Friday, 24 April 2015

UKIP Confidential

I'm joking of course. The truth is that I ran away from the greatest country in the world, the land in which one dare not accost the average wandering Brit in a Union Jack T-shirt because you'll be stuck there all fucking day listening to him bang on and on and on about Newton, Elgar, Blake, Dickens, Stephen Hawking, Samuel Pepys and all those other giants of the culture which is so dear to his red, white, and blue heart. I ran away to Texas, Americaland where everyone is fat, gun-toting, born-again, and fully paid up with their Klan membership, and they all voted for Reagan and then Bush - every last one of them - and they all eat McDonalds and nothing else, and Lincoln started that civil war so he could free the slaves...

Why, I may just as well speculate regarding life in the Andromeda galaxy, for I have no way of knowing what might transpire within the hallowed halls of the UKIP Party Conference. I have never attended so august an event. I have no experience, and no way of ever finding out. Luckily, I once had a friend, a man who knew proper people, doctors, dentists, and architects. He knew the score, and here is what he kindly told me.

Read on, brethren, and let us consider ourselves schooled.

  • UKIP is definitely not a racialist party. Racialism has no place in the UKIP.
  • The UKIP Party Conference is a lot like the Notting Hill Carnival but with even more reggae and less racialism. As one wanders the conference centre enjoying the cool reggae vibrations of the Police, or the theme music from Stephen Fry's QI, you might be surprised at how many loyal Jews and coloured people are in attendance, which is the thing that is really interesting.
  • Every political party has it's black sheep - those members who wish to exterminate all gays for causing AIDS, or who want to send coloured people back to where they came from, or who think the wrong side won the second world war. It is grossly unfair to single UKIP out for simply being one of many barrels containing bad apples of this sort. Anyway, Nigel hates those sort of people. He says that they are not team players.
  • UKIP is politically centre-left. Lefties hate them because they are jealous of the common touch which UKIP has, and Lefties just want to start arguments and accuse people of racialism. They need to grow up!
  • Nick Griffin, former leader of the British Nationalist Party recommended that his followers vote for UKIP, which suggests that UKIP might welcome such a man into their fold. No, they jolly well would not! They would blinking well send him away with a flipping flea in his ear! I should say so!
  • Critics of UKIP tend to be armchair jockeys, people who typically spend all day on the computer and have no experience of the UKIP Party Conference, but like to say that other people are being racialist. If you do not know what an armchair jockey is, you need to watch The Bing Bong Theory and get down with the kids, my friend. It's the latest thing. Bazzango! Ha ha!
  • Many of the bad things that are credited to UKIP, for example that they play on people's fear of immigration and multicultural society in order to secure votes, come not at all from UKIP, but from many troll websites pretending to be UKIP but actually being made by the Haters of UKIP so as to make UKIP look bad! This is wrong because UKIP are very nice.
  • Lefties, unlike UKIP, do not understand business. The only kind of economy they understand is the economy of cloud cuckoo land!

So what say you, fellow armchair jockeys? Do we keep on spreading the filthy slanderous lies invented by the Haters of UKIP and the liberal media elite, or do we grow up, flipping well pull our socks up and say to ourselves I cannot except the way this once really brilliant country is going down the convenience, and vote for jolly old Nigel?


Friday, 17 April 2015

The Arrow of Light

Bess and myself were eating chicken flautas at Blanco's when I noticed the poster selotaped to the window - the familiar serpent devoured by an eagle, the national symbol of Mexico, and The Vision of the Lake: Mexico-Tenochtitlan with a date and a venue in smaller print. I had a closer look while my wife paid at the till. It was Sunday lunch time, and this Vision of the Lake could be seen at the University of the Incarnate Word at six the following evening.

'Did you see that?' Bess asked, indicating the serpent devoured by the eagle as we left.

'Yes. I was trying to work out what it might actually be.'

'Maybe we should just go. Monday is our night and it looks like entrance is free.'

So we went. Junior was with his father. His father had phoned to inform my wife of the boy having his Arrow of Light ceremony that very evening, but we usually need a little more notice than it's happening in ten minutes - I'm stood outside right now. The Arrow of Light ceremony is held when a Cub Scout becomes a Boy Scout, a sort of graduation deal. I was never in the Scouts, having learned early on to avoid joining in, becoming a team player, or otherwise volunteering myself for anything at all. It sounded mysterious to me. My friend Eggy had been a Scout, or at least he had been a Sea Scout, which may be something different and was in any case back in England. It wasn't something which Eggy had deigned to discuss with the rest of us in any detail.

The University of Incarnate Word, I realised, is chock full of nuns, it being a private Catholic university. This wasn't a problem for me, although as we entered the smell of overcooked food assailed my nostrils - and that's probably the first time I've ever used assailed in a sentence. Father Jack, the terrifying alcoholic priest from Father Ted loomed up from my imagination to scream Nuns! in apoplectic panic.

We were directed to the place we needed to go. The room was full of very, very old people, and there was a projector screen in front of which the speaker was setting up her laptop. We were handed a sheet of paper informing us that The Vision of the Lake: Mexico-Tenochtitlan was the second of ten presentations in a series called The Wisdom of Ancient Mexico: Anahuac, a lecture with slides, which was roughly as anticipated on account of the venue.

I've visited Mexico on five separate occasions, and have been studying its pre-Colombian culture on and off since 1995. It's the one subject about which I can claim to be informed in any meaningful sense. This isn't a boast, because I'm not really bothered as to whether or not it impresses anyone, but it means I am at least sufficiently armed for kicking arses with authority whenever some facebook dwelling clown begins a sentence with the ancient Aztecs used to believe that...

There was a vague possibility that I had come to The Vision of the Lake: Mexico-Tenochtitlan for the pleasure of shaking my head and growling no no no no no every few minutes, sort of like Dennis the Menace pulverising Walter the Softy for the sake of exercise. For some reason, my wife derives a weird sense of pleasure when I do this, and I imagine my contempt may serve to turn me into something approximating a retired colonel and that she enjoys the excess of Englishness. There was a vague possibility that I had come in order to take umbrage, but it was not a conscious decision, and as we occupied our seats I entertained high hopes, expecting either that I might learn something or else would enjoy revisiting familiar names and places.

The assembled octogenarians mumbled amongst themselves about trips to Cancún, and our hostess began, musing over how little any of us really know about our Mexican neighbours. I knew plenty about our Mexican neighbours, but it seemed too early to pick a fight so I kept my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. Initially she stuck to the script, and the objections I could have raised seemed minor, or at least no worse than could be expected of your average history channel documentary. They were:

  • No they didn't. I think the term was popularised by William Prescott in 1843, although he probably got it from the guy who wrote that earlier history, Clavijero or whatever his name was.
  • They weren't, because the stem is metz- so you still have the tz- left over, which is why People from the Heart of the Century Plant makes a lot more sense, quite aside from Mexitli, from whom the name is derived, translating as Maguey Hare.
  • The serpent heads represent the blood resulting from her beheading, the act of sacrifice, and subsequent regeneration to a lesser extent. You're not supposed to take it literally.
  • No they didn't.
  • So where did that eighth tribe come from?

'Excuse me,' some woman sat near the front interjected with a hand in the air. 'Might I ask a question?'


'Well, I'm a writer, but I'm unfamiliar with this word you use - cosmogony,' she pronounced it with a hard g, like in mahogany.

Our hostess provided a definition of cosmogony for our writer, and I vowed I would use a variation on this line myself at some point. I'm a writer, and I was wondering do you have these in a smaller size?, or I'm a writer, so yes, I believe I shall have fries with that.

After about twenty minutes of this I began to lose confidence in it getting any better. The story, such as it was, was narrated with reference to illustrations and passages of text projected upon the screen, passages of text we probably could have read for ourselves; and the woman was a lousy speaker, mumbling, pausing in awkward places, and employing what sounded like a fairly doubtful pronunciation for most of the names involved. Her monologue had the quality and rhythm of someone nervously popping their way through a roll of bubble wrap, and at the twenty minute mark, she somehow found a way to make it worse.

'The snake is a symbol of wisdom throughout many cultures,' she began as images of Greek and Hindu Gods appeared on the screen. I tried to recall how this idea might have been reflected in the Valley of Mexico prior to the fifteenth century, where the serpent symbolised many things - renewal, generation, and the earth in particular, but nothing specifically to do with wisdom. This was generic new-age landfill, and our hostess may as well have segued into a summary of the early years of ZZ Top for all that it had to do with her subject. Then a statue of Bochica appeared on the screen, the latest in a succession of Gods of conspicuously non-Mexican derivation. Bochica hailed from Colombia, our hostess told us. He had been a white man with a beard.

'I've had about enough,' I muttered.

My wife's expression confirmed that we were of one mind. We shuffled from our seats and padded as quickly and quietly as we could towards the door, hunched over as though dodging bullets.

I know nothing of Bochica, but recognised the motif of the wise white God and his beard appearing in the fresh-faced land of the Indians many years before Columbus, usually with some sort of prophecy about how ships will one day arrive and bring word of Baby Jesus and everything will be like really awesome, yeah? Roughly the same story is told of Quetzalcoatl in Mexico, and people get so carried away with it that no-one really cares that the story appeared in no indigenous record until some fifty or so years after the conquest, the event it supposedly foretold. The legend is interesting in terms of the criteria by which history was once recorded and how its principal function was often to explain the present, but as mythology it's dog shit. Nevertheless, it is still trotted out from time to time by people who should know better, gushing BBC television presenter Michael Wood for one, and now our speaker, our expert.

We raced across the parking lot.

Bess looked at her watch. 'We might be able to make the Arrow of Light, after all.'

We were there in five minutes, entering a silent hall as awkwardly as we had left the previous venue. We found seats at the back. The boys - eleven or twelve of them - stood on the stage at the front, each with a parent. Junior was with his father. The proceedings were orchestrated by one of the Scoutmasters, Mike Osterhage who, by peculiar coincidence, is also a popular weatherman for our local San Antonio television network. It still catches me out when I see him on the screen, smiling as he predicts another week of not much rain. There's the dad of that 1950s kid, I think to myself, surprised as usual.

Mike's boy is Junior's age, also a scout, and he too is on the stage. He's older and taller now, but he was an impressively cute kid a few years back, freckles, big grin and a military haircut, just like the American children I'd seen on television when I was his age. He always looked happy, like he'd sold enough copies of Grit to friends and neighbours to buy that life-size monster ghost, guaranteed to obey his every command, with enough small change left over for a propeller beanie and some Popeye comics. He now looks older, more serious, but they all look serious.

A drum begins to beat and another kid emerges from a door just behind us. He is wearing a feather headdress and assorted robes of vague Native American design. He walks slowly to the centre of the room and makes a show of addressing the four cardinal directions.

The Arrow of Light, as I later come to appreciate, is a lengthy and fairly elaborate ceremony serving to reiterate the core values of the Scouting movement, and for what it may be worth, these core values seem mostly noble. The performance appears perhaps hokey, and is undoubtedly a dubious appropriation of Native American lore in many respects; but as we watch, it dawns on me that this is at least truer to the older histories of this continent than the testimony of the woman for whom the serpent is a symbol of wisdom, purely because she finds it comforting to join the dots between disparate theologies. I would rather have the hokum which means something real to those involved, than the version which has been recycled as a relaxation tape for the benefit of an audience which wants nothing more than a spectacle by which to keep itself distracted for an hour or so.

After the ceremony, the children all begin to bounce around, having been artificially induced to stand still for far too long. Junior refuses to let us take photographs of him in his uniform, maintaining the face he always pulls when there's a camera in sight - a variation on the expressions Don Martin once drew in the pages of Mad magazine. He acknowledges that we were here to watch him, yelps a few times for good measure, and then runs off to join the other kids, all stuffing their faces with complementary cupcakes served from a table at the rear of the hall.

Friday, 10 April 2015


Marian's mother had a place in the south of France, a pension as is the term. She'd been a secretary at the British Embassy in Paris - or something of that sort - and had a long standing connection to the country. She had bought a house in the village of Théza, situated in the Eastern Pyrenees, formerly part of Spain. Once she would live there half the year, but by the time Marian and I were a thing she was old and disinclined to have adventures. The pension was still tended by Elke, her friend from the village, and would be offered as a potential holiday destination to friends and relatives, should anyone be passing that way.

The father of my first girlfriend had been some sort of big knob in the Conservative party, but otherwise I tended to form my sexual liaisons with those from a similar socio-economic background, at least until I met Marian who was related to all sorts of historically famous scientists, bankers, millionaires, poets and the like. They lived in mansions in Richmond, except for Marian who lived in Dulwich in a house which her mother had bought for her with small change found down the back of the sofa. Having been raised in a home in which the toilet paper was an original Gutenberg Bible hung upon a nail in the crapper, Marian never quite grasped that having been given a house demarcated her as socio-economically distinct from the rest of us. In fact she seemed to regard it as what you or I might consider a shitty break, what with inheritance tax and everything.

So of course Mum had a place in the south of France. It wasn't a big deal. If anything it was another massive pain-in-the-arse, an inheritance which Marian would one day have to sort out all on her own, as usual.

It was 2007, and we were heading to the pension for a holiday, Marian and myself. Actually getting aboard the plane in the first place had been an adventure in itself, an adventure in which we missed the scheduled flight because Marian had needed to engage in some litter-related task so important that she wouldn't actually tell me why she was doing it at the precise interval of our already being late. I wouldn't have understood. I was too stupid. We tried again the next day, paid extra, and were soon flying across the English channel heading for Perpignan.

At this point I was more or less the only person I knew who had never been to France. I'd been to Mexico five times, but not once to France, working with a habitually limited budget and never having had any really good reason to go there. It certainly wasn't that I had anything against France, but the lure of free accommodation was a significant inducement; although ultimately it wasn't exactly free.

Alighting from the plane, we piled Marian's many, many suitcases and my single backpack into a taxi and made for the village of Théza, a distance of six or seven miles. Marian had assured me that her French would be sufficient to get us by, which was a relief because mine was rotten, having lain more or less fallow for the two decades since secondary school; not that it had ever been great. As I marvelled at the unfamiliar landscape, she began chatting to our driver. I listened, astonished.

'He's speaking Spanish,' I suggested.

'Don't be stupid,' Marian instructed me with a long-suffering look before resuming her discourse with fluttering hands, wide expressive eyes, and an exclamation of oh la la every three or four sentences. I didn't know much about the French as a people, but I had a hunch that oh la la was no more a common exclamation than bowler-hatted English gentlemen describing anything as either spiffing, topping, or jolly dee. She sounded like a character from 'Allo 'Allo!, but there probably wasn't much point to my mentioning it.

After a few minutes I realised that our driver was indeed speaking French but with a strong Spanish accent. This was confusing to me being as my Spanish was fairly decent, so it felt like I should have understood what was being said better than I did. Of course, I realised, the Eastern Pyrenees had once been part of Spain, and we were only ten miles or so from the border.

We arrived in Théza at about four in the afternoon. It was warm but overcast. The village seemed small and deserted and reminded me a lot of the smaller villages I'd passed through in Mexico, the dust and the adobe buildings, the cacti and the scrubby plants adapted to dry conditions. The pension, was a two-story corner house overlooking a square. The windows were covered with either mesh or wooden shutters. The door was protected within a porch of rusting iron bars which Marian unlocked with a huge set of mediaeval looking keys. The place seemed old, and I had a feeling that no-one had been inside for some time. Marian also had this feeling and  articulated it with short, venomous sentences confirming that everything was indeed just as shit as she had known it was going to be, and that someone would pay. That was probably going to be me, given that this was how it usually worked, although I was still unsure of just what I'd done wrong this time.

We inspected the interior of our pension in the south of France. We were ankle deep in cobwebs, dust, and dead leaves which had blown in beneath the door of the upper floor balcony. There was no electricity, but we found the junction box and switched it on, and were then able to determine that there were no functioning electric light bulbs in the house. On the positive side, the gas was connected, so we would be able to cook. I went outside for a smoke, and realised that against all odds, I was enjoying myself. I'd already decided that I liked France, and the village seemed to present a thousand exciting possibilities for discovery and unfamiliar experiences.

Back inside, Marian had begun sweeping leaves from the upper floor, down the stairs into the main room, and then out onto the street. I took up a broom and joined in. After an hour or so, the place looked okay to me, but Marian continued, narrating her efforts with ambiguous threats.

'It seems all right now,' I suggested. It was hardly the Ritz, but we had cleared most of the crap and rubbish. I had stayed in worse places.

Marian's response indicated that it was far from all right, and that someone or other was going to suffer for this indignity. I listened and gradually pieced together that the house was supposed to have been cleaned prior to our arrival.

'She's done this on purpose,' Marian said, referring to her own ageing mother. 'I told her we were coming two weeks ago. She's done this on purpose so that we have to do all the cleaning.'

'Would she really do that?'

'Yes, Lawrence. She would.'

I had met Marian's mother and seriously doubted it. Given the woman's advanced years I suspected either that she had forgotten, or had been unable to decode any specific requests from her daughter's hysterical jumble of passive-aggressive demands and edicts.

'Well, we're here now and that's the main thing.'

I went out to find a shop, somewhere I could buy food as Marian continued to clean. I'd recognised the gleam of mania in her eyes. It wasn't so much that she had an actual formal cleaning obsession, but you could be forgiven for thinking that she had, and she would clean and clean and clean until the subject of her efforts shone and she was satisfied that the extent of her own suffering had reached sufficient levels to tip some poorly defined cosmic balance in her favour.

I found a small shop on the next block along, a family run business by the look of it. Their selection seemed erratic and eccentric once you were past the basic vegetables, but it wasn't like there was anywhere else to which I could take my custom. I bought potatoes, onions, garlic, bacon, eggs, fruit juice, bottled water, tomato puree and a loaf of bread. I attempted to pay in Spanish, having apparently forgotten that I was in France, prompting extended miming and chuckles.

Yes, I was indeed English, and no, my understanding of the French language could not be relied upon. More startling to me was that the couple who owned and ran the shop knew Marian's mother from the times she had lived in that house on the corner. They were pleased that she had once again returned to the fold of the community, albeit by proxy. I got the impression that they liked Marian's mother, which made perfect sense because so did I, and so did everyone else who wasn't Marian. Realising I was English, the couple began to talk about their love of rugby football. Whenever they visited England, they went to watch the rugby, and it was at this point that the conversation became too confusing for me to follow.

I returned and made an omelette with all that I had bought but for the fruit juice, water, and bread. It tasted great, as food often does when prepared under siege conditions. Marian took a break from her cleaning to eat and to reiterate that her mother would ordinarily have made a phone call to a person named Elke, the friend who lived elsewhere in the village, and Elke would have arranged for the house to be cleaned in advance of the arrival of guests. This had not been done, Marian suggested, because her ageing mother liked to make her only daughter suffer, and to let her down, just as the woman had been letting her down her entire life. There was that time when Mum had taken some fancy man into the pub to get drunk on booze, abandoning young Marian, leaving her in the car with just a bottle of pop and some crisps; and there was that time when...

I myself still favoured the maybe she just fucking forgot hypothesis, but that was one argument I wasn't going to have. Instead I took the view that the house had required cleaning when we arrived, and that we had now cleaned it to a reasonable standard and might therefore reasonably commence our holiday, and that this was all the information we needed. Curses directed towards an elderly, absent-minded, and almost certainly innocent woman presently located nearly a thousand miles north of the village were therefore a waste of fucking time; but I said nothing, and we carried on with the cleaning, now at the stage of actively seeking out that which might benefit from a wipe rather than the simple damage control of before.

That night we slept exhausted in separate beds, an arrangement on which Marian insisted for some spurious reason with which I couldn't be bothered to argue because I was beyond caring. I snored, or I moved around, or I did something else to prevent her sleeping. She always had trouble sleeping. I attributed this to her rising no earlier than noon each day, usually going to bed at about three in the morning, and rarely ever doing anything which could reasonably be termed exercise; but then I wasn't actually a medical professional.

Next morning I made us toast and another omelette, and discovered the balcony of the upper floor looking out across the square. It could only be accessed by means of a sturdy plank placed across the stairwell from the upstairs landing, about four feet by five with a deck chair and a host of cacti in their pots. I cleaned out all the dead leaves and decided that this would be my sanctuary for the duration. I could smoke out here, and Marian was disinclined to cross the plank, so I was safe. My hands and legs were itching from the thousand tiny cactus spines which had become embedded as I'd been cleaning, but it was worth it. I sat back, took in a sun much brighter and warmer than its English equivalent, rolled myself a fag and looked forward to whatever France had in store for me.

Whatever France had in store for me was going to have to wait, because Marian had another three days of cleaning in store for me. I tried to coax her towards something logical along the lines of how we didn't actually need to see our faces in any fittings besides the bathroom mirror, but she wasn't having it. She had to work this one through, and so we went at it for another two miserable days until I'd had enough and pointed out that I hadn't come all of this way, and paid to come all of this way to clean her mother's pension to a higher standard than I demanded of my own accommodation.

Saturday came and Marian decided that we deserved a day off, this being something unrelated to my suggestion. She declared this as though it was a treat, a reward for our work despite most of mine having been noted as typically substandard and executed with a characteristic lack of enthusiasm. On Wednesday evening we had taken a break from cleaning and gone for a walk out along the Route de Corneilla, a narrow tree-lined avenue running out into the vineyards south of the village. We had picked rosemary which grew wild and in great abundance and used it to season our omelette. Now we caught a bus and followed the same road to the historic town of Elne, the original capital of the region before Perpignan. We spent the morning wandering around the mediaeval part of the town, and the undeniably spectacular cathedral which had been consecrated in 1069, and then we went for lunch.

The café was a hole in an ancient wall with seating and tables arranged on the other side of a peculiarly desolate square. I watched as a fat white grub, slick with olive oil, looped its way out of my salad towards the edge of the plate.

Marian thumbed through her French-English dictionary to find the word for caterpillar. 'Chenille,' she announced.

We laughed for a minute, and then ate in silence.

The food was not great, and ordinarily Marian would have told me to go and complain on her behalf because I was a man and they would take notice of me. Now, having freshly established that I was in all senses useless due to my poor grasp of the French language, she was unable to give me such an order without contradicting herself. Her acknowledging my present state of uselessness demanded that I had existed in a prior state of non-uselessness, that I had once been useful, contrary to her stated views which might therefore be exposed as fallible.

By this point the silence was killing me. Marian had barely uttered a word as we dutifully plodded around the town and its cathedral. She could not be induced to conversation.

'I've had about enough of this,' I heard myself say, eventually.

'What?' She appeared genuinely surprised.

'This is too miserable for me. I want to start having fun.'

'We've been having fun.'

'We've been cleaning your mother's pension all week. This is the first time we've emerged out into the sunlight and I may as well have been wheeling a statue around on a handcart. You've hardly said a word. Am I really that boring?'

'Haven't we been having fun?' She really did seem puzzled. 'What about the chenille?'

We paid up and wandered some more, mainly markets and shops selling rugs, blankets, and the sort of thing which appeals to tourists. The conversation remained conspicuously absent but for the basics of directions.

'Is it this side do you think, or the other?'

I looked at the map, and then at the two bus stops of which only one would take us back to our village. 'I think it's that one.'

'Are you sure?'

'I have no idea. You've been here before. I haven't. I don't even know why you're asking me.'

'Well, if you're sure.'

'I'm not.'

We waited an hour, and then watched as a bus listing Théza amongst the destinations written on a piece of card behind the windshield picked up passengers from the other side of the road, whizzing away before we could react.

'You said it was this side!' Now she sounded furious.

We crossed the road to wait at the other stop, standing apart. She sat in the shade at the stop. I stood about twenty feet away in the sun. I didn't want to be anywhere near her. Another hour passed and we caught the next bus. We boarded and came together on adjacent seats, but it felt fraught, like some teacher was forcing me to take the seat next to the school bully on a long coach trip because it was that or nothing.

'Are we going to talk again at some point?'

'I'm talking now, Lawrence.'

I fumbled through a series of vague accusations rendered impotent, defused of the specific object which would unleash the full force of her psychosis. The question was why do you have to be such a cunt all of the fucking time? but it was difficult to express in the anaemic language of the self-help workshop, the only language to which she would deign to respond under such circumstances.

There may have been further cleaning, but the rest of our time in the south of France is something of a blur, vague impressions occurring in no particular order. We went for walks, and we drank in a local bar. At one point I bought sausages from a local butcher, and we talked about our respective countries, and I realised I already liked him more than my girlfriend and travelling companion.

Eventually we met up with Elke, the friend of Marian's mother who had apparently not been informed of our arrival and had thus failed to have the pension cleaned in advance. Elke was German, married to a Spanish man, and a lovely woman. She recalled Marian visiting many years earlier as a child. She served us food and wine, and then drove us to Collioure for a day out. Collioure is an astonishingly beautiful coastal town, very old, with a labyrinth of tall, thin streets scaling the steep hills looking out over the Mediterranean. It was the first time I had actually set eyes upon the Mediterranean sea. It was vivid and distinctive, and I couldn't imagine mistaking it for any other large body of water. I felt I had a sudden and new insight into the paintings of all those artists drawn to this part of the world around the turn of the previous century. Marian was able to shop for the sort of things hand-crafted from twigs which had been targeted at tourists such as herself, and I was able to have an intelligent conversation with Elke, so at last we were all happy.

Another day was spent failing to travel to some other nearby town - possibly Perpignan itself - once we realised that Théza was directly served by a single bus which went through daily rather than hourly. We had a relatively wonderful evening out in Collioure with Elke and some other friend of hers. Then on the last day she took us to the beach at Saint-Cyprien, which was developed, and very windy, and suggestive of David Niven sipping Martinis whilst adjusting his cravat; but it was a new place, and that in itself was interesting. As Elke picked us up, she apologised - quite unnecessarily - for having failed to realise that we lacked any means of getting about. Had she known, or had one of us mentioned it, she would have happily driven us around and shown us the sights for most of the two weeks, but the two weeks had come to an end and it was over.

Marian had mellowed following the initial episode of mania, and the setting had been of a beauty sufficient to ensure that I enjoyed at least the latter part of the trip. I'd had very little direct experience of the French only two weeks before, and I found that I liked them very much, and that I liked what I had seen of France.

During one of those evenings when we hadn't really been engaged in anything, somewhere between eating and settling down for the evening with a book - there being neither television nor radio in the pension - I had noticed villagers playing pétanque, the local variation on bowling, in the square outside. I suggested we might go out and join in, or at least watch. Marian said she would rather not as she knew a few of them. This was news to me. She explained that she had lost her virginity to one of them many years before, and it had occurred right here under this roof. She had been about fifteen, and he was eighteen, and he'd locked the door. This was why she had been wary of coming here, which was also news to me. She had hoped that enough time had passed, but apparently it hadn't.

'You were raped? Is that what you're telling me now?'

Apparently it wasn't, or she couldn't bring herself to accept that it had been such, and as with many of the events which had destroyed Marian's life, whilst there was clearly some deeply unpleasant aspect, it was difficult to identify the precise detail of the trauma. My guess is that she was either talked into something she didn't want to do, or willingly did something for which she later felt considerable shame. I have friends who have endured unambiguously horrific sexual assaults in their lives, the kind of attacks involving knives and screaming for help, and mostly they have found ways to rise above the horror and to get on with their lives because it's either that or let it destroy you completely. Either Marian had endured something which had destroyed her, or this had been another wrong of lesser consequence worn as a hair suit by someone who had in all other respects enjoyed a life of unusual privilege. Going on previous form, I had a strong hunch it was the latter, but then I wouldn't presume to understand the intimate psychological landscape of another person, and certainly not Marian.

Maybe this was the answer to my unvoiced question why do you have to be such a cunt all of the fucking time?

I don't suppose I will ever know; but I think back to that holiday now, and all I can recall with any feeling is France and the wonderful Mediterranean landscape; which seems about right.

Friday, 3 April 2015


The workload at Royal Mail back in the nineties was roughly seasonal, and at its heaviest during the run-up to Christmas when useless companies specialising in products and services which no-one in their right mind would ever need took to bombarding the public with the worst sort of junk mail. Unfortunately, Royal Mail being what it was, the job of postman was not generally configured to allow for any long periods of time in which one might catch an hour of sleep in the canteen or stand around twiddling one's thumbs. Even during the weeks of our workload at its lightest, we were never at liberty to slow down to anything you could call a leisurely pace. The more reasonable workload just meant that you might actually get time to take breakfast, and that you probably wouldn't end the day with junk mail piled under your bay, held back for delivery until the next day because there were no overtime hours to be had. Naturally this meant that once the flow of festive crap began to increase - usually around the end of August with just a little over one-hundred shopping days left before Christmas - we were screwed because we simply didn't have either the people or hourage to cope with three or even four times the daily amount of mail we'd been delivering back in July. We didn't have the people or the hourage, and the proposition always came down from higher up that although we weren't going to be getting either the people or the hourage, we could shift that weight by application of positive mental attitude.

'Let's go to work, lads,' we would grin to each other, rolling up our sleeves, the steely determination of success in a competitive modern business glinting in our eyes. It was all about attitude.

One day in the late 1990s as the clock crawled towards one in the afternoon, it was all about attitude and bungee cords. The attitude was specifically this shit will be a whole lot easier once I stop caring about it, and the bungee cords were used to secure a wobbling tower of mail bundles in the front basket of my Royal Mail bicycle. The legal limit of that which could be carried in the front basket of a Royal Mail bicycle was twelve kilograms, and I think I had about eighteen or nineteen strapped down with my green and black elastic. I may have remembered those figures wrongly, but the point is that I had a fuck of a lot of work, and certainly more than I should have been carrying on two wheels.

The bundles of mail were for the upper end of Lordship Lane in East Dulwich, specifically the odd numbers running down so far as Melford Road. This was a stretch which would take about fifteen minutes with two or three bundles of mail on an ordinary day, but this was far from being an ordinary day. Once I'd delivered this lot, I would collect further bags of mail I'd already prepared which would be left in pouching boxes situated along my route by one of the drivers. By this method there was, in theory, no upper limit to the quantity of mail I could be expected to deliver, except on this one day I knew for sure that there wouldn't be enough room in those pouching boxes for all of the supplementary bags I'd given to Danny, my driver.

I was paid until twenty past one. The quantity of mail was such that it had taken most of my working day to prepare it for delivery. Andy, my boss, had told me that I was to deliver for as long as I felt like delivering, to make a note of my finishing time, and he would then sort out the overtime I was owed on the next working day. It wasn't a great offer, but there were bosses who would have insisted on my staying out there until every last piece of crap had been shoved through a letter box even if it meant finishing at nine in the evening and thus having worked a thoroughly illegal fifteen hours; and they could have made me do this by threatening me with punitive action on the strength of my delaying the mail if I refused. Andy was one of the good ones. He knew I would be physically unable to deliver the lot, but trusted me to do what I could.

I'd already been at work for eight hours, and I wasn't exactly looking forward to this. I was going to deliver until the urge to set the remaining mail on fire and go home became too tempting to resist. I was going to deliver as much as I could, because it was either that, or face the same situation tomorrow but with tomorrow's mail added to the equation. It was bollocks, not least because of all this mail, probably one item in about twenty was anything you could count as legitimate post - a letter, a bank statement, anything lacking a cartoon teddy dressed as fucking Santa Claus printed on the envelope; which was where the positive mental attitude came in as essential - not thinking too hard about this shit, not thinking too hard about breaking your back hour after hour so as to deliver material of which the great majority would go directly and unopened into the addressee's waste bin.

With the bike fully loaded, I pushed out into the street and peddled cautiously up Crystal Palace Road, balanced like some circus act, so slow that I may as well have been walking, and uphill for most of the distance of one mile and some small change; and it looked like it was going to rain.

Eventually I reached my starting point and so leaned the bicycle up against the wall of the large Victorian house at 565, Lordship Lane, the very same house which can be seen immediately to the left of the railway track in Camille Pissarro's 1871 painting entitled Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich. The house is the furthest up a fairly steep incline as the hill ascends towards the Horniman Museum. Lordship Lane is fairly wide at that point and I noticed a knackered looking car stalled in the middle of the road, just a little further up. Three young men were bunched around their silent vehicle, leaning into door frames to prevent it rolling down the hill as traffic whizzed past on both sides. I could have stopped to help them, and on another day I might have done so, but I wasn't in the most charitable of moods.

It seems no-one gets an easy ride today, I thought to myself, pushing the bike against the wall, wedging it tightly so as to prevent it falling or even rolling down the hill. I pulled my first bundle of mail from beneath the bungee rope at the summit of the tower. I removed the rubber bands holding all the letters together, slipped them into my pocket and then realised I had tried to pack too much into this first bundle. This mail was for just the first three or four houses, but nevertheless the full span of my hand from fingertip to thumb was not quite enough to hold it whilst I looked through to see what I had for whom. I moved closer, supporting the rear of the bundle by pressing it to the wall, pushing my waist up against the crossbar of my Royal Mail bicycle, and began to go through the letters, looking for the last bearing the address of 565, Lordship Lane.

I experienced sudden and dramatic pain and was dimly aware of mail falling from my grasp in a shower. I had an instantaneous mental image of Danny, the younger and much fatter van driver who had been given the task of conveying my supplementary bags to their pouching boxes. Danny had decided it would be funny to sneak up on me from behind and jump on my back, and as soon as I thought of this I realised there had to be some other explanation. I was aware of the stalled car seen a few moments before, and Danny's imagined ambush became a vehicle rolling back down the hill, those three men desperately trying to steer it onto the pavement and away from the roaring traffic.

So a car had rolled down a hill and hit me in the small of the back at something like ten or more miles an hour. It had pinned me to the crossbar of my bicycle and then bounced back into the road with some force as a terrifying indication of how hard I had been hit. As I fell, I noticed that I was screaming and that the pain was like nothing I'd ever experienced, because someone had effectively dropped a car engine on the base of my spine. I rolled on the pavement, still screaming and now staring in astonishment at something which absolutely could not have happened. The three men were grabbing at their vehicle, trying to steer it back onto the pavement a little further down, but still it was too heavy and the incline was too great for them; and my bicycle was on its side with mail everywhere, the front basket and the steel tubing in which it had been nested were crushed flat as though in some Bugs Bunny cartoon, and this was why I was screaming rather than just plain dead. I'd been stood pressed against the crossbar, and so the first thing with which the front of the car had made contact was the basket of the bicycle, side on.

'You are okay.' It was one of the three men. He leaned down to grin at me as though selling something, and his English wasn't very good. I couldn't tell whether it was a question or a prediction. 'You will be fine in a moment.'

I understood that he really wanted to hear that yes, I would be fine, and that nothing was his fault. I formed my screaming into words, hoping to communicate that on the contrary, I seemed to be experiencing some degree of discomfort. People were gathering around, all looking down as I tried to draw breath for further screams. The pain was beyond belief. It seemed a miracle that I could feel my legs, that I could see no blood. An ambulance was mentioned.

Danny and Rodney were there, two other postmen. They were with Andy, my boss, who was talking to someone on the phone. I managed to explain that I thought Danny had been mucking about and had jumped on me unawares. I think they thought I was joking. They laughed, glad to see that I was apparently okay.

I had somehow stopped screaming.

'Don't move, mate. The ambulance will be here any minute.'

I lay back on the pavement and looked up at the sky, still amazed that I was alive. I looked across to the car and realised that the police had turned up. I explained what had happened. The policeman asked me where the other one had been stood.

The other one - he who had either asked or insisted on my being okay - was on the ground, head lolling from side to side as he was tended by ambulance staff.

'I thought he was the driver.'

'He's putting it on.' The nurse rolled her eyes.

'He was fine a minute ago.'

I was hoisted onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance.

'What about the mail?' I asked Andy, suddenly remembering what I'd been about to do before the sky fell on me.

'Fuck the mail. Don't worry about it.'

The sequence of events coalesced into an order that at last made sense as the ambulance trundled towards the emergency department at the hospital in Camberwell.

'You're in shock, but it will pass,' the nurse explained.

I realised I had got out of the delivery from hell, out of having to cut off as it got dark, thus leaving myself stuck with twice the amount to do the next day. I wasn't even going to be at work the next day, I decided, thrilled; and then bewildered by how terrible a job had to be if this was better, but still thrilled regardless.

I was wheeled into the hospital and left there for an hour or so, with a nurse occasionally checking to make sure I wasn't in too much pain. The explosion had dulled to a red raw throb, uncomfortable but bearable. I sat and thought over the possibilities of my never walking again, and of a fractured pelvis, but the thoughts didn't quite ring true. If either were the case, the pain would be worse.

I was x-rayed and sure enough nothing was broken, just severely bruised. The bicycle had saved my life, or at least my legs. I was given a pair of crutches, and pointed in the direction of the bus stop. Walking was uncomfortable, but I was in no hurry.

Next day I inspected where it was most sore. My groin and gentleman bits were a dark plum colour. This wasn't going to be a simple case of popping a few paracetymol and then back to work before the end of the week, and frankly I was disinclined to rush back given the general lack of goodwill that had been displayed by Royal Mail upper management in recent years. I believe I was off for about six weeks, or until I was ready, depending on which way you look at it. The crutches had been convenient for about the first week, but I took to slow unassisted movements once the second came around.

The police had been in touch with me, and none of the three men had been found in possession of a driving license. Nevertheless, they would not be prosecuted, unless I specifically wanted them prosecuted. I was still quietly furious at the sight of my supposed benefactor rolling around and moaning like a wanker, pretending to be as much the injured party as I had been, but I didn't want to become any further involved. I eventually returned to work around the same time as Ted who had also been off for a while. He had been sat in a parked Royal Mail van with his arm out the window. A passing truck had clipped his elbow and broken it.

'Did you claim compensation?' he asked me.

I said that I hadn't, and it hadn't even occurred to me to do so.

'You should've done,' he said. 'I got two thousand out of it!'

I tried to imagine what it would be like to have that sort of money dropped in my figurative lap out of the blue, but I just couldn't get there. It was too far beyond my experience. It wasn't even too late to claim, to call up one of those television advertised law firms specialising in people whose lives have been destroyed by paper-cuts or stubbed toes, but it wasn't a road I would ever have been happy to walk down regardless of whatever pot of gold lay at the end, not even on crutches. I'd been hit by a car, and had walked away, and had been subsequently spared stuffing envelopes on which were printed cartoon teddy bears dressed as fucking Santa Claus through the letter boxes of a disgruntled public for an entire six weeks; and despite everything, it felt pretty good.