Friday, 23 June 2017

Banbury

'What a handsome fucker!' exclaimed the Pixie happily.

I leave Newbold, Warwickshire around eleven, cycling a zig-zag path heading east along the smallest country lanes I can find in the hope of avoiding anything you'd call traffic. Sue has offered to give me a lift from Halford, reasoning that it's a long way on a bike and Sunrise Hill will probably kill me. I've told her I'll be okay because I need the exercise and enjoy cycling.

'I scoff at hills,' I roared laughingly in the manner of Brian Blessed, but not out loud. My laughter was internal. I hadn't heard of Sunrise Hill, but I've cycled up other hills, and surely it couldn't be any worse than the one outside Wellesbourne; and people who cycle less than I do always seem to regard the smallest speed bump as a giant escarpment; and other reasons, probably...

I cycle from Newbold to Halford, then on to the villages of Oxhill and Upper Tysoe, at which point I come to Sunrise Hill; and unfortunately it is indeed a bastard. Fuck you, I mutter to my inner Brian Blessed, conceding defeat after about a hundred yards and getting off to push the bike the rest of the way. I stop to catch my breath three or four times, and after about ten minutes I'm at the top of the hill. I follow the road into Shenington, along what turns out to be the edge of the escarpment, dipping right back down to my original elevation and then back up again three or four times, up-down-up-down-up-fucking-down and rarely has such agricultural language been directed against a single geographical feature.

After seventeen miles I'm in the next county, Oxfordshire, and specifically I'm in Banbury. My guesswork regarding travel time has been a bit out and I'm late for Tom and Fiona's barbecue.

Tom probably isn't quite my oldest friend, but he's the first I visited on a regular basis. He lived in an old farmhouse in the village of Darlingscote, Cotswold stone, exposed wooden beams, and uneven floors. I found the place magical. The main thing we had in common was, as with all children, probably that we were the same size, but we shared a sense of humour and we both liked Star Trek. We'd play in the fields at the back. He was probably Spock, which I'm guessing from the fact that he'd keep calling me Jim, and somehow, despite this, I was a Cyberman from Doctor Who. The logic of these scenarios probably doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, and the continuity is all over the place, but I guess it worked for us at the time. My assumed identity for such childhood roleplay tended to be one chosen for its silent implication of terrible power, which unfortunately didn't necessarily translate well when the point of the game was in pretending to be captured on an alien planet or whatever. Tom didn't seem to mind, or possibly even to notice that my Cyberman was a fairly boring choice of persona; although I distinctly recall Sean objecting to my electing to be the Mighty Thor on the grounds that Thor was never really known for jumping around all over the place, unlike Spiderman.

Somehow we drifted apart about half way through secondary school, our respective peer groups polarised by divergent relationships with pop music and the automotive industry. Years later we ran into each other at a school reunion, having both reached an age at which what differences we had cultivated no longer seemed to matter; so that was nice; and amazingly, he was still very, very funny. Stranger still was that he'd married Fiona, with whom I had shared a table during art lessons for most of the fourth and fifth years.

I've been to see them once before in Banbury, back in 2015 during a previous visit to England, and this time they're having a barbecue. My road map doesn't extend into Oxfordshire, so I've scribbled directions on post-it notes copied from what I could find on the internet. I don't know Banbury at all, despite having lived nearby for the first twenty or so years of my life. I asked my mother about this and she told me we'd simply never had any good reason to pass through Banbury. It wasn't on the way to anywhere we ever went. This might partially account for why I'm already lost. I stop to ask directions, and happily it turns out that I've been heading the right way, and that Tom and Fiona's house is only a little further. Tom calls my mobile just as I turn the corner into his close.

'Where are you, Loz?'

'I'm right outside. I think I can see you,' but the bloke pottering about in his back garden seen through two panes of glass is someone else. I've been here before but none of the houses look quite familiar; except maybe one of them does, sort of...

I lock my bike, shove it down the side of the garage, then pass down the side of the house into the garden, greeted by a chorus of jokes about where I've left my horse. I'm wearing my stetson, so I only have myself to blame.

Nathan, son of Tom and Fiona, crushes me with a bear hug and a grin.

'Hello, Nathan,' I wheeze.

He lifts a glass from the garden table to show me with some pride. 'I can drink beer now!'

'Blimey,' I suggest, doing the mental arithmetic and realising he must have passed eighteen since I last saw him. 'I'm surprised you remember me. I was only here for an hour or so, and that was two years ago.'

'I remember you.'

Sue is already here. 'I told you I'd give you a lift,' she sighs.

Tom works the barbecue, flipping burgers and hot dogs, and Zoe is here too. I haven't seen her since school. I vividly recall thinking she was the blondest girl in the whole universe on our first day at Shipston, and she is still lovely as ever. It seems almost scary how little we've all changed, and mainly because we obviously have all changed but it's hard to tell, so I'm probably losing my marbles.

I pull up a lawn chair and we get down to the important business of talking complete bollocks, catching up with the last thirty years of business.

Paul Betteridge is definitely dead, we conclude. The facebook account has to be someone using his identity for reasons best known to themselves. Sue remembers his demise quite well, and with good reason given his attempt to brand her with a lump of red hot metal, fresh from the furnace. I don't remember him being such a bad lad - really more of an inventive nutcase, but then he never tried to brand me. This at least means that I haven't just imagined him ending up in a coma after crashing a stolen combine harvester into a haystack, or whatever it was that happened.

We discuss who has had a sex change, mostly referring to sons and daughters of people we knew at school, or daughters and sons depending on how much time has passed since I wrote this. It's difficult to imagine how such a conversation would have gone one generation past, but in 2017, none of us seem that bothered by the idea. It's weird and out of the ordinary for sure, but I guess we're all too old to give that much of a fuck about someone else's business.

Fiona and Sue talk about work, which opens out into a wider discussion of the joy of telling people we don't like to either piss off or stick it up their respective arses. We talk about Nathan, the kids, and even a few grandchildren who've been buzzing around at the periphery of the conversation, what they will do, what sort of world they will live in, the usual stuff.

The strangest development of all seems to be that Tom, Fiona, and Nathan are one of those ballroom dancing families you hear about, all three of them, and they're probably fairly good at it because they keep winning prizes. Tom invites me to inspect the shed he's built at the foot of the garden. It's bananas and yet brilliant - a stroke of genius. It's his own tiny dance studio, complete with the mirrored wall and all the trimmings; at which point I notice he's lost a spare tyre since I was last here. I guess it's good for him.

We eat burgers and hot dogs, and Fiona and I compare notes about diverticulitis which she recently contracted. Thankfully she's getting better now.

I hit the road about four, reasoning that I want to be back in Coventry before it gets dark, which I just about manage. I've covered one hell of a distance on just two wheels, and it's been knackering but absolutely worth it. I've spent an afternoon in the company of people I never really anticipated seeing again once I'd left school, and not because I ever had a reason to avoid anyone, but because we all seem to have shot off on different paths; but meeting up again, I realise that we probably all have more in common than we did first time round; and that we've made it to fifty without turning into arseholes, which is nice.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Darkest Warwickshire


I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the county of Warwickshire, then five years in Kent, and the rest of the time in cities up until I came to move to Texas in 2011. By my mid-twenties, Warwickshire had become something like a foreign country. I visited only infrequently because I had no reason to do otherwise. My parents lived in different parts of the city of Coventry and I'd lost touch with more or less everyone I'd known at school. The countryside in which I'd grown up was reduced to a lost rural idyll occasionally seen as decorative background on a television programme.

In 2009, I moved from London to Coventry in preparation for  the larger transatlantic leap. My job in London had turned to shit, as had my domestic situation. It was time for a change.

The first revelation which came to me once I'd relocated to Coventry, was that I could cycle out of the city and find myself in the countryside in a matter of minutes. This hadn't been possible in London. Having become so accustomed to an environment comprising endless lines of vehicles belching fumes across a panorama of fried chicken outlets, rural England seemed newly magical to me. Everything sparked off some long-neglected childhood memory - grass verges blooming with cow parsley, tiny colourful birds flitting in and out of hedgerows, the silence of just wind and maybe some distant aircraft crossing a landscape of fields dipping down towards hidden church spires. I found myself in quiet lanes wherein my existence would have made no sense at any point during the previous two decades. I was entirely free of the pressures I had endured for so long. Even the novelty of it being ten in the morning and there I was not breaking my back whilst getting yelled at by an overpaid metropolitan idiot was astonishing, and such realisations continue to astonish me even today.

In 2015, I spent a couple of weeks back in England, visiting my parents, both still living in Coventry. The visit included excursions out into the country, into rural Warwickshire, even to Shipston-on-Stour where I had attended high school. Neither of my parents had much reason to visit the old places, and so my presence allowed for the indulgence of low-level nostalgia, just seeing how things had changed. One such expedition took us back through Newbold-on-Stour, a village at just a few miles distance from where I once lived. The White Hart was still there so my dad and myself stopped in for a pint. Wouldn't it be funny if we saw Gordon, I said to myself, and there he stood before us, right on cue as though summoned into being by my thoughts.

Of the people I'd known at School, only Juliet and Gordon had been associated with Newbold-on-Stour, so far as I could recall. Juliet had turned up on facebook a few years earlier with creepy messages about how she'd always loved me, which I probably could have lived without. Gordon on the other hand had remained mysterious. We'd been friends at school - close, but apparently not so close as to have stayed in touch past the age of sixteen, and I'd never quite been able to work out why. I remembered him as one of the gang, perhaps a little too fond of puns, but generally decent. The two jokes which had stayed with me over the years, both of his own composition, had been as follows:

1) Proposal for a verdict which might be delivered by an official judging a competition comparing girls' fannies: On the hole I'd say it's all been very good.

2) Get the Murphy habit, a phrase spoken whilst giving a thumbs-up gesture, but with the thumb concealed in the palm of the hand as though partially severed. This riffed on get the Abbey habit - the slogan utilised in advertising for the Abbey National building society, similarly accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture - and the fact of Mr. Murphy recently having injured or possibly even lost one of his thumbs. I think Mr. Murphy may have been a woodwork teacher. Gordon took some pleasure from the delivery of the joke, and I recall being slightly irritated because I had no fucking clue what he was talking about or why he thought it was funny. I responded with a combined slogan and gesture of my own, a variation on Mr. Spock's live long and prosper thing accompanied by the wilfully unrelated phrase don't ask Arthur for a cheese sandwich. I could just have asked Gordon to explain, but I suppose I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to be a bit of a cunt.

I'm not sure why I should still recall these two jokes in particular, but I suspect it's something to do with their being the same sort of shite which I probably once produced, so it may stem from some sense of relief that I hadn't in these instances. On the other hand, Gordon lent me The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle when it came out, and we even had him as guest on a Pre-War Busconductors cassette, announcing I'm Gordon Everett and I don't appear anywhere on this tape. So it felt as though the two of us should be more than just fellow carbon blobs who merely happened to have passed through the same educational colon at roughly the same time; and when I realised that this was the older version of himself stood before me in the White Hart, I experienced a feeling of immense pleasure. Unfortunately, an hour over a pint in a pub with my dad present wasn't really adequate when it came to catching up on the previous thirty years, but it was a start.

Now it's 2017, and I'm back in England once again, and Gordon is right at the top of the list. We've enjoyed sporadic communication through social media, but it's not the same as having an actual conversation, and this is why I haven't spent too much time worrying over any political differences we may have developed over the intervening years. This has been a matter of concern from time to time, particularly now that the internet has brought everyone any of us ever knew back into present day reality. It's not that I expect everyone I've ever known to have stayed the same, or even to subscribe to views compatible with my own; but I dislike it when a person of whom one might once have thought highly turns out to be a complete fucking knob.

I once assumed, somewhat arrogantly, that it was my having spent my life moving from place to place which granted me some enhanced sense of perspective, allowing me to be right about things. This view was mostly based on my having stayed in touch with Tim, who had lived his entire life in his mother's shadow in the house in which he grew up, then married a woman closer to his mother's vintage than to his own count of years when his mother passed away, and then eventually ended up standing for election on behalf of UKIP because he didn't want his beloved United Kingdom to become like America or Japan. I didn't really understand this view or just which episode in the vast wealth of his worldly experience it had been drawn from, but this was apparently because I had run away from England, as he put it. Thankfully, as I have come to appreciate, Tim's brand of myopia tends to be an exception rather than the rule.

I set out around midday, allowing for three hours by bike, it being somewhere between twenty and thirty miles to Newbold from Coventry. I could have blagged a lift or taken a series of buses, but I need the exercise and I'm excited at the prospect of all that countryside. I avoid the worst of the traffic by following my own meandering route along minor roads, down through Leamington Spa, then on to Wellesbourne by way of Bishop's Tachbrook. One of the worst hills I've ever had to push a bike up is on the A429 just south of Wellesbourne, so I attempt to circumnavigate it by heading west through Loxley, after which it's mostly downhill to Alderminster then another couple of miles to Newbold. Taking the Loxley road inevitably means I nevertheless end up having to scale the same slope as I would have tackled on the A429, but in less concentrated and more scenic stretches. The entire journey is scenic, excepting the crappier bit of Leamington Spa. I stop every half hour or so to photograph lambs and sheep, or to gaze in wonder at rolling hills, or to munch on the pork pie my mother insisted I bring with me. I spend much of the journey talking to myself, mostly exclamations of would you look at that, because the landscape seems once again magical to me, despite the distant familiarity of childhood. It rains a little but I don't care, and I stop to watch pheasants strutting around in the fields - usually a spectacular male with the green and scarlet head, and his harem of little brown ladies. I stop in Alderminster to stare at my first primary school, long since converted into a funny looking house. I was only there a couple of months before being moved to Ilmington C of E Junior and Infants, but I can still remember my first day. All these memories have become like something I may have read in a book, intangibly exotic; and along such lines I'd intended to look for Whitchurch, a settlement abandoned in the sixteenth century of which only a farm remains, along with a Norman church in the middle of a field. My mother has told me about the place, and I'm astonished to have spent the first decade of my life living within two miles of this ghost village. I had intended to look for Whitchurch, but three hours has turned out to be an uncannily well crafted estimate and I don't have time.

I arrive at Newbold village green. There is a line of cottages running down the left hand side and Gordon lives in one of them. He didn't give me the address, instead suggesting that I phone him when I arrive, but he emerges grinning from the cottage on the corner before I can make the call. I'd guess we were about the same size when we were at school, but now he's large and imposing in a way which suggests a life of pounding fence posts into the earth with just his fists. He wears braces without it seeming like an affectation, and he has an oddly distinguished appearance. He looks thoughtful and confident. I expect I've changed too.

We chuckle amongst ourselves, discussing the weather and variations on holy shit, here we are; and then we wander across the green to the pub, taking Bumble the dog with us as we go. I later discover that Bumble was born on the farm constituting all that remains of Whitchurch. We talk about how things are, how things were, and the probable causes of how the latter became the former. We talk about people we knew, people who've died, people who are doing quite well for themselves, and how one of the hard cases of our shared youth has spent the last three decades as a one-man reenactment of the film Trainspotting. We always knew he wouldn't amount to anything, and it seems he hasn't.

It's a conversation of a kind which I've occasionally found uncomfortable. I worry that the person or persons to whom I'm talking will make certain assumptions about where I'm coming from. Look at me, I will seem to say in between listing all the exotic places I've been and famous people I've known, allow me to regale you with tales of my many, many adventures in exotic lands far, far away from where we both went to school. So if I have anything exciting to impart - like my recently having become related to Johnny Cash by marriage, for example - I'll play it down and try to make it sound like it's no big deal, no more interesting than what happened to the bloke who used to run the Kerry Tea Rooms over in Shipston. This kind of pre-emptive humility ordinarily makes conversation awkward, something to be negotiated; but for once, it's different. Gordon seems genuinely fascinated by how the hell I ended up in Texas. He hasn't taken the fact of my having done something as an accusation suggesting that he hasn't - which is how it often feels; and because patently he has done things, he feels no need to prove it.

In the mean time we talk about Jason Roberts, because Gordon recalls all sorts of details of our school biology lesson which have escaped me. We both sat at the back with Jason, and possibly Graham Pierce. The teaching methodology of Mrs. Lewis seemed mostly focused on our spending the next hour copying something out of a book as she busied herself with other activities, and so the back row of the class became a sort of comedy workshop hosted by Jason. I'm still able to recall the vaguely jazzy theme tune, Jason playing the bench like a piano, singing and winking at us.

It's joke time...
It's joke time...
It's joke time...
So let's all tell some jokes...

Gordon recalls that many of the jokes were about a block of wood, the chicken crossing the road because it needed a block of wood, the big chimney making some comment about a block of wood to the little chimney, and so on. You probably had to be there.

On other occasions we plotted our first television series with proposals for sketches and the like, an example of which is one of Jason's many explorations of his fried egg theme, composed on one side of A4 which I kept for the sake of posterity.

Enter Brutus.

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your—'

There is a silent awaiting of Brutus' plea.

'—fried eggs!'

There is a great cheer from the crowd and Brutus is bombarded with fried eggs. The silence dies down and Brutus smiles proudly before his nation.

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your—'

The excitement is tremendous as the crowd await Brutus' plea.

'—bacon!'

There is suddenly an uproar in the crowd and an old man appears to come forward, looking up to face Brutus.

'But Sire, Sire - we have no bacon,' says the old man in a sorrowful voice.

'What? No bacon!?,' screams Brutus. 'How can we have fried eggs without any bacon?'

Jason really had a thing about breakfast foods and would randomly insert the words bean, bacon, or fried egg into historical essays; then proudly reveal the verdict a week later, very good work in red biro beneath a page claiming that Christopher Colombus was celebrated for having crossed the Atlantic to discover fried eggs in the new world. Mr. Lewis took the history class, and his teaching methodology seemed to have certain elements in common with that of his wife, our biology teacher.

I realise there's probably no-one else left in the world who finds this shit as funny as we do, Gordon and myself.

Following a pint or possibly two, we wander down the road so I can see what Gordon does, because as I mentioned, he's done things. We climb past hedgerow to a large, slightly knackered looking shed. Inside are a number of horse drawn carriages in various states of repair. Someone called Rod is in the business of restoring them. Gordon draws my attention to the plush finish of one, describing a process of layering paint which is then sanded down, then painted over many times until a perfect sheen is achieved, something like the quality of a precious stone.

'So you, er...' I'm still trying to work out Gordon's part in the equation, given that he's already told me this isn't his workshop.

He smoothly lifts a wooden box from the rear of one carriage, dark, brown wood richly polished, beautifully dovetailed joints, and inlaid fixtures of brass or similar, including a monogram. A tray lined with green baize lifts from the box and I see spaces for fluted glasses and wine bottles. Now I recall something he told me in the pub, something about having to start all over again with brass inlay because someone with too much money had changed their mind.

'Holy shit,' I say. 'You made this?'

He usually makes furniture, as I recall him having told me, but I didn't quite realise that he is a genuine craftsman. I think I imagined something like the shelving I habitually knock up from supplies picked up at the local hardware superstore. Aside from the presence of horse drawn carriages, the workshop is just a workshop, messy with a chemical smell in the air, crap blaring from a tinny radio, and pictures of women's tits on the wall.

'You must make a fucking fortune doing this,' I suggest, in direct response to a mention of Prince Philip having ridden in something tarted up beneath this very roof.

'You would think so, wouldn't you?' Gordon reports, then reminds me that very few of the filthily rich ever became filthily rich by paying their bills on time or agreeing to fair prices. It's the same with all those oil barons who live in Alamo Heights, back in Texas.

We walk back to the village green and, not for the first time, I curse the fact that I was unable to take the woodwork class past my third year of high school because it clashed with art.

I ask about Gordon's father. Their family used to live on a farm just outside the village as you head towards Shipston, a farm distinguished by a large complex of greenhouses full of tomatoes. The greenhouses are still there, as is Gordon's father, but everything else has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

'The countryside is dying,' he tells me.

The village is now mostly populated by people working in the city, or who have retired from working in the city. No-one makes any money from farming these days, and farms which can't adapt to what few niches are left to them are often sold off to developers. The news makes me feel somehow uncomfortable. It isn't like I was particularly tied into the rural economy when I lived here, but it's difficult to miss the changes and the sense of pessimism. Gordon doesn't even seem particularly angry about it. He's aware of it happening and is simply trying to adapt as best he can.

Here is the thing which I fear might divide us. He's quite clearly picked a side because he hasn't been given much choice, and that side is acknowledged by a Countryside Alliance sticker on the glass of the door of his cottage. I've a feeling I may be on the other side of this particular fence because I view fox hunting as unnecessary and probably barbaric, and suspect the Countryside Alliance to be mostly tweedy women in green wellies called Marjorie and people who believe that Nigel Farage is only saying what the rest of us were thinking. The thing I fear is discovering that I have no fucking clue what I'm talking about.

We resume drinking at the pub and Susie arrives with Floella - Gordon's partner and daughter respectively. Susie apparently regards me as famous by virtue of having read my blog, which is hugely flattering. The two of them argue about Yorkshire pudding. Gordon is cooking tonight, but Susie lacks confidence in his Yorkshire pudding, which tonight will be made using an arguably unorthodox recipe.

Gordon is philosophical, taking the position that the pudding may well turn out shite - in which case Susie will have been proven right - but asking whether any of us can really presume to know what the future holds?

Back at the cottage, I respond to a request to draw Floella. She giggles, but mostly sits still. She sends me shy glances but doesn't quite have the confidence to engage directly. Gordon tells me he has a loft full of stuff I drew at school, and I wince a little because I recall him being quite easy to caricature. Apparently there's a cartoon strip I drew called SuperGord which I strongly suspect to be a strip about a superhero with nose-based powers, Gordon being fairly well blessed in that department. I just hope I wasn't too cruel, and thankfully Gordon's report of having been immortalised in this fashion suggests that if I was digging him in the ribs, at least it wasn't with such force as to leave enduring scars.

As I draw, I marvel at being sat in a half-timbered cottage, and one which my old friend calls home. Living in the US, I now know people who have never even seen a building of such antiquity.

Dinner is wonderful, and the Yorkshire pudding is excellent. Gordon's seemingly reckless approach to cooking is vindicated.

Next morning we take the dog for a walk around the fields at the back. Gordon talks about the wildlife he routinely encounters, the hedgerows, and life in the country; but in case I'm making it sound like a lecture, it isn't. It's a conversation, and I have to admit I'm learning a lot. He even talks about fox hunting in a way which communicates points I'd never even considered. I'm still not sure I can budge on that particular one, but everything else he tells me has a terrifying underlying veracity, and his arguments, born from direct experience, are rock solid. The most basic distillation of his problem is that those attempting to make a living in the English countryside have been denied a voice, and even my own arguably skewed understanding of the Countryside Alliance would seem to confirm this; and because they are denied a voice, decisions affecting the rural economy are made largely by persons who remain unaffected by those decisions; and perhaps most crucially of all, human society as a whole - at least in the west - has become increasingly divorced from the seasons, from the cycle of life and death, and from the way nature works, which is possibly why we're all in such a mess, generally speaking. Perhaps it is because we don't like to be reminded of where our food comes from, that we don't like to be reminded where anything comes from. We, as a people, don't like consequences.

We walk and we talk about hunting and management of the land, controlling the populations of certain predators, and I realise that even where I disagree, or where I have reservations, Gordon lives here and he's the one who understands the place and how all its pieces fit together; and I remind myself that sometimes we need to admit that we just don't know, so we listen to someone who does; and that's what I'm doing.

We have breakfast, bacon purchased from the newsagent because the farm shop is closed this morning, and by chance we encounter Mr. Goodfellow on the village green. He was my French teacher thirty years ago. Weirdly, he remembers me, and weirder still. he doesn't appear to have aged. He laughs a lot more than I recall him having done back at school.

At midday I climb back onto my bike and head off towards Banbury, Oxfordshire, for a meeting with others from school, a day older and arguably a couple of years wiser.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Watched with Mother


I watch a lot of television during my three weeks in England, at least more than I watch at home. In Texas, it's usually the mighty Wheel of Fortune followed by King of the Hill as my wife and I eat dinner, then an hour's worth of something or other around nine once the kid has gone to bed - or at least to his room. At present we're working our way through all three series of Better Call Saul; and previously we've serially watched The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Wentworth, Weeds, Orange is the New Black, Fargo, Ugly Betty, and Jersey Shore. However, in England, I'm staying at my mother's house, and it's her telly so I watch whatever she wants to watch. It isn't always the sort of thing I might otherwise choose to view if left to my own devices, but my mother refuses to entertain anything too crappy so it isn't a problem, and in some ways it's educational; and when it isn't educational, we have the mutual pleasure of taking the piss out of it. No-one can deliver a barbed observation quite like my mother. Therefore, for the benefit of future generations, and in rigorously alphabetical order:

Blackadder.
I'm not convinced that Blackadder was quite the greatest comedy series ever made, but series two and three came pretty close. We watched the one with Tom Baker and it still delivers the goods thirty years down the line, against all odds, not least of those odds being the authorial heritage of Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, both of whom have peddled far more than their fair share of smugly unmitigated shite over the years; so I've no idea how that works. Anyway, masterpiece though it may well be, I'm not sure the enduring status of Blackadder quite warranted Blackadder's History Week on Dave or UK Gold or whichever cloyingly nostalgic channel it was. Blackadder's History Week - given the possessive as though actually curated by the fictional Edmund - entailed a run of episodes of Blackadder interspersed with spuriously related documentaries on periods of history referred to in the series, one about trench warfare, one about the wegency and so on. Had someone made a documentary about pie shops, I'm sure they would have scheduled it in honour of the fictional Mrs. Miggins. It was all a bit Doctor Who Discovers Dinosaurs, if anyone remembers that particular attempt at fooling children into learning stuff. If you don't remember, the following paragraph copied from one of the more disturbing corners of virtual fandom almost certainly tells you as much as you really need to know:

An in-universe reference to these books appears in the audio story The Kingmaker. In the story, Doctor Who Discovers was a series of books actually written by the Fourth Doctor during his time working with UNIT. As in the real world, only five books were published, despite more being planned.

Bletchley Circle, The.
The proliferation of English detective shows in the last few years seems a possibly ironic phenomenon, at least in the Alanis Morissette sense, given how many years of the youth of my generation were spent laughing at Americans with all their detective shows; or it could simply be that, Star Trek and Steve Austin excepted, English television companies of the seventies were interested in buying only the detective shows from America; or it could simply be that my mother has become unusually fixated on detectives. Oddly, my wife's mother seems to share a vaguely parallel interest in crime fiction, so maybe there's some kind of quantum entanglement thing at work, particularly given that my wife and I share the same birthday. Anyway, The Bletchley Circle is about four women who spend the duration of the second world war deciphering Nazi code, and who then similarly apply themselves to the decipherment of various crimes once the war is over. It's all faintly ludicrous, but well made and fairly enjoyable - at least based on the first episode.

Doctor Who.
I think I've seen four of these since I gave up watching about five minutes into an episode so poor that it made me feel sorry for Adolf Hitler. I haven't since seen anything which made me wish to resume my viewing on a regular basis, and this one similarly failed to change my mind. Peter Bacardi was very good, and his new assistant seemed acceptable, but there wasn't much of a story - some shite about a spaceship made of water as framework for the usual rapid fire montage of Spielbergisms designed to make you say gosh and to fill your big Manga-style eyes with twinkling sparkles of routine wonderment. It wasn't terrible, but I don't know how anyone can be satisfied with something which seems so generic, obvious, corporate, and eager to please.

'Well, I didn't understand any of that,' my mother muttered darkly once it was over.

Maigret.
Fuck me, I thought to myself, doesn't she ever get tired of detective shows?, and yet once again I had to eat my cynical thoughts, so to speak. Maigret was originally a series of something like four-million novels by French author Georges Simenon, father of that bloke who was in the Clash. The Beeb adapted some of the books for a series back in the sixties, and it's been periodically remade over and over ever since; and this is the most recent version, starring Rowan Atkinson as the pipe-smoking Gallic rozzer. It took me a little while to get over certain incongruities which probably didn't bother anyone else in the universe - namely that Maigret is set in Paris, and is filmed in Paris, and all of the characters are French, and all of the street signs and newspaper headlines are in French, and yet our characters are not only speaking English, but English with a Cockney barrow boy lilt in some cases. I realise that the practicalities of the production impose certain limits in the name of anyone actually bothering to watch the thing, but when you have lines like, strike a light, guv' - I only seen the saucy cow-son workin' Alfie's pie stand dahn the Rue St. Montmartre, with the actor switching between accents mid-sentence, it's difficult to ignore the glue squeezing out of the join. Nevertheless, after an hour or so I was sucked in to the point of being able to overlook such details, so powerful was the atmosphere of the production. Maigret struck me as very refreshing in featuring a softly spoken, thoughtful detective who looks as though he's taking it all personally, particularly after so many years of Danny Dyer types screaming, you're nicked, you muppet! My mum's verdict was that Rowan Atkinson makes for a disappointing Maigret after whoever played his previous incarnation, but then I've never seen it before so it worked for me.

Midsomer Murders.
This one exists at the absolute limit of detective show credibility, beyond which lies the realm of horseshit such as Rosemary & Thyme, crime-solving ice cream truck drivers, and their increasingly desperate ilk. Midsomer Murders works providing you take each episode in isolation, because otherwise you have a picturesque rural community with crime statistics which make New Orleans look like Nutwood, or wherever it was Rupert Bear used to live. Possibly for this reason, whoever wrote this show was nothing if not inventive in finding new avenues down which to ferry a suspicious corpse without it becoming too repetitive and therefore patently absurd; and the prize in this respect probably goes to the episode in which DCI Barnaby investigates some sort of turf war going on amongst rival teams of bell ringers.

I lived at my mother's house for about eighteen months prior to moving to the United States, and have consequently probably seen more or less all of John Nettles' run on Midsomer Murders, which is a lot of episodes; and the one aspect of the show which always annoyed me was not the increasingly preposterous rural body count, but Cully, Barnaby's entirely unnecessary daughter. Even aside from the fact that no-one in the history of the cosmos has ever been named Cully, Barnaby's domestic situation serves as little more than a distraction in the narrative. Cully's role seems limited to listening to her father mumble something about whatever case he's working on, then to notice a mysterious stranger abroad in the village and to accordingly pull the same fucking face of problem-solving intrigue she pulls every other fucking week as though her vapid half-assed suspicions really amount to shit; and it is doubly-galling that this sort of entirely non-crucial plot point usually suffixes scenes of Cully hanging around with the braying upper class pricks she calls her friends - none of which goes any distance towards shedding light upon why the groundsman should have ended his days upside down in a ditch with the handle of a shovel protruding from his back passage.

My mother also loathes Cully, by the way.

Morse Babies.
It's actually called Endeavour, but I found it difficult to keep from thinking of Muppet Babies given that this is the early years of Inspector Morse, as played by one of those David Tennant style young men with the massive Adam's apple and sideburns like the drummer from the Dave Clark Five. I never really warmed to Morse and found myself tiring of unlikely nobby crimes to be solved at the opera house, the Earl's garden party, the place where they print those Gutenberg bibles and so on; and as a kid, it's clear that our boy set off on the very same course of a crime fighting career steered around cello lessons and shops which only sell French cakes, but Endeavour was still very watchable. Of course, given how Endeavour is his actual name, it seems a safe bet that his dinner money never once made it so far as the till in the school canteen, which explains why he's kind of skinny, and which you would think might have toughened him up a bit, but never mind. This episode was something about some member of the landed gentry taking naughty photos, and cello lessons were involved. I think the scarf-wearing varsity dude who was blackmailing the pornographic toff may also have been shagging the man's wife under the pretext of learning to play cello. Anyway, they all got it sorted out in the end, except for cello woman who committed suicide for some reason or other.

Portillo, Michael.
I had to raise an eyebrow at this one, a travelogue following a Conservative party politician I almost certainly once regarded as evil. That said, I can't actually recall the specifics of why I regarded him as evil beyond his membership of an evil political party, and that would be evil in old money, so he'd probably look like fucking Gandhi if you stood him next to Michael Gove, Nigel Farage or any of today's pseudo-parliamentary shitehawks.

'I know,' said my mother, noticing the faces I was pulling. 'I'm as surprised as you are, but there's something about him that's quite likeable. He seems very comfortable in his own skin.'

It struck me as a disconcerting turn of phrase, suggesting that living hides freshly flayed from their unfortunate donors had once been an option; but as usual, she was right. Portillo remains a slightly rubber-faced upper-class goon, but crucially he doesn't appear to give two shits about securing my approval, and neither does his bumbling charm seem to represent a calculated distraction from any other more sinister agenda, as with floppy-haired Boris Johnson. If anything, Portillo has matured into the gay Kenneth Clark with a more pronounced sense of fun, give or take some small change. The travelogue is specifically Michael Portillo making his way across the United States by train, clearly having a whale of a time and barely able to contain his enthusiasm for almost everything he encounters. I'm genuinely surprised at how difficult it is to not like the guy after seeing this show. Who would've fucking thunk it, eh?

Red Dress Discovery Channel Woman.
I'm not even sure what this show could have been, except that it was on either the History Channel or National Geographic or one of those, and that the subject, whatever it was, seemed initially promising. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, a homeopathic percentage of genuinely interesting historical material was padded out with re-enactments and horseshit. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I genuinely believe most viewers are able to get their heads around concepts such as the great plague or witch burnings or even the past being different to the present without a bunch of drama school also-rans hopping about in medieval robes and addressing each other as my liege to a soundtrack of ominous synthesiser music. More annoying still was how much time the cameraman of this particular show - whatever it was - spent on the presenter in the red dress. I'm not sure if she was an actual historian, but the minutes spent lingering upon her looking thoughtful as she opens a large, heavy book seemed unnecessary bordering on ludicrous.

'What the hell is she doing now?' my mother wondered, furrowing her brow as Red Dress Discovery Channel Woman slowly ascended a flight of stairs in an Elizabethan house to no obvious purpose.

Worsley, Lucy.
Bess and I first encountered Lucy Worsley when she presented a documentary series entitled The Secrets of the Six Wives about the various women beheaded or otherwise inconvenienced by Henry VIII. It was fairly interesting, but there was something about the presentation of the documentary which got in the way. Not only did it feature actors dressed in Tudor garb acting out scenarios from the lives of Henry and his unfortunate succession of birds, but many of these scenarios incorporated Lucy herself, our presenter, gurning away in the background in hope of catching our attention; and thus didst the camera zoometh past His Royal Highness to Ms. Worsley, disguised as a serf and taking us, the viewers, into her confidence, whispering, now the thing we have to remember about that man over there is that he was a keen pipe smoker, or similar. At the risk of seeming like a snob, I've watched Kenneth Clark's Civilisation several times over, and not once do I recall seeing him dressed as a rustic farmhand bringing in the turnips as some monk slaves away with his felt-tips over the Book of Kells, before turning to us with a wink and launching into an account of how Christianity ended up in this part of Ireland. That Lucy adopts this approach would be bothersome enough by itself, but the problem is exacerbated by her coming across like an overenthusiastic upper-class schoolgirl anticipating those super scrummy cakes that Nanny Tiggy promised for afternoon tea. Also, it was kind of hard to avoid noticing that she seems to have a speech impediment which makes it difficult for her to pronounce the letter r...

Okay, so it doesn't need to be a problem. Overenthusiastic upper-class schoolgirls who anticipate super scrummy cakes are as much qualified to present historical documentaries as anyone, particularly when they've been so heavily involved in the production of the same; and Lucy quite clearly knows her stuff; and no, enthusiasm isn't a bad thing; and there's nothing funny about a speech impediment...

Nevertheless, she makes for exhausting viewing as she gushes and enthuses and dresses up as yet another serving wench in hope of coaxing us towards an understanding of how working in the royal kitchen was probably a pretty tough gig back in the sixteenth century, because no way would we otherwise have been able to wrap our heads around that one. Furthermore, as my mother and myself take to our separate sofas to engage in postprandial digestion whilst watching something historical, informative, and hopefully not too silly, there she is once again, dressed as Moll Flanders and telling us all about King George and the wegency era. She's back the following evening with something about the wule of the Womanovs in seventeenth century Wussia, leaving us wondering if some commissioning editor at the BBC historical documentary department might not be taking the piss, just a little bit.

Yellowstone.
Nature documentaries have always been a bit of a minefield, and I've more or less stopped watching them since that year when every single fucking one seemed to open with a shot of a baby elephant forlornly prodding its dead mother with a sad little trunk. This offering, a year in the life of a volcano big enough to destroy the planet should it ever go bang, was mercifully low on the actual killing and maiming of critters in the name of a camera crew refusing to interfere with the natural order 'n' shit, but what it lacked in slaughter, it more than made up for with its heavy emphasis on the general concept of doom.

The elk finds brief respite from his hunger in foliage still left uncovered as the snows move in, our narrator assures us, but it won't last; and so it went on. Every single glimmer of hope, each golden moment in the flourishing of new life served only as prefix to reminders of the wolf pack being on its way down from the forest, or that winter's a-comin' and then we'll all be completely fucked, or boy - that ice sure looks thin! Watch out, Mr. Buffalo!

Of course, this kind of thing is still preferable to those wildlife documentaries at the other end of the scale where meerkats cavort as an old man - almost certainly wearing a hand-knitted jumper - chuckles and observes, I guess we all know what it's like when you got yourselves an unruly teenager living at home. Nevertheless, I still say there's a happy medium, and Yellowstone wasn't it. Nature documentaries should be about nature, not about doom, and this had more doom than Doctor Doom playing Doom with the Doom Patrol whilst listening to MF Doom and the World of Shit album by the band Doom on Doom Mountain, as featured in Lord of the Rings - according to Wikipedia.

Friday, 2 June 2017

London as a Foreign Country


I left England in 2011. I've since returned a few times, mainly to see family and friends, but also to collect bits and pieces still at my mother's house, things which hadn't made it into the forty boxes of crap I had shipped. The climate came as a shock when I returned in April, 2015. I landed at Heathrow's Terminal Five in a t-shirt and a jacket because I'd forgotten how cold England could get. I somehow recalled spring and summer as temperate, but there was an icy wind howling around all that glass and steel; and it came as a shock. The cold was something I hadn't been obliged to think about for a while.

Another couple of years have passed but I have the air fare. This time the weather systems of Texas and the United Kingdom have roughly synchronised, but everything else is different. My habit of visits lasting a couple of weeks has left me with no strong impression of progress or of anything having changed. I've continued to think of England as it was back in June, 2011, which may as well have been a life time ago. I'm no longer even sure who was prime minister at the time without checking. It may have been Blair.

So April in England is warm, or at least bearable. It doesn't matter that I haven't brought a coat, although there's the damp and the humidity to consider. I'd forgotten about how it's possible to stand beneath one of those slate grey skies and become damp with just moisture in the air despite that it isn't actually raining; and England doesn't quite have the heat to dry you off; and when the heat comes, it hangs in the air and you sweat without feeling hot. I'd forgotten all of this.

Of course, England has voted to withdraw from the European Union since I was here. I've seen facebook and read of a great divide, eyes which look away and fail to meet your gaze. Steve - whom I meet in a gastropub at the centre of Coventry - told me about the morning after the vote, how he went in to work and it felt like someone had died. No-one wanted to admit to having voted leave. The people had spoken, but they had done it once the rest of us went to bed, and they spoke quietly in case anyone heard.

I couldn't work out whether the streets of London felt different. I could barely remember what they had felt like before. Racist attacks had apparently increased thanks to lone nutters feeling newly emboldened in expressing their xenophobia, but I personally didn't see anything. Mostly I took pleasure in hearing accents I hadn't heard for a long time, voices which once seemed common - young men ending every sentence with innit, or north Africa via south-east London with an endearing equal emphasis given to each syllable. It takes work to excavate anything worth a genuine smile from my time life in London, but it's nice to know that there's something. The typically right-wing clamour to make stuff great again always seems to entail getting rid of the elements I liked.

In London, I visit old friends, and amongst them there is Andy Martin. He's lost his means of employment since I last saw him, a job which was rationalised away into thin air as part of a government initiative to make everything better by making it worse. He was also told he would have to vacate his flat in order to provide housing for more photogenic persons, families, the sort they want to encourage in the nation's capital; but it turns out that the threat of eviction was nearly five years ago and he's heard nothing since. It seems the council realised they just couldn't do it, because even Andy Martin still has some rights.

We've kept in touch, and I have a feeling he may have gone off the deep end since I left, but I have to see him. I feel I owe it to him, and ultimately I'm glad I make the effort. Blank text on a screen rarely reveals anyone at their best, and even though he's still patently mad, he's still patently mad in a good way, and it's a great pleasure to know that this country has not yet finished him off; although it's obviously had a fucking good try.

I make my way to Bow on the Docklands Light Railway, catching the train in Lewisham. I lived in Lewisham for a couple of years and the place has changed beyond recognition. The roundabout has gone. The waste ground bordered by a wall upon which a single ceramic tile representing all that was left of the cinema has gone. The White Horse, in which the late Andrew Cox and myself used to drink has miraculously reverted to the White Horse, but as a pizza-based gastropub, still not quite back to being the White Horse I remember. It isn't even as though it's simply metal and glass ruthlessly sprouting up along the old roads, because even the roads are changed and their replacements lead to different places. I can't see how it's an improvement, or how all the new development fixes anything which needed fixing.

As I approach Bow, I enter a hellish landscape of towering glass, a civic mechanism in which humanity is reduced to a component fluid. Andrew Cox worked in Canary Wharf. He didn't like it much, but apparently that was just the beginning, merely the seed of what we have now. It goes on forever, and each time I glance at the reflective surface of some mile high block, I realise I'm expecting a sleek Star Wars pod to float around the edge of the building. Variety is provided by instances of designer eccentricity breaking up the pattern - glass blocks resembling a shard, a gherkin, even a fucking pint glass because why the hell not? These things win awards, much to the delight of those whose lives are so bereft of meaning as to allow for space in which to give a shit about such crap. I could have sworn those books by J.G. Ballard were written as a warning against this kind of thing. We seem to be doing that a lot of late, mistaking our dystopian science-fiction for a blueprint.

It's better once I get out of the city.

I manage another couple of weeks, and the best of it turns out to be watching detective shows with my mother, and then eventually getting on a plane and coming home. Nostalgia may be all well and good, but no-one should have to live there, and the worst of all is that the old place actually hasn't changed.

I can remember every consideration of why it was so easy to leave in near pornographic detail.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

This is England


I landed at Heathrow and found it difficult to get excited about my return to the old country after eight hours on a plane. I don't smoke, but have learned that in times of stress I can work my way through a pouch of rolling tobacco and then give up once I'm done without experiencing further cravings. This once again seemed like something worth considering so I went to the newsagent in the National Express coach station. He didn't have Golden Virginia, and I dislike the other brands. I walked around for a little while, but with forty minutes to wait for my coach to Coventry, I decided fuck it, and went back.

'What cigarettes do you have?'

'Benson & Hedges, Marlboro-'

'Ten Bensons will be fine. Do they still do them in packets of ten?'

They did. They were eight quid, but my need was great.

'These were less than two pounds last time I bought them,' I told the guy, but more depressing were the tabloid newspapers on display on the rack to my left. It was the day of Britain's unelected Prime Minister initiating Article 50, the one which would begin the country's long, slow, and possibly quite painful withdrawal from the European Union, and the Sun, the Mail, and the other usual suspects had risen to the occasion with characteristically witless puns offered in the general spirit of crowing.

Dover and Out...

See EU Later...


Jesus Christ.

Aside from issues of the National Enquirer and similar publications trumpeting the latest blow struck by Donald Trump in the name of plain talk and common sense - which I see in my local supermarket - I am usually able to avoid this specific kind of bullshit. It looked weird and slightly scary seen beyond the confines of the internet. I went outside the coach station and smoked my fag.

A couple of evenings later I am still jetlagged. My sleep patterns are in disarray. I have a pounding headache and can't sleep, and by the time I decide there's nothing else for it but to get up and take a paracetamol it's six in the morning. I go back to bed and sleep at last. I have a peculiar dream in which I'm offering a former work colleague a portobello mushroom.

'Do ye want this mushroom?' I ask him in a Glaswegian accent.

It's a sketch from Limmy's Show and is somehow interrupted by my mother calling. I wake up, disgruntled to have an unexpected visitor. It's half past ten in the morning.

Later we're walking to the village. He points to the race track as we pass and tells me it's closed down. Apparently the land was purchased by a wog. The wog applied for planning permission to turn the race track into something else and was turned down, so the race track, this thing of great beauty, has been ruined by a wog.

I haven't heard the word spoken aloud without quotation marks since about 1982. Maybe the gentleman in question has a bone through his nose and a tendency to say Ooga booga whilst rolling his eyes. There was a pause before the word, observed so as to check that it was the correct term by which to describe this terrible man, and apparently it was.

We walk on and pass a young man of what may be Indian ethnicity, someone coffee coloured.

'Terrorist!'

He doesn't say it so loud as for the young man to hear, and I guess it's supposed to be funny - one of those things we used to be allowed to say before political correctness spoiled all the fun. I'm beginning to see a pattern here and now I'm wondering if the Union Jack was always quite so prevalent as it seems to have become, or whether it's simply that I'm noticing it more since the clusterfuck of Brexit and 37% of the British people finally getting to have their say - or whatever the figure was in the end.

The truth is finally unleashed as we hit the pub by the village green for a pint of something that I don't enjoy very much. It's the Romanians, he tells me, then adding Somalis and Gypsies to the list. I don't know how he has come by any of this information with which he regales me in an effort to prove his point. I don't see how any of the poor fuckers impact on his existence in any way beyond providing a few evidently satisfying scowls over the morning paper, which I later discover to be the Sun.

He doesn't like Trump either, but adds that one thing Donald has got right is the Mexicans. This he tells to me, an immigrant living in a city which in some respects may as well be in Mexico, drawing on his vast wealth of worldly experience with all those Mexicans flooding across the border, raping, pillaging, and bringing down property values with a taco truck on every corner.

Somehow I don't tell him to go fuck himself, instead saying 'I don't want us to fall out over this, but that's complete crap,' and so I tell him why. I give him the statistics and the facts so far as I understand them, the details which are all out there and freely available to view in the comfort of your own internet-enabled home if you give enough of a shit to want them. I tell him the stuff which I shouldn't have to tell anyone because it's fucking obvious if you have a brain.

Amazingly he doesn't take offense, I suspect because he's not actually that engaged with any of the arguments either way. It's all on the surface, like talking about the weather. The arguments are jigsaw puzzles, something to pass the time like picking up a newspaper and shaking your head.

Isn't it terrible!

We walk back.

I notice a copy of the Sun at rest on the kitchen table, so that explains that. The sideline of the front page declares that Theresa May's government will now be able to come up with its own human rights laws, having told Brussels to fuck off, and I guess this is presented as good news.

This has been one tough fucking day.

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 fiancĂ© 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.