Friday, 25 March 2016

Activity Tracker

I was a postman for two decades and have therefore done a lot of walking over the years. On average the job entailed somewhere between three or four solid daily hours pounding pavements, garden paths, hallways, steps, stairwells and so on - six days a week for most of the last century, then reduced to a five day week since the millennium. That's a lot of ground covered. I once read an article comparing the distances covered by members of professions who walk for a living. We came in second, just behind policemen on the beat but ahead of traffic wardens. I think our average distance was supposed to be something like eight miles a day, although at the time it was hard to judge the accuracy of this figure what with all of the stopping and starting, standing around rummaging in the pouch for a parcel or whatever.

Whilst delivering to the flats along Lushington Road in Catford I climbed one hell of a lot of steps. Most blocks had three floors with two flats to a floor, and there were at least twelve blocks to a street, and there were four of these streets lined with blocks of flats. One day I took a ruler and a notebook and measured the height of the steps, then multiplied the figure by how many of those steps I had to climb each day. It worked out that I scaled a height equivalent to that of Mount Everest roughly every nine months, assuming I've remembered correctly.

Exercise has never been something with which I have consciously engaged up until recently. Dora the Explorer tried to motivate me in that direction, apparently missing the significance of my usually being so knackered that I could barely stand after work. She required that exercise be specifically framed as active self-improvement, an undertaking which transmitted a message reading look at me engaged in the effort of making myself a better person whilst asking why not be more like me? She was not naturally disposed towards the expenditure of energy so far as I could see and her enthusiasm felt like overcompensation, attempted self-hypnosis, and some showboating - forever banging on about going out for a walk, getting some fresh air, getting out of the house and so on. I guess she liked how these proclamations sounded, because it was difficult to square them with the reality of her daily routine. She was seldom out of bed before eleven in the morning, and was never ready to leave the house earlier than four in the afternoon. We would go out for a walk, and she'd spend some of the time telling me I needed to make the effort to eat healthier, to take more exercise, and was I drinking enough water? We would walk up to the shop at the end of the road, a distance of about a hundred yards, and then we would walk back, myself carrying a bag of cat litter or tins of cat food because they were too heavy.

She acquired a pedometer, an unconvincing plastic dingus containing a ball bearing which rattled around and in doing so measured how far you had walked in a day and how many steps you had taken. It clipped onto a sock, shoe, or the hem of a trouser, and Dora the Explorer spent an evening walking up and down the front room, acclimating the thing to her gait. She took to reporting the statistics of how much walking she had done, generally prefacing a sneering dismissal of my own inferior efforts, which were inferior principally because they were mine and I had no understanding of self-improvement. Her routine had not changed. She was still rising at eleven and leaving the house only on alternate days or when I had failed to anticipate what she needed from the shop, but now her infrequent and unhurried movements were measured by the pedometer and redefined as exercise.

I bought one too from the sports place in Peckham, mainly because I wanted to find out just how far I was walking each day. Unfortunately the thing didn't seem to work all of the time, and each morning would end with a completely different reading.

These days, I am no longer a postman. Nor do I have a pedometer, although I have acquired what is called a Fitbit. No longer being a postman I cycle fifteen miles each day in the hope of staying relatively fit, although of course it isn't simply a matter of exercise. My diet is different, I no longer smoke, and I have succumbed to the inevitability of middle-aged spread.

'Cor!' my friend and former fellow postman Terry Wooster exclaimed with characteristic directness when I last saw him, 'you ain't half got fucking fat!'

My wife was a dedicated runner for much of her life, prior to the birth of her son - my stepson - at which point life became generally more complicated and she found it difficult to keep the running going. She bought a Fitbit, a sort of charm bracelet which tracks how much you have walked each day, how many steps, distance covered, calories burned and so on. The Fitbit seems a little more reliable than the thing with the ball bearing I once bought from a shop in Peckham. It has internet presence so at the end of the day you can go to a website and see how well you've done, and how much better you've done than your friends, the lazy fuckers. It seems to work for Bess in that it at least provides an incentive to engage in a certain amount of exercise each day - which can be difficult when working in an office; and because it's Bess, her motives are honest and refer to no weird social agenda.

She liked the Fitbit so much that she bought a new improved model and gave the old one to the boy, presently twelve, and seemingly inclined to stationary activities in which he shouts to himself whilst tapping the screen of his iPad with a finger, often for hours at a time. Sometimes I like to tell myself that he is playing a game called Outside World™ which involves liberating virtual kids from within a pixellated house, bringing them outside to climb CGI trees and do all the stuff I instinctively feel Junior should be doing. Happily he really took to the Fitbit, contrary to my generally pessimistic expectations. His behaviour at home doesn't seem significantly changed, but I guess the Fitbit appeals to his inherent love of boasting.

'How many steps did you do today?' we ask.

He will tell us, then ask how many steps my wife has done.

If he has done more, he will point out that he has done more just in case we hadn't realised. If he has done less, he'll take the stepmill to his room and just keep going until he's the bestest.

My wife was going to give him a new Fitbit at Christmas, the latest model which is worn like a wristwatch, but he lost the old one, and said he was unable to find it. We decided he would get the new one when he had found the old one on the grounds that his method of looking for things leaves room for improvement.

'Look for it,' one of us will suggest, and so he'll check to see if the mislaid object is directly within his field of vision at that moment. It usually isn't so he goes back to his game of Outside World™, possibly calling out 'I still can't find it,' as the game switches up to the level where you have the kid ride a bike up and down the road.

Nevertheless he eventually found the Fitbit and so now has the new one; and I got the old one because it seemed a shame that it should not enjoy continued use. I wear it around my neck like a pendant.

The first day it recorded that I had walked a little over five-thousand steps. I have recently discovered this to be an average number of steps for someone just doing housework and moving around their own home during the course of a day, so I'm not impressed. I'm even less impressed that my little electronic friend is disinclined to recognise the fifteen mile daily cycle as exercise or even travel. Well done, it tells me, you have walked a mile and a half today. It seems almost like sarcasm, but it's still significantly less annoying than look at me engaged in the effort of making myself a better person and all that went with it, so I shut up and get on with it.

Friday, 18 March 2016


My wife and myself drive to the AT&T Centre for the annual San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. I think we've been each year, more or less, although generally at different times of day and on different days taking in different aspects of the full three weeks. The first year we went along one evening and watched the rodeo itself, as staged in the main arena - a venue which has also played host to the San Antonio Spurs and Joan Jett. It seemed to be mostly about cows, lasso displays, horse-riding, cattle-rustling, competition events, and assorted demonstrations of this and that with plenty of noise. We were sat at the back, way up near the roof, and felt somewhat removed from the action, and I can't really remember much else about it. Having established the general thrust of the spectacle, since then we've turned up mainly just to look at cows. Last year we unfortunately turned up too late to look at cows and were left with food stalls and our fellow Texans. The stock show was over and the cows had all gone home.

Looking at cows may not sound like much, but it really is. These are show cows, all kinds of variant breeds, very few of which I'd ever seen before I moved here. Of course there are the Holstein cattle I know as Fresians and there are Herefords - both of which I recall from having grown up on a farm; and then there are Texas Longhorns, and even some exotic looking kind with camelesque humps and floppy ears which I vaguely recognise from television shows or films set in India and Africa. Because these are show cows, they are pampered. They are looked after and washed, even shampooed. They lounge around in their stalls chewing cud, hay, or cattle feed in the great hall where the show is judged, and most stalls have a family in attendance all lovingly brushing their contestants, even blow-drying them with what I presume must be the dairy equivalent of hairdressing equipment. It's odd to see an animal of such size with the soft, fluffy coat of a kitten, not least when the animal is patently a cow, but there's something life-affirming about it too.

This year we make sure that we get to see more than just food stalls and our fellow Texans by turning up on Saturday morning. I wear my Stetson because the sun is strong and I burn easily - although this is not in itself unusual being as I wear it most days. I also wear my Lone Star shirt, material patterned after the state flag. I found the shirt in a second hand place on the Blanco Road. They had a whole rack of the garments which I assume may originally have been part of the uniform for either a diner or a garage or something of the sort - picked up presumably as a job lot by the guy running the store. I justify the shirt as part of my effort to blend in, but truthfully I just think it's a nice shirt.

We park and head for the main entrance. There are many Stetsons worn, which I find comforting. As I say, I wear mine most of the time and yet somehow still manage to stand out as anomalous. Strangers will call out some hypothetically amusing cowboy-related remark from passing vehicles, which would probably be funnier if we weren't in fucking Texas in a city which holds an annual rodeo. The jokes, if no more amusing, at least made sense when I was living in Coventry back in England. Today however, under the circumstances I anticipate a low mockery quotient.

We enter the first large shed and look at sheep, stall after stall, some with lambs. The sheep enclosure segues into row after row of happy looking pigs. Then we are outside again, taking the main thoroughfare down to where all the food stalls are set up. We're hungry so we both have what I roughly recognise as a doner kebab but which is here termed a gyro - pronounced more like hero, which makes no sense to me.

One of the few things I miss about England is kebab shops.

We eat up and then investigate a tent full of Lego. The stock show attracts all manner of associated business, although mostly it's either rural crafts, crafts which aspire to rurality, or agricultural machinery. Lego seems some way outside the parameters of the occasion as I understand them, but I'm not complaining. My wife and myself marvel at a human-sized Woody from Toy Story made entirely out of the plastic bricks, and then we each take a seat at one of the trestle tables. Each table has plastic containers full of bricks and members of the general public are invited to work on square base plates, then add whatever they have produced to the mural to one side. At the moment the mural is mostly smiley faces and names spelled out in blocky, uneven lettering. Bess takes a handful of white and orange bricks and forms a picture of a bunny rabbit with a carrot. I assemble a rough representation of El Castillo, the main pyramid of Chichén Itzá in Mexico. I use red bricks to suggest blood on the steps leading up to the temple platform, and yellow for the sun.

Next we see the horses, and most importantly the mini-horses. Two weeks ago we drove thirty miles just to spend ten minutes hanging around a field of mini-horses and it was wonderful. There is something about the company of creatures which has a beneficial, even mildly euphoric influence. In internet terms it is generally signified by the vaguely onomatopoeic squee. I'm sure there have been scientific studies. Anyway, the point is that we both think mini-horses are wonderful, as do all the little girls who have been drawn to the equine enclosure as though subject to an actual magnetic influence. One of the mini-horses is named Zephyr, as we learn from a board affixed to his pen. His favourite film is Frozen, according to the board, although I suspect this is more to do with marketing and understanding your target audience than actual cinematic preference.

Finally we get to the cows, taking a route through a crafts market notable for oil likenesses of Ronald Reagan and others, and the cows are wonderful.

I grew up around cows, although I retain a certain respectful fear of them on account of their being so big. I was never really on friendly terms with the cows of the farm on which my dad worked, excepting Mona, who was grey and white rather than black and white, and so friendly that I was able to ride around on her back. I always assumed her colouration indicated great age, but it seems equally possible that she was simply of a different, conspicuously more sociable breed than the rest. More recently I showed my dad an old photograph, himself as a young farmhand from before I was born, stood in a field with fifteen or so Jersey cows around him. Forty years after the photograph was taken, he was still able to name every single cow in the picture. I suppose then it's in my blood, whatever it is.

It hasn't escaped me that I have come full circle by some definition. Agricultural shows were a big deal when I was a child, and I am once again a regular even if the country is different.

I'm not sure if it means anything, but the pattern is pleasing.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Important Bra Man Bins T-Shirt Collection

An important bra man has announced his decision to bin five million quids worth of fancy t-shirts, it has emerged. The binning is to constitute a protest about things not being as good as they were back in the old days when everything was better than it is now, not least the Sex Pistols who haven't made a decent record since 1978, and even that one was really bad. The important bra man, noted for being knicker-designing spawn of some bloke who failed to discover the next Bay City Rollers and Margaret Thatcher from an alternate universe in which she rose to fame by making a pair of trousers with the words fuck and off daringly printed down consecutive legs rather than by shitting all over the working classes, opined yesterday that the pop hit parade charts are shit and that his dangerous revolutionary dad would be ashamed of us with our Taylor Swift and stars churned out like processed peas on episodes of the X-Files. 'Many of the t-shirts are rare collector's editions made by our mam,' he explained. 'One of them has got a picture of Charles Manson's cock on it, which is very dangerous and subversive because it challenges our preconceptions, and because no-one knows it's Charles Manson's cock, and they think it's probably just some normal penis. It would be worth a mint on eBay.' Nevertheless, despite his collection being worth a packet, the millionaire bra man has made a decision to bravely and daringly chuck the lot, he explained at an international press conference yesterday, or possibly the day before.

So that's us told.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Ph'nglui Mglw'nafh Dora R'lyeh Wgah'nagl Fhtagn

In the dream I'm walking up the long road to the houses and buildings of Wimpstone Fields farm. This is in rural Warwickshire in England, and Wimpstone Fields was the next farm along from Sweet Knowle, the farm on which I grew up. Wimpstone Fields was a poultry farm, and Paul, the son of the family who ran the place, was my best friend at the infants and junior school in the village of Ilmington. We lived on neighbouring farms and we were roughly the same size, so that was that.

Paul now lives in Australia, and yet here I am in the dream walking up the road towards his house as I remember it. The large farm building at the end of the road has been converted into a Royal Mail sorting office, and that's where I'm heading, because that was my job for twenty-one years. It's been converted to a Royal Mail sorting office without utilising any of the actual features you might find in a Royal Mail sorting office - packet frames and so on - but none of us are worrying about this too much. We're just getting on with it, because it's a dream and is therefore under no obligation to make sense. I'm sorting letters inside a brick structure within the building, like a rectangular space with an opening for entrance and exit at opposite ends of the two longer walls which face each other. It's about the size of a lavatory or a large broom cupboard. Lee Cooper, my manager at Royal Mail, appears. He looks worried.

My most enduring memory from growing up on Sweet Knowle Farm is of the dark. We were miles from even the nearest small town, or anywhere with street lights. When I looked out of my bedroom window at night, if there was neither moon nor starlight, all I could ever see was black and then the near black of sky up above. Sometimes I saw that the lights were still on over at Wimpstone Fields across the shallow dip of hills dividing us, if it wasn't too late; and on such occasions it felt like Paul and myself might be the only two kids left in the universe.

Back in the dream. Lee looks worried, but then he always had that kind of face. He probably wasn't the greatest manager in real life, for the simple reason that he tended to empathise with those he managed and lacked the nastier, more ruthless qualities required by modern business practice. Some regarded him as a soft touch whilst others considered him ineffectual. Being as I was never that bothered about trying to wriggle out of anything I'd been asked to do, I never had a problem with the man. He was one of the few managers I wouldn't cross the road to avoid were I to see him now.

I do see him now and he looks worried, although as I say it's a dream. He seems to be apologising and I understand when Dora the Explorer enters the building. She must have come and asked if I was here, and Lee has brought her in to see me. Her name isn't really Dora the Explorer but I'm calling her that because there's a resemblance and it amuses me. Dora was my girlfriend for three unfortunate years. We broke up in 2009 because it was either that or top myself, and I know this because I know that I'm dreaming. Dora the Explorer turning up at a Royal Mail sorting office on Wimpstone Fields farm makes no sense otherwise.

She has somehow found a way to print out the entire run of my bank statements for the duration of our relationship, and she is showing them to me with her customary blend of righteous indignation and glee. She has found me out and it makes her so happy that she can barely contain herself, but she is also angry because of what she has found out and because she is always angry regardless of contributing factors.

What are you going to do about this, Lawrence?

She has added up the wages I made during those three years and decided that she was entitled to half of the sum, and now she would like to know what I've done with her money.

Luckily it is at this point that Enoch wakes me up. Enoch is our smallest and loudest cat. I usually put him outside at night, but it has been cold so I've let him stay in, hoping he will behave; but as usual he's taken to walking around the house meowing his head off at four in the morning. It sounds like somebody playing jazz trumpet, so I have to get up and put him outside. As I do so, I roll the dream over and over in my thoughts, hoping to remember the details.

I don't know why I still get these dreams, specifically subconscious episodes in which Dora the Explorer remains very much the passive-aggressive predatory presence she was in daily life. I suspect she might even be pleased to know that her image continues to inspire discomfort, to belittle and hector in my thoughts without any active effort on her part. She didn't really do active effort as such. The eternal failure of everyone else in the entire universe was really more her thing.

The last time I heard from her was Wednesday the 10th of June, 2009, a text message reading don't bother about yr stuff in attic, I'll ask someone else 2 help. I won't contact u 4 6 months.

When I moved out of her place the previous December, I had left some of my belongings in the attic because I was keen to be gone as soon as possible, it wasn't stuff I needed, and I was past caring. Specifically it was a small wooden rack I had made to hold compact discs - about four foot in length by eight or so inches high, a cassette deck which no longer worked and I had been carting around with me for a couple of years for no good reason, and maybe a carrier bag of old newspapers. Together, these didn't take up a great deal of room in Dora's attic, besides which, she never went up there due to being too short to make the ascent from the uppermost step of the stepladder. I couldn't even work out how she had realised that I'd left these few things behind. Maybe someone had given her a periscope.

Anyway, when she discovered this latest crime against her person, she phoned to tell me that the presence of a knackered tape deck in the attic was destroying her life, and what was I going to do about it, and why oh why oh why did she always have to do everything herself? She had never quite grasped just how counterproductive it can be to treat someone like a cunt as you attempt to enlist their assistance, but happily I was no longer obliged to deal with her bullshit. I told her that I didn't know, and that I didn't really care, and I suggested that maybe it would be an idea if we had no contact with each other for a while. The six months passed without yielding any reason why either of us should speak to each other ever again, and so we didn't.

In June 2015 I was back in England, stood outside the Plough in East Dulwich waiting for my friend Pete, when I saw a small, angry looking figure heading towards me along Eynella Road. It was Dora the Explorer and I experienced genuine terror, a queasy feeling deep in my gut; but luckily she either hadn't seen me, or had seen me and was pretending that she hadn't. I ran into the pub and peered out, waiting for her to pass, as she did. I was still shaking a little when my friend Pete arrived at the agreed time.

These days, whilst my life may not be perfect, I have no cause for complaint and there is much which makes me happy. I sometimes wonder over the meaning of these not-infrequent nocturnal visits from the Ghost of Christmas Which Would Have Been Much Better If You Hadn't Ruined Everything and Why Do I Have to Do Everything Myself? She might be an expression of my subconscious reminding me that those who attribute all the evils of the world to a former, now shunned partner tend to be arseholes who might be well-advised to take a look at their own lives; although if this is the case, my subconscious clearly doesn't know what it's talking about, and the existence of arseholes who might be well-advised to take a look at their own lives does not preclude the possibility of Dora the Explorer having been a genuine sociopath. She herself might suggest it is my conscience kicking me in the shins for the burden of guilt of the three years I spent letting her down, ruining her life, and failing to obey orders; but to suggest that, she would have to hear about it in the first place, which isn't going to happen.

Sometimes I compose an imaginary postcard, something I will send from Texas bearing a US stamp.

I've been happily married for five years now, and I'm not sure my wife and I have had anything you'd really call an argument in all that time, so I guess it really was you after all. Isn't it fucking funny how things work out?

Of course, I don't do it and I never will, because whilst the thought may be a lot of fun, it won't benefit anyone in the real world and nothing will be learned. I've exorcised the pain, and have now written up almost every significant or otherwise memorable incident of those three years so that I can at least take pleasure from reading it back as farce. There's nothing left to write and yet still I have the dreams from time to time, although it's probably no coincidence that this is also how Cthulhu communicates his will to minions and victims alike.

The point is, I suppose, the contrast, or at least that's what I take from it. The point is that I survived, and that some days I just can't believe how fucking fantastic it feels to be able to say that; so thank you, Dora the Explorer.

Thank you for showing me just how bad it could have been.

After I've put Enoch outside I go back to bed, but I doze rather than sleep. I get up to feed the cats at a quarter to seven. The sun is rising over Fort Sam, or whatever there is to be found at the back of the houses opposite. The sky is crimson and there's a light frost on the front lawn. It will be another good day, if that doesn't sound too sappy.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Eddy's Mum

Eddy was sort of my best pal for most of my twenty or so years of living in London, or at least one of my best pals and I suppose still is providing you can square that with the fact that I've probably only seen him twice since I moved to Texas. We share some common tastes in music, film, comedy and what have you, although in other respects we are quite unlike. He once described rap as children's music, although there didn't seem much point in taking it personally seeing as it wasn't meant as such, and one of Eddy's more entertaining qualities has always been his near radioactive degrees of honesty.

'What did you think of my tape?' I ask, referring to something of my own composition which I spent weeks recording and re-recording.

'I thought it was shit, mate,' he explains.

It's a bit shocking at first but after a while you realise it's quite refreshing, and often - at least a couple of months later - I will realise that he was right. It really was shit.

Seemingly the last two men in London who actually enjoyed going to the pub of a Saturday evening without having to shout to be heard over the sound of either a massive telly or a thousand braying pricks, Eddy and myself often found ourselves at similarly loose ends at the weekend, being more or less the only two people we knew who hadn't quite succumbed to domesticity. So we'd end up at the pub if we could find one, or a comedy club, or we'd go to see a film or whatever.

Eddy was something of an anomaly in that he was a little older than me and was living with his mum in a council house in Bermondsey. I distinguish the arrangement from still living with his mum for two reason: firstly he'd lived in his own place for a while but it simply hadn't worked out for whatever reason; secondly he didn't seem like a man living with his mother, and had none of the weird, cranky qualities one might sometimes associate with persons in such circumstances.

To get to the point, this meant that I encountered Eddy's mum on a number of occasions, certainly enough to leave me feeling somewhat gutted by the fact that as of Wednesday 10th February, she is no longer with us.

She was an elderly woman of Irish extraction and still retaining the accent. She seemed sturdy rather than frail, not likely to run too many marathons but otherwise reliably healthy. From my possibly limited experience, she seemed disinclined to talk if she had nothing she wanted to say, which was always disconcerting when she'd ask some question giving away the fact that she'd been listening all along - how this was going, what had been happening at work and so on. Oddly this lent her a sort of ponderous yet fearsome demeanour, at least from where I was stood. It's always the quiet ones. You can never tell what they're thinking.

At one stage my yearly Christmas cards featured skeletal Mexican Death Gods because that was what I'd been painting - Nextepehua the Ash Scatterer one year, Ixpuztex or Broken Face the next. They weren't very Christmassy, but then neither was I. Eddy reported how his mother would shuffle them to the back of the cards lined up on the sideboard muttering what a terrible thing and asking what's wrong with that boy?, and I'd feel both amused and terribly guilty. Eddy more recently told me I think she secretly found the cards interesting.

For a long time she had a wiry little terrier of some description named Chip. Everyone liked Chip and Eddy's mum was very upset when she died. I did a small painting of Chip based on what I assume was her favourite photograph of the beloved hound, which she had hung on the wall and I hope served as some compensation for the Aztec Death Gods.

After I left London, I stayed in her spare room a couple of times during return visits to London, once when attending an interview at the American Embassy in pursuit of my K1 visa, then more recently when my friend Carl got married. It was awkward as I had the impression it was something of a disruption for her, which was understandable, although she never made me feel in any sense unwelcome and I always appreciated it. The most recent stay seemed to represent a particular disruption for her as it coincided with a medical appointment, something to do with a cancer screening, and sadly that was the last time I saw her.

Eight months later I find out that she's gone, and it feels like a bit of a kick in the teeth coming in a month distinguished by people dropping dead left right and centre - Lemmy, Bowie and Alan Rickman, friends of friends, people on facebook. It's true what they say about the mortality rate going through the roof once you hit fifty.

I didn't know her well, but I knew her well enough to know that she was a good person, and to experience that feeling like a punch in the gut when I heard the news. I probably didn't know her well enough to write a decent eulogy, but Nick Sweeney has kindly let me borrow the one he wrote on facebook:

Dear Mary Walsh, who died a couple of weeks back. She was always very welcoming when I went round to her place to make some noisy and terrible music with Eddy. I couldn't get to the funeral last week as I was away, so this is partly my way of saying goodbye. She had a broomstick (commemorated in an early punk rock pamphlet Eddy wrote and printed, if I remember rightly) employed on the ceiling whenever the drums from Janie Jones started up on the first Clash album, but she had mellowed out by the time I met her, and never used it in anger. Or maybe she'd sensibly bought earplugs. I last saw her a couple of years back, and she had the same welcome as ever, only smiled a little when she asked if I was still making music!

Which was quickly followed with Eddy responding, Mum will be up there with with the broomstick telling David Bowie to keep the racket down.

So that is that, I suppose. I'd feel weird calling her Mrs. Walsh or Mary, so thank you, Eddy's Mum.

It was a privilege to have known you.