Friday, 30 October 2015

Kids Farting into a Tape Recorder

I date the arrival of my first tape recorder to 1978, and almost certainly to my thirteenth birthday in September of that year. It was a Crown CTR-300, a mono portable and pretty basic, but nonetheless magical so far as I was concerned. Within a couple of weeks I'd got hold of a five pin DIN lead by which I could connect it to our family radio and tape songs from the Top 40 Countdown on Sunday evening, and amongst the first songs I recall having taped were Public Image Ltd's debut single, Germfree Adolescence by X-Ray Spex, and Tommy Gun by the Clash - all prominent around November 1978 according to Wikipedia. I almost certainly recorded other, patently shittier chart toppers during those early efforts to kill music through home-taping - Olivia Newton-John, Sarah Brightman and the like - but some subconscious process tends to select those memories which better allow me to think of my younger self as a cool little dude. I suppose we all do it to a greater or lesser extent.

It's all delusion of course, and I should probably be thankful that my formative recordings were all committed to a single ninety minute cassette, because I was unwilling to save up my pocket money and invest in a second tape; so any regrettable evidence of my once having enjoyed the rocktastic sounds of both Racey and Showaddywaddy were erased within weeks, and by 1979 I'd turned my single C90 into a canvas upon which was painted a moderately more creative effort which I vaguely remember calling Pirate Radio Burton. I'm no longer even sure I actually knew what a pirate radio station was, but I'd picked up the term somewhere and apparently liked the feel of it. I did all of the voices and played all of the characters, executing ham-fisted pre-pubescent parodies of things I'd seen on television, and it was shite, but even at the age of thirteen I understood my branding it pirate radio to be an ingenious acknowledgement of it being shite, which paradoxically made it even funnier, so I believed. Of the great and subsequently lost tonnage of comedy gold submitted to my crumbling overworked 129 metres of ferric oxide, all I can recall was a wry satirical sideways glance at the Cadbury's Flake advert from the telly comprising my attempt to sing the only the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate refrain, concluding with a racist observation likening the chocolate bar to a specific kind of penis; and because it was still the seventies and I was thirteen and nothing like so witty as I believed myself to be, I stood in our kitchen, proudly holding the tape recorder as I played Pirate Radio Burton to my mother, all twenty minutes of it including the racist penis joke. She laughed, although with hindsight I suspect it was probably uncomfortable laughter.

At least I was doing something creative, I suppose.

Eventually I graduated to more considered works, notably a semi-pornographic take on Keith Michell's Captain Beaky alternating the trumpet break lifted directly from the record with my spoken verses, toilet-humoured variations on the original turned to the cause of amusingly slanderous allegations made against my friend Gordon. By 1980, possibly due to an increase in pocket money, I had also graduated to the habit of buying a new cassette tape when I wanted to record something, in preference to adding another notionally archaeological layer to my long-suffering C90; and I took to making covers for these tapes, turning my felt-tipped pens to the design of amusingly titled compilations such as Songs for the Hard of Thinking.

Well, possibly not that amusingly titled, as I realised even at the time. Songs for the Hard of Thinking had a second and final volume before I switched to a new series of compilations of stuff taped off the radio under the banner of The Illegal Tapes as a witty challenge to the home-taping is killing music lobby - who seemed to be kicking up quite a fuss at the time - inlay cards rendered with Jamie Reid style ransom note lettering to show them I meant business. The Illegal Tapes volume one kicked off with a Simple Minds live set recorded from In Concert on Saturday 19th July 1980. This time I would get it right, I told myself: my own private library of free music, and only the cool stuff - no Racey, no Matchbox, and definitely no fucking Barron Knights. Novelty records were behind me now, given that I was a big boy and nearly fifteen, although my good stuff was not so Cromwellian a term as to exclude episodes of The Burkiss Way as broadcast on BBC Radio 4, a weekly comedy show which was actually funny despite the possibility of having provided some of the inspiration for Pirate Radio Burton. I've a vague feeling that the name the Pre-War Busconductors may have derived from The Burkiss Way, specifically from Fred Harris dully intoning an increasingly ludicrous itinerary of invented band names in parody of John Peel.

Regarding the Pre-War Busconductors, I was up to the eighth volume of The Illegal Tapes and for no reason I can remember, it occurred to me that it would be fun to take my tape recorder around to Grez's house and to record ourselves making a noise. Santa had furnished me with an acoustic guitar the previous Christmas, and Grez had been teaching me to play a few things - Babylon's Burning or Kings of the Wild Frontier plucked out on single strings.

Grez was in my class at school, and had weened me off the same four Beatles records by lending me a Devo album, which freaked me out at first but was ultimately for the best. I got to know Grez a little better and began to make regular trips to his house to listen to Stranglers albums, which was how I met Pete, a boy from the year above our own at school, and who lived in the same street as Grez. One evening I called around on Grez and found himself and Pete sat at the living room table inventing bands. They had exercise books and were drawing album covers for groups existing entirely in their own imaginations, chronologically ordered catalogues encompassing line-up changes, singles, b-sides and so on. I probably should have found it strange, but it seemed in some way related to my Songs for the Hard of Thinking compilations. Clearly it was some intensely personal thing, possibly not unlike having imaginary friends, and yet neither Pete nor Grez seemed particularly troubled that I had caught them engaged with such an indulgence.

On Saturday the 13th of September 1980, all of the above factors came together with our forming a band. We were around Grez's house. It was pissing with rain, too wet to do anything outside. We had instruments and it seemed like it might be fun, and the name Pre-War Busconductors had lodged in my head from somewhere or other. To be specific I recall the entire undertaking as having been my idea, as something to which I recruited the other two, but then it was a long time ago and most likely I'm remembering it wrong.

We had an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a semi-acoustic bass owned by Grez's older brother who never seemed to be around enough to object to our borrowing it. Also, Grez had an ITT Combat radio which came with its own microphone and could be used as an amplifier. It wasn't particularly loud, but we could produce a terrific overdriven din by placing the microphone inside the guitar. Somehow we also had a pair of drumsticks acquired from somewhere with which we bashed away at a drum kit assembled from whatever was to hand - cardboard boxes, an upturned biscuit tin, Grez's space hopper, and an Action Man assault craft - basically a big solid lump of injection-moulded plastic in the shape of a rubber dingy for your action figures - which made a great snare drum. The first problem we encountered was that we couldn't really play, although we didn't see this as either a problem or even necessarily relevant. Grez could handle a few hesitant chords - enough to hammer out something at least bearing passing resemblance to a tune; I could manage notes on one string, and if our collective sense of rhythm was a bit on the undeveloped side, we made up for it by enthusiastically failing to give a shit. More significantly, Pete could really sing and was spontaneously funny.

He was an unusual child, always seeming confident and quick witted, but occasionally he would overload and effect transformation into some kind of human jack-in-the-box, refusing to communicate in anything but siren noises and generally running riot. One of the most vivid episodes ended with myself and Grez stood in his driveway, both watching Pete bouncing up and down on a spacehopper on the garage roof whilst serenading us with a song comprising mostly bleeping noises. Grez was going wild because his parents were due home any moment.

Meanwhile back on that wet September afternoon, we'd just pressed play and record. Grez thrashed out an uneasy sequence of bar chords. I plucked out random arrhythmic notes on his brother's bass whilst singing in the voice of a thick person, like the little man from Monty Python with the knotted handkerchief on his head, or some skinhead grunting away on a television documentary. Diligently dropping my aitches, I made up the words as I went along, words which were repeated and even harmonised with embellishments by the astonishingly soulful Pete. This is punk at its worst, he half-sang, half-boasted as we came to the end of a chorus, and it was. That was the whole idea.

We all read Sounds music paper every week. Grez and Pete read Grez's brother's copy, and I'd been buyin' one for meself since about February; and if there was one fing we agreed upon it was 'ow much we enjoyed Garry Bushell's articles, albeit for the wrong reasons. For the most part we listened to the sort of music which Bushell 'ated, but nevertheless found ourselves drawn to his enthusiastic Alf Garnett-style traditional workin' class knees-up themed reviews of the Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts, and others associated with Oi! music, as it 'ad become known. We were fifteen years of age, rustic, and clueless, but even we could see there was somethin' weird and 'ence immensely entertainin' in Bushell's testimony and the world 'e described as though terrified that anyone might ever mistake 'is little 'ooligan scene for anything posh, poofy or otherwise stuck up. Each time 'e set pen to paper, 'alf the word count was taken up wiv some wheedling testament to 'ow these boys weren't afraid to kick in a few 'eads if they didn't like the look of you, just so that we'd know his lads were the real fing and would put you in fackin' 'otspital, you caaaant; usually followed by disclaimers of 'ow they loved their mums and wouldn't 'urt a fly, and it was just workin' class culture wunnit, and it definitely ain't racist or nuffink to love yor country. He told us the Cockney Rejects were the best band he'd heard in two years and then quoted the lyrics, the immortal words:

I like punk and I like Sham,
I got nicked over West Ham.

Something about those two lines from Police Car entertained the living shit out of us, and I don't think it was just us either. I've since met people who've never heard a note of the Cockney Rejects, yet who are nevertheless familiar with that couplet. One evening we saw Oliver - one of the older kids who now worked at Discovery Records in Stratford-on-Avon - staggering home from the pub with a friend, singing those same lines from Police Car over and over, then muttering bloody brilliant and collapsing with laughter.

Of course, we all liked punk, and I for one liked Sham 69 and still play their records today; and it wasn't that we were better than the Cockney Rejects, or that there was anything wrong with good, honest, stupid fun, or that rock lyrics had to suggest something dripped from the quill of Shakespeare himself; but Police Car was just a bit too fucking stupid for its own good, and then there was Bushell trying far too hard with his desperate impersonation of a Cockney barrow boy, and this whole idea of taking pride in being a thick fucker, a position with which we were painfully well acquainted at school on a daily basis. We just couldn't not take the piss.

Accordingly I can't even bring myself to name our first ever song because the whole thing was horribly racist, and that was the point of it. We were trying to make something so stupid that even Bushell would have sighed, shaken his head in despair, and dismissed us with an amusingly witless quip about our being about as much use as a copy of Men Only in Larry Grayson's dressing room. I listen to the song now and it sounds like badly executed Alf Garnett, and I doubt anyone could ever take the words on face value; but it will nevertheless stay under wraps because even taking all of this into account, our first ever song remains uncomfortable listening. We were fifteen and had grown up in rural Warwickshire in the seventies, and there were two black kids at our school of about six-hundred. Black faces were not particularly common on British television, and although Pete, Grez and myself shared an inherent understanding of racism as essentially absurd and we listened to music by black artists, a certain lack of cultural sensitivity came with our environment. Racism seemed ridiculous and was therefore funny to us because we had no experience of it. I had learned nothing since that Flake advert on Pirate Radio Burton.

Five years later, my friend Garreth came to see me at the house in which I lived in the village of Otham, Kent. He was looking through my cassette tapes, all the Pre-War Busconductors albums with the hand-drawn artwork.

'What's this?' he asked, bewildered. He'd picked out the tape carrying the title which shall remain nameless, its general concept illustrated on the cover by four cartoon Pre-War Busconductors in smiling Al Jolson tribute, jazz hands and bones through noses above the somewhat unconvincing promise, a pisstake of racism.

'It's a piss-take of racism,' I explained unconvincingly, trying as hard as I could to sound casual, as though I hadn't just been rumbled. 'Like those skinhead bands, that sort of thing.'

I longed for the ground to swallow me whole, and in case it isn't obvious, Garreth was black.

'I understand,' he said, and I felt terrible - a king-sized arsehole.

I spoke about this to friends some years later, and it turns out that almost anyone of my generation and background who was ever in a band went through a phase of shocking Bushell-inspired ironic skinhead anthems.

The second song the Pre-War Busconductors ever recorded - just a few minutes later - was executed in much the same spirit of militant stupidity as the first, but thankfully without invoking Oi the Elephant in the Room. This elephant was Little Blue, the star of his own animated children's cartoon series who had taken his mummy's fountain pen and broken it in two. The ink had squirted in the water, as the theme song reported, staining him blue in colour, hence the title, with predictably hilarious consequences. I'd never seen the show and had no idea of the tune - which admittedly didn't make much difference - but Grez had, and he improvised an impressively nihilistic adaptation of the lyrics.

Little Blue, Little Blue,
Farting in the bath as some of us do,
He pulled out the plug and he got sucked down,
He couldn't swim so he had to drown.
The blood it spurted in the coffin - wow!
His mummy's got a dead boy noooooooow.....

We came up with two further tracks - a pitiful cover of the Stranglers' In the Shadows and something called Sodding Off - and that was our first session, immediately followed on volume eight of The Illegal Tapes by a couple of Jam singles I'd borrowed from Grez, When You're Young and The Eton Rifles. Playing back the tape and hearing our own clanking efforts alongside proper music like you would get on the radio seemed to legitimise what we were doing, and so we carried on, reconvening the very next day at my house to thrash out another four songs, notably a terrifying cover of the theme song for the children's show You and Me. Somehow it felt as though what we were doing was important, and it clearly wasn't just some one-off experiment.

We got together most weekends at whichever house contained the fewer parents and began to build up a body of work; and the more I listened back to our efforts, the better they sounded; and I realised it would make sense to have everything on one cassette. I borrowed Grez's tape recorder, plumbed it into mine with my five pin DIN lead, and copied all we had thus far recorded onto a single C90. This was to be our first album, and we came to this decision without being aware of the wider independent cassette scene which was just getting into gear at around the same time. I decided my tape label would be called Busconductor Records, and got out my felt-tipped pens and set to work on a cover.

In December we acquired a fourth member, Eggy who was in the same class as Grez and myself and had begun to wonder why we never seemed to be around at the weekend. He wasn't particularly musical, but it wasn't like he could make it any worse. We remained more or less a complete fucking racket for the first six months - enthusiastically cacophonous covers of whatever we felt like taking the piss out of, everything from the usual kid's show theme songs to the BeeGees' Tragedy; or potentially libellous songs about people at school; or further Bushell-inspired stupidity. Usually there was a tune tucked away in there somewhere behind the sound of something being banged hard to a rhythm more closely associated with home improvement than music; and usually there was some less melodic accompaniment, one of us honking away on the harmonica or similar. We would take it in turns to sing, depending on who had the most inspiration, and usually either Pete or Grez were the best at this, both having a better developed sense of surrealism than either Eggy or myself, even genuine wit you might call it; and so it didn't matter too much when Pete decided to sing an entirely different song to the one we'd apparently been playing, often a freshly improvised eulogy to the impressive girth of that which could be found within his trousers. Even pausing the performance to fart directly into the tape recorder made little difference to the thematic integrity of our songs.

The sum of the parts may have sounded a little less like a complete fucking racket were it not for our approach to mixing which amounted to each one of us trying to be either louder than the other three, or else nearest to the tape recorder; and the occasional disruption of proceedings by the intrusion of something so fucking funny it just couldn't wait: me yelling nipple blue into the condensing microphone as we recorded Little Blue for one example, which was funny because of tits, and because it sounded a bit like the title of the song. Nipples are rude, you see. This was why Pete and Grez were more suited to vocal duties than myself.

The elevated musicality of Grez and Pete was rudely illustrated when they went solo, breaking away as a duo under the name of the Desolate Accountants. Specifically it was Saturday the 15th of November, and we'd planned to convene as the Pre-War Busconductors, except I'd gone to the local cinema to see Breaking Glass at the last minute leaving the other two to their own devices - Eggy not yet having joined at that point. Desolate Accountants recordings were less raucous than those of the Pre-War Busconductors, and surprisingly musical in places because Grez could actually play and Pete could genuinely sing. Of all the cacophonous crap ever committed to tape by any combination of the four of us, the Desolate Accountants were the lot you might get away with pressing onto vinyl and selling to people, and in our small private universe their formation seemed to mean that we were not merely a band, but an actual scene. No longer feeling obliged to spontaneously piss about only when all members were present and incorrect, Grez and I recorded together as AA Book of the Road, and with Eggy as Half a Pound of Pork Sausages; and once Eggy had joined the Pre-War Busconductors, we rebranded the original three man line-up as Eddy & the Ogdens and recorded a series of Coronation Street themed cassettes.

Having acquired a second mono portable tape recorder - specifically a Panasonic RQ2106 - I was now able to bounce terrible quality backing tracks from tape to tape to produce my own multilayered solo material as the Post-War Busconductors, just like that Brian Eno. Grez similarly took to solo work as the Anthropod Lithontriptic Band, producing songs which, if poor in terms of recording quality, nevertheless still sound good today, at least to me. He was developing a definite style with the guitar and he really knew how to string a tune together, often using chords of his own invention; and it helped that he was witty, and that he really understood the romance of stupid:

Don't wanna take no exams.
Don't wanna take no CSE.
I just wanna break things,
And have bricks chucked at me.

Don't wanna know no long words.
Don't wanna learn to spell.
Every other word I say,
Is usually fucking hell.

Don't wanna live in a loony bin,
Or any snobs' place like that.
I just wanna smash in windows,
And go round being a prat.

This could have been half the kids at our school, and singing about it kept us sane.

The first Pre-War Busconductors album was completed in February 1981 and was named Little Blue after the cartoon elephant. I drew a cover, and Pete made a copy for himself, duplicating my cover in his own somewhat neater hand - it being another few months before any of us discovered the magic of the photocopiers which had only just begun to turn up in public libraries and the offices of estate agents. Neither Grez nor Eggy seemed too bothered about having  copies of our work, presumably preferring the performance. I on the other hand began to ruthlessly archive everything we did, even paying a few quid for the original tapes of the first two Desolate Accountants albums when Pete and Grez decided that they weren't very good and that they might as well record over them.

After the Sex Pistols, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, and all that self-aware Jamie Reid artwork, I'd become obsessed with the idea of music as mythology - for want of a better way of putting it - as an art form divorced from its own creation. The Pre-War Busconductors weren't so important as the understanding of ourselves as important, regardless of how scatalogically ludicrous the songs may have been - when you could even call them songs; and so I kept a copy of everything.

We recorded a traditional disappointing second album which was called PWBII, and then a third, by which point we had somehow began to develop rudimentary musical qualities. Grez was playing well, and I was at about the level of musicianship at which Grez had been when we started - good enough to pluck out a rough bass line on the Teisco electric guitar I'd bought for a tenner from Andy Scrivener down the sportsfield. Inevitably we began to play live concerts, although to be fair these concerts differed only from the studio recordings in so much as that we all cheered, clapped and whistled at the end of the songs, impersonating an audience, shouting out requests to ourselves and then introducing the next one as being a little something off our new album. Sometimes there would be a double bill of the Desolate Accountants and the Pre-War Busconductors, keeping the count of audience, support band, and headline act to just the same four people. The venues were our respective houses, usually when parents had gone out somewhere for the afternoon, although Grez's mum had become something of a regular at both our live performances and studio sessions.

'It's been going on all day and it's far too loud,' she would desperately opine, meaning we knew to limit ourselves to no more than another seven or eight numbers, and probably none of the angrier protest songs like Police Harassment. We always assumed disgruntled, temporarily deafened parents were exaggerating about the volume, and simply wanted to censor us because they were squares and their lives were over whilst we were the kids on the street with something to say, until one day, as the Desolate Accountants played live in the spare room of my house, I wandered out into our garden to see how much I could hear from out there. The spare room was on the top floor of a three story house, with only a small air vent in the wall overlooking the garden. Pete and Grez were playing acoustic instruments, without amplification, and yet somehow - even from about fifty yards distance through a thick wall - it sounded like angry giants fighting in a scrap yard, albeit marginally more tuneful.

Aside from the gigs at our respective houses, there were a couple of outdoor events too, one at the Nodder Nest - a secluded corner of the local sportsfield devoted to romantic pursuits, judging by all the spent johnnies - and the public bogs in the Telegraph Street car park. It was a quiet Wednesday afternoon as the town geared up for the royal wedding celebrations in the evening, and I kept watch while Pete and Grez vanished into said public lavatory with a guitar and a tape recorder. A moment later, a terrific noise emerged, amplified by the acoustics of ceramic tiles. It was a new song, one specifically tailored to the occasion.

Public bog - the place to be,
Public bog - the public lavatory.
Public bog - the place to be seen.
Public bog - the local latrine.
It really stinks around this place,
And you get peed in the face.

The song lasted about a minute, and then we ran away, laughing like hyaenas. As gigs went, it wasn't quite Elvis at Caesar's Palace, but as performance art it made even the best of them look like wankers.

We kept at it throughout 1981, relentlessly filling one cassette after another, slowly evolving towards a point at which the chaos began to sound almost composed. It wasn't so much that we'd improved as simply discovered our weaknesses and learned how to play to our strengths, such as they were. The songs remained essentially shambolic and puerile, but were easier on the ear in certain respects, and so our ambition increased accordingly - although more in terms of what we were already doing rather than becoming a real band or taking it needlessly seriously. In this adventurous spirit we wrote and recorded The Truth About Croydon, an epic undertaking by our standards spread across three C60s, a trilogy in fact. The Truth About Croydon was our Hard Day's Night, our Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, except it was on cassette tape rather than film for obvious reasons. The Truth About Croydon was partially autobiographical and mythologised the story of the Pre-War Busconductors, our formation and rise to imaginary fame, before going off on a traditional quest narrative in which we attempted to track down Simon Jordan, a kid we'd known at school who had supposedly gone to live in Croydon a few years earlier. We played ourselves as well as most of the other characters, but for the occasional bemused parent drafted in for lacklustre readings of it's been going on all day and it's far too loud, or my mum helping to recreate the historic phone call of that fateful day when Grez called and she had to tell him that I'd gone to see Breaking Glass. Of course there were songs - seminal numbers from the early days of the group for the historical section, then songs about what was happening within the story, new material for the fans - that being ourselves - effectively classifying the undertaking as musical theatre.

The Pre-War Busconductors became our identity, the closest thing we had to being in a gang. It gave us purpose, and of course an endless supply of jokes which only the four of us understood. Writing exercises in both French and English at school became marginally more engaging when we found ways to sneak in some mention of our band. If word didn't exactly get around, a few selected kids borrowed one of the two existing copies of Little Blue, although I don't really remember what they thought of it; excepting Steve Harris who apparently thought enough of it to join the band, becoming the potential fifth member but for only appearing at a couple of recording sessions; and three decades later my friend Crispin told me he'd always been impressed by my having recorded a song called Nine Inch Turd in the S-Bend.

Inevitably it couldn't last. Pete was the first to go due to his parents moving away. The rest of us carried on for a little bit, limping along with just the three of us but it wasn't the same, and sixteen seemed a bit old to still be thrashing out ironic covers of the Get Up and Go theme music. It was probably for the best in so much as circumstances pulled the plug on the Pre-War Busconductors before we started taking ourselves too seriously and bought real instruments. We sort of kept in touch, but something always seemed to get in the way, possibly ourselves.

By coincidence, Pete and I ended up at the same art college at the other end of the country, by which point he had his friends and I had mine. Grez went to university in London, then ended up dropping out under circumstances I never really liked to ask about given that he'd clearly had a rough time. Eggy lived about three streets away from me in London for a decade or more, and I only discovered this three weeks after he had moved to Dublin. I'm pretty sure I delivered his mail at one point without even realising. Similarly absurd - given that we'd all started out in rural Warwickshire - Pete ended up living at about two miles distance from where I had settled in London, and although we spoke to each other on the phone from time to time, we met on maybe two or three occasions at most.

He turned up with Grez on one such occasion and we got out the guitars and began recording. Pete's voice was as great as ever, and Grez had become an accomplished guitarist during the intervening decades, but somehow it was difficult to work out what we were trying to do or what we expected to get from the session. Forty-year old men chugging out a jazz-funk Eggs, Beans & Mayonnaise in 2006 would have been too depressing.

In 2015, having lived in Texas for four years, I flew back to England, to my mother's place in Coventry, with the intent of bringing back as much as I could of the crap for which I hadn't found room in all the boxes shipped over in 2012. This comprised mostly cassette tapes, and these had been left behind mainly because I wasn't sure what to do with them, and partially because I was scared of discovering that they were all blank, the ferric oxide having crumbled from the tape years before. Amazingly this not only turned out to not be the case, but the quality of them is astonishing - material taped over thirty-five years ago sounding as though it had been recorded just yesterday. I guess the lesson in this is not to take too much notice of the aggressive turnover of new and purportedly improved formats pushed by the music and consumer audio industries every five years or so.

I have all these cassettes, and I'm slowly digitising the collection so as to save it for posterity if and when the tapes finally degrade, as promised by those who want me to throw my lot in with downloads and soundbars, whatever the fuck those things are. I still find the songs funny and even kind of musical, or at least sonically interesting in places. I've spoken to Pete and Grez about this essentially archaeological exercise, but I can't tell what they make of it. I even have the impression - possibly wrongly - that Pete is in some way embarrassed by our body of work, possibly regarding Little Blue and others as damning evidence that he was once less cool than he is now; and whilst it's true that some of it is awful in certain respects, I can't see the point in regretting any of it. Nevertheless he insists it be not only kept to ourselves, but off the internet, and shared between us only in physical formats. Indeed, his concern has been expressed with such vigour that I considered giving him a false identity for the purpose of this essay, but the idea has struck me as ludicrous so he'll have to make do with my having withheld his surname. In any case, I can't see that he's even particularly likely to read this, so it probably won't make a lot of difference.

When each conversation with a friend concludes with either we really must meet up, or else we must do this more often, chances are it isn't going to happen, and there are usually good reasons why you've lost touch with each other, reasons which might seem awkward should they become subject to examination. The Pre-War Busconductors happened for a short time and it did its admittedly stupid job, and then slipped gracefully backwards into the realms of an origin story. Even if we all remember it differently and with different degrees of affection, it's how we came to be here, and this much will remain so long after the tapes have crumbled. The sad thing is that I sometimes wonder if those tapes of the four us farting into a tape recorder weren't as good as it will ever get, the last honest art made by any of us.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Ancient Wisdom

One day the Buddha was sitting in the wood with thirty or forty monks. They had an excellent lunch and they were enjoying the company of each other. There was a farmer passing by and the farmer seemed forlorn. He began to ask the Buddha and the monks a question, and had removed first his cloth hat which he now held tightly in both hands, twisting it hither and thither as though it were part of an invisible spinning wheel. He smiled a sort of half smile, then opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. For a moment he appeared unsteady on his feet, and he raised a finger to the air as though about to illustrate his still unspoken point. Then he began to laugh as though he were a woodpecker.

'For fuck's sake,' said the Buddha. 'What?'

The farmer swallowed visibly and appeared suddenly sober. When he spoke his voice went from upper to lower register as though he found the asking of the question uncomfortable. 'Have you seen my cows, mate? It's just that I've gone and lost them.'

'No,' said the Buddha, a little irritably. 'We have seen no cows passing by here.' Then he and his companions returned to their discourse, but before too long they were interrupted by a wailing sound. They looked and saw that the farmer had not left them. He stood apparently supporting himself upon the fence post, as though his legs had no substance. His mouth was open like that of a great frog, and from it came the terrible cry of despair.

The Buddha stood, and went back to the man. 'Come come - what is it now? Had you not better go and seek your cows?'

'It's just that,' - the farmer seemed to fall forward, but grasped the hem of the Buddha's robe to prevent himself falling into the mud. Then he began to climb, one hand over the other, raising himself up as he came face to face with the Buddha. Their noses were almost touching. 'It's just that...'

'Yes? It's just that what? Pull yourself together, man.'

Suddenly the farmer lurched forward amongst the group, arms spread as he at last found his voice. 'Monks, I'm so unhappy. I have twelve cows and I dunno why they all ran away. I have also a few acres of a sesame seed plantation and the insects have eaten the lot. I suffer so much I think I'm going to kill meself.'

The Buddha said, 'My friend, we have not seen any cows passing by here. You might like to look for them in the other direction. That would be my suggestion.'

The farmer came back around to the Buddha. He seemed unsteady upon his feet, doubled up. He was laughing. He pointed at the Buddha. 'You know,' - but he was laughing so much he could not speak. 'You know...'

The Buddha cast a sideways glance at a nearby water-clock and submitted a heavy sigh.

'You're right!,' the Farmer yelped, still laughing. 'That's exactly what I'll do! I'll go look for them right now!'

The group watched him stagger away in the other direction, still laughing, falling over twice, turning back once to give a wink and a happy thumbs up before gesturing to indicate that he was indeed now going to look for his cows.

'There. That wasn't so fucking difficult, now was it?'

'Lord?' One of the monks seemed confused as to just who the Buddha had addressed with this last terse observation.

The Buddha resumed his seat and spoke again to the group. 'My dear friends, you are the happiest people in the world. You don't have any cows to lose. If you have too many cows to take care of, you will be very busy. That is why, in order to be happy, you have to learn the art of cow releasing. You release the cows one by one. In the beginning you thought that those cows were essential to your happiness, and you tried to get more and more cows. But now you realise that cows are not really conditions for your happiness; they constitute an obstacle for your happiness. That is why you are determined to release your cows.'

'Huh?' offered one of the younger companions.

'Oh why do I bother?'

Friday, 16 October 2015


A great number of predominantly German settlers came to our part of Texas way back whenever, and San Antonio is therefore characterised by - amongst other factors - a mix of the Mexican and the culturally Germanic. At the most basic level this amounts to it being significantly easier for me to buy bratwurst, sauerkraut and strudel in local stores than Marmite or anything which I, being English, would recognise as a sausage. Once outside of the city, you tend to encounter a number of towns bearing German names with high streets lined with buildings carrying more than a whiff of Black Forest about them - New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Boerne, Gruene, Weimar and so on. My wife is herself of mixed German-English ancestry, descended from the Schwab and the Engel families on her father's side. The Schwab and Engel families were of sufficient notice amongst the early immigrant communities as to have had local roads named after them. We pass the turn off for both the Schwab and Engel roads each time we head for New Braunfels on I-35.

From my perspective, this is one of those details which really differentiates the place in which I live from that in which I grew up. I am married to someone whose grandparents are commemorated in features of local urban geography, a fact which strikes me as even stranger for being a not uncommon thing. It serves as a reminder that most of that which I see built up around me is of relatively recent origin, and that in many respects we've only just got here. America is a new country by the standards of that with which I am familiar, although of course this is partially an illusion fostered by the greatly and unfortunately diminished visibility of those who occupied this land before we did, or at least before the Germans arrived, fleeing whatever was going on back in the old country at the time.

My wife's grandmother, Johanna Schwab had married LeRoy Rosenthal back in the forties or thereabouts, and the couple had three boys, Daniel, Johnny, and Carl. Daniel was Bess's father, but he recently passed on.

Bess had already told me of a Schwab family reunion attended when she was much younger: oompah bands, lederhosen, beer steins and elderly relatives who didn't speak much English. Now we are on our way to another such reunion, once again passing the turn off to the Schwab and Engel roads as we approach New Braunfels.

The reunion is held in a building adjacent to the swimming pool at Landa Park, New Braunfels. We enter, register at the desk, and there is a short flurry of excitement as my accent gives me away as something other than authentically Texan. The women working the desk get out their questionnaires, pink sheets of A4 to be taken around the attendees ticking off signatures as one encounters someone under the age of ten, an airline pilot, anyone over six feet tall, or in this case any person born outside the state of Texas.

'That would indeed be me,' I confess as I sign each of the three sheets which have been thrust under my nose. 'I'm from England. You can probably tell, can't you?'

There's some sort of prize for the first person to come back with a full house, so to speak.

Bess and myself - Junior in tow - find our way to the dining area at the back of the hall and I deposit the pasta salad I knocked together the previous evening, adding it to all the other goodies supplied by various Schwabs and their relatives. We find Bess's Uncle Johnny talking to Elton, Johanna's surviving brother. I met Elton earlier in the year at the funeral service for his sister, Hilda Huth née Schwab. This comes as something of a relief - familiar faces, and Johnny is always good company. We fill paper plates with salads, hot dogs, burgers and so on, and get settled in. I can't quite tell if Uncle Elton remembers me from the funeral. He is small and old, and speaks with a high reedy voice, his accent more German than American.

'He's a bit annoyed that they didn't include the question about veterans,' Johnny tells me. He indicates his own pink sheet of signatures. 'Usually they ask whether you've met a veteran?'

Elton seems clearly displeased. Bess later tells me that he had amassed a full sheet of signatures but refused to hand it in as a protest. He served in Korea, and was telling us about it last time we met.

Bess and Junior return from gathering both food and signatures and join us at the table.

'He's from England, you know?' my wife reminds her uncle.

Johnny now remembers this and has me sign his paper.

'I'm surprised they haven't been queueing up for your autograph.'

I shrug, silently pleased at the effectiveness of my disguise. 'Maybe there's someone else here.'

'I think there's a guy from Tennessee or somewhere.'

I take another quick look at the questions on Bess's sheet. 'You've managed to find someone who has flown a plane?'

'Yes, and he's over six feet so I had him sign twice.' She indicates a tall guy in a red shirt stood across the other side of the hall.

'What? Did you just go up to him and ask if he's ever flown a plane?'

'There was a queue so I just went with it.'

Elton and Johnny are talking. Johnny pauses to explain. 'Elton has a farm. He was telling me that developers have been working on the next piece of land and had promised to set up a fence, but his cattle have all been getting out.'

'You have a farm?' I raise my voice because I have a feeling Elton probably can't hear me. I know his hearing is poor. 'I grew up on a farm back in England. Do you have dairy or er,' - somehow I can't recall the term for those cows which end up as beefburgers - 'are they for food?'

'They escape.' Elton gestures wildly. 'They go everywhere.'

Johnny rephrases my question for Elton's benefit. He doesn't  appear particularly surprised to learn that I grew up on a farm in England, so I have a feeling he may not have heard the full statement.

'Beef cattle,' he tells me. 'We had sheep too, because you know the Muslims eat lamb, but the price is no good - not any more. You cannot get much for a sheep now.'

I nod and realise that it will probably be more trouble than it's worth to subject Elton to further questioning, so I finish my burger. I have a feeling the old guy may just have told me that the farm is on Schwab, right where it has been since before anyone thought to give the road its name, but I could be getting my wires crossed.

Once we've eaten, we move to the other part of the hall for the meeting, hosted by Vincent - Elton's son. I've now encountered Vincent at two funerals but have not yet been properly introduced. I get the impression that he's probably a nice guy, although this may in part be because he seems to bear a more than passing resemblance to the late science-fiction author, Philip K. Dick, at least to my eyes. This means I'm well-disposed towards him before he's even spoken. He reads the minutes of the previous year's reunion, then passes on the greetings and apologies of an entirely separate faction of Schwabs who would ordinarily have been present but for having attended a related family reunion in Germany.

As minutes are read, random yelping interjections come from Bruno who, so far as I can tell, seems to be the old, white guy equivalent of ODB from the Wu-Tang Clan. Each time he speaks, I half expect him to squint and hee haw and git hi'self to a-leapin' up and down like some moon-struck fool 'cause dang it if that ain't gold in that ol' creek; although possibly this may only be how he sounds to my ears. His outbursts are frequent, mostly greeted with a ripple of laughter, or a sigh as eyes roll towards the ceiling in the case of a relative sat at the table behind me.

Vincent brings us to the matter of next year's meeting. It will be held in this same venue, and shall we all just agree to each bring something for food, just as we have done today?

Bruno leaps from his chair once more and I hear a heavy groan from somewhere behind me.

'Is he drunk or something?' I whisper to my wife.

She shrugs, enjoying the spectacle.

Bruno's proposal - delivered by means of a jumble of details and promises which we ourselves are required to mentally assemble in the correct order - is that he will pay for a full barbecue to be laid on next year - brisket, sausage, chicken, shrimp, the works; he will pay for everything. Then someone asks 'What if it falls through, whatever this is that you have in mind?'

It is suggested that in such an eventuality we just go back to what we did this year, a pile of hot dogs and everyone bring a salad; which somehow raises the question of what happens if we should fail to bring our hot dogs and salads because Bruno has promised a barbecue; which I'm fairly certain we had already asked ourselves.

The discussion goes around in increasingly weird circles for about ten minutes until it is finally agreed that we'll make a decision closer to the time. Bruno's contributions resume their previous, more random tempo.

Vincent runs through the list of all which has happened to our extended family since the previous meeting - births and deaths although no marriages, a subject to which we return during an awards ceremony involving the dispensation of small trophies. The first award goes to the oldest person present. Vincent looks around waiting for nominations. Bruno leaps from his seat hooting and hollering for the umpteenth time. The man sat behind me sighs and mutters darkly to himself. Bruno indicates his own wife, a pleasant looking woman who has been silent throughout. I get the impression she's awaiting the end of the meeting with some anticipation. Vincent hands her a trophy, and Bess and I marvel at the disparity between her appearance and the count of her years. From what I've seen of my wife's family, they tend to be quite long lived, and to age fairly well.

'Has anyone here been married within the last year?' Vincent asks, now ready with another trophy. There are no answers. 'Anyone within the last two years?'

Again there is no response.

'Three years?,' then 'Within four years?'

'We have,' my wife pipes up.

'Well, it's not four years,' I begin, because our fourth wedding anniversary passed a few weeks earlier. Technically we are now in our fourth year of marriage, which is different to having been married within the previous four years.

'They can't even agree on that!' Bruno hoots, hollers, and points at us, ever the court jester. 'That ain't gonna last, no siree!' He probably didn't sound quite so much like one of the Beverley Hillbillies, but he did to me.

We take our trophy, and the meeting is over for another year. It was low on incident, but it was nice to see Johnny and Elton again.

It later occurs to me that when people who aren't from Texas refer to those who are, they're probably imagining people very much like the Schwabs - rural, religious, and probably not overly familiar with the work of Neutral Milk Hotel or Sunn O))). When I invoke people who aren't from Texas referring to those who are, I'm thinking mainly of the hateful crap clogging up certain sections of the internet and adhering to the general view of the south as a realm of dangerous, gun-toting simpletons. Such views - invariably born out of ignorance and a need for every argument to be reduced to a Star Wars narrative of good versus evil - make me testy at the best of times, but spending an hour or so in the company of the Schwabs simply induces pity for all those spleen-venting supporters of enforced Texan secession. The Schwabs may indeed be rural and mostly religious, but such qualities viewed as inherently wrong tends to stem, in my experience, from a basic misanthropic fear of the working classes, which amounts to good old xenophobia dressed up nice with a few arbitrary moral trimmings. I only mention this because, despite being from somewhere other than Texas, I am beginning to resent the assumption that my sympathies might be with persons other than those who seem quite happy to have me living amongst them.

Anyway, I've met the Schwabs. They're good people, and I've even begun to feel a little proud to have become a bauble strung upon one of the outer branches of their extended family tree.

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Big, Fat Working Class Sunrise

I'd seen Gary around Dulwich since the mid 1990s, although I didn't know his name at the time. He was a grown man with a paper round and was always walking his dog - something big like an Alsatian, like him in fact. He wasn't really fat, just a great looming lump, like a dole queue Bernard Bresslaw and always a bit scruffy because once a month down the launderette probably wasn't quite often enough; a bit red faced and slightly balding. He looked as though he could probably demolish brick walls with his bare hands if someone paid him to do it, which was a possibility given that he seemed to be an odd-job man. I passed him every morning, usually at the same time, same place, the corner of Friern Road as I snapped rubber bands from the bundle of mail for all the old age pensioners down Rycott Path. I said good morning a couple of times, because when a face has achieved a certain familiarity, it's embarrassing to pass by without some kind of acknowledgement; but he never replied, just stared back with those boiled egg eyes, seeming almost afraid.

What did I know?

What was my game?

Then suddenly he is my neighbour. The house next door has been divided into four flats, one to each floor. The basement flat has been broken into a couple of times, our part of Dulwich being particularly susceptible to burglary, and I myself have been similarly hit twice. The previous tenant has moved out, taking her horrible kid and criminal boyfriend; and now here he is, adult paper round man grinning over the top of the wall, and it's the first time I've ever seen him smile. 'You're the postman, aincha?'

'That's me.' I'm a little surprised that he remembers me from those mornings as we passed each other on the corner of Friern Road.

'I fort so. I seen you around.'

The council have placed him in the flat. He introduces himself as Gary and tells me a little of his story, but it's difficult to follow and is annotated with testy defences of alleged crimes at which he will only hint, and which in any case weren't crimes 'cuz he weren't doing nuffink wrong and you can arse anyone. He'd been living, so I gather, in one of the tower blocks up Friern Road with an ambiguous tally of pets - cats, dogs, budgerigars, fish, and possibly a squirrel. There had been complaints but he remains unspecific and anyway he hadn't done nuffink wrong and he was always doing little fings like putting the wheelie bins out for people or getting you a pint of milk from the shops or bringing in your mail from the boxes down at the bottom when the postman couldn't be bovvered to climb all them steps because the lift was bust, and he never even arsed for fanks or nuffink and it just went to show how two-faced some people could be dunnit. All that can now be said for sure is that Gary is gunna behave himself. He ain't gunna be doing nuffink silly again. He ain't gunna be writing on no walls or nuffink silly. He has learned his lesson.

So have I, namely that asking for specific details of the occurrence to which Gary occasionally alludes is more trouble than it's worth, and seems to upset him. Sometimes he'll arrive there under his own steam, in which case it's best to shut up and let him get it out of his system, and most of all to avoid the temptation to dig further no matter how darkly intriguing the testimony.

'You know women, right?'

I could answer well, not all of them, but it will only complicate things so I just say, 'yes.'

'Always arseing questions ain't they?' He scowls as though finding himself once again let down by half of the entire human race. I have a brief, horrible image of this particular train of thought leading to bodies uncovered from beneath an unevenly laid patio, and so I keep my mouth shut.

He seemed like an ordinary bloke, I will have to lie. Always kept himself to himself, except he never does.

'Funny bloke, ain't he?' Bill, my ageing Landlord, stands on the doorstep. I am paying the week's rent and our eyes have been drawn across the top of the wall to next door's garden and Gary labouring away on the latest of what he refers to as his projects.

'I can't figure him out. What does he do exactly?'

Bill belongs to the generation raised upon a solid work ethic. He doesn't really understand concepts of either unemployment or disability, and Gary seems to fall somewhere between the two.

'He works up at the flower shop on the corner,' I report, seeing no harm in telling just Bill. Gary has sworn me to silence, but so far as I can tell, most of our neighbours already know him as Gary from the flower shop on the corner. I'm not quite sure what the work entails, besides lifting and carrying anything which is too large or heavy for regular humans.

Bill sighs. 'He delivers the bleedin' newspapers and all, you know. I seen him in the mornings.'

I nod, uncertain of why we're having this conversation. Gary is an odd one for sure, but it doesn't seem like there's much to be done about it.

Over the next few months we watch Gary's projects come to fruition. The garden of the house was intended by the owner to be shared by the residents of all four flats - an intention formed from a fairly basic misunderstanding of human nature, particularly in London. Gary has taken over the entire garden, not a passive-aggressive occupation of territory but simply because he doesn't know when to stop, and none of those living above him care enough to complain. In addition to the flower shop and the paper round, he sometimes undertakes gardening jobs, often returning with plants or even small trees discarded by some client, now transplanted to his own garden.

He's a human magpie, transposing anything bright, shiny, or even just available to what has become his garden, which now includes all manner of plaster features and figurines, dry fountains shaped like sea shells, pink flamingoes, ornamental wooden arches and trellises, chunks of rotting wood that looked kind of interesting, and even a gravestone. It's not really a gravestone, although it's roughly the same shape, and I'm staring over the wall trying to work out what the hell he's doing now.

'I'm painting it Chelsea colours, ain't I. Whatchu fink?' He steps back to allow for an inspection, clearly proud of his work.

'I see.' I don't really see at all.

'You into football?'

'It's not really my thing, Gary.'

He indicates the letters he's begun to paint across the gravestone. The paint comes from half empty tins of emulsion which someone or other was throwing out, red, white and navy blue. There's a name which I can't read followed by a date in fat, uneven letters.

'She was my dog,' he explains. He is silent for a moment, almost thoughtful. 'I always fink when I die, they'll all be waiting for me up in heaven, all jumping up and down and pleased to see me like dogs are, you know?'

I grunt because it's a moment of unusually tender understanding. Gary's vision is comical, but it is absolutely sincere.

'They'll all be up there, all me dogs, me rabbits and me cats, all being friends.'

When Gary first moved in I promised myself I would keep my distance, that I would avoid encouraging him. I have no need of a new best friend, but Gary has other plans. He begins to call around to have a lend of my bicycle pump or to use my phone to make a call which sounds like an emergency. I'm knackered. I've had a hard day. I'm trying to watch the box, but Gary is stood directly between my eyes and the screen. He fumbles with a scrap of paper, dialing the number scribbled in blue biro. He considers the television then turns to me and grins. 'I was watching the football.'

I was watching a DVD of The Sopranos, but obviously I'm not doing that right now. It doesn't seem worth mentioning, because the call is clearly something important. I hear a faint crackle as the call is answered.

'Hello. Have you still got a budgerigar I can buy?'

Crackle. Crackle.

'I just want one. How much is it?'


'Yeah. Is it a boy budgerigar or a girl budgerigar?'

During the winter of 2004, I go to work on Bill's neglected garden, attempting to restore it to horticultural capacity following the destruction wrought by another tenant, George Marshall. George  offered to look after the garden a year or so before as it had become obvious that Bill was no longer physically up to the task, but George's efforts were weird and cranky and borne of no apparent gardening experience, more like a child playing in the mud. Having spent many years in the army, George rationalised the garden by digging the whole thing up to a depth of about three feet, then sifting all but the tiniest of stones from the soil. This resulted in a lifeless crater of clay with a mountain of stones at the far end, at which point he lost interest. I have taken it upon myself to reverse the damage.

My first task, as I see it, is to restore the soil by mixing all the stones back in. I have a wheelbarrow and a spade, and it's fucking cold with frost still on the ground at four in the afternoon, and my breath hangs in the air. After a couple of hours I'm knackered, and haven't really got anywhere. I realise that this will take months.

'Whatchu doing?' Gary's face has appeared over the crumbling garden wall like a big, fat working class sunrise, like the solar baby from Teletubbies in later years. I explain what I'm doing, and before I can finish the first sentence, he's over the wall and shovelling away like a steam engine. I race backwards and forwards with the wheel barrow, bringing clumps of damp soil then taking Gary's blend back to fill in the craters. I have the easy job and I can barely keep up, and I hadn't even arsed for his help. The mountain of stones is gone in about forty minutes; no more weird craters, just ground waiting to become a garden.

'That's better,' Gary observes happily, leaning on the handle of the spade and not even short of breath so far as I can tell. 'That should be nice now. Get some flowers and that.'

'Yes,' I croak feebly, hoping he'll go home, that he won't volunteer for anything else which might need doing and thus oblige me to help. I already feel like the weakest link in my own chain.

Over the following weeks I begin to stick in a few plants and to lay down grass seed. A regular flow of rescued shrubs still finds its way into Gary's garden, and inevitably he begins to run out of room.

Bang bang bang like the Incredible Hulk doing home visits.

I open my front door.

Gary stands there grinning, the stem of a newly rescued shrub clenched in a mighty paw, held forth like a prize snatched from the jaws of a dragon in a distant and mystic realm. 'E'are!, which means here you are, in case you were wondering.

'Thanks, Gary.' I've told him how I like to sleep afternoons because I start work around five in the morning, but he doesn't seem to get it. I leave the shrub by the kitchen door for later and go back to bed.

The years pass, and each day I am out in the garden at some point, weeding, planting or watering; and each day there is a big, fat working class sunrise over a garden wall which is still crumbling but has been recently fortified with old doors and sheets of hardboard found at the roadside as another of Gary's projects.

He always wants to know what do I fink of this or that.

Who's the best - U2 or the Rolling Stones?

Have I got a hat he can have a lend of for the U2 concert?

He wants to buy anuvver dog - a girl dog in fact. I ask him what kind, and he tells me a white one so he can name her Snow.

He arse for my help lifting up a fish tank. He just found it. They was chucking it out. He's gunna put it inside and put stones in it. He's gunna paint the stones all Chelsea colours. I can't really say no because it's Gary and, as the cliché goes, he'd do anything to help you out, and often does.

He lifts one end. The fish tank is like a motorway support of thick green glass. I can't lift my end. I can't even budge it to one side, and I realise that I have no reference point for what it must be like to be as strong as Gary. He's practically superhuman.

The big, fat working class sunrise is worse in the summer because he never seems to wear a shirt, and he has these great big sweaty man tits, and he pongs a bit now that the weather is warm.

Eventually, due to circumstances beyond my control I have to move out. Gary gives me a leaving present, a handful of old CDs he is chucking out and don't want no more.

'You can have them if you like. I ain't bovvered.'

Two of them are Sex Pistols live CDs, which surprises me. Gary explains that he saw them a couple of times when he was a kid. Johnny Rotten walked past him after one of the gigs.

'That was brilliant,' Gary told him.

'You weren't supposed to enjoy it,' Rotten gurned, laughing.

I move out, but eventually I make my way back to the old place, mainly just to see what has become of it, and once or twice I run into Gary, and I am astonished at how glad I am to see him. He once drove me up the wall to the point that I would often pretend to be out when I heard that distinctive bang bang bang on the door, but it's been a good couple of years and I've had some time to reflect, and I've come to realise that despite all his flaws, the worrying allusions to past misdemeanours, this gentle and slightly aromatic giant with a personality somewhere between that of a twelve-year old boy and a big happy dog, Gary is still one of the nicest people I've ever met. He has no hidden agenda, and no propensity for bullshit or delusion - least of all self-delusion. Of all the writers, artists, and musicians I have ever met, you would need to combine a good sixty or seventy of them to come up with someone even half as decent as Gary.

So it's Thursday the 19th of May, 2011, and Gary and I stand in the street talking for about an hour, stood outside the house in which I lived five years ago. He often wondered what happened to me, and how it all worked out in Texas, and he's so unconditionally happy for me that it's embarrassing. He still has his little projects, and the latest has apparently been the transformation of his garden into a zoo with dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea-pigs, and a not unimpressive aviary full of small birds. He's made the aviary out of things found laying at the side of the road. He tells me a little about his weekends. He goes fishing out in the country quite a lot. His dad used to take him when he was a kid, growing up in Camberwell, and he always loved it; and where once I regarded him as a well-meaning pain in the arse, now I realise just how lucky I am to have known this bloke.

Friday, 2 October 2015

The Love That Isn't Quite Sure How to Spell Its Name

Even if you regard yourself as absolutely 100% decided in your sexuality, never to be swayed from your chosen path whether that be heterosexual or otherwise, is there not just one person who might be able to turn you, to change your mind? Is there a person you've been drawn to for reasons which feel weirdly inconsistent with what you have thus far understood about yourself, and what makes you tick, sexually speaking?

I'm paraphrasing, but this was the thrust of a question posed by Danny Baker on his phone-in radio show as it used to be on BBC London. Calls came in, and one bloke admitted that he often found himself watching videotaped footage of David Beckham's performance on the pitch over and above any real interest in football, whilst Baker himself confessed to a fascination with Bob Hoskins which even he found puzzling. As for myself, I was at work whilst the show was broadcast and was therefore unable to phone in, but were it otherwise I suppose I would have named Perry.

It wasn't even anything I'd thought about at the time, back in 1991 or whenever it was. All I knew was that there was something strangely appealing about the guy, and that I couldn't quite work out what it could be. He was my friend, a fellow postman and a couple of years younger. He was sort of funny, but not side-splittingly so, and he was bright, but some way short of anything required by either rocket science or brain surgery, and he was nice by some definition I still can't quite put my finger on. Also, he was incredibly good looking - at least so far as I could tell, not that I would really know what with my never once having been confused in that respect etc. etc. Brown hair, square jaw but not harshly so, blue eyes and a boyish smile, sort of like Leonardo DiCaprio as a charming English farmhand of the early sixties. Except I didn't notice any of this because he was just Perry, my mate from work, obviously.

Maria on the other hand certainly noticed, which was doubly annoying because within two weeks of her having started at our office - by which point I had made the formal decision that I would fancy her - she and Perry were an item; and because I was Perry's friend, I was soon also a friend to Maria and as such had ceased to fancy her, which was probably for the best. Perry put in a good word for me, and so Maria would give us both a lift in her car, out to our respective walks in Catford. I was delivering to the road which, by coincidence, was where Perry lived with his parents and sister.

Sometimes Maria and I would sit in her car, waiting because Perry had told us at last minute that he needed to take a shit. Eventually he emerged from around the corner of the office, red faced and with the three or four bundles of second post stuffed in his delivery bag.

'What happened?' Maria asked. 'Did it come out sideways?'

As Perry jovially told her to fuck off whilst taking up residence of the passenger seat, I noticed an unsettling feeling of pleasure at the extremely attractive Maria and I no longer being alone together. It was confusing. It felt like some horrible sixties film by someone French. We both loved him, or something.

I had a heavy comics habit, so Perry would lend me James Hudnall's The Psycho - to which I never quite warmed - or VHS tapes of the Manga series 3X3 Eyes, or the film Tetsuo; the Iron Man. He once lent me a tape recording of what appeared to be himself playing some animé based game. I watched ten minutes before I realised I would never understand what I was supposed to get from the viewing. In return I think I may have lent him Watchmen and maybe Frank Miller's version of Batman, works which had already come to be regarded as old school classics by 1991. We exchanged media, but never quite connected across whatever divide existed, either cultural, age or whatever. The shutters had come down behind me as I left school, meaning that neither video games nor Transformers nor anything bearing too close a resemblance to an episode of Marine Boy would ever make any real sense to me.

One evening I somehow ended up at Perry's house, having gone back after the pub. It was kind of awkward and we'd been drinking since about three. I'd watched the animés and he had presumably read Watchmen, but still we could find no common ground beyond the usual grousing about work. I say work meaning Royal Mail, although Perry now apparently had some sort of job on the side, a male model of all things, presumably standing around in his underpants and pointing at distant objects with a beatific smile. He'd told me about it, but I didn't really want to discuss the subject. I was glad he had found something besides the back-breaking shite at Royal Mail, but felt otherwise a little uncomfortable, as though just talking about it might take me somewhere I wasn't sure I wanted to go. He showed me the cartoon strip he'd been working on. It was terrible. It looked like the work of a ten-year old, and I suddenly realised he wanted, even needed my approval; and then he was crying.

'Are you okay?' He obviously wasn't but it seemed right to ask.

'You just don't know, Lol,' he sobbed, affording me a briefly terrifying glimpse into his world. He was just bright enough to realise that he probably wasn't that bright, and delivering pizza leaflets alternating with standing around in a pair of y-fronts was probably as good as it would ever get for him. I think he believed I might know something that he didn't, that I might be able to see a way out of our bullshit lives of carrying heavy weights in the pissing rain six days a week. This was all the more terrifying because I knew I had elevated him to a similar position, envying his casual veneer of confidence, his clear vision uncluttered by all that art college bollocks which was yet to pay off, and the way in which women all turned to check him out when he entered the room and he didn't even seem to realise it. I wanted to be him, but it seems even Perry didn't want to be Perry.

I stepped quietly out of Perry's room in the house of Perry's mum and dad, and caught the bus home. The next day we were hungover as we stood together at the sorting frames, which was not in itself an unusual occurrence. Our voices were just a little more self-consciously deeper, more gruff than they had been the previous morning; because we were men, and we had drunk such lakes of lager as to have forgotten last night, whatever it was that had happened after the sixth round. We were men and we laughed because that's how we were.