Friday, 27 March 2015

Tim's Last Moon

Tim's First Moon was a single page comic strip written and drawn by Simon Cox and myself in July, 1984. We'd come to the end of our one year art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education and I suppose you could say that we were letting off steam. The Tim under discussion was a fellow student and the subject of some mockery. He seemed an oddly conservative figure on a course populated by colourful characters, teenagers making the most of having left school, of being able to dye their hair, wear outrageous clothes, smoke, drink, and do all that stuff you really need to do when you're a teenager. His conversation, which often seemed to be channelling an Alan Bennett monologue, was peppered with references to his mother and to a home life seemingly much like that of Ronnie Corbett's Timothy character in the sitcom Sorry! The issue was, I guess, not specifically that Tim was hilariously square, socially awkward, and conspicuously in the thrall of a seemingly domineering mother, but that he was all of these in conjunction with being loud and sometimes quite pushy. He was an abrasive personality and didn't seem to realise it. He had about him the quality of a manic schoolboy and people found it unsettling.

I liked Tim, or at least I didn't actively dislike him. His artworks were large and weird, huge canvasses covered in scribbled equations and navel-gazing essays on the subject of himself as artist, or his peculiar pastiche of the paintings of Julian Schnabel using paper plates. His work was about art as medium, the art industry, art as a commodity and so on; or so it seemed. Tim's explanations never really made any sense to me. At the time I assumed this to be because these explanations went over my head. I didn't understand his viewpoint although it seemed interesting, not least because it was completely unlike anything else being produced by anyone on the art foundation course. I imagined he stood a reasonable chance of becoming the next Gilbert & George if he could just manage to go five minutes without pissing someone off. The problem was that, I guess, he just wouldn't listen, which pretty much defeated the point of his taking the course. Whatever the tutors suggested apparently failed to get through, and his work remained incomprehensible to more or less everyone but himself.

Tim's First Moon was drawn, I suppose, in response to his manic exhibitionism, his inability to take a hint or to judge any given situation before steaming in, making a fool of himself, and giving everyone the hump. His interest in girls, for example, was expressed in comedic drooling and gurning as he rolled his tongue around in his mouth and made grabbing motions with his hands. My guess is that it was intended to be funny, even disarmingly ridiculous, but it just came off as peculiar. The story of the cartoon strip, such as it was, involved Tim's breakfast bowl of sugar puffs laced with hallucinogenic drugs by fellow students in the hope of broadening his horizons. It concludes with Tim revealed as having three buttocks as he moons the college Principal at a public function. Simon and myself made ourselves howl with laughter as we drew the thing, and then we screen printed a few hundred copies on cheap paper and gave them out to anyone who wanted one.

Tim should have been mortified, but it seemed he loved the attention, which is probably a clue as to whatever his problem was in the first place. We'd taken the piss out of him, gallon after gallon, and with such enthusiasm that I began to feel a great sense of guilt when we started printing off those first copies on the silk screens. Nevertheless Tim seemed to think it was great. I suppose he saw any publicity as good publicity.

As our year of art foundation drew to a close, some of us were preparing for degree courses elsewhere. I myself was headed for Maidstone College of Art in Kent. Tim hadn't been accepted anywhere, although it should be noted that he had applied only to colleges within travelling distance of home, and so he signed up for another year of the art foundation course. For some reason, we exchanged addresses and struck up a correspondence. With hindsight I still have no idea why this happened. It wasn't like we had a great deal in common, and we hadn't really been close friends at college. I felt a certain degree of guilt over Tim's First Moon, disliking the image of myself allied with all those legions arrayed against the poor fucker, hooting with laughter as we pointed at his spots and silly hair, daring him to say a rude word in front of mother almighty. The fact of his purporting to have enjoyed our cruel cartoon only seemed to make it worse.

On the other hand, having started a mail order DIY tape label in order to distribute my own home-made music, I'd passed Tim a couple of cassettes, and he had responded with enthusiasm, which was of course very flattering.

So we corresponded for a couple of years on the subject of something or other. For two years running he failed to be accepted for a fine art degree course at any college within travel distance of his home, and so changed direction, some secretarial course or whatever, business studies - that kind of thing. I regarded his reluctance to move away from home as a little odd, although having myself found the experience somewhat difficult, in some ways I understood, and it was clear that there was no joy to be had in telling him to move out, to get out from under that woman. He was unreceptive to such arguments, and besides it was the same song as had been sung by those who had spent the year taking the piss out of him with such enthusiasm.

Instead he seemed to be concentrating on something called Media Bunker, a name with a logo which appeared to be a huge paintbrush launched from an ICBM silo. He was making plans, writing manifestos, collating photocopied notes in presentation folders. He phoned me and spent an hour raving about a television commercial in which Victor Kiam reported liking Remington razors so much that he'd bought the company, and he raved as though it should be obvious what this had to do with anything.

The trouble was that in the three or four years of Media Bunker, as discussed in both letters and the occasional phone call, I never found out what Media Bunker was actually supposed to be. Was it a building, an art gallery? Was it an agency, as suggested by his contacting and in a few cases pissing off an assortment of local artists? Was it a magazine? What the fuck was it?

I never found out. Neither did I find out quite what the Rock Drill Rockers were supposed to be, beyond the scribbled drawings he sent in the mail - Epstein's Rock Drill, Brancusi's Mademoiselle Pogany and other iconic modernist sculptures playing instruments as backing band for the Art Assassin, which was Tim looking moody in a trench coat wielding a gun shaped like a paintbrush. I had seen a balsa wood maquette of the paintbrush gun, but that hadn't made a lot of sense either. It could have been a proposed installation or performance, a laboured metaphor for something or other, or a ponderous Saturday morning cartoon show.

'Tim was ever so disappointed,' his mother told me when finally I met her. 'He thought you would be moving back here and you could help him with his thing—'

'Media Bunker,' Tim interrupted, pulling a face - disappointment seasoned with acceptance of its inevitability. 'I thought after you finished college we could work on Media Bunker together.'

This was news to me. I was stood at the counter of an antiques stall in a covered market in Stratford-on-Avon. This was Tim's mother's stall and Tim himself now worked here. This was his job. He was, he told people, in the antiques trade. The antiques in question were antiques in the sense of being stuff he and his mother had found in the attic. There wasn't anything quite at the level of faded jigsaw puzzles or boardgames with missing pieces, but tat was nevertheless as good a description as any. To gaze through the glass top of that counter upon the treasures carefully arranged below, each with its own handwritten price tag, was to experience crushing sorrow on behalf of everyone involved. Tim had a job in so much as anyone who ever put on a yard sale has a job for just as long as they're trying to sell that massive telly with the picture showing in just cancer-blue down the left side of the screen.

I had read a lot about Tim's mother in the letters, the matriarch who refused to let him leave home or make his own way, the wicked old witch holding him back. This, he wrote, was the truth of the situation, contrary to the general thrust of the jokes we had told at college. I didn't know what to expect of her.

She was a short, unhappy looking women with long grey hair and a strong Midlands twang. Contrary to my expectations, she seemed sharp-witted, and I found that I quite liked her.

'I wish you'd have a word with this one, Lawrence.' She regarded her son with icy frustration. 'He's bloody never going to leave home at this rate. He'll still be there when I'm pushing up the daisies, mark my words.'

This was a different take on the story, and one that seemed more plausible to me. It had become obvious that Tim lacked natural curiosity, anything you could describe as a sense of adventure. He wasn't really interested in other people, places, or indeed anything much outside himself. The notion that he might have been somehow held back by this small, faintly acidic woman whilst straining at the bit to make that degree interview in Dundee did not ring true.

I'd visited the antique centre having moved from Kent back to Warwickshire, or specifically to Coventry, in 1989. After about a month I came to the realisation that this hadn't been the best idea I'd ever had, and so I put in for a transfer with my job and moved back down south, to London. I'd resisted the drive to move to London which seemed to have swept up so many of my contemporaries like eels to the Sargasso as we finished our degrees. I had told myself I would never live in London, but by 1989 it didn't seem like there was anywhere else left to go.

Tim and I maintained our correspondence on and off as I took to cartooning in earnest, mainly short absurdist efforts which were printed in an assortment of fanzines. He sent me a detailed plot outline in the post, written and drawn in his scrawled hand until the A4 sketchbook was full. It was, he explained, something he had been working on and perhaps I might like to use it in some capacity. The story opened at a graveside, the funeral of our hero's younger sister, killed by drugs. Our man reflects that he never really understood the acid house phenomena, for surely everything that could be said in that genre had already been done by Heaven 17 and the Human League. All he knows is that the drug dealers will pay for the death of his younger sister. Accordingly he refits his car with the best that British engineering has to offer, crafting a mighty chariot by which to hunt down the drug dealers...

I skipped to the end, to a car chase at Heathrow Airport, and struggled to understand why Tim had thought I would be interested in this crap. Even without the fumbling childlike narrative, his understanding of the cultural phenomena of acid house made your average cockwomble Daily Mail journalist seem like Timothy Leary; but sadly I knew that there was no point trying to communicate this

Over time we graduated to tape letters spoken onto cassette, which made for quite nice little art objects and saved the time spent writing out several pages of news and views which would probably be ignored, or else struggling to decipher Tim's handwriting. We spoke on the phone, and ultimately by email, although I had increasingly begun to wonder why I was friends with this person. We had nothing in common. These accounts of his plans and ambitions, such as they were, made no more sense to me than had Media Bunker or any of the other stuff. I felt some pity for him, this unloveable, awkward, eternal manchild, but no man was ever the better for being pitied, as D.H. Lawrence observed in The Plumed Serpent.

This time, he's not getting the new email address, I would tell myself, or the phone number, but somehow he always did, and I would resign myself to further incomprehensible nonsense.

He phoned me at work as I was busy and hardly in the mood for rambling crap. I'd just got my first mobile phone, a crappy but functional Nokia, and so he spent ten minutes telling me about his mobile phone, a BlackBerry or something of the kind with full QWERTY keyboard. 'Everyone calls it the beast,' he snorted down the line from Warwickshire. I tried to imagine a scenario in which passing strangers regarded Tim speaking on his mobile telephone with awe, never before having seen such a wonder. I tried to imagine what Tim would be talking about, or to whom he might be talking if not me. It was seven in the morning and I was pissed off and already knackered, and my imagination was not up to the task.

'Do they really call it the beast?'



Royal Mail had introduced changes to working conditions which had made the job extremely difficult, and all in the name of savings, regardless of the detrimental effect upon both quality of service and working conditions. I found this so stressful that I went briefly mad and was obliged to take time off work having been diagnosed with mild clinical depression. I felt, if not literally suicidal, then something in that direction. The one thing which had prevented my employer from forcing me to work in excess of eight hours weekly overtime on top of a back-breaking forty hour week was European Union employment law. Royal Mail wanted to be able to work us for as long as they liked, threatening anyone refusing the overtime with disciplinary action on the grounds of delaying the mail, but thankfully they couldn't because of EU employment law. I explained this to Tim on the phone one evening, having already endured fifty unbroken minutes of his thoughts on the British aerospace industry, then I listened as he delivered his verdict, a stream of aspirational management bullshit pretty much identical to the crap by which my employers had justified the changes. I had the actual experience of the matter, but he knew better because he always did. He effectively told me I had failed to understand that which I was directly experiencing on a daily basis.

When finally I got a word in edgeways, he cut me short.

'Mum's nagging me to get off the phone,' he chortled. 'She's just put out the sticky toffee pudding,' which was followed by ten minutes on the subject of sticky toffee pudding - yum yum yum. I had never heard of sticky toffee pudding, and looked around to see if Mike Leigh was crouched down behind the sofa directing a cameraman.

A couple more years up the line as he settled into another lengthy monologue on the subject of the aviation industry for no reason I fully understood, I set the telephone receiver down on the arm of the sofa and went to make myself a cup of tea. When I returned some ten minutes later, he was still talking, having failed to notice my absence. Eventually he swung around to asking how I had been, how my life was going.

'I have a girlfriend,' I reported. 'Her name is Marian.'

'That's great!,' he chirped in the voice of an overenthusiastic seventies disc jockey. 'Well done, mate!'

It actually wasn't that great, much as I wished it were. Following the initial few weeks of euphoria, Marian had invited me to an intimate gathering with just thirty or forty close friends and together they had attempted to passive-aggressive me into joining their brainwashing therapy cult, an organisation charging several hundred pounds a pop for courses I didn't need to take on account of already having a job and a functioning personality. The relationship had more or less been exposed as bullshit before it had really got started, and I was very upset about this. I spoke without interruption - which I found odd - telling Tim how distressing it was for about twenty minutes.

'She sounds a great little lass!' he chirped in response, sounding like Paul Daniels on speed, and I recalled that he'd never really been too interested in other people. When in dialogue with another person he seems to regard their contribution as time in which to compose whatever he'll say next so as to supplement whatever he said before.

I went to visit Tim for one last time just a few days before I moved to the United States. I hadn't seen him in a while and anticipated at least a couple of questions about the details of my move, some level of curiosity, but no; I sat and listened for more than thirty minutes as he explained his latest big idea, a new kind of science-fiction television show. It would be, he said, like a cross between Doctor Who and Star Trek. He described the build up to the big revelation for about ten minutes, at length coming to, 'and then we close in on the wreckage and we see that the sign reads,' - pause for dramatic effect as he licks his lips - 'United Nations Intelligence Taskforce.'

Why the fuck did I bother?, I wondered.

'I hope you let Lawrence get a word in edgeways,' his wife chided as she emerged from the kitchen twenty or so minutes later. 'Tell me you haven't been bending the poor boy's ear all this time?'

Tim laughed his loud, awkward laugh. 'We've just been having a bit of a natter!' Then he turned to me. 'She does love to make a fuss!'

I will never have to see this person again, I thought to myself.

I moved to the United States and got married, and Tim diminished further to an internet presence, the eternal Prince Philip of my facebook page, ever ready to step in and piss someone off with an ill-informed observation. It was almost a year before he ran out of things to say about the foreign policy of former president George W. Bush, apparently having assumed my Texan wife - who was also using facebook - would respond well to these ill-judged comments, and perhaps might even take the opportunity to personally apologise for her part in all that business with Afghanistan. I made a serious effort to impress upon him just why Bess was no more accountable for Bush's presidency than Tim himself was for Margaret Thatcher's tenure in office. This inspired him to share a lengthy anecdote about the time he met an American at the antiques centre, some fifteen years before. Apparently the tourist in question had been a really smashing chap. I think this anecdote was offered as some sort of testament to Tim being the last person who would make sweeping gestures regarding issues of nationality.

More recently on facebook I posted a link to an article about the criminalisation of persons attempting to feed the homeless here in America. This is typical Republican thinking is what I am thinking, was Tim's less than grammatical verdict on a law which might be characterised as the exact opposite of Republican thinking, the most basic Republican principle being that of less government interference in the lives of its citizenry. The criminalisation of persons attempting to feed the homeless was actually quite typical of the more state-orientated Democrat party, but either way, in lieu of bothering to consider any research beyond repeats of Dallas on UK Gold, Tim had effectively delivered the equivalent of thank God the English mineworkers' unions at least had Margaret Thatcher on their side. This pissed me off because I now have Republican supporting facebook using relatives who are actually very nice people regardless of their voting habits, and it pained me to see them so insulted because every time Tim opens his mouth or sets forefinger to keyboard it's like mad uncle George just stumbled in and - oh fuck - it looks like he's found the sherry again.

Following this, our social networking took a more depressing tone, with Tim still offering comment regardless of whether he actually knew what he's talking about, ever lengthier essays with the usual loose differentiation between their and there, accept and except, and punctuation dispensed more or less at random. His relationship to language and communication had always been at something of an angle in comparison to the rest of us, particularly where words of seven or more letters were involved. Following on from Do Easy, my DIY tape label, I had published comics and fanzines under the banner of Runciter Corporation, as borrowed from Philip K. Dick, or Russinter Corporation as Tim pronounced it. His first girlfriend, who arrived on the scene in 1994, suffered an eating disorder known as bulmia, he told me. This meant that she was bulmic. After a couple of times I stopped bothering to make the correction. Maybe he suffers from some sort of dysexlia, I figured. Now he was going off the deep end, always rhetorically asking so why else do you think that Gene Roddenberry would - then describing something the Star Trek producer had done which you'd never heard of, didn't care about, and couldn't see how the fuck it related to anything. He would make forceful points about things which didn't matter, often exposing his own bewildering cultural isolation in the process, falsely identifying long-running and fairly popular internet memes as jokes originated by The Big Bang Theory, a somewhat laboured American situation comedy. Communication was ever of the sort traditionally associated with ear-trumpets and shouting.

More annoying was his steady progress towards a vein of politics he bewilderingly regarded as centre left, as I first noticed with the sharing of one of those stories in which some hijab clad foreigner insults the Queen - as depicted on the coins comprising her change in a British supermarket - inspiring a passing retired Colonel to deliver the if you don't like it you can fuck off speech to much applause from the assembled own business minding shoppers.

So this really happened, did it? I asked.

Tim explained that even if it didn't happen, it was the principal of the story which mattered. Perhaps not surprisingly he is now an enthusiastic supporter of an English political party which by definition might be seen to epitomise fear of the unfamiliar. I would rather not grant them the oxygen of publicity - or the oxygen of oxygen for that matter - so let's identify them as the Party of Our Pound Sign, POOPS for short.

I have no idea what has made Tim as he is, what psychology informs his way of thinking. I suspect he may have had a difficult upbringing in many respects, or at least one which has left him insecure and perhaps lacking some degree of self-esteem. He has always seemed so fearful of change and unfamiliar circumstances as for this to border on a form of mania; and so he has done very little, so far as I am aware, to broaden either his experience or understanding of the world beyond his own postcode. It sometimes seems not so much as though he mistakes the map for territory, as that he lacks awareness of there being anything besides the map. Some of this would probably account for his forceful overstatements, offering that which he feels he has understood as proud symbols of achievement which define him as the person he feels he would very much like to be, namely a man who speaks with authority. It would probably also account for why he seems to be a sucker for a chap in a nice suit and tie, the uniform of those who embody the sort of success to which he aspires - the self-made man as defined by his financial acumen, the solid, happy guy untroubled by any of that Bohemian nonsense. I know doctors, dentists, and architects, Reeves; proper people, not like yourself, as one of Bob Mortimer's characters used to say.

He went back and forth with the POOPS, at one point horrified to discover what seemed to be their policy regarding disability benefit - for one example - then presumably reconciling himself to the leopard changing its spots, or that it wasn't so bad once you read the small print, or that it was one of many examples of fake POOPS websites set up so as to spread misinformation and make Poopers look like a bunch of raving Nazis. He tried to sell me on immigration reform by invoking my fear of all those Mexicans flooding across the border just south of where I live, having somehow missed the crucial point of being an immigrant myself and quite happily living in a city of 60% Hispanic constitution. He talked about something he termed political correctness taken out of context in relation to the 2012 sex trafficking convictions in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. He would emphasise the great numbers of Muslims, Jews, and other foreigners who had all become loyal Poopers, proving to me once and for all that he really had sat next to one on the bus and had been proud to do so.

His facebook posts and responses began to read like party political broadcasts rather than arguments, reiterations of what may as well have been what some bloke said in a pub for all I could tell. I asked that he desist, so he filed off the serial numbers, making vague but nevertheless unnecessarily lengthy references to fringe parties which had some really interesting things to say. Somehow such obvious hints failed to intrigue me as was presumably intended.

I began to take some pleasure in sharing blog posts and newspaper articles showing POOPS to be an opportunistic party, lacking coherent policies beyond whatever fed into voter insecurity that week. I hoped Tim might either wise up, or else unfollow my facebook feed, but sadly he rose to what he clearly took to be a challenge, composing longer, ever testier defences of the thing which seemed to have given his life some purpose, and as he did so he became ruder and less coherent. My facebook friends responded in kind and were usually met with something in the general vicinity of whatever had been said, rather than any specific dissection of points raised.

It was the same as it had ever been.

He never really understood the acid house phenomena, for surely everything that could be said in that genre had already been done by Heaven 17 and the Human League...

Sticky toffee pudding - yum yum yum.

She sounds a great little lass!

...and then we close in on the wreckage and we see that the sign reads United Nations Intelligence Taskforce.

So why else do you think that Gene Roddenberry would...

This is typical Republican thinking is what I am thinking.

Then on the seventh of January he invited himself to expound upon the POOPS view of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, following my linking to a Robert Reich article about something which wasn't the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and it all went pear-shaped. A number of my more eloquent and informed friends tackled his commentary admirably, and he took increasing quantities of umbrage at their failing to see his point despite all of the details having been explained. He began telling people to grow up, and to suggest that they lacked experience of the issues but rather were something called armchair jockeys. He asked me why I should even care given that I had run away from the nation in question, then suggested I get off my fat arse and return to England and get myself elected. I had a response, asking whether it was now official POOPS policy that those not actively standing for election were not entitled to form an opinion, then suggesting that I might defer to Tim's great wealth of worldly experience and knowledge, but it seemed like it would be better to simply block him from my facebook page. Funnily enough, he beat me to it and defriended me first.

It was for the best. The situation wasn't making either of us any happier, and nor were any lessons being learned beyond don't come between a man and that which gives his life purpose. I still wonder if Tim noticed the irony embedded within any of his protestations before hitting the unfriend button, although given his parting shot, I doubt it.

Firstly, even calling me xenophobic is me a clear disgusting and horrid insult that I cannot help but take personally. That is the problem that all the Far Left seem to suffer from, a love of throwing insults and then when someone throws them back most get all defensive.

It was just over thirty years since Tim's First Moon, and this was his last, or at least the last moon to shine that triumvirate of buttocks across my world, and the last moon to unleash that which squirts forth from those twinned stars of opprobrium and cross-purposes. I wish him the best, and hope he finds something which makes him happy - providing I don't have to hear about it. If not fun, then I suppose it's been interesting, but nothing lasts forever. All this time, I really should have known better. I tried to be the nice guy by crediting someone with more reasoning power than was ever within their grasp, and probably because I liked the idea of myself as the nice guy in contrast to the horrible cunt who drew that cruel cartoon with Simon Cox back in July, 1984; and so I'm pissed off when I realise that the cartoon, cruel as it was, was nevertheless pretty much on target. So I knew it all along, but simply didn't like to admit it. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps I subconsciously nominated Tim to be some sort of marker post, a point by which I could measure how far I have travelled from my insular, small town teenage self. Maybe then I have only myself to blame.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Fifty Shades of Gary

I am washing my hair with Timotei shampoo because I am worth it and - oh gosh - I have dropped it in the shower and I have to bend over to pick it up, if you can imagine that. Anyway, I am done bending over and I towel myself dry with one of those towels like you see on the telly, like when the lady gets out of the bath and David Niven has a big towel and he says my dear and all that and he raises an eyebrow and you know they are certainly going to have it off a bit later, but they probably won't film that part.

Cor! The dirty devils!

'Are you going to do that case, Jessica?' my flatmate Yolanda asks me. She has black hair and sometimes we have pillow fights and we talk about boys and stuff.

'Yes I am going to do that case, Yolanda,' I say to her.

'I was wondering because you have made yourself look all lush so I thought you must be meeting a bloke or summink.'

I think of my case. I am going to meet the enigmatic disability benefit claimant known as Gary. He has a second name but names aren't important in the world of having it off with people what you don't know very well because it's just like some weird sexy club or something like one of those mucky shows on Channel Four.

Minutes later I have my clipboard and I am stood knocking on the door.

'Wha'choo want?' he says. He is about six-foot-summink, red faced and a bit bald on top. His T-shirt doesn't cover his stummick and he smells a bit. I don't think he's had a bath in a few days. My clipboard says that he is forty-seven years old and a bachelor.

'Hello, Mr. Gary,' I say to him, trying to stop my voice from going up and down with excitement. 'I am here to discuss yore disability benefit. I am called Jessica. Can I come in for a bit?'

He shrugs and says, 'I ain't bothered,' and lets me come in.

'What's in here?' I say and go into one room. It is the sitting room. There is a big fish tank there but there are no fish in it. There are rocks in the fish tank and they are painted blue and yellow and dark red. 'What is that?'

'What is what?'

I point to the fish tank.

'That's my fish tank.'

'Where's all the fucking fish gone if it's a fish tank?'

'There ain't no fish,' he explains.

'So what's all that?'

'Ain't you into football?' he asks me.

'No, I'm more into making love.' I say it in a special sexy way like on an advert or summink, just to let him know. It's like a special sexy signal.

'I painted them stones up in West Ham colours. It's one of me projects, you know?' He gulps. 'You want a cup of tea or summink?'

'Yes, all right,' I say.

'I ain't got any.'

'What? You ain't got any tea?'


'Never mind then.'

'You stopping me money?'

I sit down on the leather couch. There are dog hairs on it. That would explain all the poo out in the alleyway. They don't call me Sherlock Holmes for nuffink.

'I am just making an assessment, Mr. Gary. If you have a disability like it says here on my form you will still get yore money.'

'Do you fancy a bunk-up?'

'Yeah, go on then.'

Gary puts on his tape of Bon Jovi and we have it off. There was an old tin of Kronenbourg 1664 on the window sill, and it had gone flat because it was behind the curtain and Gary had forgot about it, but there is still a little bit in it. So we drink that and then he does us up the wrong 'un. It were dead sexy and romantic and that. It was also a bit smelly and I had to have another shower straight after, but I was worth it.

Friday, 13 March 2015


We had been invited to Liliana and Herberto's Quinceañera. Liliana and Herberto are the children of Belinda, my wife's best friend at elementary school - which covers ages five to about eleven. The Quinceañera ceremony is a primarily Hispanic tradition, the celebration and religious blessing of a girl's fifteenth birthday marking her transition from childhood to womanhood.

I had been to one previous Quinceañera, and that was in honour of Bess's cousin Lena. The ceremony was in a church, as they tend to be, and had lasted a couple of hours. The section pertaining directly to Lena had been fine, and everyone felt happy for her as we all dutifully bowed our heads in prayer, or as a concession to the prayer of others in my case. This was followed by a lengthier address delivered by the priest, beginning with readings from the Bible, wishes expressed regarding Lena's hopefully prosperous future and so on; which somehow segued into one of the most passive-aggressive monologues I've ever heard. It seemed to last about an hour, and the general thrust was that there are a lot of people out there spreading filthy lies about the Catholic church, and that we should shun such people and take comfort from the fact that they will one day burn in hell for making accusations of a specific nature to which our man wasn't going to allude because none of it was true. The speech came across as particularly weird for having been delivered in the jovial tones of someone trying to drum up interest in the tombola; and it went on and on and on, and everyone began to feel a bit sorry for Lena still stood patiently at the front in all her finery.

After the service I got to meet Bess's father at long last. It wasn't a great meeting. He had suffered strokes and some memory loss in recent years, and didn't seem entirely sure as to quite who Bess might be so there didn't seem to be a lot of point in introducing me as his son-in-law. I also got to meet, Charlotte - either Bess's stepmother or more properly her father's second wife, depending on where you draw the familial line. Charlotte's father was cousin to music legend Johnny Cash, and the resemblance was difficult to miss. She seemed a pleasant woman, but the situation was awkward with her husband in such a state of obvious mental distress. We shook hands, and she seemed intrigued to have met someone from England, and I managed to keep myself from exclaiming well fuck me! at meeting the niece of the great Johnny Cash.

Liliana and Herberto's Quinceañera would hopefully be a more traditional affair, with less emphasis on anyone telling filthy lies about the church being consigned to an eternity of torment. My wife had raised a curious eyebrow at the inclusion of young Herberto. Being Liliana's twin brother, I suppose it would have seemed strange to exclude him. Under the circumstances it probably wouldn't have been much stranger celebrating his transition to womanhood, so we assumed that the ceremony had been adapted, at least leaving out the part where flat shoes are swapped for high heels.

Liliana looked gorgeous, a princess and dressed as such with that typically Latino enthusiasm and flair which somehow manages to make Liberace levels of excess seem positively restrained whilst nevertheless remaining entirely elegant. A legion of friends of both herself and Herberto filed in, the Quinceañera equivalent of bridesmaids but of both sexes, and then all the relatives and their guests settled down to the ceremony.

I'm not sure what it is about Hispanic people, but I am continually surprised at how good looking so many of them generally appear. When staying in Mexico City, I've always been struck by how it is possible to go an entire day without seeing even one face quite so distractingly hideous as those of the many gargoyles which congregate on an average wet Tuesday morning at Croydon railway station. It's not that Mexico City is populated by supermodels or that everyone enjoys a great diet and healthy outlook, but they just don't seem to go down the road leading to Quasimodo, Grendel, and John McCririck. I suspect that once one steps a little way outside of what traditionally constitutes western capitalism, it becomes more difficult to be quite so completely full of shit, and this is revealed in the face for the same reason that genuine evil very rarely resembles either Trevor Howard or Audrey Hepburn.

Lacking coherent religious faith, the ceremony didn't mean a great deal to me beyond a fairly general sense of well-being, pleasure taken in the knowledge of it meaning a great deal to those around me. Songs were sung, scripture was repeated and considered, wine and wafers were consumed, and only a bloody awful live band provided anything worth complaining about - jangling acoustic guitars and a drummer who was never quite in time and who had been provided more amplification than he really needed. They sounded like some sort of horrible Latino Death in June and were at least as depressing in every respect but for their making the case that music in church should be played on a pipe organ or not at all; unless Bess's cousin Jenni and her husband are reading in which case punk rock is also acceptable under special circumstances.

It was over after about an hour which hadn't seemed quite that long, and so we all made our way out, pausing only to take photographs of each other stood next to the life-size cardboard representation of Pope Francis kept in the foyer. Naturally we posted the photographs on facebook, and naturally they accrued the inevitable percentage of salty comments by persons who will burn in hell according to the priest who had presided over Lena's Quinceañera. Once I might have chuckled at such comments, but having grown up a little and having spent time with persons for whom all of the ritual and ceremony is a fundamental part of daily existence, I can see no value in such sneering, and if anything I've begun to feel a little protective towards the faithful. Besides, whatever all the chanting and waving was about clearly worked well enough for Liliana and Herberto, which in turn brought pleasure to everyone else, and those are all of the details which matter.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Elephants Will Eat Anything!

Mark began at our Royal Mail sorting office in East Dulwich in much the same way as the Nazis began at Poland in 1939. He was hard to miss. Wherever you went, there was Mark. Whatever you had done, wherever you had been, Mark had either been there, done it, or had a mate who knew someone.

'He's a good lad, that Mark,' Geoff observed sagely one morning in the canteen. 'He's got character.'

No-one said anything. Mark had just left the room, having spent half an hour telling us about how his dog once regularly caught a train to the nearest town and came back with a newspaper. On a good day the dog would even bring the correct change. We were all still trying to digest this information as we ate our beans on toast in silence.

'Mark's a fucking cock,' I suggested to Snowy as we sat drinking in the pub one afternoon after work.

'Mark's all right,' Snowy told me, clearly understanding that he was arguing against a massive body of evidence to the contrary. 'He's got a good heart.'

This was true, although it wasn't really the issue. Mark had gone from walking postman to the vans fairly quickly, and it was fair to say that he was generally one of the better drivers. If you were amongst the postmen or postwomen for whom he was obliged to provide transport to the first point of delivery, he was nearly always on time. He rarely kept anyone waiting, and he never turned up early to whine about you making him late as you tore around like a blue-arsed fly doing twelve things at once in the rush to be ready. If it was Mark's week to drop off your pouching bags, there was never much cause to worry about finding yourself stood around waiting at the designated box, or for bags to have been left in the wrong boxes.

'He'd do anything to help you out,' Snowy observed.

The problem was Mark's having been assembled during a transporter accident involving David Brent, Alan Partridge, Dennis Waterman's character from Minder, and both Mike Reads - singers of Ugly Duckling and UKIP Calypso respectively. He was always ready with some not-quite-funny quip, those wide blue-eyes and the grin of a seventies disc jockey.

'Yeah,' his voiced boomed through from the other side of the canteen, the room with the television set, 'that's right. You see a shark is actually a mammal.'

I knew this to be wrong and felt an almost sexual drive to set the stupid fucker right, so I poked my head around the corner of the door. The room was more or less empty, just Mark and Jackie - reading the paper and obviously not even remotely interested - and some nature programme on the box. I took a deep breath and had a quick rummage around in my memory.

'Actually sharks are technically cartilaginous fish,' I reported. 'They're quite primitive because they evolved way back at the beginning, and they give birth to live young, which is probably what you're thinking of.' I may have suffixed this with I rather think you will find, and I had a hunch that what I had said was only generally rather than scientifically true, but it wasn't like Mark would be able to tell the difference. Mammal, my arse.

'That's right,' he confirmed, making us those two blokes who know about sharks and stuff, somewhat robbing me of my victory.

Eventually I found a comrade in Jason Aslett. Jason was in a band called Orange Can who, if memory serves, briefly became NME Best New Band or something of the sort. They had a record label and tours arranged, and they had CDs coming out. Nevertheless Jason needed a day job, something by which to pay the rent, and so he signed on with Royal Mail. We became friends fairly quickly, sharing some music industry common ground and pulling similarly perplexed expressions each time Mark opened his mouth and formed words.

'I'm going to tell him that I'm into shagging small boys or something,' Jason said one day. 'Just to see if he's done it as well.'

Sadly he never fulfilled this promise.

Christmas came around and we were in the canteen, taking the early morning tea break. The television was on as usual, a wonky image of a zoo on the broken set, some feature shown as part of Good Morning Britain or whatever it was. In the background an elephant is stood shovelling hay into his mouth with his trunk. There is a keeper in the foreground talking to the camera. Well Christmas is coming up, so - you know - we'll probably be giving him a bit of turkey and sprouts and all that, followed by the inevitable chuckle of a man enjoying his own unambitious joke.

'Yeah!' Mark turns from the screen to face Jason and myself, both sat in the corner with our cups of tea and plates of buttered toast. 'Elephants will eat anything!'

His eyes are wide because the time for joking around is over. We are beyond the looking glass now, people. He is absolutely serious. He has never been more serious in his life. Elephants will eat anything! and he looks back to the TV set as the weather comes on. It's going to be fucking freezing.

My God, I think to myself, he's about to tell us that he used to have an elephant. He's speaking from experience. He knows that elephants really will eat anything because he had one living in his mum's garden in fucking Sydenham.

I turn to Jason. He is sat with toast stalled before his open mouth. He regards me with something that could be either disbelief or horror. He too has had exactly the same thought. He too knows that Mark is about to tell us that he once owned an elephant.

We are trying hard to not laugh out loud.

Mark watches the weather and swears. If he ever owned an elephant, he is now distracted by thoughts of van tires skidding across icy tarmac, engines refusing to start in the cold. He will just have to tell us about his elephant some other time.

In that moment, I feel terrible for regarding Mark as a fucking cock. I recall all the times he's helped me out, dropped off certain difficult packets, or given me a lift back to the sorting office when I've forgotten something. He's a fucking cock, but he's our fucking cock, and we wouldn't change him for anything. He's one of a kind.