Friday, 19 May 2017

Poor Billy


It was the nineties and my job was to deliver mail to the upper half of the oddly numbered side of Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. It was one of the longer, heavier walks - so far as I was able to tell - but I had signed for it because it was better than delivering somewhere different every week, having to learn a whole new route from scratch every Monday. The walk was organised in such a way as to oblige me to begin at its furthest point, the house on the corner of Wood Vale where East Dulwich becomes Forest Hill, the house which had once been painted by the Impressionist Camille Pissaro. The idea was that, having started at the furthest point, the rest of the delivery was more or less down hill all the way, eventually bringing me back to the corner of Pellat Road, upon which our sorting office was situated.

Numbers 565 down to 551 constituted my first run of dwellings before I hit the corner of Underhill Road. These were huge, four story townhouses, possibly late Victorian and each divided into flats, some into three, others into as many as seven. They received a lot of mail too, three fat bundles of crap on a bad day with rubber bands straining to prevent an explosion of bills, bank statements and miscellaneous advertising, and all for just eight buildings, albeit eight buildings constituting maybe thirty individual addresses. Each morning I was dropped off at the top, near Wood Vale, and I looked down the hill at this first row and intuited that it would take about five minutes at most, and yet it always worked out more like twenty what with all the packets and standing around filling in forms referring to packets for those who were either not at home or not prepared to get out of bed at that time of the morning.

I only ever met two of the people to whom I delivered along that stretch, a woman rumoured to be on the game, which I suppose might possibly account for why she was usually awake and available to receive parcels at that time of morning, and Billy the blind bloke down at the last house, the one on the corner of Underhill Road. Every Saturday he received a registered letter containing money, which required his signature, but, being either blind or only partially sighted, he was unable to sign for it; so I signed for it, reasoning that although technically it was a sackable offense, the person most likely to object would be the addressee, but as he was getting his registered letter out of the deal it seemed unlikely.

'I'm blind, mate,' he told me, hands patting at the door frame so as to get his bearings. 'I can't see. Is that you, Postman?'

He was short and round, in his fifties with hair receding in untidy retreat. His eyes seemed to absently gaze in different directions and his mouth hung forever open dispensing a voice like gas hissing from a spigot, strained, the voice you do when you phone the boss pretending to be ill as you tell him you're not coming in. He wore an old unwashed dressing gown, or sometimes just a vest and pants like a down at heel character in a film set in the thirties.

At first I warmed to the man, enjoying this encounter with the disabled because it made me feel good about how readily I accept the strange and unfamiliar. It made me a good person, at least for the first couple of weeks.

'Mate,' Billy called me back one morning, having already taken possession of his white and blue envelope of money. He seemed to be staring at the trees behind me, and I realised that I found it slightly aggravating how he always called me mate. 'Do you fink you could try to be a bit earlier next week, mate? I gotta go out, see.'

No I hate to arse or I hope this dun't sound like I'm being rude but - nothing of the sort; just do I fink I could try to be a bit earlier?

It was half past eight in the morning. I had delivered my first letter a little over fifteen minutes before. The time of my delivering that first letter had been determined by how soon I'd been able to get out of the sorting office, which had in turn been determined by how much mail had come in during the night. I'd never enjoyed working Saturdays, so would always cut a few corners, getting going as quick as I could on that sixth day so as to finish as early as possible in hope of the weekend feeling like a weekend. Half past eight did not strike me as an unreasonable time at which to receive one's mail on a Saturday morning. I suppose I could have shaved off fifteen minutes or so by reversing those initial bundles, delivering them backwards and working up the hill towards Wood Vale, but it would be an inconvenience and would make me additionally late from the perspective of everyone else. I explained some of this to Billy.

'So do you fink you could try please, mate? Fank oo.'

He shut the door and I realised I didn't like him very much.

He arsed again and again, every few weeks for the next couple of years. Occasionally an unusually massive workload meant I was as late as half past nine, and on those days he was not just a little blunt, but openly hostile. 'I really need you to get here a bit earlier, mate, yeah?' Brows angled like a kid's drawing of an angry person over those googly eyes looking at different things.

'Like I told you, last time,' I generally explained with gritted teeth, but the information was obviously too hard to process; plus regardless of the hour, he always came to the door dressed like he'd just fallen out of bed, so it wasn't like he could claim to be waiting on me or anything.

If felt strange to hate a disabled man, but Billy made it quite easy, and it's not like it interfered with my job. Indeed, it helped as I began to encounter him out and about around East Dulwich.

There he is at the crossing in his dayglo orange waterproof, being safe and seen, tap tap tap tap with the white cane as he waits to cross the road. 'Excuse me, miss, I don't like to arse but I wonder if you could help me. I'm blind, you see,' in that little boy whine like something out of Dickens. Poor, poor Billy...

She smiles and laughs, self-conscious, taking his arm and helping him across; and she's always young and pretty, like a Princess helping out the poor goblin with his hurty foot.

'Fank oo, Miss. Would you like me to tell you a joke?' and so he tells her some schoolboy joke delivered in the bland, even tone of a kid reading it off a blackboard, concluding with hur hur hur hur and a grin of bad, uneven teeth before he's even quite got the punchline together. 'Fank oo again, miss. I fink you're very kind.'

Then he's off again.

Sometimes I see him in Landells Road. He walks down the middle of the street with a tap tap tap tap seemingly staring off at clouds. Sometimes there is a car behind him, slowly cruising along at walking speed because no-one feels comfortable yelling get out of the fucking road, you stupid cunt at a guy with a white stick. The pavement of Landells Road is wide enough for two people to walk unhindered side by side, the paving stones are all level, and there are no other pedestrians around; and yet somehow Billy is only able to walk down the middle of the street.

'Mate, mate, would jew like me to tell you a joke?'

I'm in the newsagent. Oh for fuck's sake, I think. Why does he need to be forever the centre of attention? He's telling the complete stranger stood behind me a joke which is a bit more Jim Davidson than the ones he keeps in reserve for the pretty young women who help the poor cripple across the road or hold open a door. It's something to do with a husband suspecting his wife might be engaging in an extra-marital relationship, and there are kids of six and seven paying for their choccy bars in front of me while this soft porn drones away in the background.

Why does he need to tell his fucking joke to the entire shop?

I'm just glad he can't see me. He still arse if I can try to be a bit earlier, next week, but these days I ignore him, walking away as he's talking. He gets his money. That's what I'm paid to do. If I wanted to get truly pissy I could refuse to hand it over on the grounds of him being unable to provide a signature.

I hear a more graphic telling of the joke about a husband suspecting his wife of infidelity in the cafe on Crystal Palace Road. This pisses me off because the two sausage, egg, chips, and beans ably cooked by the esteemed Mehmet, or occasionally Ken, his father, is the one part of my working day in which I am briefly freed from the bullshit of work and aching legs and my boss and stupid arseholes who sent a postal order in 1963 and do you know it never arrived?! Billy has tap tap tap tapped his way into the shop, opening with, 'sorry to trubble you, mate, but I was wondering could I have a cup of tea, but the fing is I ain't got no money so I know it's a bit of a cheek.'

Ken, the old Greek, looks uncomfortable but he isn't having it.

Billy whines, somehow keeping it jovial, and that's how he gets to telling the joke. He's going to pay for his tea with the gift of laughter, just like a wandering minstrel. He stands at the counter doing that Stevie Wonder thing. He gets to the rude words - cock and fanny - and Ken has heard enough.

'No, please leave. We don' want you here.' He takes Billy by an elbow and steers him back towards the door. Mehmet has the other elbow and is suggesting that if our wandering minstrel should come back with twenty-five pence then they would be more than happy to serve him a cup of tea.

They shove him out of the door. He stands looking up at the sign, or seeming to for a moment, then wanders off - tap tap tap tap. He doesn't even seem bothered. It was as though he was expecting it.

We don't normally talk much in the cafe, but as I watch him go I hear myself saying quite loud, 'I can't stand that bloke. I know it's a terrible thing to admit, but he really rubs me up the wrong way.'

I realise the little group of cabbies sat at the other table are all laughing. 'He's not even blind,' one of them tells me.

'He's not blind? Are you serious?'

'I've known him thirty years and he can see as well as anyone.'

'What the fuck?'

'His mum died a couple of years ago and I think he had a bit of a turn, and that's how he ended up like that.'

I remember all those young, pretty women helping Billy across the street, and I remember noticing how his course down the center of Landells Road seemed to follow the white line quite closely. Most of all, I remember the poor Billy act, every single fucking time, a human pity sponge. Next time I see him approaching down the center of Landells Road, seeing as there's no traffic, I wheel my big heavy delivery trolley out into the middle, across the white line. I just want to see what he does. Billy tap tap tap taps to within about twenty yards then tap tap tap taps his way between parked vehicles to the pavement.

I guess he has more problems than I realised, something worse than a simple visual impairment; and I find my dislike for him waning a little, because it's easier to just not think about him at all.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

I Do Know a Way...


I never imagined I would inherit a kid. I always liked the idea of passing on my genes by some vague method, but for most of my life I was never in any place which looked as though it might lead to such an eventuality. I read Susan D. Blackmore's excellent The Meme Machine and told myself that I would instead pass on my ideas, my memes rather than my genes. In any case, it seemed to be the way we, as a society, were going.

I never expected to marry anyone, or to meet anyone I would want to marry within days of having met them, or that a marriage resting upon so seemingly tenuous a foundation ever stood a chance of working; and yet here we all are, complete with a son from my wife's previous spell of matrimony. The prospect of suddenly becoming a stepfather would have seemed daunting had I thought about it, which I didn't because I filed the thought away under the heading of bridges to be crossed when the time is right.

My first meeting with the boy, such as it was, was as a face looming up on a screen as Bess and I were attempting transatlantic communication by means of Skype or YIM or one of those things involving a webcam. He wanted to know what she was doing and so I was introduced as Mommy's friend, the one she'd met in England. He was six or maybe seven and seemed to enjoy the novelty, if not the diversion of attention away from himself. The first thing he said to me was:
poooooooooo,llllkknyyyzxswt

This was followed by further strings of what the Futurist F.T. Marinetti once termed parole in libertá, in this instance spontaneously generated by a small fist hitting a laptop keyboard in preface to an animated fight with virtual water balloons. This was an additional feature of Skype or YIM or one of those things involving a webcam, one allowing users to season text not only with smiley faces and the like, but a button which delivers a smirking cartoon child to my screen, a bratty homeboy who hurls an animated water balloon at the viewer. The projectile grows as it approaches until it fills the screen and then appears to burst with an electronically sampled splash. It's probably funny if you're six or seven but soon becomes repetitive for anyone older.

Meeting the boy in person was different and somehow involved less direct interaction. He didn't seem to understand what I was or how he was expected to process my presence. It wasn't so much that he disliked me, or even resented the intrusion - which would at least have been understandable - but he seemed somehow in awe of me, which was weird, and this was combined with his having become unusually fixated upon his mother over the years. He wasn't shy. He simply didn't talk to me, or interact with me. He gabbled away about nothing to his mother and would seemingly ignore me when I spoke; but it always turned out that he simply hadn't heard the question, his focus having been on other matters, and he's the same even now at the age of thirteen so it's just the way he is. Also, he was weirdly pushy for such a small kid, somehow precocious and yet without either the vocabulary or social skills to quite excuse it as idiosyncratic charm. His apparent confidence seemed astonishing, almost obnoxious, but as I've learnt, none of it is born of malice or is intended in quite the way it can sometimes seem. It's just how he is.

Bess told me that as soon as he was old enough to be costumed and taken trick or treating, he'd insisted they go as a bat and a pirate, his mother in fake paper wings.

'Wait,' I asked, incredulous. 'How old did you say he was?'

'About three, and my Mom took his side.'

'So you let a three-year old tell you what to do?'

I no longer need to ask such questions, having experienced his weirdly single-minded sense of purpose first hand. It's not really coercion so much as just really knowing his own mind, and you get used to it eventually.

We went to San Antonio zoo. It was odd but not unpleasant. He knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to see, and once there he'd lecture us on whatever animal we were looking at. Did we know this? and Did we know that? but his speech was difficult to understand and some of his assertions were patently ridiculous, and anyway - shouldn't it be him asking the questions? What's that animal called, and so on? It was hard to even get a word in edgeways, not least because doing so would be to engage in a pissing contest with a small child, and we'd all end up feeling weird and bad and wishing we'd just kept our mouths shut.

'No, I'm pretty sure you'll find that elephants are from either Africa or India.'

He'd frown in thought and then announce, 'I don't think so,' like you'd asked him a question; but this came later, our first interaction beyond laptop screens and virtual water balloons occurred at the sand pit. Bess and I were exhausted with the novelty of this new world we were building and so we took the boy to the play area for a break from him lecturing us. He hit the sand pit and began making pyramids, but I could see his technique was pitiful.

'Screw it,' I told myself and went to join him. I sat on the wooden edging and started piling on sand, so he began directing me, making suggestions; and we opened negotiations. Later we collaborated on his latest Star Wars Lego piece, and I got the hang of how to tell him he's got it all wrong without it sounding like I'm calling him an idiot, after which I began to understand what made him tick a little better, if not why. We drove to Austin a few days later, which was tough with the continuous monologue coming from the rear, but I just had to go with it so I climbed over the back of my seat and submitted myself to an extended lecture on the numerous beasts of How to Train Your Dragon, illustrated with action figures and delivered as a seemingly endless series of lists. It would have been more entertaining had I been able to understand a few more of his words, but his enthusiasm made up for the shortfall. Much of the return journey was taken up with the animal guessing game. He wasn't very good at it but compensated by ignoring the rules with amusing abandon, finally defeating both Bess and I with the mystifying initials RB, which turned out to be rock buddy, which I suppose is what you call a rock who happens to be your buddy; which was the first time he made me laugh.

Bess and I were married and we all settled into a routine. The boy's personality remained forceful, unusually focussed, and occasionally a little abrasive. I'd ask him to do things and he wouldn't, or I'd ask him to stop doing things which he'd keep on doing regardless, and all because he's a kid and that's how they are so there's no point in taking it personally. I began to turn our yard into a garden by digging the whole thing up. This yielded huge mounds of large stones and so I made borders for flower beds, packing the stones tight as though making a drystone wall.

'I need bugs,' the boy tells me, and so I point to the borders I've made. 'There were quite a lot out there. Look under the stones, but put them back in the same places when you're done,' and he does this, but his interpretation of the same places means roughly within three or four feet of the original position. I am displeased, and my displeasure will be referenced each time I mention how the boy never goes out into the garden. It's because he's afraid of you, I will be told, and there'll be nothing more to say; but right now I've dug sixty-five paving slabs of red porous stone up from a corner of the garden and am planning to relocate them in a more practical setting at the rear of the porch. I've excavated a large rectangle of earth, levelled it as best I can with sand, and now the boy comes out to help me. He likes the look of the digging. I give him the other spade and he gets to work on a hole of his own, one which has more to do with art than landscaping.

'You realise I'm going to be covering this whole patch over with paving slabs?' I tell him.

He looks around. 'But what about the hole?'

'Well, that's where I was hoping to put the slabs down, so it will be covered over.' I'm silently kicking myself for my failure to deliver the cruel truth, that the hole he has dug is without purpose.

He considers this a little, then makes an announcement. 'I do have an idea.'

This is a really odd tick of his, the I do statements delivered as though in answer to a question we've all been asking ourselves.

'Go on,' I suggest.

He explains how we can finish the hole he's been digging, and how we can then lay down the slabs as I've proposed with the hole left intact. Therefore whenever we need to access the hole again, we can just lift the slabs and it will be there. I don't know why he thinks we will need to revisit the hole unless in the interests of nostalgia. There is a dreamlike logic to many of his suggestions.

We're out walking and we pass a fallen section of tree trunk. He'll run to it, climb over, start jumping up and down on it and looking for bugs, all inevitably leading up to, 'can we take it home?'

'It's five foot long and is too heavy and we couldn't fit it in the car if we tried,' we tell him; which is true, but we don't want to crush his dreams with the more honest there is no good reason why we should take that tree trunk to our home. We silently think of the other crap he's found now living in his room because no-one could come up with any good philosophical argument against his taking possession of a three foot length of telephone cable or the rusting hub cap from a truck.

We walk on and then it comes.

'I do know a way we could take the tree trunk home with us,' because he thinks we've been puzzling it over, trying to come up with a solution.

How can we make this happen?

He does know a way, and it's always something ridiculous which wouldn't work but nevertheless has its own internal logic of sorts. I do know a way has been applied to everything from abandoned cars to actual fully grown deer which he's already given a name and added to our expanding roster of household pets. He acquires things, or aspires to them because he likes the look of them and for no other reason that either of us can fathom. Trips around Lowes or Home Depot were once characterised by the boy asking for purchase of something he would have no justification for owning - as though we're in a toy store - a length of plastic pipe, a sink plunger, a box with holes by which one may sort different sizes of nails and screws. My wife and I now have a game between ourselves, what would Junior want based on who can pick the most esoteric item in the store, the thing the kid would ask us to buy him for no sane reason.

Six years down the line, it has become easier - no less weird, but at least somehow more familiar. His voice has broken and his vocabulary expands into increasingly baroque realms by which every other sentence is qualified with if I'm not mistaken or if I remember correctly, but it's easier to understand what he's saying if not why he's saying it. Every thing is still an announcement, often prefixed with a question - 'I do know [general outline of subject],' followed by 'would you like me to tell you about it?', and then a series of hesitations and bullet points. 'Well... wait... let me see... number one: the thing you really need to know about sharks is that...'

Six years down the line and it's more funny than annoying. He's weird, but not in a bad way, and we're probably all weird by one definition or another. The three of us have taken to family walks each Sunday afternoon, based on Danny Trejo suggesting that a good parent will make memories by dragging their kid away from the iPad whether they like it or not. The boy is still operating from a position of peculiar focus, and he'll probably never grow out of delivering long, long lists of fascinating facts to an audience which may not even be particularly interested, and occasionally he'll still find some object which we're not bringing home under any circumstances, and yet it will turn out that he does know a way...

It's been exhausting, but educational, and thankfully some of it has been fun. I'm not sure I'll be passing on an inheritance of any of my ideas after all, but maybe it doesn't matter.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The New World


Thursday the 23rd of June, 2011 was my last day in England; not my last ever day in England, although it felt like it might be. On Friday  morning I was up at three for the sake of catching a flight, an undertaking which I found weird with a touch of death sentence to it. There would be no going back. I was moving to America. It was the thing towards which I'd been working for a long time, the thing on which everything had been pinned, and yet on some level I'd never really expected the day to come because I'd been lost in forward motion. I hadn't even been up at three when working for Royal Mail, and the sky was still frozen black. My dad turned up in the car around four. He was driving me to the airport because neither coach nor train would have got me there in time.

The city was silent. It was still cold. I hugged my mother, then kissed her on the cheek and tried not to cry - and we've never been one of those touchy-feely families. It seemed like I would never see her again. I think I noticed a tear in her eye.

I'd been living in my mother's place whilst selling off a load of my accumulated crap and applying for the K1 fiancé visa. The K1 would grant me three months in which to get married and apply for a green card, and now it was happening - an eventuality I had somehow not quite foreseen. It was terrifying, but I kept moving because the  alternative would have been much worse. I told myself it would all make sense at some point in the future, and hopefully the none too distant future.

I was flying from Gatwick, because when I bought the ticket I hadn't considered that it made much difference. I was still thinking of airports in terms of having lived in London, but Gatwick is a shitload further than Heathrow if you're travelling down from the north on the M6. My dad and I talked about whatever we usually talked about as  dawn broke and the motorway began to fill with early traffic, and eventually we were at the airport. I loaded my crap onto a baggage trolley and we wheeled off to the departure lounge. I hugged my dad, which I'm not sure I'd ever done before because, as I say, we've never really been that sort of family; and like a wanker, I started to cry.

He understood. 'That's a proper Burty trait,' he told me, and I remembered him describing how tough it had been working on a farm all those years, getting upset over the deaths of calves and cows.

Then followed about nine hours on a plane, landing at Charlotte, North Carolina for my date with Immigration which, after the previous two years worth of headaches accrued in preparation, took all of half an hour. I handed over my envelope of documents and they took me to a room where I sat with a bored teenager in a uniform with a massive gun. He wasn't so intimidating as the bored teenager in a uniform with a massive gun who had once cadged cigarettes from me in Calixtlahuaca, but it was obvious that we were never going to be friends. It wasn't so much an interview as a conversation with someone who clearly wanted to be somewhere else, following which I was left with four hours to burn. My six o'clock connecting flight was pushed back to seven due to a surfeit of lightning, then to eight because there was something wrong with the aircraft, and then it was cancelled because apparently US Airways only had one plane, which was about what I expected. They'd done it before. My previous visit to America had briefly marooned me in Philadelphia. It was getting to be a habit.

The airline put me up in a hotel and I caught a flight to Houston early next morning. It was that or three further connections which wouldn't arrive in San Antonio until eight on Saturday evening. Bess picked me up from Houston with a two hour drive back to San Antonio. I spent the car journey and most of that first month in something of a daze. A foreign country looks very different to a holiday when it's supposed to be for the rest of your life.

I moved into Bess's apartment, a second floor flat in a place on Sunset Ridge. Sunset Ridge was a subdivision - as they are called - a complex of architecturally similar houses and flats on a hillside behind a large ritzy sign. The buildings were two storeys, stone clad with shallow roofing and a sort of alpine look. The lawns were neat, without fencing, and were tended by someone working from a main office which looked after the affairs of the subdivision. Neither trees nor bushes nor bedding plants were of any kind I recognised, and the Texas heat seemed phenomenal. I felt a little as though I had moved into a J.G. Ballard novel, and I could only wait for familiarity to set in so I could feel normal again.

The flat was a reasonable size, but too small for three of us, the third being the inscrutable kid who was seven and would eventually be my stepson. In my absence, Bess had found a house and we would be moving there in a month or so. Everything was in transition. An email I sent to my mother on Monday the 27th of June concluded:

Sorry about the sombre tone, there have been the inevitable couple of occasions where I've wondered if I haven't made a huge mistake, but I'm sure it will all look very different in a few weeks time.

Beyond such details, all that remains is a blur of images which seem alien even now, six years later: picking up a ton of Lego from the floor, and the child who barely seems to know what to say to me, instead addressing everything to his mother; smoking the last of my tobacco outside on the step of the building as colourful tropical birds hop about in the tree, unaware of how exotic they appear; dive bombed by sparrowhawks at Sunset Ridge's outdoor pool; taking shelter from the crippling heat of midday, inside with the AC up full and the lights off watching the new version of Battlestar Galactica; nothing I quite recognise in the stores and supermarkets, no kebab shop and no Asian-owned corner store; lightning flashing across the city in the evening like in a film, the city as a vista of treetops with the occasional water tower; dishes in the sink and a fridge containing only spray cheese and ice cubes...

It got better and it got easier, but it's still hard to think about those first months even now, because the shock was so profound; and this was immigration willingly undertaken as a matter more closely resembling choice than necessity, so I've been lucky.

It was probably the best decision I ever made.

Friday, 28 April 2017

A Few Turds from Our Sponsor


Does advertising work? asks the billboard at the side of the highway, then answering its own question with it just did! To break this down, the billboard suggests that advertising works because you've just read the message stating that it works, and might therefore consider paying the owners of the billboard a load of money to slap up a few images promoting your suppository franchise, or whatever it is you do. Of course, although the billboard suggests that advertising works because you've just read the message stating that it works, the only people who will have read the message are those who read the message because anyone who didn't bother to read the message won't have read it, making this the advertising equivalent of the anthropic principle, namely the philosophical consideration that observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. The message is additionally weakened by the presumption of its own cognitive impact, resting on the premise that mere awareness of a product or service is the same as paying for it; which it isn't, as the billboard itself demonstrates, because I've seen it fucking hundreds of times and I'm still not absolutely certain of the six words cited here being the right ones.

Likewise, the following television commercials have sent me flying across the room to hit the mute button on the remote probably hundreds of occasions in some cases, and yet I'm still unable to remember what half of the fuckers are advertising, because all I can see in my minds eye is a parade of gormless grinning faces suffused with halos of how much I loathe everyone involved, which if anything only ensures that I'll go out of my way to avoid purchase of whatever shit they're selling in the event of my ever needing it or even being able to remember what it is. Marketing departments might suggest otherwise, but marketing departments are explicitly in the business of just making shit up and so their testimony is worthless. The civilisation of ancient Egypt endured for around three-thousand years, give or take a few periods of unrest. Isn't it fucking funny how you never hear anything about their marketing department?

AARP. I think this stands for the American Association of Retired People, but I can't be bothered to check. I'm sure it's a worthy organisation, dedicated as it is to involving those over a certain age with theatre visits, wine tasting, salsa classes and so on, but publicising the organisation with weird wobbly-headed older people grinning in your face seems ill-advised. So far there have been two major advertising campaigns, both starring Hispanic oldsters, first a woman and then a man. Each has this weirdly over-familiar grin like they're trying to get you involved in something your parents don't need to know about, and they grin and they wobble their heads side to side as though either pissed or ripped to the tits on prescription painkillers, and they slur something like if you don' think real possibilities when you hear the name AARP, then you don' know AARP, which sounds almost as though it should have my frien' at the end as an unwelcome hand finds its way round to your ass. Considering it all happens on a telly screen, there's something weirdly intrusive about Señor and Señora Real Possibilities, as though television has now found a way to invade your personal space with what nevertheless remains a two-dimensional image.

Contemplative Hillbillies Impressed by Impact of Heavy Object. I can't remember if this is Ford, Chevrolet, or General Motors, but it probably doesn't matter. As our tableau commences we see a group of guys in stetsons and jeans stood around looking at massive trucks, the kind of trucks only ever driven by men with enormous penises, so it's a safe bet that all of these hillbillies probably have penises of at least a foot in length, possibly two foot in the case of a couple of the more stoically rugged ones. None of these men are strangers to big heavy tools, not just the kind presently at rest within their own trousers, but also wrenches and items with rubber-grip handles which they squeeze and twist when engaging in their manly labours, grunting and occasionally pausing to quaff a refreshing beer-style beverage. When these men have finished utilising their big heavy tools out in the wilderness at the mercy of lions, bears and probably Injuns, they toss their big heavy tools in the back of their trucks and head home, and of course being just regular guys, they toss their tools roughly rather than daintily, like some homosexual carefully arranging wildflowers upon a gingham cushion; but in tossing their tools, sometimes they damage their trucks. So here the hillbillies stand in contemplation as heavy metal boxes of tools are cast into the back of trucks with a thud thud thud. One brand of truck sustains denting, but the other doesn't because it is rugged like the men. This makes the men happy and so we see them smile and nod with approval.

Grandpa the Asthmatic Wolf. This commercial riffs - probably unintentionally - on a cartoon I once saw in Punch magazine wherein an old man, having just announced how delightful he finds the unalloyed directness of the young, is asked Grandpa, how come you're so fat, grey, bald, and wrinkled? Here he's reading them the story of the Three Little Pigs, and has just reached the point at which the wolf is huffing and puffing when one of his own grandchildren points out that he too does quite a lot of huffing and puffing . 'It's my asthma,' he explains, digressing off into a long and unnecessarily detailed account of his condition, apparently having missed the point that his girls were simply engaging in banter and hadn't actually requested for this droning summary of his medical history. The advert then enters an animated segment wherein a cartoon wolf consults the advice of his doctor regarding asthma, correct usage of inhalers and so on, prior to tackling those three pigs. One sequence shows the wolf, breathing quite easily whilst engaged in rigorous activity, dancing with his wolf granddaughters, here identified by dresses and tiaras, making it quite clear that the wolf is also Grandpa. Personally I think this sends out a slightly dubious message, and - as with all medical adverts - this one spends five inevitable minutes listing all of the potentially deadly side effects of using this particular form of relief for asthma symptoms, whatever it is. I know they probably have to do it for legal reasons, but when two of the potentially deadly side effects are an increase in severity of asthma symptoms and death by asthma, the whole enterprise is rendered seemingly ludicrous; and Grandpa waving a cuddly toy wolf at the girls and making them scream with delight at the end doesn't really help a whole lot.

Grinning Fool Plays Air Drums. This is a locally made advertisement, possibly filmed on some cunt's phone by the look of it and starring the actual people who own the car dealership and who will probably try to flog you a motor should you find that their advertising has worked for you. My guess would be that neither of them ever took any sort of acting course and are thus banking on the raw, unpolished honesty of their performance, such as it is, to win you over. She is small and Hispanic, and he physically suggests a scenario in which aliens discovered the ruined body of Hoss from NBC's Bonanza on some distant asteroid and attempted to surgically restore him but, lacking any understanding of human physiology, found themselves obliged to use an Alfred E. Neuman heavy issue of Mad magazine for reference. Released back into the wild in the general vicinity of San Antonio, he was cruelly incapacitated by a thorn which became embedded in his mighty paw, but luckily the Latina woman happened to be passing and they've been faithful friends ever since. The part which really gets me is where she prefixes the announcement of some boring special offer by asking for a drum roll, whereupon he hunkers down and does the honours upon an imaginary snare; and whilst it's impressive that he's managed to suspend that stupid grin for a whole two seconds, it's hard not to notice his tongue pop from the corner of his mouth with all the strain of concentration. The guy resembles Gary from the thick kids class at my school, itself not an institution which was ever going to give Oxford or Cambridge much competition. I'm sure Gary was lovely but - Lordy was he stupid! He once gave me the nickname of Funny Eater, inspired by the difficulty I experienced with a particular sandwich. He saw me in trouble, he pointed, he laughed, and his imagination suggested Funny Eater might be a fitting nickname by which to forever associate me with the incident - a nickname which actually leaves the one who came up with it seeming more fucking pitiful than the person to whom it is applied, regardless of how poorly it went for me and that sandwich.

Inexplicable Enthusiasm for Cardboard Chicken. Most of us know Popeye as a Sailor Man with a heavy spinach habit, but here in Americaland he's also a fried chicken franchise which attempts to make a virtue out of taking fucking ages to get your order together by means of the presumably ironic strapline Louisiana fast. I think the implication is that they're not actually a massive corporation, but they're just these guys, you know, and like, they care about nourishing your soul as well as your stomach, so maybe give them a fuckin' chance, yeah? I mean if you got some plane to catch maybe you should've gone to Wendy's instead. To be fair, it may just be my presumably understaffed local branch of Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen which takes forever, although it's not actually the leisurely pace of their service which bothers me. The advertising stars an enthusiastic matronly chef lady delivering a jovial testimony to the superiority of her wares invoking good N'awlins home cookin', fresh spices, and Mardi Gras, mon cher. Conversely, the food, when it eventually arrives, leaves you with the sensation of having consumed an entire loaf of bread in one sitting, albeit a vaguely chicken-flavoured loaf of bread. It's not a good feeling, and contrasts with the promise of the advertising in the same way that the Aryan mythology of white supremacy tends to contrast with the lumpy tattooed mutants who subscribe to that sort of drivel. Also, chef lady smiles so hard that it looks like she's doing it at gunpoint, which is troubling.

Lucky Buffoon Hits Jackpot. This is a commercial for the Lucky Eagle casino of Eagle Pass which is somewhere down near the Mexican border so far as I understand. It's part of the Kickapoo reservation and is probably therefore able to operate outside state laws regarding gambling, whatever they may be. I've never really given much of a shit about gambling and tend to regard those who do as losers and arseholes. Everett's dad was supposedly a professional gambler, and he was a fucking shocker. That said, I'm happy to see First Nations people making a living - taking our money back from white people one quarter at a time, as runs the motto of the Wamapoke Casino. The thing I have a problem with is the hair metal theme song with Grace Slick - or someone of her general type - bellowing out lu-huckee eeyooooooowaaaargh over fifty simultaneous guitar solos whilst a buffoon looks happy in slow motion, drunk with the euphoria of having pumped five bucks into the slots and landed himself a sweet, sweet pay out of four dollars and twenty-five cents, the knob.

The Misery of Dry Skin. This is an advert for either moisturiser or some kind of specifically medicinal moisturiser, in which a robust looking woman explains that the very worst aspect of diabetes is undoubtedly the dry skin. Wikipedia on the other hand lists heart disease, stroke, chronic kidney failure, foot ulcers, and damage to the eyes among those attendant complications one might reasonably regard as undesirable, and yet no mention of dry skin. Maybe the whole dry skin aspect is just too horrible to contemplate.

Pretzelphage Resumes Activity. This is a commercial for Aspen Dental, and I'm not sure why I should remember that detail when I remain in the dark about most of the rest discussed here. Anyway, all Aspen Dental commercials seem to be a variation on a theme in which persons with whom I suppose we are expected to identify realises that their teeth are shit and in need of work, and so they go to Aspen Dental, get those choppers sorted out, and behold their teeth are no longer shit because look - there's our man winning the taco eating competition, munching away like it ain't no thing; and in each case this narrative is delivered in the form of a song, complete with dental staff pulling wry faces to the camera as the patient yodels away in the chair. The thing which annoys me most about the worst of these adverts, the one sung by some woman working in a bakery, is the finale in which, still singing, she grins, snatches a large pretzel from the hand of her associate, and croons 'this pretzel's got nothing on me,' before taking a big old bite by way of demonstration. It's the actual phraseology which bothers me. The statement that something or other has nothing on the person making the statement is one of those things people tend to say because they've heard someone else say it and thought it sounded cool. In the case of our dentally enhanced vocalist, this pretzel's got nothing on me is like saying I am superior to this pretzel, or my victory over this pretzel is assured for I am better equipped to achieve victory than this inanimate baked item; which is a fucking stupid thing to say, because no-one is going to put money on the pretzel winning, and in any case it's a false dichotomy. The entire function of the pretzel is to be consumed and in doing so to provide sustenance. Therefore a victory for the pretzel constitutes its being consumed, which is what happens as a result of what the woman qualifies as her triumph, because she's a fucking idiot who tries too hard.

Purple Turd. Have you ever been bunged up, popped a laxative, and subsequently had yourself a really good shit? If so, did you enjoy it so much that you were barely able to contain yourself afterwards? Did you pull on a t-shirt bearing the slogan I ❤ my Lax? Did you rush down to the shore and write I
my Lax in the sand in letters of a size sufficient as to allow the message to be read by the pilots of any aircraft which might be passing overhead? I've honestly never been that happy to have a shit, and I've spent time in Mexico, so to me it just looks like secret signalling for those who take pleasure in the production of fecal matter towards ends other than the purely alimentary, if you know what I'm saying. If you don't know what I'm saying you should probably consider yourself lucky. The animated segment of the advertisement - assuming it's the same one and I haven't just conflated two different laxative adverts - shows a purple turd set free and at last proceeding along a colon towards a bumhole like we're watching that episode of Barbapapa directed by Joan Miró.  I suppose it's purple so as to allow viewers to get to grips with the general concept of having a shit without directly invoking the act whilst we're trying to eat our fucking tea, thank you very much; either that or someone has been on a diet of nothing but sloes for the past week.

Zipline Bore. 'Now that I'm over fifty,' says our helmeted guy as he's about to slide down a zipline attached to the side of the Matterhorn, 'my friends ask me, aren't you scared?' He pushes away, sliding off into empty Alpine space, just a knot of toughened cord preventing him from plummeting thousands of feet to his death, and as he slips off he yelps the rest of the anecdote, such as it is. The only thing he's really scared of, so it transpires, is leaving himself vulnerable to something or other by failing to either renew his health insurance or get himself inoculated against something or other - I can never remember which it is. I've a feeling this may be one of those adverts in which I asked my doctor and he said blah blah blah followed by four minutes listing all the potentially deadly side effects, so it's probably the latter - the inoculation. Personally, I suspect that our boy is somewhat embellishing his story. I expect he was having a drink with what few friends he has left, or he was hanging out at the sauna or something when he happened to mention that he was planning to slide down a mountain on a bit of rope; and the response was probably 'sure thing, Ken - sounds real scary,' before they carried on with whatever they had been talking about. It seems significant that the guy appears to be having this adventure holiday on his own, apart from whoever is holding the camera allowing him to waffle on and on and on, explaining his wearisome home-brewed philosophy to fucking no-one.

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.