Friday, 26 June 2015


The aspect of the American continent which first caught my attention with sufficient seriosity as to implant the idea that I might one day live here was the history of its first people. By America's first people I hope it is clear that I refer to those so often dubiously identified as Indians, the descendants of the settlers who came across the Bering Strait from northern China way back whenever. Anyone inclined to muttering about ginger-haired skeletons, Leif Erikson, or an Arizona petroglyph apparently depicting Egbert of Wessex should at this juncture feel free to take their eyeballs elsewhere.

It was pre-Columbian Mexico which first drew my interest. Initially I studied its cultures more or less in isolation, before inevitably discovering that beyond a certain level of attention, any specific focus ceases to remain useful given that no pre-Columbian Mexican culture existed in isolation; and eventually one inevitably ends up noticing parallels between - for example - the Central Mexican practice of flower war and the potlatch ceremonies of the Tlinglit and others up in Alaska and the far north. Such parallels are always interesting, and often useful in the formulation of a broader, more thorough picture.

I've met Huichol and Tarahumara people in Mexico, and others most likely descended from the Mexica, but the realisation - as I moved here - that I would at some point encounter those native to this corner of the Americas seemed a different prospect. For one, their legend had been with me since I was a child reading Riders of the Range in my dad's old Eagle annuals, as opposed to something approached with a more open and hopefully elevated mind in recent years. Secondly, even given no group of people ever having been conquered for the better, the colonial history of Mexico went quite differently to that of the country on this side of the Río Bravo del Norte. I had read about the indigenous peoples of the United States, and at least some of what has befallen them in the years since the arrival of my lot, often characterised as a slow genocide and unfortunately with some justification. I even spent time on a First Nations bulletin board in an effort to engage with representatives of the cultures I found so fascinating, and to engage by means which wouldn't relegate them to a detail of history, or reduce them to ethnic mascots.

I had always imagined that were I of Native American heritage, I would either hate all white people, or at least want as little as possible to do with their fat, over-entitled asses. This seemed to me an understandable position considering all the massacres, betrayals, and political cards played with loaded decks.

Happily, most Native Americans I encountered online have tended to take a more philosophical view, having had little choice but to accept that simply getting angry with the world never really made it a better place. They are, in my limited experience, nice people, but I have felt that the weight of history has sometimes made meaningful dialogue difficult, or at least uncomfortable from my point of view. The bulletin board was subject to frequent visits from young, mostly white teenagers interested in this or that detail of native life, generally those new-agey types who, despite the best will in the world, can sometimes come across as a little patronising. I had no wish to be identified with such people, or even to add to the increasing volume of essentially Caucasian voices on a forum dedicated to an entirely different group who, I imagined, might possibly have appreciated the chance to talk without persons such as myself butting in.

There was a joke told on the forum, something about the white visitor who is taken back to the generic teepee to meet my wife, my son, and my anthropologist. After all, it could be that a Native American might not even wish to discuss his or her close relationship with nature, or how it feels to be Native American - at least not all of the time. So eventually I dropped out of the forum, for once doubting whether I was really justified in joining the sort of club which would welcome me as a member.

My part of Texas was historically inhabited by numerous indigenous groups of nomads now collectively identified as Coahuiltec prior to the arrival of Europeans, but others came later, passing through as they were driven south by the settlers. There are three reservations in Texas, and none anywhere near San Antonio; but given Texas having been part of Mexico up until 1836, and that the population of San Antonio is predominantly identified as Hispanic, then it seems likely that I encounter persons of at least some indigenous heritage on a possibly daily basis. Many of the women working in my local supermarket are of a distinct facial type which reminds me very much of the profiles carved on Mayan stelae and ceramic ware - strong noses, high cheekbones, and not much going on in the eyebrow department. Having grown up in England, it still seems incredible to me that our two cultures should now meet over my purchase of cat food and bratwurst.

Each Spring, the city of San Antonio is host to Fiesta, a week long cycle of events and celebrations commemorating the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. One such event is an official Native American Powwow billed as promoting the traditions and culture of the American Indian in the most positive manner possible providing Indian people the opportunity to participate, practice, teach and exchange tribal traditions among all tribes and enlighten the non-Indian about the history and culture of America’s first inhabitants. I had already seen men in feathered garments dancing for pesos in Mexico, and had never been sure what to make of it, quite where the tradition ended or where the holding the tourist upside down and giving him a shake began; but this seemed to be something potentially very different.

Admittance was free, and the event - which had been going on for three or four hours before my wife and I showed our faces with Junior in tow - was held in a gymnasium. The bleachers lining one side of the venue were full of spectators, but the crowd was not excessive. The main court was occupied by a large oval of individuals, those in native dress mingling with spectators who had decided to join in. A large drum was slowly beaten somewhere at the centre of this, scoring the rhythm for many pairs of feet engaged in the same slow, sideways shuffle.

'They're doing the Mario,' I told my wife.

The Mario is a dance requiring that one swing one's arms from side to side whilst performing a similar action with the feet, as described in the closing theme song of the Super Mario Brothers Super Show. As one YouTube commentator observed, the Mario is actually a lot like walking, and it was this observation which cemented the thing into my imagination, such as it is.

The dance ended and everybody gradually returned to their seats, some pausing for photographs taken with representatives of the tribes in all of their finery. From the website I gather that those assembled included Navajo, Choctaw, Osage, and Cherokee, amongst others, so this was logically some modern synthesis of older, presumably variant traditions, something intended to speak to people here in the year 2015, and in which capacity it was a success. Drummers were assembled at the centre of the hall, and the dancers worked around them. The moves seemed vaguely familiar from endless imitation under customarily more hokey circumstances - dancers hopping from foot to foot, arms spread wide to mimic the flight of birds, feathers bobbing behind. The difference was that this felt subtly different to anything I had seen before. The choreography was forceful and dramatic rather than graceful or necessarily meticulous. It was conducted to its own purpose, and as such appeared to have nothing to prove, just as the composite indigenous tradition of music and dance as I understand it so rarely seems to even acknowledge the concept of a passive spectator because it generally involves everyone present. So what we were seeing, it could be argued, was no invocation of times passed, not even so much a spectacle as the real thing, the act itself, the act on this occasion being communication - if that doesn't sound too horribly pretentious.

That which was communicated was, so it seemed to me, nothing more profound than we are still here, which maybe wasn't anything deep, but was nevertheless good to know. I would have liked to have learned a little more than was communicated by the distorted voice introducing each dance over the speaker system, but then this was, after all, a primarily visual event. We watched for a while, and left once we felt we had seen enough, impressed that men and women in such flamboyant and colourful dress could be part of one of the most profoundly dignified ceremonial performances I have witnessed.

Fiesta continued for the rest of the week, expressing itself through different events at different times and places, and for our part culminating with the Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo at the Majestic Theatre. Each year the Coronation of the Fiesta Queen - or at least the Fiesta Queen of the Order of the Alamo - follows a different theme, and this year the theme was the Court of Captivating Islands.

Me neither.

The Majestic Theatre was built in 1929 and, roughly speaking, equates to the world's most ludicrously ornate wedding cake turned inside out. Brightly painted columns, balconies, architectural peacocks, and related eccentric flourishes beneath a ceiling purporting to represent the star-spangled heavens make perfect sense as a product of the era of Gaudí, Surrealism, and Le Palais Idéal of Ferdinand Cheval. Majestic does not seem an overstatement, and although the baroque décor skates perilously close to its own Disneyfication, it falls mercifully short of actual camp, and thus as a venue seemed apposite to the event we had come to see.

As the lights went down and a flock of young pages fluttered  across the stage to take their places, the scene was set by our narrator, the Lord High Chamberlain, a nautical character describing his numerous voyages across the oceans of the world, and all the magnificent sights he didst see - all very seventeenth century. The curtain rose upon an array of twenty-six unoccupied plinths in pseudo-classical style, and we met our first contestant, floating on ethereal and iridescent wings of the Madagascan sunset moth, Her Grace Jewel Osborn of the House of Croswell, the Duchess of Eternal Threads - as she was introduced. Jewel made her way towards the stage trailing ten or more feet of glittering ceremonial cape, or what is known as a cathedral train in dressmaking terms. The garment was of such length as to require manual assistance from the pages as Jewel ascended the steps to the plinth on which she would presumably remain seated for the rest of the performance. The garments are covered in coloured sequins and Swarovski crystals sewn into patterns purportedly illustrating that which the Lord High Chamberlain had been telling us of the wonders he hadst done did seeneth in Madagascar.

Now I understood why Bess hadn't bothered trying to describe any of this to me. It was something along the lines of a beauty pageant, perhaps with ceremony replacing the more conspicuously competitive aspect, and each year it was themed to some different and presumably arbitrary concept. Each girl would be introduced with a preamble of our host inviting us to imagine the wonders of one exotic island or another - Hawaii, Greenland, Cuba, Manhattan or wherever - and on she would come, pulling her glittering train of rhinestones shaped into patterns depicting pineapples, exotic birds, or in one case a volcano. Thematically they kept it light, so Cuba was expressly identified as old Cuba, unfortunately denying us the spectacle of a rhinestoned Che smoking a cigar. I kept my fingers crossed for the Isle of Dogs bringing us a glittering vision of skinheads, Terry Hurlock, and Stanley Kubrick filming bits of Full Metal Jacket, but I was fairly sure I would be disappointed.

Jewel was followed by Her Grace Elizabeth Adriana of the House of Garza, the Duchess of Romanov Reflection, whatever that is, and I realised that this was probably going to last hours until each of the twenty-six plinths had been occupied. After about six more girls, as we gradually worked up to the introduction of Princesses and I suppose the Queen, a new detail was added. Now each Duchess would perform a full bow before her similarly teenage Duke in preface to his leading her by the hand to her plinth. The full bow entailed each girl going down on her knees, lowering her head almost to the floor before turning to bestow a wide, slightly discomfiting smile upon the audience. Even from our seats way up in the balcony, it seemed a peculiarly awkward moment, conveying the sort of pleasure staged whilst looking directly into the camera for productions traditionally featuring something called a money shot.

The girls all seemed to be from wealthy Texas families, and my wife told me that each individually sewn train might cost up to fifty-thousand dollars. The Order of the Alamo is a conglomeration of wealthy families and businessmen, and is thus upper class in the American sense of the term. I'm sure the Order of the Alamo must be a noble institute, doubtless with all sorts of charitable functions to its name, but it quickly dawned on me that the Coronation was about spectacle, prestige, and swimming pools full of wonga. Neither America nor Texas has a royal family, and so instead it has this sort of deal, and typically fumbles the ball in attempting to communicate the idea of an elite - it's wealth, but vulgar wealth with a heavy hint of Liberace, and whilst the orchestra scores the arrival of each Duchess with an individual classical flourish, some get Bach or Prokofiev, whilst others arrive to the themes from ET and Jurassic Park; and the Duchess of Heavenly Illuminations ends up with something written by some guy called Gustav Hoist, according to the programme.

The Coronation spares no expense, and it tries hard, and it means well, but ultimately it's the whitest thing I've ever seen. This occurred to me as we were introduced to the Duchess of Delicate Winged Beauty, because nothing says Trinidad and Tobago like a bejewelled débutante who makes Britney Spears look like Nina Simone. I asked my wife, and apparently this event represents the Coronation of just one symbolic regent, and others are available should you be of either Latino or African-American lineage. The latter pageant is called the Queen of Soul, and whilst I've no doubt that a good time is had by all, I can't help but wonder if this variety somehow defeats the spirit of Fiesta, the carnival, the celebration in which all peoples come together to admit that living here in San Antonio is a pretty sweet deal, generally speaking.

We watch about two hours of one teenage Duchess after another and the stage is still half empty, so my wife tells me, 'it's okay - we can go now if you want.'

It's been an experience, if not one that I would necessarily care to repeat in a hurry, but ultimately it seems strange to see so much money blown on something of so little obvious value beyond its own sense of occasion, the repetition and reiteration of whatever the hell it was all for. The wealth is deemed old money, but I'm from England and it really doesn't seem that old to me, and genuinely old money is fairly easy to identify, being nothing if not dignified. The Coronation was style, and sadly not even great style, without substance; and it seems oddly ironic how it all felt kind of cheap when compared to the hooting and hollering of the Powwow, which is at least conducted by people who understand that ritual should always mean something.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Dennis and Paul

My first impression of Dennis was of his being a naturally aggravating character, and my second was that he was kind of an idiot - conclusions which upset the delicate balance of my established theories regarding men named Dennis. My initial hypothesis had been formulated at the Royal Mail sorting office in Chatham back in 1988, postulated in order to explain the continued existence and unpleasant character of Dennis Landers, whom I regarded as a tosspot. Consulting with my friend Carl, we realised that neither of us had ever encountered any individual named Dennis who wasn't an arsehole by one definition or another.

'Why would you even name your kid, Dennis? ' Carl scowled as though in the presence of sour milk, invoking the image of some gurgling newborn. 'Baby Dennis,' he offered bitterly by way of illustration, lending the name the same sort of cadence by which one might identify Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson.

Then a couple of years later I encountered a succession of two other men named Dennis whom I actually liked and came to hold in high regard. Now here was yet another Dennis, the fourth to emerge during my ongoing investigations. Unlike his two predecessors, he was initially easy to dislike, and yet unlike the founding Dennis, he wasn't actually evil. My theory of Dennis was in tatters.

Dennis the Fourth was a great hulking Bernard Bresslaw of a man, approaching middle-age, balding and very loud. He always seemed to be laughing, singing or joking, but the songs were usually out of tune, and the standard of joke was generally pitiful. Another annoying factor was that close inspection revealed that Dennis was basically a nice guy, just a very annoying one, and his annoying qualities were therefore unfortunately subjective; in other words, if you didn't like this latest Dennis, it was your problem and probably meant you were a bit of a miserable fucker. Having previously established my being in certain respects a miserable fucker, I concluded that I should try to avoid Dennis and do my best to keep from becoming aggravated by him, which was difficult given that he was essentially a big, happy dog in human form for whom mere eye contact was sufficient to initiate lifelong friendship. If he'd finally figured out some joke he'd been told back when he was six, and had decided that you too might get a chuckle out of what the big chimney said to the little chimney, he would move heaven and earth to make sure you got to hear that joke. Some days the canteen became a no-go area due to his presence, howling and hooting with laughter over his egg on toast as he related another hilarious incident from the morning's delivery.

The little dog had been yapping and jumping up to get the mail as it came through the letterbox. This much could be seen through the window to one side of the front door. Dennis had pushed the mail through the letterbox in such a way as to sail the envelopes up onto the window ledge to one side of the front door. The little dog had continued to bark and jump up, but was unable to reach the mail.

It took him fifteen minutes to tell this story, and ten of those were taken up with the punchline - the little dog being unable to reach the mail now safely atop the window ledge - which he couldn't get out because he was himself laughing too much, crying with laughter and incapable of forming words.

We all sat there watching, drinking our tea, bewildered.

When Paul the Actor started at our office, he immediately compared Dennis to Homer from The Simpsons. As an observation it was both funny and accurate, but by this point, although Dennis was clearly an idiot, some of us felt strongly that he was our idiot. Additionally, it could not be denied that he was a hard worker, which counted for something in a working environment built upon having to do someone else's job for them at least half of the time.

Paul was of presumed Turkish extraction and he spoke like Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G character, a nasal whine punctuated with plenty of innit. He was, as he explained to absolutely everybody who stood still long enough to listen, a professional actor and film director temporarily obliged to deliver mail for a living. Naturally the first question in response to this information was usually if you're an actor, then what have you acted in?

'I was on The Bill a couple of times innit,' he would tell us, later seemingly contradicting this claim when announcing 'I need to finish work early innit because I've got an audition for The Bill. If I could just get a part in The Bill that would be so good for my career, yeah?'

No-one bothered pointing out that half the population of East Dulwich had appeared in The Bill at one time or another. His story seemed fluid and was subject to daily revision, so most of us lost interest after a while, or at least the novelty wore off. Whilst it was clear that some element of truth informed the tireless self-promotion, it was anyone's guess what that truth could be.

One element which seemed fairly secure was that Paul had experienced a less than idyllic childhood, suffering terrible abuse at the hands of a domineering and possibly criminally-inclined father. The evidence for this was roughly that Paul's account, brief as it was, really wasn't the sort of thing you would make up. Paul had used his own story as the basis for a feature film named My Heart is Broken. Lacking funds, the film wasn't completely finished, but was probably going to be a big deal on the independent cinema circuit when it was ready for release innit. He showed us a publicity photograph, a still from the film, the boy chosen to portray his younger self.

Kingsley was keen to get involved and so Paul lent him the one existing VHS copy of the film. I was roped in to provide the soundtrack music which it was thus far lacking, producing eight or nine instrumental pieces following Paul's instructions. He said they were okay but needed work, which pissed me off somewhat. Sue agreed to help with shooting the new material the film would require prior to release, and it all began to feel suspiciously like school children planning their own television show. Paul seemed to have some kind of professional training, but we could never quite work out what it had been.

'What's it actually like?' I asked Kingsley when he bought the videotape back.

'It's good,' he said, himself clearly surprised by the fact.

I wanted to watch it, but Terry was next in line.

At the time my friend Paul A. Woods had become a regular contributor to a fairly well known magazine called Bizarre, mainly covering film and television. I mentioned Paul the Actor to him, and apparently in such intriguing terms as to inspire Paul A. Woods to write a two page feature on my fellow postman, focussing on the lad's efforts to complete My Heart is Broken and to get it released in some capacity, so Paul the Actor made it onto the newsstands despite Paul A. Woods not actually having seen his film.

'Give your mate a dig in the ribs,' he would suggest on the phone. 'It would be great if I could help him out, but I really need to have a look at the fucking thing, you know?'

'Okay,' I said, wondering what kind of film maker only had the one VHS copy of his masterpiece. Terry had watched it and brought it back into work, but now someone else was borrowing it.

'What's it like?' I asked Terry.

'It's better than you might expect,' he explained, clearly as surprised by the fact as Kingsley had been. 'It seems very professional.'


'The only thing is it's quite short, so I'm not sure if you could really call it a film.'

'It's short, you say?'

'It's about ten minutes.'

Somehow I wasn't surprised. I had begun to expect something at the level of the young filmmakers' competition which used to run on Screen Test when I was a kid.

As the single VHS tape slowly worked its way around the sorting office, Paul asked me to paint his portrait, something he could use for publicity material. He brought in some photographs of himself on stage in some amateur production wearing a pith helmet, safari suit and holding a rifle. I painted him as requested against a backdrop suggesting colonial Africa. He was going to pay me, but like the elusive VHS tape of My Heart is Broken, the money never materialised. It didn't really bother me because I had anticipated disappointment.

I don't know if the painting was ever used as publicity material in any form, or if it replaced the postcards he'd printed and had handed around at work. The photograph showed him holding that rifle - presumably a replica - and pulling a moody face. Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels hadn't been in the cinemas very long, and it seemed clear that Paul would be happy to audition should Guy Ritchie be about to embark on a sequel innit.

'Ere Paul,' Dennis called out across the office, 'you got any of them cards left, mate?'

This was the first time anybody had actually requested one, and of course Paul was happy to oblige.

'Thanks, mate - I'll stick it on the mantelpiece when I get home,' Dennis admired the card as he returned to his bay. 'Keep the kids away from the fucking fire!' - and for the first time ever, he completed the full sentence with a straight face before collapsing with laughter. The jokes continued for the next half hour or so as Dennis worked at his bay sorting the mail, not exactly funny, but loud enough for everyone in the building to hear and we were all on his side after the keeping the kids away from the fire remark. He was on a roll.

Mark, working on one of the frames around the back began to call out in response to each brainless gag, mostly retorts concluding with you stupid, fat cunt! Then suddenly, before any of us really had time to process what had been said, Dennis struck back with an unexpected succession of three razor-sharp zingers, the details of which were lost behind the glare of our collective astonishment. It was as though a dog had burst into song. Mark had been silenced by Dennis of all people as belly laughter erupted all around the office.

I looked at Dennis.

I could hear the laughter all around.

We all looked at Dennis, speechless, and I asked, 'Did he really just say that?' I turned to Darren. 'You heard it it too?'

'Yeah!' Darren was wide-eyed, awe-struck. 'Dennis said something funny!'

'Fuck! Nice one, Dennis!'

As with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, no-one who was present when it happened will ever forget that historic day.

Paul eventually vanished from the picture, briefly resurfacing about a year later as star of a television documentary following the basic training and first days on the job of a newly recruited driver working out of Camberwell Bus Garage. Footage of Paul in the cab, frowning with concentration as he pulled out onto the main road was narrated with the voice-over account of how he saw his future career behind the wheel, and how if anything it would probably complement his work on stage and screen. The shot segued to Paul sat upon the grass of what was presumably Camberwell Green. He was explaining how all the lads at work had jovially taken to calling him George, which wasn't, he insisted, due to his full name being Paul Clooney.

'They say it's because I look like him innit.'

He had the eyebrows, but it was hard to believe that all the lads really called him George for this reason, or even that they called him George at all given that his surname wasn't even Clooney, contrary to whatever he'd been telling people since he finished with Royal Mail. He was a nice enough guy in his own way, but you always had the feeling that as he spoke to you, he was trying to imagine how you would one day feel, recalling this conversation with Paul way back before he hit the big time. Ten years have passed, and if Paul has since hit the big time in any capacity, then it's under yet another pseudonym and one I would not know to submit to a Google search; on the other hand if he's out there and still no more famous than any of the rest of us, he should at least take comfort from the fact that we all remember that day when just for a few seconds Dennis cast him in the role of Ernie Wise to his own Eric Morecambe.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Day My Wife Was Born

My birthday was approaching and I had asked my mother if I could have a party. I was going to be six, or at least that's how I remember it. I'm not sure the sums quite add up, or even that it necessarily matters given that 1971 was over forty years ago, but for the sake of argument let's assume I have most of it roughly on the money.

I'd attended a couple of birthday parties by that point, which I suppose was how I came to decide that I'd like one of my own. Jeremy had most likely requested my presence at his party the previous October; and Paul Moorman - the kid who lived on the next farm along, the place with all the chickens - had invited me to one of his parties. It was a little odd because Paul's birthday fell on Christmas day, so he celebrated on an entirely different date just like the Queen. The guests had been just myself and Paul's elder sister - who kept her distance for most of the afternoon - and everything supervised by Paul's mum. We played a game, using drinking straws to remove hard frozen peas from a tea tray. The idea was to place one end of the drinking straw against the pea, then suck hard so as to secure the pea and lift it from the playing surface without directly touching it. I don't remember who won, but later we had jelly and cake and the like.

I helped prepare some of the food for my own party in so much as I made bowls of a desert involving lime jelly, whipped cream, half a peach and some kind of wafer. The peach half was supposed to represent a yacht afloat on a sea of green, with whipped cream as waves and the wafer for a sail; and I recall having made these following a recipe in Ursula Sedgewick's My Learn to Cook Book - probably with my mother doing most of the actual work - although rooting around on the internet I have found that the book in question contains no such recipe.

I sent out invitations to kids from school, although we were still enjoying the final stretch of our summer holidays. Someone who could have been either Tom or Matthew wrote a reply roughly equating to:

Thank you for inviting me to your birthday party. I would like to come but I can't because I don't like Andrew Brown. He pushes.

Andrew Brown was a skinny child resembling the espionage-prone television puppet Joe 90, due mainly to his spectacles. He derived amusement from all sorts of unorthodox sources. My mother once asked if we wanted some Treets - this being the brand name of a chocolate coated peanut confection which was eventually replaced by Minstrels. Andrew wheezed with laughter, insisting that she had asked us if we wanted some trees. On another occasion, as Paul Moorman told me, Andrew had greeted some stranger in the village with the words hello bloke, which must have sounded pretty odd coming from a small child. I'd been to Andrew's house in Ilmington just once, and remember this because his family had a colour television - the first I'd ever seen - upon which they were watching an episode of Lost in Space; and even as I was still reeling from this sensory overload, I was flashed by Andrew's little sister just out of the bath and wearing only a towel, although I was far too young to know what I was supposed to do with the information.

I knew Andrew to be strange and yet entertaining, and that his family were more financially blessed than mine, and that his sister was some sort of naturist, but I had no experience of his pushing. Maybe he just didn't like Tom or Matthew or whoever it had been on the alleged receiving end of his motive force. In any case, after a brief year or so at Ilmington C of E Junior and Infants he was moved to a fancier school, which at least reduces the likelihood of the birthday party to which I had invited him having been my seventh.

Anyway, Andrew didn't show and neither did Tom or Matthew or whoever it was. There was Paul, Jeremy, and Michelle from my class, and also Owen, a child from the year below. I didn't know Owen particularly well but had decided to invite him anyway. He was one of the five children - myself included - regularly ferried from surrounding farms and villages to the school by Mr. Collett, the owner of both the local garage and taxi cab service. Four of Mr. Collett's regular passengers had working parents who were otherwise occupied doing things to cows or sheep from before dawn to just after dusk, and then there was Owen who appeared to live with just his mother, and I don't think she owned a car. Nor did she own a television set, which unfortunately meant the rest of us were to Owen as was Andrew Brown to ourselves in terms of television hierarchy. His family had apparently stalled around 1940 or thereabouts, at least in respect of technology, dress sense, and spectacles of a kind once popularised by Arthur Askey and Harold Lloyd. This made him something of a target at school, his lagging behind the rest of us in terms of the industrial revolution, and seemingly belonging more to the era of Dick Barton than that of Doctor Who; at least I always assumed this to be the main reason that other children seemed to take against him. I suppose it might equally have been his somewhat lively personality which my mother generously described as boisterous, and which eventually began to get on even my tits. The crucial realisation - at least for me - came as Matthew and I stood in line patiently waiting to be let onto the playing field at the rear of the school. Owen, standing in front, turned to us, already lost in some bizarre routine of his own.

'Knock yourself into the ground,' he explained loudly, grinning and hammering himself on the head with one fist whilst bending incrementally at the knee so as to effect the illusion; and having knocked himself into the ground as far as seemed practical, he presented us with the culmination of the tableau, jumping up into the sky as though having manually powered himself through the centre of the Earth and out the other side.

'Wheeee! Australia!'

What the fuck? was still a few years away from taking its rightful place in my vocabulary, but that would have been my reaction were it not so. Owen just seemed to rub people up the wrong way, and by the time we made it to secondary school, the two of us may as well have been strangers. This could have been either because Owen was noisy and abrasive, or because I was essentially a dick and terrified of associating with conspicuously unpopular kids in case whatever it was they had rubbed off on me.

Meanwhile back in September 1971, Owen was yet to knock himself into the ground and thus incur my disdain, and so I invited him to my birthday party, probably enjoying the idea of myself as the great philanthropist, welcoming the weird, bouncy kid into the fold.

Come inside, friend, and partake of the iced gems. We shall not cast you away, not like those others, for we are a more noble breed of child...

Owen gave me a toy racing car for my birthday, a pleasantly solid model made of die-cast metal with a spoiler at the rear. The body was white with decals spelling out the names of Castrol GTX, STP and other sponsors. It was sturdy and felt a good weight in one's hand. I opened the other presents and then we ate, I suppose.

Then, during a moment of untempered bounciness, Owen bust my plane. It was a toy plastic airliner my grandmother had given me, one with a transparent upper fuselage allowing one to view all the little rows of seats within. Truthfully I had found the thing a bit weird. The transparent fuselage seemed far-fetched, and I wasn't sure why anyone had made a toy from such a design, plus it seemed kind of cheap and crappy, although I knew better than to mention this to anyone. Within my personal toy hierarchy, the plastic airliner was some way down, but I was nevertheless outraged when Owen broke it. What the fuck? would have come in handy at that moment, but as I said, I was still a few years short of picking up that particular expression.

'But I bought you a racing car,' Owen wailed in his own defence, clearly regretting his reckless act of aeroplane destruction. I wrestled with the thought, weighing what was undoubtedly a quality piece of engineering up against my somewhat crappy former plane, but I still couldn't talk myself out of wishing I'd never invited Owen.

Over the next hour or so, my resentment grew until it came to a head in a field to one side of the road running past Mr. Harding's house. We were playing on a flatbed trailer - the sort which had only recently been piled high with bales of hay. We climbed on and off, doubtless yelping and screeching with all the excitement. Someone proposed the imposition of a narrative upon the activity whereby everyone stood upon the trailer had certain admirable qualities, whilst those still down on the ground were deemed in possession of less admirable qualities most likely pertaining to poo and related substances. Owen yelped and set one foot on the tow bar, leaping up onto the side of the trailer.

'You're not coming up here,' I told him with some venom, and pushed, my hand square against the centre of his chest. He fell backwards through the air, three or four feet to the ground and landed on his back. I immediately understood I had become the school bully, one of those kids I myself hated. Owen had probably broken his spine in two and would never walk again, and I was responsible. I had done that. I felt awful then, and don't feel particularly great about the incident even now, more than forty years later. I don't remember much else of the day, aside from that Owen clearly survived the fall, and cried as we trudged back to the house, fully sobered by what had happened.

Back at school, I guess we were friends again because I remember Owen coming over to the farm to play at least a couple of times, just as I went over to his house for tea. He probably should have told me to piss off, but I suppose children are fairly resilient, and he'd probably grown used to those he considered friends acting like complete wankers from time to time. Then eventually of course he knocked himself into the ground...

I was six years old on Friday 17th September 1971, and this has more recently achieved additional significance because my wife and I share the same birthday, although she is six years younger. If I'm right about the only birthday party I can recall having hosted being my sixth by virtue of how Owen and Andrew figure in its dating, this means I am able to recall the actual day on which my wife was born. As the sequence of events ran, first Owen broke my aeroplane, then I took a leaf out of Andrew Brown's book and hurled him bodily from the flatbed trailer as though I were an enraged gorilla, and about an hour later - five thousand miles away - the woman I would eventually marry was born in the town of Pearsall, Texas.

There's probably not much joy to be had looking for cosmic significance in any of this, and so I don't; and yet, aside from my terrible treatment of poor Owen, it's hard not to regard this simple concurrence as a small but wonderful thing.

Thursday, 4 June 2015


I acquired my first stalker sometime in 1993. She was my first and has thankfully thus far been my only one. I didn't realise she was a stalker at the time, simply assuming her to be a fan of the band for which I played guitar. We were called Academy 23, and we had coagulated around the nucleus of Dave Fanning and Andy Martin, formerly of the Apostles, who had achieved minor infamy with a string of angry but tuneful albums, EPs, and cassette tapes.

Academy 23 were more or less a continuation of the Apostles, renamed after William Burroughs' essay and with a related shift of emphasis informed - so I had the impression - by Andy's desire to distance himself from the anarchopunk circles with which the Apostles had often been associated. We played a couple of gigs, recorded and released a compact disc which I didn't actually like very much, and we were interviewed in a few fanzines. I suppose I should have spotted the peculiarity of Zoe's letter being addressed directly to myself given that my home address had never appeared on any Academy 23 related material. I assume she had found it in one of my own small press comics or fanzines churned out under the banner of Runciter Corporation, yet otherwise having no direct association with Academy 23. She had done her homework.

She gave her name as Zoe Almond, and she wrote from an address in Liverpool. The letter was written in biro on one side of an A4 sheet of lined paper from a notepad. She asked me about Academy 23, about Andy, and how our music related to that of the Apostles. The Apostles had been amongst my absolute favourite bands of the previous decade, and I still rate their music very highly even today, so it was immensely exciting to have been asked to play guitar for what was in essence a continuation of that band. I understood Zoe's devotion because I shared it myself. This appeared to be my very first fan letter, so I wrote back immediately.

The second letter came by the end of the same week, longer and in more detail. Here was someone who really understood what the Apostles had been about. She explained that as a lesbian who had been more or less disowned by her own parents, Andy's music really spoke to her; and it was true that he had a real talent for communicating the frustration of the outsider, the teenage runaway, and the generally dispossessed. This was for me, and I guess many others, what had set the Apostles apart from all those other black and white fold-out sleeve bands. They were about the individual in a society out of balance rather than the then traditional sloganeering against church, state and the multinationals, and the Apostles weren't afraid of pissing people off, even those who bought their records.

Does Andy read Gay News?, Zoe asked.

It seemed like a strange question. I had no idea whether he did or not, but presumed not as he had never mentioned it.

The next letter was four pages, and I began to notice just how much of it seemed concerned with Andy. I also noticed that an oddly confrontational tone had entered her correspondence. I assumed this was simply her being slightly mad - as she admitted herself - which was hardly an unknown factor amongst those who found themselves drawn to the music of the Apostles.

You do realise that I'm not actually Andy's publicity manager, I wrote back; you might be better off asking him yourself, and like an idiot I wrote out the address of his place up in Hackney.

Her response was eight pages long, with some mumbling about how she wasn't exactly in Andy's good books, and with the tone just that little bit snottier than before. Additionally she had sent a cassette of a programme taped from Radio 4, some debate upon an assortment of gay and lesbian issues. She wanted to know what I thought of it all. Most of the letter was taken up with some sort of internal monologue relating to the aforementioned gay and lesbian issues. Being myself neither gay nor lesbian, I wondered what she thought this had to do with me, or more importantly, why I would necessarily have anything either useful or interesting to say on the subject. I didn't mind, but it really began to seem like she was wasting her time.

Unable to contribute anything of real value to our correspondence I sent her a photocopy of a nine-panel comic strip I had drawn entitled The Shockers. The story behind The Shockers was my friend - whom I will discreetly identify as Bingo - having told me of his visit to a very vaguely mutual acquaintance, an artist whom I'll identify as Roulette Gondwanaland so as to avoid granting her any needless publicity. Roulette Gondwanaland lived with her partner, Stegosaurus Dave - and yes that is his real name - and she had not seen Bingo for some time. They knew each other at college. More recently Roulette Gondwanaland had taken to publishing small press comic strips, although they weren't really strips so much as pages of lists, one example being a list of objects of such proportions as to fit comfortably inside her vagina.


Roulette Gondwanaland had taken to what might loosely be described as a swinging lifestyle, enjoying regular threesomes with Stegosaurus Dave and some other guy who was introduced as Stegosaurus Dave's boyfriend. Sometimes she herself enjoyed homosexual liasons with another female partner, although Stegosaurus Dave was not allowed to join in with this particular juxtaposition of genitalia, because that would have been just wrong. The precise nature of the juxtaposition was revealed when Roulette Gondwanaland took her leave of the meeting with Bingo, explaining, 'I'm going to meet my girlfriend now. I'm going to lick her pussy!'

I vaguely knew Roulette Gondwanaland as a figure around our shared locality, and had found her faintly irritating from afar for quite some time. Her art, and the numerous headachey events set up to promote it combined a smug quality with what looked a lot like a desperate cry for attention, and so I guess her personal life was much the same as her public life. I found it hard to avoid being both irritated and entertained by her existence, and so in The Shockers my pointedly bemused skinhead author surrogate finds himself cornered by characters who insist on regaling him with full explanations of their sexual habits in an apparent effort to inspire shock which they pass off as testimonial to the powerful currency of their own liberated outlook.

The problem with The Shockers is that it could easily be read as a prudish, even borderline homophobic effort, the sort of reactionary crap which might bring a smile to Clarkson's sausagey lips. It looks like gratuitous liberal-baiting, which wasn't really my intention. I included some text which wasn't quite the disclaimer to which it aspired, something about the sort of demonstrative sexuality expressed by persons such as Roulette Gondwanaland being some peculiar kind of fashion statement representing a stereotype, and a fairly insulting stereotype. Part of this came from having gay friends, Andy significantly amongst them, who had come to feel somewhat alienated by a society which tended to characterise them as one of  just a few very limited types; but mainly it was just because Roulette Gondwanaland was inherently full of shit and sorely in need of having the piss taken out of her. I honestly couldn't have cared less about her or anyone else's sexuality, but her overbearing need for the rest of us to know all about it in such pornographic detail, and presumably to have our inner Mary Whitehouses quaking in their boots, demarcated her as being a fucking twat and therefore ripe for satire.

The Shockers maybe wasn't a great cartoon, but then it still makes me laugh. Even now, I still can't quite unscramble what it actually says - whether or not it constitutes my Richard Littlejohn moment - and I had no better idea of how it came across or whether it worked as intended at the time. Andy thought it was hilarious, but then his standard regarding humour seems to work in terms of how much the joke upsets anyone he doesn't like. Zoe Almond of Liverpool had clearly spent a great deal of time mulling over an assortment of gay and lesbian issues, so I sent her a copy hoping her response would be something along the lines of yes, this is spot on or I can definitely see what you're getting at here. Thank you for understanding how difficult it is being gay.

The next letter contained eight ninety-minute tapes of debate upon an assortment of gay and lesbian issues as originally broadcast on Radio 4, and another eight page letter. She was very disappointed that I had not yet returned the first tape she had kindly sent to me - the tape I hadn't actually requested - and she wanted this latest bunch back within the week. Also, she hadn't enjoyed The Shockers at all.

Your pitiful, barely literate cartoon, she explained, has now caused serious damage to the lives of many of my friends, before descending into another lengthy rant I couldn't quite follow eventually concluding in rhetorical and somewhat digressive fashion with questions of just who Andy Martin thinks he is.

I tried to envision how my pitiful, barely literate cartoon could have now caused serious damage to the lives of many of Zoe's friends given that it had never been printed anywhere, existed only as a couple of photocopies, and wasn't actually a billboard or a television broadcast blaming one entire section of society for all the woes of another. I could see how it might piss somebody off, particularly somebody lacking a sense of humour - which was, I suppose, the point - but I couldn't see how it could now cause serious damage to anyone's life. This worried me.

I'd spoken to Andy a couple of times on the phone since the first of Zoe's letters, but each time I had forgotten to mention our newest fan, or to ask whether he read Gay News. This time when he called, I was a little phased by this most recent development.

'Oh God,' he said. 'Is it from an address in Liverpool?'

'Yes, it is,' I confirmed, then recalling Zoe admitting to not exactly being in Andy's good books. 'You know her?'

'Not personally. Listen - whatever you do, don't reply. Stuff everything back in the envelope and mark it name not known and return to sender.'


'You didn't reply, did you?'

I was fairly sure of the fact that I had done so being implicit in what I'd already told him, but maybe he was in shock. 'Well now that you mention it, I sort of did - yes.'

'Oh God.'

'Is it bad?'

'I'm afraid it's very, very bad, Lawrence, but at least you haven't given them my new address, so they probably think I still live in Brougham Road. At least there's that.'

I set him right about this specific misreading of the situation, and when the groaning and gnashing of teeth eventually subsided, he went into detail. Zoe - also known as Zurina - was one of two girls, believed to be sisters, who spent their days winding up members of punk bands with series of fan letters becoming progressively more abusive in tone as the correspondence develops. Apparently they had done the same to members of Blaggers ITA and a few of the other groups who were around at the time; and the consensus was that the Almond sisters were probably psychotic - trolls, in internet terms, but trolls before there was any worldwide web upon which to sail their disharmonious vessels. They had already targeted Pete, our drummer, but without much luck as he had other things to do besides responding to fanmail, or what attempted to pass itself off as fanmail.

I duly stuffed all of Zoe's letters and tapes back into the envelope in which the most recent missive had arrived, sealed it up, and stuck it back in the post marked return to sender. I added a note stating that being a postman I had consulted my manager at work regarding the legality of abusive mail - as indeed I had done - and Royal Mail would be quite happy to prosecute should any more of this shit arrive at my house. Amazingly, it did the trick. I never heard from Zoe Almond ever again.

About a month later, Andy had a mysterious caller, a gruff and unfamiliar female voice with a Liverpudlian accent heard over the speaker system of the entry phone at his tower block. He didn't answer and the caller went away, never to be heard from again. He later admitted that he'd indulged in quite a lot of swearing that afternoon, and had taken my name in vain on several occasions.

I never published The Shockers, and eventually rewrote it as a short science-fiction story, taking greater care to avoid inclusion of any sentiment which could be read as the sort of thing which might invite a rousing here here from passing Daily Mail subscribers. The cartoon strip still makes me laugh, but equally it feels like a guilty and uncomfortable secret. Drawing The Shockers was not really a deed to be proud of, but the time was at least better spent than that of Zoe - or whatever her real name was - waging her cranky, pointless campaigns against people in bands which no fucker has heard of.