Friday, 26 February 2016

Reading Stuff Out Loud

One morning last summer, Holly failed to turn up for breakfast. Holly is our youngest cat. Our cats tend to spend summer nights outside, patrolling the neighbourhood and doing cat stuff before returning at dawn to meow their heads off at the prospect of a bowl of cat food; except for Holly on this one occasion. I tried not to worry because they don't always all show up at breakfast, and when they go missing they have thus far always come back.

Holly turned up in the late afternoon. I opened the door to let her in and noticed that she seemed subdued, which could result either from having found herself trapped overnight in some neighbour's garage, or maybe just because it was a baking hot afternoon; but I noticed that she was hopping along on three legs, and worse - one back paw dangled from the ankle like an earring dangles from its lobe.

'Meow,' she said pitifully.

The vet told us that the leg was broken clean through. It could be set, but he could give no guarantee that it would return to full function afterwards, and it would probably be expensive. Thankfully the forecast was in error regarding Holly losing the use of that leg, although they were right about the expense. I could have flown back to England at least six times with the money which got sucked into that vet's bill.

'Damn,' I said to myself as I sat staring at a screenful of text much like this one. 'I really need this shit to start paying out.'

I'd been paid for the novel published by Obverse in 2013, and since then there had been bits and pieces here and there - mostly paintings done for the covers of other people's books; but I was conspicuously still some way short of buying a yacht, or even paying to fix the leg of a small cat. Maybe I should be reading this stuff before an audience, I told myself, recalling that it was the spoken performances of Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, David Sedaris and others which had got me writing autobiographical material in the first place. The big money is in performance - that's what everyone always says, plus that's how you shift units, units in this case mostly being my print-on-demand books. Were I ten years younger I would have written to the local radio station, maybe even to NPR saying look, you've never heard of me but that doesn't mean a thing. I'm the negative universe David Sedaris in that I'm English, I'm over here, and I'm not gay. I'm hilarious and you need to give me my own weekly show, and to pay me for it. This had been my promotional strategy at least since when, at the age of sixteen, I wrote a letter to Fetish Records explaining that I would probably one day be at least as famous as Throbbing Gristle, so can I have a record contract, please - oh and send me a blank tape so I can send some of my music for you to listen to. I can't afford blank tapes because I'm just a kid at the moment. Now approaching fifty years of age I had learned to accept that my promotional strategy was cranky and off-putting, and I needed to start at the beginning.

I would accrue valuable experience reading my shit out to a live audience, to any live audience I could get to stand still long enough, and eventually I would end up on either stage or the wireless with a regular pay-check, droning on about that time when me and Sean Downham nicked some penny chews from the Goose Lane newsagent in Lower Quinton as an aside to whatever memory I had decided to administer to my many millions of bewildered followers as an anaesthetic that week; and I would have money to fly back to England on a more regular basis, and vet's bills would no longer be a problem.

I nosed around online and decided that open mic poetry readings were probably the way to go given that no-one would be required to pay admission and there would be no expectation of my being any good. I had no intention of reading anything I would ever call poetry, but it seemed a better idea than attempting to pass myself off as a stand-up comedian, that being the other option.

Pretzels - what the hell are those all about? Am I right, guys? Am I right? Goddamn pretzels, man - all weird and shit.

It just wasn't me.

There was an open mic night, an event called the Blah Blah Blah Poetry Spot held at the Deco Pizzeria here in San Antonio on the first and third Wednesday of each month. It seemed as good a place to start as any. My wife drove past the venue a few nights before, to be sure of where it was and so that we could take a look. It was a free-standing building in part of San Antonio characterised by striking art deco architecture. The venue seemed decent, so I dug my old minidisc recorder out from a box in the garage and tried to remember how the thing worked because I'd need to record the performance.

I'd had a couple of years worth of weekly writings gathered together as a print-on-demand paperback called An Englishman in Texas - after the blog upon which the essays first appeared - and I was going to read something from this to my as yet notional audience, something short which might hopefully get a few laughs in the right places. That was the theory. My printer is of the kind which refuses to work when a new printer cartridge is inserted whilst insisting that normal service will be resumed just as soon as I insert a new printer cartridge, so my printing off anything I'd written on sheets of A4 for recital before a live audience wasn't going to happen. This was a worry because I'd kept the font used in my paperback edition of An Englishman in Texas pretty damn small so as to cram it all in and to keep the size down to a manageable six-hundred or so pages. The book resembles a small housebrick but is easy enough to read in bed providing I'm wearing glasses. I would read from it on stage, or whatever was going to serve for a stage.

I spent a couple of days wandering around the house reading aloud from the paperback, timing myself so as to deduce what I could get away with. To my surprise and mild horror I found it took me a little over three minutes to read a page of my own text, meaning that I was pretty much limited to essays of three pages at most when the great majority of what I've written runs to at least five. I decided I might be able to justify four or five pages if it seemed likely that the material would go down well - keeping in mind that this depended on my ability to judge both the quality of my own writing and the tastes of the people who would comprise my first audience.

Well, not my first audience. I suppose, for the sake of argument, my first audience in this respect had been the teachers who judged the impromptu reading competition I entered when our school had some sort of activities week. I wasn't particularly interested in impromptu reading but I put my name down because I assumed it would be a piece of piss. It wasn't. It was nerve racking, and as I stuttered and stumbled through some unfamiliar and fairly dull text, I heard my own voice as though it belonged to someone else, and I realised that I sounded like a gurgling moron.

More recently - or at least back in the early nineties - I'd played guitar and sang in front of paying audiences as a member of the Dovers and then Academy 23, and I'd even begun to enjoy the experience before I decided I was fed up of being in bands and jacked it all in. The point here is that I'm not unaccustomed to performance. I suspected that reading prose wouldn't be quite the same, but assumed that it couldn't be too different.

When the day came I got in training by charging my discman with my most muscular Rollins Band CD for the morning bike ride; then by reading the piece I'd selected from An Englishman in Texas over and over once I was home; and then by changing my mind when I realised that Geoff was too long, I couldn't do a Tyneside accent, and in any case no-one would get the references.

The evening came and we drove over to the Deco Pizzeria. Bess stayed inside and shared a pizza with the boy, and I went out onto the patio which, judging by the speakers and assembly of people with a whiff of the poetic about them, was to serve as our venue. It was Wednesday the 19th of August and was therefore a warm evening what with this being Texas. I bought a beer and took a seat at a free table. The tables around me were strewn with sheets of paper, notebooks, tablets and the like, anything which could serve as a vehicle for text. It was still only seven in the evening. The Blah Blah Blah Poetry Spot was scheduled to begin at eight, but I was early. Everyone seemed young, or at least seemed mostly younger than myself by a decade or two. I could turn my head and watch Bess and the kid through the window enjoying their pizza. She had told me that she didn't want to cramp my style, or something of the sort.

The place fills and people hop from one table to another as old friends do, excited and excitable. They compare notes and discuss who will read what, pieces they've been working on. I sit alone at my table trying hard not to think of Charles Bukowski recorded on a VHS video I once saw, steaming drunk and describing how he walked out of a university when someone asked him to read his poetry. Hungover, he throws up and collapses on the grass outside the building.

'Look at that old man,' says a student he identifies as one of the little birdies. 'He's really fucked up.'

This is different because not only am I not a raging alcoholic but I don't even like the beer, and yet somehow the situation feels similar. Everybody is young and full of beans, and everyone knows each other, but there's this old dude sat at a table pretending to read his own vanity published book, and the old dude is myself. The next table is occupied by a young woman in her twenties with horn-rimmed spectacles and a fifties hair style. She leafs through pages of text, scowling and making notes with a ball-point pen. She looks ready to give some section of society or other a hard time using just poetry, and I tell myself that appearances can be deceptive.

At least I hope so given that I'm beginning to feel like the enemy, the white man, the narc, the informer, the undercover Republican dressed as a plantation owner in Stetson and guayabera, and I'm sat alone and friendless, just monitoring the situation with my own book before me on the table like it's a bible. I am in a minority, and this reminds me that white males who describe themselves as such are always, without exception, arseholes.

My fears are reduced when a young black guy approaches with a clipboard. He is one of the organisers and he is somehow able to tell why I am here. Amazingly, he recognises me as a type. He asks what I intend to read, and doesn't seem to mind when I tell him that it isn't actually poetry.

'How long?' he asks.

'About ten minutes,' I tell him, hopefully.

He explains what will happen. There will be an hour or so of open mic followed by a group performance which has already been scheduled. I will be on later rather than sooner because ten minutes is long compared to what some have planned. He will call me up front when my time comes.

We begin.

It's all poetry, maybe performance poetry if you want to split hairs. Some is read from iPhones or tablets, and some from memory. Everyone is either in their early twenties or younger. Everyone has stage presence and confidence, and performances are peppered with nods and in-jokes shared amongst the other poets of the audience. There is a lot of laughing and shouting. A young Latino guy reads a poem about his genuine appreciation of low-riders and other stereotypically Mexican passions, things his supposedly more-enlightened friends somehow believe should be beneath him. It's funny and it's pretty good. In fact most of what gets read is good, or sounds good. Two school age girls take to the microphone. They look like characters from a Japanese cartoon series. They speak alternate lines of a single piece, call and response, addressing the phantom of some censorious school principal. We're going to wear our short skirts regardless, they tell him, then share cruel laughter and ask why he was looking and whether he liked what he saw.

I sigh and think of Hank Hill.

Young people know everything there is to be known.

My time is here.

'He's come all the way from England to read for us tonight!'

I suppose it isn't actually untrue. I stand and shuffle towards the mic like the fat old man about to set these beatniks and homosexuals right, and to tell them to vote Republican. My copy of An Englishman in Texas feels as fat as a bible in my hand, a self-published symbol of my redundancy.

Good evening, children. Allow me to regale you with some most entertaining tales of my days as a younger man.

It turns quiet so I introduce myself. 'As you can probably tell by my accent, I'm not from around here, so I hope you can actually understand what I'm saying because a lot of people have trouble with it.' This is pre-emptive, and comes from how often I'm asked to repeat myself.

'Iced tea,' I will say, and the waitress boggles and looks at my wife as though hoping she will be able to translate whatever language I'm speaking. I don't believe my accent can be so out of place as to mangle just those two syllables beyond recognition, so I suppose it's simply that they don't expect to hear so unfamiliar an accent in Texas.

I am dimly aware that I am talking horseshit, but I can't quite stop myself, and my accent now sounds like a caricature even to me. I read an essay called The Mysteries of the Pyramids which was written after someone tried to involve Bess and myself in a pyramid scheme. I've chosen this one because it contains jokes, spends some time making light of my being a foreigner, and identifies the relentless pursuit of wealth as essentially idiotic. I briefly give some account of which English terms I'm not going to bother translating into American, whilst wondering whether such an explanation is really necessary.

Then I take a deep breath and read, leaning into the text and finding myself surprised by how my voice sounds amplified through the speakers. To my own ears I sound as though I'm impersonating John Peel or maybe Stuart Home, which I suppose is better than sounding as though I'm impersonating David Sedaris or Henry Rollins. It's difficult to read in the low lighting of the patio, but I'm coping and somehow I manage to keep a steady pace without screw-ups; and I even enjoy it a little. I like how the words sound. I like what I've written.

I stumble briefly as I begin a paragraph I'd already decided to leave out, and there are a few further hiccups, but I get through the thing in just under twelve minutes. 'I hope that wasn't too painful,' I say as I finish with the intonation of Johnny Rotten asking if you ever get the feeling you've been cheated at the last Sex Pistols gig. 'Thanks for being tolerant,' I add, because I have the impression that most of them were listening, even if they didn't get the jokes or didn't think they were so funny as to warrant laughter.

Thanks for being tolerant. Even as I say it I am faintly disgusted by my own peculiar need to apologise, my apparent desire for approval. If they enjoyed it that's great, but I don't need people half my age to stamp my card or tell me I did okay. I already know that I did okay.

There's a smattering of applause, ramped up somewhat by the compère, the black guy I spoke to earlier. 'He's flown a long way to spit for you guys,' he tells the audience, but he's still calling me Mr. Lawrence. I sit feeling vaguely dissatisfied, not with myself so much as the circumstances and I can't quite say why. The Mysteries of the Pyramids seemed to go down reasonably well, but somehow I can't take pleasure from it. Maybe next time...

The next time is the 2nd of September. Two weeks have passed and Bess has dropped me off so once again I'm alone and watching everyone hop from one table to another as old friends do, excited and excitable. They compare notes and discuss who will read what, pieces they've been working on. Again I don't feel nervous, not exactly. This is just something I'm doing and it's the waiting which is the worst part, that and the waiter failing to bring me a beer. I'm English so I'm accustomed to buying drinks from a bar, and I'm not accustomed to a waiter who comes to your table to take an order. You know where you stand with the English system, but this guy took my order nearly an hour ago. I've seen him three times since then, and on each occasion he's caught my eye, pulled a face to show that he's realised he has forgotten to bring me a beer, and then still failed to deliver. I consider the possibility of him bringing a beer the moment I go inside to buy one at the bar, and the possibility of losing my table, and I also consider that I don't actually want a beer, that I'm just passing the time.

The evening grows dark, the readings begin, and at last I'm back on. There are a few supportive whoops. Some people seem to remember me from before. I begin with an explanation, recalling how on the previous occasion I stood before them as some fat old white bloke whining about how his previous girlfriend didn't understand him, and I tell them that I was very much conscious of this. 'That really wasn't my intention,' I explain, 'and were it otherwise, I kind of hope a few of you might throw things at me and tell me to shut the fuck up.'

Amazingly there is laughter, and I get the impression that they are on my side, but the problem is that by now it's too dark for me to read the tiny print of my paperback copy of An Englishman in Texas. I've purchased a reading light from the supermarket, a tiny LED on the end of a flexible armature which you clip to the top of the page, but the light it casts is too feeble to make a difference. This is why everyone else reads from iPhones and tablets.

'Ugh - can I get some sort of light? This is ridiculous.'

A young Latina who could quite easily be my granddaughter illuminates the screen of her phone and holds it over my shoulder, allowing me to read Tin of Doom, the account of a previous girlfriend who didn't understand me.

I've picked Tin of Doom because it's much shorter than The Mysteries of the Pyramids and is much simpler, a basic comic account of self-involved idiocy. It's also the one essay which has been named as a favourite amongst those who have read my stuff on a number of occasions. It's a crowd pleaser, and this time everyone laughs in the places I expect them to laugh. It does its job, and I take pleasure from the telling. It feels less presidential address, more rock 'n' roll.

I finish and savour the applause, then return to my table and phone my wife, who comes to pick me up. I feel buoyed up and powerful, like I've stepped off the stage after a great gig.

Two weeks later I am indisposed, it being the day before my birthday, and then the 7th of October comes around and I realise I can't face another reading. I'm entirely happy with the material I have, but even when it's well received I've realised that I don't actually care one way or the other. I don't need the approval. Then there's the waiting around, sat on my own at a table trying to work out how to get hold of a beer I don't really want when I'd much rather be at home. It's tedious and there's no-one to talk to with whom I could have any sort of meaningful conversation, or even a mildly amusing one. I've never really been a social animal, and I'm way out of my depth. There will be other, better opportunities, I decide.

The cast comes off Holly's leg after about a month. It's been tough because she's had to have the cast replaced at the beginning of each week, each visit somehow costing a couple of hundred dollars. Then we have to detain her in a little cat tent to keep her from jumping up onto anything, and all the while she's trying to get the cast off, and she obviously isn't happy about any of this. Eventually she somehow manages to chew through the thing, plaster, bandages, plastic armature and all. She seems to be getting around okay, so we decide to forego taking her back to the vet and coughing up another couple of hundred dollars. She gets on fine, although her leg now projects backwards when she sits, straight out as though she's enacting Christina's World, the painting by Andrew Wyeth.

So Holly is okay. We managed without the revenue tsunami I hoped I might eventually generate by the power of my words; and whilst the readings remain part of some remote and poorly defined ambition, I suspect there is a better way of doing it. Eventually I will find out how.

Download poor quality but nevertheless free MP3 file of my first droning live reading here.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Conversations in Supermarkets

I needed to drop off a cheque at the bank which meant that I might as well stop in at Target seeing as it was on the way. I could pick up a jar of curry sauce and that would be tonight's dinner sorted out. For some reason they don't sell curry sauce at HEB, or at least they don't sell it at the branch I visit nearly every day at the end of my morning ride. I could make the curry from scratch, as I once did, but it's cheaper to buy a jar; and in any case I lost my curry mojo a year or so before I moved to America. Every time I made curry I would vary the improvised recipe just enough to keep it interesting until I ended up with something I didn't actually like that much, and which I could no longer reverse engineer back to its former glory.

I'm in Target and I've got a jar of curry sauce, naan bread, Cadbury's Dairy Milk - which is difficult to get here in the US for some reason, and a box of Slim Jims, which is beef jerky and one of the things the kid will actually eat but which HEB no longer sell; and I'm in line at the till marvelling over having just seen copies of the new David Bowie album here in Target, which strikes me as weird. The cashier and the woman she is serving are talking about video games, Nintendo or Wii or something of the sort. I'm not listening but I gather they are discussing video games as something annoying, or which contributes to annoying behaviour.

The person stood in front of me decides that the time has come for him to chip in. He is a young male, maybe about twenty-eight, with a beard and a small child in tow. He is buying curtain hooks. He waits for a pause in the conversation and then contributes, 'they're not annoying when you make $750,000 from each one.'

The two women look at him.

He smiles and adds, 'I own a games company.' He puts a little spin on the statement punctuating the sentence with a chortle at the halfway mark just so that we know he isn't taking himself too seriously, and that he would be equally surprised and amused to encounter someone like himself at the checkout at Target. The chortle is his way of letting us know that he isn't just some tosser bragging to complete strangers in a supermarket on the Austin Highway.

Quick as a flash, I knock his spectacles from his nose and grind them beneath the heel of my shoe.

'Give us your dinner money, Harry Potter,' I growl.

I don't really, but I like to think that I would have done were my actions guided by the greater karmic forces of the universe. Nothing to do with a video game has ever impressed me, and certainly not grown men and women clinging stubbornly to their childhood whilst whining they have really interesting stories now, and you should check them out. My suspicion and distrust is further aroused by how much importance Junior attaches to the games he plays on his iPad, and how he still seems unable to grasp that we don't all feel the same way, that in his absence we don't sit around trying to work out which is his favourite Skylander. I once heard him attempt to dispel an unrelated accusation with I do know a game that I'd like. We'd found a plate of six week old pizza crusts in his room or something of that sort, and in his world the case for the prosecution could be derailed fairly easily with this announcement of some new game to which he'd given consideration.

'What can it be?' we had all asked ourselves over and over, and soon we would know.

I stare hard at the video game mogul, giving him that look which I perfected during my twenty-one years as a postman. Give us your dinner money, Harry Potter. I stare hard but say nothing and in the next minute he is gone. My head is still spinning as I pay for my curry sauce, naan bread, Cadbury's Dairy Milk, and Slim Jims.

They're not annoying when you make $750,000 from each one.


I get back out on the bike with my stuff in my backpack and cycle through Alamo Heights to the nearest branch of BBVA Compass, along Chevy Chase, then Haskin Drive, then Country Lane - which may well be a lane but is cartographically within the city limits, so who knows? Chevy Chase is similarly a mystery, and my wife and myself presume it must have been named after the actor, although we have no idea why.

The cheque is a refund from the dentist. We overpaid, which is probably something to do with changes to whoever is providing our dental insurance. I fill out a slip and deposit the sixty dollars in my account, then head out on the Nacogdoches Road towards Salado Creek, past something called Sir Winston's Pub, a distance of maybe two miles. It's a route I would have avoided had I not had to go to the bank, but is by far the quickest given that I did. Typically I get a blast of car horn as I cross the bridge over the creek, just as I have been subject to a honking every other time I've cycled on this road. I get a blast of car horn because someone in a truck the size of Gibraltar is overtaking an even bigger vehicle on the inside lane and is presumably irritated to experience the inconvenience of an Obama-loving Communist faggot on a bike on a road surfaced by his tax dollars. How the fuck dare I, he is asking, assuming it's a man at the wheel. I shout tosser and give him the hand signal popularised by Sir Winston Churchill, the man whose pub I passed about five minutes before. I expect that one day I will gesture at a vehicle, having received a blast of horn for no good reason other than a general dislike of cyclists, and the vehicle will draw to a halt and disgorge an angry hillbilly with a firearm.

I suppose I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it.

I've just crossed the one over Salado Creek, and now I head through Ladybird Johnson Park and onto the Tobin Trail, the greenway along which I cycle fifteen miles every morning. It is peaceful, cold but sunny, with not many others around. The greenway follows Salado Creek which itself crosses an undeveloped flood plain, so it isn't like being in a city at all. You see the occasional building and pass beneath a few highways, but that's about it. I cycle along Morningstar Boardwalk to My Hill, then stop to have my ceremonial pee at the top. I can see the city from the summit, and the airport and Wurzbach Parkway, but I'm fairly certain that even as I pee I will be seen only as some tiny figure in the wilderness, and I can see along a mile of greenway in both directions, so I know when someone is approaching before they see me.

Anyway I have my pee, relieving my bladder and further laying claim to the land between Wetmore and Wurzbach, then I sit and drink the bottle of iced tea I always bring with me. I sit for a couple of minutes then get on the bike and head back.

At the end of the trail I take Corinne Drive up to HEB. I need to buy cat food and oranges and all the things I didn't want to buy in Target because I didn't want to have to carry them around all morning. I have become such a regular at this branch of HEB that I give out Christmas cards. My wife says she finds this branch depressing and it has the reputation of being the 'hood HEB, which just means fewer white faces, excepting people from the trailer parks down by the creek. This doesn't bother me. They don't bother stocking curry sauce because I guess there isn't much you can teach Mexican families about hot, spicy food, but it also means that I don't have to look at all the face-lifty heiresses you see squeezing kumquats and scowling in those other branches of HEB. I fill my basket and unload all my crap onto the belt at Cherie's till. I'm calling her Cherie because I don't want her to get in trouble, although it isn't her name. She's a black woman, about my age or a little younger, with an accent so strong I probably wouldn't have understood what she was saying five years ago. She holds some sort of in-store record for the speed at which she whizzes stuff off the belt and charges you for it. The manager came along and gave her a cheque - her prize money - as I was buying cat food a couple of months ago, and Cherie explained the award to me and how she had held the title for a couple of years by that point.

She's pleased to see me, but then she seems pleased to see everyone and it never comes across as sales patter.

'You got yourself a new one,' she says happily as I fill my backpack with stuff. 'You'll be able to get a lot more in there, for sure.'

I'm not taken aback that she remembers me, but it's weird that she even notices I have a new backpack. I suppose when you work the tills you'll take whatever gets you through the day.

'How much were these?' she asks. 'Two dollar sound about right?'

The price tag has come off my bag of onions. 'I think it was more like three dollars, maybe two ninety-five?'

She shrugs. 'Let's call it two dollar.'

'Three is fine. I don't want you getting into trouble.'

'I'm sure they about two dollar.' Tap-tap-tap-tap bleep and I have my onions.

This is why I like this branch of HEB, even if they never have curry sauce. Even when no-one is really saying anything beyond just the noises of social interaction, the standard of conversation is better; and I don't come home annoyed with myself for having failed to take anyone's dinner money.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Everything is Now

Texas is like heaven so far as I'm concerned, or at least an afterlife. This strikes even me as a peculiar claim, but it's the best, most succinct way I have of describing my daily existence since I moved here in relation to the previous years. Everything has worked out. Everything is different and still seems fresh in comparison to what I have been used to, and this impression is reinforced even by details so small as the weeds in my garden being plants I would not have recognised before 2011. I'm no longer moving forward with the certainty of a dark future which will inevitably become more difficult than the present, as was once the case. Additionally - present company excepted - everyone I have known with any degree of intimacy over the course of my first five decades now lives in a different country - all simplified to telephone numbers, facebook accounts or email addresses - communications across a great divide; and thanks to the advent of the internet, it almost is everyone I have known because these days they're all out there somewhere - people from school or work, remote family members, those I haven't seen in thirty years, persons with whom I never had any real reason to keep in touch, much as I would have liked.

Whilst I haven't always kept a diary, I've tried from time to time, and even when there's been no regular nightly scribbling to give account of the day, I've been in the habit of documentation, keeping notes of dates which seemed significant, holding onto letters and so on, because I like to see where I've been and because it helps me to better understand the present. Once I had learned to write well enough to compose a paragraph without wincing at it the next morning, I began to maintain a weekly blog, part of which incorporated my setting down events of previous years, childhood and so on, partially for the sake of preserving what memories I have retained before my brain deteriorates, partially for chuckles, and partially because I am unusually fascinating by my own progress from birth to the present day. The great majority of these memoirs - as I'm reluctant to term them - now seem like things which happened to someone else, so I'm not sure whether that makes me particularly vain or simply ordinary. Since 2011, I've been composing my autobiography right here, albeit in no particular order and without quite having set out to do so.

Further to this endeavour, in 2013 I dug out the diaries written between 1977 and 1986 and began transcribing the material into a single document on my word processor, initially for the sake of clarifying a few ambiguous dates but also in order to excavate further material upon which to expand in one of these essays. The diaries are patchy and only a few of them keep going right to the end of the year, but I've supplemented this material with more recent autobiographical notes and general whining recorded in sketchbooks or as part of emails, and with transcriptions of tape letters spoken onto cassette and sent to my friend Tim Griffiths throughout the nineties; because, suspecting I might one day wish to hear my droning twenty-five-year old self going on about fave bands and how depressed I've been, I of course made copies of these tape letters for my own archive. So I now have a year by year electronic document amounting to my life story since the age of eleven - albeit with a few gaps - which has taken me two years to compile and which concludes in postmodern fashion with emails describing my intent to compile said document - like a life flashing before my eyes, albeit slowly.

At this juncture I should probably point out that none of the above constitutes satire, although I won't be offended if you can't be arsed to read on.

Anyway, I'm now approaching the end of what I've termed my diary project, which is something of a relief. It's been a mammoth undertaking in certain respects, and undoubtedly a vain one, but I've found it interesting, and surprising and depressing, and comforting in so much as it allows me to state with some confidence that I'm no longer an arsehole, or no longer quite such an arsehole, or at the very least I am a different kind of arsehole to the person whose over-extended obituary I appear to have been writing. Whilst it's nice to have accessed my own past, I'm happy that I no longer live there as protracted exposure gets a bit much after a while. This undertaking has additionally reinforced the notion that I am in heaven, because everything is now and the past has been reduced to a different region of the present.

Over the course of transcribing diary material, I've inevitably come across the names of many people I had forgotten, and in most cases I've had a look on the internet to see if they can still be found, where they are and what they're doing now. It's not exactly nostalgia, but sometimes it's just nice to know that a certain person is still alive or even that they haven't turned into a complete wanker. Inevitably I've shared facebook gigabytes - or whatever the thing is made of - with almost everyone I knew at school as well as some I didn't know thanks to Friends Reunited; and most of them have turned out pretty decent, and there are a good few with whom I'm very glad to be back in touch after all this time.

Then there are the more intriguing names from the diaries - Penny White for one. I have no memory of her, nor even what she looked like, and yet I fancied her something rotten for at least six months of my school days according to what I wrote at the time. When finally I located a blurred photograph of her on a friend's facebook page, a photograph taken back when I knew her, the face rang not a solitary bell. This amnesia struck me as slightly alarming and strengthened my resolve to complete the diary project in as much detail as could be mustered.

Sometimes the retrieval operation has bitten me in the ass. Hampton Cockwomble* didn't remember me at all but accepted my friend request on facebook regardless. I remembered him fairly well as a funny kid from college in Stratford specialising in an hilarious impersonation of the crap robot from Buck Rogers culminating with Bedeep bedeep bedeep! Get your kecks off, Wilma. You probably had to be there, and I was. Sadly in 2015 his facebook page proved less amusing, being concerned mostly with Lads vs. Dads golf tournaments, whatever the hell those might be, and lazy memes promoting casual racism - Oi, Cameron! Give money to our starving OAPS not illegal Muzzies and related toss. I did my best to ignore it until he shared a scan of an official government document showing how your average illegal immigrant receives ₤32,000 per annum in free benefits from the English government whilst your average English pensioner can expect less than half that figure even if they fought in three world wars. The fact that it had official British government document written across the top failed to convince me that it hadn't just been knocked up by some wanker who'd recently learned how to make tables on his word processor. Additionally, I suspected that these statistics had probably been made up because they presented such a stark contrast to the actual direct experience I'd had of the immigrant community when I was a postman delivering mail to a refugee centre in Dulwich. I pointed this out and received a fairly predictable response from one of Hampton's buddies about how I must be an unusually well informed postman - which I expect was sarcasm of a sort - and how she'd prefer to trust the evidence of her own eyes, eyes which were looking directly at an official British government document posted on the facebook page of a man who competes in  Lads vs. Dads golf tournaments, thank you very much.

It was a waste of time, I realised. I defriended Hampton, preferring to remember him as an amusing impersonation of the crap robot from Buck Rogers. Sometimes there are good reasons why you lose touch with people.

Naturally I failed to learn anything from this encounter, and found myself similarly bewildered and intrigued by my own lost past when transcribing passages of an audio letter dated to Sunday the 28th of April, 1991 on which I told Tim Griffiths:

Things on the women front haven't really changed a lot in, well - the last seven years if I'm to be honest. I don't know. I feel like I should make an effort, but I'm beginning to not care about it really. Sometimes I feel a bit sad. I find I can't make a great deal of effort. I get too embarrassed. I tell you what, there's a really nice woman on my walk in Catford at the moment. Her name is Hillsborough Oxycodone*. She's tiny and possibly Indian, and it's terrible because I just keep running into her all over the place, and she says oooh you only bring me nice letters, you're my favourite postman and so on.  As soon as I see her at the other end of the road I get this uncontrollable grin on my face. I'm going to have to have lead weights sewn into the corners of my mouth or something, which would probably be very dangerous now that I think about it; but it's this uncontrollable grin and it's dead embarrassing.

At the time I was a generally lonely individual. It was my first disorientating year living in London, and anyone who said so much as hello to me made a significant impression. I had signed for the postal route around Lushington Road in Catford, so I became a familiar face to many of the people to whom I delivered mail, and I would speak to anyone who stopped to talk because it made the job less miserable. On Sunday the 10th of November, I told Tim:

Hillsborough Oxycodone who lives on my walk kissed me recently, which was quite exciting. It wasn't that recent, come to think of it. It was some time ago. I saw her walking along so I told her that her giro had come, and asked if she wanted it because I knew where it was in the bundle of mail I was carrying.

She said, 'Oooh all right then.'

I looked through my bundles and found her giro and got it out, and she kissed me. I thought yes!!! I went bright red as well, naturally.

'Oooh, you really enjoyed that, didn't you?'

I said 'yes, I did!'

I saw her again a couple of days later and I said, 'Do you want me to have a look for your post?'

'She said, 'Oooh you're only doing it so I'll kiss you.'

I said, 'You're right there!'

Judging by my having no memory of anything else, and barely being able to remember
Hillsborough herself - it having been twenty-five years ago - I assume our vague association went no further. Naturally I just had to look on facebook, and I found a woman of that name although the profile picture rang no bells. I sent a friend request and heard nothing back. Then after six months I discovered that the facebook messaging system has a spam folder into which certain messages vanish without explanation or notification as to the fact of someone having attempted to communicate with you. Hillsborough had replied way back in August:

Who are you???? You sent me a friend request yesterday you didnt reply when i asked you who you were

It was now December, so I tried to explain:

Just found your reply went into my spam folder - didn't even know there was such a thing, hence no reply. The quickest answer is that I was your postman twenty-five years ago, back when you lived in Catford. I've always kept diaries, and recently I've been going through them, and whenever I come across a name I've forgotten or someone I lost touch with, I look them up on Google or facebook just out of curiosity, so really I'm just saying hi. I don't actually remember you well, but it seems you made an impression on me at the time. You almost certainly don't remember me, but for what it's worth I'm no longer a postman, now happily married and living in Texas. Don't worry about accepting the friend request as I know it seems a bit weird, really just wanted to say hi!

She responded:

I aint never lived in catford so really dont know what your talking about

Why would you keep a diary?? Weird...... and scarey at ths same time

I should have read the warning signs but didn't:

Well then I guess I have the wrong person so just ignore me. It's not a problem. Keeping a diary really isn't that weird. Loads of people do it. Sheesh. Sorry to have bothered you.

...and so it continued in increasingly pointless circles:

You said youve always kept a diary and recently youve been going throug it if my name was in the diary then you would of rembered more about me thats what i meant

Which was followed by a friend request, which I accepted and then recognised as almost certainly having been a mistake when I found her posting rants about all you fucken white girls need to get yor won ting n fukk off you aint got no batty bitches LOOOOOOOL and a string of crying with laughter at having delivered such a crushing testimonial emoticons. There was also a photograph of an actual crucifixion in Africa supported by an incoherent denouncement of someone or other; and regardless of how worthwhile the cause may be, I dislike the gratuitous posting of anything or anyone being maimed, tortured or killed as inducement to why the rest of us should care. On a more positive note, she at least seemed to spend some time railing against the demonisation of the immigrant population in the United Kingdom, and Muslims in particular; although this was counterbalanced by remarks regarding Winston McKenzie, a black former UKIP politician making homophobic remarks on Celebrity Big Brother on the telly. They was all just picking on him,
Hillsborough posited, because hes black but he got a right to say what he believes in and it says in the bibel that a man shall not lie with an other man coz that is just SICK SICK SICK and aint no1 can silence me form speakign trooth LLLLLLLOOOOOLLLL and shitloads more of those gleeful emoticons.

Oh fuck, I said to myself.

A few days later I shared a photograph of baby snakes taken in our garden. I like snakes, I like reptiles, and I like animals in general. I don't generally understand anyone who would regard an animal as disgusting. I'm not a big fan of maggots, but neither do I think my opinion of them means anything useful or interesting in the great scheme of things.
Hillsborough on the other hand took a quite different view:

I hate those slimey nasty things Yuck I duno how ANY1 could like them or keep them as pets

The comment annoyed me for a couple of reasons. Firstly it seems poor form to respond to a facebook status message amounting to I think this is great with well, I think it's shit or equivalent, at least in cases like this where its hardly a political issue and anyone with the emotional development of at least a twelve-year old should be able to accept it as a matter of personal taste. My own facebook friends list includes a great many fans of Doctor Who in its present incarnation, and yet somehow I manage to keep myself from butting in to point out Dr Who is 4 kids and is shit LOL, because there really would be no point. Secondly, snakes aren't even remotely slimy so the observation struck me as akin to something an unusually stupid five-year old might say, the sort of thing which could only be expressed by a person with no actual experience of serpents nor any real justification for assuming their own opinion to be worth even the slightest fraction of an airborn fuck. I said as much, without the more obviously insulting details, which then prompted:

When god cast out satan he cast IT into a snake to "slither on its belly all his days" how could Any1 have them in there house fkn awful did u read on here about the woman pet snake who used to sleep in her bed ? (Probley fucking her too lol) she took it to the vet cos it didnt eat for 3 weeks and do u wana no wot the vet told her.....? He told her the snake was "starving itself" getting ready to eat her... GOOD!! it should of yam her up stupid bitch how can u lye with a snake in yr bed?? Jokers

I'd heard this story before, an urban legend which tends to get repeated because it appeals to idiots who assume that because some bloke said it, then it's probably true, just like that official British government document. Typing with gritted teeth, I pointed this out in the politest terms I could muster and provided a link to an article debunking the myth.
Hillsborough still wasn't buying it:

im refering to a woman who posted her story herself about taking the snake to the vet, she posttd it herself as it was HER own story not "made up" and if any 1 makes up stories like that then they are sick in the head.... why would she of made up a story like that???? Snakes are DEMONIC+ UGLY i hate them

This was immediately followed by the bewildering the link you just posted claiming it was "made up" is of a snake and lion not a snake and human followed by a string of crying with laughter emoticons, the implication being u dont no nuffink LOL. The link I'd posted was to an article illustrated with a photograph of a lion engaging with a huge python, a photograph which showed up on my facebook page as part of the link. I couldn't tell if she disagreed with the article, or just didn't understand how a hyperlink works. Perhaps she believed I had simply posted a picture of a lion and told her the story was made up, because that's how it happens: somebody tells you something, and if you like what they say then it's probably true. I began a reply, but realised what I actually wanted to say was go fuck yourself, you thick cunt. Instead I defriended and then blocked her.

Whilst I'm happy to entertain a circle of virtual acquaintances who might not necessarily hold the same views as myself on every last subject, persons who regard homosexuality as evil in capital letters fall on the wrong side of the perimeter fence for me. Serpentgate therefore seemed as good an opportunity as any to correct the historical wrong of my buddying up to someone with whom I clearly lost touch for good reasons. It was depressing because I like to think the best of people, even thick cunts. I might have attempted to change her mind, but while there may be some moral credit to be gained in attempts to enlighten the bigoted or otherwise terminally ignorant, sometimes it's just pissing into the wind and a waste of everyone's time. This seemed like it would have been one of those cases.

Whilst the advent of the internet potentially brings us back into the orbit of everyone we've ever known, it equally serves to reduce much of its social interaction to angry sludge. Those with unpleasantly retarded views who might once have considered themselves isolated voices of reason are united as great virtual nations of foulness and horseshit spouting dangerous, hateful crap grounded only in it being what some bloke said which just happened to reinforce their existing prejudices because it's easier than thinking, and because it's more comforting than accepting that maybe you don't know everything after all. This, it seems to me, accounts for at least some of the popularity of Donald Trump in America and UKIP in England.

Living as I do at something of a remove from my own previous life, accessing it only through the narrow focus of a telephone line, I find it necessary to constantly remind myself that the image is distorted and that the general mass of humanity living just beyond the range of my experience really can't be quite so vile as they so often appear. Whilst the internet may well be reducing us all to angry sludge, I remind myself that I can now access books which once required that I schlep along to the British Library and fill in an application form; and I remind myself of all the people out there who I actually like, whom I never would have known were it not for the internet, whose online presence I find a daily source of delight; and it seems I'm not alone in this respect. I know of at least three other Englishmen who married American women in conclusion to transatlantic relationships which couldn't really have happened prior to the advent of the internet. One of them is my own cousin. With the other two, the three of us might almost be versions of the same individual from some alternate universe, such is the apparent concordance of our tastes and personalities, at least as they are expressed online. Against all odds, we are now a demographic, with the biggest difference between us being that I've moved to America whereas the other three couples have ended up in England.

So life is generally quiet, and not without trivial inconveniences and irritations, but there is no Damoclean grand piano hung over my head, suspended by a fraying length of twine as it would be in a Tom & Jerry cartoon. I get to write and paint and to just about get paid for it. I gave up smoking with no trouble worth mentioning. I get to keep my teeth. I don't yet have cancer, so far as I'm aware. I no longer fear being turfed out onto the street by a slum landlord who takes two thirds of my wages in rent. I no longer suffer loneliness or, generally speaking, the presence of idiots. The night sky in Texas is huge and full of many more stars than I was ever able to see in England, and the sun is so bright by day that the grass in my garden is the colour of the grass of childhood. If this isn't heaven, it's close enough for my purposes; and if the noise generated by idiots is occasionally annoying, I can at least tell by the hoarse clamour of their stupidity that they are far, far away.

*: Not actual names.

Friday, 5 February 2016


Junior stays with his father on Thursday evenings, and Bess and myself usually dine out on that night so I can take a break from the cooking. Yesterday we opted for Bandera Jalisco seeing as we hadn't been there in a couple of weeks and it has become more or less my favourite place to eat. We came across it about a year ago following a visit to Comanche Lookout Park. It seemed more or less like any other Mexican eaterie you might happen to pass in San Antonio, a predominantly red and yellow exterior and usually with enthusiastically hand lettered advertising painted across the windows, a smiling anthropomorphic taco wearing a sombrero or something of the sort.

'Let's eat there,' I said, pointing and taking pleasure in this leap of faith, this pin stabbed into a map more or less at random.

It's difficult to eat bad Mexican food in San Antonio, but not impossible, and this itself has always been something of a mystery to me. Given how close we are to the border and the ubiquity of Mexican eateries, no-one has any reason to settle for the merely adequate. I would also say that in theory Mexican food should be difficult to get wrong, at least providing you know what it actually is. There's a new place at Sunset Ridge charging inflated Alamo Heights prices for Mexican street food, with waiters oozing sincerity-style patter as they describe what the chef has done, then asking if you've saved room for some num-nummy-numptious flan or a space on your calendar for Sunday which is when they'll have a DJ spinning some proper nang tunes as you dine; but actually their food is fine. It's just everything else about the place that's terrible, but I suppose that's what the airbrushed shareholders of Alamo Heights respond to.

Bandera Jalisco has cheap and cheerful formica table tops, hand lettered advertising painted across the windows, and two flat screen televisions tuned to different Mexican channels; but crucially it doesn't have a DJ, it's always full of Mexicans, and the food is incredible; so that's where we went.

The waitress brought me a beer, a Negra Modelo, for once without the bewildering frosting of salt around the rim of the glass, this being another of those local customs I've never understood. I gave the slice of lime to my wife for her iced tea and we waited for our food.

'Look! They're showing an episode of Amigos,' I observed in jocular fashion, feeling immediately resentful when Bess failed to laugh at my joke, or to congratulate me on my well developed sense of humour. I had been gazing idly at the flat screen above the counter, whilst Bess gazed idly at one immediately behind me as we sat in the booth facing each other.

'I said—,' and then the food arrived, truncating my attempt to salvage the joke.

'What was that?'

'It was nothing.' I got started on my mixed plate, which is steak and shrimp with rice, salsa and all the customary sides - number thirty-one on the Bandera Jalisco menu.  'It doesn't matter.'

'No - what did you say?'

They were showing an episode of Friends on the flat screen television above the counter, Friends dubbed into Spanish with English subtitles. For all I knew they may well have gone the whole way and broadcast the show as Amigos, and my joke may not actually have been a joke at all; and now I was trying to work out why I had thought any of this had been worth saying out loud. 'It was just a stupid thing. It doesn't matter.'

We ate, and the food was great, and I even enjoyed the beer - which is no longer a given. I had been hard at work during the day, digging six months worth of tough weeds from the allotment. It had been the kind of physical activity which tends to render that eventual beer all the more satisfying.

'You are el padrastro,' my wife told me.

'I beg your pardon.'

'You are el padrastro, the stepfather.' She gestured towards the screen behind my head with her fork. I turned my head and saw that it was tuned to a telenovela.

'Papa means father, and padrastro is stepfather.'

'I see.'

Because I'm a pig, I had also ordered a portion of fries which now occupied a basket at the centre of the table. Being thin cut, I tend to think of them as fries rather than chips. We picked at them as we ate our main meals.

'There's something about the burgers and fries you get in these Mexican places,' my wife observed with obvious pleasure.

'I know. They're like kebab shop chips in London,' and they were indeed wonderful, but my eyes had proven bigger than my tummy. Once we were done we called for a to go box.

The next stop was the McNay Art Museum. It's one of those tiny regional art galleries you've never heard of which somehow has a jaw-dropping collection of works by the big names of art history - not at all the well intentioned array of almost-rans plus a token note which Picasso once left out for the milkman, which so often tends to be the fare of galleries so far off the beaten artistic track.

The McNay was hosting an expedition of later work by Miro, the Spanish Surrealist. I've never been wild about Miro, but I'm glad of his having existed, and I find him interesting at least for his involvement with the Surrealist movement. Woman, Bird and Star (Homage To Picasso) was the only painting I recognised for sure, and most of the exhibits seemed to date from the 1960s or more recent. They were mostly of a certain type, childlike swirls and flourishes hinting at animal forms with some primary colour - although I suppose such a description might be applied to much of Miro's work. I'm no longer quite so well-disposed towards modernist art as was once the case, but I liked these. There's something cheery and friendly about Miro, a suggestion of some hope that you might take pleasure from the work. It's a massive cliché, but his paintings are playful.

Bess seemed to get the same thing from the exhibition, which probably counts for something given that she is generally less forgiving than I am where non-representational art is concerned.

Some of my enjoyment came from the work reminding me how exciting I once found this sort of thing, back when I was a teenager and Santa furnished me with a copy of Werner Haftmann's Painting in the Twentieth Century in anticipation of my signing up for an art foundation course once I was done with the 'O' levels. For a period of six months I was fascinated to the point of obsession, immersing myself in the history of Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism and the rest, and then I got to art college and had all the fun sucked out of it, piece by piece. Whatever I once understood to be art in the twentieth century had become a career option involving agents, managers, and rewards reaped mainly by those who are just plain trying too hard. The general worthlessness of the art establishment seems typified by my own degree award ceremony at which some bloke in a suit delivered a speech amounting to how fine art is important because the chairman of ICI will always need new, exciting works to be hung behind his receptionist at head office.

As I was thinking these thoughts I drifted into proximity of two droning women, one explaining Miro to the other in terms which made me shudder, probably something relating to the unnecessary and ultimately meaningless title which the exhibition had been given - The Experience of Seeing.

Miro requires no explanation, I told myself. What you see is what you get, and that's the beauty of it, surely? It was depressing to hear what the artist had been trying to say with a particular squiggle of paint when he almost certainly hadn't, and it reminded me of art college and all those words piled one on top of the other, not because the work might require justification, but because we need to hear that it does; because God forbid that anyone less elevated than ourselves should enjoy something for the wrong reasons and in doing so jeopardise our monopoly, the one thing which makes us special given how genuine insight has become an obsolete currency.

In any case, as Bess and myself were now at the end of the exhibition, we left. It was still fairly early, maybe eight in the evening, and we went home full of food and art. An hour later I was hungry again so I had the to go fries in a sandwich, and that was Thursday.