Friday, 28 November 2014

Everyone Loves Sid

My wife told me we'd be going to Brackenridge Park on Wednesday evening because Sid had hired a clown. Our Wednesday evenings at Brackenridge Park had been a regular event over previous summers. Bess's mother would pick Junior up from school, and Bess herself would come home from work, and we would all meet at the park to watch Sid run and to cheer him on. Every Wednesday runners from all over San Antonio would meet to run two miles through the woodland surrounding the park between half past six and seven; and Sid was always amongst them. For innumerable reasons we had fallen out of the habit this year, although Sid was still there every week, and this time he'd hired a clown.

'Why has he hired a clown?' I asked.

'To keep the kids entertained,' Bess told me.

It seemed as good a reason as any, so I didn't give it any further thought.

Sid is probably the closest I have to a father-in-law. My wife's biological father is still alive, but the two of them have had a chequered history. He separated from Bess's mother a couple of years after the birth of their two children, and eventually ended up getting remarried to Johnny Cash's cousin. My wife still speaks to him, although they've never really been what you would call close. Bess's elder brother on the other hand won't even acknowledge the fellow's existence. I met him once, but the last couple of years have not been kind. He didn't understand who I was, and he didn't even seem to recognise his own daughter. He has good days and bad days, and that was one of the latter.

Sid isn't really my father-in-law. Aside from the above, he and Bess's mother never married, and to be honest I'm not even sure quite what shape their relationship has taken over the years and I'm not inclined to pry. What is certain is that he has been a good friend to the family, and that everyone thinks he's great. My wife has a theory that she was initially coaxed into running as a pastime in the hope that it would soak up some of the excess energy which made her such a lively child. Whilst it's debatable whether this actually worked, it instilled in her a lifelong appreciation of running, and by association a generally high standard of health. Sid took Bess under his wing when she was about eight and got her running regular marathons, and he did the same for her brother who memorably aced the full 26.2 miles in three hours and ten seconds at the age of ten, beating Sid's own personal best of three hours and twenty-nine seconds. Sid, now into his seventies, continues to run, having been a runner all his life, and has been known to finish the two mile Brackenridge Park circuit in thirteen minutes.

I first encountered Sid three years ago when I came to live here. It was a memorable experience, although we barely exchanged a word when we first met one afternoon at the IHOP restaurant on Broadway. Being from rural Warwickshire in England, I don't have a wide experience of Jewish people beyond a few isolated individuals and whatever I've picked up from the media. Whilst I'm aware that this will probably sound ridiculous to some, just as it now does to me, I never imagined that Texas would have any sort of significant Jewish population, but it turns out that it does. The only reason this makes any difference at all is because this made Sid appear quite exotic to my eyes, as I suppose I may also have done to his. He seemed characteristically Texan in most respects, improbably tall and with a tendency to deliver slow, thoughtful sentences punctuated by lengthy, possibly contemplative pauses. Contrary to the image fostered by all those John Wayne films, there is gentle quality to the stereotypically huge Texan male, and it is a quality one might not have any good reason to anticipate; but as I have found again and again, nothing in this state is ever quite as it may appear from the other side of the border. Hollywood Texans will be brash and demonstrative, but the reality is that most of the year is far too hot for such nonsense, and I've yet to meet any significant quota of Texans so insecure that they feel a need to live up to the bullish stereotype.

Sid has therefore been the most characteristically Texan man I've thus far met in many respects, and he's also Jewish, which makes him immediately interesting and exotic from my point of view; although it's difficult to quite say why this should be without my worrying that it will sound a bit weird. Never mind.

We arrived at the park, myself, my wife, and Junior. We fed the ducks, and then wandered around to the trestle tables set up for the runners who, finishing the two miles, would soon come along for water or soda or something to eat. There weren't too many people yet, but there were some younger children and the clown.

'Sid hired Daisy Bee!' my wife exclaimed, incredulous.

'What language are you talking?'

She indicated the woman in the face paint and huge red shoes presently bending colourful balloons into animal shapes. 'That's Daisy Bee. She costs a fortune. We hired her for your second birthday, do you remember?'

My wife now glanced back at her son, who didn't remember and so shook his head. I didn't remember either, all of this having been before my time.

'She costs a fortune?'

'Like a couple of hundred dollars, but she's very good.'

We took to a bench as the first of the runners arrived, exhausted but happy to have crossed the finish line. The notion that Sid had splashed out on a top of the range clown just for the random entertainment of what was presently only a handful of children began to seem a little thin, and particularly given all the hot-dogs presently being barbecued, and the big, square birthday cake on the table.

Realisation dawned.

It had been Sid's birthday the week before, but it seemed he had decided to celebrate tonight, here and in the park. Being Sid, this was a detail he had neglected to mention. Always the man of mystery.

More and more runners arrived, swelling slowly to a crowd. We looked over towards the finish line hoping to see Sid - head and shoulders above everyone else - just as it had been when our Wednesday evening at the park had been a regular fixture. It was getting dark, and although we couldn't see him, his name bobbed up from the hubbub of conversation.

Daisy Bee was now making balloon parasols, shrieking away to a growing flock of giggling children. 'I don't know what he looks like,' she told one of the runners as she worked the balloons. 'All I know is some guy called Sid hired me.'

The sound of the crowd swelled on a moment of excitement. Sid had been spotted. We looked over towards the trees and saw a tall man. Somebody had stuck a large novelty pimp hat upon his head, all floppy dayglo felt and feathers. He came towards the tables at his usual leisurely post-athletic pace to a wave of applause. It was like being backstage at a rock concert, but with running as the medium which had brought us together. Everyone loves Sid, I thought to myself.

By the time we'd made our way through his crowd of fans and admirers, he'd already swapped his flamboyant hat for an elaborate Daisy Bee creation, something like a papal mitre in coloured balloons.

'Mr. Burton,' Sid smiled and observed the usual lengthy pause before concluding the greeting. 'Glad you all could make it.'

'Happy birthday, Sid,' we told him.

We talked a while amongst the chaos of backs slapped and cake passed across shoulders on paper plates. Sid introduced us to Mark, his nephew who had come all the way from Memphis to be here this evening; and he introduced us to everybody else as his family; and I'd never really considered it before, but I guess we were.

Everyone loves Sid.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Red Christmas

I sometimes wonder whether it's really fair to preserve the anonymity of a former partner specifically by referring to her as either Dora the Explorer or Edna Mode from The Incredibles, cover identities chosen because she resembled both and I take cathartic pleasure from the admittedly venomous intent of such references. Perhaps, on consideration it is both childish and unfair, and after all, neither Nickelodeon nor Pixar have ever said a bad word about me, at least not so far as I know. Perhaps I need to take a different approach to this...

I met Dora Mode from The Explorables during the summer of 2005 as I was delivering her mail. By October we were romantically involved, and by November I'd been asked if I would like to spend Christmas with her at her mother's house in Richmond, Surrey. I was overjoyed and I said yes, taking the invitation as an indication that this relationship would be going somewhere, or at least that it would probably stop being quite so shit at some point in the near future.

The mother in question was old, frail, and in her nineties. She came from a wealthy upper class family, and had once worked as secretary to someone significantly ministerial in France. I had the impression she may once have been the just sort of girl to catch the eye of Cary Grant as he played the fruit machines of Monte Carlo, a giggling débutante who could probably knock back her own weight in cocktail olives on one bar tab - for all of her possible failings, an ultimately good natured soul. Unfortunately she was also the cause of everything bad that had ever happened to Dora Mode of The Explorables, at least according to the whining testimony of the endlessly wronged child.

We stood on the doorstep late Christmas Eve. The door opened. The old woman was clearly delighted to see her only daughter, but the feeling was less than mutual.

'Hello Mum,' Dora Mode of The Explorables chirped with the weary resignation of an Ealing comedy policeman catching a serial safe-cracker once again up to his old tricks. She breezed through to the kitchen and began removing things from the fridge, checking the sell-by date on each and registering trace elements of disgust with tutting noises. 'Oh Muuuum,' she whined, barely able to conceal either her revulsion, or the pleasure she took in her revulsion.

Christmas morning came as a welcome distraction from Dora Mode of The Explorables' seemingly endless round of complaints and observations regarding the myriad ways in which the frail old woman had let everyone down - the numerous criteria by which she had apparently failed as both a mother and a human being. Of the many criticisms expressed, there were few I could really see as being either justified or worth worrying over, or as necessarily having any bearing on anyone other than the old woman herself. My girlfriend ground her teeth with unalloyed rage over the state of the vast mansion which was her mother's home. The place could have been in better shape: a cracked window pane here, maybe a careless splash of paint intruding upon a skirting board there or a washer requiring replacement. I had the impression that Dora Mode of The Explorables was mainly concerned about how much work would need to be done before she could sell the house once she had inherited it, and the rest of her testimony was just the usual passive-aggressive coercion by which she interacted with people, that being her principal means of communication; but as I say, Christmas morning had come.

Dora's mother beamed and clapped her hands softly together like a charming Victorian child. 'Oh goody!'

I opened one present. Dora Mode of The Explorables had bought me a green and black knitted woollen sweater with matching gloves and hat. I liked the sweater but the gloves and hat seemed weird, something that would be worn by a website designer named Toby as he dropped Jessica off for her violin lesson, a man who was like really into Dylan at the moment, yeah?

A few weeks after the relationship had been declared official, Dora Mode of The Explorables had told me that she was not going to try to change me because - in her own words - she had learned from past experience that it never worked. I had foolishly said that I didn't really mind, and so she took this as an enthusiastic invitation, and I became her project.

At the time I favoured plain white shirts with a suit, a little worn but not actually scruffy - dark jacket and trousers and occasionally with a tie if I was feeling a bit snazzy. I never felt comfortable with any sort of affected Bohemian look, and still believe that a person who is truly able to express their personality through the way they dress probably doesn't have much of a personality to express. Additionally, the suit had worked well for me in Mexico. I guess I didn't look so smart as to suggest I was worth robbing, but neither did I seem like a tourist - smart but not officiously so. This was what a couple of people told me in any case. Dora Mode of The Explorables said that I dressed like an old man and that I needed to get with it, and it didn't seem worth arguing because I was usually either wrong or just plain stubborn.

I liked the sweater, but at the same time it made me feel sad. My one true love had given me a present which could quite easily have come from one of those aunts seen only every few years, usually at either a wedding or a funeral. It didn't say much for our relationship.

The other present was a box about the size of a packet of Jacob's cream crackers. This seemed more promising, more suggestive of possibilities. The present turned out to be four short lengths of curved track for a Hornby clockwork model railway of the 1920s, still in the original slightly dusty box. The track was, so far as I could tell, made of tin and was a little rusted. At some point during the previous three months I'd told Dora Mode of The Explorables how I had loved model railways as a child.

'I hope it didn't set you back too much.' I was trying to work out why someone would shell out what I presumed would have been steep collectors' prices for something of such esoteric interest, something which made no sense in isolation.

'I found it in the store cupboard at the back of the toy shop. It seemed a shame to throw it out, but I could never quite work out who to give it to.'

Merry Christmas. Here's something I stole from work.

She elaborated, returning with relish to the recurring theme of how she felt she had deserved a little payback from that place. She often spoke of the one previous job I recall her mentioning in such terms as the sort of grinding shit we all have to put up with from time to time as we work the post, the buses, security guard, canning factory, on the bins, street sweeper, or a couple of months behind the till of a toy shop in West Dulwich. We've all been there. We've all had to carry that weight.

Christmas dinner came and went, most of it taken up with Dora Mode of The Explorables' commentary regarding how her mother had ruined Christmas dinner in addition to everything else.

'I would have enjoyed some bread sauce,' the old woman sighed quietly to herself as her only child launched into further critical discourse punctuated with resentful mouthfuls of turkey.

Christmas came and went, and then came and went again. The second year was at Dora Mode of The Explorables' home, with her mother being delivered by taxi on the morning itself. The day was about as festive as its predecessor and by this time I realised that the old lady and myself would have enjoyed it more without the presence of the one person we had in common.

The last Christmas was preceded by my announcing that I was looking for a flat of my own. I had moved in with Dora Mode of The Explorables because there didn't seem to be any other option, and I hoped it might be the detail our relationship had been missing, the element which finally got everything working. Nevertheless I had also feared it would prove to be a mistake, and sure enough it was. After about six months I felt like killing myself, by which I don't mean that I was having me a big ol' sad, but that some days I would lay in my hot bath after work and consider all that I had heard about its benefits as a crucible in which one might open up a major artery or two. Life with Dora Mode of The Explorables was dark and joyless beyond anything I had been able to imagine, and I knew that escape could only be affected by means of gargantuan effort. I wasn't sure if I had the willpower left to do so.

It turned out that I did. I reasoned that a leap in the dark would land me in a better place, because nothing could be as terrible as the present; and so I began looking at horrible flats the size of rabbit hutches for which I could barely afford rent. I told Dora Mode of The Explorables that this would be the best thing for our relationship, because we would no longer be living on top of one another. We would have room to breath.

The first few places I saw were unbelievably bad, but I kept on looking because I knew that once I was gone, I would never have to see Dora Mode of The Explorables or deal with her aggressive and psychotic insecurity ever again. All I had to do was keep her happy for another couple of weeks, or if not happy, at least disinclined to hump all my shit out onto the street and set fire to it.

I had already ruined the last Christmas with my stated desire to move out, but regardless of this, I bought her a tin opener and a stuffed owl. I had, against all expectations, found a flat in Camberwell which if extortionately priced and tiny, was at least clean and had not recently been used as a shooting gallery. I was on the home stretch, just a few weeks left in which to sit and wait for the end of my sentence.

Dora Mode of The Explorables had once phoned me at work, asking me to come home and open a tin of cat food. For some reason she was unable to open this particular tin of cat food under her own steam, so I had to suspend everything and cycle back because this was the sort of thing a truly loving boyfriend would do for his sweetie, and because I had no choice, and my obstinacy and selfishness had been noted.

'Pringle is meowing,' she informed me testily, apparently adding animal cruelty to the list of my crimes.

So I bought her a tin opener for that last Christmas, an expensive model from a pretentious kitchenware boutique that had recently appeared at the lower end of Lordship Lane. It was well made, an ostentatious precision tool by which even Dora Mode of The Explorables' feeble hands would be able to open the toughest, craggiest tin of Whiskas. It was to be my replacement.

The stuffed owl was something to which she had specifically directed me with the words I'm going to tell you what I want for Christmas this year so that you don't mess it up again. We had seen the owls in one of Dulwich's many gift shops, suppliers of pretentious knick-knackery to the overmoneyed and vacuous. They were hand sewn from recycled materials, and each one sold funded the travel expenses of either Sting or Bono visiting a deprived village in Africa, or something of the sort. Dora Mode of The Explorables resembled an owl in a certain light, and seemed to have a thing about the creatures. I suspect she regarded an owl of some description as her spirit animal, but had probably decided I wouldn't understand and so had never deigned to discuss it.

Her world was informed by all manner of personal esoteric beliefs, mostly derived from wishy-washy new-age sources and self help literature - feng shui, the power of positive thinking, whatever drippy motivational crap was filling column inches that week - which could be adopted without having to think too hard about any of it. Anything which provided an explanation for why her life hadn't turned out quite how she wanted besides that which involved her own agency was always welcome. If she appeared unemployable, it might be a misaligned chair blocking the flow of ley lines emanating from the front room. She once took all the doors in the house off their hinges so as to allow for the free passage of positive energy, then had to put most of them back on when winter turned the place into an icebox. One element of this custom mythology was the colour red. Its apparent significance explained a home-made motivational message handwritten on a piece of paper and blutacked to the wall behind the telephone:

I am the red light that calls people to stop what they are doing, to come out to play and have fun.

Dora Mode of The Explorables' life coach had probably drawn this one up for her, or out of her or whatever. Unfortunately, Dora Mode of The Explorables' presence was not something which caused people to have fun in my experience, quite the opposite in fact; and no amount of motivational mantras were going to change that. I often wondered if it ever occurred to her that the associations of red lights were generally quite different, mostly serving as a warning or else prohibiting some action, both of which struck me as greatly more suited to her personality. Anyway, the point is that she liked red so I coughed up the twenty quid, bought the owl, and wrapped it in red paper.

The last Christmas came.

She opened the package containing the tin opener, and regarded it as though I'd bought her a butt plug for Christmas. She had taken it as a token of my sarcasm, which surprisingly it wasn't.

'That isn't your main present,' I squeaked, trying hard to appear confident, or at least to avoid sounding like I was delivering the apology she would almost certainly soon demand.

She opened the second box, carefully so as to avoid tearing the precious magic red paper. The stuffed owl sat inside its clear plastic packaging. Dora Mode of The Explorables stared at it for a moment before speaking. 'Did you keep the receipt?'

I tried to work out what could be wrong, given that she had specifically asked for this one. I felt a surge of panic bordering on terror. 'Yes. Do you not like it?'

'I wanted the red one.'

There had been a number of owls in the shop, all different colours, and I recalled that she had been looking at a red variant when we were there on the browse. The one I had bought was the last owl left, and was pale blue in colour.

I handed over the receipt and we didn't discuss it again. The next day I noticed that the red wrapping paper had been carefully flattened out and pinned on the wall as though it were a poster.

Months later, once we had separated following one of the most enjoyable rows I've ever had the pleasure to inspire, she admitted that the tin opener had come in very useful. She had grown determined to view our split as a trial separation at the end of which we would surely be reunited, all the stronger for the experience. She may simply have been scratching around for whatever she thought would make me happy, or she could have been telling the truth.

Years later, once the nightmare was finally over, I sold the vintage model railway track on eBay. It turned out that it wasn't in great condition, despite having the original box, and two lengths of the track that would have originally been included were absent.

Some bloke gave me a fiver for it.

Maybe I should have bought her a butt plug.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Bat Problem

One of the more aggravating aspects of being a postman - as I was for over two decades of my life - is dealing with dissatisfied members of the public, and managing to keep from losing one's rag in the face of severe provocation. Those to whom we deliver mail might find themselves justifiably aggrieved at a perceived drop in quality of service, in which case it always seemed important to listen carefully, and to reach for a full understanding of the nature of the complaint in order to resolve it. On the other hand the supposedly injured party was often simply some nutcase lacking the intelligence to spot when something was actually their fault and who, ill-suited to anything resembling responsibility, has decided that the most sensible course of action is to pick a fight with some poor fucker in a blue shirt. Generally such nutcases were easily identified by either the available evidence or basic common sense, and at least a few Royal Mail employees have held to the view that under such circumstances a little retaliation is sometimes justified because, contrary to the popular business mantra, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is very much mistaken; and sometimes the customer is a complete arsehole.

With regard to giving back a little of that which one has received, at the lowest end of the scale we have what might be termed permissible sarcasm, as deployed in situations where the complaint rests upon some factor beyond anyone's control.

'Excuse me, Postman,' the woman calls from her doorstep as torrential rain sluices across the garden path in sheets. She holds in her hand an envelope which has just come through the letterbox. 'Could you please tell me why my mail is wet this morning.'

Charlie Carr, a gentle old alcoholic presently soaked to the skin, having been working in the pouring rain for the previous hour and a half, smiles with the patience and good grace of John le Mesurier as he explains, 'I do apologise, madam. I really have no idea.'

Others have occasionally taken a more proactive approach, notably John Haddock who routinely told disgruntled members of the public to stuff contested or otherwise contentious items of mail up their arses, often reiterating the suggested direction of insertion with a helpfully illustrative hand gesture. Sadly, he had usually been given good reason for the suspension of the conventional etiquette of the complaints procedure.

Whilst certain complaints may be justified, others have ranged from the misinformed to the just plain annoying; for example, the albino gentleman in Crystal Palace Road who would regularly traipse up to the sorting office to complain that his mail, once through the letterbox of his front door, had landed on the wrong side of the hall he shared with the other tenant. After the third or fourth time he showed up to make the complaint, the boss himself went to the front desk and told the guy to piss off and to not bother coming back if he wished to continue getting any mail at all.

For some reason, I myself rarely had any significant trouble with enraged members of the general public wishing to know what was keeping the postal order that had been mailed to them back in 1963 or the like. Most times when people complained directly to me, it was usually something I was able to resolve, with a couple of exceptions.

There was the woman at the upper end of Lordship Lane who began to receive abusive mail from an unbalanced acquaintance, and because the unbalanced acquaintance was concerned that the abuse should reach the one to whom it was directed, had written additional instructions and advice on the back of the envelope for my benefit. By this means she informed me that she knew what was going on with the mail, and that I had better pack it in because she was watching, and she knew where I lived, and she was personal friends with the postmaster general, despite the fact that he hadn't existed since 1969 when the position was abolished under the Post Office Act.

The first of these letters was quite entertaining, at least for me, but they came every few days, each time with a weirder and more threatening message scribbled on the envelope for my benefit. Eventually I told the boss, and he had some Royal Mail internal security people investigate. The letters stopped.

The next campaign of this kind came a few years later, written upon the envelopes of mail addressed to someone living at 2, Glengarry Road. The messages implied that I consistently misdelivered this mail to some other specific address, and the person living there was reposting the mail with helpful words of advice scribbled across the envelope: Why don't you learn to read?, in the crabby handwriting of someone apparently shaking with anger, or buy a pair of glasses!

The problem for me was that, regarding setting this one right, the mechanism of whatever postal screw up had inspired these messages was unclear, although it seemed reasonable to assume that I had accidentally delivered these letters to an address other than 2, Glengarry Road. I rang the bell at 2, Glengarry Road and the door was eventually answered by a woman of considerable age. I explained that I was apparently in the habit of misdelivering her mail and apologised for the testy annotations written by some anonymous third party. I tried to assure her that I would do my best to make sure that it did not happen again. I had been delivering to this particular route of around eight-hundred houses regularly for at least a couple of years. I knew most of the people to whom I delivered mail by name, and it's not like I ever had days where I thought to myself, you know, I don't think I'll bother reading the addresses this morning. I'll just stick this crap in any old letter box. I doubt anyone will notice.

The old woman didn't seem to quite know who I was or what I was talking about. She held the letters in her shrunken hand and stared at them. 'I think these must be for Donald,' she said eventually. 'They aren't mine.'

I could see past her that the house had been divided into two flats, upstairs and downstairs, as were a few dwellings of this type along the same road. She was not the only occupant.

Still, despite my best efforts, the letters kept coming back to me every couple of months, the same address and the increasingly abusive comments: It's no wonder Royal Mail is failing so bad when they employ idiots like you, and then the bewildering have you got a bat problem? in furious upper case. My eyesight, intelligence, and parentage had been called into question and it was beginning to piss me off.

About twenty yards from 2, Glengarry Road was 2A, Glengarry Road, another house divided into flats stood upon the corner with East Dulwich Grove. It had occurred to me that the most obvious possible mistake was that I had been mixing up the mail of these two addresses, so I had been extremely careful to avoid doing so. I therefore assumed that if, despite my best efforts, I really had still been delivering mail addressed for one to the letterbox of the other, then I probably had a brain tumour or some major cognitive dysfunction. I called at 2A, Glengarry Road with the letter addressed to 2, Glengarry Road, the one which had been returned with the suggestion that I might have a bat problem. The girl who answered the door denied ever having accused me of having a bat problem and, to my surprise, recognised the name of the person to which the letter was addressed. He lived in the flat above her own.

At last I understood.

An individual living at 2A, Glengarry Road was sent mail by a person or persons who had assumed that the A detail referred to his occupation of a flat within a building rather than to the building itself, and was therefore wrongly addressing his mail to 2, Glengarry Road, which is where I'd been delivering it. Whilst I was able to remember the names of many people to whom I delivered mail, this tended to break down where multiple occupancies were concerned, there usually being too many names to recall, and so many tenants coming and going that it was difficult to keep track.

Therefore there was a person living at 2, Glengarry Road other than the old woman, and a person who had accused me of having a bat problem because his receiving incorrectly addressed mail was apparently destroying his life, and somehow this was my fault. There followed another few months of my keeping an eye on the names at the two addresses before I at last worked out who I was dealing with.

His name was Donald Jones. He was in his late fifties and had already distinguished himself as potentially seeming a little rude. He always wore a battered leather jacket and leather trousers, all fully zipped up as though having recently arrived by motorcycle. He had a sour, unkind face, and walked slowly as though having shat himself. I'd said good morning to him a couple of times, as I did to everyone because there's never a good reason not to, but he would never respond, instead regarding me with apparent disdain as though I'd greeted him with what's up, gangsta? I didn't bother after that. It's not like you have to be friends with everyone.

The day finally came. He shuffled towards me along the pavement, as ever in the leathers.

'Excuse me, might I ask if you've been having some problem with your mail of late?'

He spoke with the voice of a tiny rodent, a faint noise like someone drawing back a curtain in an old house. 'The letters for next door keep coming to us. Our regular postman—'

'I've been your regular postman for about three years now. By next door I assume you mean 2A, Glengarry Road.'

'No, I live at—'

'You live at 2, Glengarry Road. I know. You're getting mail for the house on the corner though?'

The uncomfortable half-smile faded a little. 'I know it's not you. When you're on holiday and they put another postman on—'

'Oh you see but it is me, because I haven't been on holiday since about September. You see the thing is that in situations such as this I tend to recommend that when a wrongly delivered letter comes to your house, a letter which should have been delivered next door, the best course of action is usually to walk twenty yards along the road and deliver it yourself instead of writing silly messages on the envelope before walking two-hundred yards to the nearest pillar box in order to make a point.'

His faint little voice began to crack, and I wondered if he was about to start crying. 'It happens every day,' he squeaked. 'It's too much. It's all the time.'

To my surprise, I was enjoying this. 'And that would be where you're wrong because, as I say, I've been delivering to both addresses uninterrupted since September, so I know that when you say every day you actually mean that it's happened maybe a few times, perhaps every six weeks or so.'

He made another noise. He seemed to be physically decreasing in size.

I continued. 'Whilst I appreciate that the offending letters of doom should have been addressed to 2A, Glengarry Road, they weren't and have therefore been correctly delivered by myself because that's my job, so all the shit you've been writing on the envelopes about how I need glasses or should learn to read has been somewhat off target, and I can really do without having remarks of that kind directed at me first thing in the morning, do you know what I'm saying?'

I paused for breath and to take stock of whether I'd said all that I had intended to say. I was finding this encounter strangely cathartic. Ordinarily I find myself tongue tied or babbling incoherent crap when speaking in anger, but for once it felt like I was channelling Peter Cook at his most acerbic. It felt great.

'As for whether or not I've got a bat problem - that doesn't even make sense. I mean I suppose you were once again trying to make some biting commentary about my supposedly terrible eyesight somehow based on my delivering letters to the addresses which are actually written on the fucking envelopes, but it doesn't really work, does it? Have you got a bat problem? You really need to get back to your team of writers and have a word with them about that one.'

He mumbled sorry about a thousand times and wilted off in the direction of Lordship Lane, shell-shocked by my righteous testimony. I had met his kind many times before in and around Dulwich, always the most vocally liberal until some underclass minimum wage functionary short changes them at the whole food joint and they turn into the Duke of Wellington horsewhipping a shopgirl. Donald had clearly imagined I would be chastened, perhaps even devastated by the force of his vicious satire, that I would wither as I faced the terrible truth of his learn how to read and have you got a bat problem? Being a shit-thick blue collar manual labouring schmoe I would be too busy thinking about beer, tits, and football to ever defend my crime, and so he had looked as though he'd quacked his pants once he realised I wasn't quite the thick working class tosspot he'd bargained for.

Years later I discovered that Donald was supposedly an artist of some note, or at least of some note amongst the sort of people who make it their business to note such things. He suffered from some kind of debilitating illness which was to account for the tortoisey quality of his shuffling gait.

Donald's partner was described by Edna Mode from The Incredibles - with whom I was romantically involved at the time - as my mate Steve, which meant that she had met him at a private view and they had exchanged pleasantries for about a minute. He and Donald worked together as artists, and as usual I was supposed to be impressed by this. My mate Steve produced mosaics and sculptures, and had been in Time Out or something of that sort. I looked him up on the internet, and immediately recognised the guy. I often passed him on the street whilst out on delivery, and we always said good morning to each other because I assumed he was probably someone to whom I delivered mail, and when you pass someone on the street every day, after a while it becomes more embarrassing to ignore them than to exchange a polite greeting. Of course I didn't realise my mate Steve was Donald's partner until I looked him up following some unrelated suggestion originated by Edna Mode from The Incredibles. This explained why I had seen my mate Steve with such frequency, specifically that he had been visiting his partner, and it explained the sculptures I had noticed in Donald's front garden on one occasion, two concrete pillars decorated with shattered fragments of colourful ceramics.

The pillars were, I suppose, totem poles shaped so as to resemble mugs and cups stacked on top of one another, because they had been commissioned by Blue Mountain Coffee in Northcross Road, so mugs and cups - coffee and tea - do you see? Donald and my mate Steve also provided the mosaic design at the front of the coffee place, yet more fragments arranged to depict cups and spelling out words like coffee and aroma, which is quite ingenious when you really think about it.

I'd almost made Donald cry, and now I saw him in a new light. He was a sensitive artist and there was someone who loved him. Yet still he was the man who had asked me whether I had a bat problem, who had asked me whether I was able to read.

More than a decade later and it seems that whatever was wrong with Donald got the better of him, and so he is no longer with us, and once again I find myself thinking ill of the dead. I'm sure he was a lovely man to those who knew him; but that isn't the same as saying he was incapable of being a dick; and in all honesty I don't think I've ever enjoyed educating someone as to the extent of their own petty, mean-spirited bullshit as I did during those few minutes.

That was a great day.

Friday, 7 November 2014


Signing on for a three year fine art degree at Maidstone College of Art back in September 1984 was a big move for me. I'd just turned nineteen and probably had not previously been away from home for longer than a couple of days. I was loosely familiar with beer and the genitalia of one specific member of the opposite sex, but I was otherwise generally naive; and now I was living in Kent amongst complete strangers. Home was Warwickshire, which may as well have been on Mars, or so it seemed at the time.

Whilst I was doing my best to remain open-minded to new experiences, I had developed a general scepticism regarding poetry as something which really wasn't for me. What poetry I'd been obliged to read at school and then in further education would, so I believed at the time, have worked better either converted to prose or set to music, and poets themselves seemed a self-involved bunch. Admittedly I didn't have a great wealth of experience with poets amongst my vague circle of friends, but I'd watched The Young Ones on the box, and Steve the poet with whom I now shared a student house in Leeds Village was doing nothing to disabuse me of the impression fostered by Rik Mayall directing condescending odes at his enemies. Steve was both funny and amiable at a certain level, but I always had the feeling of everything being part of some larger chess game to him. He was barely able to buy a packet of crisps without it resembling strategy. His poems, so far as I could tell, amounted to everybody stop what you're doing and look at me. He almost certainly would have told me about the Medway Poets, about Billy Childish and Bill Lewis - these being people he clearly admired - but it wouldn't have made much sense to me. As I say, I wasn't really drawn to poetry as a medium.

Traci Emin, a noisy Turkish girl in second-year printmaking was in the habit of scaling tables in the college canteen to announce some event or other, and she would do this roughly every two or three days. The events for which she evangelised were rarely ever anything which caught my interest, and I wasn't sure what to make of the girl, so I generally paid her no attention. She knew Carl, then Student Union president, one of the first people I got to know at Maidstone, and still a close friend today. Carl had briefly introduced me to Traci, just as she barged into our conversation to haggle over Student Union business of some kind. She scowled at me and observed isn't your 'air 'orrible! with her wonky gob, dropping the aitches like a younger, vaguely Turkish Irene Handl.

Charmed, I'm sure, I didn't bother replying as I began to weep bitter internal tears of self-loathing.

Now she stood on the canteen table bellowing like a lonely mountain goat, and the words resolved into something about a poetry reading in one of the lecture theatres. My curiosity outstripped my scepticism as I recognised the name of one of those who was to read - Billy Childish. I didn't know much about him, beyond whatever it was that Steve had told me, but apparently he was a local name of some distinction. I now realised that I had read about his band, the Milkshakes, in Sounds music paper a year or so earlier. I'd never heard their music, but it seemed like it might be interesting to watch some bloke who had been in Sounds reading out his poems, and it was something to do.

The hour came and the lecture theatre was dark with just a table at the front. Billy Childish had short, severe hair and wore what appeared to be his grandad's demob suit. He didn't smile. He didn't look like a man who had ever found any good reason to smile. In the midst of flourishes of artistic flamboyance, he appeared streamlined, efficient, even ruthless. He rattled off his poetry as though reading out a statement in a police interview room. He demonstrated neither charisma nor stagecraft, a deficit which seemed curiously highly charismatic in its own way. He sounded bored, as though he was trying to get through the fucking things as quickly as possible. The performance was, in spite of itself, incredible.

Then there was Bill Lewis, loud, theatrical, and intense. It was poetry performed more as I had anticipated it would be, and yet it was impossible to keep from being swept along by the force of his words and their delivery. He had a presence with which one could not argue.

Traci later made an announcement to the effect that she was selling various books of Billy Childish poetry. I had a hunch that I would regret it if I didn't go and see what she had, and so I did. I ended up buying the lot - Poems from the Barrier Block, Prity Thing, Will the Circle Be Unbroken and five or six others. Poems from the Barrier Block was a proper square bound collection, but the others were slimmer volumes of cranky dyslexic verse - if you could really call it verse - all hammered out on a broken typewriter. There were few concessions to grammar or spelling, but for want of a better qualifier, you could tell it was the real thing, the genuine article:

t.v. poetry scotch n piss

the t.v. said - 'we wanna make a film'
they said 'you read with this group of poets'
so i said 'yeah'
n they get us to do some readings
n this producer said to me -
'yeah great stuff - this is your program - you make it - we just film it' n i said 'yeah'

the contract said -
they give us a couple of qwid
for the filming then they could
use the film anytime they liked
with no payment
they said time place n the way to dress
this was ment to be a documentary about the real stuff

well a thew qwids a thew qwid so i said 'yeah' n signed
i got a cigar of one t.v. bloke n a double scotch of another
i went to the bog

i couldnt find the gents so i went to the ladys
i put me scotch down n had a piss
most of it got in the bowl
but some spatered in me scotch

it stank of piss but i drank it anyway
Reproduced without permission and probably (c) Billy Childish June 1982.

The oldest of the books I had bought was called The Man with Wheels, dating from 1980 and revealing Billy's formative interest in Kurt Schwitters, which made one hell of a lot of sense to me. I could see the progression. His poems were made of the dirt and the rubbish. They were unvarnished - raw and invigorating. Poetry had been men in silk cravats scoffing vol-au-vents and spicing overly elaborate love poems to unremarkable girls with a naughty word here and there, not so much to let us know that they were themselves from the mean streets, but that they knew at least one chap who was, and he was a really splendid fellow with his working class accent and leather jacket. Whatever Billy Childish was doing, it bore no relation to such distractions. It was not something in which he dabbled for the sake of something to do. It seemed like he was writing in an effort to keep himself from braining someone.

Some of the books were signed for Traci, with love - Billy, or addressing her more intimately as Dolli. The two of them had been romantically involved for a while, and I guess that this was around the time they began to drift apart; and so she sold me his old stuff, the books he'd had printed and had dedicated to her.

Over the next couple of years I became acclimatised to Kent, it being the county in which my adult personality was formed, adult in this case quantifying age rather than development. Finishing at Maidstone, I moved to nearby Chatham because half the people I knew seemed to live there by that point, and the town had some great bands. In fact the town had a scene in the sense by which Liverpool and Manchester have on occasion been described as having scenes. There were pubs which put on gigs, bands which played live and even put out records, fanzines, poets, artists, and people generally doing their own thing regardless of whether anyone else liked it.

Alun Jones of the Dentists said that Chatham, or specifically the larger Medway conurbation of which Chatham was part, was in some respects like a northern town transplanted to the south of England. At the time I rolled my eyes a little, having come to resent the popular cliché of the north of England as some sort of cultural Mecca inhabited by a friendlier, more down-to-earth, somehow more valuable people. I've never found people in the north of England significantly friendlier than those in the south, nor more culturally vital, and as for down-to-earth...

What would I need with your fancy book learning and your so-called toilet paper and indoor lavatories? I'm down-to-earth, me.

Nevertheless, Alun was right. Medway was a reasonably tightly knit community with its own distinct identity founded upon a major naval dockyard established in the 1500s and significantly expanded during the industrial revolution, around the same time as all those sprawling northern towns founded upon coal, iron, weaving and Hovis advertsing. Even in the 1980s Medway felt like the setting of Ada's Apron or some other typically harrowing television drama in which pramfaced chain-smoking schoolgirls made veiled references to men's cocks and disapproving matriarchs would address each other as chuck from across the washing line. It was the rain-soaked rooftops of utilitarian housing, row after row after cramped bricky row of hardened smokers coughing up their lungs in time to Herman's Hermits. You get the picture.

Within weeks of my settling in to the septic tank I had rented in Glencoe Road, I discovered Gruts café, a small establishment just before the railway bridge on Chatham High Street. A couple of summers earlier, my friends and I had discovered Ivor Cutler and had become so quickly and dramatically obsessed with his haunting monologues that by the time school came back around in September we were having trouble shaking off the soft Glaswegian lilt we'd developed during the holidays.

I walked past the café a couple of times, deeply impressed that there could be an eaterie named after one of my favourite Ivor Cutler pieces. Eventually I summoned the courage to go in, probably having at last spotted someone I vaguely knew sat on the other side of the glass. Being unemployed and without access to a television by which I could watch children's programmes and other daytime broadcasting at the taxpayer's expense, I became a regular customer at Gruts; and given the pitiful state of both my cooking and the cupboard which served as my pantry, the toasted ham and cheese sandwiches prepared and served by Gerald and Caroline - mine hosts - were probably what kept me alive long enough to see the nineties.

I had mastered the art of sitting around in pubs a few years earlier, and had reached the stage at which one realises that it can sometimes be fun to walk in a straight line or to wake in the morning without a splitting headache; and so I quickly adapted to the Chatham equivalent of café society because it was cheaper than the pub and better than sitting at home. Of the regulars I already knew there was the aforementioned Alun of the Dentists and Prez of the Martini Slutz, one of the most entertaining bands I've ever seen live. Tim Webster of the Sputniks and later Johnny Gash ran his own musical instrument repair business out of a workshop over the road, and would wander across for lunch with his apprentice, Tim O'Leary - lunch being one of Gerald's guitar maker's fancies, which Tim O'Leary recalls as being possibly the best egg mayo baguettes I've ever had.

Bill Lewis has written of Gruts as having been known as the poets' café. I don't remember this at all, although maybe that's because I was never a poet. The description is probably justified by the regular presence of himself and Billy Childish, and even Sexton Ming on a couple of occasions. I got to know Bill Lewis fairly well as it turned out that we were almost neighbours and had mutual interests. Any idea I've ever ripped off from an American underground comic artist can most likely be traced back to the huge stack of comics by Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, Skip Williamson and others that Bill sold me. Bill would drop around for tea and tell me about Sandinistas and his time in Nicaragua, tales from a world I was yet to discover. I tried to paint his portrait, but my efforts were so awful that I threw the thing away. Like Billy Childish, he seemed in some ways a man out of time, someone who always seemed like he should have known Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce; but it was only that he contrasted so dramatically with the feckless apathy of our respective generations.

I had never been introduced to Billy Childish and was slightly in awe of him. He was an imposing presence before which I was sore afraid, suspecting that whatever came out of my mouth would probably be dog shit.

Excuse me, Mr. Billy, I think your poems are really ace!

Happily the fears of my inner teenage girl fell by the wayside as Billy spent so much time in Gruts that my self-consciously marinading in silent awe whilst attempting to effect nonchalance in the presence of relative greatness became impractical, and obviously ridiculous. Aside from anything, it turned out that he was, if not exactly a nice guy by conventionally sappy terms, thoughtful, ruthlessly honest, and very, very funny. He was also pretty good at chess, a game I'd only recently been taught by Tim Webster and Prez one afternoon as we sat in the café slurping tea and smoking. The game became something of an obsession, and I took to playing every day, but unfortunately everyone else was better than me. I played Billy, and the match was over in about four minutes. He wiped me off the board. He'd spent most of that time staring out of the window or talking to Gerald. His matches against Alun, Prez or Tim Webster lasted longer, and were more enjoyable for the spectator. I seem to recall that he usually won, although I could be mistaken.

An exchange student from Germany named Andreas became a regular for a couple of weeks. He and Billy would talk about Hamburg, and he too was drawn into the never ending chess tournament. After one particularly long, drawn-out game he beat Tim Webster and Billy bought everyone a round of tea in celebration.

'I don't get it,' I said. 'It's not like this is the first time anyone has beaten Tim.'

'I know.' Billy sported the faintly disturbing smile of Harry H. Corbett. 'But this is the first time he's had an international thrashing.'

Gruts became much more than just a place to hang out with friends and talk crap. It became our place, almost a livelihood. Poets and writers sold their work from a small bookcase next to the counter, and Billy's own Hangman Records had taken to releasing an album more or less every month - beautifully pressed brand new long playing vinyl records of himself, Sexton Ming, the Pop Rivets, and others, and these were joined by releases from the Dentists' Tambourine label. Even the subject matter was locally sourced in Wally the 2nd Hand Salesman - one of the noisier compositions on Sexton Ming's Which Dead Donkey Daddy? album - being named for Wally, the proprietor of a junk shop just on the other side of the bridge. Billy had gone in there to give the man himself a copy of the record, so he told us. Wally had mumbled some token of potential gratitude and tossed the album into an open trunk full of rusting nuts, bolts, spanners and the like. He didn't really seem like a big record collector.

'Well, that's nicely filed away for future reference,' Billy observed, although I'm not sure if that was what he said to Wally or simply part of his account as told to the rest of us.

The albums were a fiver each, which meant that Gruts actually served as a better record shop than Our Price a few hundred yards along the road, not that Our Price was really up to much in the first place.

At one stage, I hung a load of my own pseudo-Futurist paintings on the walls of the café, following on from previous exhibitions by Billy and others. Mine weren't for sale, but the main point was that they were seen, and this even drew interest from the local newspaper, the Chatham Standard, who sent Judith Mullarkey along to do a short feature on me. The first entry in my comments book came from Billy:

I've seen this man's work before, and I said, and say it again - to the funny farm with him!

Sometimes we would watch the local crazy woman as she passed by outside, shouting mysterious accusations at the river. She too seemed to appreciate the art, and once dutifully came in to hand Gerald a drawing she'd produced of crabs at large on Easter Egg Island, according to the caption. Her technique wasn't great, but you had to admire the spirit in which it was done.

For a while life seemed to revolve around Gruts to the point that my friend Carl phoned the café on a couple of occasions, knowing I would be there, sat on my arse and weighing up my employment options. As I had no telephone, it was a better option than calling directly at my bedsit in the hope of my being at home.

It felt like being part of a family, and at the same time, because of all the stuff that was going on in and around Medway, it felt like we were part of history even at the time. It felt as though one day we would all be looking back and recalling where we were when we first heard Billy's calypso cover of Anarchy in the UK.

We were in Gruts, obviously.

He'd just bought in a freshly minted stack of the Blackhands album, and Gerald had stuck it on the record player so we could all have a listen. Some people remember seeing the Beatles at the Cavern Club, and some of us remember Gruts.

Naturally it didn't last, there being a limit to how much tea anyone could reasonably be expected to drink in a single afternoon, and although the place was nearly always full, or at least rarely ever empty, whatever Gerald and Caroline were making out of it wasn't enough. They closed, and it became the Bridge Roll, a well intentioned but similarly doomed tea room style café with laminated Gingham tablecloths run by a couple of middle-aged women, whose enthusiasm reminded me of my grandmother once harbouring an ambition of being known as good for a cup of tea and a bun amongst long distance truck drivers. The Bridge Roll wasn't terrible, but the new decor had the feel of something aspiring to the custom of a better class of diner, or at least better than we were.

Like all good things, it was over.