and the experience of crossing it in person was so profoundly strange as to defy clear description - not quite like finding oneself on L. Frank Baum's yellow brick road but something in that general direction. The highway was busy in so much as we were rarely alone for any length of time, but still we had come some distance from the populated areas. In fact we had come so far as to have left the realms of ubiquitous billboards and associated signage for Buc-ee's or Whataburger or Geico or whoever, the gaudy visual kipple which clogs the automotive arteries of our urban sprawl. We were beyond advertising, although there was a downside in that we were screwed if we broke down out here, and it really was an out here in the true sense. The isolation was emphasised by our falling about a mile short of running out of gas before we came to the gas station at the Bakersfield turn. Bakersfield itself was nowhere to be seen. It could have been a small town, or the merest suggestion of one invoked only by its sign for all we could tell.

We stretched our legs and filled up on gas. I'm not sure quite when my vocabulary adapted to encompass these indigenous variants, but calling it a petrol station would have seemed wilful and eccentric given the environment, the verbal equivalent of a deerstalker; although I still switch between film and movie, depending on the context.

The land rose higher still beyond the mesas as we approached the New Mexico state line. The desert levelled out to a plain, more conspicuously revealing its ancestry as a former ocean bed; but it wasn't desert as I had anticipated from those old westerns. Yucca, opuntia, creosote bushes, and other dry plants held to the sand for as far as the eye could see; with pump jacks nodding away in the distance, scattered and grazing like mechanical animals, drawing oil from reserves so near to the surface that the ground wouldn't have been able to support any larger rig. Strangest of all were intermittent fires seen in the distance burning off the excess of some kind of gas which industry apparently considers useless, at least according to something I'd heard on NPR a few days before. Possibly excepting that of Corpus Christi, the Trans-Pecos is probably the strangest, most alien landscape through which I have passed. From one horizon to its opposite, the only shade to be had for most of the day was inside our car; gas flares blazed orange in the blue depths of desert sky, and we were heading for a town in which an alien spaceship had crashed, according to the legend.

We had set out from San Antonio just before nine in the morning. We stopped for gas as mentioned, and our watches had wound back an hour as we crossed over into New Mexico. Around four in the afternoon by Mountain Time - or five by our Central Time - we came to Carlsbad, driving up into the hills north-west of the town to the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens. My wife had passed the place on previous occasions and had always intended to visit, and we both needed a break. Most startling as we stepped from the car was the temperature, cooler than anything we had known in Texas since probably about March; and with light spots of rain, it felt wonderful. Even better was that, presumably through being a Wednesday, we were the only people at the zoo aside from staff. It felt as though we had been granted access to someone's private garden, albeit someone's private garden with elk, bison, bears, mountain lions and other native creatures. Not for the first time I was struck by the peculiarity of finding myself surrounded by casually grown plants of species I have seen preserved and pampered as foreign royalty in the greenhouses at Kew in London.

The animals seemed happy. They all had plenty of room and were of course in their natural habitats but for the presence of fences. We stood watching the elk for a while, particularly the bull because he reminded us of one of our cats, namely Fluffy who is enormous and has yet to master the art of walking through an open door which has been left open only part of the way. In Fluffy the Elk we felt almost certain we had found someone with a similarly uncomplicated understanding of the world. No less imposing were the indigenous mountain lions, reminders of this being a country in which nature can still kill you - a thought I find oddly reassuring.

Our favourite animal was Lena the Javelina, as she was assonantally identified. The Javelina - the j is pronounced as an h - is a small, cute, fuzzy pig, or peccary, and isn't related to Eurasian pigs in any way according to most of the internet. Nevertheless, she looked a lot like a pig to us, and we stood watching her rooting around in the mud, softly oinking to herself. Peculiarly this encounter at last dislodged Motorway to Roswell from my internal turntable, replacing it with another track by the Pixies - Havalina, basically a song about a piggy, unusually gentle by Pixies standards and seemingly quite suited to Lena's character.

Duly refreshed, we got back on the road, heading north through Artesia, a town characterised by having its name as a prefix to just about everything printed on a sign or billboard within the city limits - Artesia Taxidermy, Artesia Savings Bank, Artesia Gifts and Novelties, Artesia Public Convenience and so on. Earlier we had listened to Lewis Black describe a Houston branch of Starbucks built directly across the street from another branch of Starbucks, which he rationalised as a development catering to the needs of the amnesiac community. It seemed like this might also account for Artesia's somewhat forceful product placement of its own name.

Beyond Artesia, we passed into Roswell itself and out the other side. We were high up, over a thousand meters above sea level and crossing a plateau at the crest of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range extending northwards from Mexico; and it felt as though we were high up. The geology had about it a Welsh quality with grassland plains crabbed with bushes resembling gorse which probably weren't; horizon lost to the mists of low cloud cover, and still with a pump jack labouring at the ground here and there or lonely gas flares burning away like fallen stars. It was not difficult to imagine how the strange and dubiously explicable might quite easily intrude upon this ghostly plain so near to the heavens, a borderland at the limit of our familiar world.

Of course, as a kid I couldn't get enough of the flying saucer literature, and The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore came as a revelation, mainly because its subject seemed just that little bit more substantial than the contents of all those other cranky, repetitive tomes bulging with tales of some bloke who knew this other bloke who said he saw something which had definitely struck him as a little rum, with endless blurred photographs to prove something or other up to a poorly quantified point. What if it's all true? I asked myself, as did quite a few other people, if the History Channel is any indication.

Growing up in a completely different country to me, my wife's interest seems not to have been quite so obsessive as mine; but she phrased it very well now as we drove along, suggesting our shared juvenile fascination with flying saucers represented a longing for a world in which magic had not been entirely banished to the realm of fiction. Thankfully we both grew up, in the process developing the intelligence to appreciate that there really is magic in the world, but none of it requiring the ludicrous qualification of constituting the truth they don't want you to know...

After about another hour and our second stop at a gas station, the road began its descent, winding down into mountains and valleys of conifers and babbling streams even more substantially Welsh in character than the plateau we had crossed, at least excepting the preponderance of log cabin architecture of distinctly Alpine flavour. To further compound the lazy comparisons, with the sun now low on the horizon, it felt as though we were driving into an Albert Bierstadt painting, or would have done had my parents not picked north Wales as a holiday destination with quite such frequency when I was a child.

Arriving in Ruidoso, we found a hotel, cleansed ourselves of automotive cheese and general travel glaze, and headed straight back out in search of food, a quest which briefly intersected with the forces of justice. The blue and red lights flashed in the rear view mirror as we peered out into the darkness hoping to find the turning for an eating place called the Texas Club. It couldn't be anything to do with us.

My wife cursed and slowed the car from crawl to a dead stop.

'What did we do?'

'I have no idea.' She wound down the window.

What appeared to be a twelve-year old boy dressed as a cop leaned in and began to detail our crime. He had blonde hair and pimples. He had a big nose and sticky out ears and his voice droned without any obvious display of confidence or excessive education.

We both sat absolutely still in our seats, and I tried to recall any positive story I had heard about the police here in the United States. I couldn't think of one, my sources being persons such as Ice T, Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra. Technically this was my first brush with the law in its American form, my impression of which has thus far been thin, and is hopefully wrong in being based upon the apparent contrast with the police in England. The thing is that whilst the English police forces may undoubtedly harbour a few wrong 'uns, I always had the impression that their recruitment at least involved a selection process followed by some sort of training, even in the case of those evil fuckers who didn't seem to think the murder of Stephen Lawrence constituted a crime; but here, I sometimes get the impression that police recruitment is based on whether you know how to hold a gun and fancy having a go. Hopefully I'm wrong.

The twelve-year old boy told us that we had a broken tail light, and that we had failed to come to a complete stop prior to executing a right turn. The first of these we knew as my wife had paid to have said tail light fixed mere months before, apparently to no avail. The second sounded like some crap which this funny little man had invented there and then. He gave us our tickets and told us to drive safely.

It was bullshit, of course. We drove back to confirm that, as we suspected, the location at which we had transgressed was not the sort of turn at which anyone with a brain would draw to a complete stop. There was no stop sign, aside from anything. We had been pulled over almost immediately after taking a right simply because the twelve-year old boy saw our out of state licence plates and correctly reasoned that we would be reluctant to drive all the way back here in two weeks time when the opportunity arose to dispute the charge. It would be cheaper and easier to pay the $150 - another night of successful fund raising for the city, and junior would no doubt be better able to meet whatever quotas his job obliged him to meet. He was a cop with a gun and we were a long way from home, so he probably could have given us a ticket for conspiracy to form sarcastic thoughts whilst driving had he felt like it. Similar bullshit fund raising traffic violations have been handed out to others we know who have crossed the New Mexico state line from Texas. We weren't the first.

On a holiday,
So many miles looking for a place to stay,
Near some friendly star,
He found this mote, and now we wonder where we are,
How could this, so great,
Turn so shitty? He ended up in army crates,
And photographs in files...

Okay, so it could have been worse. We gritted our teeth, found the restaurant, and ate our steak. My wife had told me that Ruidoso had a sizeable indigenous population. Their presence was manifest in the nearby Inn of the Mountain Gods resort and casino, and through a local artist who had furnished the restaurant walls with prints communicating Native American spirituality as a series of attractive women who, apparently surprised to have been discovered in a state of undress, push their large breasts together in supplication to some Amerind Goddess of Knockers and Gentleman's Interest Publishing. The pictures were oddly depressing, a weird conflation of Thomas Kinkade and Hustler, but the steak was great.

We slept well and began the next morning with the sort of breakfast you tend to find served in hotels of the kind we had chosen, the kind which serves breakfast on a paper plate with a plastic fork -  not unwelcome but there's a reason why it's free. I ate sausage patties and inappropriately robust scrambled egg whilst my wife enjoyed the entertainment provided by our fellow free food enthusiasts. Twin brothers were seated at the table behind us, one vocally expressing his hatred of motorcyclists and whichever loud, smelly machines they rode in on - a great many of which we had noticed in the parking lot as we arrived the night before, exotic and elaborate trikes and weird looking custom jobs of a kind favoured by people with travel plans ranging much further than the next town.

'You with the bikers?' the twin would ask each time someone new came into the breakfast room, before reiterating his hostility as each reply came back a no. 'I'd like to see someone step outside and push a few of those damn things over. See how they like that.'

His brother ate in silence and another guest came in.

'You with the bikers?'

This time there was a nod of the head.'Yes I am.'

The twin began to explain how much he loved bikes, how greatly he admired those who had taken to the open road.

We too took to the open road, reversing the route which had brought us here, back up through the mountains and valleys to the ghostly high plateau with its pump jacks and gas flares, and this time we stopped in Roswell.

As you might expect, the city hasn't been too shy about cashing in on its reputation. We parked opposite a row of stores, each with a huddle of enthusiastically painted lime green aliens adorning the frontage, the bubble-headed kind with the dark, slanted eyes popularised by Whitley Strieber's Communion, amongst other things. The aliens painted on the window of the bakery smiled and held out cakes for our consideration. They wore chefs' aprons and promised that their bread was out of this world, meaning I suppose that it was good. In Ruidoso we had passed a few places selling tree trunks carved into the shape of bears or other animals, or even the hokey figures of Native American warriors, totems which could be purchased and set up in one's garden or at the front of the home as either a mascot or a sentry. Here in Roswell the tree trunks were carved so as to resemble aliens, freakishly tall, average, or short and resembling dwarves, but all that same bright green.

In its time, Roswell has also been a typically average science-fiction television series in which pouting airbrushed teenagers descended from the aliens who may or may not have crash landed here serve as a cock-obvious metaphor for how awkward and alienated teenagers can feel, even the conspicuously styled, good looking ones who know how to use hair gel. It was Twilight without the humour, and somehow managed to make it to a third series. Thankfully all the hair gel and pouting in the world was not enough to dislodge the folk myth version of alien visitors from the hearts of Roswell's people, and the incident - whatever it was - receives its most thorough celebration at the city's International UFO Museum & Research Center.

For all its relative glamour, the problem with Roswell as an historical event is that what materials can be legitimately displayed in the glass cases of a museum are fairly limited without stretching the point, although it has to be said that the organisers have generally done a good job regardless of whether or not you're buying it. So we have all the relevant newspaper cuttings of the time, maps, photographs, and even a vintage Bakelite telephone presumably to illustrate the sort of device by which startled ranchers might have communicated their bewilderment. The newspaper articles describe debris from a crash of some sort, and so we also have examples of how that debris may have appeared. Unfortunately, as often seems to be the case with this sort of thing, what evidence there is tends to be either anecdotal or open to interpretation, and whilst it may be true that a government cover up would account for this lack of evidence, such a possibility doesn't really leave us any the wiser.

In short form, the legend has it that the remains of a flying saucer were recovered by the air force from a ranch seventy-five miles north-west of Roswell; and then the story was retracted because it turned out to be a weather balloon; and then this was viewed as a cover up intended to conceal the weather balloon having been a flying saucer after all; except that the weather balloon story was a cover up to conceal the wreckage having originated in some more secretive government effort to monitor Soviet bomb tests at long range; and then somewhere in there we have the bodies supposedly recovered from the crash site, and so on and so forth. All that can really be said is that something crashed, and something was found, and some people were more than a little freaked out by the whole thing. There seems to be an FBI memo declassified more recently and implying that yes, there were saucers and there were bodies although Roswell itself is not explicitly identified:

An investigator for the Air Forces stated that three so-called flying saucers had been recovered in New Mexico. They were described as being circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 feet in diameter. Each one was occupied by three bodies of human shape but only 3 feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of very fine texture. Each body was bandaged in a manner similar to the blackout suits used by speed flyers and test pilots.

It nevertheless remains difficult to commit to anything stronger than who knows? My own view is that it almost certainly wasn't a flying saucer piloted by extraterrestrials, but as folk myths go it's still a thumping good story. You sort of want it to be true on some level.

Once we're done with the crash, the International UFO Museum & Research Center makes time with displays relating a more general history of UFOlogy and the almost inevitable diorama depicting an alien autopsy. This will probably sound peculiar given the subject but I'm not sure this aspect didn't cheapen the enterprise a little, reducing it all to Spielbergian spectacle; but I guess that's what the punters want and I suppose I'm probably overthinking this one.

For all that the UFO Museum may be viewed as a series of displays insisting on the existence of Santa Claus, only one aspect really bothered me, and this was a carved reproduction of the lid of the sarcophagus of K'inich Janaab' Pakal, seventh century ruler of Palenque in Mexico. The design on the lid was identified as depicting  an ancient space traveller by professional tosspot Erich von Däniken who claimed that the designs surrounding the carved figure of the dead king looked a bit like a spaceship. Five minutes spent familiarising oneself with Maya iconography at a rudimentary level should be enough to convince anyone with a working brain that it really isn't a spaceship. Those flames Erich saw belching from the rear of the craft as it soared into the heavens weren't flames but simply the stylised rendering of the jaws of the Mayan version of the Mexican Earth Monster, as can be seen on myriad other stone carvings, none of which have been mistaken for anachronistic rocketry. Of course ancient astronaut theorists tend to find their early spacemen in the iconography of cultures of which their audience will be otherwise ignorant, without any legitimately established knowledge to get in the way of a very specific understanding. It's the reverse of the cinematic caveman transposed to Washington DC who announces that the Lincoln Memorial represents a powerful God to whom one might justifiably offer sacrifices in return for a higher agricultural yield.

This will probably make me sound hopelessly cranky but I'm tired of seeing poor old Pakal trundled out again and again by ignorant fuckers seeking that truth which has been for so long hidden and yet who can't spare five minutes to do a bit of basic homework. I'm tired of it because it's disrespectful, and makes it difficult for me to maintain positive thoughts regarding the presence of intelligent life on this planet, never mind anywhere else.

A little further along from the reproduction of the lid of Pakal's sarcophagus was a painting showing how the dead king's spacecraft would have looked had he chosen to race it along a beach like a sort of flying dune buggy. I couldn't quite tell if the artist was sincere or extremely sarcastic. In any case I preferred the other paintings arranged in a line along the same wall, slightly clumsy but earnest depictions of saucers and their pilots by persons who had probably not bothered with art college but nevertheless really believed in their work. It was all a bit mad, but there was at least a kind of truth in there somewhere.

So that was Roswell, at least excepting a pleasant but largely uneventful excursion to the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We came, we looked around, and then we started heading for the motorway, hopefully a little wiser than before.


I should probably mention that Dave Hirons, my former art tutor, had made and written about this same trip a year or so before me. His account can be read here. I guess I had forgotten about the photograph when staging my own unintentional tribute.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

David Hall

David Hall was born in 1937 which, to my astonishment, means I am now older than he was when we first met in the summer of 1984. He was head of department for the Film, Video & Sound course at Maidstone College of Art. It was a fine art degree course and, as I have subsequently discovered, was the first of its kind, initiated by David himself in 1972. Understanding this I feel I gain a deeper appreciation of why he became so pissed off as the course was steered increasingly towards the vocational towards the end of the Thatcher years. The Time Based Media department - a name change referencing a term he himself had coined - had been about art, not selling tins of baked beans; and art as something other than a commodity.

I was never really sure how David regarded me, but presumed he'd seen some potential in the rudimentary video work I'd done during my art foundation course and which I brought to my interview. One such work was a droning Throbbing Gristle inspired collage of media images mixing Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon up with Charles Manson and J.R. Ewing. As a comment upon the media it was doubtless a bit bleeding obvious and entirely kak-handed, but I guess it did its job. Someone later explained to me that our tutors tended to see potential in anyone whose video work incorporated images of television sets, so I suppose that would have been the commenting upon the medium box I had ticked.

Being eighteen, from my perspective David seemed ancient, a grey-bearded patriarch who gave the impression of having already seen and done it all. Of course the thing was that in terms of video art, he sort of had seen and done it all, and had even invented some of the things we were all busily playing back to him in hope of passing it off as something new. From time to time we got to see his work, that upon which he'd built something of a reputation. One piece featured the BBC newsreader Richard Baker, and it particularly impressed me that the video material had been produced with Baker's co-operation; it wasn't simply some crap taped off the telly, which is what I would have done under the circumstances, and did do on a few occasions. There was also a short film called Edge, a western which played with suspense and expectation, moody shots of frowning gunslingers approaching each other, building up to the inevitable confrontation until, in the last shot, they finally appear in the same frame only to pass one another without a word. It was clever, funny, and beautifully simple.

I tried, but I'm not sure my work ever really made him happy. Each tutorial was more or less the same. I would show a video piece - whatever I'd been working on - in a darkened room. I would turn on the light as the screen went to black. David, by now almost horizontal in his chair would blink, then make a noise acknowledging the shift of tutorial emphasis. He would sit forward, interlace his fingers and stretch, then sink back, hands behind his head, the body language of a long-suffering but otherwise soundless groan. Whilst he never directly pointed out that I was apparently producing self-involved and largely derivative crap into which very little thought had gone, this was generally the thrust of his observations; and this was always galling because he was right, and right in such a way that obliged the case for the defence to shut the fuck up and take its beating like a man. Ultimately this meant that I never butterflied into the great video artist, and the world has thus been spared my wibbling time based crap which would in any case have no real reason to exist, and thankfully doesn't. This should not be taken as a complaint, nor as requiem to a promising career cruelly foreshortened by a man saying some things that weren't very nice; on the contrary, David Hall was probably the first tutor to disabuse me of the idea that a piece or art was necessarily and inherently valid because I had done it; and a friend who will tell you when something is basically drivel will always be more valuable than one who finds some value in even the most pointless and inane expressions of art for the sake of art.

David's arguably gruff exterior was thrown into relief on the occasions when he joined us down the pub. He didn't suddenly transform into Tommy Cooper, but he was warm, convivial, and generous company - from which I deduced that his apparent dislike of my work was at least nothing personal.

David Hall very clearly cared about art as a potentially redemptive method of communication, and he cared strongly. He wasn't in the business of feeding anyone's ego, or pandering to lowest common denominators. He tended not to speak unless he had something worth saying, and in this respect was ever a source of valuable advice, providing one had the wit to recognise it as such.

In more recent years as I discovered his presence on facebook, I came to appreciate the above understanding all the more, and to realise that the man had a quite profound influence on my development at a crucial time, even if that development ultimately fired off in a completely different direction to that for which David might have hoped as head of Time Based Media.

Just today I discover that he is no longer with us. At the time of writing, I am not even sure as to the cause given that no obituary has yet appeared in any of the usual places. During those few years I knew him, I often found him a somewhat awkward man, even a little rude at times, but now that he's gone I realise that part of me always hoped that one day we would meet again, and I would be able to buy him a pint, and say thanks, and admit to his face that he'd been right all along. It has been a privilege to have known him.

Some details of his life and work here.

Friday, 17 October 2014


There was a deer under the bridge near Los Patios and the Northeast Baptist Hospital, just to one side of the path as you cross beneath the Connally Loop. I passed it every day. It had been a baby, the smallest I've seen. In fact I don't think I had ever before seen one so tiny.

White tailed deer are now a common sight for me. I see them as I follow the trail that runs along Salado Creek. I see them daily, pretty much. Most days I see one or two nosing around in the brush as I cross Morningstar Boardwalk, sometimes a few young females trailed by spotty babies sending me cautious backwards glances with their big, dark eyes; occasionally there will be great herds of them scattered amongst the trees as I approach the railroad that runs parallel to Wetmore. These are flood plains and so no-one is allowed to build on them, and so the deer and the other animals have a lot of space in which to roam and to breed.

I used to see red deer in Charlecote Park near where we used to live in England, but never as much more than a scattering of hillside dots some miles away. Now that I live in Texas, they are no longer such a rare sight, although I still feel the same pleasure as I always did when I see them. They have not become too familiar in that sense.

As an ethnological exercise I once worked out my day-sign in terms of the calendar and theology of pre-Hispanic central Mexico - as used by the people we now know as the Aztecs. I was Chicoce Mazatl or Six Deer in Mexican terms, this being the date which seemed to correspond with my birthday. I later found out that my calculations were off, but for a long time I believed that I was Six Deer. The deer was not generally held to be a good sign, it being associated with inconsistent or - I suppose - skittish behaviour and to some extent alcoholism, although not so much as was Tochtli, the Rabbit day-sign. Them's the breaks, I thought, consoling myself with the notion that the Mixtec culture hero Lord Eight Deer had made something of himself according to the Tilantongo Annals, and I was only two digits short. As I say, once I recalculated my version of the pre-Hispanic calendar, it turned out that Six Deer had never been my day-sign after all, so I guess it didn't matter.

Once, during a period of heavy rain, I startled a baby deer. It splashed out from the waters gathering beneath Morningstar Boardwalk, startled by my presence. It was probably a few months old and still speckled. I couldn't see it's mother anywhere near, and the thought of this young, apparently abandoned animal obliged to take shelter in the mud beneath the boardwalk was quietly horrifying; but there didn't seem like much I could do, and the rain kept coming.

The creek filled, then the sun returned and the waters quickly receded. The ecology of Texas often seems like a sped-up film, particularly with regard to these huge lakes which appear from nowhere and then become dry grassland within days. Black vultures now swarmed the boardwalk, scattering at my approach, leaving just a rib cage picked clean of all but a few scraps of fur. I felt sick.

I am reminded of this each time I pass the deer beneath the bridge at Los Patios and the Baptist Hospital. It is literally only skin and bone, a desiccated scrap of tan coloured hide with white spots attached to a sightless skull a little bigger than that of a cat. Stray bones peek from beneath the scrap, like knuckle bones or prehistoric game pieces, tiny black hooves on one of them. Seen from the corner of the eye it appears momentarily alive, having just enough substance to foster the illusion. I try to guess its age and suppose it can hardly have been even days. I wonder how it died. It's near a major highway, but there are also large flood drains on the other side of the bridge. It is hard to think about something so sad and pointless. Every single day I pass the dead baby. It is horrible beyond description.

Death is everywhere in Texas. It's presence is inevitable given the accelerated pace of life in which lakes can fill and then drain away to nothing in the space of a single scorching day. We have fish and frogs which require only tiny windows of swimming and feeding opportunity in order to complete their life cycles before returning to the mud. One cannot walk a mile of open land without encountering the bones of the dead, and some days you may even encounter something which could kill you, or at least which could kill you in the event of your being at more than two hours distance from a hospital. These things are not so common as you might believe, but they are there. Not only are we close to Mexico, but in the good old days, we were Mexico, and if Mexicans understand anything it is death and its role in defining our time on the earth.

After passing the dead baby each day for nearly two months, I can take no more. I bring it home. I collect the bones in a bag. They weigh hardly anything. I dig a hole in our garden and there I bury the baby deer, because no-one should end their days dead beneath a bridge near a flood drain, and no-one should die alone as I fear this baby most likely did. It seems like the right thing to do.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Drawings of Buildings

I'm not sure what first compelled me to draw a building, although my current theory is that I required a wider variety of artwork which I could take to my interview for the Art Foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education, not least because whilst my silk screen work and painting was all very imaginative and colourful, I didn't have very much which demonstrated that I could actually draw. Another possibility is that my mother had given me a gentle nudge in that direction in the hope that I would begin to spontaneously generate money and accordingly develop something resembling a work ethic.

Whatever the case, I stretched a sheet of decent quality paper on a large board - a process which I had been taught would keep the paper absolutely flat and free of warping in the event of my adding watercolours - and spent the best part of a relatively sunny day occupying a section of pavement on Church Street, Shipston-on-Stour, just opposite Saint Edmund's Church. I mapped out the block of shops and houses next to the church in pencil, then rendered the detail in black ink with the Rotring pen I'd received a few Christmases before. Finally I added thin washes of colour with gouache paints, defining sky, clouds, brick, tarmac and so on. The result seemed decent, an exercise in perspective if nothing else. It closely resembled that which it depicted, which was the point. It was in part an exercise to see if I could do this sort of thing, and it turned out that I could.

Personally I felt it lacked imagination and was somewhat laborious in that the creative process required me to sit on my arse for four or five hours, but it was nice to know that I was heir to at least some conventional artistic ability; and of course it was all very nice to have pedestrians and other complete strangers pausing to take a look before commenting upon my brilliance every five or ten minutes.

Regrettably one of these pedestrians was Michael Harvey, owner of a local tea room and Shipston's most famous homosexual. Whilst I doubt he could have had much interest in me - an awkwardly hairy teenager half-heartedly shambling towards a sort of industrial jumble sale look - he very much liked my drawing.

'That's really very good, you know,' he drawled, burping and swaying slightly.

'Thank you,' I said, fervently hoping that he would continue on his way before we were seen by anyone I knew.

Being quite clearly full of gin, Michael Harvey seemed to be having some difficulty remaining vertical, and so in brutal contrast to my wishes, sank to his feet, sliding down the wall to take his place at my side. He leaned over a little closer than I liked. 'Just one problem...'

I made a non-committal noise that could stand for curiosity.

'Those ghastly television aerials ...'

I considered my drawing and saw his point. The row of buildings I'd drawn were nineteenth century or possibly earlier, the kind with sash windows, and very typical of the Cotswolds. I had considered omitting all modern features from my drawing, but it felt as though it would be in some way dishonest, and the purpose of the exercise had been technical rather than aesthetic in the strictest sense. Furthermore, given that my favourite aspect of the drawing had been the perspective of a street plunging away towards its vanishing point somewhere over near where Jason Roberts lived, I had quite enjoyed drawing those television aerials.

I muttered something about honesty and realism and painting that which is seen by the human eye, but it probably didn't sound very convincing. In any case, Michael Harvey had fallen asleep, his head lolling onto my shoulder in boozy slumber as he began to gently snore. This was more physical contact than I had enjoyed with another human being in living memory, and I cursed my luck that the other party should be a slightly chunky and very drunk male in his late forties.

Michael Harvey was a local celebrity, or at least the local celebrity who didn't play Frank Spencer's long-suffering wife in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Michele Dotrice had achieved fame through a phenomenally popular television sitcom, and her dad lived on the Stratford Road. Michael Harvey had achieved fame of a sort through being openly homosexual in a rural Warwickshire town in the early 1980s, or at least he had achieved fame amongst those of us who found his very existence hilarious because we were teenagers and we didn't know any better. Actually we did know better, or we should have done. My favourite band at the time was Soft Cell, and my favourite writer was William Burroughs. This distinguished me from most of the other kids in the town who preferred Queen and Judas Priest, and who generally seemed to regard not being one of those bumboys as a sort of achievement. I always had the impression that my failure to adopt a denim jacket with Status Quo written on the back in biro marked me out as gay and by definition an outsider. Despite being securely heterosexual and entirely aware of the contradictions, my friends and I embraced and repeated the jokes told about Michael Harvey because to do otherwise would be to take his side and share his supposed disgrace. If we were outsiders, we were at least not so far outside as the owner of the local tea rooms whom we impersonated as a limp-wristed hybrid of Larry Grayson and Mr. Humphries from Are You Being Served? without stretching anyone's imagination to breaking point.

One morning, as legend had it, some enormous hairy biker had materialised in the tea rooms demanding cash from the till. Michael Harvey emerged to calm the situation, but only made matters worse.

'I was good enough for you last night,' the hairy and apparently not-actually-heterosexual-like-ourselves biker bellowed with resentful fury, inadvertently supplying the entire town with enough scandal to keep us yapping for a good seven or eight years. We liked the story because it confirmed that Michael Harvey was very, very gay indeed, which for some reason made us all feel better about our small world.

Meanwhile back in Church Street, I coughed and accidentally-on-purpose jabbed Michael Harvey in the side with an elbow, but he was too drunk to be woken. Inevitably, after about five minutes, every knuckle-dragging shithead biker enemy I had ever made at school passed by on the other side of the road in a single group which seemed almost to have been assembled especially for the purpose. As one they regarded me and my new gay friend, then chuckled because it meant that they had been right about me all along. I tried a desperate sheepish smile as though this was something that happened to all of us from time to time - just minding your own business and wham there's a drunken homosexual asleep on top of you.

We've all been there, right guys?

Apparently we hadn't, and I experienced a sudden upsurge of self-loathing. I had seen myself and I hadn't liked it. I couldn't have cared less what Michael Harvey chose to do with either his own penis or those belonging to his close friends, and if anything I kind of admired the fact that he quite clearly didn't give a shit who knew about it. That took some guts in such a small town, the potential Wicker Man theme park in which my family had resided for six or seven years and yet were still regarded as outsiders. Screw these people, I decided. I'd take a thousand Michael Harveys over any one of those inbred Def Leppard-album-owning fucknuts any day of the week.

After another half an hour or so, he woke with a grunt and stumbled wordlessly away to sleep off the rest of the hangover at home. I finished my drawing with a scowl, resenting both the town in which I lived and at least some of its population.

By the summer of 1985 I was far away from Shipston, living at one-hundred and twenty miles distance in the village of Leeds, near Maidstone in Kent. I had just finished the first of three years of a degree course at the local art college, so I suppose you might say my drawing the houses of Church Street had paid off by some tenuous definition. Just before that first year of art college, the most money I'd ever had in either my hand or my junior savings account would have been the fifty pounds I saved with which to buy my sixty watt guitar amplifier - and this figure included a tenner on loan from my mother. Then all at once in September 1984 as I moved away from home, began my course, and discovered both alcohol and cigarettes, Warwickshire County Council and the hardworking taxpayers of the British Isles blessed my bank account with a full grant of at least a thousand pounds. This was more money than I was even able to imagine, and there were a lot of records and albums that I really, really needed, and the train fare back home every other weekend wasn't cheap...

Somehow by the time summer came around I was enormously overdrawn, and I knew that I needed to do something about this before it got out of hand. The job centre offered me a position in a biscuit packing factory, which I turned down on the grounds that it didn't actually seem like it would pay better than the dole which I could claim without really having to do anything. I took a summer job with a furniture restoration business run by one of the local farms, but the pay wasn't great and the work was tough, which in turn drove me back to the drawing board.

People liked drawings of old buildings, I decided, particularly drawings tastefully denuded of their television aerials such as one might see framed and on sale in the windows of twee art galleries in rustic villages. People would pay for that sort of thing, I concluded.

I began with a drawing of the local pub, The Ten Bells, just something to revive whatever skills I had brought to the fore a few years earlier with Michael Harvey burping appreciatively into my ear. The Ten Bells represented a focal point in the village of Leeds - not to be confused with the city of the same name, obviously - and was chosen for both architectural interest and in the hope that I would be observed by as many people as possible. The plan worked in so much as Terry, a regular at the pub, commissioned me to draw a house in the village of Chart Sutton, although I'm not sure whether it was his own house or that of a friend. For this I was paid thirty pounds - a figure I had produced off the top of my head - which seemed decent for a day's work even taking into account the sore arse incurred whilst sat on the ground for five or six hours.

I stepped my operation up a gear, each day setting off by nine to draw a building, weather permitting, wobbling along on my bicycle with a bag full of paints, brushes, water, a thermos flask of coffee,  and with a drawing board tied onto my back with washing line. Each day - I reasoned - I could produce something theoretically picturesque for eventual sale in some small gallery, hopefully bag a few commissions in the process, and then be home by six to stretch a fresh sheet of paper ready for the next morning. It worked in so much as I began to line up commissions here and there, and branched out to draw in the villages of Langley and East Farleigh, but it was also a little repetitive, sometimes frustrating, and harder work than I had anticipated. More frustrating was that I found each village I visited tended to have a saturation point beyond which new commissions became scarce. In East Farleigh I drew a caravan site by the river, then the house of the owner of the caravan site, then the local pub for a mere twenty because I didn't want to say no to the work, and then a moderately stately home inhabited by a reasonably glamorous women of upper class stock. The landlord of The Bull in East Farleigh had brought me a can of lager as I worked, and the upper class woman brought me a glass of wine, kissed me on the cheek and told me that I was wonderful, which was all very exciting; but the commissions had dried up, and I could no longer face starting over again, spending an entire unpaid day developing a sore arse on the chance of some passing stranger liking my work. So I briefly became my own door-to-door salesman, knocking at large old houses which looked as though they might contain the sort of people who would be likely to procure my services. I secured a couple of commissions by this method, but as many people telling me to piss off rendered it a chore, not least because I knew I would have told myself to piss off had I been in their shoes.

Nevertheless I managed to pay off the majority of my overdraft that summer, and college resumed in September bringing with it a new grant cheque which happily swallowed the rest. I ceased with my drawings of buildings, glad to be freed of both the obligation and the risk of haemorrhoids. I briefly returned to the house of the upper class woman with a camera borrowed from college on the flimsy pretext of needing to keep a record of my drawing work, but she was hungover, still married, and therefore unavailable.

I returned to the drawing board a third time following the end of my college degree. I was living in Chatham, unemployed and more overdrawn than ever with a frankly astonishing record collection to show for it, and it seemed there might be some milk left in the cow given my proximity to historic Rochester, arguably the Stratford-on-Avon of the south thanks to Charles Dickens having once stopped off for egg and chips at the Happy Eater on the M2 just outside Walderslade.

I painted the castle, and as I did so, I realised that Rochester was the sort of place which attracted artists like meth addicts to transvestite brothels, so my display of plein air draftsmanship hardly seemed worth a second glance. I returned to appearing pitiful upon the doorsteps of confused strangers, humbly beseeching that they might patronise the trade of a travelling artisan so badly in need of a haircut. The owner of The Gordon hotel viewed me with suspicion, but decided that the reception desk really did need a fancily framed portrait of his establishment, and so I had the job.

This commission was in a sense easier than usual in that Rochester High Street, being pedestrianised, provided seating on which I could sit whilst working on my masterpiece, yet ultimately proving to be as much a pain in the arse as before.

The hotel owner disliked my first drawing and asked that I try again, this time giving greater focus to his establishment, excluding those neighbouring architectural features which I felt had made the picture a little more interesting for the viewer. I began again, and as I came to finish the work with the customary watercolour wash, I found I had once again drawn an audience. There were two of them, and if they weren't quite so drunk as Michael Harvey had been, neither were they anywhere near as attractive as the upper class woman of East Farleigh. They were full of booze, slightly friendlier than I liked, and shared their cans of special brew with the sort of aggressive bonhomie that proved difficult to refuse. They praised my talent, and seemed to be asking questions about where I lived and whether I had any money; but their efforts - whatever it was they were after - seemed obviously devious and feeble, and were easily deflected; although getting them to piss off and leave me alone wasn't quite within my power.

At length I was done and ready to cut the drawing from the board. With relief I realised that my companions would almost certainly be unable to follow me into the hotel given the state they were in. I would be rid of them. I took out my craft knife as they swore and went on and on about how much fucking talent I had, man. I began to cut the picture from the board but, being full of diplomatically consumed special brew, my hand slipped and I sliced diagonally across the paper.

'Oh fuck!'

My companions laughed with the conspiratorial glee of naughty schoolboys who knew for sure that only I would suffer the consequences of their actions.

'You're fucked now, mate! Your beautiful picture and all!'

I ignored them, gathered up the tools of my trade, and went into the hotel with a massive sigh of relief at having escaped their company. I tried my best to appear sober.

'I've done it.' I readied myself for the explanation of how the cut would be invisible once the picture was framed.

'Just leave it.' The owner didn't even look up. He waved a hand, preoccupied with hotel business. I already had the money seeing as he'd paid me the thirty on completion of the earlier, unsatisfactory version. He'd given me the money then because he'd had it to hand and it seemed convenient to do so.

I looked out of the door. The two pissheads were nowhere to be seen. I left, quickly unchained my bike and cycled away.

I have drawn just one more building since then, or more accurately, I painted it. It was October 2007 and I'd moved on from the ink drawings. I had a full time job as a postman with Royal Mail and no longer needed to pay off any overdraft, but it was a full time job that had become increasingly unpleasant over the previous decade, and now we were on strike and I had been looking for a way out. I wanted to see if I could still do it, if I was still able to generate money by my own hand, and so I sat and painted Edward Alleyn House in West Dulwich. In six hours I attracted the interest of one passer-by, a woman to whom I delivered mail who kindly took the time to explain my own strike action to me.

'Of course,' she smiled with obnoxious conviction, 'the postmen only have themselves to blame.'

Friends have told me that the painting is very good, although my stylised rendition of the sky as it appeared has given the composition a Lovecraftian quality, as though something horrible is about to happen within the building.

I guess I took that as a sign.

It was nice to know that I could still turn out a picture if the worst came to the worst, but it was nicer to know that I didn't really have to.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The One That Got Away

We don't have summer camp in England, or at least we didn't the last time I looked. Our summer holidays began in July as schools broke up, and comprised six weeks of hanging out in the town square eating crisps or setting things on fire, and all the while wishing cancer on those responsible for filling the shops with back to school promotions in the middle of August, reminding us of homework, misery, and cross country runs in the freezing rain a good four weeks before we would find ourselves obliged to engage with the dreadful reality of the same. Summer camp was something which happened to American kids, usually ending with either Rick Moranis or Martin Short gibbering and tied to stakes as a bunch of whooping brats apply the flaming torch.

This was the full extent of my understanding when I first came to live in the United States. My wife explained that summer camp was fun, although when she herself had attended, her youthful enthusiasm and buoyant character had been of such apparent severity as to drive one of the camp counsellors to handing in his cards. As an institution I found summer camp difficult to imagine in so much as I'd generally hated the idea of staying away from home when I was a child, excepting visits to the homes of grandparents. Having seen Tom Brown's Schooldays I lived in constant dread of being sent away to boarding school, which I imagined to be much like prison but less fun. I never mentioned this to my parents, fearing the suggestion would urge them towards the realisation of what a great idea it was. I believed this because I knew that if I were them, I would probably have sent me away to boarding school. Had I actually mentioned any of this, I'm fairly sure my parents would have explained that our family really wasn't that well off, and that the private education of yours truly was extremely low on our list of priorities.

Junior had just turned eleven, and so this year he was going away for a week of summer camp for the very first time. He would be amongst strangers for five whole days. My wife was naturally a little anxious. I was less anxious, assuming simply that it would probably be good for him, and he would almost certainly have a great time; and his father took a similar view.

The week came and then passed slowly. Junior was at some place called Camp Capers, somewhere out beyond the town of Comfort in the Texas hill country. Each day we inspected the Camp Capers website for newly posted photographs of kids swinging on ropes or throwing buckets of water over each other. Junior looked very much as though he was indeed having a great time, particularly in those photographs wherein he has wrapped his own head and shoulders in a length of material leaving just his eyes peeking out from a narrow slit, bright blue and maniacal. Later he told us he'd disguised himself as a ninja, although his father's initial reaction was that we had inadvertently sent the boy to an al-Qaeda training camp. Somehow, this made me feel oddly proud, at least in so much as no-one could ever possibly describe the kid as dull.

Saturday came and we drove for about an hour out to Comfort, and then to the camp situated miles from anywhere, so it seemed. Most of the grounds were defined by a huge loop in the meandering course of the Guadalupe river, and the countryside was quite beautiful. Kids ran screaming back and forth with their bags, a toning down of the scene in the war movie where helicopters land as our hero journalist makes his way through the destroyed village.

'They have girls here?'

I don't know why this hadn't occurred to me before. For some reason I had assumed that summer camp would be a segregated institution. Probably I was still thinking of Tom Brown.

My wife nodded. 'I told you about my time at summer camp?'

Of course she had.

We crossed the field, passing a dried-out mud pit as we headed for the clusters of limestone huts in which the children had slept. I considered what this new detail could mean. Junior seemed to get on well with girls of his own age in a way that I never had. I had for the most part been far too shy to engage with members of the opposite sex for fear that they might take my innocent hello for a sexual advance, which it usually was in so much as such things are possible at that age. I was probably about eighteen before I managed a proper conversation with a girl. Junior on the other hand had recently made the transition from a slightly sinister boy's school to a mixed establishment and seemed to be doing much better, not least in that most of his friends appeared to be female.

At the age of five he had told his mother that he would one day marry Miss Maria, his first grade teacher. At least thankful that the child had outgrown his marital plans regarding the cat, Bess explained that Miss Maria was already married, so he probably shouldn't get his hopes up.

'Yeah but she might not be married by the time I leave school,' he replied. 'Anything could happen between now and then.'

We entered the compound, a group of huts facing each other, kids jumping and yelling and fighting over laundry in the central square. As usual I imagined Junior delighted to see us, and as usual he effected the calm of a Bond villain having only just noticed our being ushered into his presence.

I've been expecting you...

We looked into the hut, at the bunk beds lining the walls, and tried to imagine the living hell of the counsellor whose job it had been to get all twenty-five of them to shut up and go to sleep. Junior absently stuffed items of clothing into his case as though not entirely sure they were his.

'So how was it?'

'It was good.'

He shut the case and we began to walk back towards the car so as to stow all his stuff away before the big ceremony.

'In fact I'd say out of five,' he continued in response to questions he clearly wished we had thought to ask, 'I would give it a four.'

'What happened?' A note of concern had entered my wife's voice. I recalled her fearing the worst, the sort of horror stories which emerge when people who really shouldn't be allowed to work with children get to work with children.

'Well, let me see,' - it was always best to just let Junior tell you in his own time. When asked specific questions he tends to become wordy and thoughtful, peppering his rambling response with the sort of inconsequential asides that are actually a bit weird coming from anyone who is eleven and not smoking a pipe. The story was that there had been a camp fire, and Junior had asked a girl if she would be his date for the occasion. She had said yes, and then changed her mind, insisting that she already had a date.

If what you say is true, then show me this gentleman, Junior insisted in so many words. His suspicions had been raised by a whispered conversation between the girl and her friend, concluding in giggles and her suspiciously abrupt recollection of the supposed prior engagement.

'Well, I'm just impressed that you had the courage to ask her out in the first place,' I said, doubting there was anything else I could really say. Everyone experiences heartbreak, and most of us like to think that our own heartbreak is more painful than that of our friends, so I know how it feels is never really what you want to hear because it reduces your agony to something mundane and mutually understood, like an ingrowing toenail, something you should really get over. Because of this I was additionally impressed that Junior appeared to have taken his first rejection quite well, and certainly better than I would have done had I actually had the nerve to speak to girls when I was eleven.

One of us may have mumbled something about there being plenty more fish in the sea, but my wife artfully changed the subject to what he had done during the week. His account was a little hard to follow, and at least some of it was reliant upon a working knowledge of Pokémon lore, but it was evident that he'd had a great time but for the rejection of the final evening, and had slept soundly each night following a day of exhausting and athletic activities.

We loaded the car and made our way back to the covered area beneath which there was to be some sort of closing ceremony. My wife and I sat, and Junior went off to fetch paper cups of water for us, which merits a mention because this was done without his having been asked.

'See,' my wife said, smiling.

'Wow.' Summer camp had definitely had a positive influence.

A priest appeared at a lectern at the front of the covered area, then a young man with a goatee beard, ear gauges, and an acoustic guitar. He wore a blue T-shirt upon which was made some claim regarding Jesus, probably concerning his being awesome or something of the sort. The seating area filled as other parents returned from tending to their own offspring, and a second priest began to hand out hymn books.

Oh bollocks.

I recalled the pages of Jesusy material I'd been obliged to click past when looking on the Camp Capers website for photographs of Junior dressed as though ready for Jihad.

'This is going to be where we thank the man upstairs for a week of nachos and climbing trees, isn't it?'

My wife nodded, a little deflated. We had anticipated something a little less earnest, like a short play or kids singing songs or something. I at least hadn't anticipated yet another opportunity to welcome Him into my heart, and found myself slightly resentful at the assumption that it was okay to spring this sort of thing on us without some warning, and that we wouldn't mind; although that's probably Satan inspiring me to such thoughts.

'Let's blow this pop stand,' I suggested.

Happily Junior seemed to feel he'd done quite enough praising for one week, and in any case he wanted to show us the grounds of the camp. We sauntered away before anyone could thrust a tambourine into my hand, heading for the river. The kids had been out in kayaks a couple of times, and the Guadalupe river left me as speechless as it has done on previous occasions. Here, by the camp, it was relatively shallow, babbling in places, surrounded by grand cypresses with elaborate root systems on either side, very much a cathedral grown from nature and resembling a Thomas Cole painting to the eyes of one who grew up in England where so much is on much smaller scale. I thought of the memories forged here and hoped that Junior would one day appreciate them so much as I did at that moment.

Eventually we headed back to the car, circumnavigating the singing and praising still going at full pelt an hour or so after kick off. Junior settled into the back seat.

'You know,' he announced, his voice rising in pitch as though surprised to have realised any of this, 'I'm just impressed that I had the courage to ask her out in the first place.'

I repeated my earlier confession of having been terrified of girls at his age, and he seemed to consider it a second time. I wasn't going to point out that he had repeated almost word for word what I had said to him an hour or so earlier, or that he hadn't even known the name of the girl, the one that got away. He was unusually quiet for the next few days, not so much morose as simply thoughtful. This was a side of him I had never really seen before, and perhaps it had never been there before he went away to summer camp, but it suggested at least that he was heading in the right direction.