Saturday, 22 April 2017

Butterfly Lions


I met my first Pekingese dog at some point during the seventies. We were living on Sweet Knowle Farm in rural Warwickshire and I must have been about five or six, maybe younger. We already had a couple of regular dogs - Keeper and Tina. Keeper was a black and white mongrel vaguely approximating something in the direction of a sheep dog whom my mother brought home as a stray whilst still living with her parents. Tina was a black, woolly poodle and she was blind, or was blind by the time I was old enough to form memories of such things. One or maybe both of these dogs were still around when the first Pekingese arrived. Some couple, friends of the family, were separating and needed to find homes for their dogs, an Alsatian and a Pekingese. We took the Pekingese. I recall entering the front room and looking across to see what resembled Dougal from The Magic Roundabout looking back at me from the sofa. I don't think I'd realised there could be such animals in the real world. I liked him immediately.

'This is Jolly,' my mother explained.

He was small, at least compared to regular dogs, with a flat face of dark bristles and big soulful eyes. He seemed like a hairier bulldog of some kind, but somehow more refined. He growled a little, and seemed initially wary of me, showing the whites of his eyes; but eventually he sniffed my hand and whatever objections he may have harboured seemed settled. Then inevitably I put my face too close to his and he bit me, because everyone has been bitten by a dog at some point as a child, usually a family pet leaving the mark that eventually prompts the question, what's that on your face? Now it was my turn, although I can't remember where Jolly bit me and he left no scar. Amazingly I was at least old enough to understand how it had been my fault and why there wasn't much point in getting angry with a dog who, after all, was in a strange place and had every right to be a bit jumpy.

He came with a pedigree, my mother explained, and his full name was Jolly Boy of Jancy - something like a secret identity, so it seemed to me. My dad occasionally referred to him as Jolly Bean because there was supposedly something of a resemblance to Judge Roy Bean, the nineteenth century Texan Justice of the Peace. Pekes are one of the oldest dog breeds in the world, and one branch of mythology attributes their genesis to what happens when a butterfly and a lion decide to make a go of it.

Perhaps because of it seeming like we had a canine celebrity in our midst, my mother began to take an interest in the breed, and in dog breeding in general. Through the pages of Our Dogs magazine we met a professional dog breeder resident at Shenstone Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, a woman we knew as Queenie Mould. I dimly recall our driving to Birmingham to visit her. She was elderly with white hair and spectacles, but she seemed to like me and she laughed a lot. Our first visit was probably to buy a second Peke, a small female named Lucy, also known as Papanya Ni Sun although my spelling may be wrong. I surmise that I may have taken a shine to another of her dogs, a small, excitable female with a reddish coat, being as I vaguely remember feeling disgruntled that we weren't taking this other dog home with us; and I surmise that this was probably the first of at least two visits because I recall Queenie presenting me with a tin of Peek Freans biscuits and telling me that the small reddish dog with whom I had struck up a friendship had bought them for me - a sequence suggesting that the visit I recall amalgamates two separate trips. I had my doubts as to whether the dog had really purchased the biscuits, but I appreciated the thought nevertheless.

Lucy was small and cute, enough so to qualify as what is termed a sleeve dog after the oriental practice of carrying Pekes around in the voluminous sleeves of one's silken robe so as to keep your arms warm. Apparently she was also too small to have puppies, and the couple she birthed were born dead. Pansy, whose pedigree name I forget, came along a year or so later. She was a little more robust than Lucy with a silky reddish coat and somehow reminded me of Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek - which was something to do with the look in her eye. Pansy had a ton of puppies, the father being Queenie's Mr. Redcoat of Kenghe, who was something of a celebrity in the Pekingese world and who had won numerous awards and fathered many, many children. This I found out only recently. At the time I may not even have been old enough to be aware of a father's role in the process of reproduction and may simply have assumed that lady dogs just kicked out a pile of puppies whenever the mood took them. Pansy managed seven, although one was born dead, another two didn't last very long, and a fourth made it to the end of the week. This left us with Bosie, Clunk and Enoch, here listed vaguely in order of size. Bosie - named after Oscar Wilde's very close friend - was a ball of grey fluff with giant paws and a beetle-browed face so black you could hardly make out his features; Clunk, presumably named after the glossolalia-prone aerialist inventor from Catch the Pigeon was like Bosie but smaller; and Enoch was the little black one with something to prove. He was also my favourite. I seem to recall him being named after Enoch Powell, which I think was something to do with my dad's sense of humour. Enoch Powell had spent a lot of time warning the public about people with black faces coming over here and taking our jobs. I don't think our family liked Enoch Powell very much, and my dad's record collection at least seemed to support this hypothesis. Bosie and Clunk were respectively also called Wimpstone Wind Song and Wimpstone Wind Chimes in reference to the village nearest to the farm on which we were living, although I'm not aware of either of them having been entered in dog shows.

Clunk and Enoch eventually went to hypothetically good homes, leaving us with just four, Keeper and Tina having long since departed to sniff celestial bottoms on the farm in the sky. My mother took Pansy to a couple of shows, but I don't think she won anything.

Pekes are small, but they're a handful when you have four of them, and taking them for walks was always an adventure. Gormless visitors occasionally stood bewildered and smiling, our garden gate held open as all four Pekes shot out, down the road and off into the fields, requiring that we chase after them. Their short legs and rolling gait made them easy to catch but it was still exhausting. Their short legs also made it difficult for them to get down stairs, so occasionally we came home to a worryingly empty house, see that the hall door was open and there would be four forlorn faces gazing down at us from the upstairs landing, all trapped and no lesson learned from the last time it happened.

Having grown up with Pekes, I still experience a thrill of excitement when I encounter one, and sometimes I remember my manners and talk to the owner as well, sharing certain details of the above by way of explanation. I still don't know what I think about dog shows or dog breeding, and Pekes are prone to respiratory problems and trouble with their eyes, but then the four I knew certainly seemed to live happy, healthy lives regardless of the received wisdom. Even looking at the photos of them now will occasionally bring a tear to my eye, because I grew up with them, and they made the sort of memories which tend to imprint quite deeply on childhood. It doesn't seem like they can really be gone, but I suppose the important thing is - as I've probably said before - that they were here at all, and I had the good fortune to be in the same picture.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Code


The letters are in white envelopes, obviously something personal and handwritten with some strange code on the reverse. The letters are also fairly frequent, and yet on the few occasions I've met Theresa - to whom they are addressed - she doesn't seem like the sort of person who would spend a lot of time engaged in correspondence. She's young, white, blonde hair in a scrunchy to effect what will eventually be known as a Croydon facelift, and she usually wears trackie bottoms. She has a malnourished face, slight but hard.

The flats along Thurbarn Road, Catford will eventually be described as apartments on the websites of certain estate agents, but right now it's 1991 and they're just flats - probably just fucking flats, if you want to get technical; Theresa might be imagined at her writing desk, pausing for thought as she gazes from the window then dipping that quill in the ink pot as inspiration strikes, but anyone who met her  would have found the image unconvincing.

She is a friend of Princess. Princess - or Emma as she's named on her giro - is a big girl, mixed race with hair in dreads. She has a kid called Shane and she's loud and overpowering, but not confrontational. She just lacks either understanding or two shits which might be given regarding her own volume, and so she booms, and it's always a relief when she laughs because it's with you rather than at you - which is good to know because otherwise she'd sound like she was picking a fight all the time. She's married to Irish Barry who is Jean's boy, or one of them - there's a big one as well, built like a brick shithouse, as the saying goes. Irish Barry is the little one. It's the brick shithouse who usually comes down three floors to meet me at the door asking for his mum's giro. It's kind of terrifying at first. I just hand it over and remind myself that stuff gets lost in the post all the time and it's not like anyone can really prove anything. Also, the residents of Thurbarn Road habitually expect the dole to have withheld their money this week, so it will be a few days before anyone might consider accusing me, probably. It will sort itself out.

After the third or fourth giro handed over to the brick shithouse without ensuing complaints, I meet him in the company of Jean, his mum, and understand that he really is coming down all those stairs to save her the trouble. Thurbarn Road is on the southernmost edge of Catford in south-east London, a couple of hundred yards from roads listed as being in the county of Kent. It's a council estate, or was a council estate before market forces embarked upon the gradual reclassification of its brick and concrete boxes as apartments. I'm in my twenties and haven't been at the job very long, and of all the places to which I've delivered, it's thus far the one with the greatest potential for being a no go area for cops and certain emergency services, depending on which way the wind's blowing. It's not that there's a lot of graffiti or a significant quota of boarded up dwellings or broken windows, but it's a bit rough around the edges. Theresa seems very much at home here.

The letters Theresa gets are often embellished with acronyms, as I realise when I notice SWALK among them - sealed with a loving kiss. They must be from her boyfriend. I guess he lives a long way away or something.

'Do you ever see SWALK written on the back of envelopes?' I ask Micky Evans, an older postman who seems to know most things.

'Sealed with a loving kiss,' he confirms as we eat egg on toast in the canteen. 'Probably someone in the nick, I should think.'

'Really?'

'It usually is, yeah.'

'So what about NORWICH?'

'Nickers off ready when I come home. He might be in the army, I s'pose - posted overseas or summink, but it's usually jail birds write all that.'

Mick seems to know everything. There doesn't seem to be a question you can't ask him. He became a postman after being made redundant. He used to work at the docks up near Deptford and remembers the strikes back in the sixties being broken up by the Kray twins. 'Horrible pair of cunts they were,' he tells me. 'Fucking scum of the earth, and everyone idolises them like they're heroes.'

I ask him about HOLLAND, which Theresa's jail bird also writes on the back of the envelopes, but Mick doesn't know that one.

'How is she?' he asks, because he did Thurbarn Road before me for a couple of months. 'She never looks well, does she?'

'I think she's okay,' I say. 'Hard to tell, really.'

Theresa joins the list of names of those I recognise on Thurbarn Road and the surrounding streets. It's important that I recognise them because they follow me around on giro day, so I need to keep track of who is who. Obviously I'm not allowed to hand mail out to people in the street, but I do it anyway once I know who they are because it isn't hurting anyone and I remember what it's like waiting for your giro to turn up. The pay off, I suppose, is that I get to know the people to whom I deliver a little better which makes the job more pleasant.

Also pleasant is that Jean now invites me in for a cup of tea every once in a while. She's an Irish woman, in her fifties with long dark hair suggesting former if admittedly distant associations with swinging London, and I have the strangest feeling she fancies me a bit - which I don't mind because she's nice and very funny, even if it would never work due to the age difference. We drink tea, and talk about our lives and slag off her neighbours. She has a fluffy cat called Libby who also seems to like me, and sometimes Princess passes through with Shane and I remember that Jean is a grandmother, which is a peculiar thought.

Months pass, skies turn grey, and I notice clumsily rendered repairs to Theresa's front door up on the top floor of her block. There's a crescent of splinters around the lock where I suppose someone must have tried to kick it in. A couple of days later I see her from a distance. She no longer chases me down on giro day, so I deliver the thing along with all of her junk mail. I don't get close but it looks as though she has a black eye.

'I used to hear some terrific fucking rows up her place,' Micky Evans tells me, shaking his head in despair at the mess of some people's lives. 'What a terrible thing.'

A week later there is a note taped to the main door of the block just below the security buzzers.

the Lady in number 37 is very upset as her boyfriend passed away on 22/3/91 so plese be considorate because she is upset


Her mail begins to come back to me marked deceased and not known at this address. There doesn't even seem to be a pattern. Some of the mail is addressed to a name I don't recognise; and some of it is addressed to her, but she isn't dead, just upset - at least so far as I know. I collect the pile of mail on my bay, take a roll of the red stickers which will return it all to the various senders, and wonder whether there's really much point in my trying to understand any of this.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Bad to Worse


Bill Edney, my landlord, died at King's College Hospital, Camberwell on Monday the 26th of June, 2006. He'd been admitted for treatment the previous week following a fall in which he broke his hip. I'd grown close to the old bugger since moving into his basement flat ten years earlier so I was going to miss him, and above all I knew I was screwed. I had paid fifty pounds a week for the flat when I first moved in, and since that time it had gone up by a mere tenner because Bill owned the house and hadn't really needed the money. Even if I could find something in the same price range, I already knew it would be about the size of a cigar box. London was getting expensive.

'Immigrants?' someone once asked with lurid anticipation as I related the story, although it was really more of a proposal than a question, made in anticipation of my nodding my head sadly, thus allowing him to expand further on the subject of not being a racist but...

The real problem was gentrification, white people with too much money driving up the cost of living, forcing the rest of us out of the places which had been our homes all of our lives, or most of our lives, or long enough for it to feel that way.

Resigning myself to the fact that I would have to pay more to live somewhere which wasn't as nice, I started looking even as those remembered in the will did their best to extract me like a bad tooth. Whilst alive, Bill had explained how his will stipulated that I would continue living in the basement flat, but people always find a way when there's an inheritance to be had.

One day in October I came home to find a sign nailed to a post in the front garden announcing that the entire house would be up for auction at the end of the month. This was followed a few days later by a letter from John Buckley, a solicitor who told me that as I had no written rent agreement, I had two weeks in which to fuck off elsewhere. Strangers began to knock on my door asking to come in and have a look around my flat in preface to bidding. They referred to my dwelling as the property and spoke to me as though we were equal partners, somehow working together to have my ass turfed out on the street. Unfortunately for John Buckley, I actually did have a written, signed and dated rent agreement, which he would have known had he bothered to ask.

I sought advice from the housing department at my local council. They told me that it was all highly illegal and that I should stay put for the moment.

I hadn't sought advice from Marian, my girlfriend at the time, but she had taken to dispensing it regardless. She seemed to think it a bit of an adventure, perhaps seeing herself as an older, stumpier Ally McBeal. She had been born to wealth and privilege in Twickenham and had accordingly spent most of her life in active rebellion against these aspects of her own existence. She would often tell me about the time she'd lived in a squat in Camberwell. She knew all about housing problems. She'd helped her fellow squatters fill in forms. She knew all about it. She'd lived on the front line. She'd helped those people because - oh dear - well, they had been a bit thick, some of them, truth be told - dreadfully naive; lovely people but not awfully bright, it has to be said.

Since September of the previous year, I'd been Marian's latest project. She was saving me from myself, and this would simply expand her work into other areas of my existence.

'Who signed this?' she asks me with storm clouds gathering as she studies my rent agreement. She has bad news but she requires that I play along so it can be delivered with full dramatic impact.

I look at the signatures - my own and that of Florence Edney, my landlady. I've spent most of this week in a state of shock. I'm a rabbit caught in headlights.

'That's Flo's signature.'

'What about Bill's signature?' she asks in the tone of someone who just can't get the staff, her impatience with me growing to boiling point.

I realise he didn't sign the rent agreement. It was ten years ago and Flo looked after that side of things when she was alive.

'Oh Lawrence!' Marian screeches.

How could I be so fucking stupid? She is furious with me for reasons I don't even understand. It's almost as though I've been actively trying to have myself evicted.

Isn't she supposed to be on my side? Isn't that what she said?

The next time I visit the housing office, I tell them I know I'm screwed because Marian told me so. I explain the deal with someone other than Bill having signed my rent agreement, and the person who actually understands this shit tells me that my girlfriend is mistaken and has probably had no relevant experience of housing law.

Marian's next recommendation is that I move myself and all my worldly possessions into her house, or specifically the house given to her by her mother. She's going to rent her spare room to me, which will work out well for everyone. The room is fairly small. I have too much stuff but she tells me that some of it can be binned, given to Oxfam, or stored in the loft.

I keep looking.

The auction is postponed.

Mrs. Patel who runs the corner shop tells me she has a flat in which I might be interested. It's occupied but she's trying to get the tenants out for non-payment of rent, so I have a look. She takes me up there, even though the three guys are all at home, sat around smoking and drinking tea. They don't speak much English, but Mrs. Patel tells me I should pretend that I'm there to fix something. She doesn't want her tenants to know they're on borrowed time.

The flat seems great, the price is okay, and it's on Lordship Lane so it's in the same area. I can't afford to move too far away because I need to be able to get to work and I don't drive. I need to live near my job otherwise I won't be able to afford rent, but the average cost of renting in the area in which I live is beyond my means. Marian gets angrier with each passing day. She tells me I am stubborn. If I move into her place - which is just around the corner - and pay rent to her, I'll be helping her out. Why do I have to be so selfish?

Months pass.

Every few weeks I ask Mrs. Patel whether she has managed to evict her existing tenants. Eventually she tells me that they have been paying their rent on time and that she never had any intention of evicting them. In addition to this, something or other is my fault because she never said something I clearly believed she'd said, whatever it was. It's confusing and annoying, and then by chance I discover that the basement flat of 301, Lordship Lane is vacant and has been vacant for the past year, and that I can just about afford a monthly rent amounting to half of my wages. It's only five doors down from the haunted house in which I'm living on borrowed time, so moving will be just myself walking back and forth with boxes for a couple of weeks.

Marian isn't happy, but is for once unable to explain why this is the most stupid thing I've ever done because it would contradict her previous assertion of my being incapable of making decisions for myself. I get the impression she's allowing me to learn from my mistakes, or at least that this is how she rationalises it.

My new landlord is Ken, a brusque upper-management alcoholic. He dresses in pinstripe and embellishes a face of burst blood vessels with a tidily authoritative beard. He works in the city but I occasionally see him staggering back from the Castle - the Irish pub in Crystal Palace Road - almost too pissed to stand. I know him from delivering his mail and having been his neighbour for the last decade, but he doesn't remember me and even seems confused by the suggestion.

The flat is slightly smaller than the one I'm leaving, but it's clean. As landlord material, Ken seems a little inflexible, but I tell myself that this at least means he'll probably be on the ball when it comes to getting things fixed should they require fixing. I ask about a washing line because I notice there isn't one in the small paved quadrant which will constitute my back garden. He says no on the grounds that it will somehow lower the tone, so I guess my clothes will just have to dry inside on a clothes horse. He also says no to my supplementing the blinds with net curtains, because the flat is suitable for a young professional or some shit like that. I dislike blinds because they make the room appear cold, plus I like daylight, and if I have blinds open during the day this will mean everyone who passes will get a good look at me ensconced in my world of books and records and crap. It will be like living in a zoo enclosure but - fuck it - Ken's the boss. He also tells me he's going to have to wack the rent up at some point, but I've just spent nearly a whole year dreading the future and what it may hold, so I'm not even going to think about that one right now. Hopefully it's just something a landlord says so as to establish his superiority, a reminder of my lowly position.

I ferry all my shit across. Once my old front room at 311, Lordship Lane is sufficiently clear I briefly turn it into a workshop. I order a ton of wood from the yard down on Barry Road and make shelving for the new place. I buy a new bed, or at least I buy it second-hand for about eighty quid from the Oxfam place on the Walworth Road. I was initially going to hump my old bed along from the haunted house, but Marian complained. I suppose to be fair the old bed had seen better days. Finally I move my plants into the new garden, along with the bench I bought from Do It All a couple of years back, and then the frogs.

All the rear gardens along this stretch of Lordship Lane are full of frogs, many more than I ever saw as a child growing up in rural Warwickshire. Apparently someone up near the shops had a large pond which they filled in with concrete, causing a mass amphibian exodus. Because I like frogs, I made a small pond in Bill's garden and kept a re-purposed fish tank outside my back window which would regularly fill with spawn and then tadpoles each Spring. I relocate the tank next to the fence at the side of the house beneath a bush. The fence demarcates the communal path by which tenants of the flats above mine get to their sections of a garden neatly divided into four. I haven't bothered to tell Ken about the frogs, because I don't see why I should have to. They're wild animals rather than pets, and are in any case apparently native to the gardens along this way.

I move in, and eventually settle as much as I am able. On Sunday the 29th of July, 2007, in a letter to Janet Baldwin, I write:

I've been here about two months now. It's okay, a nice, largish place and very clean. The bedroom has French windows opening onto my own garden - a large patio with a good sized flower bed at one end. I've dug loads of stuff out from the old garden - lots of ferns - and have them here in the bed or in big pots. It looks very Mediterranean. The drawback, keeping in mind that this all could have turned out much, much worse, is that the landlord is something of an arse. The rent is extortionate. He won't let me have net curtains in the front window, and he still hasn't fixed the gas boiler after two months of nagging. The flat isn't as big as I had thought, and I still miss the old place and especially Bill, but what can you do?

On the subject of Bill, one year later and I'm still the only person who has visited the place where they scattered his ashes. So much for those fucking relatives who turned up out of nowhere.

Things with Marian seem to be going okay at the moment, although I'm not sure I'm cut out for coupledom. Our future aspirations don't seem particularly compatible, mine being to move to Mexico, to continue smoking, and to continue getting out of bed before midday.


Going okay is something of an overstatement, because I don't want to seem like a moaning cunt. If I'm honest, the relationship is joyless, one exercise in damage control after another, and it's killing me. I want to be left alone but I'm trapped within my own fear of being alone at this stage of my life. I'm not getting any younger, and I'm pinned to an exhausting job which isn't getting any better, and I can barely afford the cheapest rent I've been able to find.

I meet the neighbours when they use the path at the side of the house. The second and third floor are occupied by people I never see, young professionals. The top floor is occupied by a couple, a black guy and his Polish girlfriend. He has a cream-coffee complexion and dreads. He resembles Noah Tannenbaum from The Sopranos, polite, excruciatingly middle class, and - fuck it - the guy is whiter than I am. He's the archetypal honorary white guy by which Jake and Marcus and the rest of the media studies gang get to have a token black friend. He's like really cool, they tell anyone who will listen; and I tell myself I'm allowed to think such uncharitable, arguably racist thoughts through my hanging out with the black guys at work - real black people. They're sharper, funnier and significantly less full of shit than most of my fellow Caucasians.

It's summer so I sit outside on the bench I bought from Do It All a few years back and I smoke, because I'm not allowed to smoke in my own flat for which I'm paying rent. This is when Noah Tannenbaum and his Polish girlfriend pass, off to water the pretentious herbs they grow in their quadrant of the garden. I must seem like an old man to them. They've probably never met a manual labourer, at least not unless they've paid him to do something.

We talk because it would be strange not to do so, but it's mostly horseshit of the kind you expect from people who live lives in orbit of whatever is listed in that week's issue of Time Out. They think East Dulwich is really cool. They seem cautious and guarded. Had I turned up on their doorstep in uniform with a clip board rather than the key to the front door which we all share, they would probably address me in much shorter sentences as though talking to someone a bit stupid, like a security guard or a cab driver.

Marian naturally thinks they are amazing, the sort of friends I should be cultivating. This comes as no great surprise, and seems to confirm some of my estimates regarding the width and depth of the gulf between us. She is delighted when Noah Tannenbaum and his Polish girlfriend go on holiday to Poland for a couple of weeks, leaving me in charge of watering their plants. I guess she sees this as cementing the friendship, and no doubt we'll all be inviting each other to dinner within the next couple of months. The couple return from Poland with a bottle of Bison Grass vodka as thanks for my horticultural service. Marian drinks most of it because I've never been particularly keen on vodka.

The proposed friendship falters when Noah Tannenbaum tells me that he would appreciate it if I could get rid of the fish tank I have beneath the bush. His Polish girlfriend passed by on the way to tend their pretentious herbs the other evening and a frog jumped out at her. She was so traumatised as to have been unable to sleep for the past few days.

'I feel kind of bad having to ask.' He smiles the smile of one of those strangers who used to knock on my door because they wanted to have a look at the flat upon which they would soon be bidding. 'She hates frogs, so I'd really appreciate it.'

'Right,' I say, smoking my fag and waiting for him to fuck off. Later I have a look in the tank and find it is empty of frogs. There's just water weed. They tend to move around a lot, from one garden to another, so I suppose the problem - if we're really going to call it a problem - has sorted itself out.

The next evening I get the same from the Polish girlfriend who tells me some story about how she was terrorised by a frog when she was a child. I suppose batrachophobia is a real thing, but so far as I'm concerned she can go fuck herself. I pay my rent, the frogs were here in this area before I provided a body of water for their occasional use, and it's not like I'm practising my fucking tuba at three in the morning; but of course I don't say any of this. God - I hate my life.

Ken whines about my frogs when I pay the rent at the end of the month, because of course Noah Tannenbaum had to mention it like the good little soldier that he is. Eventually he fixes my gas boiler after eight months of nagging, then announces a rent increase, as promised. He works in the city, and by my estimate nets close to an additional three thousand pounds a month in rent from the tenants of 301, Lordship Lane, but I guess there's no such thing as too much fucking money. There being no other option left so far as I can tell, I admit defeat and move into Marian's spare room. I am fairly certain it will prove to be a mistake, but there doesn't seem to be anything else I can do; and logically I have to concede the slim possibility of it not being quite such a terrible move as anticipated.

It's worse than I could ever have imagined.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Lunch with Danny Trejo


'Are you doing anything tomorrow morning,' my wife asks, 'around half past ten?'

'Not particularly - why?'

'We're going somewhere.'

'Is there any point in my asking where?'

'No.'

'It's one of your surprises?'

'Yes.'

'Okay.'

Three hours later, Danny Trejo pops into my head for no particular reason. I recall how Bess mentioned some event at which he'd be speaking, although that was a couple of weeks ago. She said the tickets cost a bomb. I'd looked at the publicity and was unable to work out what the event was in aid of, which rang alarm bells and seemed to suggest something a bit culty; so I forgot about the thing because we wouldn't be going.

'Is it Danny Trejo?'

'Darn.'

Danny Trejo is an actor whose face you will almost certainly recognise even if the name is unfamiliar. He's the voice of Enrique in King of the Hill but otherwise tends to play bad guys. His formative years were spent in and out of prison, involved with drugs and all manner of gang activity until, at the age of eighteen - or at least I think that's how old he said he was - he took the twelve-step program and cleaned himself up; following which he took to helping others kick whatever habits they had. One day, running to the aid of some kid on a film set, he was spotted by a director who thought he had an interesting look about him and who subsequently hired him as an actor, leading to a string of appearances as bad guy number one, inmate number one, chollo number one, and so on; and even though the tickets cost a bomb, we're going to see him speak.

Next day, we turn up at the hotel and are directed to the function room. It's filled with circular tables all laid out for dinner just like at the Oscars, and there's a podium up front with screens on either side. I realise that the cost of the tickets is probably going to determine what sort of people turn up for this thing, and sure enough Alamo Heights is well represented. The event is put on by Alpha Home, a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. I've never really had any problem with drugs or alcohol, excepting possibly tobacco which I kicked when I moved to America, so I'm out of my depth. I am naturally ill at ease around both conspicuous displays of wealth and anything with even the faintest tang of a motivational poster, but then anything which helps people beat an addiction has to be good, so whatever prejudices I may have brought with me probably don't count for much.

We are at table thirty-three. Each place is already set with salad, cutlery, a glass of iced tea, and alternating plates of cheesecake and chocolate gateau. We sit, then realise we are the only people apart from hotel and event staff. Somehow we have crashed the place, although no-one seems to mind. The doors officially open after another ten minutes and guests flow in. They're all very well-dressed, or at least more formally dressed than I am. I pick croutons from my salad and crunch them because I'm already hungry.

We are joined by a woman named Leonora and her friend, who both sit next to Bess; then some guy takes the chair next to mine, and then another woman is sat next to him.

'I read about this in the newspaper,' the man tells me. 'Danny Trejo is a great guy.'

'The San Antonio Express News?' I ask.

'Yes.' He asks what I do, and I tell him I'm a writer just for the fun of it, prompting the usual questions which I answer with the usual excuses.

Leonora tells my wife that she herself works for a homeless charity, dispensing legal advice and aid to those without a roof over their heads. She was once homeless and an addict.

'That's what his mother does,' Bess says, pointing to me.

I make a few calculations and realise that I suppose it is what my mother does, although her legal advice is dispensed to members of the immigrant, unemployed, or similarly inconvenienced community. I try to describe this, but realise I probably sound a bit mad. The word immigrant has come to serve mostly as a pejorative, and I'm keen to make it clear that I have nothing in common with anyone who would use it in that sense. I'm probably trying too hard.

Leonora appears a little concerned but I suppose it's the accent. It always seems to throw people.

The man on my left is talking to the woman. They've both been through recovery and they both play golf. He is describing how he had to give up the golf because he's not very good at it and he gets angry. Now he asks my wife what she does.

'I'm a programmer. I work with computers.'

He begins to ask her about facebook. He doesn't understand it or how it is able to make money.

'Advertising,' Bess and I respond in unison.

He gets out his phone and scrolls down, still puzzled.

'Like that one,' I say, pointing at something headed suggested post. I'm not sure why I'm having this conversation.

The room is full but for a few empty seats here and there, leaving salad and cheesecake which will presumably go uneaten, and there's a woman on the microphone. After a few moments I realise her accent is English. I guess that it might be Lancashire. She explains some of what Alpha Home does, tells us a little about the raffle and the silent auction by which further money will be raised on top of whatever has come in from ticket sales, and then I realise that we have somehow segued into prayer without my noticing. Heads are bowed and eventually we all murmur a dutiful amen.

More significantly, bread rolls have arrived and people at other tables are eating the salad. I decide to be mother and convey the basket around those sat at our table, and then we all eat. Coffee turns up but somehow I miss it, then breaded chicken and spaghetti served by event staff carrying those plates with the metal lids designed to keep food hot. It's hotel food but the timing is right so it's pretty good, although a glass of wine would have been nice.

Never mind.

The speaker comes over, apparently doing the rounds of all the tables. She is from Manchester. I tell her London for the sake of keeping it short, inviting some remark about Mancunians being down to earth, something about accents, posh Londoners blah blah - it's clearly supposed to be jovial, and once again I am reminded how little I value these infrequent encounters with persons from the old country, generally speaking.

Danny Trejo comes before us just as I've begun to wonder how long this whole thing will last. It resembled some efficiently bland corporate function in the publicity, and thus far there hasn't been much to assuage my feeling a little bad about how much my wife spent on the tickets.

I notice a coffee pot unattended on an adjacent table so I nab it, doing that walk with the knees half-bent so as not to draw attention to myself. Danny Trejo speaks for about an hour, details of his life story as apply to the cause, a tale which by his own admission is interesting to everyone except me. He's funny and amiable, and it doesn't sound scripted. He's one of those people with natural charm and a gift for telling a story. The hour slips past quite quickly. I eat my cheesecake, then Leonora passes me another from one of the vacant settings.

We are invited to ask questions, and a few people pipe up with enquiries about Danny's views on this or that aspect of dependency or recovery. The final question concerns the legalisation of marijuana delivered in a tone suggesting that the person who has asked believes it to be a bad thing along with all that other stuff by which Satan tries to corrupt our kids. It's a wearyingly loaded enquiry offered in expectation of one very specific and unequivocal answer.

Danny Trejo suggests that those who enjoy marijuana will probably be in favour of its legalisation, and those who don't enjoy marijuana probably won't be in favour of its legalisation; then he kind of blows it for me by suggesting dope to be the thin end of a wedge leading almost inevitably to heroin and prison. I've known a ton of people with heavy weed habits, and not one of them graduated to anything else or ended up in prison. Personally, I can't even stand the smell of the stuff, but if people want to smoke it then they'll smoke it legally or otherwise, so I suppose they may as well do so without having to obtain it through illegal means; but then what do I care?

The event draws to a close with an autographed t-shirt auctioned for a thousand dollars, and our Mancunian hostess tells us that a total of about one-hundred thousand has been raised during the previous ninety minutes. We shuffle off in the direction of Danny Trejo, but he's a little guy and is buried under a mountain of selfie hunters.

Later, I find online reviews of Alpha Home to be mixed. One former employee regards it as a massive money-making scam, but other reviews seem favourable, and I notice with pleasure that no holistic mumbo-jumbo is involved; which suggests to me that it is almost certainly on the level, and is therefore probably a good thing.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Gospel


'There's this church I'd like us to go to,' Bess told me. 'Our security guard preaches there, and I've told him we would go.'

It seemed an unusual suggestion given that I've spent most of my life avoiding churches, or at least avoiding the services taking place within; but on the other hand, I tend to trust my wife's judgement on most things.

I intersected with the Church of England only infrequently whilst growing up, mostly weddings, funerals and baptisms and probably not quite reaching double figures. The Reverend Dilwyn Morgan Davies made regular visits to Ilmington Junior and Infants School, pootling the hundred yards down the road from St. Mary's to deliver unto us a weekly sermon during school assembly. He resembled Spike Milligan's impersonation of a Church of England vicar and all I can recall were his overly dramatic performances stretching out each syllable of his own name, then Mattheeeeeeeeeew, Maaaaaaaaaark, Luke and [pause for breath] Johhhhhnnnnn, none of which left me with any enduring impression of who these people were or why it might concern me. With hindsight, he was good with children in that he made us laugh, and he was a lot more entertaining than the anonymously stuttering pink-faced goons presiding at most services I've witnessed since.

My view of religion is probably too messy and sprawling to be of much use in the context of this particular sermon, but could probably be distilled to if it works for you, then fine. Whilst history is a testament to the many unspeakable crimes perpetrated in the name of one religion or another, I would suggest that the overwhelming majority of these crimes derive from human ambition expressed as power structures within which religion tends to have been co-opted as one of a number of supports. If you're one of those people who genuinely seem to believe that religion must be wiped from the face of the earth in order for a better society to come into being, then I'd suggest you're as bad as any witch hunter, any inquisitional wielder of a burning brand, or any snake oil selling televangelist bleeding money from his flock; and I'd also suggest that you haven't really made an effort to appreciate what religion is, what it does, or why it would mean anything to so many people. If that's too hard to understand, then it's the wiping things from the face of the earth detail which is the problem, not the identity of whoever may be calling for the wiping.

Anyway, Bess had told me that some guy from her work place was a preacher at a church, and she had asked me to come along to a service. I said yes because it would be a new thing for me.

She'd already been to a service a few months earlier when I'd been tied up with something or other. The security guard was actually one Reverend Gregory Harris and it was his church, inherited from his father, the previous incumbent. It was called the White Robe Missionary Baptist Church and was situated over on the eastside - the black neighbourhood, so to speak. I'm still a little phased by large American cities being so clearly racially divided, but then I've only been here five or six years and segregation was a recent thing in this country. The service, so my wife reported back, had been small but powerful. The congregation was just a handful of people gathered in a church resembling what I would think of as a village hall, and which could have stood a few repairs here and there. It was at the opposite end of the scale to the huge evangelical money-hoovering schemes I see at the side of the highway heading to Austin, buildings gleaming as though from the covers of seventies science-fiction paperbacks, places I avoid because I don't want to be either mugged or brainwashed by anyone less intelligent than myself.

My experience of Baptist churches is limited to Helen Martin battling a rival grandmother in Don't Be a Menace to South Central When You Drink Your Juice in the Hood, and skits on southern rap albums, skits mostly using organ swells to emphasise a testimonial condemnation of persons who be playa-hatin' on Master P and that sort of thing. So realistically, I really didn't know what to expect, although I felt anything in the vein of Helen Martin's spontaneous breakdancing was probably unlikely.

The place was small and, as promised, not in a great state of repair, but you could see that they had done what they could with it. There were four rows of pews, and with padded seating which made for a nice change. There were nineteen of us once everyone had arrived, a couple of kids, some Latinas, and just four white people - which I found oddly comforting. You get less bullshit flying around in the absence of white people, and I say that in the awareness of being one myself. A woman introduced as Miss Wells played the piano. The instrument probably could have stood a little tuning, but I have a vague memory of piano-tuning being expensive, so she made do with what she had. She played well, with bluesy passion and a real feeling for the music, and so well that it ceased sounding like an early Residents album after just a few minutes. Miss Wells also led us in song, mostly compositions of just one line repeated over and over, mostly relating to having faith in Jesus as you would expect; and because it was just one line repeated over and over, it was easy enough to join in, so we all did; and of course we clapped our hands. Seen from outside it would have struck me as odd, but I was taken by the moment and it felt pretty good; and - just like on the telly - our song was augmented with random interjections of tell it like it is or amen to that and the like, and all quite natural and heartfelt - none of the showboating or ostentatious piety I've seen elsewhere. The singing brought us all together in such a way as to make it seem ridiculous that anyone should feel self-conscious or awkward in the company of these strangers. I've resentfully muttered along to the hymns in the few church services I've previously attended because I've always felt like an intruder, like I'm required to do time before being given the secret code, but this felt entirely different.

Song alternated with sermon, readings from the New Testament delivered with warmth and in terms of our daily lives, and even with jokes. I still feel that the major problem with many faiths - or at least certain brands of Christianity - has been a tendency to focus on the speaker more than what is said, so it becomes a money-spinning fan club with no real currency in the message of doing unto others as you would have done unto you, because that would interfere with the direction in which the dollars are supposed to flow. Here I realised that the emphasis seemed different, and that the message was heard very well, and that the message was helping some of these people get through the day.

This was underscored by the individual testimonies which followed. Members of the congregation stepped forward and told their stories - personal trials and tribulations, poverty, death, cancer, domestic violence, and more; and in each case thanks were given to the man upstairs for his help in getting them through their troubles, for keeping them straight. My inner Richard Dawkins - thankfully a fairly muted voice these days - rationalised that these people had simply found God in their own strength of character, which may be true but misses all of the important points. If that which serves as your point of focus helps you in times of trouble and isn't hurting anyone else, then maybe what we call it is secondary.

The full service lasted about two hours, never once seeming to drag, and what most impressed me about it was how honest it felt. It was a communal experience. We had two preachers and Miss Wells at the piano, but we were all of us involved in one way or another, and there was nothing which felt forced or like it was going through the motions. It felt like we had been brought together by a message, albeit through the agency of a messenger, and the experience had done all of us good. This was no emptily ritualised worship thrown dutifully in the general direction of the heavens. It was something fundamentally human and real.

Afterwards we had food, barbecued chicken, brisket and beans with cornbread. I found myself sat next to the Reverend Larry Smith who had also spoken that morning. He told me he was born in Louisiana but had spent some time in England, which he mentioned because I'd brought it up, telling him, 'I'm not from around here - I guess you can tell by the accent.' Despite his earlier half hour under the spotlight, he seemed a shy, retiring type, so I figured I might as well do the honours with regard to the jolly old elephant in the drawing room.

'I was at Greenham Common,' he told me. 'That was back in the nineties.'

'You were at Greenham Common!'

'I was in the air force, you know?'

I've known several people who were at Greenham Common, but they'd all been on the other side of the fence; and now here was a guy who'd been paid to load bombs onto the aircraft which had drawn protesters to the base in the first place.

'So how did you find England?' I wasn't even sure I should have asked, given the potential for a seriously uncomfortable answer.

'I liked it, but you know when you're on a military base you don't really get to see too much of the outside world.' He asked me about England and why I wasn't there any more, so I told him about getting married and how much I hated the cold. 'It must have been rough for you if you grew up in Louisiana with the heat.'

'Well yeah, I didn't like the cold too much, and it rained a lot.'

I told him I had been a postman for twenty years. 'Outside in the wind and rain, and you know how sometimes the cold just gets into your bones and there's nothing can shift it...'

'I'm a mailman myself.'

'You deliver the mail too!' I couldn't help laughing. We both laughed.

'I got me a route over on the westside. I been doing that seventeen years.'

At that point we had finished our food, so we said our farewells and left. I still don't feel particularly converted, but we left with that glow you develop in the company of good people, or in this case, great people with whom I feel honoured to have spent time. The world can be a shitty place, but I try to maintain a belief that no-one is deliberately evil and that the majority are generally good, and every so often it's nice to be reminded that this is surely something more than just a belief.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Coco Loco


I first saw Coco when she was just a facebook avatar, a weird grin with pigtails and eyes so wide set they seemed to be making separate journeys around to the opposite sides of her head, like characters in a novel by Jules Verne. The photo had been taken during Oktoberfest, hence the pigtails. My wife knew her from work. The woman had picked up the name Coco when a colleague likened her behaviour to that of a guest at a chimpanzees' tea party. She flounced and pouted, complaining loudly that some prohibitive condition or other would not have applied had she been born with a penis, and then once Sherlock Holmes had turned up to apply his characteristic wisdom and insight to the mystery, the problem always turned out to have been her own doing.

She hadn't understood some detail.

She had neglected to include some part of the code, something so simple that even I understood what had gone wrong when my wife described it to me, and I'm not a programmer.

Everyone had reminded her of that one element, that repeat offender blind spot, and she had testily informed them that she knew perfectly well what she was doing, thank you very much; and yet it always turned out that she hadn't known what she was doing.

It wasn't her fault.

It was never her fault.

It was because of sexism, despite her being the highest paid person in the company anywhere below the level of management. It was because of every possible reason other than her having screwed up, and so it was observed that Coco the Chimp is flinging her faeces around - everyone duck.

They would all rally to locate and tackle the problem, to write the code as it should have been, as it would have been had anyone else been on the job.

'I fixed it!' Coco would beam, dancing from one cubicle to another waving metaphorical pompoms, having taken no actual role in correcting her own mistake beyond providing the initial problem.

'I am a good programmer. I am a good programmer,' she would tell herself over and over, sat alone at her cubicle, broadcasting like some horrible motivational radio station; and yet the simple repetition of the words somehow never made it so.

'How are you enjoying your stay in Texas?' she asked me, screeching across the table at Taco Garage with what might be the least sincere smile I've ever witnessed, the smile you keep ready for a foreigner. It was the first time I met her and was able to put a face to the pigtailed avatar. Bess and I had been married a year, but stay seem to redefine this as a temporary arrangement - not how do I like Texas, but how am I enjoying my stay?

How's married life working out for you?

Will it last, do you think?

Owing to the frequency with which she dropped them, I assumed passive-aggressive observations of this kind were learned behaviour, a pre-emptive defence mechanism designed to put the other person off guard before they could properly formulate the realisation of Coco being a bit of an idiot. She had somehow devised a way of kissing your ass whilst flipping you off at the same time. It was confusing, annoying, but also quite impressive.

She'd address my wife Bess as Beth, and with much greater frequency when getting pissy over something, revealing the affectation to be anything but the innocent slip of the tongue she made it out to be. She would claim my wife's programming victories as her doing, having supposedly helped with the parts my wife didn't understand whilst undermining her own story with gibberish about programming in the cloud; and even I know what a cloud is.

She tried to give us her swimming pool, one of the kind which can be set up in the yard and filled with water. It was twenty feet across and free because she was having a proper pool installed in her own garden. I said no, immediately detecting a situation which would become horribly complicated, and because I quite liked our garden as it was without some shitty used pool taking up space; and it would become horribly complicated, because every part of Coco's world was horribly complicated - her two boyfriends for example. She couldn't decide which she liked more, and so she'd been sat between them when we all went out for dinner, not even an example of free-thinking polyamory, just someone who couldn't decide and was taking the general concept of awkward to a whole 'nother level, as they say. Eventually she married the former Scientologist and spent a year planning what she clearly hoped would be the most magical wedding of all time, something to make even the most saccharine coated Disney extravaganza seem like one of Joseph Beuys' more harrowing performances. She spent a year telling everyone about the wedding. It didn't matter who they were or whether they were interested. Sometimes she would be moved to tears in contemplation of how beautiful the wedding was going to be, and the rest of us began to worry about what she was going to do after, with no more magic to look forward to, just her and the former Scientologist sat around their pool and beginning to realise that nothing had changed.

The day of the wedding came and went, and on Sunday the 11th of May 2014, I tried to write about it in an essay provisionally entitled Wedding of the Century.

We were heading for a wedding to be held at the Newhaven River Inn which is near a town called Comfort. It was to be the wedding of the century, at least in the imagination of one of the participants. The rest of us, despite having already had a year to think about it, were yet to be convinced. In fact we anticipated disaster. An event carrying that much expectation seemed destined to failure, not least because of who was involved...

I started on a second paragraph, but had begun to bore even myself. It was just a day out in the country with a ton of people we didn't know, and Coco screeching and getting my wife's name wrong, and cooing like a googley-eyed Care Bear over those members of her family which had turned up because they were actually still talking to her. It was okay, but nothing memorable aside from being a conspicuous display of money which went on too long, and we left with a little bag of small white pebbles with which to commemorate the event. Then many years later I discover them to be sugared almonds and that this is a common marital tradition over here.

My wife is allergic to almonds.

After the wedding, it was the honeymoon and a series of lurid heart-shaped photographs of herself and the Scientologist on the beach; and although we've heard bad things about the Church of Scientology, both my wife and I began to wonder how bad it really could have been. The Scientologist seemed like a genuinely nice guy, so how come he ended up with Coco?

After the honeymoon, it was back to the usual onslaught. How she couldn't stand it in Texas with all these Republicans and rednecks, then right in with the jokes about camels and joining Al-Qaeda when the Moroccan guy takes a couple of weeks holiday. She's from New York, she reminds us on a daily basis, where everyone is wonderful and no-one tolerates racism; and it's true in that she's certainly more liberal than most.

Her daughter has married a man she has known for a matter of months, and they've just had a baby, and now the husband has decided to go for gender reassignment surgery. Coco tells us she is going to be as supportive as fuck, because that's the kind of big-hearted New Yorker she is, leaving the rest of us to wonder why it didn't occur to this guy to mention his gender dysphoria nine months earlier; and if this is genuinely none of our business, then maybe we shouldn't have to hear about it all the fucking time, and particularly not with diagrams of penises bissected and inverted on the office whiteboard whilst we're trying to get some work done.

'They turn it inside out and make it into a vagina, but he'll have to use a dildo so that it doesn't close up. That's what happens.'

Thanks, Coco, but we're trying to eat right now.

Still, it probably isn't any worse than when the dog had cancer, inspiring cross section anatomical diagrams of dogs' arseholes on the whiteboard, because she knew we'd all want to know how the vet was going to proceed.

Still trying to eat, thanks.

Every day she petitions my wife to take lunch with her, sometimes popping the question before Beth has even sat down, because eight hours of Coco the chimp talking about dog's arseholes, her dream wedding, and why she hates the entire state of Texas is just not enough. If they do lunch she gets to keep that monologue going all the way through.

'Do you have any plans for lunch?'

'No, I'm just going to grab a sandwich today. I can't go to lunch with you.'

'Oh - well I guess I'll just have to eat an old shoe then,' because apparently that's what you say. It's supposed to make the other person feel guilty.

I finally get to see the swimming pool with my own eyes when Beth and I are invited over for dinner, one evening - the pool which was going to make Coco's life perfect back in the days before the wedding was going to make her life perfect. It's just a pool in a back garden in a leafy part of San Antonio. Since we've arrived Coco and the Scientologist have spent most of the time telling us what a pain in the arse it is to keep clean. I get the impression that it's less for swimming, more for sitting around whilst drinking Martinis. Then the other previous boyfriend turns up, the one who lost out to the Scientologist. I expect it to be awkward, but oddly it isn't because he seems one hell of a lot happier than the last time we met.

'I always read your blog,' she tells me grinning like she expects a cookie. 'An Englishman in Texas,' she adds, proving to me that she knows what it's called and must therefore be telling the truth; but I hear variations on the theme all the time.

Let me know when your book is coming so I can buy one.

Sure.

We eat something that's been roasted and drink wine, beer, or iced tea. The food is okay.

'Do you make fish and chips for yourself?' she asks with the volume the rest of us keep in reserve for the hard of hearing, and again with that smile, already congratulating herself on all that cultural sensitivity she wields like a master swordsman.

I don't answer because I'm actually in the middle of a conversation with the Scientologist, and the interruption seems unusually rude and stupid. How does he put up with this, I wonder.

Eventually she leaves. They sell the house and vanish from our lives, somewhere cold and liberal, where they just know everything will be amazing and magical, and they'll finally have the perfect life they've always deserved once they're settled and Coco has an obscenely high-paying job based on her countless skills, not least of these being her people skills. People just gravitate to her. She doesn't know how it works. It's just a gift.

I remind myself that I only met her a couple of times, and most of the suffering was experienced by my wife, but often it feels as though I was there too; and that's the magic of Coco.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Machynlleth


Everything seemed to be in flux back in September, 2006. I no longer recognised nor understood either the world nor my place therein. My landlord was dead and I was on borrowed time, the sole occupant of a house without an owner. I'd been told to continue paying my rent to the solicitor who was handling my landlord's affairs, but no-one had told me what was happening or what would happen. I was usually in Mexico at that time of year. Twelve months before I'd been over there with Rob Colson and we'd celebrated my fortieth birthday in Oaxaca, but now Rob was getting married and I had a girlfriend and it was all spinning out of control. I couldn't get a handle on things. I was just biding my time, seeing where the cards fell.

Marian wanted to visit some place called the Centre for Alternative Technology. This was supposed to be us getting on a train and going off on an adventure, but it all sounded a little dry to me.

'Aren't you interested in renewable energy sources, Lawrence?' This was the kind of question she habitually asked, phrased so as to coax you into giving the answer she was after. It was cut from the same cloth as so don't you care about the little children?

It turned out that the Centre for Alternative Technology was in Machynlleth, Wales at the northern tip of Powys, so I said okay because I've always liked Wales. The presence of mountains is usually enough to swing it for me.

We left from Euston station on Wednesday the 20th of September, according to a bank statement somehow still in my possession. We found a bed and breakfast, one I am unable to locate by looking at a map, but which I suspect may have been situated along Heol Y Doll because I recall the window in our room affording a good view of the hills to the south of the town, overlooking the fields on the western side. The bed and breakfast seemed to be huge, many floors and with a room tucked away everywhere you looked. Marian was unhappy with the bed in our accommodation and announced that we had to change, which meant that I had to do something about it because I had a penis, making it my job despite that the bed seemed fine to me.

Day one was the Centre for Alternative Technology which meant walking a little way out of town and catching a bus. It was basically an old farm up in the hills turned over to windmills, waterwheels, solar panels, demonstrations of composting and so on. The public get to walk around, and if they're interested in renewable energy sources, they will almost certainly have at least as much fun as Marian did. Personally I found it okay, undoubtedly worthwhile, but not actively fascinating. Marian took her time, stopping for rests, reading everything that there was to be read and pushing every button on every interactive display that there was to be pushed. We were there four or five hours, which seemed like a lot to me. Our approach to the exit became one of those exercises in mathematical philosophy where one is forever crossing half of whatever distance is left to cross. I bought a mouse pad recycled from pulverised orange juice cartons at the gift shop to use up some time, then came back to find Marian still giggling and pushing buttons to operate animated displays designed to educate the under tens.

Eventually we escaped, and ate, and I suppose we must have found something or other to talk about for the rest of the evening.

Next morning, I got up early and went out for a walk. I followed the main road south out of the town, then followed a path up into the hills. We had ascended this same path on the first afternoon, fresh off the train, but I wanted to go further and without stopping. It took me about thirty minutes to get to the top of the hill looking down over Machynlleth and across the Dyfi Valley. I could see our bed and breakfast. In fact I could see the window of our room - which made me happy, possibly because it was far away.

I celebrated by smoking a fag and my phone rang.

'Where are you?' She sounded pissed off.

'Look out the window. I'm on top of the hill.'

I waved.

'Can you see me?'

'Yes.' She didn't seem to appreciate the novelty.

'You sound pissed off.'

'I didn't sleep very well. This bed is as bad as the other one.'

I trudged back down to the town and we had breakfast at the White Lion. The White Lion also had a room going, so we were going to switch accommodation rather than move to a third room in the other place, but first we had things to do and sights to see. Marian wanted to return to the Centre for Alternative Technology and do it all again.

'But we went there yesterday,' I countered, not unreasonably in my view. 'We spent four or five hours there.'

'I thought you enjoyed it?'

'I did,' I said, genuinely bewildered, 'but why would we want to go again when we were there only yesterday?'

Marian went on the defensive. 'You know, Lawrence, I'm fairly sure that I told you I wanted to come and stay in Machynlleth so we could visit the Centre for Alternative Technology.'

'What? Every fucking day?'

I wasn't backing down this time, and she grudgingly agreed we would travel by rail to a town called Borth, the appeal of which was that it was on the coast, had a beach, and there was some kind of animal sanctuary nearby. We returned to the bed and breakfast, rearranged the contents of our backpacks accordingly, then set off. Borth was pleasant but not particularly memorable, and the animal sanctuary was nice enough but the weather had turned cold.

'I'd like my cardigan now, please,' Marian informed me.

I had to ask what she meant.

She explained that her cardigan was in my backpack, and she would like it now because it was getting cold.

The cardigan wasn't in my backpack because I'd taken it out back at the bed and breakfast, having assumed I'd somehow picked it up and stuffed it in there by mistake. Marian explained that she had put the cardigan in my backpack because there was no room in her own, and that I should stop messing about and just give her the damn thing because it was getting cold.

'No really, I don't have it,' I said.

'Why not?'

'Because I took it out, because I didn't know why it was in there. Maybe you should have told me you put it in.'

'I have to explain every simple little thing to you, now? Is that how it works?'

I should just have said yes. We caught the train, following a long walk on an increasingly chilly beach back to the station. Neither of us said a word. I made overtures but Marian refused to speak to me, even to look at me. My crime was too great.

That night we stayed at the White Lion, which was nice because it was an old half-timbered room with wonky floors and a television so we could watch Pobol y Cwm. We had a couple more days, so we ate at restaurants and went for walks. It was okay. It wasn't the worst holiday, but I've had better, and the world still didn't make any sense when we caught the train back to London.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Saturday Morning


The boy is with his father this weekend, which means his room comes under my jurisdiction and is thus included in my daily round of sweeping things up and trying to prevent the house too closely resembling a tip. The Paw Wars poster fell from the wall above his bed on Wednesday and lay at an angle at the centre of the room for several hours. Junior would have picked it up but had been busy with his game. 'What's it doing on the floor?' I asked.

'I have no idea how that could have happened,' he explained at an angle to my question.

The Paw Wars poster is printed on thick card and is probably marketed as suitable for framing, so my five blobs of blu-tack just weren't up to the job. I don't know what Paw Wars is supposed to be. It doesn't even fucking rhyme properly.

The poster shows a squirrel and a groundhog, both cut out from existing photographs, apparently battling with light sabres like you would see in Star Wars.

Ha. Ha.

The thing has always struck me as being a very special kind of lame, and I have a hunch I know how we ended up with it, which doting relative sent it our way on the grounds of it being both a real hoot and just the cutest thang you ever did see; but why Paw Wars specifically? Both squirrels and groundhogs have paws, it's true - but then you might argue that so do humans, albeit by a different name, and Game of Thrones was presumably called Game of Thrones because the title made a fuck of a lot more sense than Hand Wars - in reference to most of those involved being in possession of said appendages. The majority of mammals also have a colon, but perhaps Colon Wars was already taken. I don't know and I have no intention of finding out.

Anyway, having googled Paw Wars, it turns out to be a series of short YouTube videos recreating scenes from Star Wars using footage of domestic pets and a relentless stream of creaking puns, the sort of thing which is probably funny if you're thirteen or thereabouts. That said, I'm not convinced the Paw Wars poster is even directly related, at least not beyond the shared theme. Not that it matters because I'm replacing the bastard with a Pokémon poster. I bought it at Michael's yesterday whilst looking for something by which to organise all of the nuts, bolts, screws, washers, and nails in the garage. The poster shows a host of peculiar looking Japanese cartoon monsters all lurching towards the viewer wearing the usual determined grimaces of children's entertainment taking itself too seriously. I roll up balls of blu-tack, then stand on the bed and press the poster to the wall.

'Bess!'

'What?" She comes in from the other bedroom.

'What do you think?'

'Looking good.'

I step down from the bed. Behind us on the other wall is a poster of Marvel superheroes, similarly purchased from Michael's a month or so earlier. Having once had a heavy comics habit, I know who most of the characters are supposed to be, but I'm out of my depth with this Japanese stuff. 'Bulbosaurus is the only one I know, but I don't think he's on there.'

Bess points to a thing resembling a cross between a turtle and a flower right at the centre. 'That's Venusaur. He's evolved from Bulbasaur,' and she gets the name right too. In this regard I've turned into my own grandmother indulging me and my boundless enthusiasm for that Captain Thunderbirds show.

'I don't know any of them.'

'Well, I don't know all of them,' my wife admits.

As a fifty-one year old man, I was able to identify most of the characters on the superhero poster, even setting the kid right on a few points.

Actually, I rather think you'll find that's Medusa from the Inhumans. The Scarlet Witch is over there next to Hawkeye.
 
I feel my ignorance of Pokémon characters redresses a balance, handing something back to the kid. He will return on Sunday afternoon and the poster will allow him to once again lecture us on subjects for which we care nothing, beyond that it obviously makes him happy; which has been the whole point.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

...and Ten Things Which America Does Just Fine


Art. Before anyone starts, I'm not referring to Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko - both of whom are probably more interesting in terms of art history than what they actually painted; and I'm definitely not talking about Andy bloody Warhol. After many years of study I've concluded that fine art should be divided into two main categories, specifically landscape art, and everything which isn't landscape art. Even a century later, the first and foremost of these two categories is still dominated by the work of Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and others of the Hudson River School - if you ask me, which admittedly you didn't, which is why I'm telling you. José María Velasco should probably also be included here on the grounds of his having been the greatest landscape artist of all time. He was Mexican of course, but it's the same continental land mass. Landscape doesn't really get any better than the three aforementioned so far as I'm concerned. Some of that European stuff was okay, but hanging one next to a Bierstadt is like having the Venga Boys open for Led Zeppelin, quite frankly.

I've failed to take any non-landscape based art into account in this argument because it's mostly shite and doesn't matter.

Dangerous Arseholes. Sadly this isn't really a boast, but it cannot be denied that we lead the world in the field of dangerous arseholes, and despite stiff competition from the United Kingdom, Russia and the Islamic State, we've recently leapt ahead quite some way. Many of the world's leading trigger-happy fundamentalist shitheads now regard us with awe and envy, having found themselves suddenly seeming about as dangerous as characters from Harry Potter. I'm not sure why this should be, particularly as we have a constitution which is supposed to prevent the sort of situation in which we now find ourselves. Part of the problem may result from people who've never been under any pressure to grow up or to think adult thoughts. We seem to have a few of those, and once they get into any kind of position of authority, it's always trouble. Whilst I'm sure the Republican party was founded on at least some honourable principles - providing we don't look too hard at how capitalism actually works, and is actually shown to work by the last two centuries of history - it seems very difficult to find a Republican who appears significantly informed by those principles, whatever they are or were. Mostly Republicans just seem to be guys who like money and authority, because authority is the thing which means they get to keep their money. Online Republicans tend to spend a lot of time going on about freedom, freedom from government interference, freedom from taxation, being oneself, being an individual, being a rugged cowboy out on the lonesome trail answering to no man, no how, no siree; and yet in person, send a man in uniform into the room and they can't bend over backwards fast enough to kiss his ass, call him a real American hero, and loudly address him as Sir, Yes Sir! Also, for lovers of freedom, they sure have a lot to say about what the rest of us get up to in the privacy of our own homes. It wouldn't be so bad if there was some kind of organised opposition to this tendency, but instead there's the Democrat party which stands for the same thing whilst feeling a bit guilty about it. Almost all of our dangerous arseholes conform to some quality detailed here, with minor variations being in ratios of gun ownership and fear of anything different to oneself.

 
Healthy Geographical Distance from the Following: Timothy Griffiths, Shaun Robert, Theresa May, David Yeomans, Nigel Farage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Clarkson, James Delingpole, Razorlight, Boris Johnson, James Whitaker, Hugh Grant, Harry Potter, that pair of fucking twats who opened up a café specialising in cornflakes in Hackney or wherever it was, Hamilton Bohannon*, Tony Wakeford, Chris Evans, Steven Moffat, David Gibson, Bob of Bulkington near Coventry, anyone who ever won or was nominated for the Turner Prize, Radiohead, Paul Mercer, Miriam Rahim, Tunstall Asaf, Juliet Prouse, Dennis Landers, Franklin from The Sun, Jimmy Savile, Billie Piper, Richard Callaghan, Supergrass, The One Show, Margaret Thatcher, General Pinochet, Marcus Brigstocke, Dennis Cattell, Marian Galton, Ludwig the mechanical cartoon egg thing from the seventies, Jamie Oliver, James Nesbitt, Stephen Frost, Alexis Petridis, Alexander McCall Smith, Electric Light Orchestra, Hamilton Bohannon*, Hamilton Bohannon*, Hamilton Bohannon*, Matt Smith, Harley Richardson, The Archers, anyone who ever observed that the shipping forecast sounds a bit like poetry...

History. One of my favourite examples of online sneering is the Britsplanation of American history which runs that we don't have any because the country is only two-hundred years old, whilst simultaneously lambasting our supposed assumption of there having been nothing much to speak of before white people turned up. I've always found American history fascinating, particularly all the stuff predating Christopher Colombus colonising a completely different and much smaller landmass whilst simultaneously wiping out the sum total of its indigenous population; and while it would be an exaggeration to suggest that this interest is why I ended up in Texas, it is at least why my gaze was already trained upon this part of the globe. I never found English or European history particularly exciting, and most of it seems to have been heavy metal wrestling mascots fighting over different kinds of mud in the pissing rain, parallel to which Mexico was engaged in building an elegant, philosophically sophisticated, and criminally misunderstood civilisation; and the people here in the northern continental blob were no less worthy of note. The Tuzigoot ruins in Arizona, for example, are at least as impressive as anything built by the Normans, and they were at the northern end of a trade route stretching all the way down into South America without anyone having bothered to invent the wheel, but you know - wurgh wurgh wurgh two-hundred years old wurgh wurgh wurgh Egbert of Wessex Magna Carta boring churches blah blah blah...

Hope. My life in England was often about getting by, making do, holding out and hoping the check would come before the bailiffs as everything became steadily worse, wetter, harder, and an ever more steely shade of battleship grey. English society had become, in my experience, a treadmill designed to keep me alive and generating just enough money to pay for the things which it told me had to be paid. Under circumstances other than those in which I happily find myself, America would probably be the same, but it feels like a country which is at least trying. We have our problems, not least being dangerous arseholes, but it at least feels like this place has the potential for improvement, like it wants the best for its people on some level, even when the actions fail to match the words. It is a land in which we still have possibilities beyond the crushing promise of the future being the present but with more security checkpoints. I thought this was just me until a couple of similarly transplanted online individuals expressed more or less the same sentiment on facebook, and one of them was Wreckless Eric so fuck you.

Kiss. One thing about America is that we do big and stupid really well, as I'm sure even our harshest critics would agree. Of course, it's important to remember that sometimes big and stupid is good - great even, and for evidence of this one need listen no further than the recorded oeuvre of Kiss. Whatever argument you may wish to draw against the excellence of Kiss vanishes as unto dew upon a summer's morn once you actually listen to Kiss. No-one really understands how this works. It just does.

Mexican Food. You really need to be here to appreciate Mexican food, either in Mexico itself or a little way from the border. That stuff you eat in London in some overpriced glass box named Zapata and served by an eighteen-year old wearing luminous orange tights and with the beard of W.G. Grace - it isn't Mexican food. It's probably just salad with a shake of Tabasco sauce, which is something else, and will remain something else regardless of how many traditional Aztec rocker-stamp animals are printed down the margin on the menu. Mexican food isn't about slopping four gallons of sour cream and guacamole over a bag of Doritos. I've seen counter arguments amounting to huh - can't see what's so difficult about chopping up a few tomatoes, but you really have to eat the genuine article to appreciate the difference. I don't even know what informs this difference given that the ingredients are all fairly straightforward, and yet what you eat over here in the Mexican equivalent of a greasy spoon - formica tables, plastic forks, radio tuned to some horrible Tejano station - makes most allegedly Mexican food I've eaten in England seem fussy, ridiculous, overpriced, and most likely prepared by someone who never actually ate Mexican food. You'll just have to trust me on this one. I don't understand it either.

Nature. I grew up on a farm in Warwickshire, in the very bosom of nature, you might say, and I grew up as part of a generation which spent most of its time outside in wellies. I saw rabbits and foxes, but not very often. I don't recall seeing frogs until I moved to London in my late twenties. I never saw a snake, and the only badgers I have ever encountered have been the lifeless two-dimensional kind found at the side of major roads. I've had this sort of conversation with overly defensive English people on a number of occasions. I'll mention the millions of bats I watched swarming from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin at sunset, and Timothy will be reminded of the bat he once saw at a Happy Eater just outside Daventry and will thus dominate the rest of the conversation with discourse on the same. 'Of course, they're mostly pipistrelle bats around our way,' he'll inform me at pornographic length, apparently having forgotten that I lived in England up until five years ago. 'Pippies, we call them.'

Anyway, I now encounter snakes, turtles, lizards, deer, possums, vultures, wild turkeys, roadrunners, coyotes, stick insects, and raccoons, and half of those on a near daily basis. Some of the snakes are of a kind which could kill me should I be bitten and unable to reach a hospital. I've encountered at least one turtle which could have bitten off my fingers had I got too close; so these days I even know which turtles are safe to pick up and how to do so without having them piss all over me - which they tend to do. I have more nature than I know what to do with. I have nature coming out of my ass, if you'll pardon the expression.

Proximity to Mexico. We're right next to Mexico, and England really isn't. If you don't believe me you can look it up on a map. Here in Texas we're so right next to Mexico that we can drive for about an hour and then look directly at it from across the other side of the river. Of course, this might change if our new President gets to build his wall, despite that it won't make much difference to immigration - if we're going to keep on pretending that that's really a problem for the sake of argument. Personally I'm hoping he'll get confused and build the wall along the top of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, thus making our part of America Mexico again. He can keep California though. I'm not too bothered about that one.

Sunshine. When I say America, I suppose I actually mean Texas - or Mexico Norteño as I like to think of it; and Texas has a lot of sunshine. That half a week of the English August during which it only rains in the morning doesn't really compare.

*: Names withheld because I can't be bothered to argue with the fuckers should any of them ever resurface from the netherworld of perception.