Friday, 30 January 2015

The Don Maclean of the Rapping Scene

I invented rap in 1979. I was a slightly dishevelled underachiever at Shipston-on-Stour Comprehensive school, and I invented rap having found myself embroiled in beef with Gordon Everett who had slandered me in a poem read out before the entire class during the English lesson. Gordon's poem suggested that I farted quite a lot and might consequently be considered a somewhat pungent child, and it cleverly made these suggestions whilst eschewing the sort of language which would have prevented it being read out loud and therefore validated by Mrs. Jones, our English teacher. The poem was pretty funny. I recall the hysterical laughter of my class mates as Gordon painted a picture of my supposedly persistent trumping in awkward situations, and despite the humiliation, I myself laughed because it was funny.

To be fair, Gordon's poem may have been composed in retaliation to some earlier character assassination fired from my own cannon, figuratively speaking, but if so then I don't remember what it could have been. Perhaps the memory of some previous victory was eclipsed in that moment when an entire class of kids were driven to clutch their sides and roll around on the floor by the hilarity of the suggested scale of my energetic flatus.

If Gordon wanted a war, I decided, then I was down for whatever, if not by those precise terms. I wrote Gordon Everett and His Hand, which followed the same basic rhyme scheme as Captain Beaky by Keith Michell but carried a cruder, more confrontational message:

The biggest benders in this land,
Are Gordon Everett and his hand,
That's his hand, his balls and dick,
A-doing things that make you sick.
His hand it then goes up and down,
And Gordon makes the people frown.

I had just turned fourteen and had been given a tape recorder for my birthday, a mono portable with a built-in condenser microphone by which I made hissy recordings of my fluting, pre-pubescent voice. My first act with this fantastic new bit of technology had been to invent the mixtape - as they have become posthumously identified by fedora wearing tosspots. I borrowed Paul Moorman's extremely well played copy of K-Tel's Loony Tunes album and compiled two volumes of what I named Songs for the Hard of Thinking in order to have a whole ton of novelty records in one convenient and hilarious place - My Boomerang Won't Come Back, Susan Christie's I Love Onions, Transfusion by Nervus Norvus and others supplemented by the Goodies, Toast by Streetband, and some Sex Pistols - whom I considered to be pretty much cut from the same cloth because they said rude words; and naturally I drew my own cover for Songs for the Hard of Thinking. I wasn't really into music as such at that age, but I loved novelty records, and inevitably it occurred to me that I could make my own.

Soon after inventing the mixtape, I invented rapping and then sampling. I pressed play and record and flowed with the maniac lyrical of Gordon Everett and His Hand directly onto the tape, punctuating my verses with the trumpet break from the original Captain Beaky 7" by my boy Keith Michell - just pausing, then unpausing and dropping that wax right into the cut. That shit was dope.

I took the tape to school, and although that shit was perhaps a little too dope for the classroom, I made sure everyone got to hear it. I recall Gordon's face, a mixture of amusement and horror as he listened to me drop science, implicating him in acts of enthusiastic masturbation - something I myself would certainly never have done - and possibly also homosexuality, bestiality and cross-dressing. I don't remember the lyrics in their entirety and I don't have the tape to hand, but I don't recall pulling any punches. I'm pretty sure that was where 2Pac got the idea for Hit 'Em Up.

With hindsight, I find it all a bit regrettable, not so much because of the juvenile homophobia - which, in case it isn't fucking obvious, might be blamed on it being 1979 and my being fourteen years of age - but because I liked Gordon; and even though I haven't seen him since the early eighties, I still theoretically like Gordon and have no bad memories of him as a kid. Anyway, I suppose what matters is that from conflict was born innovation and enterprise, in this case my inventing both rap music and sampling - or at least scratching given how I was cutting Keith Michell's beats on a wheel of steel. Many sources will credit my developments to that guy out of the Fatback Band, or to the Sugarhill Gang, or Kool DJ Herc and his Bronx pals, but they're all lying.

Anyway, the point is that I was messing around with tape recorders at an early age. The machine upon which I'd recorded my damning indictment of Gordon's alleged love of wanking conked out after about a year and had to be replaced. Specifically the pinch roller wore down meaning that tapes were eaten as often as they were played, but the tape head still worked so I yanked it out of the casing, reattached it on a length of wire, and drew sections of magnetic tape across it by hand in order to create sound. Laurie Anderson did the same thing, mounting her tape head upon a violin body with which she would play lengths of tape suspended in a violin bow in place of the traditional strings. Emboldened by the success of my experiment I also made clunky cassette sized tape loops, and larger ones played on a 1960s reel-to-reel tape player donated by a friend of my mother. By the time I first came to hear a Throbbing Gristle record, I was already acclimatised to the notion of raw noise as music, of blocks of sound jammed together as part of a larger composition.

Around the same time I had joined the Pre-War Busconductors, roughly speaking a punk group with three of my friends from school. We improvised and recorded songs through a combination of ham-fisted instrumentation, cardboard box percussion, noises and shouting. Thematically we explored areas not dissimilar from those investigated in Gordon Everett and His Hand - songs about people we knew and whom we suspected of engaging in amusing sexual practices. At least a few of the songs featured rapping mainly because Graham had worked out how to play the bassline from Good Times. Unfortunately, although we were all familiar with Rapper's Delight, our rapping was very much the rapping of clueless white people who don't really understand rapping - the singy-songy bollocks heard on twee, light-hearted news features about rural schools who record their own charity rap single.

Mr. Thompson is always in class,
Unless he's shouting 'keep off the grass!'

Still, pitiful though our efforts were, we all liked the general idea of the form, and before I left home much of my final summer in Shipston was spent cruising around the tiny market town in Anders Longthorne's car blasting his tapes of Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and various Street Sounds label compilations whilst pretending to be American. We had outgrown the Pre-War Busconductors - just about - but I was still recording my own music as Do Easy - a name taken from a William Burroughs novel on the grounds that I'd seen some bigger boys do it and I wanted to be like them. By now I had a double cassette deck with a fancy microphone input and was able to layer sounds to create complex if slightly hissy pieces of experimental music. I made covers for my tapes and sold them mail order through the posthumously eulogised network of DIY tape folks. I didn't sell enough to make a living out of it, but enough for the operation to at least pay for itself.

Years passed and I drifted in and out of making my own music, just as I drifted in and out of bands formed with other people. By the mid-nineties I had reached a sort of crisis point. I was done with bands and with being helping hand to someone else's vision of a band. The Dovers had sort of fizzled out for no particularly good reason that I can recall. I hadn't really liked the single compact disc I'd helped record as a member of Konstruktivists, and whilst I'd enjoyed playing with UNIT - or Academy 23 as they had been when I joined - the task of remembering how to play someone else's increasingly baroque chord changes and time signatures was becoming more chore than fun, and Andy - our main man - had proposed a number of Doctor Who themed tracks, one of which was to be called Travels in the TARDIS. Deciding I would rather repeatedly slam my penis in a fridge door than be involved with such tomfoolery, I brought my guitar home and elected to concentrate on War Drum.

War Drum was the name for whatever it was I was doing during the nineties, rhythmic but mostly instrumental music produced by unorthodox means, sometimes harsh and noisy, but not industrial because I still had some measure of self-respect. War Drum was thematically fixated on Mesoamerican culture because that was my absorbing passion and it seemed like an area I could explore through the medium and at least come up with something a bit more interesting than David Tibet's milkman grunting Aleister Crowley's favourite limericks through a digital reverb with the decay set to fifteen minutes.

I was trying to make the music which I wanted to hear simply because no-one else was. I felt I had learned a great deal from the process of putting out my earlier tapes, and this time I was going to do it right. So I borrowed as much equipment as I could, and took my time playing and recording, refusing to regard anything as finished until I was absolutely confident of it being the best that could be achieved within the limitations of what technology was at my disposal. Over and over I revised that which could have been better until it was better, and if I couldn't get it working it was scrapped. I spent time on the design of the covers, and the printing of those covers, and had copies of my tapes professionally duplicated onto high quality TDK chrome cassettes at Gold Dust Studios in Bromley - which was a good and somewhat hilly hour away by Royal Mail bicycle. A great deal of work went into producing those cassettes as a quality product, as something aspiring to represent the tape cassette as a vital, democratic, and accessible medium.

Sadly not everyone took the same view. I received the occasional enthusiastic fanzine review, and shelled out for advertising in the pages of The Sound Projector, but cassettes were apparently over, and no-one cared. I could barely pay people to listen to my music. Scat Feed Fever fanzine - which seemed to loom relatively large in weirdy music circles of the time - had denounced cassettes as the unworthy fruit of those who were merely mucking about on the grounds that the true artist would blow sailors for five dollars a pop if that's what it took to press a compact disc. The editor of Scat Feed Fever - just one of many Gira-felating industrial music autograph hunters busily turning himself into Phil Collins - seemed to typify the process of an underground becoming its own orthodoxy, which was depressing.

This didn't really make much difference to my recording habits because while an audience numbered in double figures would have been nice, the music was its own reward. By the end of the century, the composition of that music had changed considerably in reflection of my own evolving tastes. I'd more or less given up on listening to rock music, bands of four blokes with guitars or grunting industrial wankers programming their way back to 1988. From where I stood, the music I had known was half-lifing into a jangly sludge of undifferentiated corporate toss. Meanwhile all I heard at work was hip-hop, rap and R&B, and that's what the people whom I liked at work generally listened to. With Oasis and the Kaiser Chiefs as the alternative, it was probably inevitable that my ear should drift in that direction.

Whilst I'd never been what you might call a hip-hop head, not by any definition, I had kept tabs on the form at least up until the advent of LL Cool J, whose career had struck me as largely pointless. I didn't mind putting my hands in the air, but it took more than was on offer to induce me to wave them in the manner of someone who just didn't care, and I was fucked if I was going to listen to some bloke reading out his bank statements over a tinny drum machine just because the record had turned up in the same section as Whodini and Public Enemy. By the time I'd taken my fingers out of my ears, rap had become huge and confusing, and it was difficult to know quite where to start so I didn't bother; but gradually and inevitably I did bother, because for the most part it was sounding pretty good on the radio at work. I picked up a couple of CDs - having finally caved in and allowed my friend Eddy to furnish me with his old compact disc player - and I liked what I heard. The music had thankfully evolved beyond whatever that tinkling sound had been on those LL Cool J records, and no-one seemed to give a shit about what all the ladies in the house were saying; and as music built from sources which themselves weren't always conventionally musical, it suddenly began to make a lot of sense. Having served the first quarter of a twenty plus year sentence in Royal Mail, I could at least appreciate the mood of the shirtier rap numbers, so I bought more and more of it, immersing myself in the form until it became obvious why it had taken me so long to get it.

Rap, I realised, is more or less its own self-contained world. It draws references from all over, but there's no point in expecting a rap record to provide a variation on that which is done by other musical forms. It is something which can only be truly appreciated on its own terms, not some pool into which toes may be dipped between Killing Joke albums. Rap is, amongst other things, about being shat upon from a great height whilst maintaining a sense of humour, or at least venting screw-faced wrath in entertaining terms. My job was my life, and it was often hellish, and MC Ren rapping about shooting as many white people as possible before the cops took him down made more sense than it probably should have done given that I myself am white. The anger was universal, and it it made Motorhead sound like flies buzzing around in a jar. This, I would suggest, is because rap speaks mostly to the individual, usually specifically to three or four mates of the bloke holding the microphone. It tends to take a personal rather than a general view, and is as such the opposite of Sting telling us all to behave. The bottom line is that if you don't get rap, then it probably wasn't speaking to you in the first place; and yet for some reason it was speaking to me.

Inevitably its influence began to emerge in my own music, although initially as a shift of emphasis rather than any radical revision of what I was already doing; at least until I went back to rapping. I had to try it, just as I'd kicked off twenty years before with Gordon Everett and His Hand - my own version of the novelty records which constituted everything in my collection not featuring Ringo Starr. My first efforts weren't much better than charity raps about Mr. Thompson telling us to stay off the grass, but they were fun to write and record, and failure only inspired me to try harder. On the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Pre-War Busconductors I commemorated the occasion with a CD single released in a limited edition of two copies, one for myself, one for Pete, the only other former Pre-War Busconductor with whom I was still in touch. I built the track from samples of our tapes and the sort of unlistenable crap that usually emerges when white people decide that it's funny to pretend to be a gangsta. In my defence, it wasn't actually much worse than most of Kid Rock's oeuvre, but that's hardly a recommendation.

The song was called 2 Deadly 4 Fame.

Of course it was.

The thrust of 2 Deadly 4 Fame was that the Pre-War Busconductors had been such a potentially revolutionary force that the authorities had found themselves obliged to ensure that we remained just a bunch of potty-mouthed school kids whom no fucker had heard of making a racket in Graham's bedroom whenever his mum and dad went to Stratford. I played the track to Nadim from work, seeing as how we spent most mornings comparing notes and he had become, by default, my rap sensei. He listened in silence, and then regarded me with genial pity, somehow finding it in himself to concede some points for my at least having a go.

'Your beat is nice,' he observed generously, and in that moment I heard the lyrics through his ears as borne of Peter Glaze wearing a backwards baseball cap on Crackerjack whilst complaining about Bernie Clifton's comedy ostrich to Don Maclean in rhyming couplets. I threw myself into the task of becoming less shite, writing and rewriting over and over until the smell was at least not quite so bad as it had been. This music was rooted in honesty, so I was fucked if I was going to let myself turn into Tim chuffing Westwood keeping it hot to death for the yoo-kay. I had a ready-made angle in that it was difficult to miss the parallels between your rap basics and the punky DIY tape aesthetic which had informed my earlier efforts; so I emphasised this with samples from old Sex Pistols or Adam & the Ants records. I had recorded 2 Deadly 4 Fame as Loc Dogg B in a general spirit of piss-poor satire, which I abbreviated to the more pragmatic LDB, roughly a variant of my initials suggesting decibels.

I bought a CD burner and began to work just that little bit harder, bouncing between four-track portastudio master tape and a CDR, playing samples by hand on my tinny Casio SK1 keyboard or a borrowed Alesis Quadraverb, cueing and dropping in tapes with the sort of split second timing I hadn't realised was possible. The music began to take shape, and my vocal began to improve to the point of becoming something I could listen to without wincing.

'You've gotta let me jump on one of your tracks, Lawrence,' Nadim told me after the latest tape I'd sent his way. I was keen. By this point I had thrown my efforts entirely behind rap, reasoning that if people preferred Current 93 and Lustmord to my previous, more abstract and atmospheric work, then that was their tough shit and they got what they deserved. The weakest aspect of my new music was my own voice. Lyrically I felt that I was okay, or not too much worse than the average, but my delivery lacked force. It wasn't convincing. If I could just get more able tonsils to talk shit over my beats...

I'd given a tape of one of my instrumentals to Bert, another guy from work who already had a successful day job producing R&B flavoured garage at his own studio. One of his tunes had received heavy rotation on Kiss FM back before the station turned into the audio equivalent of Nuts magazine. He had an incredible voice and would wander around the office singing about his own penis with the lungs of Alexander O'Neal or one of those guys. My head is small but my seed is large, he crooned in surreal fashion, then why is my top lip so big? suffixed with the bewildering locative Brixton, yeah!!! running up and down the scale with the kind of flourishes which made the aforementioned O'Neal sound like Mark E. Smith. Bert seemed impressed with my tape, having apparently assumed my musical endeavours would probably be a bit of a tuneless racket. He said he would work something out and already had a few ideas. I said I was quite keen on the big, big seed in Brixton theme and he seemed to lose interest. With hindsight, I suspect he didn't like the idea of being a performing seal on my track.

Eventually I settled on the idea of pulling together an album length CDR, simply as something on which to focus. I recorded and re-recorded the tracks over and over until they sounded right, and I even managed to get in some guest vocals from Andy Martin and members of the Ceramic Hobs with whom I shared common ground in the DIY tape thing, and who at least understood what I was trying to do. Eventually I finished a thirteen track album called May Contain Sexual Swearwords but found myself unable to burn a definitive CD master copy for numerous tedious technical reasons which inevitably arise when reliant upon faulty or borrowed equipment because, despite working a back-breaking forty hour week, I still couldn't afford decent gear; or I could have done had I been prepared to live on bread and jam for a few months so as to prove my worth to the editor of Scat Feed Fever, but I'd been down that particular aisle of Morrisons in my twenties and had no desire to return. Additionally, my day job was so physically and psychologically demanding as to require a certain degree of post-toil luxury in order to keep me from spazzing out and doing a Hungerford - real milk rather than a big weekly can of powdered, that sort of thing.

Unable to mix May Contain Sexual Swearwords, I kept on recording, honing my craft, then going back and reworking the aforementioned May Contain Sexual Swearwords as soon as it began to sound a bit rudimentary. I continued writing, working on my rhyme schemes, getting metaphors to perform double or even triple duty, how to build secondary internal rhythms into each line, and so on. The more I wrote, the more I began to appreciate just what you can do with rap. It isn't just about making stuff rhyme, because any wanker can do that. The skill of rap is in saying whatever the hell you want to say, regardless of the limitations of the most obvious available terms, bullying the language into doing exactly what you want it to do. Whatever you want to say, there is always a way to say it even when every other word has to rhyme with bicycle.

Anyway, as I waited for equipment repairs, the tracks kept coming. I put tapes together for the sake of keeping tabs on my own progress, and Nadim seemed to think I was getting somewhere. He particularly seemed to enjoy a number called Fuck the Boss.

You fucked up good. Top marks. Well done.
When you started this job we all thought you might be the one
guy we could rely on to not be a cunt,
But now you're hated by almost everyone.
Almost? Yeah okay, Joe still thinks your cool,
But the poor fucker never really was the sharpest tool
in the box. You cock! You pain in the neck!
No-one fucking likes you and you look like Shrek.

'I've got to get on one of your tracks,' Nadim told me with renewed enthusiasm.

Either I'd been asking him to drop by and record some vocals after work for most of the previous six months, or I'd only imagined myself doing so and had in reality said nothing.

'Okay,' I told him. 'Have you got any tapes?'

He had sent plenty of cassettes and CDRs my way, but mostly mixes of the Dogg Pound, Xzibit, C-Bo and others; nothing of himself. I'd begun to doubt that he had amassed much actual time on the microphone, and the claims that would suggest otherwise had been made so long ago as to make it difficult for me to recall the details.

'Come over this afternoon. We'll sort something out, yeah?'


He lived in one of the Bredinghurst flats, a peculiar architectural jumble resembling a Cubist ocean liner just off Overhill Road, the road in which Bon Scott, the singer of AC/DC, was found dead back in February, 1980. Bredinghurst was on the top of a hill and could be seen from all over East Dulwich and beyond. The story ran that the architect had committed suicide, and the flats certainly looked as though they had been conceived by someone busily in the process of losing their shit. I chained my Royal Mail bicycle to the fence at the back, overlooking Dunstans Road, and entered the labyrinth. After ten minutes of walkways leading to nowhere, I found the place by following my ears. I banged on the door for about five minutes until the music dropped a few decibels and Nadim emerged.

'Come in, man. I was listening to some music.'

'Yes. I can tell.'

I went in. He had one of those CD turntables, the first I'd ever seen. It seemed weird and futuristic and had been set up at the centre of the main room. Deafening bass rumbled through the red tiled floor, rattling large glass windows overlooking the road of much sorrow and pilgrimage for AC/DC fans all across the world - deafening bass like a truck passing and with something electronic pinging away. It sounded familiar.

'What's this?' I had to shout, mime and point.

Nadim had already slipped his headphones back on and was cueing up the next track. I had kind of expected come in, my brother followed by cups of tea and maybe even a few biccies, but that scenario was looking increasingly unlikely.

He picked up a CD case and waved it in illustration - the Goodfellas album by the 504 Boyz. I had it at home and now I realised why I hadn't played it much, because it was supposed to sound like this, not the bass-free twanging with which I was loosely familiar. I knew Goodfellas as mainly a pinging noise over which Master P suggests his listeners might like to Wobble Wobble.

A secondary, clearly unrelated noise intruded. I looked around and saw the rubberised tip of a walking cane banging against the window. We were on the fourth or maybe fifth floor, and the windows of these flats each surmounted a thin balcony with walls dividing each section from that of its neighbour. Some person living next door was out there, leaning over and reaching around to bang their walking stick against the window.

The music stopped dead.

I could hear just the tip of the cane bouncing off the glass and some tinnitus from the music. 'Maybe he wants you to turn it down a little,' I suggested helpfully.

'That fucker!' Nadim slid back the window frame and leaned out but the walking cane had already been withdrawn. He cursed and shut the window. 'One time I pulled it out of his hand and threw it.' He gestured in illustration and I imagined a walking sticking spinning into the sky, high above the grass towards Overhill Road.

'He probably thinks the music is a little bit loud.'

'Every time I play, that old cunt always starts up.' Nadim sucked at his teeth and shook his head. He hit a button on the deck and the 504 Boyz came back, still inviting us to Wobble Wobble.

I thought of my own upstairs neighbour who would stamp or drop heavy furniture in protest to the volume of a television set turned down so low that I could only follow half of the dialogue.  Nadim was a funny guy, but I was glad I wasn't his neighbour.

After about an hour I left. There had been neither tea nor biccies, just myself stood watching Nadim cue up tunes on his CD turntable until it was obvious that I've got to get on one of your tracks had been meant as a sort of figurative suggestion, a measure of approval rather than preface to anything which was going to happen in the real world.

I soldiered on, eventually accruing the material for a double CD - my second album, I suppose - and my best work, I thought. Equipment came back from being repaired and I was at last able to capture the definitive mixes and burn copies of both albums. I wasn't sure how to go about promoting any of this, but I'd paid for eighteen minutes on Godspunk, a compilation CD released by Pumf Records; and on the 21st of June, 2003 I jumped on stage with the Ceramic Hobs and performed a three minute rap at a Mad Pride event held at the Garage in Islington. I did okay. I'd rehearsed my lines over and over for weeks, and I remembered most of them, and I drew a polite round of applause as Jim MacDougall called out very swanky just in case anyone had stopped thinking about him for a minute and because he'd seen it all before.

Then nothing happened.

I had vaguely intended to build up a decent back catalogue before attempting to promote any of it, and LDB now sort of had a decent back catalogue, but nevertheless nothing happened. No-one was interested in the Pumf Records compilation, or the two that came after, and I eventually ended up leaving a huge box of my contributor copies outside Oxfam. I'd had a single enquiry as a result of my paying to put tracks on those discs, and that had been from one of the other bands. More depressing still, I didn't even particularly like the compilations. They sounded disjointed, as I suppose is inevitable given that the selection process was based on who felt like paying to be included; and the sound of my own tracks had been compressed into something I wasn't sure I really appreciated.

Equipment continued to fail, and a number of the discs I had burned degraded, becoming unplayable after about a year, a problem which I've never had with cassettes but have often found with CDRs; and I simply became fed up of paying for the repair of equipment which should have been better made in the first place, of catering to a seemingly unanimous lack of interest whilst Andy of my previous band referred to me as a gangsta rapper in the manner of an indulgent elderly uncle. I was nearly forty, and suddenly none of the effort I had put in over the years seemed to matter, or to have amounted to anything in the real world. Even had I managed to fool someone into buying my LDB tapes or compact discs or whatever, it's not like I was ever going to take to the stage with this stuff, or do anything to push it any further. That one night at the Garage had been fun, but not the sort of thing I cared to repeat.

My rap ambitions had never really been any more substantial than those of Nadim, and in 2005, faced with the prospect of having to get my borrowed portastudio - already an obsolete piece of equipment - repaired yet again, I stopped caring. I'd given up on band membership, and now I was dropping music entirely. I'd sold a few tapes over the years, but no-one had ever really cared, and I'd spent most of the time banging my head against a wall. People don't really want anything they haven't heard before, whether it be rock or rap or yet another dolt who once met David Tibet in a betting shop releasing another droning album with Crowley on the cover. People want product, something they recognise, something with a logo serving to guarantee certain expectations. Novelising, writing and publishing aren't even significantly better, but I find myself able to take more satisfaction from the finished work.

So I suppose LDB - or whatever the hell that was - has left the building. It was fun while it lasted.

Friday, 23 January 2015


It was the early nineties. I was working in Catford. Each morning I would struggle out of bed at five and take a bus from outside the pie and mash place in Lewisham High Street, past the hospital, past the giant fibreglass cat of Catford precinct, past those tower blocks in which one of the Sugababes was still about ten and hence not yet famous, eventually arriving at Catford Royal Mail Sorting and Delivery Office on the Bromley Road. This morning, it being winter, it was still dark as I went in the gates, up onto the loading bay. I pushed through the double doors, passing Captain.

He regarded me, expressionless as ever, his lower lip flapping. 'Don't listen to what they say. I was never on that show.'

'Okay.' It was too early to care about whatever this latest nonsense might be. I passed him without breaking step. I could see Joe over by the packet frames.

'Hey Joe,' I called.

He looked over, another early morning blank expression, although Joe had a naturally deadpan face. 'What?'

'Where are you going with that gun in your hand?'

He considered me for another second then gestured with his thumb. 'Down here.'

He went on his way, following his established direction of travel whilst generously supporting my pitiful joke by deigning to understand it and even to play along.

I passed the inward sorting frame. A few of them were already at it, letters into metal pigeon holes - chunk chunk chunk... I walked around to the back of the frames and stashed my delivery pouch under the bay. I could hear the usual distorted noise of radio and chatter but with an elevated level of amusement, elevated at least above the usual. Something had happened.

I considered Captain's mystifying edict from a moment before. Those big blue eyes had looked kind of shiny now I thought about it, now that I brought that big blank face back onto my inner television screen. He was upset. It was difficult to discern emotional subtleties amongst Captain's ordinary discourse because almost everything he said was in the brittle tone of a frustrated school tyrant refusing to acknowledge that he'd already lost the argument, still defiant against the tittering chorus of those who knew better. You could ask him the time and the reply would still sound like go fuck yourself.

But why is he called Captain?, I once asked Gilbert on the grounds that Gilbert seemed to know more or less everything about everyone. I anticipated the nickname acknowledging some sort of military background because he seemed the type, but no, it was because the guy used to have a beard and had resembled Captain Kremmen - the animated cartoon character who used to feature on Kenny Everett's various television shows. I could see it. Our Captain was tall and skinny, kind of awkward and angular, and maybe not with a big head so much as a head that seemed bigger than you would expect to find on those shoulders. I had nothing against him, and I suppose I quite liked him for all his faults, but you really had to keep in mind that he wasn't very bright, had no sense of humour, and that his personality had a naturally abrasive quality.

Once Danny and I were talking about what we'd seen on television the previous evening. I had watched something featuring the comedian Vic Reeves. Overhearing this, Captain felt obliged to point out that he himself did not find Vic Reeves at all funny, and furthermore felt obliged to point this out at intervals for the rest of the morning each time he'd thought of some new thing to which he could make unfavourable comparison with Vic Reeves' enduring inability to raise a chuckle at the Captain's table.

'Vic Reeves is about as funny as - as - as,' he stumbled towards the subject of the latest simile, 'about as funny as a dead ant!' He emphasised the dead ant for illustrative effect. That was how funny Vic Reeves wasn't. He really seemed to have a bee in his bonnet, although I couldn't see why. I had no deep seated need for him to find Vic Reeves funny. I wasn't bothered.

Anyway, I walked around to take part in the inward sorting. There was Joe again, Big Bird as he was occasionally identified, and it was true that he did seem to share some elusive looming quality with the Sesame Street character. There were two columns set about six feet apart near the packet sorting frames, roof supports. Joe had a coffin, one of the wheeled plastic trolleys we used for moving packets around the office. The coffin was eight foot in length, so of course Joe stood regarding it with affected confusion, bashing the ends against the support columns, engaged in a futile attempt to fit it lengthways though the gap. He glanced at me with a nervous Tommy Cooper chuckle. 'Fucking thing! It won't go!'

There was no aspect of working for Royal Mail which Joe was unable to turn into Alfred Jarry class absurdist theatre. Not for the first time I considered that of all the unfunny cunts in all the sorting offices across England who are told they should be on telly by easily amused colleagues, Joe was the one who really should be on television.

'I wasn't on no television. That was my brother who was on it!' Captain's voice was raised even above its usual emergency broadcast volume, but the resulting laughter was louder. I looked back to the sorting frames and saw my usual spot next to Micky Evans. I took my place, picked up a handful of letters and got going.

Boundfield Road.

Sandhurst Road.

Woodham Road.

'What's up with Captain this morning? What's he done now?'

Mick shrugged. 'Search me. He was on the telly or something.'

'He was on the telly?'

'I don't know nothing about it.'

An arm reached across my shoulder to pull letters from one of the pigeon holes - Gilbert clearing in.

'What have you done to the Captain, Gilbert?'

'He done it to himself this time, the silly fucker.'

'Did what?'

'You weren't watching telly last night then?'


Gilbert was trying not to laugh, relishing the retelling. 'Well, you know how Captain is such a hit with the ladies?'

I did in so much as I knew that he apparently wasn't, which was why he was always talking about the birds and how you need to treat them in order to keep them happy. It wasn't that his information was wrong or necessarily bad, just that it was obvious he had neither idea nor experience of what he was talking about. He would have inspired pity had his tone been less like that of a five-year old insisting he's really seen a dinosaur. I had myself weathered something of a sexual drought for most of the previous decade, but Captain's erotic testimony sounded ridiculous even to me.

'How come you're such a hit with the chicks?' Carl Prosser once asked, having endured Captain's spoken sexploits for the best part of an hour.

'It's because I've got a massive cock,' Captain bellowed happily in bold upper case, as ever oblivious to the sarcasm of the question.

So now Gilbert explained it to me.

Captain had appeared on a late night television show called Contact designed, as the title implies, to aid the conspicuously single in their search for a partner. The highlight of his appearance had supposedly been the section in which he told viewers a little about himself.

'I've got a Ferrari,' he explained.

'You enjoy driving?' the presenter prompted.

Captain thought about this for a moment, then, 'It's not a real Ferrari. It's a Matchbox car. I haven't passed my driving test.'

This being at his home, he beamed as he produced the toy car and showed it to the camera.

I hadn't seen the show, and had it been anyone else I would have assumed this to be a simple example of lame humour attempted by someone who just wasn't very funny, but what you saw with Captain was generally what you got.

'What was it called? Contact?'

I'd never heard of it.

'Yeah. I was in bed by then. Troy saw it though,' - Gilbert stepped back and called to a postman sat about three frames along. 'You was watching, wasn't you, Troy?'

Needing no introduction to the subject, it being uppermost in everyone's thoughts that morning, Troy nodded. 'It was late, like half past two or summink. I don't suppose he thought anyone would still be up.'

We settled into the morning. Chunk chunk chunk and occasionally some minor flare up, Captain's protests still ringing out from across the other side of the office. It hadn't been him on that show, it must have been his brother, and anyway he hadn't said nuffink about no toy car. And fuck off.

'Where are you going, Gilbert?' somebody asked.

Gilbert stood at the centre of the aisle, half-creased with laughter and heading for the sorting frames around the back. 'I'm going round here so I can make contact with my mate Kremmen.'

Months passed and the story died down, settling into the social fabric of the place, each objection made by its subject ensuring that not only would it be told for years to come, but that it would be believed with the sort of conviction which would make Richard Dawkins' atheism seem vague and non-committal.

The last I heard of Captain, long after I'd left Catford Sorting and Delivery Office, were the circumstances of his dismissal. A young woman to whom he delivered mail had kissed him on the cheek in an expression of thanks for some minor good deed. He had allegedly gone back to his car to drop off both mail and clothing, then turned up on her doorstep naked but for a smile loaded with priapic anticipation. The woman, suspecting Captain had perhaps misinterpreted the extent of gratitude expressed by the kiss, understandably made a formal complaint about this nudist incident in the strongest possible terms. It sounded a complete yarn, a friend of a friend story, or would have done had it been told about anyone other than Captain.

Then again, maybe that one had been his brother, the one who looked just like him.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Frank's Chicken

The car was maroon, an estate, possibly a Volvo or a Vauxhall or something of the sort. I've never really taken much interest in the minutiae of the automotive realm. It was parked on the grass at the side of the driveway which ran past the School of Art. Wells and myself had only come in to college for the sake of signing the register, and this one last job before we broke up for the Christmas holiday. We had eggs, bags of flour, and shaving foam. We were all ready to go.

We had both been in the year below Frank at school, and I'd only really known him through reputation. I'd had friends who disliked him to varying degrees of disdain, and he in turn hadn't thought much of them. He was an unusual combination of swot and bully, doing well in almost every class whilst having a pathological need to belittle others, particularly those he considered enemies. These were generally people who had noticed his absolute lack of a sense of humour and who made sport of this failing because it was funny. The more agricultural pupils would mock his regimentally neat appearance and hold impromptu darts tournaments during the technical drawing lesson utilising Frank's expensive fine-nibbed Rotring pens as darts. Mr. Stanier, the technical drawing teacher, had been carbon dated to no later than 1650 and was ill-equipped to restrain rebellious pupils, or pupils of almost any other description, and so Frank was left to fend for himself, and then to vent his frustration on whoever else was available and conspicuously lacking in reinforcements.

Frank reserved a particular venom for my friend Pete who was in his class and physically smaller, thus presenting a convenient and legitimate target. Pete however had the sharper wit. His retorts were quick, perceptive, and very funny, and he could shoot you down before you were even finished saying whatever crap it was you had thought so funny when you first thought of it. This didn't sit well with Frank whose wit was by contrast blunt and overly reliant upon terms such as pouf, bender and bumboy. He compensated by delivering these descriptors with force sufficient to quell any further insurrection; and his laughter was stupid and cruel, the amusement of a brute. Hur hur hur hur hur hur hur hur...

Pete and I had formed a group with two others, Graham and Eggy. We called ourselves the Pre-War Busconductors and we made most of the songs up as we recorded them, improvised direct onto cassette as we bashed away on cardboard box drums and an acoustic guitar amplified through Graham's Action Man radio. Naturally Frank was eulogised on more than one occasion.

He's saving up to buy a jeep.

He does his homework in his sleep.
He's got a massive square head,
And we all hope he'll soon be dead.

On more ambitious scale was (He's Called) Frank, a home-made cassette single we mastered directly onto TDK DC90 as Eddie & the Ogdens, this being the name under which we recorded as a trio when Eggy was otherwise indisposed. We termed it a cassette single because the A-side was one song forty-five minutes in duration, a happy clappy gospel number singing toxically sarcastic praises of Frank which mutated into other musical styles as it went on. There being one particular rude word which rhymed with Frank, we just kept going until we felt the theme had been explored to full extent.

I had no direct contact with the subject of these songs whilst we were still at school, the single exception to this being a snowball fight with our bunch against Frank's team, Anders Longthorne and Mark Lewis, both of whom seemed to have sided with him out of anthropological curiosity and were waiting to see what the hell he would do next. Frank rolled his snowballs with joyless rage, going after Pete with obsessive fury that bordered on weird. It wasn't about taking part, or even about winning for Frank. It was about the utter destruction and humiliation of his opponent.

In September 1982, I found myself embroiled in further education, taking art 'A' level in the same class as Frank. It was the first time we had sat at the same table, or probably even spoke to each other. He had no idea I'd played on Pre-War Busconductors songs concerned specifically with detailing his numerous character flaws as we saw them, or even that such songs existed. He seemed amiable, and so we got on reasonably well, or at least as well as one can with a person with whom you share no mutual interests. Frank was not lacking in talent, artistically speaking, at least in so much as his craftsmanship was exceptional. His imagination on the other hand seemed to operate at the same level as his wit. I recall one laboriously executed painting presented as a stern warning against the perils of drugs - a subject of which Frank had, to the best of my knowledge, neither experience nor understanding. The painting showed a beautifully detailed human brain rendered in ink and gouache, a syringe full of that heroin protruding from its rear, sinister looking tablets and packets of ciggies strewn all around.

Hey kids, don't do drugs, it sort of said.

We both passed art 'A' level, and in September 1983 started on the art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education in Leamington Spa, a course designed to get us ready for our degrees the following year. Frank kindly offered to give me a lift each day, Leamington being some twenty miles distant from Shipston. In return I stumped up petrol money and spent an hour or so of daily travel time listening to him talking what was mostly complete shite about which was the best Star Wars film or who amongst our fellow students was probably one of those bent homosexual bumboys. He seemed either uninformed or unconcerned regarding my position on Pete, his old enemy from school, and would retell lumbering tales of hostile encounters which had given him pause to consider anew what a loser and a complete bender my friend had been. I already knew the tales well from Pete's telling. Some of them had already inspired songs, but Frank clearly took pleasure from the retelling and would bring forth the hur hur hur hur hur hur. Day after day I listened to him declaring his superiority over our fellow students, people we both knew from school, women and members of ethnic minorities. He would explain that he wasn't being racist or nothing but that Pakis really do stink.

'It's probably all that curry,' he opined thoughtfully.

I managed about two weeks of this before I switched my allegiance to Wells, another kid I'd known from school who drove through Shipston each morning to attend the same art foundation course. Wells was the sort of kid who would spend the summer holidays blowing things up with home-made fertiliser bombs, but I had more in common with him than with Frank. The first few trips in his bright yellow Ford Escort were justified by my explaining that I needed to be home by a certain time, and Wells always slipped away early, unlike Frank who dutifully stayed on to polish apples until college closed at five. After a couple of weeks, the new arrangement had become habitual and required no further explanation.

The weeks went by and Frank came to seem increasingly incongruous in the environment of an art foundation course. We were trying to expand ourselves, generally and artistically speaking, and Frank was Jeremy Clarkson in a vegetarian café. His craftsmanship remained phenomenal as he began to build articulated model dragons, meticulously crafting latex flesh upon skeletons of hinged plastic ligatures. He was heading for the film industry, for special effects, and so far as I am aware he got there and has been doing very well for himself in that field ever since; but in the winter of 1983 his abrasive personality was really beginning to get on our tits, these being the tits of myself and Wells, hence the eggs, the bags of flour, and a spray can of shaving foam.

It was the end of term, and such high jinx were to be expected. We had left school but could only be deemed adult by the most generous of definitions. We were agents of karma redressing the balance of Frank boring us shitless, driving like a lunatic, and that stuff about Pakis. We covered the car in eggs and flour and then, in a moment of inspiration, I sprayed a cartoon chicken across the bonnet in shaving foam turning the vandalism into a philosophical question of first cause. It was art.

We returned about an hour later. The car had been cleaned, and there was Frank hunched over the bonnet, his elbow working away like a piston on the flank of an old-time steam engine. His face was crimson, his teeth gritted, and his blood red eyes appeared distended upon veined stalks. He looked like something you would see on the cover of a Meteors album.

'When I find out who did this—' His vow became an angry incoherent salad of legal proceedings seasoned with promises of physical violence and even torture. It seemed safe to assume that he was yet to appreciate the true levity of the situation.

'Oh no,' Wells and I chimed innocently. 'What's happened, Frank?' We moved in closer, thankful at least of Frank being so blinded with rage that he wasn't going to notice our stifled hysterics. 'Did someone do something to your car?'

Still scrubbing, he spluttered and raged without making any real sense. There was no longer so much as a single grain of flour or a smear of albumen to be seen, but then we noticed how some chemical component of the shaving foam had left a permanent stain upon the paintwork. My cartoon chicken had become a burnt umber silhouette at the centre of the maroon bonnet. Had I spent another minute on the drawing, it might now have resembled a custom job, the deliberate choice of someone who really liked chickens and wished to express this in an automotive medium.

Frank scrubbed and glowered but the stain was going nowhere. He appeared to be coming close to foaming at the mouth, and apparently lacked the imagination to suspect Wells or myself. He had probably made more significant enemies on the course. It would be a disgruntled bumboy, or perhaps even a bender of some description. The thought of my having done permanent and legally actionable damage to his paintwork sobered me towards levels of guilt sufficient to at least mute the hysterical laughter that might have otherwise risen to the surface at any moment.

'I'll ask around,' Wells offered like a true mate. 'See if maybe anyone saw anything.'

We wandered off in the direction of his yellow Ford Escort, hunched shoulders and looking left to right like the beginnings of the posse which would deliver justice once it had gained momentum. We waited until we were on the Warwick New Road, heading home and out of sight of the monster we had helped create, then we began to chortle, describing the scenario to each other, and then to howl with laughter. Try as I might, I really could not quite bring myself to feel sorry for Frank.

He wasn't a terrible person. He had helped me out on a few occasions, one time driving the ten miles to Stratford-upon-Avon to pick me up when a missed bus had left me stranded; but he could be such an insufferable cunt at times, and Wells and I really felt he had earned that chicken. When we returned to college in the new year, the chicken was gone, although I can barely guess at how many hours of scrubbing and polishing it had taken to effect its removal. Frank continued to be Frank because as lessons go, it had been pretty vague even without accounting for his reluctance to learn anything he didn't already know; but thirty years later I think of that chicken and it still gives me pleasure, so maybe that is enough.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Mission is Terminated

Excerpt from A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to That
William Burrough's House... the autobiography of Porridge:

It was the beginning of the end when Throbbing Gristle did a pop concert in San Francisco and we were singing An Old Man Smiled which is one of the ones what I wrote although Peter come up with some of it too, mainly that sort of twangy bit that sounds like how you used to make a farting noise with a ruler on the edge of the desk at school. We was doing An Old Man Smiled and I could hear Cosey Fanny picking out the notes of Popeye the Sailor Man on her guitar and I looked at her and she pretended not to know why I was looking at her because she is sneaky like that, the cow.

'Very funny,' I said but I was being sarcastic because I didn't think it was funny at all and it was not fair of Cosey to make fun of my sticky out eyes like that because it's my glands and I can't help it and anyway once I saw her put her hand in her drawers and scratch a bit when we was around at Cabaret Voltaire's house because they was borrowing our lawnmower and she took her hand out and sniffed it and then looked around because she thought no-one was looking but I saw it. Anyway she didn't hear me say nothing because we was doing our songs so loud so whatever. I wasn't bothered anyway.

When we had done the concert I was talking to some bloke from Research which is a magazine about murderers and lots of scary things and doing drawings of men's cocks on government buildings and stuff like that. It is a very good magazine but not a lot of people read it because they are scared of the truth about stuff and things. Anyway I was telling this bloke about how I was going to invent acid house but I was going to wait a bit because no-one was ready for it and I had only just invented punk rock a few years before and I wanted to pace myself a bit. That was when I spoke to that Malcolm MacLaren who is the ginger bloke out of the Sex Pistols. He came up to me when we was backstage with the famous Lou Reed.

'What am I going to do, Porridge?' he asked me. 'No one is interested in my band! They are not even as famous as the Rubettes!'

I couldn't think of nothing so I showed him my tattoo of Aleister Crowley sticking up the Vs to the Pope because I had just had it done and that's how he had the idea for Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols because there was a bit of space between Aleister Crowley's fingers and the Pope and I said, 'Oh Mr. Sebastian left that bit vacant,' and it was because I said it that he got the idea for it and that's why they got banned off the telly and became famous and all because I done it!

Anyway I was talking to this bloke from Research and he had said to me where do you get your ideas? so I was telling him and I was also telling him about the new song we were going to do which was about poo and it was a really playful and subversive song.

I see you,
I see you on the loo,
I see you doing a poo,
You are very nice and I am too.

Anyway there was a knock on the door. It was none other than that Ian Curtis from Joy Division. He had been following me around ever since we played in Liverpool where they are from and he came to see us and he came up to me after the gig and said he liked all of the songs what I wrote but the ones that Cosey Fanny did and that other bloke with the train set did weren't much good. His band were called Sad Sector but I had said to him that name is rubbish, Ian - you should change it is what you should do, and I told him Joy Division would be a good name because it was like the opposite of Sad Sector and I had playfully turned it upside down and inside out and stuff so it was subversive because it meant like those prozzies what the Nazis used to go and see behind the back of the van when they was feeling a bit randy and wanted to have it off and that. Ian said it was a dead clever name and he couldn't wait to see the faces of the fans when they heard it, and then they became famous, and that was sort of because of me when you really think about it.

'Come in, Ian Curtis my famous friend,' I told him, and he did and I could see Chris Carter looking over all envious and that because all he had was his blumming train set and I was the one who had all the fans asking me what's this song about, Porridge? and all the lady fans always wanted to have it off and that and no-one even knew about smelly knickers at the back fiddling with his knobs and switches. What a sad case! Ha ha ha! Once he kept pestering me because I had some toffos and I wouldn't give him none and he wanted a toffo and he kept saying pleeeaaase give us a toffo, Porridge and I said UFO to him which is the letters for you you-know-what off but I didn't want to say the middle word out loud because his mum was in the kitchen making us some chips, but I reckon that was how he got the idea for the X-Files and he never said thanks or nothing. Typical.

'What can I do you for?' I asked Ian Curtis.

'I'm fed up of Joy Division,' he said. 'I want to form a band with you, Porridge. I've even done a drawing of what it would look like,' and he showed me a drawing he had done of a gig and all the crowd were cheering and holding me up because I had jumped into the crowd like Iggy Pop or something. It was a really good drawing.

'This could be our album cover, Ian Curtis!' I said, excited.

Just then the one with the glasses out of the Shadows came by and he was looking for his friend Burt Weedon because he wanted to learn a really complicated guitar bit, and he said, 'does anyone know where Burt is?'

I didn't but I'd had another great idea.

What can I do you for, Ian Curtis?
Does anyone know where Burt is?

Tim Westwood was there because him and Chris Farter knew each other from being in the scouts and Chris had forgotten his sandwiches because he was too busy thinking about switches and knobs and the difference between OO gauge model railways and N gauge model railways and so his mum had got Tim to bring them. That's what I called him sometimes by the way - Chris Farter - hur hur hur. Once I even called him Piss Farter, which was dead funny. Everyone said so. Even Peter was laughing and he never laughs at anything because he is always serious. Anyway, Tim said 'Man, you're on fire tonight, Porridge! Lay that science on me one more time,' and he said some of the words in a funny voice like he was having a seizure or something, but anyway I said it all again once I had worked out what he was asking for and I thought up some more and sort of carried it on.

Chris is sitting on the chair.
He is sitting over there.

I just made it up like that, just saying it as soon as I thought of it. I didn't have it written down or nothing. I just made it up and said it. While I was saying it Tim was making funny shapes with his fingers and kept saying things like yeah boy, Porridge is keeping it hot to death for the UK, and he said UK like yooooo kaaay which was a bit weird, but I wasn't really paying him too much attention because of course I had just invented rapper's music.

'That was right good that was,' said the man who had bought Cosey Fanny a basket of complementary muffins from the man who had organised our pop concert.

'Yes,' I said. 'What be your name, my good man?'

'Afrika Bambaataa,' he smiled.

And that was how I done it. Even though Throbbing Gristle was splitting up but I knew I would always be able to think of something new to keep myself busy.

Friday, 2 January 2015

A Brief Time of History

A body of fifteenth century Nahuatl poetry attributed to Nezahualcoyotl, ruler of the Mexican city of Texcoco (1429-1472) reiterates one particular theme over and over, specifically that we live upon the surface of the earth and may only be here for a short while; that our lives are neither so great nor important as we may believe.

We will pass away. I, Nezahualcoyotl, say, enjoy! Do we really live on earth? Ohuaya, ohuaya.

Not forever on earth, only a brief time here! Even jades fracture; even gold ruptures, even quetzal plumes tear: Not forever on earth: only a brief time here! Ohuaya, ohuaya.

These words have held some resonance for me ever since I first read them back in the 1990s, and since I came here, to live in Texas, I've really begun to appreciate the sentiment.

Growing up in England, I have lived in dwellings more or less identical to those in which my grandparents lived but for the minor details of a telephone line and inside toilet. I have visited the hotel in Dunchurch in which one of my grandfathers worked as a boy. One side of my family traces some of its ancestry to Scotland by way of Liverpool and Northern Ireland, whilst the other side - from what I gather - ranged across the Midlands between Norfolk and Shropshire, wherever work was available. All of this occurred within a radius of a few hundred miles from where I grew up. The United Kingdom is an island, the very centre of which is found in the village of Meriden, a few miles from where my parents presently live. It doesn't really matter where you go in England, because wherever you stand, you will almost certainly be aware of its history on some level, history running thousands of years deep with you in the middle. This was at least my experience, and whilst such a richly layered inheritance may provide a strong sense of identity - or whatever else it is one may be seeking - it can seem equally daunting, even oppressive.

America, or specifically Texas, is very different. Internet dwelling morons may pass snide commentary about the United States having a sum total of two-hundred or so years of history, which of course ignores the entirely legitimate history of those who first made their way here, hunting, growing crops, building complex architecture and social systems of several thousand years antiquity; and I've read enough to appreciate that there was never anything backward, primitive, underdeveloped, or in any way uncivilised about the people who yielded this land to European invaders, of which I am but the latest. I try to keep this in mind as it seems the least I can do, but their history is closed to me. Regardless of my fine intentions, it is not something I can directly experience.

So I now experience geographical history through my wife's family, and the difference to that to which I am accustomed is disconcerting. I have spent some time scanning old baking recipes written out by my wife's grandmother, and they speak of a very different world to the one around me, something which seems suspiciously akin to the old west I recall from western films watched as a child, something much further removed than the distance from here to the house without telephone line or indoor toilet. History is much closer to the surface here. We are standing upon it, and it seems a very thin layer.

A week or so back, Bess and I went to the funeral of Hilda Huth. She lived to 103 and the funeral was attended by many of Bess's paternal relatives, her uncles Carl and Johnny and others. This was the Germanic familial branch, people who came here amongst the great many other Germans to settled this part of Texas in the 1830s or thereabouts. My wife has relatives who still regularly pull on the lederhosen to celebrate Oktoberfest right here in the United States, relatives for whom German remains their native tongue regardless of having been born here.

I never met Hilda, but it only seemed right that we should make the effort and attend the service. She was born in 1911, and for a few minutes I suffered the unfortunate impression that the preacher had composed his address primarily through consultation of Wikipedia; but once he was done with a somewhat dry catalogue of those changes which Hilda Huth had witnessed during her lifetime, his discourse became more personal, more interesting, and more obviously the testimony of one who had known the woman. Hilda had been likeable, very generous, and had apparently killed rattlesnakes on a weekly basis, finding them something of a nuisance when they got into the house or garage. By the end of the address, I felt as though I had known her. This was turning out to be an unusually moving experience, something going beyond the formal requirements of showing one's face.

I wrote and delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Bill Edney, my landlord, knowing full well it meant little to the sea of relatives who had barely known the man but nevertheless felt no particular shame in turning up at the first whiff of inheritance. The next funeral I attended was that of my grandfather, a farming man who had never shown the slightest interest in either the church or its belief system, but who had very much enjoyed a pint or two of an evening.

'Arthur was not a religious man,' the priest conceded, before going on to speculate about my grandfather enjoying a celestial pint in that pub in the sky with all the other dead people, underscoring this faintly insulting image by getting the names of my father and his various brothers and sisters mixed up.

Thankfully, Hilda Huth's send off was more dignified, and if not exactly happier, then at least a more appropriate response to her passing. After the service, Bess and I found Uncle Elton, Hilda's surviving brother whom we had spoken to at the viewing the previous evening. As we talked, he told us of his time in Korea during the war, witnessing the mass graves of Chinese troops. He had retained quite a strong German accent. I listened and found myself marvelling at how far all of this lay outside of my ordinary experience.

The next day we drove to the hospital out at Stone Oak. My wife's cousin had given birth to her second child. These were people from the other side of the family, Irish and English with a dash of Swede according to the DNA tests. These were yet more people I had never met, and although I knew roughly what to expect I had no idea how it would work out. I had spoken to both Jenni and Ellen, mother and grandmother respectively, by means of the usual social media channels, but it can be very difficult to get the real measure of a person by such means. I knew Ellen to be of what I suppose you might call traditional Texan stock, with strongly held religious convictions, and that Skip - Jenni's husband and father of the child - was some sort of punk rock preacher. Their first child was named Texas - or Tex for short - and the new baby would be christened Tennessee, thus fully acknowledging the home states of both parents. All I could say for sure was that these were not the sort of people one met growing up in rural England; but my wife told me they were good folks, and I trusted her, and she was right.

We found Jenni's room and settled down to the business of cooing over the baby and getting to know each other. Ellen and Jenni were, as promised, wonderful, warm, and witty, immediately putting me at my ease and inspiring painful pangs of regret at every occasion on which I had posted a facebook status message making use of the word fuck. Then I got to talking with Eli - Jenni's father - about our shared love of science-fiction, specifically the novels of Asimov and Frank Herbert. Being English, I still suspect I had a certain novelty value, but I tend to believe that good people are pretty much the same wherever you are or whatever language you may be speaking, and so I was made to feel very welcome; and it was a tremendous pleasure to meet this new branch of my extending family tree, one of which the existence I could not have anticipated just five years ago.

Talking to Uncle Elton, then to Jenni and Eli and Ellen, I was reminded of how we are all recent arrivals in one sense or another. Even if these people weren't themselves settlers, their recent past had touched upon wooden shacks built in the desert, single room schoolhouses on one of those dusty trails you hear so much about without ever quite realising that they actually exist. Our history only goes back so far before the tracks reverse across the Atlantic; and we exist only for a short time on the surface, as Nezahualcoyotl observed. For all the imperfect genesis of the United States of America - as so generously identified with such frequency by Europeans who can't tell the difference between a people and its government - this is why so many still come here and will continue to come here. This feels like a place which still has possibilities no matter how poor the odds may sometimes appear, because it isn't quite weighted down with a thousand years of redundant European history. Regrettably this means we have been free to make our own massive mistakes, and make them we have; but there at least remains the spirit of possibility in what little time we have upon the earth.