Friday, 25 April 2014

The Job


At some point during February 1989 I made an entry in my notebook suggesting that anyone in possession of jiffy bags already containing dog poo or other unpleasant substance of a kind you really wouldn't wish to receive in the mail, might like to address them to Dennis Landers of Lapwing Close, Lordswood, Chatham, Kent. The entry is written as though addressing those representatives of a future generation who would one day find my notebook an endlessly fascinating glimpse into the formative years of a great artist, cartoonist, musician, or master of some other craft upon which I hadn't yet quite decided, but which would be easier than working.

I'd bought the notebook earlier that month, without quite knowing why, and had taken to carrying it around with me, presumably in the event of my witnessing any occurrence so momentous as to warrant taking notes. John Jasper who lived in Gordon Road and who wrote darkly hilarious Pinteresque plays for his own amusement always seemed to have a notebook about his person, and I had adopted the habit in case there was something in it.

A slightly later entry dated to Monday the 27th of February 1989 reads as follows:

Chaos is the absence of order and hence in one sense an artificially imposed state of being. Also it could be said that it does not exist, being as mankind is as much a part of nature as is weather. A nuclear reactor is in a sense no less natural and no less a part of chaos than a dog turd or an owl pellet. If all is chaos, including order (within that chaos - true order can only be imposed from outside) then there is no chaos just as there is no night without day. Order cannot derive from or be produced by chaos by the very nature of chaos.

In the same way, good is surely some form of evil. Evil is the absence of empathy. An animal killing for food cannot be considered evil - it is killing for food to sustain itself, and empathy does not enter into it. Killing for pleasure alone could be said to be evil for the motivation bears no relation to the continued existence of the killer. Hence the death is meaningless. If the killer could truly experience the feelings of the victim - empathise - then they would not be able to see that the fear outweighs their pleasure. However, this is rarely considered. The human race seems to be 99% incapable of empathy and is by this definition evil. This would go some way towards explaining why Dennis Landers is such an utter wanker.

Suffice to say, I was not overly fond of Dennis Landers.

To start at one of many possible beginnings, by June 1988 I'd been unemployed for almost a full year, and had been regularly obliged to attend a daily DHSS initiative known as Job Club for most of that time, one of those soul sapping exercises in governmental number crunching entailing a lot of enforced bonhomie and the sort of jargon by which even the act of scraping effluvia from between the cracks in the tile floor of a public lavatory can be redefined as an opportunity.

'They're making you attend Job Club?' one of my friends observed with a sceptical and yet amused frown, 'but you can already read and write, can't you?'

'Ha ha,' I conceded.

Glenn Wallis referred to it as Joke Club, and Alun Jones would make wisecracks about whether or not I'd had a chance to play in the sandpit that day.

We would spend three mornings a week tarting up our CVs, seeking opportunities in local newspapers, using the DHSS telephone to enquire after possible vacancies, or writing out applications. I seemed to make an impression on the young woman who led the group and occasionally gave us pep talks involving flip charts and further overuse of the word opportunity. Specifically she was impressed by how many applications and speculative letters I was sending out, thanks to stationary and postage stamps paid for by the Great British Taxpayer. She was less impressed when she read one of my speculative letters. The glue on the envelope had apparently failed, and my letter had fallen onto her desk before she could take preventative measures in order to keep herself from accidentally reading the whole thing.

Glenn Wallis had somehow come by a postal address pertaining to the group Yello, the Swiss electronic band of which we were both fans. I had written asking if they had any jobs available and whether they could be induced to listen to a tape of my own music. For this introductory letter I'd adopted a fairly informal, conversational, even chatty tone. This really wasn't what Job Club was about, my group leader explained, now coming around to a revised impression of me as a cranky and probably unemployable weirdo - which on reflection may have been a reasonable assessment.

Her suspicions had been aroused by the great number of speculative letters I'd been sending out in comparison to what few responses were coming back. Equally curious was my status as longest serving Job Club member, having put in close to a full year's loyal jobseekage when the average dole scrounging sponge monkey usually lasted about three months before ascending to their employment destiny either at a burger bar or as one of the local council's elite litter picking team. Twelve proud months and I hadn't yet fooled anyone into even granting me an interview. The problem seemed to be that I was limiting my applications to jobs I thought I could stand to do, and for which I was in some way qualified.

Grudgingly I conceded to take what my group leader termed a more inclusive approach, applying for jobs I either couldn't do or didn't want. This secured me an interview with a corporate design company in Gravesend. The interviewer explained that my application had seemed so peculiar that they just had to bring me in to see what the hell I was about, given that I had neither experience nor interest in corporate design. In interview terms I was a palate cleanser, although on the positive side, the Great British Taxpayers paid my train fare, so thanks for that, you lot!

Then came the missive from Royal Mail, specifically an interview date. It hadn't occurred to me that they would bother to reply, but I guess they replied to everyone. Having disliked the necessity of doing a paper round as a kid, I wasn't sure if I really wanted to engage myself with the grown-up version, but the appeal of actually getting paid for something I could do was overwhelming.

I was interviewed by a man named Cliff, an unambiguous authority figure with the moustache of a detective inspector from a cop show. He was personable, but wasn't interested in making friends. He asked me about art college, about my fine art degree. I had been doing my best to sound like a normal person, someone unfettered by the sort of absurd ambition that would render them  unreliable in the workplace. I would not be pulling a sickie because I wished to go and see the Brancusi at the Southbank Centre.

'I'm not really interested in that,' I said. 'It's all behind me now.'

The words sounded fake as I spoke them, about as convincing as  John Simon Ritchie's no more heroin for me, thank you very much, but apparently they were what Cliff had wanted to hear. I was the correct man for the job.

A week later I was sat in a room in the Best Street sorting office taking an aptitude test with eight or nine other applicants. Amongst these were Mike Barfoot and Mr. Logic. Mike was probably a nice enough lad, although I never really found out because he was from Newcastle and I literally couldn't understand a single word he said. Mr. Logic was a tall, skinny youth with a huge chin and pudding-bowl haircut resembling the character from Viz comic but for his unsettling, staring eyes. He delighted in regaling anyone within earshot of random facts and observations as they occurred to him.

'Now that is what is known as a U-matic video recorder,' he informed us in his slightly nasal voice, smiling as he indicated the video player by which we had just viewed an instructional video describing the life that awaited us as part of the Royal Mail family.

No-one had asked, but then none of Mr. Logic's previous addresses had been requested either. We were all hoping he would shut up, but he began to explain how U-matic video recorders are used by professionals working for large television companies.

'I know,' I interrupted with enough volume to make it clear that I knew I was interrupting. 'I've just finished a three-year degree course specialising in video. I know it's a U-matic recorder. I've used them before, many times.'

I may have sounded like a wanker, but he started it, and it did at least shut him up for a few minutes.

The aptitude test had taken half an hour or so, comprising a booklet of multiple choice questions testing basic ability to reason, to spot the difference, and that sort of thing. I couldn't imagine anyone being unable to pass it. Nevertheless only Mike Barfoot, Mr. Logic and myself made it through from the original group. Given that a seagull probably could have passed the aptitude test, I suspect the other four or five simply hadn't been able to face the prospect of working with Mr. Logic. They needn't have worried. After three weeks of explaining different types of spigot or finding himself inspired to oratory by certain door hinges, he stopped turning up, apparently having found the work more demanding than he'd anticipated.

It was indeed more physically demanding than I myself had expected - carrying fifteen or so kilos around on one's back for a couple of hours every day and starting work at five in the morning - but it was good exercise and I quickly got used to it.

Slightly more terrifying were my colleagues, or so it seemed to me. They were white working class males of various ages, and most of them were interested in drinking and football, and there were only three females working in the entire building, excluding canteen staff. I had come from the same socio-economic background, but I didn't like football, and I did like reading books and had spent three years at art college. I had no problem with them, but felt it likely that they would view me with suspicion, hostility, or at least some mockery on account of my occasional use of long, fancy words. I knew that it would be vital that I blend in to some degree, that I attract no undue attention, at least until I had enough of an understanding of the environment to appear sociable without coming across like David Attenborough amongst the bonobos.

I'd already shot myself in the proverbial foot by having a strategic haircut prior to interview in an attempt to make myself seem employable. I had grown my hair at least as long as that of any member of a 1960s psychedelic band and hadn't had it cut for years, and being a cheapskate I asked a friend - Sue Chinn - if she could have a go at it. Sue did a great job but for having to battle against my whining resentment of a world in which a haircut equated to improved employment prospects. Fearful of leaving me so radically shorn as to induce trauma, she held back, and ended up unwittingly styling my hair in a pseudo-medieval form reminiscent of that worn by Rowan Atkinson in the first series of Blackadder. A few years later at least two thirds of the population of Manchester would sport the same look whilst declaring themselves mad for it, but it was 1988 in Chatham, and I was less able to pass my appearance of as resulting from a love of either having it large or anything that might be considered top.

At Royal Mail I was immediately given the name Baldrick, because although my haircut bore no resemblance to that of the character played by Tony Robinson, the fictional Edmund Blackadder was given to frequently calling out the name when requiring the attention of his servant. I tried to point out how as a nickname it didn't actually quite work, and was essentially the same as naming someone Mr. Grimsdale because they resembled Norman Wisdom; but it worked for my new colleagues in so much as it made everyone laugh, and that was the point.

Communication became difficult, because introductions could not be effected when the other person already knew me as Baldrick, and already had a few ready formulated lines by which to take the piss, usually quotes from episodes of Blackadder with the humorous content replaced by something more directly pertinent to life at Royal Mail. The fact that I found this slightly annoying only served to make it seem all the more funny amongst my colleagues, and so I kept myself almost entirely to myself for at least the first six weeks. I was there to do a job rather than to make friends. I had nothing against my colleagues beyond those few keeping the Baldrick jokes going, but neither did I have any strong desire to accumulate friends just for the sake of it.

Of those my own age, there were few with whom I really had much in common. The loudest were Ian Young - imaginatively nicknamed Youngie - and Nappy. I never found out Nappy's real name, but the nickname was apparently an oblique reference to his behavioural age. They would laugh hysterically at each other's jokes.

'My girlfriend asked me if I loved her last night,' Youngie reported over his egg and chips in the snooker room next to the canteen. He spoke quickly, and I sometimes found it difficult to catch what he said.

'Yeah?' posited Nappy, grinning in anticipation of a punchline.

'I told her to fuck off,' Youngie guffawed.

Nappy laughed, throwing his head back and shaking his mullet like an excitable Bay City Roller.

Those who regarded these two as the heart and soul of the sorting office either laughed, or at least grinned so as not to appear too craven. I didn't laugh.

'How's it going, Balders?' Youngie grinned at me. Baldrick had been shortened to the less formal Balders.

'It's going fine.'

'Good old Balders.' He paused in the name of comic timing.  'What a cunt!'

Oh how we laughed, except for me. I knew it would be pointless to even attempt to compete whilst Youngie's team of writers kept him supplied with material of such calibre.

The Gay Bandalero would smile broadly, just enough to show his allegiance without openly joining in with the humiliation of a colleague who might one day make fun of his own considerable weight and resemblance to a Russ Abbot Show version of a stereotypical Mexican bandit. His name was Phil, and his presence served to illustrate how Mr. Logic might have worked out had he stuck with the job and developed a sense of humour. Working next to Phil became something of a chore because he would spend the time either congratulating Nappy on the most recent hilarious remark, or otherwise taking his work far too seriously. Despite my being slightly older, he briefly seemed to imagine himself as Yoda to my young padawan, officiously instructing me in the performance of tasks I already understood quite well, and with which I'd coped just fine over the previous six months.

I had been taught by an older postman called Pete, a likeable old clown who frowned quietly to himself when he heard me addressed as Baldrick. In my first week he took me out on his regular walk - Snodhurst Avenue and Harptree Drive in Walderslade. We would return to the sorting office after the first delivery, usually to a hail of jokes about how little I would learn from my mentor.

'The blind leading the blind, I call it,' Pete would agree.

By the second week I was doing the walk myself without a safety net. The job really wasn't that difficult to pick up.

'How you getting on with it?' Nigel asked.

There were seven or eight of us all sat in the back of a Royal Mail transit van being driven out to Walderslade. I was perched upon the wheel arch watching the tarmac as we motored along. The rear roller door was open and the sun was coming up over Magpie Hall Road. It was a strange moment, one of those that inspire one to ask how did I get here? It felt as though we were going off to war.


Six o'clock in the morning,
And I'm the last person in this plane still awake.
Y'know I can almost smell the blood washing against the shores,
Of this land that can't forget its past.


Nigel was a young soul boy, traditionally my enemy according to the sort of morons I tended to listen to as a teenager. He chewed gum constantly, wore dazzling white socks, and rarely cracked a smile without good reason. He seemed to regard both Nappy and Youngie as idiots. He was all right.

'It's okay, I suppose,' I said in reference to the job. I had a fear I might suddenly find myself talking about Viennese performance art or something else that would expose me as being out of my depth.

'Better than the old jam roll though, innit!'

'Jam roll?'

'The dole. It's better than signing on, yeah?'

'Oh yes.'

I didn't say anything about being called Baldrick, or my dislike of the nickname. It was something I knew I just had to take in my stride. I was trying to get along with people. Eventually I got there, or at least most of the way. Eventually I began to feel at home, and had earned the luxury of being able to regard some of my colleagues as dicks, if that was what they were.

'Oh yes,' Phil observed in the wake of another wisecrack. 'He's a damn fine postman is Nappy, a damn fine postman.' He affected a far away look with which to garnish his retired colonel style delivery. The comment was predicated on the assumption that we all enjoyed Nappy's humour, so I said nothing.

By Christmas I had come to the realisation that most of the staff were okay, and most of them were also very funny without needing to submit regular broadcasts to the rest of us. There was Steve, who called me Baldrick with more venomous enthusiasm than anyone, and whose main hobby was starting fights outside Gillingham night clubs on Saturday evening, but who had a kind of brutal honesty about him that was difficult to dislike; and there was Johnny Hollands, a man approaching retirement age who still wore the older grey uniform, and whose patter recalled the sauce of the London music hall, which as such had me crying with laughter on a regular basis; and Henry who became my regular van driver, a little round man resembling Roy Kinnear who was probably the first person I could have called a friend at Royal Mail. I'd weathered the first six months of bullshit and conversational equivalents of being sent to the stores for a tin of striped paint without too much flinching, and I had achieved a degree of acceptance. I was a postman rather than a former art student, and only a few people continued to refer to me as Baldrick, presumably having tired of my continuing failure to react. These were Nappy and Youngie whom I'd come to regard as harmless if not particularly funny clowns; and Dennis Landers, who seemed to hate me for no reason I fully understood.

Dennis was middle aged with thick glasses which reduced each eye to a vague tadpole swimming around behind a crystal ball. He would burst into song without warning - I like it, I like it, but only ever that opening line of the one crappy song by Gerry and his bloody awful Pacemakers. Dennis seemingly considered himself a bit of a character.

I worked next to him for a week and we spoke from time to time, and he took a profound dislike to me. Sometimes he would complain that I smelled bad, scowling at me whilst fanning a hand in front of his face for the amusement of Doyle, his sidekick with the blonde curly hair of Andy Pandy, the children's television puppet, and a face made for gurning. Doyle would gurgle with delight and mutter something identifying me as Baldrick - what a loser I was, or something of that general theme.

I asked everyone I knew whether I smelled bad, seeing as no-one had actually mentioned this to me before, and the conclusion seemed to be that I might occasionally benefit from a more thorough application of underarm deodorant, but otherwise it was not generally anything noticeable.

'He wants us all to be like him,' Dennis sneered in my direction after a loudly broadcast discussion of my failings which was otherwise somehow oddly lacking in specifics. 'He wants us to be all serious.'

I hadn't laughed at any of his jokes, but then I tended not to laugh at anyone's jokes unless they were funny. Neither had I rolled my eyes nor expressed any damning testimony on his general lack of wit. In truth I'd hardly spoken to the man because I didn't feel we had much to say to each other. This was an acknowledgement of differences rather than any sort of value judgement.

Now apparently I required that my colleagues be all serious. This was my crime. It seemed like an accusation made by a five-year old. It was bewildering. I couldn't have cared less whether my colleagues walked around in face paint and big red shoes so long as they didn't call me fucking Baldrick. The rest was up to them.

The lowest, most ridiculous point of this war of nerves was reached as I entered the office one morning, passing Dennis and Doyle as they worked at the sorting frame. I had my waterproof coat in my bag, and it seemed sensible to take it out and stow it on top of the frame right then rather than later, for all sorts of boring reasons which would make the story far too long were I to list them.

I placed my bag on the bay.

I opened my bag.

I took out my waterproof coat.

'What's he fucking think he's doing?' Doyle sneered with a venom that would have been appropriate had I taken out my penis and started talking to it. 'A fucking Paul Daniels magic trick?'

Dennis exploded with laughter.

Now the little Doyle too laughed to see such fun.

They both stood howling, almost crying with hysterics at my ker-raaazzzy coat extraction routine, the funniest three seconds of hopeless Baldrick saddo loser tomfoolery to ever split the sides of Chatham sorting office's two most violently dynamic men.

A month or so later, I found myself assigned to the walk upon which was situated the home of Dennis Landers. I delivered his mail dutifully and without complaint or temptation towards rancorous acts, aside from jotting down the address in my notebook as a deserving destination of unpleasant parcels sent from anonymous sources. This coincided with the cessation of hostilities. I knew where he lived, and he knew that I knew.

In May, 1989 I transferred to the Coventry sorting office, having been employed at Best Street for less than a year. Chatham hadn't really worked out for me as I had hoped, and my father had moved to the city of Coventry a few years earlier, and it seemed like a change of scenery was as good a move as any. During the three weeks it took for my transfer to be processed, I spent some time wondering as to whether it was the right decision. I'd begun to make friends at Best Street, but then I'd spent five years in the county of Kent and it seemed like enough; and Royal Mail had forced evolution upon me, transforming a somewhat neurotic ex-art student into someone who could at least deliver letters, bring home a wage, and eventually handle the occasional insult from witless twats without wishing anonymously mailed parcels of fecal matter upon them, an impotent response if ever there was.

I have no idea whether Dennis Landers continues to draw breath, but if so I would hope he's evolved beyond courageously picking on such easy targets. If not, I suppose it doesn't make much difference. I haven't yet grown out of the pleasure taken from imagining him stood in his hallway horrified by the delivery of a bowel movement by first class post, and nearly a quarter century has passed. For me, it remains a pleasing and enduring image, which I suppose must be why I made that entry in my notebook in the first place.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Dr. Eleanor Wake

Dr. Wake at Tepexi, Puebla.

Back in 2003, the Royal Academy of Arts in London played host to Aztecs, an expansive and close-to-definitive-as-dammit exhibition of art, craft and sculpture from Precolombian Mexico. I'd been more or less obsessed with this particular culture and its history for nearly a decade, reading all I could get my hands on and visiting Mexico on three occasions, and so it seemed like a dream come true, particularly as I was living in London at the time. The exhibition was on for about half a year, and so excited was I to attend that I somehow failed to read the programme in which were given dates for a series of attendant lectures by Gordon Brotherston, Warwick Bray and other giants of the field. By the time I realised my mistake, there was only one lecture remaining, and so I consoled myself with the thought that work would most likely have prevented my getting to see the others anyway, and went along.

This final lecture was delivered by Dr. Eleanor Wake on the evening of Friday the 4th of April and was entitled Native Religious Painting and Sculpture in Sixteenth Century Mexico. Her name was unfamiliar to me, and her principal interests seemed to focus upon the early Colonial era. This seemed a bit after my time, in a manner of speaking, but I assumed it would nevertheless be of some interest.

Dr. Wake's presentation examined indigenous symbols and images in the early Christian art of Mexico, taking the position of this being not so much Christianised indigenous culture, but Mexicanised Christianity. The talk and presentation was riveting, and a revelation, and perhaps unsurprisingly inspired a great many questions. In my diary of the time, I wrote:

It was wonderful, and I'm somewhat gutted to have missed the other lectures. I approached the Wakester after the show and gushed like a teenage girl backstage at a Westlife concert. It felt good to have a conversation which required no explanatory notes detailing the bleeding obvious such as where Tepoztlan might be situated, or what is described by the Xolotl maps, or the fact of the Incas living not in Mexico, but many thousands of miles away in Peru.

This was probably the first time I'd ever had a conversation with someone who really knew the subject, and when I wrote to her a week or so later, attempting to express my questions in more coherent form, I made a point of apologising for seeming as though I might have been about to explode with excitement. I also took pains to explain that although I was but a simple postman, I took my interest in the subject of Mesoamerican culture quite seriously, but definitely not in any cranky autodidactic way involving either flying saucers or the lost city of Atlantis. It was difficult to say whether such a statement could be genuinely reassuring or would only serve to hint at a deeper, more troubling degree of lunacy.

I asked Dr. Wake about certain statements she had made concerning floral imagery in Mexican art, and about the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the nativity of the God Huitzilopochtli as a possible retroactive echo of its Christian parallel, and about the details of her understanding of Tlalocan - the Mexican afterlife - which I had found particularly confusing. I recommended some music CDs I thought she might appreciate in light of her comment about authentically indigenous Mexican music being difficult to find, and I asked if she had any particular recommendations for further reading.

Contrary to my expectations which were based on how I imagined my letter might seem to a normal person, she replied:

First of all, let me say that it is always good to know of Nahua enthusiasts or, indeed, enthusiasts of Native American cultures in general. I suspect there are a lot more of you out there somewhere, although not, it appears, in the immediate vicinity of East Dulwich sorting office. Your all-consuming fascination for the subject is quite understandable, and I congratulate you on your efforts to not only learn more, but also to make yourself proficient in Spanish and Nahuatl (in my case, the latter is limited to basic vocabulary).

With regard to your questions, I'm afraid I probably don't have the expertise to reply to them very fully. In fact I suspect that your knowledge of Deities and the calendar is far superior to my own, my main area of research being the post-conquest era, and specifically the changes which native art forms and related ideas underwent as a result of the European artistic and religious intrusion. Still, here goes...

This served as preface to a detailed five page response addressing every single point I'd raised along with sources, recommendations, and an extensive quote from Codex Magliabecchiano. I was astonished and impressed that she had gone to such trouble, and found myself briefly overcome with a peculiar and unfamiliar sensation which I later identified as the feeling of being taken seriously.

I wrote again, although not immediately as she had addressed all of my initial questions and I had no wish to come across like some weird stalker of archaeological academics; but I was travelling to Mexico City again in September, and it didn't seem like it could hurt to seek further advice from someone else who had been there. For starters, I'd made repeated unsuccessful attempts to visit the Cuicuilco pyramid in the south of the city, but had somehow always ended up at a shopping mall with no clue as to how to locate the archaeological site, and it was beginning to get on my nerves. I was also curious about the wisdom of sampling pulque, the distinctively Mexican alcoholic drink of pre-Hispanic origin still served in places that tourists such as myself were usually told to avoid.

Again she was happy to advise me:

Finally, where to drink pulque. I certainly couldn't and wouldn't recommend anywhere in Mexico City. Apart from your "standing out", I've heard that it gets mixed with all sorts of additives, alcoholic and otherwise, so it would probably make you violently ill. Villages in fiesta are probably the best bet, if you get there before the fiesta proper gets into swing (mayordomos with arms full of homemade fireworks and tummies full of pulque are not the safest combination). Most villages with a big fiesta (usually held on Sunday) will boast stalls selling sticky buns, soft drinks, and other such delicacies. Just keep your eyes open for large plastic containers.

Unfortunately this letter was waiting for me as I returned from Mexico City, meaning I was unable to follow up on any of the geographically specific advice, although I did, as suggested, secure copies of the books recommended, amongst which Alfredo López-Austin's Tamoanchan, Tlalocan: Places of Mist proved particularly illuminating; and in the long term, the fact that someone with academic credentials had taken me seriously did wonders for my confidence in what I was doing.

Some years later, I resumed contact. It was 2007 and I had engaged myself with an ill-advised and possible overambitious attempt at translating Mendieta's Historia Eclesiástica Indiana which, so far as I was able to tell, existed only in the original sixteenth century Spanish. I had encountered problems identifying the name of an insect which I suspected might turn out to be the pinauiztli beetle referred to as a creature of unfortunate omen in Sahagún's Codex Florentino, and looking for potential references online, I found an article by Dr. Eleanor Wake. The article didn't quite answer my question, and so I wrote once more, hoping this wouldn't seem too rude, and that she might recall our previous correspondence.

Yes, of course, I remember our exchange some years back! the reply began, before going into paragraphs of thoughts, suggestions, and general thinking aloud, concluding with sorry about Cuicuilco - I've never managed to find it either!

It's not so much that we lost touch after this as that we weren't exactly in touch in the first place, at least not beyond my being the fortunate recipient of wisdom shared by someone motivated entirely by an infectious enthusiasm for her subject. So we didn't drift apart, but I had no immediate further reason to keep on pestering a relative stranger with a full-time job. It was enough to have been recognised as a kindred spirit, and that she was out there doing her thing.

A decade later, I am living in Texas. This detail isn't directly related to my interest in Mexican history, but it's significant that my eye was already trained on this side of the Atlantic. Amongst my present preoccupations are the transcription of my Mexican diaries, five large sketchbooks packed with notes, observations, and toilet humour for the sake of texture, all recorded during five visits to Mexico City undertaken between 1999 and 2005. Coming to the 2003 diary, I realise that once again I can't quite remember whether Eleanor Wake is formally a doctor or a professor, so I look online and find that regrettably she is no longer either. The first link that comes up is for an obituary written by her friend and colleague Valerie Fraser for The Guardian newspaper's site. It is dated to Sunday the 25th of August, 2013 and opens:

My friend and colleague Eleanor Wake, who has died of cancer aged sixty-four, was one of the world's leading scholars of early colonial Mexico. Ele was forty when she embarked on a PhD on this topic, which formed the basis of her book Framing the Sacred: The Indian Churches of Early Colonial Mexico in 2010.

I am genuinely astonished. This is horrible news. Despite the fact of this having been someone I met for all of ten minutes, it seems terribly wrong and unfair. I write to the author of the article, driven by some poorly defined need to reach out, to express something to someone to whom it will make sense. I try to keep the letter as short as possible, reigning in the cranky autodidact as much as I can. She responds with complete understanding:

Your experience is in many ways typical - she was so generous, so passionate about her field and always delighted to find others who shared her passion. What is sad is that she only discovered this field, this passion, relatively late in life and then didn't live long enough to follow through on half the wonderful research she was doing.

With hindsight I realise that maybe I never seemed quite the nutcase I feared I might, the south-east London postman writing to the university lecturer with his theories on what such and such a pictogram may really mean. I guess she recognised my enthusiasm, and perhaps even the same pattern of arriving somewhere late in life, something which now seems to be widely regarded as anomalous in a world wherein entire career paths are mapped out many years before school is finished.

Furthermore, to briefly digress, I tend to write these short essays four or five weeks before submitting them to my blog for consumption by whatever public may be out there. The piece I posted this morning, and which was written back in February, briefly refers to the ominous pinauiztli beetle, and in turn to my correspondence with Dr. Wake regarding the same. It's a coincidence, but it seems nevertheless significant with regard to the impression she made. As Professor Valerie Fraser observed in her letter, it is indeed a great shame that Eleanor Wake had so short a time in which to do the work by which she secured her reputation, and that she did not live to pursue all of her research to conclusion, but nevertheless, she made a big difference to me and as such will remain significant in my thoughts for years to come.

Special thanks to Professor Valerie Fraser and Joan Holloway.

Framing the Sacred can be purchased from Amazon here.

Friday, 11 April 2014

A Perfect Moment


My father's appreciation of art might be characterised as being of the not knowing much about art, but knowing what he likes school. I don't state this in any disparaging sense. On the contrary, this position makes it difficult for artists working with ideas rather than actual talent to pull the wool over his eyes, and it means that his praise, when offered, is genuine and hence has some value. Furthermore, it also means that his observations, on those rare occasions when he is so moved as to offer any, can often seem unusually profound. My favourite of his observations, made as we wandered through the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south-east London, was inspired by a room full of nineteenth century English landscapes, and came as a bit of a surprise because at that moment I hadn't been convinced that he wouldn't have preferred to be somewhere else.

'I like the skies,' he said, admiring the warm, scarlet and orange sunsets, painted with such precision that we could barely see the individual brush strokes. 'They remind me of childhood.'

We'd both grown up on farms, and I knew exactly what he meant, that magical quality of light recalled from hot summer evenings with everyone out in the fields piling up hay bales onto a trailer - perfect moments by some definition, the passing euphoria of memory sherbert flaring up at the back of one's mind. Those moments are part of the reason I myself took to painting, and why I continue in search of something approaching that effect.

In 1984 I was taking an Art Foundation course at the Mid-Warwickshire College of Further Education in Leamington Spa, when I encountered one of my own perfect moments. We were coming to the end of the one year course, a year I'd dedicated almost exclusively to the moving image, super 8mm films or videos produced on a portable VHS video camera and recorder. I suppose I must have been viewed as knowing my way around a video camera to some extent because a fellow student named Gaetano had asked for my assistance. His name was Gaetano on the register, but he answered to Guy and was of Italian parentage. I didn't know him very well as he'd gravitated towards graphic design or maybe fashion or one of those other subdivisions of Art Foundation that I didn't quite understand, but he was a nice guy in, I suppose, a fairly literal sense, and I didn't have anything better to do.

We loaded up his car with the video equipment and drove out of Leamington into the country. This in itself was quite exciting, and felt a little exotic as very few people of my own age had their own car, excepting Peter Wells with his knackered yellow Cortina, and Frank, but Frank was a bit of a dick. Guy's car was of the kind you would expect to see driven by a well-dressed young Italian, and it was always a pleasure to find oneself taken seriously by someone who so obviously had their wits about them, who had actual style, much as I might resent the fact. At the time I myself resembled a member of Gong, which had come about more by default than through conscious choice, and which defined squares such as Guy as the enemy principally as a pre-emptive strike against anyone pointing out that I might have benefited from a haircut; so in addition to everything else, it was pleasant to realise that most of the bullshit social constructions of Art Foundation society were in my imagination.

Guy and I headed out of the town, foot to the floor along country lanes into the Warwickshire hills. Eventually he decided that we had reached our destination, so we drew into a lay-by and got out. I had been asking what sort of video he wished to make, but he seemed unclear, apparently knowing only that the form it took would present itself when the time was right. The sky was the bluest I've ever seen, there was a huge oak tree full of green summer shadows a little way away, and opposite was a low hillside of oilseed rape in bloom, a wall of yellow so bright it almost hurt our eyes to look at it. We went into the field and Guy directed me to begin recording, sweeping slowly from left to right across the flowers. He hoisted up his ghetto blaster - a silver box the size of a suitcase and another indicator of his credentials as a man of the world, someone who knew what he was doing - and pressed play. The tape was Duck Rock, an album of music performed by African musicians, amongst others, to which the endfully talented Malcolm McLaren had attached his name; although the song itself, being more or less free of McLaren's touch but for a few whoops and yeahs, was surprisingly good - those bubbling African guitars and polyrhythms providing a perfect soundtrack to the moment. For a second or two it felt as though we could be almost anywhere in the world.

That was the moment I noticed, the heat and the peppery smell of the flowers, the brilliant wall of blue and yellow and with that music. It was somewhere I had never been sprung from circumstances and associations I could never have predicted. It seemed like a premonition of endless possibilities, the confirmation of a future which would be full of surprises. When I read descriptions of reputedly religious experiences, I think of that moment, stood in a field with a guy called Guy who didn't really know what he was doing, and whose approach to soundtrack work was to stand next to the bloke holding the camera with a beatbox.

I don't know if the resulting footage was really what Guy wanted, but he seemed happy enough with our work. There was no further dimension to that perfect moment. It wasn't the point at which I decided on my career in film-making, or rapeseed cultivation, or when I at last understood what Malcolm McLaren had been trying to say, or when I at last understood that Malcolm McLaren had actually been trying to say something other than everyone please look at me. It didn't mean anything profound despite suggesting that quality, and nor did it lead anywhere in particular. It was no more than what it was, which is possibly why I recall it so well, and all that was really necessary.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained


I sensed that my mother had begun to worry over my efforts to cultivate paranormal powers. I was about eight or maybe nine, so it's possible that she was simply irritated, and I had interpreted this as her being freaked out by my trying to read minds and move objects with the power of thought alone. I hadn't succeeded, but even so was beginning to freak myself out, so I told her I was done with it all.

'It's okay,' I explained, 'from now on I'll stick to Pekes, Peanuts, and PG Tips.'

These were ordinary, wholesome things to which I would dedicate my time, having turned my back on the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. The Pekes were our four Pekingese dogs, to which I was very much attached; and Peanuts was the Charles M. Schultz cartoon featuring Charlie Brown which appeared on the back page of The Daily Mail newspaper, and which I enjoyed so much that I'd taken to collecting paperback anthologies of the strip published by Coronet books. I never quite understood why The Daily Mail was our newspaper. My mother told me that her choice would have been The Guardian, whereas that of my father would have been The Sun, and so they had met in the middle, compromising with a paper from which they could take equal displeasure.

I'll come to the PG Tips later, but the main feature of my carefully prepared statement were those three P-words lined up in an amusingly alliterative sequence. I imagined my statement would sound worldly and wry, the sort of casual observation that Charlie Brown, Linus, or Schroeder would have made had they too elected to shun the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. The sentence was offered as a knowing wink and a chuckle.

Well, let's just say I guess I've learned my lesson...

My mother failed to collapse into hysterics in response to my wit, although she seemed nevertheless relieved. She once told me that when I'd been much younger, as she was working in the cattle shed on the farm, she'd found herself overcome with a sudden inexplicable wave of horror. She ran back to the house just in time to save me from pouring a pan of boiling water over myself. Whatever the explanation for this, I believe my mother felt that the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained were best left well alone.

My interest probably came from Paul Moorman who was in my class at Ilmington Juniors, and who lived at Wimpstone Fields, the next farm along the main road from where we lived. Stanley Moorman - Paul's father - had care of 75,000 chickens and had a UFO detector in his garden. I recall the poultry quota because Paul would mention it from time to time and with such frequency that Thomas Mahon later proposed that his official school nickname should be changed to 75,000 Chickens from whatever it was at the time. The UFO detector was some mail order device designed to detect the presence of strong magnetic fields, although I never saw the thing, and I have no idea whether it ever detected anything. Stanley Moorman's esoteric interests were shared by his son who would lend me paperback books from the family library purporting to reveal the truth about flying saucers, ghosts, the Bermuda triangle, the Loch Ness monster, the Mothman, alien bases on our moon, telepathy, spoon bending, and so on and so forth. The covers were inevitably slightly lurid, and difficult to resist at the age of eight even given that I found the subject matter a little scary.

I sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, particularly when the latter was cleverly presented as the former. For example, I was particularly confused by a biographical feature in the 1974 Dan Dare annual describing the space pilot's formative years and first exploratory mission to Venus as though it had actually happened. Inevitably, the truth about the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained, that which an elusive they had tried to cover up - as revealed in Stanley Moorman's esoteric library - all struck me as entirely plausible, which was unfortunate because I also found it somewhat terrifying.

Tales of spectral black dogs seen in the Cotswold hills were common in the playground, and the notorious witchcraft murders of Meon Hill were even mentioned on television from time to time. To these I added the fear that what had happened to Betty and Barney Hill might just as easily happen to me, and it seemed like the only way to address my fear was to learn as much as I could, to reach an understanding of the subject. This was impressed upon me each night as we all went to bed. Living on a farm in rural Warwickshire, the nights were often absolutely black, particularly during heavy cloud cover. I would look across the fields from my bedroom window and sometimes see lights still on over at Paul's house, but at other times the darkness was absolute, not even the nocturnal orange glow of some distant town or city, as though there was no light anywhere else in the world. I wanted to be able to look out into the darkness without being scared of what I might see; and inevitably, having learned to watch the skies, it wasn't long before I spotted my first saucer.

It was a silver cigar-shaped object of the supposedly classic design with a dark line down the side which I took to be a row of windows. It moved slowly and silently across a sunny, early afternoon sky from south-west, somewhere above Wimpstone Fields, heading north-east in the general direction of Stratford-upon-Avon. I estimated it to be travelling at about one mile distant from our house. Weeks later, during a school art lesson I asked Mr. Davies whether it would be okay if I painted the flying saucer. He seemed irritated, having asked us to paint something we'd seen in the countryside, but conceded that yes, if it was something I had genuinely seen then I should go ahead. I drew the curve of the hill as viewed from my bedroom with a smattering of trees to the right, all coloured green and brown with my pencils, at which point I came up against the fact that my saucer was visually unimpressive, and had almost certainly been a conventional aircraft. A little while later I showed Mr. Davies my artist's impression, a vast silver ship filling the sky, strange triangular modifications on the upper and lower surface with flames belching from the rear. I was barely even aware of his verdict as I came to a sudden and chilling understanding of my own bullshit. I hadn't seen anything even remotely like whatever the hell this was supposed to be; and let's face it, the thing had quite obviously been just a regular plane; and what in the name of God were those triangular things? Part of some sort of intergalactic toast rack?

I understood in that moment that I was almost certainly an idiot, or at least someone with idiotic tendencies, and I felt a little angry with myself. However, my anger wasn't sufficient to instil anything resembling a lesson, and nowhere near sufficient to overcome my addiction to uncovering the truth of the facts of the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. I kept on buying those books, the shocking truth as revealed by Brad Steiger, Charles Berlitz, John Keel and all the greats of the genre; and even when I couldn't bring myself to believe quite so much as I wanted to, I kept on going because some of those books were often hugely entertaining regardless of the strength of one's faith in the mysterious world they described.

My next encounter with the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained was probably 1986 as I was living in an old half-timbered farm cottage in the village of Otham in Kent with a number of other students. I recall stories of the village being haunted, specifically by a ghostly horse-drawn carriage supposed to travel the road running past our house from time to time. Having since failed to find any reference to this tale beyond that preserved within my own memory, it quite easily may have derived from regulars at the local pub taking the piss out of those gullible art students; but I was nevertheless reluctant to dismiss the story as entirely ridiculous at the time, particularly as I headed home from the aforementioned pub, walking back down the unlit country road one evening when I heard heavy breathing directly behind me, so close as to suggest a person about to whisper something terrifying in my ear. There was no-one present but myself, and yet it seemed I could hear a spectral companion. I walked faster but my ghost kept pace. I broke into a run, tearing the five hundred yards down the road to our house. Gibbering with such enthusiasm as to be unable to hear anything but my own terror, I quickly fumbled with my key and ran inside, half-cursing the cold, unlit house for the fact of my being the only person at home. I slammed and locked the door, turned on the light, and sat regaining my breath, reminding myself that electric lighting established my presence in the twentieth century, and in an age of reason. Pursuing this thought, I considered my coat and how the rough material at the collar could easily have rubbed with the rhythm of my walking, creating the illusion of husky breaths close to the ear.

There was a terrific bang, like a single blow delivered to the door from outside by someone hoping one kick of a hobnail boot would be enough to break in. I nearly jumped out of my skin, for a second assuming this really was some malevolent spirit which had followed me back from the pub. I listened, and it was clear that there could be no-one outside. Perhaps I had slammed the door with such haste as to leave it slightly out of whack with the frame, creating tension as I pulled it shut and threw the lock regardless. This being so, the wood may simply have taken a minute to spring dramatically back into proper alignment with the frame. That was what I told myself, although at the same time I couldn't help but resent this rationalisation of the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained to some tiny degree. I later described this occurrence to Clare who lived upstairs, but my account was probably rendered all the more implausible by my being unusually drunk at the time. I vaguely recall telling her how I was worried that I had been possessed by an evil spirit, all the while wishing I could truly believe it and knowing I was talking rubbish in some weird and pathetic bid for sympathy. I was old enough to take a degree, but I hadn't quite grown out of embellishing my flying saucer with intergalactic toast racks.

Eventually I wasn't taking a degree, and by 1988 I'd moved to a crumby bedsit in Chatham, jobless and more impoverished than I'd ever been in my life. I would keep myself entertained with cheap second-hand paperbacks about extraterrestrial cattle mutilation and the men in black, eating whatever I could afford after beer money which was by necessity not very much. I wasn't a great cook, so whilst my culinary ingenuity wasn't an impressive resource, neither did it place unreasonable demands on my ability regarding the standard of what I ate. My signature dish was mystery meat grilled with a sprinkling of sugar served with mashed potato. Mystery meat was the cheapest thing that could be bought from the butcher's stall in the covered market, a tray of loose scraps and offcuts left over after the routine behind the scenes hacking and chopping was done, and from which I would buy a half pound at a time. I think it was pork, or maybe chicken. My friend Carl recalls visiting me during this period, and being served a platter of a half tin's worth of peas served on a bed of nothing else. I'm almost certain I would have garnished the dish with a knob of margarine, but I expect Carl is selectively remembering only the details of the meal which he chooses to remember.

Anyway, the point is that I may not have been getting my recommended five a day, because most fruit is boring and an unlikely first choice when you're poor and budgeting for food which will not only prevent you from dying but may also cheer you up a little. During this time I had a peculiar dream which I described in my notebook dated to 1st of March, 1989, as follows:

I had a rather unpleasant (for no apparent reason) dream about the Elu - they are tall and thin, naked and hairless. Their faces look like those of old men and they have a scratchy, grey and chalky complexion. They look more like animated fossilised etchings or petrified photographs, or even monochrome expressionist paintings (which are as I say animated) than people. Noticeably their shoulders and elbow joints are thinner than the sections of their bodies which they keep attached together. They ride on horseback. I do not remember if they spoke at all. The unpleasant aspect of the dream was simply how strikingly alien they appeared to be. The dream may have been set at night, I think, and if so they were luminescent.

At around the same time I found I'd developed a strong aversion to sugar which lasted a couple of weeks. Up until then I had always taken two spoons in both coffee and tea, but I nevertheless stopped immediately. Just the thought of sugar made me feel nauseous and for no obvious reason put me in mind of some sickly sweet and vaguely fibrous substance which I associated with the dream, and which I later realised resembled halva, a desert I had noticed behind the counter of a kebab shop on Star Hill but had never eaten. I was much later told that the dream and its attendant aversion sounded like an alien abduction experience, particularly the detail of my guys being identified as Elu, which resembled similar names from other abduction accounts, many of which could be related to the Biblical Elohim according to certain scholars of the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. Whilst I liked the idea of having encountered beings from another world, and had even considered the possibility of something along those lines, I couldn't quite bring myself to believe that there weren't many much likelier explanations.

Eventually I grew up, and all it took was fifteen minutes spent reading The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan to convince me that twenty or so years of half-believing roughly whatever came along had mostly been just wishful thinking and a lack of imagination. The real world was actually a lot more interesting than the one promised by literature concerning the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. All one had to do was to look close, and try not to think anything too stupid.

'It's okay,' I had told my mother many years before, 'from now on I will stick to Pekes, Peanuts, and PG Tips,' except I didn't - although I suppose there was no real harm done - and that may not even have been quite what I said. I'm still unsure of the identity of that final P, although PG Tips seems a possible candidate because PG Tips gave away picture cards with their packets of tea, and I was in the habit of collecting these cards; or it may have stood for patches as I was keen on sew-on patches at the time. I'd spend hours browsing those offered in full page adverts in my Dad's Bike magazine, and I particularly liked the rude ones, for example the cartoon ducks mating in mid-air beneath the caption fly united.

I know, but I was eight.

I had two of these patches sewn onto my jeans, one featuring a rotund creature resembling a walrus jumping in the air beneath an embroidered exclamation of oink! The other featured a gruff, apparently naked ogre addressing a much smaller counterpart whilst pointing, his meaning communicated by the phrase sod off sewn into the top-left corner. I found this hilariously funny, excepting when adults requested a closer inspection, anticipating something cute.

'What is that?' Mr. Harding, who owned the farm on which we lived, squinted at the tiny embroidered letters spelling out sod off. I silently thanked providence that he didn't have his glasses with him, and explained that it was just a small cloud that had been added to the scene for the sake of realism, or something. I wasn't sure.

I had just two patches in all, although a couple of years later I acquired a third, a portrait of Charlie Brown stood gloomily beneath the phrase I need all the friends I can get. Sadly by that time I'd developed beyond wearing anything upon which it could be worn, but I bought it anyway.

My life time sum total of three sew-on patches probably doesn't quite add up to an obsession on the level of, for example, how many vinyl albums I presently own, but as an interest beginning with P, it would have fitted the feeble requirements of my attempted zinger; and as with many other passing fads of being a kid, the self-image of oneself as gripped by an enthusiasm was often more important than that upon which the enthusiasm was focussed. It seemed that one had to effect the appearance of being into things in order to have substance, and I know this to be at least partially true because I now see Junior expressing the same theatrical devotion for toys and games which remain untouched for month after month in the wilder corners of his room. This turned out to be as true of my sew-on patches as of those Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. They did their job, but their appeal was ultimately fleeting, and there's not much point regretting the fact. I wish I'd been a little funnier, that I'd known that alliteration does not necessarily in and of itself constitute wit, but I suppose if you don't go through these things, you never get to the other side.