Friday, 30 December 2016

2016 from What I Can Remember

2016 has generally been characterised as the year which can fucking fuck the fuck off, at least on facebook. Up until a couple of days ago I remained sympathetic but uncommitted to this verdict because people are dying all the time, it's just that this year they were mostly people we'd all heard of. Then on Saturday the 17th of December I discovered that my friend Robert Dellar had died, which more or less settled it for me. He was fifty-two and had just had his birthday. A few days later, Sophia Pearsun wrote:

I have been speaking with the coroner and our family GP yesterday and today and it has been decided that there needs to be a post-mortem done to determine cause of Robert's death. Robert was anaemic, but other than that all other test results were within healthy ranges.

Robert had been feeling unwell with low energy since about May this year. This got worse around two months ago when Robert also started to be in pain when he lay down. This was sometimes helped by sitting up but occasionally Robert needed to stand to make the pain go away. Robert got very few hours sleep and not more than two to three hours at a time, usually far less. The exception to this was Thursday when he slept all night.

Last Wednesday, Robert had another blood test and it showed that his haemoglobin levels had started to fall again. Robert was told to go to hospital to get a transfusion. On Friday, his fifty-second birthday, we went to the hospital with a letter from our GP. Robert's blood was tested again. Blood oxygen levels were normal. Haemoglobin levels had also risen since Wednesday which resulted in Robert not being eligible for a blood transfusion. Robert was pleased that he didn't need to stay in hospital. We went home and had tea and birthday cake. We spent a pleasant evening in reading, listening to music and watching telly.

When I got up on Saturday morning, Robert was awake and asked me to get him a cup of tea. I made him some, said goodbye and went out at around 10.15. When I got back at approximately 13.45, I opened the front door to find Robert dead on the hallway floor.

It turned out to have been a pulmonary embolism, apparently meaning it would have been quick and without pain. Robert and I were never close as such, but I'd known him a long time and we had collaborated on a cartoon strip called Raffy the Psychiatric Labrador. He was one of the gang therefore yes, 2016 can most certainly fucking fuck the fuck off so far as I'm concerned.

The death of Lemmy of both Motörhead and Hawkwind almost certainly came at the tail end of 2015 but somehow felt like part of the reaper's open season on top pop personalities which later claimed both David Bowie and Prince; but I'm writing from memory here. I've kept a diary going for the duration of 2016, but I can't be bothered to spend six hours going through it all, day by day, so I'm going to work on the assumption that I will have remembered the things which were worth remembering.

David Bowie's death somewhat knocked me sideways. I gave up on him back in 1980 when he decided he'd really just wanted to be Marty Robbins all along, but the internet coaxed me into buying Blackstar out of curiosity, and for the sheer thrill of buying a brand new vinyl album in a record shop. Amazingly it turned out to be a genuinely great vinyl album, which made me feel somewhat guilty at having ignored the man for most of the previous three decades; and then suddenly he was dead, and as stated it knocked me sideways, and specifically it knocked me sideways into the local head shop because it's the only place where I can buy tobacco which isn't completely disgusting. I only smoke when unusually stressed, an indulgence I allow myself mainly because I now seem to be able to give up once I've reached the end of the packet, and I suffer no further cravings. There was almost certainly more to my being stressed than the death of David Bowie, but whatever else was going on I can't remember, so it was probably something to do with Junior's continued aversion to flushing the toilet.

I gave up smoking yet again and then Prince died, which was sad but which concerned me less, and at least didn't drive me back to the snouts. The radio filled with glowing tributes omitting the fact of his work having been mostly unlistenable since Sign o' the Times. My wife and I watched Purple Rain in tribute but it wasn't very good.

My next ciggies as therapy session was inspired by the election of the Annoying Orange. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised what with the way the world has been going. They want to make America great again. Personally I'd rather make America Mexico again, but apparently that's just me.

The United Kingdom had just about voted to leave the European Union way back in March or April or whenever it was, signalling a general return of civilisation to the political right. I had a few predictable arguments on facebook, and one unpredictable one with Harley Richardson who kept on repeating that the English people have spoken, which was also what my dad said and sounded nothing like the headline of a crowd pleasing newspaper which tells you what you want to hear. Apparently the notion that people had voted as they did due to an increasing hatred of those Islams coming over here and claiming our benefits was a tissue of lies forged by the leftie media owned by that notorious Marxist Rupert Murdoch and his Stalin-loving paymasters back in the Kremlin. Harley explained this to me very carefully, or he explained something to me very carefully, but not having attended a grammar school I was unfortunately too stupid to understand. Harley also weighed in on the climate debate, opining something along the lines of how we just don't know because there's no evidence, but sadly I was once again simply too stupid to understand.

Oh well.

Then it happened again in America. Just an hour ago I heard some bloke on the radio explaining how our President-elect had once eliminated contestants on his game show, The Apprentice, on a weekly basis; and when eliminating those contestants, he'd always consulted his two assistants to see what they thought about who he was about to stuff down the business end of his giant allegorical cannon; and a couple of times he'd consulted his own children, that week serving in an advisory capacity on the aforementioned game show, presumably taking a break from the entirely legal destruction of wildlife.

So that was a weight off my mind.

I suppose France will be next to fall to the forces of common sense, and we'll find that the French people have spoken, and soon the whole world will be great again, just like it was in the nineteen-fucking-thirties.

I read sixty-six books this year, although a few of them were comic books. I'm not sure which I liked best. The weirdest one would almost certainly have been something by Robert Moore Williams, who was churning them out up until the mid-seventies but whom I'd never even heard of until this year. The worst would have to be a toss-up between the Disney's Alice Through the Looking Glass novelisation and Simon Messingham's The Indestructible Man. In other media, I also discovered the wonderful music of Young Fathers and Ricardo Villalobos - although to be fair the Ricardo Villalobos album turns out to be over ten years old - and there was a new Pixies album, which was jolly nice. We saw both Lewis Black and Henry Rollins performing live, but not together obviously. I didn't watch much telly, but The Path was pretty great, and my wife and I discovered Jersey Shore. I think I may have watched an episode of Doctor Who with Peter Bacardi but I'm not sure which one it was. It was better than I expected, although on the other hand, whenever I hear something by Coldplay it usually turns out to be better than I expected.

I painted book covers for an Esperanto translation of Clifford Simak's Way Station, a couple of Faction Paradox novels, and something by Simon Bucher-Jones - although that may have been at the end of last year. I drew a couple of episodes of Raffy the Psychiatric Labrador for Robert Dellar's Southwark Mental Health News, and I wrote a fucking ton, some of which may have emerged in published form here and there, although apparently I'm not very good at keeping track of that sort of thing.

This was also the year in which I first entered a synagogue, and Bess and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, and I renewed contact with Rob Colson and Jeremy Diston - both old friends to whom I had not spoken in a while. I was on the local television news talking about sewerage, and the doctor said I was too fat so I lost some weight. I tried eating boring food but it didn't make the slightest bit of difference, so I added five miles to my daily bike ride and that seemed to do the trick. Bess's car blew up so she bought a new one, and we acquired a new kitten. He's called Jello and he is the same colour as our incoming president - but obviously nicer, which brings us up to eight in total, not counting the strays I feed.

We bought our house.

Dee Dee and her family over the road moved out when her landlord sold the place, which was a shame, but I still see Angela on the tills at HEB and they seem to have settled in fine at their new place.

Also, I found out that the farm on which I lived in rural Warwickshire for the first eleven years of my life is the farm on which Teletubbies was filmed. The Teletubbies set was in the corner of a field in which I use to roam as a kid.

There was probably some other stuff which happened in 2016, but I'm sure that's enough to be going on with.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Tonight I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1989

'It's an eighties party,' my wife tells me. 'It's Mari's husband's birthday.'

I know I've probably met Mari being as I've met quite a few people from the place where my wife works, but as usual I can't summon a face. The other two factors here are that I'm not really big on parties and I hated the eighties.

Okay, that's not entirely true, but given that when we say the eighties we usually mean either music or whatever music happened to be wearing, my eighties was characterised mostly by bands no-one had heard of or which were at least an acquired taste. If asked which names of that decade have left an enduring impression on me I'd have to say acts like the Apostles, Test Department, Einstürzende Neubauten, and whatever Jim Thirlwell was calling himself that particular week. Many persons whom I knew during the eighties now seem to spend a lot of time taking quizzes on facebook, particularly quizzes resting on whether or not one is able to recall that Spandau Ballet existed. I actually do recall that Spandau Ballet existed and if forced to say something nice I'd have to admit that Instinction was a decent song, but let's not go crazy. It was a decade like any other, no better, no worse, and all the really, stupid stuff only appears significant when it's your childhood and you haven't had much going on since. Personally I think the seventies were funnier with marginally better music, or at least the rubbish wasn't quite so bad, as illustrated by Bros making the Bay City Rollers sound like the Sex Pistols; but then it's all subjective.

My wife has chosen to approximate Madonna with big hair, lace, and a ton of jewellery. Following Halloween, I'm reluctant to let fancy dress become a way of life. Maybe I could go as Paul Mex or one of Opera For Infantry. In the end I just wear the suit and tie I wore for Noah's Bar mitzvah. It's a skinny tie like Joe Jackson favoured - or if that doesn't work, I'm one of those guys who wore a suit and tie in the eighties. Let's just pretend I was in a synth band who had a hit single about androids or something.

We drive out to Cibolo, a town about half the way between San Antonio and New Braunfels. Mari lives in the suburbs, so it takes us a few minutes to find the place.

I remember her immediately, a Latina with a face which makes it appear as though she's always excited about something. She doesn't quite look old enough to remember the eighties; and she is apparently married to Slash from Guns 'n' Roses. Also present are a number of goths as distinguished by backcombing, black clothes, and t-shirts of bands I didn't like even then. Introductions are effected.

Yes, I'm from England.

'Dude,' bellows Slash jovially, 'the eighties in England, man - punk rock and the Clash...' His point is that I don't seem to have made much of an effort in the wardrobe department, which is true.

This is the juncture at which I remember I'm in America, and everyone else's eighties was different to mine. Once past the brief splash of colour provided by Prince, Madonna, and the occasional British artist, the American eighties seems to have been mostly hair metal and related bands I've customarily spent my life crossing the road to avoid. Heavy metal, and specifically the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, was pretty much the village idiot of the musical landscape of my youth, and everyone in the town where I grew up fucking loved that shit except for me. Of course there are exceptions - Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and a few others managed to crank out a few decent tunes without falling over - but the rest...

Unemployed pipe-fitters from Studley pretending to be Vikings, a weird sort of pride taken in being a bit of a cunt, and a shitty sludge of widdly-widdly-guitar-solo music which never fucking realised that Spinal Tap was supposed to be funny: it's not that rock 'n' roll really needs 'O' levels as such, but it's nice when it can at least tie its own shoelaces. The Ramones managed it fine, and no-one ever accused them of talking down to their audience. Heavy metal is a man who realises he's pissed himself, and continues to piss himself even as it's pointed out to him, and instead of shuffling off to make use of what facilities are available, he roars with laughter and calls for more ale; and somehow they loved all that cartoon crap over here - Judas Priest, Saxon, Def Leppard, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Twisted Sister...

I help myself to food, then head into the garage in search of beer. The garage doubles up as a man cave. There's a fridge full of beer, a flat screen television, weight lifting paraphernalia, and a humourous information poster listing the rules of the man cave as a series of bullet points. I'm too scared to read it because I don't want to think ill of anyone, although in any case the light is not good, flashing red and green and provided by some piece of disco equipment.

I take a Bud Light, which tastes about as interesting as I thought it would but gets the ball rolling. I have a second can back in the kitchen as more guests arrive and I study the posters on the wall - mostly films in which Michael J. Fox taught the adults a lesson about what it means to be young. Hopefully the posters have been put up for the sake of the party.

We stand out in the back garden for a while because it's now cold and dark, which is a novelty in Texas, and Slash's brother has built a small wood fire which blazes and spits and smells good. It makes me think of bonfire night back in England, back on the farm - the bonfires we built at the back of Rex Harding's house with dead conifers dragged all the way from the spinney.

Bess is having a great time but I'm still feeling awkward and slightly out of it. I need more drink. Slash's brother is telling us how many important people and big knobs were once in the scouts. He seems to think this is a good thing but to me it makes the scouts sound like the Freemasons.

I try jello shots which either Slash or Mari have made. I've never had them before. In fact I'd never heard of them until I saw Parks and Recreation, but I gather it's jelly made with vodka or similar, or jello as it's termed over here. There's a tray of them, red and orange in little plastic cups. Slash demonstrates, holding one up to his mouth, his head tipped back. 'You squeeze it at the sides, then like flip it out onto your tongue,' - he swallows - 'and back like an oyster.'

I've never eaten an oyster either. I try, but it doesn't go smoothly. I'm stood in a stranger's kitchen apparently giving a demonstration of cunnilingus to a little plastic cup of orange flavoured jelly. It tastes alcoholic but not so strong as I expected, so I have another.

Fuck it.

Back in the man cave, Slash is playing Kiss, which is okay as they're one of the few bands who got this sort of thing right. I Love it Loud comes on, which is one of my favourites.

'You're from England, ain't you? Judas Priest, man...'

Again, I am unable to grasp the thrust of his thesis but I nod anyway, which seems to be the right answer. Slash grabs me a beer from the fridge, from his special collection. It's in a bottle and I've never heard of it, but I notice that it was next to a bottle of Flat Tire in the fridge. This seems ominous because I don't like Flat Tire, and sure enough this one has a bit of an unpleasant tang too it - like barley wine or Special Brew, one of those things designed to get teenagers as hideously pissed as possible thus alleviating their boredom.

Bess and I talk to one of the goths, and it turns out that she grew up in Suffolk back in England. Her family are American but they lived in England for a while. She remembers the day Channel Four first went on air, but not Brookside.

Never mind.

She works at San Antonio zoo, which is sort of interesting because Bess and I are regular visitors. Slash continues to ply me with whisky in shot glasses whilst howling things from time to time. He's one happy guy.

A black dude arrives with his wife. He's gone for the metal look, whilst his wife is something in the general direction of Madonna. Our host changes the music to rap, specifically the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. Bess and I exchange an uncomfortable glance, but I suppose it's no more weird than people cueing up to relate their anecdotes of the time they went to England, or the English guy they met fifteen years ago, or the eighties in England, man - punk rock and the Clash...

I somehow impress my wife by immediately recognising the voice of Ice-T and knowing the words to Public Enemy's Bring the Noise.

Doesn't everyone?

I'm drunk, but not drunk enough and I guess I never will be, so we leave. We've managed three hours which seems like plenty to me. I've had a good time whilst nevertheless feeling awkward for most of it. I never have been a party guy, and I don't really like getting drunk, and as for the music...

Three nights later, Bess has one of her semi-regular Mom's Night Out meet-ups. She gets together with Andrea and Jana and a few of the others for food and drink and to talk about mom stuff. For the first time ever, I am invited along because the numbers are down what with everybody having gone away for Thanksgiving, so I go along as a sort of honorary Mom.

I fit right in.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Robert Dellar

Photo: Shirley Pearson.

Going back thirty years to Friday the 15th of July, 1983, here's what I wrote in my diary.

I'm really getting to hate my paper round. I got the Sudden Surge of Power compilation through the post from Larry Peterson along with tons of other stuff. The tape is excellent. My favourites are by Mex, Cult of the Supreme Being and Mandible Rumpus, all of which I'm surprised to find are superior to tracks by the big names like Chris & Cosey, Test Dept, 400 Blows and so on. The weather is bloody hot as usual. I must get down to some recording one of these days.

Should it require explanation, A Sudden Surge of Power was a compilation cassette costing a couple of quid and distributed through the mail, advertised in fanzines and showcasing music created for the most part outside of the existing music industry infrastructure - bands you've never heard of recording their efforts on home stereos, in their bedrooms and so on. Cult of the Supreme Being had two songs on the tape, Chlorine Fills My Lungs and God is Thicker Than Water. The booklet which came with the tape describes them thus:

The Cult of the Supreme being started in February 1982. They played gigs at Kelly Drake's party, the Centro Iberico Anarchist Centre, and Watford Girls Grammar School before splitting up in March '82, appearing with such convenient namedrops as Twelve Cubic Feet, Replaceable Hedz, the Apostles, and the Godless Pinkoes.

Since this short spate of activity, David has joined the Expansion Chambers propaganda and fundraising arm of the Watford Revolutionary Bakuninite Collective whose activities include setting fire to the local branch of McDonalds and declaring Hunton Bridge roundabout a republic. Robert is now in the Wanderin' Graves, a post-modernist skiffle-art biscuit tin orchestra.

The Robert in question was Robert Dellar and I soon became familiar with his name as it reappeared on other hissy tapes with photocopied covers, notably Khmer Rouge's Year Zero Disco from Dead Hedgehog Records upon which he is credited with keyboards.

I made quite a respectable quota of friends through the cassette thing, and I kept in touch with a few of them over the years, notably various members of the Apostles and their pals. Ten years later I was living in London and had come to know a number of these people in person, having ended up as second guitarist for Academy 23, the band formed by Dave Fanning and Andy Martin in the wake of the aforementioned Apostles. Our first somewhat shambolic live performance was at Hackney Hospital in 1994, a gig put on for the benefit of psychiatric patients and organised largely by Robert Dellar, now working for the patients council.

We hadn't become bosom buddies or anything, but we knew each other, and I suppose you might say we were all in the same gang - an extended sprawl of artists, writers, musicians, and awkward buggers loosely in orbit of various squatted premises on the Brougham Road in Hackney. We often ended up in the same pub and Robert seemed a decent guy - quiet, intelligent, funny, and somehow always reminding me of a young Peter Cook - strikingly good looking. Also he was one of the few people I knew who liked the New York Dolls more than I did, so he had that Byronic rock dude thing going on without being a dick about it. I think I freaked him out a bit when I first introduced myself as a fan of the Cult of the Supreme Being. I think he was hoping we'd all forgotten.

We seemed to live on opposite sides of our shared social circle, but his name remained a constant because it was always Robert is doing this or are you going to Robert's thing? and Robert's thing eventually became Mad Pride, a series of gigs and CDs set up for the benefit of those obliged to use the services of the psychiatric profession. I vaguely knew he'd written books, or at least edited them, and I was slightly miffed that he'd never asked me to contribute to his Gobbing, Pogoing, and Gratuitous Bad Language anthology - although to be fair my contribution probably wouldn't have been up to much - but anyway, the Ceramic Hobs were playing at a Mad Pride event at the Garage in Islington and I'd fooled them into letting me drop science - as the rappers say - on one track. So I turned up and paid my money, then Robert arrived and told me that I needn't have paid seeing as I was a performer. He even seemed a bit miffed on my behalf and I was almost surprised that he even remembered who I was. I'd assumed he had me down as one of Andy Martin's adoring session musicians, but apparently not.

More recently, despite my having moved to Texas, he recruited me as cartoonist for Southwark Mental Health News - a magazine he put together as part of his involvement with the patients council at Maudsley Hospital, but retaining much of the spirit of the kind of punk fanzines through which I'd first encountered his name. The hospital had adopted a no smoking policy and recruited a sniffer dog named Raffy for the purpose of locating sneaky packets of fags stuffed down the back of beds. Raffy was introduced to patients as a welcome addition to the team, helping you along the road to recovery because everyone loves his waggy tail and happy bark as he confiscates the one thing that's keeping you from really losing it - all for your own good. Naturally Robert felt strongly inclined to take the piss out of this potential violation of the rights of a particularly vulnerable group of patients, and so we came up with the cartoon strip. It was at least fifteen years past the point at which I'd had much interest in drawing cartoons and my eyes weren't what they had been, but it really seemed like something worth doing; and it was, proving popular with more or less everyone who read it, so I'm told, which made a nice change from the days of drawing material about which no-one gave two shits even when it got published.

On Friday the 9th of December, 2016, Robert left the following message on facebook:

I had an ultrasound today at Lewisham Hospital. I've been unwell for a few months now - hence have kept a low profile: no energy - but don't know exactly what's causing this. Maybe the ultrasound results will shed some light on it, maybe not.

Then on Thursday the 15th of December:

Tomorrow I have to go to hospital for another blood transfusion as my haemoglobin levels are low again. Might have to stay in over the weekend. Tomorrow is also my birthday. A strange way to celebrate. Maybe someone will bring me a cake. I have packed for all eventualities and have earplugs and a good book.

Finally, on Saturday the 17th of December I read the following message posted by Shirley Pearson, his long-term partner:

Our beloved Robert died today.

He has been unwell since May this year and very unwell for the past couple of months.

I found him dead at home earlier this afternoon.

I have tried to contact as many of you as possible personally. Sorry to anyone who is hearing the news this way. I will update you as soon as I know anything else.

I still haven't quite taken it in. I think back to all he did, and to all the people whose lives would have been so much poorer without Robert involving them in this, that or the other, and it seems impossible that his existence can simply have stopped just like that. I had an idea he probably wasn't in the best of health and may not have been for some time, but still this seems wrong, something which happens in an alternate timeline but not here. I consider all those millions of miserable, joyless, shrivelled-up fuckers out there busily poisoning the collective consciousness against anyone or anything slightly unfamiliar, and yet the Death Gods somehow decided it was Robert's time? How the hell does that work? His narrative has come to an end and is a finite thing. This world has no Robert Dellar in it, which really fucking stinks. Like I say we were never bosom buddies but he was one of the gang, someone I was glad to know, one of the few people I've known for most of my life and now he's dead.

I've managed to avoid getting too upset because it's better to remember that even though he's gone, the main thing is that he was here in the first place and that he made a huge difference to the lives of many, not just those of us who knew him. In some sense, he's still there, still with fingers wiggling about in a million different pies, still making the world a better place; but he's in a part of it to which we can no longer travel, a part accessed only by memory. He's gone but at least he was here.

Goodbye, old friend. You are missed more than you probably would have realised.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Children of Abraham II

Whilst browsing for Halloween clobber at the local Goodwill, I'd noticed several suit jackets. Now I'd gone back to buy one. I once wore suits all the time - nothing flashy and nothing too businessy, just whatever I'd found in the local charity shop which looked reasonably smart, usually worn with a plain white shirt and sometimes a tie. I've always liked a nice suit. I've always liked that a nice suit isn't jeans and a t-shirt with a slogan, or indeed anything signifying the three years of commodified teenage rebellion traditionally occurring at the tail end of school or college and just before you take that job with Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, Johnson & Johnson. It's not that I've ever been a mod of any description, but a decent suit works anywhere under almost any circumstances. I went to Mexico in a suit five times and never had any trouble. Taxi drivers assumed I was some kind of businessman rather than a tourist, and possibly also German rather than American or English. People generally left me alone, presumably taking my slightly lived-in appearance to mean that I wasn't the sort of businessman who made any money.

Keen to distance myself from men dressed as giant children - sneakers, shorts, baseball cap, t-shirt sporting a picture of a cartoon character, and often seen driving a truck resembling a Claes Oldenburg recontextualisation of a Tonka toy - I decided I needed a suit. Also, we had a Bar mitzvah to attend, and Bess suggested formal attire would be appreciated.

Previous girlfriends had frowned upon my suits, missing the point, believing I would do better to act my age which somehow meant pretending to be eighteen, pretending to be into either Lush or Groove Armada, and pretending to give a pungent brown one about anything recommended by Time Out magazine. With hindsight, I'm surprised Marian didn't explicitly order me to grow a beard and take to wearing a cloth cap. Possibly that would have been next on the agenda had I not jumped ship. On the other hand, Bess told me I looked very smart, which was nice; and on an unrelated note, it occurred to me that this was the second weekend running of my visiting Goodwill in search of clothing appropriate to the context of an Abrahamic faith besides Christianity. Also, I was pleased to see that the cuddly tiger with the winning smile had gone, suggesting that someone had given him a good home.

We turn up at nine in the morning, an hour which surprises us all as I've long since ceased to associate it with appointments of any kind less dramatic than catching a plane. It's a synagogue identified on the invitation as Congregation Agudas Achim, the Yiddish apparently meaning Fellowship of Brothers. I've reached my fifties without ever having been inside a synagogue or having knowingly had much contact with Jewish culture or anyone Jewish, at least not beyond Sid - whom I suppose might be considered my stepfather-in-law by some definition - and my friend Mhairi, a woman to whom I once delivered mail and whose intelligent conversation rendered the job less of a chore on a number of occasions. Anyway, we're looking at a three-hour ceremony, but I'm hoping it will be interesting for at least some of that time, being somewhat outside of my experience.

The Bar mitzvah is a Jewish coming of age ceremony conducted when a boy reaches thirteen, the boy in this case being Noah, one of Junior's classmates from school. Bess wears heels and a sober dress. Junior and myself are in our suits and ties, and as we enter the synagogue we are each given a red satin yamulke with which to cover our heads as a gesture of respect; just like in the films, I think to myself.

The ceremony is indeed three-hours long as promised, possibly a little over, and - against all odds - remains engrossing throughout. Much of it seems to be based around readings from the Torah, specifically the story of Noah, the one who famously built the boat rather than the thirteen-year old boy stood up front. It occurs to me that Noah the child has probably had thirteen years of jokes about boats, rain, and judicious animal pairings, and might legitimately roll his eyes at some point; but he doesn't, and the more personal testimonials of the morning suggest that he's been looking forward to this day for a long time, even approaching his Rabbi without having been pushed to ask how soon he can get to learning as much as he can of the ceremony; and weirdly, I'm beginning to understand why.

The ceremony is conducted by Rabbi Abraham, reading or else addressing the congregation and talking us through it all, and Hazzan Lipton, who sings verses from the Torah entirely in Yiddish, unaccompanied by any instrument because his voice itself is enough. The role of the Hazzan is to sing, to lead the congregation in prayer. Wikipedia insists there is an equivalent in the Christian church, but I guess not one that does either weddings or funerals, those being more or less the extent of my own involvement with the same. I have encountered music in churches here in Texas, and thus far it has been uniformly terrible - twee modern hymns trying far too hard set to twanging rhinestone-laden country and western, either from compact disc played far too loud through a tinny PA or a live cabaret band. Taking pleasure from music in a place of worship is a new one on me and it catches me out. I find it strange to hear a human voice, loud and clear in the cavernous space of a place of worship, and to hear it unalloyed by instrumentation. The words are Hebrew, and the notation is very clearly Middle-Eastern - reminding me that Judaism and Islam have more in common than we generally acknowledge - and it is very, very powerful. I wonder if I'm having one of those religious experiences you always hear about. I suppose in some sense I am.

We're up and down every few minutes, sitting or standing according to which seems appropriate, and we follow along in hymn books and copies of the Torah with pages ordered in reverse to that with which I am familiar. Each page contains the Yiddish text rendered in both Hebrew and the Arabic script of our own alphabet, then a phonetic rendering which even I am able to follow, with extensive notes elsewhere on the page. The notes are what I find the most interesting, being an insight into a religious system which I realise I really don't know at all. The notes explain that some of what we're hearing expresses good wishes upon humanity as a whole, regardless of faith. Other notes question the various means by which certain verses have been interpreted during the centuries since they were written, and one passage refers to Judaism seemingly never having quite reached a conclusion regarding the possibility of an afterlife. I could be mistaken, but Judaism is beginning to look a lot like a faith which does what a faith should do, actively legislates against becoming an exclusive club, and isn't afraid to admit that it doesn't know everything or that some of those tales may be allegorical. All this and the music is great too.

At some point the Torah is revealed in the form of a book written upon scrolls, held within the ark at the rear wall of the synagogue, and ceremony is made of bringing out the Torah and taking it around the room. Eventually we come to Noah himself and the vows and wishes expressed for his future, with some of those wishes expressed specifically as boiled sweets thrown at him by the congregation. We've been prepared for this by the Rabbi and his aides handing out said sweets with a forceful request that we throw them gently, preferably using an underarm technique. I momentarily envision a thirteen-year old boy concussed by a well-aimed toffee apple at his own Bar mitzvah, which thankfully doesn't happen.

For two hours or more we've been listening to words sung in another language and somehow I'm still not bored. In fact I'm enjoying this far more than anticipated. It's pleasant, civilised, and characterised entirely by charitable sentiments unto others. The contrast is dramatic when I think of those terrible country and western ceremonies, and the Quinceañera in which the priest spent a good hour delivering a speech about how we're going to hear all sorts of disgusting lies told about the Catholic church by those outside the Catholic church and that we should ignore such disgusting liars and the disgusting lies they tell about the Catholic church because it's all lies, I tell you! All lies...

We turn to our neighbours to shake hands and wish them shabbat shalom. I guess we're in the Goyim stalls and I think the woman behind us may be a Hindu, which swells my wishy-washy liberal heart because I like to think that we humans have more in common with each other than not, and that's what today seems to be about, at least in part. I also get to shake the hand of Hazzan Lipton seeing as he's doing the rounds, so I tell him he has an amazing voice because he really has.

Noah reads from the Torah and further blessings are given before we meet the parents. His father is originally from New Jersey, one of those big bear guys whom you see and immediately like, sort of gruff but strong and with a kind face.

'Now it's my turn,' he announces ominously as he takes the microphone. He's the guy who paid for all of this, which he acknowledges in keeping with humorous tradition in some comment about the venue's next ceremony being a funeral to be held for his bank account. Laughter in church is another new thing for me, excepting the uncomfortable, nervous variety.

There is food to follow, so we file out three hours or more after we first took our seats, and fill plates with bagels, salad, salmon, capers, and cream cheese. Junior runs off to compare notes with his friends, and we listen to a fellow guest, a Latino guy who has recently converted to Judaism and is busily learning all that must be learned, including Hebrew. It sounds like an enormous commitment, but I find myself envying, or at least admiring him for it. Then he begins to talk about cutting off his family and having committed certain crimes he can't tell us about and I find I admire him a little less.

We leave with full hearts and full bellies, feeling touched by the spirit of something I'd never really considered. I've never really had anything you could describe as religious conviction, but I've got myself something meaningful out of this one occasion.

עֲלֵיכֶם שָׁלוֹם, as they say.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Children of Abraham I

Byron's invite stated quite clearly that he was expecting guests to make a bit of effort with their costumes this year, and he'd said more or less the same directly to Bess. Last year's Halloween party had been poorly attended due to torrential subtropical rain. I recall about eight of us showing up and I was wearing a sardonic t-shirt purchased from the local supermarket bearing the slogan this is my costume. I like to think that I was playfully questioning the medium of the Halloween party, obliging it to examine itself in a post-structuralist context, but I guess Byron didn't see it that way.

'Fuck it,' I said to myself whilst cycling to McAllister Park on the Wednesday morning. 'Why not?'

I don't really do fancy dress, or parties for that matter; and when I've made an exception I've historically regretted it, or at least spent most of the time wishing I were somewhere else. I once turned up to a costume party thrown by my friend Carl in work clothes. I was a postman at the time so I just wore the uniform, telling anyone who asked that I'd come as Sid James as seen in Carry On Postman, embellishing the conceit with an impersonation of Sid's distinctive laugh; and in case anyone feels inclined to check, no, regrettably there was never any such film as Carry On Postman.

On the other hand - so ran my train of thought on the aforementioned Wednesday morning - being fifty, I'd long since forgotten what the problem had been, so fuck it.

Cycling back from McAllister Park, I stopped to have a look around the local Goodwill, a charity shop large enough to house several fighter jets, should Randolph Air Force Base be having a spring clean. I figured I'd see something ridiculous which I could buy and wear, or which might at least provide inspiration. I saw a few decent looking suit jackets and a large cuddly tiger with such a winning smile that I found it really difficult to leave the store without buying him, but otherwise nothing seemed to suggest itself.

On the other side of the parking lot from HEB - the local supermarket to which I was ultimately headed - I noticed that an ordinarily vacant retail premises had once again been turned into a Halloween store. Once again because this is a yearly occurrence, the retail equivalent of tumbleweed or those fish suddenly born to puddles formed in the desert after rainfall, living just long enough to leave fertilised eggs drying in the mud, ready for next year's wet season. The Halloween store was full of costumes - Abraham Lincoln, Snooki from Jersey Shore, Spiderman; for just fifty dollars or thereabouts I might be instantly transformed into any of these through the magic of flimsy one-shot items of clothing and related accessories secured by elastic. I'd never been in this kind of store, so I found it weird and fascinating. I had no intention of purchasing one of these complete pre-packaged party identities. I was planning to improvise my costume, whatever it was. I just needed inspiration, some prop I could combine with whatever I already had at home.

The prop turned out to be a fake turban and a long grey false beard provided so as to effect transformation into a person of Indian or perhaps Arabic decent, a Muslim, you know - one of those people. Ignoring the obvious alarm bells, I decided I could combine these props with a kaftan and goatskin sandals brought back from Morocco and attend the party as Osama bin Laden. I made my purchase, then picked up a pack of party balloons in HEB along with the usual groceries.

Once home, I inflated one of the balloons and spent a day or two turning it into a bomb by means of papier mâché, acrylic paint, and a length of twine - specifically the kind of bomb wielded by villains in silent cinema or the Spy vs. Spy cartoons in Mad magazine, an ominous black sphere with a fuse and the word bomb painted across it in block capitals.

Next day I picked up an assault rifle from Walmart, a child's toy costing ten dollars. It was bright green and came as part of Kid Connection's Military Action Play Set recommended for ages five and upwards. I think it was supposed to light up and make a noise but the batteries were dead. I stood in the store reading the box.
Kid Connection toys are kid-approved and built for fun. Easy to understand with no complicated instructions, these durable toys keep you and your children happy. Day after day, smile after smile.

It's a fucking gun, I thought, which had obviously also occurred to the good people at Kid Connection:
Warning: This product may be mistaken for an actual firearm by law enforcement officers and others. Altering any state or federal required marking or coloration in order to make products appear more realistic and/or brandishing or displaying the product in public is dangerous and may be a crime.

To be honest, this bright green plastic toy was about as unrealistic a firearm as could be imagined without actually being the inflatable M16 I'd seen in the Halloween store marketed as Tony Montana's weapon of choice from Scarface; and in a country where Andre Burgess was shot by a federal agent whilst brandishing a gun which turned out to be the silver wrapper of a Three Musketeers candy bar, is it really going to make any difference?

The assault rifle came with a tiny plastic hand grenade and a similarly bright green handgun. It lacked any sort of carrying strap so I improvised one from velcro and the detachable strap of a holdall. Next day I noticed a far superior kiddie assault rifle in less lurid colours on sale in HEB for the same price. Aware of how seriously I was beginning to take this project, I didn't buy it.

I told my wife I was going to the party as Osama bin Laden, showing her the novelty turban and beard. She seemed initially shocked, then amused. 'Wouldn't you say that's a bit er...'

'I'm not going to black up, if that's where you think I'm headed.'

'Well, if you're sure.'

I'd considered all of this, wondering what distinguished me from minor royals dressed as Nazi stormtroopers on the cover of the Daily Mail. The point was shock and chuckles, I told myself just as Prince Gingerbollocks had doubtless told himself; but I've known many turbaned gentlemen, some of them Muslim, and I quite like Islam on the whole, in an admittedly wishy-washy liberal sense. I suppose I might potentially piss off the more redneck elements of the party, this being Texas and all - disgruntled fatties I imagined stumbling angrily towards me mumbling something about the twin towers and how I damn well better respect something or other. I suppose I liked this idea. Not to intellectualise a Halloween costume, but the problem with the political climate in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Centre as I see it is that Osama bin Laden is remembered as a cackling mediaeval demon, a silent cinema caricature clutching a comedy bomb and twirling his moustache. He hated us and that's all we need to know. God forbid that we should ever try to understand the situation, or what drives those we term terrorists to do what they do, or that we should recognise a political landscape of any complexity greater than what you'll find in a Batman comic.

So that's what I told myself.

'I wasn't going to bother,' Bess said, 'but now I feel I have to make the effort.'

Saturday arrives and we attend the party as Osama bin Laden with his bomb and his bright green assault rifle, and Mrs. bin Laden by virtue of a burqa my wife has improvised from various scarves. I have my bright green handgun in a shoulder bag along with four bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale.

Junior wears his gas mask, a hooded cloak, and a novelty AC/DC t-shirt featuring not images of the Australian heavy rock band but Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. He tells us that he is Timeshare Man, which is something derived from his own private mythology. About a year ago he took to asking people if they would like to buy a timeshare, because he finds it hilarious for reasons which probably make sense when you're twelve.

'Would you like to know where the timeshare came from?' he asked us one day in tones promising a rare glimpse into the mind of a comedy genius.

'Yes,' we said. 'Please tell us.'

He described his hiding behind some door at school, then asking the next person to open the door whether or not they would like to buy a timeshare. I started to explain that this was simply an account of the first instance of his cracking the supposed joke and as such provided little insight into either its origination or why he considered it funny, but I gave up, recognising my enquiry as pointless. Junior does what he does unburdened by either disingenuous humility or an excess of self-awareness, and it's just how he is. It's not uncommon for his jokes to be supplemented with spoken appendices regarding how funny they were and how well he told them.

I really liked it when I said that.

Byron has as usual gone to obsessional lengths to decorate his house with the trappings of Halloween, and no rubbish either. The front room is a clutter of animated skulls, tiny haunted houses dispensing ghoulish noises, portrait paintings which become skeletal at a specific angle. Junior's contribution is the question would you like to buy a timeshare? painted on the door to the bathroom, and now here he is to complete the picture in his gas mask and his cloak and his hood, making hilarious sense mainly to himself. I'd suggest he's come as the general concept of trying too hard, but I don't wish to seem uncharitable given how much pleasure this bewildering timeshare schtick obviously brings him.

It turns out that Roger has come as a pimp - purple suit with zebra pattern trimmings and a huge floppy hat. There's something which makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable about the only black man at the party having dressed as an ethnic stereotype, but maybe that's what he was going for. He mentions something about Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch but it's okay. I get it, and I appreciate that it somehow takes the heat off me. No-one is going to expect either of us to explain ourselves, because it's a Halloween party not a thread on a self-important internet bulletin board.

It's only just gone six, still light, and not many people here, so we make our way out onto the decking and talk to Byron's parents and his brother. Byron's parents, for the sake of reference, may represent the closest I've come to meeting real life Ewings - as seen on the television show Dallas during the days of Ron and Nancy. Their fortune is founded on oil somewhere back in the depths of time, but there the resemblance more or less ends. They're sharp, quick-witted but personable, and despite that they might legitimately regard me as some sort of cuckoo rather than a mere stepfather, they seem to think I'm great. Jay, the brother, has been living in Austin whilst studying for what I understand to be a position in the Episcopalian Church. I ask him how it's been going. His answer seems to take the form of a protest, although I'm not sure against what because I don't quite follow what he's telling me beyond that no, he's not yet doing whatever vicars do full-time.

Bruce and Lori turn up as respectively a demon and an angel, personifying a moral balance which Lori probably jeopardises whilst allowing me to cadge a ciggie. Time has passed and it's dark and we're all gathered under the trellises Byron has built in the rear part of the garden. He's growing grape vines up the supports. He's going to make wine, and in keeping with the ambience I'm on my second bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. It's going to my head because I don't ordinarily drink so much, or even at all. I don't smoke either, but I ask Lori if she can spare one because the moment seems right. I spend a second wondering what the acceptable American for gi's a fag might be, knowing it almost certainly won't be that. I'm unable to recall any scene of Humphrey Bogart helpfully scrounging snouts, so I try could you spare a cigarette, which is a bit like buddy, can you spare a dime?

It works, and thankfully I don't enjoy smoking it anything like as much as I thought I would, which at least means that this isn't me relapsing.

Bruce has turned himself into a demon simply by affixing two small horns to his forehead with adhesive. The horns really suit him, which is weird, although it's probably fitting that he's now telling us about some home brewed alcoholic concoction known by the delightful name of Thunderfuck.

'What's Everclear?' I ask, recognising the brand name from somewhere. 'Is that pure alcohol?'

Turner, who seems to know about these things, nods. My guess came from the context in that we seem to be talking about moonshine, or something like it, relating anecdotal instances of its distillation by agency of Everclear. I assume it's like the bottle of pure alcohol I nicked from the college chemistry department so I could clean the workings of my tape recorder, but it's alcohol brewed from corn and sold for human consumption in all but the nine states which have banned it.

Bruce made a batch of something called Thunderfuck at some point of his college years, and everyone else sat at the table beneath the trellis has a similar story.

I make it through a third Newcastle Brown and realise I'm drunk, or at least more light headed than I've been in years. It's quite a nice feeling, but it also means I'm done for the evening. Thankfully my wife is similarly partied out so we gather up Timeshare Man and head home. The hour, which we anticipate as being around ten or eleven in the evening, is half past eight. I've spent just two-and-a-half hours as Osama bin Laden, and it was a lot of fun.

Friday, 2 December 2016


My marriage came with a free child, which wasn't a problem, but was not a scenario I'd foreseen. I'd just have to do my best and play it by ear, I decided.

It hasn't all been easy, although to be fair neither has it been anything like so difficult as I might have anticipated had I given it more thought. He was seven when Bess and I got married and is now thirteen. Sometimes he's a pain in the arse, other times he's fine - as you might expect, so you just have to get on with it.

Possibly more aggravating was the distant susurrus of expectation from newly acquired relatives for whom Junior was our precious boy. Even before I'd crossed the Atlantic, one opined that I might be a paedophile eager to get my clammy hands on the child; because were I some sort of kiddy-fiddler, that's obviously what I would do - marry an unsuspecting American so I can bag me one of those green cards and get my Jimmy Savile on in the land of the free. Another newly acquired relative took demonstrative issue when I failed to show at some screeching kid-filled event at the local country club, a birthday with our precious boy in attendance. I'd been in America for a week. I was about to get married and I had left behind everything I had known since birth. I was knocked sideways by the intense Texas heat, felt ill and still shell-shocked, and I didn't feel like hanging out with small, screaming children on that one particular occasion so I stayed home.

That man had better get his priorities straightened out, the relative testily informed my wife, apparently so as to showcase the extent of her devotion to our precious boy. These days I get on fine with the woman, but I haven't forgotten. People tend to reveal their true colours before they know you.

I always imagined one major difficulty with being a stepfather would be my apparently replacing an existing father, which I haven't attempted on the grounds that his dad is still very much around, in the picture, and we all get on just fine. The scene where the child slams the door and screams you're not even my real dad is yet to happen. Strangest of all, he seems to think I'm great, which is partially because I'm exotic - coming from England and all that - and because I know about Doctor Who - although I'm doing my best to discourage him on that score - and he appreciates the sense of security I apparently bring. I qualify all of this as strange, because the information derives from conversations with his mother as she brings him back from school. It's taken him a couple of years to get into the habit of communicating directly with me, not because he's rude so much as that he is burdened with a combination of shyness and extraordinarily narrow focus. Bess has pointed out how I'm the one person in his life who doesn't dote upon him, or regard him as our precious boy by sheer dint of familial genetics, or necessarily at all. My favour therefore has some currency and he knows it. When he's rude or he screws up, I'm generally quite happy to tell him so in as much detail as seems necessary, addressing him as I would an adult because I don't do baby-talk; and on some level he responds to this.

Children need boundaries, as they say.

Over the years we've had rough patches, mainly characterised by uneaten food left to go off in his room, toilets full of poo either unflushed, or flushed by a method entailing operation of the handle followed by running away as quickly as possible without checking whether the disturbingly verdant ten-inch floater has held its ground. Other misdemeanours mostly come down to basic manners and continued failure to do something which he has been asked to do over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

'Look, it's not even like we ask you to mow the lawn or take out the trash, or even to do anything at all,' I'll begin in preface to the usual speech about full glasses of tea left perched precariously above electrical sockets. He will stare at me as I state my case, usually with the look of a rabbit caught in headlights, and even as I speak I wonder whether he's taking any of it in or whether it's more like a dog reacting to a harsh tone of voice when it's been caught taking a dump on the rug.

As the years have passed, it seems he has begun to take at least some of it in, and his communication has developed sufficiently for me to be able to tell that he at least doesn't mean to piss me off; which is nice because I like to be able to think well of him, and I don't enjoy pointing out that he's screwed up any more than he enjoys it. These days, we can almost have something that sounds a bit like a conversation, even laughing at each other's jokes, or some of them; and while I doubt I'll ever regard him as our precious boy because I'm just not that much of a walking Hallmark card, I feel protective towards him and I want him to be happy.

Now it's the weekend and Bess and I are taking him to the cinema to see Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. He's read the books and has been gagging to see the big screen adaptation. It's a Tim Burton film, but stepfatherhood is sometimes about making sacrifices, about meeting others half way. Junior has a reputation of talking through films. It's worse when they're on television because he gets to move around, jumping up and down, describing what we've all just seen on the screen with our own eyes.

'It's like,' he yelps, completing the sentence with dramatic gestures so as to illustrate Loki fighting the Incredible Hulk, and we know that this is exactly what it's like because we're still trying to watch the fucking film.

'If you're going to talk through this,' I tell him as we enter the cinema, 'and explain everything that's about to happen or has just happened, could you sit on the other side of your mother and do it quietly?' I ask him.

'Sure,' he says, then barely utters a word for the next couple of hours; and surprisingly I find myself enjoying the film even though it's by Tim Burton.

The boy lets loose in the car on the way home, going into ludicrous and slightly sniffy detail regarding all the changes which have been made during transition from page to screen. He obviously enjoyed the film, but it was different to the books. Much of his communication takes the form of lists prefaced with let me see, then whatever he wants to share reeled off with the verbal equivalent of bullet points, and he's really going to town this time.

I find myself feeling strangely proud, which is almost a first, because not only has he recognised a book as the more authoritative form of a story but, as I realise, he has actually read the thing and taken it in. This has been a bone of minor contention, specifically how much I hear about the kid's supposed love of reading contrasting with my own experience, which is mostly him in his room laying on his back tapping the screen of his iPad with a finger all evening, occasionally calling out to have a bowl of chips conveyed to him. His supposed reading - I have noted with some suspicion - always seems to occur off-screen; but now I'm at last hearing him talk about a book, and in the sort of detail which suggests it's something he actively enjoys rather than being just a chore.

He's been with his father for most of the weekend, during which time I've made a six-foot bookcase with seven shelves for his room. We picked him up from his father's house and took him straight to the cinema, so the bookcase is a surprise.

His mother has asked me to make him a bookcase on and off for the last couple of years, but I've never quite got around to it, partially wanting first to see some evidence that he's capable of putting stuff on a shelf rather than just dropping things on the floor then stepping over them for the next two years; but I've eventually caved in because carpentry is good exercise and what harm can it do? Bess and I have collected what we can from the rubbish tip that is his room, set it all on the shelving, and now we can see the floor.

Junior sits on the bed staring at the book case.

'One thing,' I say.

'Yes?' He sounds nervous.

'It's your room and it's your bookcase, but if for whatever reason I see bits of wood carved out of it because you were bored, I will become unhappy.'


This is a karaoke version of an exchange from about a year ago. Large plastic cereal containers, which should never have found their way into his room in the first place, had sections of the red plastic tab by which one removes the lid snipped off for no reason at all. Even as vandalism it seemed so weird and pointless that I felt ridiculous having to bring it up.

'Do you think he likes the bookcase?' I ask my wife, because I can't tell. Sometimes the boy is too inscrutable for his own good.

'Oh yes,' she tells me. 'He's very pleased with it.'

It feels like we've turned a corner.