Friday, 17 November 2017

Handegg


It's called football but I can't get used to it. I've lived in America for over six years and I'll say gas rather than petrol, cookies rather than biscuits, but football goes against the grain. I was never the most ardent devotee of the English game, but there it was in all our lives regardless of personal preference, and it was hard to miss the crucial detail of it involving persons moving a ball around a field by means of a foot, hence the name. Here in America, the ball is shaped more like an egg and, aside from an occasional kick, it's mostly conveyed around the field by hand. The game looks more like Rugby to me, and I hated Rugby at school so I have trouble seeing the attraction.

Every evening I watch the local news on KENS5, even though there's never much actual news. Usually it's five minutes of shootings on the southside and then straight to fifteen minutes of weather reported in far more detail than anyone could ever possibly need, particularly given that nine times out of ten, the forecast is that it will probably be fucking hot. As the forecast ends, big-faced Bill Taylor does his John Wayne swagger across the studio to where big-faced Joe Reinagel is waiting, and thusly does slow moving horseplay ensue, how 'bout them Cowboys, and that sort of thing with playful upper-arm punches. Big-faced Joe Reinagel turns to the camera and tells us something about either the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Cowboys, or Tim Duncan, and he tells it as though it's important. We'll get a clip of some player discussing an upcoming game. Usually the player will express the hope of his team winning the upcoming game, and maybe he'll offer reassurance that he himself will be doing his absolute best to ensure that his team wins the game; and somehow we need to see this night after night, year after year, as though any of it matters; like it's ever going to be anything different.

So, LaMarcus Aldridge, your guys are up against the Houston Armadillos tonight. How do you think that's going to play out?

I'm hoping we lose!

Big-faced Joe Reinagel will talk a little more about sports, then flash a cheeky grin and promise us a sight like unto none which has ever before been beheldest by man, coming right up after the break; then two minutes of commercials promising an end to either constipation or diarrhea, and back to the studio for a YouTube clip from the Cowboys game at the weekend.

The ball is thrown.

The man catches the ball.

Then he drops the ball.

Hooting and hollering is then generated by Bill, Joe, Sarah, and the guy with the creepy eyebrows, whatever the fuck he's called. Can you beat that!? You see how he just dropped that puppy!? He had it in the bag but - man oh man - he just couldn't hold onto that thing, and he dropped it.

We watch the clip two or three times as the hooting and hollering increases. Well, did you ever see anything like that!?

 
Nevertheless, here I am at the Dub Farris Athletic Park to watch a friendly game of handegg. Dub Farris was a much celebrated high school handegg coach around these parts, and I don't understand the name either. Let's just assume his parents were fans of King Tubby. I'm at the Dub Farris Athletic Park to watch Brandeis playing Clark, rival high school handegg teams. I don't really have a horse in this race, or even any interest in being here beyond the purely anthropological, but Tommy plays saxophone in the Brandeis marching band and he's one of Junior's best friends.

'Give it a chance,' my wife almost certainly tells me at some point or other, although the main reason she ever brings me along to this kind of thing is because she finds my sarcasm entertaining.

We join a long, long queue for tickets. The field and stands are just behind us, fenced off, and things are already warming up - cartwheels, cheerleaders, some bloke dressed as a horse and so on. It's like a child's drawing of the circus in which every act occurs simultaneously in different parts of the ring, except this is really happening. Imagine a science-fiction scenario in which the universe will cease to exist should its creator ever experience even a fleeting instance of boredom. Maybe that's what's going on right here, right now. Five minutes shuffle along until we have tickets, so we go in.

We walk along before the bleachers. To our left is the field and a million entertainments occurring all at once in a last desperate bid to keep the creator amused because we don't want to die. To our right is seating occupied by a multitude of parents, relatives, friends, and possibly also the guy who made the universe and everything in it. The blue and orange of Brandeis are to be seen everywhere, on clothing, painted on faces, and even a couple of comedy wigs resembling a duotone version of the one worn by Jonathan King when he performed One For You, One For Me on Top of the Pops back in 1978. There's so much blue and orange that we could be in some high contrast drama about an android hunting down meth-cooking alien prostitutes in cyberspace.

We pass before a large phalanx of cheerleaders, then up the steps to the back. The cheerleaders are in front of us as we look down, and the band are to the right, all dressed as Quality Street soldiers. They're jittery because they're kids, all nervously fingering flutes, cornets, a tuba, twirling drum sticks and so on. Far across on the other side of the field I see bleachers full of Clark people, parents, relatives, friends, and their own phalanx of cheerleaders directly facing our lot, and the same with our respective marching bands. Maybe they're going to engage in some kind of face off, trying to out pom-pom each other, or to blast each other off the back of the stadium with honking and hooting. The Clark mascot is dressed as a cougar, whilst ours - and I'm somehow already thinking of Brandeis as us - is a bronco, specifically a horse. The potential seems endless, even without anyone having mistakenly thought I was referring to a sexually adventurous older woman.

Tiny figures are moving around on the field, hunching together, but I can't tell if they're warming up or the game has started. There's a scoreboard to my right but I don't understand that either. I seem to be experiencing information overload. Everything is happening at the same time and at maximum amplification. It's a lot like listening to the first SPK album.

Time passes and I am able to identify which part of the scoreboard counts down towards full time - or whatever they call it here - four quarters, each of fifteen minutes duration. The game is in progress and I missed it. There was no change in emphasis to mark the transition from pre-game horseshit to actual play, possibly because the game is the least important part of why we should all be gathered here this evening.

Once the egg is in play, it's up to the players to get it as far along the field towards the opposition's end zone. They can kick the egg, or they can pick it up and run with it. Once the egg and those players in possession have vanished beneath a mountain of bodies, everything stops, then starts again from this new position further along the field. If you're watching the game on television, the time during which play remains suspended will be given over either to advertising, or to the punditry of commentators describing what we've just seen with our own eyes, or even to interviews with the players in which they describe what we saw them doing with our own eyes and then tell us whether they feel either happy or sad about it.

It isn't like Rugby after all, or at least there's enough of a difference for even me to be able to see it. Incredibly, it looks a lot more violent, and at last I understand why players wear all that padding and the helmet. A couple of them are concussed and carried off on stretchers during the first half.

On the other hand, it reminds me a lot of basketball. As with basketball, I'm watching a distant huddle of people, and it's fairly difficult to tell what is going on; and the shortfall is addressed by the information overload of the band and the cheerleaders and the audience responding as one with carefully choreographed enthusiasm. It's probably not quite so shit as basketball because there's no Jumbotron exorting us to make some noise, and no fucking DJ, but it's close enough as to make no difference.

One thing which handegg doesn't remind me of is football, meaning the game in which players move a ball around with their feet, the game which you can actually identify as being a game. The beauty of football is that you can see what's happening from halfway across the stadium, and something usually is happening, and is happening up and down the full length of the field, and it can continue happening without stopping every thirty fucking seconds. Due to the nature of the game, supporters will give the play of the ball their full concentration, because the game moves and it's quite easy to miss something; and support will be expressed spontaneously, just whatever comes into your head without the need of bells, whistles, and associated horseshit designed to plug every single orifice in your attention span.

We lasted the first half, comprising a couple of distended periods of stop-start-stop-start-stop-start play each adding up to fifteen minutes. Half time is more of everything happening at once, but with marching bands on the field, honking away as they form Busby Berkeley patterns across the pseudo-grass - oh say can you see and the usual selection of star spangled hits, then a few others thrown in, hooting interpretations of popular hair metal ballads and Seven Nation Army by the Shite Stripes, and then Rock and Roll by Gary Glitter, hit maker and renowned kiddy fiddler. I guess his reputation didn't take quite the same nose dive over here as it did back in England, although in its defense, the song does go do-do-dooo-do Hey! do-der-do so it's real catchy and all.

We leave at half-time, having dutifully watched tiny distant figures form patterns and make music, and one of those tiny distant figures was Tommy. I don't know how the rest of the game will go, but it doesn't seem to matter because I have no idea how the half that I've just seen went; because it never was about the game, and handegg is not really even sport as I understand it.

Handegg is about the experience of being there, being part of the team and singing along with the approved anthems. Watching handegg is more or less the same as standing in Red Square back in the good old days of the cold war, watching tanks roll past, prefixing marching legions of perfectly choreographed soldiers turning as one to salute Brezhnev without breaking a step, then more tanks, then those massive trucks with ICBMs on the back. Handegg is the American wing of the Spectacle reinforcing itself by yelling at you in surround sound for a couple of hours, occupying every sensory node with a dumb patriotic noise whilst reminding you that if you fall behind on those payments then maybe you don't really love America, freedom, and Gaaard after all, you communist!

So personally, I'm not a fan, but at least I'm now able to loathe it with authority.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Rockport after Harvey


I'm about to leave the house as I catch the last moments of some feature on the local radio station. People are steering clear of Rockport in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, believing they will only get in the way of the clean-up operation. The woman speaks of coastal businesses trying to get back on their feet but finding it difficult with the usually steady flow of visitors having dried up. 'If ever you felt like driving down to Rockport, maybe stopping by for something to eat,' she concludes, 'they would really, really appreciate it right now.'

I've seen photos of the coastal towns since the hurricane hit back in August, and the devastation has been profound. Byron's family have a couple of houses down there. He drove down to assess the damage on the Monday following, despite radio announcements stating that anyone not local would be ordered to turn their vehicles around. He got through somehow. The damage to the places owned by his family - who seem to have second, third and fourth homes all across the state - was minimal, at least compared to some.

'Let's go to Rockport,' I told Bess. 'This woman on the radio said they need our business, and I've never been to a disaster area.'

I'd kept an eye open for Angela working the tills at HEB, our local supermarket. Her family used to live across the road from us until the landlord sold the place. Angela, her mother, and all their cats moved to another place about a mile away; but Damean, Angela's younger brother, went to live in Rockport with his dad. Damean was a decent kid. He was friends with my stepson and a good influence. He would come over and shake his head at the state of Junior's room.

'You gotta clean this up, dude. No-one can live like this.'

Angela still works in HEB but I haven't seen her in a month or so and I want to find out how things are with Damean down in Rockport. I ask Jennifer, who also works the tills. She tells me she hasn't seen Angela in a while, although she knows that her colleague has to work her hours around school. I suddenly notice that I'm a fifty-year old man enquiring after the private lives of significantly younger - and not unattractive - Latinas who work in my local supermarket.

The weekend comes around and we drive down to Corpus Christi, a few miles from Rockport but more direct for us, being at the other end of a major highway running south from San Antonio. The trip is a little under two hours, and as we approach the coast we keep our eyes peeled for signs of storm damage. There are a few telephone poles which seem to be at a bit of an angle, but it's hard to say whether this means anything; and as we hit Corpus Christi, it really doesn't look like there has been any recent occurrence of anything of meteorological significance. Then we pass the local supermarket, now reduced to a branch of EB. More and more signs are missing letters, but it falls some way short of the carnage we expected. We stop to buy used books at a branch of Half Price, then drive across the water to Padre Island, taking the scenic route.

Actually, it's probably the surreal route more than it is scenic. To my eyes, Padre Island is one of the strangest places I've ever been. Coastal Texas is flat and bordered by a thin strip of barrier island about a mile out to sea, also flat, forming a similarly slender strip of inland salt water extending all the way up to Galveston. The inland waters are calm and expansive, some of them seeming to reach the horizon. Also they are shallow so it's not uncommon to see a lone fisherman in wading boots somehow stood several miles from the shore. The vegetation is of the kind found in flat, hot, windy places; and one of the most distinctive birds is the brown pelican, which is enormous and prehistoric in appearance; and of what dwellings there are, half of them are raised up on stilts. It makes me think of J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands.

We cross the inland waters and drive towards the shore. As we pass the Best Western motel we are pleased to note that the giant concrete Mermaids, starfish, and related Neptunian figures of the theme park opposite have sustained no obvious signs of damage. Driving further, then taking the road which follows the coast up towards Rockport, we begin to see Harvey's signature. We follow a long straight road, a geological demonstration of perspective and vanishing points with inland waters to the left, dunes to the right, and very few trees. The leaning telephone poles have now become too much of a thing to be anything other than storm damage, and we begin to pass a few houses, with here and there patches of blue stretched across rooftops where tiles and even beams have been ripped away in the tempest.

Eventually we come to Port Aransas, which is marginally more populous, and here the road is lined with piles of trash and detritus. It takes us a few minutes to work out quite why this should be, and we guess this is the ruined contents of flooded homes and dwellings moved outside to await collection. The realisation is chilling because there's so much of it, and because most of these homes are raised up in the air on thick stilts, ten or twelve feet above ground level. Given that we're less than a hundred yards from the sea front, its hard to imagine the Biblical deluge it would have taken to flood these dwellings on such a scale. There are boats and yachts upside down in the middle of parking lots, but strangely, aside from the occasional blue roof, most of the buildings appear structurally intact.

Bess had been hoping we might get something to eat at the Restaurant San Juan in Port Aransas, because we went there before. The food was good and the owner addressed everyone as boss. We pull up and see that the door is open but the lights are off. Buckets,  stepladders, trestle tables, and an empty parking lot suggest the place is not yet quite back on its feet. We're getting closer to where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, having attained Category 4 intensity.

We drive on, taking the ferry across the inland waters to Harbor Island, then heading north towards Rockport. We begin to see ruined buildings, just piles of bricks, and a fifteen minute tailback on the highway turns out to result from the clean-up operation as a swarm of trucks migrate slowly south, absorbing the disgorged contents of homes. The mountains of trash are the highest we've yet seen, and the local supermarket is reduced to a branch of HE. The strangest thing is that the devastation is far from uniform, with some homes standing untouched amongst neighbours lacking a roof or a couple of walls. Certain stores are open for business, while others barely seem to have anything left worth saving. Each intersection has become a forest of makeshift signs stuck in the ground - roof repair, or we will buy what's left of your home. Something about the signs bothers me.

We make it to the sea front.

The aquarium is a pile of rubble. It's upsetting as we both loved the place, but Bess tells me all of the fish were released or otherwise ferried to safety before the storm hit, which is some comfort, I guess. There's an art gallery near the ruined aquarium where we once made a failed attempt to use the restroom. We had no idea it was an art gallery, there being no signage to that effect, but we took it to be open to the public due to crowds milling around guzzling wine - maybe a bar or something; but it was an art gallery and there was a private view in progress, and no we couldn't use the facilities being as they were reserved for a better standard of person; and now the place was quite clearly screwed, boarded up and not coming back any time soon; therefore boo hoo.

Reminded of our original mission, we continue our search for somewhere to eat. The fast food chains mostly seem to be back on their feet, and McDonald's is even hiring, but the smaller places are clearly struggling, and the first we find is cash only. We pass a collapsed barn which had been a used book store only six months before, and then we are out the other side of Rockport. We turn around, deciding to take a second look at a place we'd passed back on the highway just before the edge of town. It's called the Original Vallarta, acknowledging either a similarly named rival or possibly a fraternal establishment further up the road, and it is bright orange - always a good sign. Menus are painted directly onto the wall, and families are sat within watching sports or telenovelas.

The food is great.

Mission accomplished, we hit the road and return home, wiser and slightly fatter.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Thank You for Your Service


I am writing a book, the proposal began. I am looking to hire an artist to create an original colored drawing of my proposed book cover. I am willing to negotiate a reasonable fee. If my book is published, the artist would be appropriately recognized in the acknowledgments. If anyone is interested or knows of a "starving artist" that would be interested in the job…

He concludes with a name and telephone number. For the sake of convenience, I'll identify him as Ludovico Sforza after the selfsame Duke of Milan and patron of Leonardo da Vinci - the man who commissioned Leonardo's Last Supper. Ludovico Sforza had posted the request on Next Door, a social media site, where it was spotted by my wife's aunt, who immediately thought of me seeing as how I'm artistic and all.

I wrestle with my conscience, knowing for certain that undertaking such work will doubtless be arseache from beginning to end, whilst trying hard to resist my own inherent cynicism, and to keep from thinking of the aforementioned cynicism as simply realism based on direct experience. Idiocy wins out, so I give the guy a call.

'Who is this?' he asks. He sounds alarmed.

'I've heard you need a cover for your book.'

'How did you get this number?'

'You put out a request on Next Door, and that's why I'm calling.'

The penny drops.

'I guess you must be from Alabama,' he says.

'I'm from England.'

'I know,' he says, and I realise it was a joke.

'If you want to meet to discuss this,' I begin, then remember that I have no idea where he lives. 'Do you drive? Only I don't.'

'That's no problem. If you give me an address I'll come to you. I'm only a little way out.'

'Okay then, although I'm not too sure about next week. Maybe an evening would be better. Except I'm not free on Sunday.'

'Well, Saturday…'

'I think Saturday is out too. Maybe Sunday evening or something.'

'I'll be at church all day Sunday, so that doesn't work for me.'

An alarm bell goes off but I manage to ignore it. 'I meant during the evening.'

'Yes, that would be fine. You see, I'll be at church all day, but I will be free in the evening. I'm retired.'

The alarm bell continues as a warning light additionally flashes an amber alert. Ludovico Sforza is not only a retired gentleman who attends church, but one who attends church all day, one who remains - presumably out of choice - at a church beyond the reasonable time limit during which anything useful or healthy might be communicated. I don't have anything against the religious, and there are at least a couple of people I like who might be described as such, and generally I dislike the crusading atheist more than I dislike your average person of faith, but - you know…

He arrives at seven with a folder the size of a breeze block. This is his novel. 'I have fifteen chapters,' he explains. 'At the moment I'm writing one a month, and I'm presently on the thirteenth, so I estimate it should be ready around November.'

He sits. He doesn't require tea or coffee. He is fine. He shows me a cover he's mocked up. 'I'm no artist. I can't even manage stick figures, but this should give you some idea. The novel is called Earth in Flames.'

The image shows the globe, apparently ablaze, with two figures inset, the head and shoulders of a man and woman locked in a kiss. The man is made of fire, and the woman of ice.

Clever.

Ludovico shows me a map of the world as it will be in his dystopian science-fiction novel sixty-seven years hence. The world will be divided among three superpowers, with Europe and Africa belonging to the Islamic Caliphate. I remind myself that he hasn't yet said anything annoying, only hinted at the potential for his doing so at some point soon.

'I was a Navy SEAL,' he explains, accounting for his retirement and at least some of the experience which has inspired Earth in Flames. 'This is the tale of a military man, a fighter. He's the male character. He's a very angry figure and he's hunting this woman. His mission is to find this woman and he chases her across the globe. You see, she is represented by the ice character on the cover. She is very devout, humble. She's a deeply spiritual person and very beautiful, maybe Hispanic looking - olive skin. The world is mostly dominated by an all-powerful secular state and Christianity is outlawed.'

He pauses, allowing time for the sheer enormity of this last one to sink in, as unfortunately it does.

I remind myself that he hasn't yet given any indication of other sympathies I tend to associate with people who believe Christian values to be under attack, if that is what he believes. We talk about the cover. He shows me a variant idea also knocked up on the computer, same thing but the male figure is more obviously militaristic and carries an assault rifle.

'I think I prefer the fire and ice version,' I say, trying to be diplomatic. 'I mean you don't want it to look like one of those,' - I'm struggling to think of a term for military wank written by soldiers, Bravo Two Zero and that sort of thing. 'I mean I don't get the impression it's a military book.'

'Oh but it is. The atheist character is a navy SEAL.'

'I mean, it's not just that.'

'Well, no.'

'The thing is that these fire and ice characters, I mean it's an allegory. You don't have anyone in your novel with mutant superpowers like the Human Torch or Iceman. I think it might be better if I were to take that angle but suggest the fire and ice thing with how they are lit, so that it's not quite so obvious.'

So that it doesn't look like an issue of The Watchtower, I think.

We talk about the writing, seeing as I've had a novel published by someone other than myself, and which has been purchased and read by people I've never met. He describes the pain of writing a single paragraph, of re-reading it the next day and having to change everything. I'm familiar with the pain, but it was a long time ago, and I tell him that we've all been there. I don't tell him I made it past that stage about ten years prior to writing the novel which I've had published because it will sound like I'm boasting.

'If I like what you've done and I'm able to use it,' he says, 'I'll give you a credit at the beginning of the book, providing we can agree on a price.'

I couldn't really give a shit about the heights of fame and international recognition to which I will soar as cover artist of Earth in Flames, particularly given that its author isn't even sure how he's going to publish the thing.

'How does fifty dollars sound?' I understand the going rate for a book cover to be about four-hundred but fuck it, I'm trying to help the poor cunt out here, and it's all practice, and maybe I'll end up painting something of which I can be proud.

'Fifty dollars sounds very fair,' he agrees.

He leaves, and I notice after the fact that he told me he'd been a Navy SEAL more than twice, maybe four or five times. I wonder if he expected either myself or my wife to say thank you for your service as is the custom over here. It has become a mantra. Some guy on a forum begins a sentence with when I was in the military and the next ten responses will begin thank you for your service. Terminal patriotism sufferers salute so hard as to concuss themselves whilst screaming thank you for your service at the faintest whiff of khaki.

I have endless respect for anyone who places themselves in danger for the greater good, but thank you for your service seems like sentiment beyond reason in many cases. So far as I'm aware, military personnel are paid a wage for their service and their families are often provided housing, so I like to know what an individual's service actually was before I fall at their feet in tears screaming my undying devotion. If your service was stacking naked bodies for totes awesome LULZ at Abu Ghraib or delivering a liquid pork enema to some conspicuously Islamic detainee, then I reserve my right to remain unimpressed; and I'm going to need something a bit more specific than preserving freedom before I go all weak at the knees, which doubtless makes me a liberal faggot to those who love America so hard that they want to turn it into Soviet Russia with better weather. I think of the state my grandfather was in following the second world war, having served with the Chindits in Burma, fighting the Japanese in the jungle. About a third of them made it back alive. I don't know whether idiots screaming thank you for your service really would have been much use to him.

I leave it a week, then paint the couple in close up. I don't usually bother with preliminary studies, but I want to get this right. I scan the study and send it to Ludovico Sforza attached to an email.

I've painted a rough preliminary study of the couple for the cover, just for my own reference with regards to shape of faces, lighting and so on, although the colours will require a little work. I thought you might like to see it, so it is attached to this email.

He responds.

I appreciate the artistry but the characters have nothing to do with the fire and ice characters we discussed. I like what you did, but do not want typical male and female characters on the book cover.

It's the as we discussed which bothers me. I recall the discussion fairly well, particularly the detail in which I proposed that characters literally composed of fire and ice will look ridiculous. I get the feeling that further progress will prove frustrating as my client continues to find fault with my interpretative ability because I've painted a cover rather than just taken a telepathic photograph of the image he has inside his head. It's tough because telling an otherwise amiable person to fuck off does not come naturally to me, but eventually I get the email written.

After some consideration, I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline this job because I don't think I can paint what you want me to paint, so you might do better to keep looking until you find someone who can. The study I sent was, as described, a rough preliminary study of the couple for the cover, just for my own reference with regards to shape of faces, lighting and so on because, however the characters end up, they will need to be lit, and their faces will be of certain shapes. To suggest that it has nothing to do with the fire and ice characters we discussed in turn suggests that regrettably we're not on the same page here.

It's done, so I no longer have to worry about the possibility of #alllivesmatter the novel, or a future with gay marriage and women's rights described as a dystopia, and it's as though a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I tell myself that I will know next time, although honestly, I knew all along this time, and still it made no difference.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Chuck Ramirez


I'm in HEB, my local supermarket. My shopping basket is, as usual full of cat food.

'Oh. My. God.'

I look up. There is a vaguely Hispanic looking dude stood in front of me with his mouth hanging open. A couple of seconds have passed before he realises that he should probably say something.

'You are the very image of a friend of mine.' His mannerisms seem a little camp, which I realise may not directly correlate to his sexuality, but this really sounds like a chat-up line.

'Okay.' I'm not sure what else to say. If he thinks I'm hot, it really doesn't bother me.

'A friend but - well, he died a while ago. You look just like him. Have you ever heard of an artist called Chuck Ramirez?'

I haven't. I shake my head. 'Sorry, no.'

'It's the eyes…' He seems to be moving his hands as though framing a film he's planning to make. 'You could be his brother.'

'Okay.'

I can't help but think of Richard Ramirez, the serial killer, which means at least I won't have any trouble remembering the name of my alleged doppelgänger.

'He was a photographer,' - my admirer suddenly remembers something and steps back a little. 'I need to take a photograph of you. Is it okay if I take a photograph?'

'Sure.'

'They ain't gonna believe…' he fumbles in different pockets. 'I don't have my phone with me.'

'Well, I'm in here every day about the same time, usually buying cat food.'

'I'll look for you again.'

'Sure.'

I'm smiling as I head for the checkout because it's funny.

'It sounds a lot like he had the hots for you,' Bess suggests when I tell her about the encounter that evening. She hasn't heard of Chuck Ramirez either, but she looks him up on her phone, and there actually is a resemblance, stronger in some photographs than others, and particularly around the eyes. A website called Ruiz-Healy Art has this to say:

Chuck Ramirez (1962-2010), one of San Antonio's most beloved artists, was a major force in the San Antonio art community before his untimely death in a 2010 cycling accident. A 2002 Artpace resident, Ramirez' work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. As an artist and graphic designer, Ramirez employed the visual and conceptual techniques found in contemporary advertising and package design, isolating and re-contextualizing familiar objects to explore cultural identity, mortality, and consumerism through his photographs and installations.

The next evening we're driving back from Jim's diner, or possibly some other diner, and something catches my eye as we cross North New Braunfels onto the Austin Highway.

'Holy shit!'

'What?' Bess squeaks in panic, almost losing control of the wheel for just a fraction of a second.

'Look!' I point.

We are driving past the McNay Art Museum. What's on at the McNay is advertised on four sides of an immense wooden cube permanently situated on the grass triangle adjacent to the museum. The side facing us is taken up with the fourteen foot high image of a woman's handbag, top open to expose key chains, pills, a cellphone and so on. Above the handbag is the name Chuck Ramirez. The poster promotes an exhibition of his work. It's just started and will run for the next couple of months.

I've lived in San Antonio since 2011.

I'd never heard of Chuck Ramirez, my double, before yesterday.

Today I see his name in letters several feet tall.

It feels a little like the universe is fucking with me, as though it's only just thought of this guy.

Next evening we go to have a look at the exhibition, which is called All This and Heaven Too. It mostly comprises large photographs of small everyday objects, handbags, a vase of flowers, trash, Mexican candies and so on. It reminds me a little of the work of Andy Warhol, which is unfortunate because I couldn't care less about the work of Andy Warhol, generally speaking. I find it bland, and that it seems in many cases to be intentionally bland is not enough to excite my interest.

Each to their own.

The gallery is packed, I guess because it's only the second or third night. I anticipate people dropping their drinks and standing, open-mouthed to point at me, maybe even a few screams.

Oh my God! It's him! There he is!

It doesn't happen. Maybe the resemblance is dependent on lighting, or whether or not the eye of the beholder finds me sexually attractive; leaving just the art as the sole source of potential pleasure, and it simply isn't the kind of art I'm ever likely to appreciate.

I think of people I knew at art college, still plugging away, these days as facebook friends who post slightly blurry photographs of an old tin mug on a piece of wood, or rusted cooking utensils. The photographs appear frayed at the edges as though printed on handmade paper, and always there's the associated information about what type of camera or lens were used. I've never worked out why they share such images with the rest of us, or what I'm supposed to get from them.

The exhibition isn't that big, and after twenty minutes it feels like we've tried, so we go to the gift shop. I look at the art books. Most of them seem to be geared towards fostering an appreciation of art amongst people who don't actually like art but might not mind getting some gifty book for a birthday or Christmas present: Matisse, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Dalí, all of those guys…

Bess buys chocolates for her grandmother, and we head out for a quick look around the other galleries, the permanent collection, the place where they hang paintings by Corot, Dufy, Renoir, Courbet, Marsden Hartley and others; and I remember how much I like these paintings, like a good beer after a bland yet efficient hamburger which I hadn't really wanted in the first place.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

My Long Lost Uncle Richard

Derek, Peter, Richard and myself, June 2012.

Back in 2007, just as Arthur Burton, father to my father, shuffled off into the great beyond, another Burton emerged from the woodwork, a Burton named Richard Straley. My cousin Mark had been engaged in genealogical research, climbing out onto long-forgotten branches of our family tree to see if there was anything of interest dangling beneath. In the meantime, Richard Straley had undertaken familial detective work of his own, and the two of them met in the middle.

Going back to the beginning, my father's parents - my grandparents - were Arthur Burton and Marjorie Brush. Arthur had one brother, Charlie, although the two of them didn't get on very well. Hitler kicked off, and Arthur went overseas to fight, but ended up captured, taken prisoner, and was as such forced to march across Poland towards the end of war as part of a notorious undertaking which it is believed claimed the lives of thousands. Marjorie meanwhile had been working as a nurse somewhere in London, and I understand that Charlie continued to labour on the farm. Neither of them had any idea as to whether Arthur was dead or alive, and Marjorie had a child by Charlie.

When it transpired that Arthur was still very much alive and on his way home, the child was given up for adoption and seemingly never mentioned again. My understanding is that Arthur never knew, and neither Marjorie nor Charlie were in any hurry to spill the beans, although personally I have to wonder if this might not have been the true root of what animosity everybody recalls as having existed between the brothers. I remember that Charlie passed on back in the seventies, and that we went to look around his house, which seemed huge and fascinating to me. I wondered why we had never, to the best of my knowledge, visited him, but if there were an answer I probably wouldn't have understood it.

Marjorie was killed in a car accident around what I recall as having been the same time, or at least the same decade.

Then in 2007, my dad discovered this previously unknown older brother, or half-brother, or possibly two-thirds-brother given that his uncle had been the boy's father, more or less keeping it all within the same gene pool. My dad gave me an email address and I wrote to the man, attaching some photographs I figured he might want to see. He replied in an email dated to Friday the 17th of August, 2007.

Wonderful to hear from you. I had no idea you existed, so it's an additional pleasure and the fact you are a painter completes my pleasure. I am going to have to reply at great and boring length tomorrow or the day after as we have to collect my son Ben from camp at Bewdley tomorrow at 9.00AM - means an early start.

Thank you so much for the photos, both of your work and the family. So sorry about your grandfather but I hope to be able to make the scattering of his ashes. Pat will let me know when and I believe your dad is organising it. Especially nice to see Elizabeth as that is the only photo I have of her.

Thanks so much for writing. I really do appreciate it.

This was followed up on the Sunday.

I'll try to get this email off in one go but there is a lot to say and tell and my son will need the PC when he decides to get out of bed.

It really was exciting to hear from you. So sorry that Arthur died but I hear from Pat that the funeral went well and Peter has his ashes. I believe they are to be scattered on Mum's grave and I hope to be there for that. Pat said she would let me know when, but apparently Peter is organising. I'll wait to hear when and where.

What amazing photos. They came out perfectly. Mum's home on the farm looks very warm and cosy. I would imagine you enjoyed going there. Such a shame I never knew them.

I had been trying to find my natural family since about 1984 when I finally got hold of the adoption papers, and I could never understand why my father was Charles Burton but Mum married Arthur Burton. I looked and looked in all sorts of records but there were so many Burtons it was impossible, but I did put the details on Friends Reunited where eventually Mark Jeffries found them and hey presto - here we are a family again. Getting used to meeting so many new people has been quite an experience, especially as there is such a strong family resemblance, especially with Frank whom I believe is coming to the UK next year. If you have any other photos you could share with me I would be very grateful. Trying to build a family from nothing is a challenge!

I lived most of my life in Southampton, going to Art College there, 1967-1970. Then there was the Open University arts degree, 1971-1974 whilst working as a postman. Then a year out driving a tractor on a farm at Eastleigh just outside Southampton, then teacher training in London, 1975-1976, finally getting a teaching job at Blackpool College, 1976-1980. I left there to come down to Gloucestershire and set up a Theatre in Education group, going around secondary schools putting on set plays for GCSE. That folded in 1981 and I went to Gloucester Art College where I stayed until I retired in 2001.

I met my lovely wife Eunice at Gloucester in 1982. We married then and now have two sons, Ben, 17 and Pete, 14. My life is very simple now. I try to keep painting, design websites, cook and shop. Eunice works at the University in Student Support Services.

Your life sounds really interesting. I've never been to Mexico but our two sons are adopted from Brazil and we spent some time there in the mid-eighties and early nineties. I tell a lie - in 1980, to get over a failed relationship, I took myself to the USA and got a Greyhound ticket for thirty days, I went all over the US and into Mexico but did not stay. Mexico City was so polluted I just got the next bus out. Shame really - I should have stayed. I wanted to look at Diego Rivera's murals.

More later, but Ben has surfaced and needs to complete some college work on the PC.

We briefly spoke on the phone, and it was both weird and exciting to find myself in conversation with a Burton who spoke with what was, roughly speaking, a London accent, one who had been both a postman and a painter, much like myself. We finally met in June, 2012. I was married and living in Texas, but I'd returned to England for a couple of weeks to see friends, relatives, and to catch up. My dad drove across to the village, Cranham in Gloucestershire, and we met in a pub called the Black Horse. My uncle Derek turned up unannounced, based entirely upon my dad having mentioned that he intended to visit, and so we had a table full of Burtons. This was unusual for me, or at least it was unusual that I should be present given the geography and everything. The Burtons have a very distinctive look characterised by a certain shape of face and the big lips which earned my dad the nickname Smiler at school; and there were four of us, and two of those were identical twins; and one of them was someone whose existence had only recently been revealed to us - that same face but with a London accent coming out of it, roughly speaking. It was weird, but nice.

Richard was erudite and funny, and it was one of those occasions where you realise how much you have in common with others, forgetting entirely about the differences. We all got pleasantly drunk and then went our separate ways.

I kept in touch with Richard through facebook, on and off, and oddly it was his invitation which had first drawn me to the social media site. One year, somebody bought me a collection of Accident Man comic strips written by Pat Mills and drawn by Duke Mighten, who, in the dedication at the front of the book, thanks my college lecturer Richard Straley for putting me on the right track and keeping me focused; so that merited a raised eyebrow or two. I had a vaguely famous uncle, and one who would address me as dear boy from time to time.

Unfortunately, Richard's health had been an issue from the moment I first knew of him. He was a man of sedentary habits who seemed to enjoy pies and beer significantly more than he enjoyed exercise. He used a mobility scooter to get around, but even this was difficult given his living in an isolated village in which everything seemed to be uphill, and in a small house built before wheelchair access even existed as a term. Last December he suffered a fall and was rushed to hospital in a coma. He recovered, but never enough to come home, and then I found out that he passed away on Sunday the 3rd of September. I suppose, it wasn't entirely unexpected given the state of his health over the previous year, but it was nevertheless sad, and a waste, and a loss, as deaths tend to be.

I knew him for just ten years, which was better than not at all.




Friday, 13 October 2017

Conversation in a Fast Food Establishment


I'm well aware of all of the many arguments against, both dietary and moral, but nevertheless every once in a while I get a craving for something from McDonald's, and it's usually breakfast. Living in Texas, I'm spoiled for burger joints, and most of them serve the real thing, but you don't always necessarily want the real thing. Sometimes you want a McDonald's.

The guy is young and white with a beard of the kind which is really just hair growing on his face, hair with which he might do something but he hasn't yet decided what.

'I'll have a sausage and egg McMuffin.'

'Okay.'

I don't recall seeing his name tag so let's call him Steve for the sake of argument. 'Actually I'll have the meal. That's with coffee and a hash brown, right?'

'Sure - medium coffee,' and Steve says something else I don't quite catch. I guess he's asking me whether I require milk.

'White,' I say, and feel immediately weird about it, like we're a couple of Klansmen exchanging secret signals. At the same time the other half of my brain unscrambles the original question, whether I want creamer and sugar. I take another fraction of a second arguing with myself over creamer, and how actually I'd like milk because nobody in the history of the world has ever genuinely wanted creamer, but I'm in McDonald's so it's not really worth arguing. You press the button, stuff comes out, and that's how it works.

'Two sugars,' I say.

'Creamer?'

'Two of those as well.' I notice how this transaction is going smoothly, or at least more so than what usually happens when I enter a fast food joint. I'm not certain it's that my accent sounds strange so much as that it's simply unfamiliar, so for some people it's as though Prince Charles just came in the door and they freak out accordingly. I had to ask for ketchup four fucking times at Barbecue Station, and yes, use of fucking as a quantifier is entirely justified in this instance. Each time I asked, I pronounced the word ketchup exactly as it is pronounced by everyone else in the universe.

Have you got any ketchup?

Say what?

Ketchup.

What was that again?

Ketchup.

You want some milk?

Ketchup.

At one point he held up a squeezy bottle of mustard and pointed like that might be what I was referring to with my free-form Dadaist parole in libertà. Anyway, right now it's going well for me in McDonald's, so I get adventurous.

'Can I have an extra hash brown with that?' Somehow this is traditionally the stage at which I come unstuck. I'm a pig and that's why I want twice the traditional quota which comes with the order, and usually this confuses people at least as much as when I ask for ketchup. 'So that's two hash browns.'

Steve presses buttons on the till, which seems promising. 'I guess you're from across the pond.'

'Yeah.'

'So what brings you here?'

'I live here. I mean, I got married and I live here. My wife is from San Antonio.'

He chuckles. 'How do you like the heat?'

'Well, you know, it's okay.'

'I'm from Seattle and I can't stand it. I'm used to rain.'

I tend to enjoy conversations with strangers, but sometimes the novelty can get in the way. I'm enjoying this one because it seems like no big deal. 'I guess England and Seattle have about the same climate,' I suggest.

He says something about London, something relating to weather, I guess.

'I was a mailman for twenty years so I don't mind it,' - I mean that I don't mind the heat here in Texas, but it probably doesn't matter whether I'm making sense. 'You know, starting every morning at six and it's freezing cold and like there's a whole six months where the sky is just grey all of the time, so I really don't mind the heat at all.'

I assume that made some kind of sense, and I've noticed that I used the term mailman in preference to postman. I consider the city of Seattle for a second, the home of Tad, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Peter Bagge's Hate! comic. 'How come you ended up here?'

'My mom was in the military, Steve explains, 'so I came down here with her, but she moved to California.'

'You didn't want to move with her?'

'I'm twenty-five and I couldn't. It wouldn't have worked out. She bought me a house here so,' and he explains something I don't quite catch about paying rent. Whatever it is, it sounds positive.

'Nice!'

There doesn't seem to be anything more to say, so I pick a table by the window with a view of the Austin Highway. My order is numbered 103 on the receipt which Steve gave me. It feels strange to be sat at a table without food, so I return to the counter and wait.

Steve is now mopping the floor. 'You know, it's okay here but I could have lived without Harvey.'

Clearly he's referring to the hurricane. 'Yeah, but I guess we were lucky.'

He talks about Houston and the flooding.

'I know,' I say. 'My wife always tells me we're too far inland for any serious damage, and she's lived here her whole life. I mean I know there were tornadoes in the city last year. I try not to worry about it too much.' This was supposed to sound reassuring, but I somehow managed to get onto the occurrence of tornadoes in a city which traditionally doesn't suffer tornadoes.

Steve shakes his head. 'I tell you one thing, I thought Bush handled Katrina bad, but compared to this guy, Trump - I mean, Jesus - what a mess.'

'I hear you.'

I don't know if the sense of relief was tangible in my voice.

As a white man, I probably don't have a lot to worry about in the great scheme of things, at least nothing specific to my lack of pigmentation; but one minor hazard of being a white guy is when other white people assume that I share their shitheaded right-wing or even racist views. It's not a major problem, but it's enough of one for it to feel amazing when it doesn't happen.

I definitely approve of Steve.

'Wait until Hurricane Irma wipes out New York,' he mutters darkly, still mopping. 'We'll see how he likes that.'

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Science-Fiction for Righties


Perky Girl Assistant finished cleaning the TARDIS dunny and returned the quantum bog brush to its receptacle. The work station set into the nearby roundel bleeped to acknowledge the end of her shift - eight hours, by Gallifreyan standard. Now all that was left to do were her tax returns for the day's labour, but she was still removing her overall as that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor burst in through the door.

'There you are,' he said breathlessly. 'We're needed. I've just received a distress call from Prime Minister Farage! Early twenty-first century, and I believe during White History Month, unless I'm very much mistaken.'

'But my tax returns…' she floundered as the sentence failed to complete itself. 'It's just that I don't want—'

'No time for that,' barked the Doctor eccentrically. 'The game is afoot! There is adventure to be had.'

'What? Seriously?'

'No - I'm joking. You must of course fill in your tax return first. It's only fair. I'm not made of money.' He snapped his fingers in a jovial yet firm manner. 'Step to it, Perky Girl Assistant!'

She quickly went to her quarters and changed into a perkier outfit so as to save time. She switched on the neutrino computer and set to work. She had laboured eight hours at seventy Gallifreyan dollars an hour, making 560GD from which she owed the Doctor 30% in tax, which would be 168GD, leaving her with 392GD. Of this sum she presently owed 290GD in room rental, use of facilities, and time-space tax; so that left her with just over one-hundred. It seemed a little unfair, and yet the figures added up. I'm not running a charity here, the Doctor had told her on a number of occasions, and it was equally true that she enjoyed the full benefit of all that the TARDIS had to offer, and he had overheads of his own to consider. Artron crystals didn't come cheap, and without them that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor would just be some weird cunt stood in an old police box.

***

Later that evening they were sat at the table of the main dining room at 10, Downing Street. There was the Doctor and his assistant, both tucking into their veal fritters, with the Prime Minister and his wife, Gisele Bündchen, facing them. A respectful butler refilled their glasses with wine as the Doctor regaled his host with an account of their most recent adventures.

'You see, the Cyberpersons were using the portal—'

'I'm sorry?' Farage grinned his famous grin. 'Who?'

'Cyberpersons. I know,' chortled that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor. 'Wretched, isn't it?'

They all rolled their eyes.

'You see they were using the portal to reconfigure the ancestral gene pool, so that by the time we arrived, it was standing room only.'

'O que era apenas espaço parado?' Gisele asked in Portuguese.

'This would be the disabled lesbian Muslim theatre workshop?' wondered the Prime Minister darkly.

'I'm afraid so,' confirmed the Doctor answeringly.

'All funded by innocent taxpayers, I don't doubt.'

'Exactly!' The Doctor slammed the palm of his hand upon the burnished oak of the table. 'That's why the planet's economy had been decimated.'

'You couldn't make it up,' said Perky Girl Assistant helpfully, but no-one took any notice, as usual.

She still missed that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the old Doctor. She just couldn't get used to this new, burly figure, supposedly his thirtieth incarnation, or his thirty-first if you included the one he never liked to talk about, the one with a fanny. She had asked him, of course, but he usually ran off into the cloister room, and she could never tell whether he was blushing or angry. All a terrible misunderstanding, he would mutter before descending into a rambling refutation of his cursed Gallifreyan biology, the evils of Socialism, the triumph of a free market economy, and how he had never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever been confused - not even for one second…

Thursday, 28 September 2017

August


I've spent most of my life dreading October, the month when it becomes obvious that summer is at an end. Grey skies move in, bringing, rain, cold, frost, and the prospect of what feels like six months during which the sun barely climbs above the houses on the other side of the street. Someone told me October was the month characterised by uprising and revolution, because that's the time of year when everyone gets so pissed off that they just have to do something about it.

I moved to San Antonio and assumed it would all be different nearer to the equator. It is all different, but now the month is August, and it's at least been a relief to realise that it isn't just me. August in Texas is punishing in terms of heat, with midday temperatures having reached 110° Fahrenheit some years. In San Antonio's favour, we're on the edge of the hill country, so we're high up and we don't suffer the additional burden of the humidity they get in Houston and to the east. The heat is more bearable up to a point. We all have air conditioning, so we stay inside during the day and do whatever else we need to do during the morning, at least before eleven, or in the evening. Unfortunately, whilst tolerable, such siege conditions mean that all other inconveniences and irritations seem amplified. If you're going to blow, then it will probably happen in August, and most years are conditional to whether we can just make it through to September. My wife told me she once considered seeking counseling in the hope of dealing with August.

This time it began with a sick cat. Jello stopped eating and took to spending whole days asleep in the back of the closet. We decided it was a cold and hoped he'd be better in a couple of days, but he wasn't, so my wife had a look in some book of feline ailments, then wished she hadn't, having found a good few describing our boy's symptoms as indicating something terminal. We took him to the vet and found it was just some viral deal, so he recovered and is now fine; but that sleepless night of wondering whether or not he'd be dead in the morning cast a long shadow.

Then my wife's car broke down, necessitating an entire Saturday hanging around at a garage in the heat.

Then hordes of angry, ill-informed white people emerged from the Texan woodwork to protest the removal of Confederate statues coincidentally erected during an era of pronounced racism, which probably wasn't surprising, but it was surprising that there should be any of the fuckers living in San Antonio - probably not the wisest place to make your home if you dislike brown people for whatever reason.

Then it all kicked off in Charlottesville, whilst the internet burst at the seams with voices of reason telling us that Nazis have as much right to express their reservations about multicultural society and whether the Holocaust actually happened as the rest of us, and that politically correct thugs need to respect that right, and that we need to address their concerns rather than calling them rude names.

Then my computer blew up, as I knew it eventually would.

Then Hurricane Harvey showed up, so we sat glued to the weather channel and the map of the big purple zone in which we could be forgiven for shitting ourselves, and San Antonio was just inside the predicted realm of doom. Thankfully all we saw was a shitload of wind and rain before Harvey swerved away in the general direction of Houston, so there were a couple of days spent waiting to die, followed by the awful feeling of being glad it had happened to someone else, which is never good. I grew up in England where the worst natural disasters tend to take the form of flooding, and I grew up in a part of England where that never happened, so this was all new to me. There had been a couple of tornadoes which hit the city about a year before, and we had to take shelter at the centre of the house with all the doors closed at one point, waiting for it to pass and fuck up some other neighbourhood; but that had been an exception, and this felt different. The news crews were telling us to stock up on bottled water, and the supermarkets were all packed to capacity with people doing just that as the sky turned darker over towards the south-east. The weather channel in particular seemed to be creaming its pants over the doom which was to unfold, and Godzilla had already been sighted making landfall somewhere near Brownsville.

Yet, we were lucky, and we knew it just as soon as they started sending evacuees from Corpus Christi and Rockport to San Antonio. We knew they weren't going to send them here if there was any chance of it being frying pan to fire, so we sat tight and it passed; and the weird thing is that even what rain we had wasn't so severe as it's been on a couple of occasions.

Houston was nevertheless screwed, and we have friends and family in Houston, and yet again the internet has exploded with stupidity, resentful morons pointing out that they hadn't seen any #blacklivesmatter rescue trucks speeding to help out at the scene of the deluge; and, despite all of my best efforts, it became briefly difficult to feel good about humanity in general.

Everything piled up, became overwhelming.

I smoked again. I found myself irritated at the kid leaving the kitchen light on all night. I experienced that sensation of joylessness which had been with me up until about 2011. I just couldn't feel good about anything. I experienced endless self-involved thoughts.

But September is now here.

Jello the cat is bouncing around the garden.

The new computer works.

We're still alive.

It will all seem better in a month or so, even if it isn't.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Fighting with Statues


Living in the south, and particularly Texas, it is recommended that one develops a thick skin, at least when engaging with social media. The south had slaves, invented the Klu Klux Klan, and it's mostly been downhill from there if social media is any indication. The civil war was fought because everyone living in the north hated slavery and loved freedom, and those were the only reasons. Dirty deeds done in the north are exceptions to the rule, and anyway there was usually some dude from Texas involved, but anything shitty occurring below the Mason-Dixon is probably occurring just because that's how we are down here. Facebook posts linking news items referring to the south, some retarded government official proposing regulations discriminating against a particular group of people for example, will inevitably be embellished with the comments of millions from somewhere up north who told us so. Can't we just get rid of Texas?, they'll whine, because Texas is the only place in all America where shitty officials get in power and make stupid decisions. Nothing bad ever happens anywhere else, and it's surely only a matter of time before we learn that Donald Trump is actually from Brownsville, because it sure would explain a lot.

This is why when a speaker from an organisation called Sons of Confederate Veterans was invited to talk on a local radio show, I listened to what he had to say. I had no strong opinion regarding the Confederacy, beyond some reservations about those who still wave its flag, but in any case this wasn't really what the guy wanted to talk about. Instead he discussed the north-south divide and the continued demonisation of the latter. He discussed the Civil War and the received wisdom of it being fought purely so as to free the slaves - which may have been an issue, but was at best a side issue. It was more to do with the south seceding from the Union, and this being a problem because the south was where all the money was made, doubtless thanks to slavery, which suddenly deprived the government of a significantly massive source of tax revenue.

This is roughly my understanding, namely that there was no great or noble cause on either side of the line, regardless of the possibility of there having been noble individuals; because that's how war is by definition, a last resort where reason and negotiation have failed. That slavery was ended is obviously a great thing, but we should probably keep in mind how well African-Americans have generally fared in this country since 1863 before anyone starts declaring it their victory.

This isn't to necessarily express either sympathy or solidarity with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, so much as to acknowledge that the existence of such an organisation is understandable in terms of regional identity without needing to be rude about it by suggesting anyone is necessarily a racist. Unfortunately though, the Confederate cause really does seem to attract shitheads. I've encountered one of them on a local bulletin board called Next Door, a forum to which one may sign up in order to converse with others in your neighbourhood. The city council had announced that it would be removing a statue commemorating the Confederate dead from Travis Park in downtown San Antonio, and Biffo the Bear quite naturally had plenty to say about it on Next Door.

Of course, this wasn't the same Biffo the Bear whose adventures endured for fifty-one years in the pages of the English children's comic, the Beano, but that's what I'm calling him in accordance with the level of respect which I feel is his due.

I signed up for Next Door more than a year ago, and became immediately aware of Biffo the Bear. He seemed to have a lot of time on his hands and would comment on almost every thread. Maybe you were moving house and had decided to give away a dresser to anyone able to collect the thing. Biffo the Bear might comment on how it was a nice piece of furniture and how he sure wished he had room for it, and then his attention would turn to the more pressing issues of no good punks, or lousy drivers, or shiftless repairmen. You'd lost your chihuahua and wondered if anyone had seen her, and there was Biffo once again grumbling about Obama coming to take our guns, and how we all needed to keep an eye open, and to keep our guns in good working order because you never know who might be out there, and hell - there could be an ISIS cell right here in our neighbourhood just waiting, waiting…

Biffo the Bear struck me as insane and stupid, and I found his testimony depressing, so I gave up on Next Door. I didn't want to have to think about the existence of people like Biffo the Bear, and how they get to vote and thus influence decisions which affect the rest of us, people with working brains. More recently I found myself drawn back in when another of our neighbours received a particularly vile piece of anonymous hate mail.
Attn. Lazy filthy Latin negros From Cuba. Take a little pride in yourselfs and clear up your unkempt dump of a yard. Start by storing that junk boat you smuggled your 'familia' in, in a storage, also chop shop are against the law. I understand stealing cars is the only thing your parents taught you. It's obvious you smoke crack or PCP, so get rid of those ghetto blinds and buy curtains. Fix up your 'casa'. My dog has a better house than you do, but then again my dog is an American, not a uneducated immigrant. If you need help join the neighborhood association, but you have to quit the Bloods or Crips first. If you can't read or write English and probably never will, look at all your 'Primos' in the 'Bronx'. Ask your Mexican neighbours if they could read it in Reggaeton. For your theirs like twenty of them that live next door. Or go library and check out Hooked on Phonics for the Spanish speaking Negroes from Cuba or Dominican Republic. But do something please, you pathetic peasants. Now I know why Trump wants to get rid of you. Better yet we should make you slaves like your cousins.

I've standardised the case - which randomly switches between upper and lower, sometimes half way through a sentence - and I've added punctuation, and anglicised and deleted a couple of words I didn't understand, but that's the general thrust of the argument as set forth by this anonymous individual who identifies only as your wonderful and caring Anglo-Saxon neighbours on Sumner Drive.

The subject of this missive was understandably upset, and so shared it on Next Door in hope of discerning some clue as to its origin. It seemed like the point of the letter was spite, plain and simple. Having walked past on many occasions, I would say that the man's house is fine, as are his blinds, as is his yard, as is the boat he keeps in his driveway. There is nothing to distinguish his house as any different to those of his neighbours, and it's situated at such a distance from Sumner Drive as to call into question why the author of the letter would even give a shit; but this is of course to credit the sender with both locative honestly and motives beyond just racist harassment undertaken for the sake of retarded chuckles.

We talked about it on Next Door, and everyone was horrified. I noticed, after the first hundred or so replies, that Biffo the Bear was yet to weigh in, Biffo who routinely shares his thoughts about the dangers of liberalism and the protection of our second amendment rights on every single thread, even if it's just some guy asking for the number of a decent plumber. It struck me as strange that Biffo, never usually so reticent on the subject of other people's business or how we need to act when we don't like what some neighbour is up to, should have no opinion. I said as much in the thread, which prompted a couple of others to agree that yes, it was fucking weird; which in turn prompted another couple of others to break their silence and point out that Biffo was a lovely Bear and would never have sent that terrible letter, and that we were sounding a little like a lynch mob and should therefore be ashamed of ourselves. More serious still, one of Biffo's defenders informed us that she had made a note of all our names and would be handing the note to her brother-in-law at the first sniff of pitchforks and burning torches.

Her brother-in-law was a cop, she told us. That's how most crimes are solved, see. Usually the officer in charge is handed a revealing note by some close friend or relative, and that's how he knows which heads to bust.

Biffo the Bear returned to the fray a couple of days later, just as I now return to the point. The city council had announced that it would be removing a statue commemorating the Confederate dead from Travis Park in downtown San Antonio, and Biffo the Bear quite naturally had plenty to say about it. His cousin had been down to Travis Park and had told him all about what was going on, and William B. Travis fought at the Battle of the Alamo and was nothing to do with the Civil War, which just goes to show how stupid these uneducated punks are, and it's exactly like when the Taliban blew up those Buddish*1 statues in Afghanistan. ISIS also want to rewrite history and that's why these damn liberals must be fought. Something about Sharia Law, Obama, blah blah blah...

Had Biffo gone down to Travis Park himself - and it's surprising that he didn't considering how much he cares - he would have seen that the statue earmarked for removal simply commemorates the Confederate dead, and was erected in the park named after William B. Travis without actually depicting the man; but never mind. His understanding of the situation at least doesn't seem to be any worse than that of anyone else on his side of the debate. Photos of protesters from both sides of the divide appeared on facebook, not really clashing because there probably weren't enough people there and the cops were present. One image showed kids in mostly black t-shirts, some black lives matter slogans, laid out on the ground in what was obviously a peaceful protest. One of them shows a raised clenched fist, a symbol of which the meaning is so fucking obvious as to require no further clarification.

That fist means Marxism, warned an octogenarian facebook dweller in the comments section next to the photograph, because the beauty of social media is that everyone gets a say, no matter how fucking stupid they are; and someone will read those words and somehow assume that the moron responsible is speaking from an informed position.

'Let's see what's happening down at Travis Park,' I said to my wife. It's Sunday and we have nothing else on, so we go.

The park is pretty small and has been populated by a substantial population of homeless people at intervals between vote-grabbing drives to move them to a place where they can no longer offend the eyes of responsible tax payers such as Biffo the Bear. It's about 98° Fahrenheit and there aren't many people around. We see a small group over near one of the fountains, mostly African-American, so we go over to talk with them. Unfortunately someone has beaten us to it, an older white guy pleading the case for keeping the statues.

We shuffle up behind him to listen in. I'm wearing my favourite shirt, one made from material patterned so as to resemble the state flag. It seemed like a good idea to appear vaguely patriotic, because I'm more worried about being shot by angry, uneducated crackers suffering from patriotism poisoning than I'm worried about being shot by anyone in a black lives matter t-shirt; but now I feel a little self-conscious as the old guy states his case. I hope no-one thinks I've come along to back him up.

There are a couple of white dudes sat at a table about ten foot away. They look like hillbillies. Their accents are impenetrable to me, just noises like someone playing with rubber bands; but they don't sound particularly happy and they glance over at us from time to time. A little further away there's a cop maintaining command presence.

Bess and I listen, and I am at least initially encouraged by the words of the white guy. For him it's about history and identity, and has nothing to do with racism. This much is obvious from the fact that he's talking to these seven young men and women. Finally he runs out of words, and his audience are better able to respond.

'Kanye was stupid for that,' one of them sighs, referring to Kanye West's attempt to take back the Confederate flag in some video or other.

'Same goes for Lil' Jon,' says another shaking his head.

I'm stood next to two young guys in shorts with black t-shirts and dreads. The larger one now dominates the conversation. He speaks well, genial and without any obvious anger, and I find myself chipping in. It's fun, and I'm actually learning something, coming down off that fence; not least because it's so rare that I ever have anything you would call a conversation, certainly not spoken with anyone to whom I'm not directly related in some way.

'This is a park,' he says, 'a public place where you bring your family, your children.' He gestures towards the statue somewhere behind him, and the case for the prosecution is shown to be solid.

The removal of Confederate statues isn't about rewriting history, because the statues weren't about history in the first place. Most of them were raised during a period of elevated white racial insecurity, expressed in reactionary terms such as the revival of the Klan in 1915, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and even chuckling Edgar Rice Burroughs referring to the KKK as freedom fighters in his pulpy little thrillers. If we're really that bothered about remembering history, statues don't seem to have been much help with this one; but in any case, it isn't about then, it's about right now, and whether we as a multiracial society can move forward if we're still doffing caps to a regime which has come to stand for white supremacy and the slightly sinister reduction of the practice of slavery to something which was simply of its time. It doesn't matter that something like 95% of the population of Texas at the time of the Civil War had no direct involvement in either owning slaves or the practice of slavery. It doesn't matter that there was more to the Civil War than just the issue of slavery, or that the north was hardly a model of progressive thought; because what matters is right now, and that the Confederacy has become a symbol for shitheads across the board.

'Even with all that you said there,' our man continues, 'whatever that flag meant back then, it ain't ever coming back. It ain't ever going to be good again; and we need to start thinking about moving on.'

He's right too.

We talk some more, at least enough to elicit a few smiles once they realise I'm not about to pull on a white hood. The shirt was probably a mistake.

'You from Australia?' asks the guy who reminds me of Idris Elba.

'That's what everyone says,' I sigh, and tell him I'm from London because he probably doesn't want my entire life story; and of course it turns out he has family somewhere in the south-east of England.

We all shake hands and fuck off, going our separate ways. Later I go online to look up soulhop_musik, having seen it written across their t-shirts. It turns out that a couple of the guys we spoke to were rappers, and pretty good ones too, and I'm sort of relieved I didn't know this at the time, thus sparing us all the embarrassment of the fat, old white dude in the Lone Star shirt trying to be down with the kids and talking about which is his favourite UGK album*2.

It can be a shitty old world, but the guys at the park give me hope, and some faith in the idea that the current resurgence of the shithead far-right is its death rattle, a croaking protest at the certainty of the knowledge that it no longer has a role in the world; but I suppose deep down I already knew this on some level. For one thing, the overwhelming response on Next Door was in support of the guy on the receiving end of the hate mail, and not just support but justified and righteous outrage that such a thing could have happened in our neighbourhood. Biffo the Bear was suddenly revealed as a cranky minority voice, just some lonely, paranoid twat making a lot of noise because there's nothing much else going on in his own life, and I suspect that's probably the reason why he chose to say nothing for the first time ever; because he saw himself as he really was, and he understood that maybe the shitheads aren't going to inherit the earth after all.

*1: No idea. Possibly some belief system derived from Buddhism.
*2: Probably either Too Hard to Swallow or Ridin' Dirty. It's hard to say.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

I, Writer


If you're anything like me, then I doubt there can be a day goes by without you pause to reflect and ask yourself, what is the magic of this thing we call writing? Well, happily I'm here to help you out, to draw back the curtain of mystery and answer that question, for I have the privilege of being a writer. I've always written, whether it be my wonderful books, personal letters bringing a little sunshine into the lives of my many, many friends, or even just notes to the milkman requesting an extra pot of low-fat yoghurt. It is my trade and I am very good at it.

Writing is easy for me. I sit down at the computer and adventures and stories just flow from my fingertips. I know not where they come from, and in truth I'd rather not shed daylight upon magic, for it seems wiser to simply be grateful that I am so able to spread happiness with the amazing tales I tell. Consider if you will, the humble street sweeper or fast food worker. Watch him as he works that broom and cleans our roads of fag packets and dog poo, or observe as the young lady takes our order for burger and fries, then calmly assembles our meal with the sort of care which suggests she could do it in her sleep. Do they pause to consider their duties? Does our man regard his broom and decide to use it in a particular way, or does our waitress stop to ask herself where she might find the fries in her workplace? Of course not, and that's how writing is for me.

I can write all kinds of wonderful stories. Some of you may know my name from the series of exciting adventures I have written featuring He-Man and his Masters of the Universe, but I've also written grown-up books too, such as Black Pudding Row, a heart-warming tale of down to earth folk in a pleasant town in the north of England. Then there are the regular blog posts in which I share my thoughts on writing, allowing you the reader a precious glimpse into the creative process and how I come by all of my amazing ideas. I don't even know if any of these words will be read as I write them, but I, ever the optimist, persevere nonetheless for there is no greater satisfaction than knowing that I have brought pleasure to someone, somewhere. You might say it's a calling.

From time to time I may stray into a book store, and sometimes I see that my works are on sale, ready to be snapped up and treasured by an eager public, but other times it seems my name has been overlooked. I am not there. Not even my He-Man adventures. Of course I feel sad, for in many ways I am no different to any of my readers and I too am only seeking for some little diversion from the daily drudgery of life, something magical, a world of wonder and adventure to explore, because that's really what a good book should be. And I try my hardest to write only good books.

I have not yet won an award, and nor have I been asked to speak at any important literary events, but that doesn't matter to me. The only recognition I crave is that of my loyal readers recognising me as the one who tells those wonderful, crazy stories. Does our friend the street sweeper care that his only satisfaction comes from a living wage and the knowledge of a job well done? Does the fast food girl ever dream of breaking the world record for how fast she is able to serve her hungry customers? I don't think they do, because, much like myself, they just get on with it and do what needs to be done.

Wait a moment, Lawrence, I hear you ask, how can you know such things? Surely you, as a writer, have never had to sweep a street or flip a burger? How can you know?

Guilty as charged, for I have been blessed with the talent by which I make my daily bread, and by which I am able to place myself inside the world of a street sweeper or a fast food operative and imagine how it must be for them. And in doing so I am able to understand something of their respective worlds, and how in a funny way, we are all very similar. The girl serving burgers might feel a little glum when they dock her wages for forgetting to supersize a meal, just as I too become downhearted when I see that a book store carries none of my titles, or when an important television executive responds to one of my imaginative proposals with a cursory rejection letter.

But then under such circumstances I, ever the optimist, might walk down our wonderfully clean street to the fast food outlet and cheer myself up with a meal and a shake, just as those people might finish their shifts and curl up in front of a roaring log fire and escape into one of my wonderful novels. Thus does the circle of love, life, and laughter maintain itself. Because we're all worth it.



In closing I'd just like to reiterate that I'm really not bothered about not having won any awards. I really can't emphasise that enough. It doesn't trouble me in the slightest.