Friday, 27 February 2015

Florence la Petite Goth Français Gênante

It was Autumn 1993 and Mandy and I were renting a flat in Derwent Grove in East Dulwich. The street comprised mainly Victorian terraces which had been divided into flats. We shared our front door with the couple who lived on the uppermost floor, and adjacent to the steps leading up to our shared front door were a set of steps leading down to the basement flat, situated below street level. I had moved from a single room in a house in Lewisham, and Mandy had previously occupied a bedsit on the corner of Melbourne Grove.

Our relationship was heavily seasoned with crossed wires and misunderstandings, but with hindsight it was probably exactly what both of us needed at the time. Our union was hardly a match made in heaven, but it beat the alternative. Cautiously approaching thirty, I had become increasingly cranky and terminally single, developing a mournful nostalgia for my previous girlfriend of ten years earlier. Sarah had been my first and was at that point my only, but for a hugely depressing one night stand in the summer of 1987. I had not known the tender touch of a woman in a decade, five drunken minutes of 1987 excepted, so I was wearing black clothes, listening to Death In June records and taking them far too seriously - having not yet realised that there could be anything more sinister to their frowning misery than a simple neoclassical aesthetic. Mandy on the other hand had been interred within a secretarial job which she insisted had been driving her mental, and she had most recently been involved with some guy who sounded less than wonderful from what little she told me. This was to be a new start for the both of us, not least because neither of us had tried living with a partner.

Leaving school, Mandy had spent three years studying at the Cheshire School of Art and Design but became disillusioned and moved to London, ending up in a secretarial job. Eventually she realised that she had somewhat lost her way and would have done better to pursue some more artistic calling. I suspect this was part of my appeal in that I had already done a fine art degree and come out of the other side. When we first met she had already begun to shrug off the somewhat drab persona demanded by her initial career choice, ditching a bubble perm resembling that of a Liverpudlian footballer, dying her hair, buying music, going to gigs, dressing with more flair, and generally making an effort to have the sort of fun she probably should have had in her teenage years. In some respects this was where we contrasted in that I'd never been a party animal, and never would be, and Mandy was always much more of an extrovert than myself; but it was nevertheless good to see her enjoying life, having a blast after so many years in a windowless nine to five.

'Is he a goth?' her friends would ask when they phoned to hear all about the flat and the new boyfriend.

'He has a gothic soul,' Mandy explained, probably in reference to my taking Death In June far too seriously. I'd begun to wear more extravagant shirts, and we had dyed my hair but it had gone wrong and come out navy blue rather than the desired black, which had made life interesting at Royal Mail for a couple of weeks; but I'd never really wanted to be a goth, and I wasn't very good at it.

Mandy on the other hand was now giving it her best shot. She had packed in the secretarial job and signed up for an art foundation course at one of the local colleges. She dressed well and always looked very striking when we went out together, but more than anything she needed goth buddies, a group with which she could compare notes and acquire definition; and this was how she met Florence.

Mandy and I went to gigs and to clubs, but I think she would have liked to go to a great many more gigs and clubs whilst I could have happily lived with fewer. Her appetite for entertainment being greater than mine, it seemed only right that she should branch out on her own, and branch out she did, and specifically to Paris. She went there on holiday with a friend, but investigated Parisian goth clubs under her own steam, and in one such place she had struck up a friendship with a slightly younger, endlessly enthusiastic goth girl called Florence. Florence had an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of the scene, of wearing black clothes, and presumably of doing that dance where you make funny shapes with your fingers and wave your hands across the front of your face. She was small, theatrical, and cheery, the sort of person with whom it was easy to imagine yourself making friends.

Mandy and Florence wrote to each other from time to time - these being the days before widespread internet access - and met on at least one other occasion prior to my first encountering Florence. I wasn't really keeping track, it being more Mandy's business than mine. In January 1993 Florence sent a letter written on the reverse of a large colour photocopy assemblage of assorted photographs of Nina Hagen. The letter read as follows:
I hope you're fine and that the new year has begun good for you. I have pictures of Niall Murphy but they're not very nice 'cause he has red eyes on instead of having two beautiful blue eyes! I hope to see when I'll be to London on February. I'll certainly pass my Birthday in London. Do you want I send you Mephisto Walz album?

Have you received my photos and my postal card? Rachel - my penfriend whom you had spoken with by phone - has written me a card in which it was written Merry Christmas & Happy New Year. I'm waiting for your photo and another letters and cards.

Alien Sex Fiend will come in France for a concert on June and Nosferatu on April. Will you come during Easter holidays? I'll be go and see The Addam's Family II to the cinema with friends. I hope is better than the first. I didn't really enjoy it.

Do you like your new flat? Is it comfortable? What is look like? Big flat, with or without a balcony, small kitchen? I have a chinchilla but it bite. I prefer my rabbit which is nice and sweet. The kittens run in all the house. It's a really hell!

I'll come February 13th to February 26th to London but I'm afraid of being put in a family in Heathrow. It's far to your home, but I think I'll go to Slimelight and Electric Ballroom discos. I haven't your new number-phone. I don't know when I'll tell you that I arrived in London or I'll go to pub or something else. This is a problem.

I'm going to do my homeworks now ' cause I have an exam in one week.

The letter is signed love from Florence and French Goths, with a large-eyed biro drawing of Nina Hagen as postscript to illustrate the additional observation of Nina Hagen is wonderful, isn't she?

Niall Murphy was then the singer of Nosferatu, a band for which Florence expressed an unusual level of devotion. She would refer to individual members as though she knew them personally, but then maybe she did know them personally. She was young, tending towards a certain intensity typical of her age group, and as I eventually began to appreciate, she seemed to make more sense in a club environment with the distraction of music, lights, and spectacle where communication was reduced to basic expressions of approval or otherwise. Anyway, this was the impression I got from what Mandy told me of subsequent encounters with Florence. The tribal bond and the sense of belonging to something, the unity of black pointy shoes - these were fine up to a point, but beyond that point was daylight and conversation, and even without any appreciable language barrier, Florence didn't really seem to be interested in much beyond goth clubs, Nina Hagen, and the beautiful blue eyes of Nosferatu's Niall Murphy.

The evening she came to stay was peculiar - this small, flappy Gallic pixie wrapped in ten miles of lace turning up at our home like some exotically twittering bird. She and Mandy were heading out to one of the clubs mentioned in the letter, a place Florence had been meaning to visit for some time. Somehow I had been delegated the task of coming up with an address, despite my having no knowledge of any club scene, goth or otherwise. In the absence of Google or any better ideas, I phoned the offices of the Melody Maker - the music weekly of which I was a regular reader.

'My girlfriend has some random French penfriend over to visit,' I explained to the journalist to whom the switchboard had connected my call. 'She wants to go to a club called the Slimelight, and apparently it's my job to find out where it is, but I've never heard of the place.'

'I haven't heard of it either,' the journalist told me.

I read Melody Maker with enough attention paid to recall that it was usually Simon Price who covered the more conspicuously back-combed artists.

'How about Simon Price? Maybe he would know?'

'Yes, it sounds like his sort of thing,' the journalist admitted, but the man in question was not available to answer my question, and I didn't really care enough to push it further..

The address was found by some other means in any case, and so Mandy and Florence got ready to go out on the town - doing their make-up, getting togged up in their most ostentatiously gothic clothing, and discussing Nina Hagen and Niall Murphy's dreamy blue eyes - at least that was what Florence seemed to be talking about. I was beginning to get the impression of Mandy having bitten off a lot more than she really felt like chewing. It was as though Mandy had mentioned in passing her once having enjoyed an episode of Star Trek, then found herself sat down and forced to watch all seventy-nine episodes back to back whilst being served Star Trek themed snacks by someone dressed as Spock. The whole goth deal was fun for sure, but Jesus Christ...

After an hour or maybe two during which I'm fairly certain I could hear Florence dishing out tough-love suggestions to my girlfriend, encouraging her to become ever more gothic in appearance, they emerged, ready at last to call a cab and head off for a night of doing that dance. They came into the kitchen so that I could take a photograph. In the photograph they stand poorly lit in front of a shelf of my comic books. Florence looks ready to go. Mandy wears the startled expression of someone recently informed of having been adopted, like she's doing her best to adjust to this new information. It isn't that she looks unhappy so much as that she's trying to work out what the fuck just happened.

Their night out at the Slimelight was, so I gather, okay, but not something Mandy wished to repeat too soon. Florence had in the meantime gone off to stay with either a relative or some other friend. She would be returning to us in a couple of nights.


Mandy nodded. She wore the same look of restrained panic as in the photograph, so I left it at that.

The evening arrived without fate intervening to inform us that Florence had regrettably been called back to Paris, perhaps for some last minute expert inspection of a monument dedicated to the striking blue eyes of Niall Murphy prior to its official unveiling. The door bell rang, and we immediately knew that Florence had returned just as she had promised despite our refusing to think about it.

Mandy wasn't moving.

'Aren't you going to answer the door?'

She said nothing and we both looked along the hall towards the front room. The curtains were drawn and the lights were out. The hall light was also off. From outside it would appear as though we were not home. We turned off the kitchen light just in case and sat in darkness.

The bell rang again and footsteps thumped across our ceiling, down the steps and into the shared hallway. Florence was now inside the building knocking upon our inner door. The footsteps of our neighbour thumped back up to his or her own domain, then back down again in response to further knocking. Florence's twittering explanation fluttered around the gaps in the wood towards our darkened kitchen. She had come from France and she did have not our number-phone, but our neighbour had no advice to impart. Only Mandy and myself could say for sure that we were at home, and we were both as quiet and still as statues.

'We're really doing this?'

There was no need for Mandy to whisper an answer. For once we were thinking approximately the same thoughts.

Everything went quiet, and we resumed breathing. We had almost certainly heard the front door close as Florence gave up and went on her way. We tiptoed into the front room and drew back the edge of the curtain just enough to see the girl stood upon our doorstep, not going anywhere.

Shit, I either thought or said very, very quietly. I settled back into a chair from which I intended to discreetly observe Florence's departure before announcing the all clear, when the time came. She remained as she was, thankfully unable to see into our front room, patiently waiting for our return - five minutes, ten, then fifteen...

'Why doesn't she just go?'

'I don't know,' I hissed. 'I suppose she thinks you got delayed and will probably be back soon. She's your friend, not mine.'

'Yes. I'm well aware of that, thanks very much.'

After about half an hour, I realised that our visitor was nowhere to be seen. I cautiously moved around so as to be able to see through the gap between the edge of the curtain and the window frame, looking out onto the street. 'I think she's gone.'

We sighed a mutual sigh of relief and crept back to the kitchen to boil the kettle and make tea. It still seemed too soon to turn the light back on even though it was getting dark. I tried to imagine what it would be like to find oneself alone in a foreign city, and to have the people with whom you were staying turn out the lights and pretend they were out. I'm pretty sure Mandy was thinking the same thing. We were terrible people, but this understanding of our dreadful behaviour was not in itself more painful than listening to Florence talk about Nina Hagen and Niall Murphy's beautiful blue eyes.

We heard more knocking, but different.

'She's gone downstairs.'

'Oh fuck.'

We listened as whoever lived in the basement answered their door, then Florence's twittering explanation, then a door closing but we could still hear the conversation. We returned to our front room on tiptoe and listened. We could hear most of the conversation as Florence explained her dilemma to our downstairs neighbour, then after a while - maybe ten or twenty minutes - we realised she was telling our downstairs neighbour about Nina Hagen and about Niall Murphy and his beautiful blue eyes. This was worse than simply refusing to answer the door. We had forced innocents to take part in our suffering. Florence would not go away. She would sleep on the sofa of our neighbours, twittering on until someone finally called the police. We knew that we had to end this charade and face the music.

We sneaked out of the house, taking minutes to carefully open then close each of the two doors without a sound, and then once we had both crept to the lowest step outside, we made the big, loud show of stamp stamp stamp and well, here we are home at last, and where can my friend Florence be? Perhaps we have missed her...

Bizarrely, it didn't work, further obliging us to wait what we considered a likely time before going down to the basement to ask neighbours with whom we had never before spoken if they had by any chance seen an eccentrically dressed French girl hanging around and looking lost.

'She is here with us.'

Oh really? Well, that's a relief. We were so late and we were worried we might not be back in time blah blah blah...

It seemed to work in so much as our collective conscience wasn't going to be kicking us in the ass for the rest of the evening, although the downside was another endless night of observations on Nina Hagen and the beautiful blue eyes of Niall Murphy. Mandy was knackered and really didn't want to go out clubbing, but was now doomed to do just that by the mighty force of Florence. Neither of us understood how we had been overpowered by something so small and tweety with such an imprecise grasp of the English language, but by now we knew that we had only one option - to do as Florence said and wait for it all to be over. Admittedly I had it easier in this respect. Florence understood that whilst I might have a gothic soul, at thirty I was just a little too old and fat to be bullied into dressing up as a vampire and dancing to Christian Death records. Mandy gritted her teeth, pulled on the lace, and out they went. I guess she had an okay time, or at least as good a time as someone who would rather have stayed at home was going to have.

The next morning was a Sunday, and it was weird to wake with a twittering stranger in our flat greeting the dawn with fluting discourse on the subject of Nina Hagen and just how blue that guy's eyes looked in a certain light. I tried to make conversation that wasn't about either Nina Hagen or Niall Murphy, digging out my copy of the Ronsard album by Déficit Des Années Antérieures, or DDAA as their name is usually rendered.

'They're French,' I explained helpfully, immediately recognising myself as the old man getting down with the kids by digging out his Herman's Hermits collection.

Florence regarded me as though I had just suggested a threesome, then remembered something she had forgotten to tell Mandy about Nina Hagen. It being Sunday, I began to make breakfast, specifically a huge passive-aggressive fry-up. Mandy had introduced me to vegetarian bacon, as sold by the excellent SMBS delicatessen in Lordship Lane, and although It did a poor job of replicating bacon, it was nevertheless delicious in its own right. I supplemented my soya rashers with beans, fried potatoes, fried eggs, fried bread probably. I didn't even like fried bread, but I was really getting into my theme. Florence was the opposite of anything or anyone you would find in a transport café as the sun rose to dissolve all those pasty-faced Bauhaus fans, and so my artery-clogging breakfast assemblage came together as a sort of invocation of whichever forces would send our tweety intruder on her way.

'Mmmm - delicious,' she observed without obvious sincerity as she headed for the door. Within an hour she had gone from our lives, presumably heading back to Paris to spend her fluttery enthusiasm on those who better deserved it.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Quiet and Pleasant Man

Robert James Shepherd - my grandfather on my mother's side - was born on the 8th of March, 1910 somewhere in Liverpool, England for the sake of argument. He was one of a fairly large working-class family tracing its ancestry back to Northern Ireland, and possibly to Scotland before that. I almost certainly have some of the details wrong, but this is as much as I can recall from my mother's genealogical research which takes our family tree back to the late 1600s. Somewhere in there lurks a member of the Orange Lodge, but we don't like to talk about him too much, not least because we don't really know enough about him for anything more than a short sentence.

My grandfather's parents were Joseph and Emmeline Shepherd, and his military documentation gives his home address as 17, Hotspur Road in Bootle, which is technically Merseyside rather than Liverpool depending on who you ask and when; and providing you ask someone other than my grandmother who would customarily adopt a face of stony and silent disgust in the event of anyone mistaking her for a Scouser, which occurred with some frequency due to her fairly distinct Liverpudlian accent.

What I have left of my grandfather's story is cobbled together from fading childhood memories; a couple of hundred black and white photographs which, if numerous, remain nevertheless mysterious; and a lever arch file containing military documentation, certificates of training, pay book, and all sorts. From these I know that he was a joiner by trade - following in his father's footsteps so I believe - who enlisted with the Royal Artillery on the 1st of April 1933. The next few sequential documents I have are third and then second class certificates of military education passed in English, mathematics, map reading, and a subject termed army and empire. He is identified as a Driver on these certificates, ascending to the rank of Gunner on his first class certificate of military education dated to the 16th of October 1935. He transferred to the Army Reserves at the rank of Bombardier on the 29th of January, 1939. Notes made in his Certificate of Service booklet dated to the 28th of September, 1938 describe his conduct as exemplary, with some officer whose signature I am unable to decipher describing my grandfather as follows:

A first class surveyor and a reliable and trustworthy NCO. He is very intelligent and is methodical and painstaking. He has a quiet and pleasant manner.

England went to war with Germany on 3rd of September, 1939, from which point my grandfather's story is told mainly in photographs as he sits atop a camel before the Great Pyramid in Egypt, along with other scenes of his life in India or the North African desert. Two formal uniformed portrait photographs delineate his promotion from Corporal to Staff Sergeant, and then there are the medals - notably the Africa Star - and what little I am able to remember him telling me of his time with Montgomery's Eighth Army when I was a kid.

My mother was born just after war ended, and a receipt for the payment of an examination fee dated to the 3rd of November, 1948 testifies to my grandfather's return to civilian life as a structural engineer - or an architect if the more specific term seems a little obtuse. He may not quite have designed the buildings, but he made sure they didn't fall down. This trade was much in demand in the city of Coventry in the West Midlands, much of which had been flattened by the Luftwaffe during the war, although it could probably be argued that Coventry City Council spent the next two decades bulldozing the bits which Hitler's finest had missed. Anyway, the point is that my grandparents moved to Kenilworth, Warwickshire, just down the road from Coventry, which is how my mother ended up in that part of the country, and ultimately how I came to be born. Kenilworth had become aspirational in the years following the second world war. You were someone if you lived in Kenilworth, which pleased my grandmother as much as anything pleased her. My grandfather, who had never suffered any particular shame in acknowledging his Merseyside roots, may have felt differently, but work was work and I suppose he tended to keep his thoughts to himself.

My mother has described her home life as pleasant up until the age of twelve or so, at which point my grandfather apparently found himself bewildered as to how to cope with teenage girls. Where he would once play with my mother and her younger sister, read to them and tell them stories, he became a distant and apparently humourless authority figure inspiring my mother to rebel further when charged with inconsequential accusations made purely for the sake of authority.

He seemed to do well as an architect working for Coventry City Council, and he had his friends and his fishing at the weekend, but the war had stayed with him in certain respects, unfortunately leading to a spell in the nuthouse during which he was subject to electroconvulsive therapy. It probably didn't help that my grandmother had never quite been the sharpest tool in the box, and had always been a somewhat self-absorbed individual. Whilst she doted upon me as a child, and I in turn thought she was wonderful, even at that age I could see she had something of a martyr complex. Nothing my grandfather did for her was ever quite good enough, and he did plenty.

'Never mind,' she would say with a laboured sigh. 'I suppose at least you tried.' She herself had been the least favoured of three children, the one with neither the beauty nor any particular talent to speak of, and so she grew up with a vague sense of being owed something which she could not quite articulate. She apparently fell some way short of being the world's greatest mother, and I always wondered if she saw my arrival in terms of atonement, as a way of making up for lost time. I was indulged as her own children had never been.

The happiest days of her life had been as a land girl on the farm of Sammy Shellew in Cornwall, and memories of the same were frequently invoked for the sake of contrast with an endlessly disappointing present. If only she had married Sammy, or if only she had not moved so far from the wonderful Thelma, her greatest friend in the whole world. She met with Thelma a few times in the seventies, but eventually fell out with her; and then the venerable Sammy Shellew came to stay, which didn't work out so well due to his having interpreted my grandmother's gushing praise as a sexual overture, which probably wasn't entirely his fault.

For most of the 1970s I would be taken to stay with my grandparents every other weekend, arriving Friday evening and coming back Sunday afternoon. It was a regular thing, a routine, and like many children, I loved routine and found it comforting, something upon which one might rely in a world which appeared chaotic through not yet being fully understood. One of my earliest coherent memories is of watching Neil Armstrong landing on the moon as viewed on my grandparents' black and white television on Sunday the 20th of July, 1969. I would have been three years old, two months short of four. My grandfather was ten years older than I am right now.

Weekends generally began with breakfast, usually my grandfather making buttered toast - your bog standard Mother's Pride white sliced bread and probably Stork margarine, but somehow I've never been able to make toast quite so good as he did. Tea was stewed until bright orange - or at least the complexion of Judith Chalmers from that holiday show. The cocktail cabinet built into the sideboard was well stocked with kid drinks, Cresta or else bottles of Nesquik syrup for milkshakes and a selection of drinking straws, but they got me onto tea quite early on, always served from a pot into a cup with a saucer, one of those matching sets invoking some level of sophistication.

'He's been a proper little tea urn this weekend,' my grandmother reported one Sunday as my parents arrived to take me home, and it was true that I had been guzzling one cup after another. I can still recall my overpowering thirst of that particular weekend.

Some Saturdays I'd awake before my grandparents and would go downstairs and find something amazing in being the first to rise, in being the one to draw back the curtains upon a new day. On one such occasion I switched the radio on just as Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty was playing, and right in the middle of that Bob Holness saxophone break which I have ever since associated with an early Saturday morning at my grandparents' house; and the thing is, I'm not even sure of this being a real memory as opposed to some sort of association made after the fact.

My grandparents didn't seem to like anything racier than Jim Reeves so far as I could tell, so modern pop music was absolutely out of the question. My grandfather had apparently taken some delight in mocking his youngest daughter's love of Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders by referring to them as the Bananabenders, and I don't recall the radio ever having been tuned to anything that would have featured Baker Street. My parents took me to see Grease at the cinema in Stratford-upon-Avon when it came out, and the next Friday as they ferried me over to Kenilworth, I begged them not to tell Grandma we'd been to see the film. I somehow felt that such an admission would bring disgrace upon us, but I still have no idea how I thought this would work or what would happen if our terrible secret should be revealed.

Breakfast was usually prefaced by my grandfather walking up Caesar Road to the newsagent for a newspaper. I would tag along and he would buy me one of the small, brightly-coloured plastic dinosaurs from the display on the counter, or in later years the new issue of 2000AD comic; and I have a very specific memory of reading issue sixty-eight with the gruesome cyborg Artie Gruber on the cover at the breakfast table with my hot margarined toast and orange tea. My grandfather quite possibly passed some faintly disparaging comment on my reading material, thus cementing the memory in place. 2000AD comic was one of the first things I understood as belonging to my generation and thus beyond the scope of adults. Six weeks later as our family headed off for a week's holiday in Delabole, Cornwall, my mother frowned at the cover of issue seventy-four upon which Judge Dredd is seen on the verge of being devoured by a tyrannosaurus.

'It's very violent,' she observed in disapproving fashion.

'It's violence in the cause of good,' I explained somewhat ineptly.

After Baker Street, the orange tea, toast, and my weekly dose of violence in the cause of good, my grandparents and I would bundle into the navy blue Morris Minor and drive to Leamington Spa. My grandfather drove cautiously, perched forward in his seat, gripping the wheel and generally refusing to talk. Often he would whistle Bizet's March of the Toreadors from Carmen, and he would whistle it with such enthusiasm and frequency that I came to regard it as his signature tune; although specifically I have a better memory of him whistling it when it was just the two of us. He seemed less given to flourishes of carefree cheer in my grandmother's company, and my mother tells me that he was once in the habit of singing to himself, Pennies from Heaven and other songs of the time. I suppose by the seventies he generally felt less moved to song.

By the eighties, having invented experimental music, I produced a track attempting to invoke his memory by recording the running of a friend's Morris Minor whilst whistling March of the Toreadors. It seemed like an important thing to do, but the recording was disappointing.

Once in Leamington Spa I would be unleashed in a labyrinthine Regent Street toy shop called Toy Town, there to blow what feeble sum of pocket money I'd managed to save on model railway accessories, Ellisdon's jokes and novelties, Micronauts, Dinky's die-cast Gerry Anderson vehicles, model kits of dinosaurs, Shogun Warriors, or Faller alpine houses earmarked for the aforementioned model railway. I was good at spending money but not at saving it, so my model railway comprised mainly accessories and scenery with very little actual railway. With hindsight it strikes me as a little weird how I would buy and build bungalows, houses and shops past which no miniature electric locomotive would ever trundle on OO gauge tracks, and I can't help wonder if my granddad ever noticed this and imagined I might have some subconscious drive to one day follow him into the architectural trade. Having been a joiner, he still had all of his carpentry tools and so jollied me along by making a couple of wooden tunnel entrances which might eventually parenthesise the locomotive passage through a hillside of papier maché and chicken wire.

I repaid him by never getting around to constructing my hypothetical layout, and by nominating him test subject for all the Ellisdon's jokes and novelties I bought once I gave up on the model railway idea. Whilst he never struck me as particularly lacking a sense of humour, he tired of the job fairly rapidly then resigned during breakfast one Sunday. He'd responded to the loud farting rasp of the whoopee cushion on his chair with an indulgent smile. He'd found the plastic fried egg on his plate considerably less amusing, and the novelty double-sided suction cup by which I had attached his cup of tea securely to its saucer was the last straw.

'Your mother shall hear of this,' he muttered darkly, carrying the still full cup and firmly attached saucer to the kitchen. It had been a long weekend for him. The day before, my grandmother had only just talked me out of trying my joke sweets on him by suggesting there was a possibility that I might kill him. I'd made the sweets myself from everything I could find in the kitchen cupboard. To my grandfather's credit, he made no attempt to throttle me, despite probably knowing that no court in the land would have found him guilty. He never raised his voice to me, because I suppose he understood that, being a child, I was essentially psychotic and that it was therefore nothing personal. He was nevertheless able to induce me to behave with just a few words. It was probably the military training.

My grandmother's approach to child care was based on flattery, giving me stuff, and assuming it would be appreciated. It generally was appreciated, although I nevertheless got out of hand from time to time. Standard child psychology would have termed it a testing of limits, which I could have told you even back then. I had become irritable at being addressed as sweetheart or similar endearments with such frequency, and so I began to experiment with basic rudeness, making strident demands, complaints about the quality of service, and on one occasion directly calling her an old bat. I was probably about six or seven and I thought it was funny because I knew she would let me get away with it.

'Don't speak to your grandma like that,' my grandfather suggested, momentarily fixing me with the mildest of glances; and in that moment I saw myself as the repulsive brat I had become. It felt awful and I learned my lesson immediately. It was as though I'd been punched in the stomach.

On Saturday afternoons I would play with whatever I'd bought back from Leamington Spa, or sometimes we drove to Coventry to visit the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, and my grandfather would point out which buildings he'd helped design as we drove through the city. The swimming pool was one of his, as were parts of the university, so I believe, and it had been his job to make an assessment of the extent of the coal mining beneath the city and whether or not the ground would be able to support the weight of St. Michael's Cathedral.

Some Saturday afternoons, he would take me down to Abbey Fields in Kenilworth to catch fish from the stream, or around Kenilworth Castle; and I have no idea what we talked about during those walks, but I recall that we talked at length. As my mother has observed more recently, whilst some of his views were staunchly conservative and typical of his background and times, he was essentially a decent and intelligent man who was interested in things. He had seen some of the world and had come back the better for it in most respects but for those more directly related to the war. He would take me to Leamington Spa and have me splash around in a kayak for an hour or so at a small boating lake near Jephson Gardens, and I would notice the Indian women in their saris and remark on how strange they looked.

'I think they look very pretty,' he observed somewhat forcefully, possibly even wistfully given the time he'd spent in India, belying the generalisation of his generation's supposedly inherent xenophobia.

His creative energies went into plays and letters hammered out on a typewriter which he would sometimes encourage me to use. He wrote a play called One Bad Apple or something similar, a heavy-handed cautionary tale of a hearty and generally conservative workplace ruined by one of those shifty labour union type fellows, and there was another play about a wayward and rebellious daughter coming to no good. He didn't really seem to get much interest in this material, but it was significant that he at least tried.

He encouraged me in my formative attempts at storytelling, listening patiently as I read him by Bod fan fiction. The opening scenario in which Bod had a beautiful dream about a bowl of strawberries and cream was a direct lift from the barely animated children's television cartoon, but the conclusion - the world ends and in the next world Bod is a gorilla - was all my own work. There were also many, many episodes of Doctor Stew, a sequence of single page cartoon strips drawn on a long, long roll of rough hand tissue which had never made it to the dispenser of the cattle shed in which my dad worked.

'There's an awful lot of burping in these,' my grandfather observed reading through my scrawled efforts. It didn't seem like he disapproved exactly, but I got the impression he was concerned. Each episode - and there were at least a hundred of them - usually ended with Doctor Stew eaten alive in time for his devourer to emit a satisfied burp in the last panel, which was also the punchline.

Concerned or otherwise, it impressed me that my grandfather had taken the trouble to at least read my incoherent and extraordinarily repetitive attempts at humour. My grandmother would customarily have sung my praises more or less irrespective of what I had done, which was nice but ultimately didn't count for much.

Saturday evenings were television - The Pink Panther, Doctor Who, Basil Brush, The Generation Game, Starsky & Hutch - all of those shows which have since become tarnished by the overwhelming and disproportionate sentiment of their own nostalgia; or my grandfather would turn off the television and tell me about his time in the war, which was always something of a treat. Perhaps it was because I could tell how much he enjoyed reliving it with me, drawing maps of Tobruk and North Africa with arrows to illustrate movements of troops and tanks, and himself in there somewhere.

Sundays were different, at least following breakfast. Sometimes he would take me fishing, the one activity in which he still took real pleasure, so it seemed. He had made me a kid-sized fishing box in his workshop in the garage, and off we would go with flasks and sandwiches to some point along the River Leam or the Avon or the Sowe. He was keen on outdoor activities, and the boot of the Morris Minor was always well stocked with camping equipment, a kettle, tin mugs, a tiny Primus stove and so on. Alternately we would just go for another walk to Abbey Fields or one of the usual places.

'I've been feeling a bit depressed,' I told him in response to some question or other as we headed out of the door one morning, our breath misting the crisp air. I don't recall how old I was, younger than thirteen, and young enough for it to seem strange that I would articulate such a thing.

I got the impression that he was quietly horrified. 'You shouldn't be depressed at your age,' he said, a trace of pain in his voice.

At the time I had no idea of his own history of depression, the hours sat silently rocking back and forth before the fire described by my mother, nor any really developed idea of what the term even meant. I was trying to articulate a vague feeling of insecurity based on the knowledge that I was getting older and one day the fortnightly visits would cease. I recall this as a fairly specific fear I had voiced in relation to my grandmother's stated ambition to run a tea shop. She had predicted a peculiar future in which I would be riding around with my followers as part of some biker gang. Everyone would draw to a halt behind me as we approached the crossroads.

'Come on, lads,' I would say, 'my grandma's always good for a cup of tea and a bun,' and off we would all ride. The image amused me, but was followed by the altogether more apocalyptic, 'of course one day you'll stop coming to see us altogether.'

I was briefly inconsolable.

Sure enough, my visits became less frequent as I got older, and as my grandfather contracted bowel cancer some time in 1979. We visited him in the hospital in Warwick, and it terrified me to see him frail as a bird in his huge bed, happy to see us but barely enough of him there to fill the pyjamas. I'd always suspected that some elements of the world were subject to change and would ultimately become different, and now it was happening. I didn't cry when I heard he had died because it didn't make sense, but I was distraught at the funeral.

Denied the supposed source of all her woes, my grandmother became a quite different figure, certainly more tragic, but not so tragic as to excuse her increasingly eccentric passive-aggressive behaviour. The jokes she told about her terrible husband lost their jovial tone to become a spiteful, insecure whine about how she could have wasted her best years on such a useless man; but the complaints served only to underscore her own failings, her sense of having been owed something she could never quite articulate. What photos remain of my grandfather are those she somehow missed when she was throwing it all away, and from amongst what little is left of him I have a letter that was never posted, typed on a sheet of lined foolscap and addressed to John Newbury of the BBC. It is dated to the 15th of June, 1979:

I listened with interest to your programme on depression on Wednesday last, and as one who suffered from this complaint over a long period in the past, and having been cured I feel I should inform you of some of my experiences in the hope that you will pass on any relevant information to others who are suffering.

I suffered this sickness from 1944, on my return from five years continuous service in the Middle East and India until about five years ago when I learned about and obtained acupuncture treatment; and apart from one brief spell I have not experienced any depression since. The one instance occurred about four years ago during the transition from a busy working life to one of retirement.

Concerning the discussion on your programme I believe that any lowering of morale for which the causes are known - external conditions such as bereavement, domestic conflict etc. - is really only a sadness which, generally, time will heal. In my opinion, depression is a complaint which has no known cause and exists only within the patient, and can occur at any time regardless of circumstances. In my experience, lonely people are not more prone to this sickness than others. During my last period in hospital I found the other patients to be a typical cross-section of people including a works manager, school teacher, miner, and a policeman. One particular character was a hearty, boisterous person, apparently happily married with children, liked his job and was financially secure, circumstances which should promote contentment; but he suffered and frequently cried for no apparent reason. This was real depression.

I have found that these attacks can occur in different ways, one being like a huge mass of black fluid flowing into one's mind and another like a thousand different thoughts racing through the mind without pause until I feared for my sanity.

I felt a deep sympathy for the people who took part in your programme and I hope that you will tell them that they have no need to continue to suffer, that there is a cure and that I sincerely hope they can avail themselves of it and obtain relief.

Thirty-five years later, there may be days which pass without my thinking about him, but I am not directly aware of them. I often wish I could go back and talk to him as I am now, or at least take back some of the utter crap I almost certainly came out with, although there's probably no need. I'm fairly sure he understood that I was just a kid, and talking rubbish was my job.

As the years pass, I come to see myself in what I am able to recall of him all the more, and this impression has been cemented by a couple of photographs taken in the early 1950s which may as well be photographs of myself; and it occurs to me that there's probably no need to invent time travel just for the sake of apologising for my having been ten and slightly gormless, because he never entirely went away and, as I have said, I'm sure he would understand.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Letters Never Sent

As of 21st August, 2014, I adopted the practice of saying exactly what I felt needed to be said when engaging with others through social media, and then not saying it, deleting the words I had written in the comment box, the email or whatever, having copied them to a notebook document on my word processor. This, I find, has saved a lot of arguments because it gets it out of my system without my having to point out that the person with whom I am attempting to communicate is full of shit. It also leaves the other party free to continue subscribing to whatever bollocks inspired my response, but let's face it, a drooling fuckwit will usually continue to be a drooling fuckwit regardless of whatever you may offer by way of illumination.

I have taken great pleasure in composing some of the responses which follow, and I find many of them entertaining in their own right even when I've forgotten who or what inspired my comments. Perhaps you, dear reader, might also take some pleasure from this golden treasury of unlabelled passive-aggressive wrath and sarcasm, or perhaps not. I don't know. I've had my fun, and that's the main thing.

I didn't say that he was a monster or that his argument was illogical. I said that he was talking shite, because, in my view, he is talking shite in this case. I tend to dislike it when people talk what I would personally regard as shite, and this is an emotional response, and apparently one that isn't unique to me. Emotional, illogical responses need to be taken into account when delivering suggestions as to how the rest of us should live, as Dawkins seems to be doing with some frequency of late. I could suggest that dismissing the general response to this thing as off-the-cuff righteous indignation seems to imply indignation pursued as an end in itself, the views expressed by that indignation being views that don't ultimately matter.


Just get rid of anyone who identifies themselves as a Doctor Who fan. It's not like they ever contribute anything. As with a certain fat Nazi of our unfortunate former mutual acquaintance, you sit with one in a pub and it's like trying to talk to somebody over a long distance telephone connection. They're not all there. They're broken. You can't expect logic or anything of real worth from them.


Ugh look - I didn't really sign up for this much work given that I barely have time to do my own stuff. I have about seven-hundred fonts on my PC. Just name something and I'll see if I have it.

I should possibly make clear that once I've saved the image of a book cover, I can't just unsave it and move stuff around in the event of the beautiful faces of wonderful Chinese people being obscured by text. I have to start again, gouging images out of those horrible Microsoft documents, resizing them, pasting them in the right place. The first time I did the cover it took about two hours. The first revision was about forty-five minutes, and further revisions will be about the same, so I need to know exactly what you want me to do before I do it, and whatever those Microsoft documents are, whilst they may be fine for sending images I can copy and paste into something better, their appearance depends on whose computer they are sent to. For example, on my PC your latest cover is five pages, the images on the first two, then The Dream Diaries blah blah blah, then the back cover blurb on page four (and this isn't a failing of my PC because it's fairly new and is located in America which is the superior country).

Please, please, please consider downloading GIMP which is free, would allow you to do the covers yourself, and if you can cope with Microsoft I'm pretty sure you could pick it up fairly quickly. Seriously, it takes about half a day to learn most of what you need, and you'll have absolute control and will be thanking yourself forever.


Nowhere does he say that people choose to be mentally ill - quite the opposite in fact, in addition to his repeatedly stating that he makes no claim to understanding the condition. The choice he talks about is specifically suicide which is an action made by choice in so much as it isn't simply some autonomic function. Show me just where he states anything which suggests either he believes mental illness to be itself a choice or that he considers himself an expert on the subject?


Excepting Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation, obviously.


That said, having come to the end of one box of screws and having had to open up the box purchased at Lowes, I have to say Lowes definitely offers a better quality screw.


Blimey - for some reason I thought the semi-famed horse brass garment was a relatively recent acquisition.


This is what happens when people don't read books and watch too much crap on television.


I met Alan Moore in Coventry, which is technically outside Northampton, although admittedly not by much.


This is the sort of thing that scares me too, although apparently it's different in my case because my understanding of any given subject tends to be based on what I think I think about it rather than what I actually think about it, according to Ben Watson before I blocked him through fear of the devastating power of his words.


I dunno, Dave. I've been in Texas three years and I still have yet to suffer a sudden craving for Chips Behaving Badly. That said, you might be surprised at the quality of curry available in San Antonio.


I don't know. Even back in the bad old days before I realised I'd been giving out the benefit of the doubt with such force as to incur a hernia, I always found Mr. Tibet distinctly fishy by some terms I still find difficult to define. That he didn't inspire trust is the closest I can get it, and I never worked out what he actually did that invited such devotion from frowning types in the first place. Apropos of nothing, it turns out I was born in the same town as Crowley, so (spooky face, raised eyebrow) woooo...


I've also gone with Netflix (plus our package thing has Hulu and the Amazon one to cover a lot of the stuff Netflix lacks) but then it's got so I hardly watch moving images anymore; but, like Abby, I am very picky about the other media. I actually won't read eBooks now because I dislike the experience, there are still plenty of paper books I want to read, and someone who has "published" an eBook, hasn't actually published anything so far as I'm concerned.


They've always done that. I'm sure I remember election broadcasts from just before Bliar got in which sounded weirdly like they were promising that the only real way to secure a change from the misery of the previous fifteen years (or whatever it was) was to vote Conservative.


In case you were still wondering, I still have the comic and will send it to Charlie for the autograph as requested. I appreciate how you don't like to mess around with PayPal so I have weighed the parcel and will print out UK postage for it, because it seems a bit fucking cheeky to expect Charlie to pay for that (although expecting me to do so is fine apparently) following which I'll send it to him and he can stick it in the post for you. As I don't actually have a working printer myself, it seems I'm going to have to ask my wife to smuggle me into her office so I can print out the UK postage label there. With this in mind, and additionally considering the free cover art and everything, I'd say you're getting a fucking good deal out of me.


I only see one in so much as, for example, I find it difficult to see a positive aspect to identification of enemies and scapegoats as a unifying cause unless one decides that fascism is fine.


Yes, and I was quite surprised how little he bothered to reign it in when writing some of those earlier, actually-slightly-crap-even-without-the-xenophobia stories of dockside properties ruined by swarthy types coming over here, taking our jobs and summoning our fish monsters.


I had a look at buying a fez recently. I used to have one but it was too small for my apparently massive rock-like head and I have taken to wearing a kaftan purchased in the city of Fez in Morocco (truthfully) about the house because it's ideal for the Texas heat, so I wanted to get a fez because it goes with the clobber and expresses my appreciation for both Laurel & Hardy and quite possibly Allah. I was actually just a teensy bit chuffing irritated by AS SEEN ON DR. WHO as suggested by every other online retailer, reducing a fine piece of traditional headwear to the level of a One Direction hoodie. AS SEEN ON LAUREL & HARDY I could at least forgive.


Here in San Antonio we have a mall complex called the Rim (it's on the edge of town) at which one of the most prominent stores is Dick's Sporting Goods, so whenever we drive past we generally wheel out the same old joke about Dicks at the Rim. I should probably write and tell Cyril Fletcher.


For some reason I don't seem to have read much which contains sex scenes, possibly excepting Isaac Asimov's puzzling attempts at introducing a frisson of sexuality. I can't remember if they actually made sweet lurve in the first Twilight book.


It's Pepsi Cola. It's Rentaghost trying to be Star Wars. It's forty-five minutes of some bloke in a dark room holding a flashlight below his face and delivering meaninglessly portentous dribble through an echo box: THE SILENCE IS HERE, THE FUTURE IS DEAD, THIS ENDS NOW just like on every other crap unit-shifting mechanically-reclaimed drama put together by a BBC focus group. It once had charm. Now it's an extended Coldplay b-side.


Sorry - I meant to expand a little but was interrupted. I objected to the proposed male to female gender reassignment of Todd in Against Nature on the grounds that the point of the male characters was as contrast by which the residents of House Meddhoran were specifically distinguished as female for reasons other than equal representation. Not that anyone cared. Anyway, I'd say unless representation is specifically the point, characters will generally require good reasons for being this, that or the other as their role demands (beyond keeping readers happy). My objections are more often that I'm tired of reading characters as imagined by white middle class university-educated English males who seem to believe that wherever you travel in the world, everyone will probably be a little bit like someone you knew from the drama department, and they will probably love 1960s English TV and The Smiths if you just give them the chance. See also Adams, Douglas.


Never mind, because I have every confidence that Mr. Cameron and his friends will come up with one that's much better, and it will be jolly well British too, so no more tofu-scoffing lefties forcing us all to be dole scrounging lesbians. Good show, I say.


This also explains why (trying to put this as diplomatically as possible) whenever I have a question requiring an answer more complicated than confirmation that the round peg does indeed go in the round hole, I find it better to ask someone who has read a book every once in a while. Sorry if that's made anyone have a sad.


Actually, would you be a poppet and please desist from trying to shoehorn UKIP hot topics onto my facebook page or the facebook pages of my friends, or my messages inbox as though I won't notice or might be likely to pull a quizzical expression and remark hmmm - maybe that nice Mr. Farage really does have some good points, which kinda presupposes that I'm a bit of a moron and my profound hatred (which I don't feel is too strong a term here) for UKIP and that which it represents is derived from misinformation spread by devious cultural Marxists or whichever leftist windmill the party of the pound sign is pitted against this week? You may notice that since the last time we had this discussion I've refrained from sharing any of the numerous entertaining exposés in which UKIP councillors have been revealed as having a pathological hatred of Jews, the disabled, or whoever entirely because I have no wish for us to fall out. For similar reasons I tend to try to hold back in offering opinion on a certain children's programme. If it works for you, then that's beautiful, but please appreciate that I would rather be left out of this particular loop.


I made one of these in 1983 when I was still at school with just one tape head (admittedly because that Laurie Anderson had been on the telly with one). I expect there were thousands of us who did the same thing.


Very amusing, although I'm slightly disappointed with the YouTube comments. I was hoping for the more traditional thrust of Morrissey defence which generally asks just who Mr. so-called [name of artist] thinks he/she/they is or are, concluding with the usual claim that Morrissey has more soul sonic force in his fingertip/earlobe/lickle toe/sphincter than blah blah blah because he just has and that is a true opinion (etc.).


Perhaps I should point out that junior, who is eleven, is fixated on My Little Pony to some degree, and I have no problem with that. It's nothing to do with gender or being an outsider for me; it's the absurdity and exclusivity of focus. Would this thread have gone quite the same way were it obsessive adult fans of the Care Bears? I don't know, maybe it would. I'm nearly fifty and I feel like I'm running out of people with whom to have a decent conversation. I like to be able to talk to people who can converse with reference to things I don't know, or wish I had read, or wish I knew more about. I don't want to end my days surrounded by people who are just about able to quote something said on The Big Bang Theory, and that's as good as it gets. It's not snobbery. It's recognising that some aspects of culture are more complex than others, because they are. There is more going on in Plato's Republic than in a Godzilla film. They are not equal. I chose these as examples because I actually prefer Godzilla films, but I'm nevertheless glad to have read Plato (despite it being a somewhat dry experience) and am slightly annoyed with myself that I saw no reason to do so earlier on in life because I wasted at least two decades on inconsequential shite with logos attached.


I liked Throbbing Gristle, thought about 99% of Psychic TV was drivel, and have generally taken the view that he was only ever as interesting as whoever he was stood next to at the time. Most of my impression of the man comes from having been in a band with a certain former Throbbing Gristle roadie, and I just got the impression of him being a funny guy but mostly a bit of a dick, albeit a very, very lucky one. The most entertaining thing about him since about 1983 is what he claims to have invented this week. Acid house, drum and bass, New Orleans fucking bounce - what hasn't he invented?


I didn't really discover Godflesh until relatively recently, and then when I had a look on Wikipedia I saw he used to do noise tapes as Final, which was quite a shock as I definitely had tracks on a few of the same tapes as Final way back when. I've a feeling I may even have seen him live in the line-up of a shifting membership band called D.Mag 52 in about 1984. It's a small world.


No, they're not difficult to find. Neither are the facts concerning nest-feathering ex-Tory MPs sneaking under the radar on the hey I like a pint and hate Europe, so I'm just like you ticket or capitalist carnivores creaming off massive bonuses for themselves whilst your economy goes into freefall, but it's easier to get votes by pointing at Muslims, dole scroungers and those people coming over here taking our underpaid jobs and thus fanning the flames of hatred specifically because it's easy than tackling anything which might make an actual difference at the risk of offending the nice man in the suit who might one day let us into his club if we just keep sucking his dick for long enough. Jesus. How hard is it to understand?


Thanks to Jez, Michael, Mark, Ben and anyone else who has since replied with genuinely useful advice in that thread. I've tried to compose a note of thanks but am unable to do so without sarcastic retorts about how I might go about finding one of these so-called DJ shops (oh brave new world that has such things) given how it's all just cows and ranches around here, and me being but a simple lad who has never before bought one of these magic Mr. Twirlies.


Pardon the thread necromancy - just got here and am thus backtracking down your page. Some points of agreement here: it reminds me a little of Middle Class Sound System as I believe they are called, from East Dulwich where I used to live and I'm torn between regarding their enthusiasm as healthy and admirable and thinking what a bunch of tossers, and that the probably ironic name really doesn't help. There was a white guy who worked at Catford post office with a Jamaican accent you could stand a spoon in, but it tuned out he had been adopted by a West Indian family and was speaking quite naturally, though I still couldn't help finding it odd. My pals at East Dulwich sorting office mostly ended up being the black kids because they had better music taste, were funnier, and were much less prone to kissing the boss's arse.


Some years ago he lent me the novel of Whisky Galore, possibly assuming his own tastes to be more or less universal on the grounds of him being such a jolly fucking chap. He's younger than me, wears tweed, smokes a pipe, supports real ale, and generally conducts himself as though it's still 1940 and everything is still jolly decent. This reminds me of that novel of Whisky Galore, or what little I managed to read of it - fine at the time, but now appealing mainly to people who listen to The Archers, wax lyrically and frequently about the shipping forecast, and feign innocent Joyce Grenfell style confusion whenever you mention any cultural development occurring since the Beatles.


Well, I don't know about you, but I've had about as much as I need. I have you on a custom setting so that you won't see half of what I post anyway, but facebook seems to decide whether or not this works on any given day. I'd rather not have right-wing propaganda on my page, but figured there might be some worth in your at least being exposed to views other than those to which you already subscribe, but never mind. The debate in which you berate my lack of worldly experience and tell me I've run away from this nation and that I should grow up seems typical of our friendship. Some years ago, as Royal Mail was imploding from within, I recall you phoned me up, and when asked how the job was going, I explained to you in detail how bad it had become and how I quite frankly felt like topping myself - and by the way one of the few mercies I recall was the EU law denying my employers the right to force me to work more than eight hours overtime on top of my forty hour week with the threat of penalties for delaying the mail if I didn't. Having listened to my testimony you spent the next twenty minutes repeating the same business management garbage with which my employers had justified the changes which had made my working conditions not only unpleasant but impossible. The lesson here was that you always know best, regardless, and you really haven't changed, and nor do I think will you ever change.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Go Spurs Go

My wife had won tickets to watch the San Antonio Spurs playing the LA Lakers at the AT&T centre, our local sports and related entertainments arena in which one could fit the city of London several times over. The tickets were for seats costing over $300 a head and she had won them at her office, so this wasn't some old tat - the boss handing over a can of fizzy pop on Christmas Eve and telling you to keep up the good work. A few of her friends had offered to take the extra ticket. Resenting the implication that I myself might not wish to attend on the grounds of a lifelong hatred of organised sports in all of its forms, I accepted the invitation, reasoning that it would be something new and therefore interesting.

I considered the Spurs - the home team. I was already out of my depth. 'They're er— basketball, right?'

My wife nodded.

I had seen basketball on television a few times because my wife watches the occasional game if the Spurs are playing. It's the one I recall as having been called netball when I was at school in England. The girls played it, and we would sit and pretend not to watch from the English literature classroom. LeBron James plays basketball, and I know his name from when he featured on a massive poster which came free with an issue of Hip Hop Connection magazine a few years ago. I didn't hang it on my wall because I didn't know who the hell he was at the time, or why the poster should have been given away with an English music magazine. Charles Barkley also plays basketball, and I know him from the Godzilla vs. Barkley comic and because he hates San Antonio for reasons which aren't very interesting. Shaquille O'Neal used to play basketball and was apparently quite good at it, although I've heard of the guy mainly because my wife knew him from having attended the same classes at school. Finally, there's Kobe Bryant who plays basketball for the Lakers, although I'm not sure why I've heard of him; and that is the sum total of my basketball knowledge.

It transpires that our tickets also cover a parking spot, which is nice. We park and file into the arena with everyone else, finding our seats five or six rows from the front of the sloped terrace. I've been here before to watch the rodeo. From my point of view it's like Wembley Stadium were Wembley Stadium built around a small bowling green rather than a football pitch. There are screens everywhere, the largest being four of them set on each side of a huge central mount hanging down from the roof. We are sat amongst fans of both teams. I reflect that this would seem odd in England, comparing the arrangement to my admittedly limited experience of football.

'So you never get any trouble, fights breaking out between rival fans or anything?

My wife shakes her head, and I think about all of my friends who support Millwall back in London, and then the one guy who follows West Ham.

The noise is already deafening and we have thirty minutes to go. Players jump around on the court or the pitch or the trapezoid or whatever it's called, and voices blast from speakers all around as statistics appear on the screen, a featurette for each grinning player detailing height, performance, match statistics, superpowers, and which issue of The Avengers he first appeared in. Music blasts, familar songs but just ten second snatches of introduction, just long enough for one to recognise Thriller or Highway to Hell or The Final Countdown and cry out oh hell yeah or that shit's my jam right there, motherfucker! or something of the sort. It's all about the excitement of the thing without the substance of the thing itself.

The section in which we are seated apparently comes with its own team of waiters who will take our orders for burgers, fries, nachos, soda or whatever, but it's still too early for them so we make our way back up the stairs to the concession stands. My wife takes a tray of nachos and I have a burger. It is about as good as I expected it to be, better than McDonald's but nothing which would inspire a special trip. After I've eaten I am no longer hungry, so that's good.

A match or game or tournament of basketball divides into four quarters each of fifteen minutes duration. The rules are pretty much as they are with football, with nets representing goals, everything stopping for the equivalent of a penalty, and so on - football here meaning football as played with a spherical ball, not the game they call football in this country which looks to me like rugby played by Transformers.

The game begins before we've even realised, and it occurs to me that in its natural state this may be one of those games you're better off to be playing than watching. The action occurs within a very small area with players crowded together. It happens quickly and can be difficult to follow from a distance, unlike football in which events can be observed and appreciated as unfolding at a more reasonable pace from the other side of the stadium. Football has more of a narrative; and football has the additional dimension of all those wonderful songs - You're Going Home in a Fucking Ambulance, or Who Ate All the Pies?, or You Live in a Caravan - which city-dwelling Millwall fans sing to Gillingham's semi-rural supporters to the tune of Go West by the Village People, and You've Never Seen a Tree, which is the response sung to the tune of You'll Never Walk Alone. I guess that this sort of thing doesn't happen with basketball, at least not here or this evening. Audience creativity is firmly schooled by instructions and announcements from speaker and screen, efforts to hype us up into a screaming mass. High up in the rear of the stadium, someone called DJ Quake plays us the first ten seconds of every hair metal record to ever feature on the soundtrack of a Tom Cruise film, switching according to the demands of the game. The Spurs are on the attack, so he plays a looping bar of a drum break followed by three hard beats as everyone chants GO! SPURS! GO!; then the Lakers take the ball and everyone crowds around the Spurs net and we get a different beat - thump thump DE! FENCE! thump thump DE! FENCE! over and over. It's not like anyone really needs this sort of jollying along, or a Spurs fan would be unable to tell what his or her team were up to without musical cues, so I suppose it's simply that everyone likes a sing-song, that everyone likes to feel included.

Someone scores a goal - or whatever it's called in this game - and the screens flash further instructions make noise, get loud, or some other unnecessary exhortation to celebration.

ON, the screen flashes. YOUR it continues, then FEET! followed by a photograph of a heeled cowboy boot just in case anyone was left struggling with the general concept of feet. No supporter left behind.

The game appears to have stopped and some guy in a coyote costume runs about waving arms and encouraging us to make more noise. He holds up a sign which reads this is our house, which is probably the most stupid message of the evening. The coyote suit is peculiar, googly green eyes staring in different directions. I like coyotes as they are in the real world, and I like Wile E. Coyote the animated nemesis of the national bird of Texas, but this one resembles a cautionary lesson on the perils of substance abuse, or he would do were it not for the running around and the somersaults. I notice that he wears a Spurs shirt with coyote spelled out on the back, which I suppose at least reduces any possible ambiguity.

Play resumes without warning. It may have resumed a few minutes ago but we were busy making noise, getting loud, rocking out to DJ Quake up there on his wheels of steel, this time playing an entire song all the way through, which is unfortunately by the Electric Light Orchestra, the worst band of all time.

Make some noise.

Yes, we know.

This must be what it's like inside the head of a hyperactive child on a Sunny Delight and candy binge. It reminds me of Crackerjack, an English children's show from my childhood which seemed to involve a lot of screaming. Even at the age of seven I considered it headachey. Saddest of all, I would suggest that all this spectacle does the game and its players a disservice. It suggests a lack of confidence in our being sufficiently entertained by ten men bouncing a ball around for an hour. Ignore the flashing lights and distractions, and although basketball happens quickly and in a small area, watch for long enough and you begin to see the skill involved and to appreciate the game. I suppose DJ Quake and the flashing lights are here to keep it interesting to those for whom basketball is not enough in and of itself, for whom it needs to be an enveloping experience. I recall certain footballing authorities aspiring to turn the beautiful game into something for all the family, which never struck me as a necessarily worthy intention so much as an exercise in raking in more money. All football ever needed to do was appeal to those who enjoy football. It never really needed to cater to anyone who doesn't enjoy football, just as there's no need for such a thing as a vegetarian beef steak; and the same surely applies to basketball, although I'm not sure where this leaves me given that I'm sat here watching the Lakers take the lead over the Spurs. It isn't that I'm not enjoying it, but it's odd, and I might enjoy it more were I not being asked to get loud every fifteen seconds. The game seems like the least important detail of the whole.

At the end of an hour padded out to three with generic entertainment-style spectacle, the Spurs lose by 110 goals to the Lakers' 112 - or points or scores or tries or whatever it is with this game. We all leave, either happy, or happy to at least have been here, which I suppose ticks all the boxes that needed ticking. It really wouldn't have taken much to convert me, to switch my generally tepid allegiance from football as my default sport of choice, but the Spurs just couldn't manage it. To be fair, it probably wasn't their fault.