Thursday, 27 October 2016

English Telly in Texas

Apparently the BBC and ITV continued to make and broadcast new shows after I left England back in 2011, meaning that when I summon Hulu or Netflix to my massive Texas-sized HD flatscreen gogglebox, looking under categories headed either British Television Shows or Because You Watched Fresh Fields, I find tons of shit that I've never heard of. I sort of imagined the British would stop making new shows once I'd left and probably just stick to either repeats or Only Fools & Horses reimagined with Ant and Dec in the lead roles or something, but no...

So here are the English shows which I've watched since I moved, shows which I've only seen whilst slouched across a Texan sofa, eating tacos, and plucking cactus thorns from my shins. English telly looks very different now that it comes from five-thousand miles away.

Auschwitz: The Nazis & the Final Solution - My wife has always been fascinated by Nazis - although not in the sense of simply exploring controversial ideas and images like the man out of Death in June. In fact, as a general fascination it may even run in the family. I bought her mother a book about psychiatry during the Third Reich for Christmas, a title she said she had wanted. 'Nazis and psychiatrists - my two favourite things,' she chuckled as she opened the present and saw what it was.

'You can't go wrong with Nazis or psychiatrists,' I opined.

'Oh for sure,' she confirmed happily. 'Sometimes I can't decide which I like more.'

Anyway, this one had dramatisations - which always strikes me as a bit Discovery Channel and is something I don't usually like in my documentaries - but for once it worked; and this was a great series, and humongously disturbing, which is as it should be. It's nice to know that the Beeb can still make stuff of this calibre when they put their collective mind to it, assuming it was the Beeb.

Coogan, Steve - I've lost track of what we've watched because my wife fancies him so we've watched everything, some of which has been new to me. The most recent one was Happyish, although admittedly it was an American production presumably resulting from a massive team of writers attempting to turn Coogan into the next Seinfeld without actually understanding what makes him funny. We managed about five episodes but the last of these was so monumentally shite that we've left it at that. Happyish is about an advertising tosspot experiencing a mid-life crisis whilst married to a whiny analyst-seeking woman, in case you're wondering. In one scene we experience his wife's near unendurable suffering as, looking forward to an afternoon's ceramic work in her private craft studio, she is waylaid by a very boring man who won't stop talking, thus keeping her from making a few pots. It really put all the complaining and grousing of those moaning minnies at Auschwitz in perspective.

Detectorists, The - The skinny one from The Office teams up with that lumpy looking bloke who turns up in all the films these days for a comedy about metal detecting, which is mostly funny.

Doctor Who - I think I've seen three of these since I moved and they were all shit. One of them was called The God Complex, which I watched because everyone said oh it's a pity you missed The God Complex because it was by far the best of the season, much better than the rest, but that was shit as well. Doctor Who is unique in this list in being a show I've seen prior to my moving to Texas, but I've made the exception in the hope of upsetting a few people, particularly those whose enjoyment of Doctor Who is somehow ruined just by the simple concept of there being people who regard it as a pile of wank.

Helm's Heavy Entertainment, Nick  - This seems to be an hour-long one-man variety show in which the host invades the personal space of various audience members to comic effect. I've only watched one, and I sort of found it funny, but there was something about the tone I didn't like and I can't quite put my finger on what that might be. It somehow has a touch of the Mumford & Sons about it. It's probably significant that I can't help but regard anyone under the age of forty with a full beard as a complete arsehole.

Impressionists, The - Sometimes one yearns for a more elevated discourse, such as what you get with the arts 'n' shit; and thusly did we watch this four part documentary presented by a man who was such a total cock he could almost have been Robert Elms. The historical and biographical detail of the artists under examination was all very interesting, not least concerning the mighty Camille Pissarro who painted a house to which I delivered mail when I was a postman some hundred years later; but the presenter resembled Cosmo Smallpiece as portrayed by Les Dawson, and he kept playing the ordinary workin' class geezer like what I am card despite clearly being nothing of the sort, and it was all this Monet was the Liam Gallagher of his day crap so as to avoid alienating anyone too stupid to understand unless handed some laddish contemporary comparison every five minutes. It was approximately watchable but our man was no Robert Hughes.

Inbetweeners, The - I see this slagged off left, right and centre, but personally I think it's great. It's a sitcom about four teenagers failing to have sex. It reminds me of the sort of shit people used to talk about at Royal Mail, and as such fills me with a warm glow of nostalgia.

IT Crowd, The - The IT Crowd derives from the same hand that penned Father Ted, and if not quite as good, it's a reasonably close second. I've a feeling this may have been aired whilst I was still living in England but indentured to Marian, which might explain why I wasn't able to watch it. Humour wasn't really her bag. I seriously doubt she would have appreciated The Inbetweeners either.

'Do you think it's a good idea to encourage young boys to rape women?' she probably would have asked me.

Kingdom - I can't remember if his name's supposed to be Dave Kingdom or something, but I expect it's along those lines - as with so many current television productions utilising a single enigmatic word for the title. Dave is played by Stephen Fry and is a crime-fighting lawyer who specialises in gentle, scenic crimes soundtracked by classical music and maybe just a pinch of Sting. There was possibly also a horsey woman in green wellies called either Jocelyn or Margaret. It's okay, I suppose - maybe a bit plummy, which is sort of what I expected.

Lee's Comedy Vehicle, Stewart  - I'm amazed that I'm able to watch this here in Texas given that it's probably tantamount to communism, and I'm really not sure quite how many of my neighbours will be reduced to tears by a relatively esoteric English comedian sneering at Asher D of So Solid Crew. Jeremy Clarkson is unfortunately popular over here, so maybe there's a backlash and Netflix or Hulu or whichever one it is are attempting to cash in. That said, I see Jimmy fucking Carr is also available for my viewing pleasure here in the States, so maybe they just license English stuff because it's English, regardless of quality.

Miranda - This is a show about a woman called Miranda as played by a woman called Miranda. It's a comedy about how she's awkward and is easily embarrassed in certain situations. It's not very funny. I think I saw her live once at some stand-up comedy event. Her routine was mostly focussed on how awkward and embarrassing it was being on stage, and how we probably weren't going to find any of it funny, and we didn't. One of my wife's co-workers thinks Miranda is one of the funniest shows ever made, although to be fair said co-worker isn't actually from Texas.

Misfits - I wish we could go back to writers making the effort to come up with proper titles for what they've written, and could draw a veil across this collective noun thing. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was definitely a better title than Flying Saucers, and Dinosaurs would have been a terrible name for Jurassic Park, and thank God Steinbeck went with Of Mice and Men rather than Thick Losers. Misfits is about a bunch of super-powered ASBO types, and there's a lot of swearing and self-conscious efforts to appear edgy and down with the kids on the street, yeah? I found it difficult to care about this show and only watched two of them.

Moone Boy - This is about a small, rural Irish child and his imaginary friend. It has the potential to be the most twee thing ever broadcast - late period Last of the Summer Wine looking at itself in a mirror - and yet somehow it gets the balance just right and is very, very funny. Amazingly it's written by the bloke who plays the imaginary friend. I had kind of forgotten that written and starring shows don't necessarily have to be shite by definition.

Only Way is Essex, The - I know I've watched at least five minutes of this but I can't remember anything about it. I have a hunch that it might not be Alan Moore's favourite show, although I can't even remember where I got that impression. I have a feeling The Only Way is Essex may even be the English equivalent of Jersey Shore, which means I should probably make the effort to have another look*. Jersey Shore is horrible and yet fascinating.

Peaky Blinders - I watched five minutes of this, waiting for someone to say something, but it was mostly just moody high contrast and high definition shots of nineteenth century squalor with music which sounded like Nick Cave. It was a bit like watching a Nine Inch Nails video, and after five minutes I decided to watch something else. On the other hand, Paul Mercer defriended me on facebook after I posted disparaging comments about this show, so the five minutes weren't entirely wasted.

Plebs - This is a cross between The Inbetweeners and Up Pompeii but missing the crucial ingredients which would have rendered it watchable, namely Frankie Howerd and jokes. I vaguely recall the single episode I watched revolving around misunderstandings relating to women's tits, or something of the sort. It wasn't very good.

Pramface - I think this was sort of like The Inbetweeners but with the humourous content replaced by wry, touching observations about school kids getting knocked up. All I can remember for sure is that it didn't make me laugh.

Primeval - Well, it's no I, Claudius but it has CGI dinosaurs and can be watched without my having to shout oh fuck off and throw things at the screen every few minutes, so that's good enough for me. I think the most recent series was made in conjunction with some sort of US-based nerd channel and was thus a complete waste of time, but then nothing lasts forever. I quite liked the one where they went into the future and encountered weirdly evolved monsters which looked like something from a harrowing Hungarian claymation.

Rev. - This is about a regular Church of England vicar living in Hackney and struggling with the fact of no-one giving a shit about going to church any more. Despite the not particularly promising premise, Rev. was fucking brilliant once it got going. Weirder still was watching this thing and recognising bits of London in the outside shots filmed around where my friend Andy once resided. In one episode there's a block of flats in the background and you can clearly see that it's Fellows Court which I used to visit regularly when Andy lived there. I even knew a bloke who went mad and tried to jump from the roof of Fellows Court whilst believing he could fly. The character of Mick also brought back some happy memories for me.

Spy - Crap dad inadvertently becomes a secret agent in an effort to impress his shit son, or so it is claimed, although I didn't watch enough of this to get to the part where he presumably phones MI5, or however it's supposed to happen. All BBC dramas now look like this one to me - same bit of suburbia with the granite effect work surface and the coffee machine and someone chopping up a kiwi fruit, same comically apologetic father figure taking his kid to football practice with the Arctic Monkeys playing in the background. He's played either by Martin Clunes, that bloke who looks like the blonde one from The Green Wing but isn't him, or the funny one from The Now Show, Outnumbered, and Mock the Week - funny being very much a relative term here, obviously.

Stella - Happily nothing to do with McCartney's jumper-designing kid, but instead a drama with jokes - as the format is known in the telly biz - concerning the trials and tribulations of Ruth Jones as a Welsh cleaning lady. It also features a bloke called Alan who strongly resembles my old boss, one of the few Royal Mail managers I didn't actually hate, so I find that somehow pleasing. I also find Ruth Jones both entertaining and very easy on the eye, so it's nice to discover that I have a whole five series of this thing to get through. Some of them get a bit drippy in places, and I could do without the turdy indie music, but otherwise it's mostly watchable.

Surf-Twat Disappoints Girlfriend's Father - Teenage girl brings digeridoo-playing knob-end back from a festival and her father accurately identifies him as a digeridoo-playing knob-end, with hilarious consequences, or probably just consequences. I think the father was Martin Clunes, but I don't remember what the show was called and there's no way of finding out. Perhaps we will never know.

Wrong Mans, The - This one featured James Cordon and some dude resembling Silvio's right-hand man from Lilyhammer, which was actually why I watched it - because I thought it was him, the ferrety looking chap with the baseball cap and the bumfluff. Anyway the two of them endure a series of improbable scrapes and chuckles derived from having been mistaken for other people. I've never hated James Cordon with quite the same venom as almost everyone else I know, although he can occasionally be irritating, but I thought he was okay in this. It was fairly funny, although the second series was stretching it a bit. It's hardly the greatest show ever broadcast, but it could have been worse, and Alison Steadman's always good.

*: I did and it was horrible.

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Border

We're heading for Laredo on the Mexican border. It's a trip of about 150 miles and we're making it because we can. My wife is off work for the week and has a new car and it's been a few months since we had a day out.

She was driving her beloved Honda Element back to the dealership on Monday when it finally gave up the ghost. It was getting long in the tooth, or whatever cars have which constitute the equivalent of teeth. It was becoming increasingly cranky - prone to stalling for no reason we could work out, and the air conditioning had been on the fritz for the last couple of months. Air conditioning is important in Texas, particularly in August. Ours occasionally blew cold when the car slowed, but was otherwise alternating between not doing much and kicking out a sort of warm, damp sportswear aroma which rendered journeys of more than a couple of miles impractically unpleasant; so my wife was taking the vehicle for either repair or replacement. The dealership was some distance. There's one nearer, but the last time she went to that place, one guy suggested she come back with her husband whilst the other refused to acknowledge her existence, walking away as she tried to explain that she was hoping to buy a car. The dealership to which she was headed on Monday was the one situated in 2016 rather than 1934, but a surfeit of black smoke pouring from the engine dictated that the final part of the journey be facilitated by tow truck. So now we have a new car. We miss the old one, but the new one is significantly more comfortable, runs smoother, and the air conditioning works; and so we're headed for the Mexican border.

Specifically we're headed for Laredo, because we visited once before and liked it enough to want to go again. Laredo isn't quite the southernmost town of the United States, but both McAllen and Brownsville are much smaller, so you could probably say that it's the southernmost town of any size. We went there in January, 2013 but they were having some kind of festival which made it difficult to get a good impression of the place.

Bess visited fairly regularly as a child. Her grandparents would take her across the river to Nuevo Laredo - which is on the Mexican side of the border - so that her grandfather could buy cheap medication and eyeglasses. This was back when you could cross the border without a passport. Coming back, border security would ask him to confirm that his nationality was American and he'd set them straight by testily explaining that he was from Texas, not America.

Bess and I stand on the east bank of the Rio Grande, the river which forms much of the Mexican-American border. This is our first port of call because I want to see Mexico again, even if only from a distance. It isn't even a particularly large river at this point. I could easily swim across, and I'm hardly a great swimmer. On the other side we see trees, the backs of a few houses and yards, and the tiny figures of people sat around on the riverbank, some fishing, some maybe picnicking.

We are looking at people in another country.

It's a strange feeling in so much as that it feels like it should be a much stranger feeling, less prosaic. A great many of those who have yet to stand where I'm stood might anticipate a very different sight, a west bank crowded with those Mexicans, diving into the water one after another, coming over here to take our jobs, to claim welfare, to set up a taco truck on every street corner, and to breed.

'I don't see what's stopping anyone just swimming over,' my wife observes, looking around. Behind us there is a multi-story parking lot, still very much under construction. A railway bridge spans the river a few hundred yards north of where we are stood. We can see no line of economic migrants stepping carefully from one sleeper to the next as they cross. We've seen plenty of border security vehicles, so doubtless there's some guy with a rifle and a pair of binoculars just out of sight, or at least security cameras.

'I suppose this would be where he's going to build his silly wall,' I suggest.

'Maybe that's it right there.' My wife points to a small wire fence at the side of the river and we chuckle to ourselves.

We stand and watch Mexico for a while. We can see people moving around, but they don't look like they're planning anything. Someone in Mexico could shoot me from across the other side and there wouldn't be anything anyone could do about it, but they would have to be a good shot and they would have to have a reason.

Economic migrants from Mexico have been invoked on numerous occasions of my talking to people back in England, specifically people who've swallowed the line about uncontrolled immigration bringing this country to its knees. Having lived and worked in areas of London with a high percentage of immigrants, it is my belief that uncontrolled immigration bringing this country to its knees is bullshit scaremongering perpetuated by the extreme right, having found a way to pass themselves off as reasonable people taking a bold stance in saying that which we're supposedly not allowed to say because of political correctness; and it is my belief based on information accrued through my own direct experience rather than through the nice man on the telly telling us what we want to hear.

'You're talking bollocks,' I'll suggest in my imagination, which can somehow be heard in the inflection of whatever strategic lies I  mutter so as to avoid an argument.

'You know that Mexican border somewhere to the south of you,' the person will begin, before describing Mexicans in sombreros with huge moustaches flooding across to take our jobs, to claim welfare, to set up a taco truck on every street corner, and to breed. I can never work out where they've come by this information, or how they imagine they might be better informed than someone who actually lives in the region under discussion, or how the person has somehow assumed that I'm such a fucking simpleton as to experience a dramatic reversal of opinion now that I've been given a supposed example utilising local points of reference.

Yeah, I didn't understand when you were talking about Polish people, but now the idea seems so much clearer...

Most of all I am baffled.

I've been to Mexico many times. I've been banging on about Mexican culture to anyone who will listen for roughly the past two decades. I live in a city within a couple of hours drive of Mexico, a city with a 60% Hispanic population. Nevertheless, here's some shithead who never even met a Mexican trying to get me on team by playing on my presumed fear of those people down there.

Fuck you.

We've come to Laredo because it reminds me of Mexico. Most of the region in which I now live used to be Mexico, and thankfully there are a few places still holding out against the incursion of Miley Cyrus and all she represents. The streets of Laredo are small, lined with old Spanish buildings painted in bright colours, and the pavements are chipped. We eat at a café on a street corner. It's called Ricardo's, and but for the layout of uninhabited tables, it may as well be somebody's front room. We order tacos, which are cooked as we watch then served on paper plates, and are the best tacos I've had in some time - definitely the genuine article complete with burnt bits. Our hostess either doesn't speak English, or can't be arsed, obliging us to speak Spanish; and it's nice to speak Spanish again. It's nice to have a reason to do so, thus dispensing with the point of feeling a bit self-conscious about it.

It feels like we're in Mexico, and facebook thinks we are. Bess takes a photograph and, by some wizardry I don't quite understand, the photograph instantaneously appears on social media with my fat ass tagged as being in Nuevo Laredo, on the other side of the river, across the border.

After we've eaten, we go for a wander around the town. We pass stores named Sanborn's and Liverpool, presumably no direct relation to the much larger department stores of the same names in Mexico City, and most likely just low-rent attempts to get in on the retail action of their namesakes. Everyone looks Mexican. The signs are all in Spanish, and the place even smells like Mexico City - a touch of drains and hot sun but oddly just evocative rather than unpleasant. It's a town where people live rather than just driving through. Everything is kind of cheap, crappy, and broken, but you get a strong feeling that the people here are doing their best and trying to get by. They don't have much but they take pride in what little they do have.

As we leave the centre, we're back out onto the highways and the sprawl of Walgreens then Walmart then Lowes then Applebees punctuated here and there with a blandly efficient subdivision, pale Lego housing of wood and particle board, and we remember we're in America. We remember we're the lucky ones.

Thursday, 13 October 2016


It's late summer, 2013 and there's going to be a science-fiction convention right here in San Antonio, something called Worldcon which happens every year and is apparently a big deal. I read a lot of science-fiction and I also write science-fiction, but I've never really quite been able to bring myself to think of events of this kind as having anything to do with me. Advertising will typically centre on some person from Babylon 5 being in attendance to sign copies of his autobiography, but that's a television show. I suppose it's science-fiction, technically speaking, but foremost it's a television show. I can't think of a television show I'd watch rather than read a book, and were there one, it probably wouldn't be science-fiction. I vaguely recall having seen two or three episodes of Babylon 5 - one of the good ones, according to its devotees - but it did nothing for me and it seemed to lack a sense of humour.

Apparently I have what is termed an elitist or snooty attitude, meaning I think I'm better than everyone else because my opinions do not reflect those of the majority. All I know is that after the first ten minutes of most television dramas, I'm usually restless and I begin to wonder is this really all it is?; and then my mind wanders to whatever I've been reading of late, meaning I begin to lose track of which character is which and why they just said that to wossisname. It's difficult to avoid a certain sense of superiority when it dawns on you just how easily satisfied so many of your contemporaries appear to be - predicated on their being able to sit through an entire hour of this shit - but then, doesn't everyone regard themselves as superior to those around them? Psychosis aside, is there anyone who genuinely thinks I'm the same as other people, or even I'm much worse than everyone I know?

Still, Roberto will be in town, and he's been making noises about Worldcon, so I figure maybe I should go. It might be interesting and it might even be fun, which probably wouldn't be the case were I to go on my own. When I say Roberto will be in town, I'm referring to San Antonio but I suppose I also mean America because he's Italian. I know Roberto only through an internet connection. He's one of a seemingly dwindling international group of persons who frequent an internet stoop dedicated to the science-fiction author Clifford D. Simak. Simak wrote quietly contemplative and distinctly pastoral science-fiction novels which achieved some popularity throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but he seems to have been largely forgotten in an age wherein the term science-fiction has come to mean generically bland CGI splattered noisily across a screen. The appeal of Simak has apparently determined that those still reading his novels tend to be people who, like myself, don't like loud noises and probably come across as kind of boring to those who do.

Of course, no corner of the internet would be complete without a few disagreeable wankers, and we've even had to banish a few ornery varmints from the virtual stoop upon which we Simak readers perch with our pipes discussing how we all preferred the old beige before some dang fool tried to modernise it and only ended up making it worse; and there's Old Bill who seems eternally committed to proving that he loves Simak so much more than the rest of us, who signs his missives from the bluff, as though he's not sat whining at a fucking computer in a house with electricity, gas, and running water. Old Bill took particular issue with my views on Simaks' somewhat disappointing A Choice of Gods of 1972. I had the impression that Old Bill felt I should have consulted him before expressing an opinion, and he referred to things of which I would probably have had a better understanding had I grown up in the bosom of nature like what he did - oblivious to the fact that I lived on a farm for the first decade of my life.

Anyway, Roberto is one of the more communicative members of the group, even though he sometimes claims to struggle with English. We struck up some kind of rapport when he was ordering a framed print from an artist based somewhere in the American south-west. The problem was that the postage to Italy was extortionate, and in any case he didn't really care about the frame. In the end, he bought the print and had it delivered to me in San Antonio. I removed the artwork from the frame, repackaged it in a sturdy cardboard tube, and then mailed it to him from England when I flew back to visit my parents. It was a convoluted process, but he seemed happy and I was glad to be able to help out. He and his wife have been to America before, notably visiting the small town of Millville, Wisconsin in which Clifford D. Simak was born. This time they're visiting my end of the country, so it seems like an idea to meet up, and their holiday coinciding with Worldcon suggests itself as an opportunity of which we should probably take advantage.

Happily the kid is staying with his father this weekend, because since learning of visitors from Italy most of his conversation has been limited to jokes about Mario Brothers and pizza. It's already sufficiently nerve-racking meeting new people without having to worry about Junior breaking into a few verses of Do the Mario, regardless of the potential irony that he is himself vaguely Italian if you go back a couple of generations.

My wife and I pick Roberto and Rosanna up from their hotel, and I suddenly realise that I'm now the guy showing the out-of-towners around the place I live; which is weird because I was still the foreigner when I woke up this morning. I'm in a position equating to authority and I'm not sure I like it.

We go to eat at La Fonda which specialises in a local variation on Mexican food. It's been called Mexican food for people who don't like Mexican food, but that's really just snobbery and doesn't reflect the quality of what they serve. The place is no Blanco Cafe or Bandera Jalisco, but the food is nevertheless decent, and it seems a prudent choice given Roberto's stated suspicion of anything involving volcanically hot chillies.

We eat, trying not to dwell too long on matters of what Simak may have had for breakfast or who we think would have won in a fight between Simak and any other science-fiction author of his generation. We talk about life in Italy, England, and the United States, and how we all came to be here. Roberto's English is heavily accented but excellent, despite the doubts he has expressed in his virtual missives. He is a little older than I am and reminds me of Carl Sagan. He perhaps speaks slowly for fear of not being understood, but his caution gives his words surprising gravity which works well in conjunction with a powerfully dry sense of humour. Rosanna, his wife, speaks no English but Roberto translates, and her Italian sounds sufficiently close to Spanish for Bess and I to follow the general thrust of what she says. My fears were that this initial meeting might seem incredibly awkward, but we've had a wonderful time.

We meet again the next day. It's Saturday afternoon and Worldcon is in full swing, but we've agreed that we don't really care for much of it. We just want to browse for books we haven't read in the dealers' room, so we're going to do that on Sunday morning because it will work out the cheapest in terms of admission. It's Saturday afternoon and we meet in the heart of San Antonio at their hotel. Bess drops me off so I'm on my own with the visitors and another guy, Kevin who has travelled a couple of hundred miles from somewhere in the north-east of the state, a town on the Louisiana border. He's another fan of Simak and he's here for the Worldcon and to meet Roberto and myself. He's young and chatty, and he seems like a nice guy but our meeting under such circumstances makes me feel somehow uncomfortable.

Meeting was once easy. You went to the pub, and beer and ciggies would do the rest, and even if the person or persons you were meeting turned out to be arseholes, you wouldn't mind because - fuck it - it was a night out. Unfortunately though I no longer smoke, and I'm no longer particularly keen on the booze, and in any case they don't really have pubs in America, just bars, which are a different thing entirely. Meeting is no longer something I do so I'm out of practice, and bereft of a common purpose involving alcohol or tobacco, I'm no longer even sure how it's done. Additionally, one version of the story has this as my home town and I'm showing my friends around; but I've only been here two years and I'm still pretty much lost past the end of our road; and Kevin is a genuine American so he's showing us around by default, taking the lead, which I somehow find both annoying and at the same time a great relief.

I know, I feel like saying as Kevin explains something else without having been asked, I live here, and yet I'm aware that it's not like I'm actually bringing anything useful to the table.

We wander through the Alamo, or at least through the church because it requires no admission fee, but the day is baking hot and it's beginning to feel like we're just using up the time for reasons no-one has quite defined. We could talk about Simak as we wander around the city, but I'm feeling increasingly uncomfortable about Rosanna's partially inevitable exclusion from the conversation.

Kevin mentions Jethro Tull for some reason, and I tell him that I also enjoy their music, prompting his thoughts on the same at a level of detail far beyond anything I've ever cared about. I just listen to the records because I like how they sound, and it feels like I'm being lectured. The only note of accord we strike comes when someone mentions Old Bill who writes from the bluff. It seems we are all at least united in considering him a bit of an idiot.

We go for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins for the sake of something to do, but the place has no tables and we end up all ludicrously squatted along the low window-ledge outside the place watching our fellow tourists crowd into the Alamo. It's too hot and it's difficult to talk and ice cream is dripping onto my hand faster than I can lick it from the cone.

For fuck's sake...

Rosanna takes a photograph of the three of us, the Simak dudes. I resemble Sir Les Patterson in a stetson, which irritates me so much as to inspire the realisation that I must take charge and rescue this encounter from itself, this meeting which isn't so much a meeting as a random juxtaposition of people who vaguely know each other. Rosanna's only concern is that she gets to pick up a few artsy-crafty things for the folks back in Italy, so I've decided that's what she's going to do. I know just the place. There's a massive craft market over by Mi Tierra cafe and bakery, and it's a Mexican craft market so they have great stuff there - hand-made and hand-painted and absolutely no tat, and there's really nothing which is ever considered too weird for sale in a Mexican craft market, so they're always great places to look around even if you're not buying.

I am going to lead my people forth across the town of San Antonio unto the Mexican craft market, and they will see that it is good, and Rosanna shall be happy, and everyone wins. So we trek and we trek following Commerce past the hotel where Roberto and Rosanna are staying, and at each corner we stop and I tell them it's only a little further; but eventually we realise that it isn't, and it's ninety in the shade. Roberto thanks me for making the effort, but he and his wife feel the need to get back into the air conditioning of their hotel. Later I realise I had been leading my people east along Commerce, and Mi Tierra is west. I've only been here a couple of years. I don't have much cause to visit the centre of the city.

Next morning, Kevin, Roberto and myself convene at the entrance of Worldcon. We stump up an admission fee and go and buy books. Roberto's face lights up as he encounters a brace of early editions of Simak novels with covers he's never seen. He has a long talk with the dealer working the stall and I get the impression that this might be the highlight of his visit. It makes me happy for him. I pick up a few books for myself, and the three of us talk about what we've read, what we would like to read, who sounds interesting and so on.

'This guy is supposed to be pretty good,' Kevin observes picking up a novel by Mark Hodder, so I get to be the arsehole who had the bloke in the back of his cab, once again.

We marvel at the Lego and eventually leave as the place starts to close, each going his separate way, Kevin back to the north-east, Roberto to the hotel and eventually to Italy.

It ended well.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Back to School

Here in Americaland the school year begins half way through August, about a month earlier than it did in England. The back to school advertising campaign therefore begins to make itself felt around the end of July, this year intruding on my own existence mainly as Brec Bassinger's face plastered all over my local supermarket. Back 2 School Solved, the campaign promises, cleverly substituting a preposition for a numeral so as to give mega-wicked shout outs to text-invested juveniles whilst simultaneously fostering the falsehood of a new school year constituting a font of conundrums so fiendish as to tax the wisdom of Gandalf himself.

What will the kids wear this year?

What will they eat?

Clothes and food in that order, would be my suggestion.

You may remember Brec Bassinger from such shows as Bella and the Bulldogs, according to Wikipedia, although I don't, and I'm not even convinced that Brec is a name; but I suppose Bella and the Bulldogs is popular with the yoots, so there she is in my local supermarket, peering over the top of her sunglasses and promising to unravel the enigma that is back 2 school. She goes undercover in the television commercials - a false moustache, a comically unconvincing disguise, and a surreptitious wink to the viewer as she infiltrates the school to see what sort of shit the kids be into in the two-double-zilch-six. Suddenly she spots a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunch box...

'Sweet!' she declares, as the mystery dissipates and all becomes as clear as an unmuddied lake. That which was unknown and unseen to the eyes of men is now known.

Back to school in England - at least from 1977 to 1981 - was mostly just grinning kids with pencils and folders. It was depressing, but without any obvious suggestion of George Orwelling anybody into believing we might be looking forward to it. Maybe some were, but for the most part I hated school, notwithstanding those details which made it seem endurable - mainly the art lesson and break time.

So far as I can tell, Junior accepts school as a necessary evil. He doesn't seem to hate it as I did, although I think he's remained more or less impervious to Brec Bassinger's enthusiastic anticipation of the new academic year and all those cool Steven Universe backpacks it will herald. From his generally cheerier disposition I gather he at least appreciates the difference between this school and the place he attended before, a military academy seemingly specialising in churning out the sort of loyal overmoneyed Republicrat drones for which Texas is unfortunately renowned. Back to school isn't so bad as it may once have seemed, I suppose.

It's also back to school for us, his parents, or at least his mother and stepfather. We are invited in for some parent-teacher thing one evening. We meet the teachers we've already met on a number of occasions and they show us around the different class rooms.

We see some kind of general workshop equipped with screwdrivers, benches, handsaws, and a couple of 3D printers because we're living in the future, and a teacher assures us that the kids will be making stuff this coming year. Next we visit a drama studio with one wall taken up by mirrors just like in Billy Elliott despite this being Texas; and then a miniature television studio with cameras and editing equipment which makes that to which I had access when taking my degree in Time Based Media back in the eighties seem somewhat pitiful; and finally the maths room, or maths lab, or the room where they do sums. A teacher explains to us how she will be concentrating mainly on the genius-level kids and the rest will just have to do their best, but I think she's some kind of assistant who's there to help out the regular maths teacher, and it won't be quite so Darwinian as it sounds.

Junior's English teacher is present, so I take the opportunity to have a word with her. I can't actually remember what subject she teaches but she was born in England and moved to San Antonio at the age of eleven, so obviously I'm curious. It turns out that she grew up in Surrey, but I experience a brainfart and am unable to recall quite where that is - below London somewhere. I don't know if I've been there.

Similarly I don't really know why we're here, and neither does Bess. Over the past couple of years we've seen enough of the school to have some faith in its teaching staff. We trust that they know what they're doing, and the kid seems to be learning stuff, if the endless liturgy of facts and statistics he spends evenings barking at us in lieu of conversation is any indication.

'Did you know that there's a fish which can literally fly out of the water, like it can really fly?'

'Yes,' I say, leaving my wife to make the encouraging noises.

'Let me see,' he elaborates as though particularly glad that we should have asked. 'Um, well it literally flies. I'm not joking. Basically it like literally flies out of the water,' and he's off on a halting reiteration of whatever he retained from school that day, usually seguing into drivel from the internet, a video of the man who ate the world's hottest chilli pepper, observations shared by the really important YouTube people, the sort of inconsequential crap which even Brec Bassinger probably doesn't care about that much.

Still, right now we're waiting in the hall by the lockers. They're the sort of lockers you see in teenage dramas set in American high schools just before you switch the television off and read a book instead, which I state because we didn't have lockers in my day, just crappy sports bags tattooed with badly rendered logos of heavy metal bands in blue biro. Junior's locker is by happy coincidence next to that of the girl he likes. She's not quite his girlfriend so much as a friend who is a girl, so far as we can tell. She likes riding bikes, Minecraft, and sheep. We've met her but we don't know anything else about her, or even whether there is anything else about her. Anyway, when the lockers were assigned, our boy found he was right next to Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl, so he was very happy about that.

The teachers are going to see us all one on one - or presumably one on two in our case - and each will give election promises of how much more educated our child will be under his or her tutelage by the time June swings around and the school year draws to a close.

'Isn't that what they've just been telling us?' I ask. 'It's like they don't think we believe them.' I imagine the boy turning up on the first day. Teachers are sat around playing poker. One points in the general direction of the library and mutters knock yourself out, Brainiac.

'Yeah,' confirms Bess. 'I really don't feel we need to see every last room. Maybe we should duck out before they start up again.'

So we duck out, and get the rest of our evening back.

We attended similar events at the previous place, the military academy. All I can recall are overmoneyed facelifty crackers grilling teachers about whether their seven-year old will get extra credit for reading more books than is scholastically required by the curriculum. I guess tonight's gathering was mainly for the benefit of parents of that type, those who lay awake at night worrying over the certainty of little Poindexter's future career in the upper echelons of management, the kind of parents who probably shouldn't have bothered having children in the first place.

A week passes and we're back again, this time at some sort of pool party in Alamo Heights, a stone's throw from the school. I have even less idea what this one is about, but suppose it's just a social thing for the sake of it, so what the hell? Why not?

The day hasn't gone too well, and I've been running late in everything I've done. I make a pie and some coleslaw to take along to the pool party because it occurs at the time of evening during which we're normally eating, but the pie is a pain in the ass to make, taking much longer than anticipated and involving a lot of swearing. I'd been hoping to fit in some weeding for the sake of both the garden and exercise but I don't get time, so I decide to swim instead.

The pie turns out okay, and is a definite improvement on the underwhelming crap
dished out by the food trucks at the previous pool party. Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl is a no-show unfortunately, so Junior takes to the centre of the pool and spends on hour practicing his diving. He's very good.

I swim the length of the pool about six times but I'm too poor a swimmer for it to be pleasurable and I keep getting dive-bombed by little kids. It also bothers me that I seem to be the only adult in the pool aside from one of the teachers, so after I feel I've suffered enough, I give up and climb out.

I notice the English teacher and remember that Marian was from Surrey - Richmond or Twickenham or one of those places filled with horsey types. It occurs to me that the English teacher may even have been at school with Marian. Nothing would surprise me any more.

As I look for my wife I pass a girl I'll call Eva. She's in the same class as our boy and clearly has a thing for him. She's a tall, skinny and endearingly pushy kid about whom Junior's grandmother said, 'I really get a kick out of that girl.' We all think Eva's great, so we've been trying to coax the boy in her general direction to sadly little avail. Eva's star burns mystifyingly dim set next to that of Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl, whom we must therefore assume has hidden qualities.

I suppose what will be will be.

The kid has a couple of friends here tonight, but there he is alone at the centre of the pool doing his own thing at the beginning of a new academic year. I suppose he and I probably have more in common than I realise.