Friday, 27 January 2017

World of Leather

Just when you've acclimatised yourself to one workplace enemy, just when you've George Orwelled yourself into appreciating the finer side of the current witless goon without a volume control; because nature abhors a vacuum, she delivers another just to keep you on your toes. Whether it's some freshly imported complete wanker, or perhaps one newly formed from the being of a person with whom you previously had no problem - just like those Highlanders, there must always be one. My utter knobend of the time had punched me in the face in response to the admittedly unjustified torrent of scorn and sarcasm I'd been sending his way without realising he'd noticed, and the punching had caused me to re-evalute my position, and ultimately to accept that he was just some bloke with as much right to exist as anyone, wasn't particularly deserving of my sarcasm, and most of it had been down to my being an irritable, intolerant sort of person.

Once this had been settled, Graham and I got on just fine; so along came Ted.

He was in his fifties but looked older, skin turned to leather by too many fags smoked in pubs with yellowing walls. His face was wrinkled with laughter lines from the telling of his own jokes, and he wore the black greasy hair of a teddy boy somehow surviving into the twenty-first century like those dinosaurs in Conan Doyle's Lost World. He was from north Kent somewhere, some concrete hellhole of which the main exports were lung cancer and racism and with the accent to match, carking away like some Cockney seagull, charmless catchphrase after charmless catchphrase.

Most civilised people when entering the workplace will usually take a few months getting to know everyone and to assess the lay of the land so as to avoid ruffling feathers or making enemies. Ted on the other hand made the entrance of an inconvenienced spiv consigned to prison - big, brassy, and at a volume sufficient to scare the shit out of even the most hardened top dog. 'I'm gunna have My Way played at my funeral,' he told me without a trace of shame and despite that I hadn't asked, or even been engaged in conversation with him; but at least he hadn't tried to sell me a pair of tights or illicit tins of condensed milk.

His wife or his brother or some relative worked in a bakery, and so Ted struck a deal whereby the person would stop off at our sorting office every morning around half past six with a tray of free cakes. No-one knew how it worked, but we all presumed it to be still edible produce which would have been otherwise thrown away.

'Cakes up!' Ted bellowed like an angrier Norman Wisdom, every morning at the same time, establishing the sort of routine you would expect of someone who had been in the job fifty years; and this seemed to be the source of his neurosis. He resented being a new boy in his fifties. He seemed to regard himself as a bit of a character and was keen that the rest of us should see him the same way; but the only ones who bought it were the new recruits, kids who had been in the job ten weeks with whom he was happy to share his great wealth of experience. Stick with me, the King of Cakes seemed to be saying, I'll show you the ropes, my little son.

We would watch and snort with laughter and say to each other I bin doing this job free mumfs nah, man and boy.

We'd also run to grab a cake, but I still wasn't going to go out of my way to be his pal. I wasn't to be bought. If he wanted to give away free cakes that was up to him. For all any of us knew, he was probably paying for them as part of a desperate bid to appear magnanimous, and so to earn the kind of status he might have gained simply by being less of an arsehole.

Try as he might, Ted somehow just wasn't quite able to acquire the following he desired; because even working in a profession employing some of the coarsest, most disagreeable, foul-mouthed fuckers I've ever known, no-one could quite bring themselves to tell him to piss off. He was trouble, a nightmare even, although not in the Dickensian music hall sense to which he clearly aspired. No-one wanted the bother. They ignored him or just wouldn't respond, or would grunt something which sounded like conversation and walk away; but being his own biggest fan, Ted never noticed. He was enjoying himself too much.

I want some nookie tonight, he bellowed tunelessly to Jamesy P's dancehall smash of 2005 whenever it came on the radio, then changing the words to I want some pussy tonight, because he was a bit of a lad. Eyes rolled, shut the fuck up was muttered under breath and heads were shaken, but there was always some idiot who would laugh, and so he continued. Emboldened, he'd put on a show for the whole office, bellowed from his sorting frame, the sort of material Chubby Brown would have deemed crude and witless.

Pus-say pus-say pus-say...

The beginning of the end came when Karen noticed a terrible smell in the region of the packet sorting frames. 'What is that?' she asked, scandalised.

It must be your cunt, love. You must of forgot to wash it this mumf. It was something like that, an overbearing joke which wasn't particularly funny pushed several miles too far, and for the first time he realised it. He seemed to see himself as we saw him, and being Ted, his response was simply to go harder and louder.

'Here you go, Lol,' he barked, referring to me by a nickname I've always disliked - and two bundles of machine-sorted mail landed on my bay, knocking over my plastic cup of machine dispensed coffee to soak the mail I was already sorting.

'For fuck's sake,' I exclaimed. 'Stupid wanker!'

The machine-sorted mail came into the office just before six. Usually someone tossed it into the primary sorting frame, and we'd pick it up from there and bring it around to our own individual bays. Because Ted was everybody's mate, an old hand, and one of the boys, he'd empty the bundles of machine sorted mail into a trolley and push it around the office, delivering to each bay in person. It didn't actually help anyone, but I guess he felt it gave him leverage.

'Fuck you, you ungrateful cunt!'

I stood back, indicating my bay, now with letters swimming in coffee. 'What the hell is wrong with you?'

The rest of the morning I could hear him banging on about people wiv no fackin' gratitude and who don't appreciate nuffink.

Even Simon rolled his eyes and muttered stupid bleeder. Simon was Ted's brother-in-law, and we'd all been told he was Ted's best mate. Ted had pulled strings to get him the job. Ted had done fackin' everyfing for that geezer, but he don't appreciate nuffink.

Simon just laughed when we told him what we'd heard, but it wasn't a happy laugh. Simon was a ratty-looking skinhead with bad teeth, usually in tracky bottoms and a Burberry baseball cap. He had the look of a man who might have borrowed the occasional car stereo or two in his time, but was a nice guy once you got talking to him; and he was funny, and not at all stupid. The last quality was obvious from the fact that he didn't much like Ted either.

The other member of Ted's family which we all came to recognise was his wife. She dropped in from time to time, and was often to be found outside the sorting office, sitting in the loading bay with the vans usually smoking a fag.

'Your name's Lawrence, ain't it,' she said to me one morning - not a question but a statement. 'I've heard all about you.'

She was onto me. She knew my game was the implication. I had been the subject of discussion.

'That's me,' I said, walking right past.

Months later he was gone, sick leave extending past the customary period of full pay - a year, then another half, then two years of back trouble.

Medical science was baffled, just couldn't account for it.

Nobody was too upset.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Jersey Shore Eruditorum

It's February 9th, 2012 - Syrian Army troops continue to pour into Homs as part of the latest offensive, with scores of civilians and anti-government protesters reported as having been killed in the past day; Jessie J is feeling sexy and free at the top of the hit parade with Domino; and we have just forty-eight hours to go before my beloved Manchester United soccer group goal the Liverpools two to one at their iconic Old Trafford soccer stadium.

Meanwhile we've reached the sixth episode of the fifth season of MTV's iconic Jersey Shore, although before getting started on that, maybe we should brush up on a little game theory. Modern game theory began with the idea regarding the existence of mixed-strategy equilibria in two-person zero-sum games and its proof by John von Neumann. Von Neumann's original proof used Brouwer fixed-point theorem on continuous mappings into compact convex sets, which became a standard method in game theory and mathematical economics. His paper was followed by the 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, co-written with Oskar Morgenstern, which considered cooperative games of several players. The second edition of this book provided an axiomatic theory of expected utility, which allowed mathematical statisticians and economists to treat decision-making under uncertainty.

How does this figure in our review of Jersey Shore, I hear you ask. Of course, I should probably point out that this isn't so much a review as a little something of my own humble concoction which I like to call psychochronography, which is much like the psychogeography of the Situationists but instead examines a television show in context of its time by mentioning a few unrelated things which happened on the same date in the first paragraph, so let's leave the reviews to those who just want to talk about what happened and whether or not they liked it.

Anyway, game theory figures because today I'm discussing an iconic episode entitled The Follow Game, and I'll come to why it should be thus entitled in a moment.

As we renew our acquaintance with the residents of Ocean Terrace, we find that the Situation is on our familiar iconic duck-shaped novelty telephone to the Unit. As my many regular readers will already know, the Situation is the name by which housemate Mike Sorrentino designates himself as a sort of event in space-time, which seems a fair assessment given his serving as a kind of living axis around which drama occurs; and the Unit is simply the Unit - a man known to Mike, and I imagine that the name serves to imply that he has a large, possibly iconic penis. Anyway, Mike is naturally discussing a presumably drunken sexual liaison with Snooki, one which Snooki has repeatedly denied ever having occurred, and he's discussing it with the Unit because the Unit is supposedly a witness to the alleged penetrative event. It's clear that Mike intends to use this information to cause trouble, but as to when he's going to play his hand, we just don't know. He also tells Unit that he spoke to Deena's sister and asked what she would like for breakfast, therefore implying that he intended to have sexual intercourse with her at some point immediately prior to the preparation of said breakfast. This brings a wry smile to his face.

It probably wouldn't have brought a wry smile to Deena's face had she heard, but thankfully she is otherwise preoccupied with the fact that Vinny is using the shower. She wants to produce a stool so Vinny's hygienic considerations are quite an inconvenience, seemingly more so than would be the thought of Mike engaging in sexual congress with her sister, hypothetically speaking.

Next we learn that Jwoww is concerned with just how little she has seen of Roger lately. She feels that she is being sidelined.

'At least she got her hair done,' observes Deena, 'so that's good,' but this fact alone seems to bring little comfort. Later, regarding Mike, she sagely notes that a leopard never sheds its stripes. Were truer words ever uttered on this programme?

Jenni is still disgruntled when later they all go to the iconic Aztec bar in search of what Deena defines as a good time. As I've discussed in previous columns, the traditional duality of Jersey Shore divides equally into categories I have identified as real and fake, with the housemates gravitating towards the former but so often finding themselves having fallen into the trappings of becoming the latter. Mike represents the most extreme example of this duality in behaving patently fake specifically whilst aspirationally being real, yo. The model has further destabilised since Deena came in to replace the hapless Angelina at the beginning of series three, bringing with her an alternate duality founded in her conception of a good time contrasted with its unidentified thematic opposite. Snooki has a good time at Aztec in Deena's terms by engaging in robotic dancing. This Platonic good time ideal is essentially a monopole in relation to the already established real/fake duality, which is perhaps why these parallel thematic strands are able to co-exist.

Vinny meanwhile attempts to convert Nicky, who introduces herself as a lesbian, to heterosexuality - an endeavour he likens to the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Colombus, or for the sake of argument, the discovery of the same land mass.

Snooki burps repeatedly as they all walk back to the house, whilst Deena talks to another girl towards whom Vinny has expressed a pronounced sexual interest. Failing to convert Nicky to heterosexuality, he bids her an amicable good night and avails himself of his second choice with a thankful nod to Deena; although he later reports that the sexual intercourse was of only average standard.

Next morning we discover that the reason for Snooki's burping marathon was most likely due to how much she drank, and she now feels consequently unwell. We see this illustrated as she falls over and rhetorically asks, 'why am I alive?' A stint of sunbathing brings little comfort, and eventually she and Deena stagger to work at the iconic Shore Store in the company of Pauly.

The deal is that, as we all understand by now, the housemates work in the Shore Store, as run by Danny, in return for their being allowed to live in the iconic house on Ocean Terrace. The Shore Store specialises in novelty t-shirts and related apparel, so the work is essentially retail. We the viewers might assume the work to be fairly undemanding, but clearly it's more complicated than that and Snooki decides that it is unfair that she should be expected to work when she could be having a good time, as Deena might put it. Additionally she continues to feel unwell, and so devises what we now know as the Follow Game. The rules of the Follow Game are simple but effective, and Snooki illustrates by walking around the store between the racks of novelty t-shirts, followed closely by Deena, and then right out of the store and off for a drink. Danny is of course unable to appreciate the logic behind the Follow Game, instead focussing on Snooki and Deena's continued absenteeism despite repeat warnings.

Up to this point, Snooki and Deena have referred to themselves as the Meatballs, perhaps in reference to shared diminutive stature and Italian-American heritage; but now, as they run into Mike, they take on the new self-actualised mantel of Team Fun - a surprising development considering Mike's earlier discussion with the Unit regarding his having had alleged carnal knowledge of Snooki.

Snooki, much like Orpheus, therefore emerges from the underworld of her own personal journey through alcohol and robotic dancing to rebirth into the alchemical marriage of Team Fun. As we shall see in the next episode, the marriage is fruitful and the birth serves to unite disparate thematic currents - namely Snooki's reluctance to work within Danny's iconic terms of employment - in the form of the amateurish but nevertheless enthusiastically decorated cake which she and Deena prepare as an apology for taking the Follow Game through their own labyrinth of personal discovery, not to mention liberty.

Deena looks a bit like Grandpa Munster when you think about it, doesn't she?

Thursday, 12 January 2017


I grew up on a farm - actually the farm where they filmed the Teletubbies some years after I left, by peculiar coincidence. Until the age of eleven we lived in a cottage which came with my dad's job. Heating was provided by a single fire place, warm clothing, and not knowing any better. Everything froze in winter, and when it wasn't frozen it was cold, grey, and damp, with some respite during summer if we were lucky. Eventually we moved to a place with heating, and then I left home for a succession of rural student dwellings warmed, if at all, by portable gas fires. Upon leaving studentry, I took a job with Royal Mail and spent the next twenty-one years walking around in freezing wind and rain, three or four hours a day, six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year. It wasn't all miserable, but a lot of it was. Worst of all would be the Christmas period during which I'd trudge to work before dawn, plod around in the cold and wet for most of the day freezing my bollocks off, sometimes with the snow soaking into my socks, only returning home as it was getting dark. That sort of cold gets right into your bones and not even a hot bath will shift it.

Consequently I grew to hate winter more and more with each passing year. Even towards the close of August I'd already be dreading the clocks changing, the six months of cold and wet beneath a sky of battleship grey, and the sun rising no higher than the roof of the house on the opposite side of the street before sinking towards an appointment with dusk at around 4.30 in the afternoon. I sometimes wondered if I had seasonal affective disorder given the timing, and each October specifically feeling like a rehearsal for the less buoyant chapters of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea; and yet it isn't like I was deprived of natural daylight because the coldest parts of my job were outside. Just in case, I bought a light bulb advertised as simulating sunlight and recommended for those suffering with the condition, but it didn't seem to make any difference.

Therefore, even without any of the other considerations, when fate tapped me on the shoulder and asked what I thought about living in Texas, it wasn't something requiring much in the way of deliberation. I'd been to Mexico City a few times and it was hot, being some two-thousand miles nearer to the Equator. Further from the Equator but lacking the elevation of Mexico City, Texas turned out to be significantly hotter. In fact it was the hottest place I'd ever been, much hotter than anticipated. Some mornings the act of opening the front door upon a new day seemed much like opening the door to some kind of walk-in pizza oven. It felt as though I had landed on the planet Venus or the sunward side of Mercury. Yet weirdly, the heat seemed so extreme and so unlike anything I had experienced that it seemed endurable because I had no frame of reference. It was nothing like an unbearably hot day of English summer wacked up by a few more degrees. It felt different, and I knew I would get used to it because it was still better than freezing my bollocks off whilst sat on top of a portable gas fire wearing every item of clothing I owned.

Happily I did get used to it and I learned the rules fairly quickly. Outdoor work or travel is easiest early in the day, and definitely no gardening after two in the afternoon. I learned this through suffering heatstroke a couple of times. I felt as though I'd been microwaved, and each occasion knocked me out for a couple of days. Sometimes the heat can be restrictive and a pain in the arse, but that's why we have air conditioning; and even at its worst, when water catches fire as it leaves the tap - or faucet, I suppose - it's still better than being cold.

Of course, certain preconceptions have turned out to be untrue. Money spunked away on heating bills during the English winter don't represent a saving because it all goes on air conditioning during the long Texan summer. Also, I imagined my origin might endow me with certain superpowers under the circumstances in much the same way as Superman found himself at a significant advantage when he first came to Earth. Neighbours would shiver, so I believed, as I stomped down the street in just my t-shirt and pants in the middle of November. 'Haw haw,' I would roar like Brian Blessed, 'you call this winter? Why, in my country...'

Yet just as Texan summer was never anything so simple as the English equivalent notched up a little, neither is our winter simply a milder version of that which I shudder to recall. The days grow shorter, but nothing like so short as back in England, and some of them are at least as warm as an English summer; but then the temperature will fall ten degrees overnight and the next day will be cold, grey, wet, and miserable, and it still catches me out.

I thought I'd be Superman, or at least the one-eyed bloke in the country of the visually impaired, but instead I've acclimatised. The temperature falls to 10°C, a temperature I may once have considered mild, and it feels like I'm back in the land of numb fingers and soaking wet socks on the radiator; and it's somehow unexpected because I'm accustomed to scorching heat so I'm on edge, prone to panic, struggling as I force myself forward through the metaphorical snowdrifts of the day.

The week gets worse as the skies remain without colour. One evening I take the salmon I've just baked from the oven and it slides neatly from the foil to the floor which we share with eight cats. Bess and I eat just the cauliflower cheese I've made to go with the salmon, but deprived of context it seems tasteless.

Next day my bike falls over. I leave it on the kick stand so I can reset the combination on the lock of the gate at the side of the house, but the kickstand sinks into the mud and the bike falls somehow knackering both the rear-view mirror and one of the newly fitted grips on the handlebar. Like weather, Texas mud fails to be a variation on anything familiar. It's like modelling clay, but lighter - actually more like poo if I'm to be honest; and the poo from one of those days when you should never have got out of bed. You occupy the lavatory bowl, allowing the oval of toughened plastic to form an airtight seal around your buttocks, a little push and BRATTT!!!! Somehow it goes everywhere. It's on your socks. It's on the floor. There's a small splodge on the light fitting despite the established laws of physics. This is how mud in Texas behaves when deprived of the sun which would ordinarily bake it hard.

Not only do I knacker my bike but as I'm standing there at the side of the house I realise I'm staring at a backpack discarded amongst the leaves on the ground. I pick it up. It's wet and looks new and I've never seen it before. Someone has been here at the side of the house. Inside the backpack I find painkillers, energy bars, and a set of keys of an unfamiliar type.

I hear Donna, who lives next door, arriving home in her truck, so I go to see if she knows anything about the backpack. She doesn't, but guesses it might be some homeless guy who left it. She's seen a lot of them around the neighbourhood of late, and it rained for three days solid over the weekend. It seems likely that he might have been trying to get into our garage for the sake of shelter.

Now that she suggests this, I recall having seen the gate at the side of the house hanging a little way open. It doesn't close properly, so I customarily lodge a piece of wooden trellis between the side of the gate and the post so as to keep stray dogs from getting in through the gap, and around this I coil a bike lock; but I recall the gate being a little way open with the trellis fallen on the grass, still held mostly closed by the bike lock. Possibly some homeless guy tried to push it open without noticing the lock, then ran away without his backpack, having been startled by something or other. I don't know this for sure and it's a pain in the arse to have to think about it.

I head out on my bike but it's too fucking cold for exercise, so I just go directly to the supermarket and sit eating fried chicken in the caff, which is definitely exercise of a sort. I'm sitting freezing in a supermarket caff eating fried chicken under strip lighting. Across the aisle I can see Finding Dory play silently on a flat screen telly whilst on my headphones I have Happy Mondays singing about having sex on a beach in the Caribbean sun, and for a moment it's like I never left England; or maybe England has followed me.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Two Wheels

My first bicycle appeared when my family were living on Sweet Knowle Farm in rural Warwickshire. It would have been the early seventies, possibly even late sixties being as all I can recall of the bike was that it had stabilisers which came off once I was old enough to ride unassisted. This bike was followed at some point by a Moulton Midi, possibly made by Raleigh - a gangly frame in metallic blue resting on two peculiarly small wheels. I went everywhere on my Moulton Midi, everywhere mostly being the villages of either Ilmington or Quinton, respectively homes to my best friends Matt and Sean.

Then in either the early eighties or very late seventies, my dad won some money on the premium bonds and treated me to a racing bike - a British Eagle. I was at secondary school by this point and we all had racing bikes, although racing was never particularly high on the agenda. We were kids and we lived in the country and you really needed a bike to get around. Mine was purple, as Barbara Moran noted during a bewildering attempt to take the piss out of me as we all hung out at the sportsfield one evening. She was never a friend, but we had reached the age at which we became enemies for no reason I ever understood.

'I like your purple bike,' she sneered, placing particularly sarcastic emphasis on its colouration. To this day I remain bewildered as to why she should have viewed that detail as some hypothetically vulnerable chink in my armour.

Ooh look at me with my purple bike. I'm so fancy.

The purple bike got me around during school, then college, and eventually art college once I moved to Maidstone in Kent. I had it fixed up a couple of times following brief periods of neglect, up until moving to Chatham in 1987 at which juncture the guy in the local bike shop pointed out that what I had just brought to him was mostly rust, and was therefore regrettably beyond repair.

A year or so later I joined Royal Mail as a postman and was thus allowed sporadic use of a succession of Post Office bicycles, just three gears but bright red and sturdy with a basket on the front as made by Pashley of Stratford-on-Avon. The great advantage of the Royal Mail bike was that occasional repairs and maintenance came with the job, and by the nineties it was my company car - work six days a week and then handy for doing the shopping at the weekend, particularly with that basket on the front.

I left Royal Mail in 2009 and moved to Coventry. Deprived of my company car, my dad allowed me to have one of his bicycles on semi-permanent loan. He had three, and this was one he'd bought for twenty quid in the pub then done up. I rode it around that corner of Warwickshire for the next year and a half in the name of staying vaguely fit, clocking up just over three-thousand miles in total - which I knew because my dad had fitted the bike with an odometer.

In 2011 I moved to San Antonio, Texas, and naturally one of the first things I had to do was to get myself a bike. I went to Walmart because it was cheap, and happily the bike I picked up for a couple of hundred dollars turned out to be made by Schwinn, a manufacturer with a fairly decent reputation.

The first six months of riding around in this new land were a little weird, characterised by tires punctured with astonishing frequency - a couple of times a week on occasion. Everything in Texas is covered in thorns, I told myself - that has to be the reason. Up until that point I'd suffered punctured tires on average maybe once every other year and had consequently never developed any real aptitude for puncture repair. Usually I would re-puncture the inner tube several times whilst trying to force the tire back onto the wheel; so was in the habit of taking the bike along to the shop and having them do it for a couple of quid.

I went to Bike World in Alamo Heights, this being my nearest bike shop. Yes they undertook repairs, a bearded nineteen-year old told me as though grudging the time my enquiry had taken away from him alphabeticising his Neutral Milk Hotel vinyls. He glanced at my bike and informed me that my inner tubes were fitted with Schrader valves, an obsolete type. His colleagues would be able to effect repairs but it would be a pain in the arse because I had walked into a store selling top of the range stereo equipment asking for something upon which to play my Edison cylinders of Arthur Sullivan speeches. Bicycle inner tubes traditionally come fitted with either Schrader or Presta valves, except no-one who is serious about cycling has any truck with Schrader valves.

Of course, I've subsequently found this to be complete bollocks. Up until that point, valves were valves so far as I knew so it had never been an issue. Presta valves seem to have been designed for the benefit of lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously, who just really need an alternative to something which already works perfectly well; and Wikipedia describes the Schrader valve as a type of pneumatic tire valve used on virtually every motor vehicle in the world today.

Nevertheless I handed over the bike, then returned when the work had been done. I also needed a water bottle so took one from the rack next to the till and paid up. Once out of the shop I realised the repairs hadn't actually been that expensive, but the plastic water bottle had cost me twenty dollars. This was because it had the logo of a company called Dude Girl printed on it. Dude Girl make clothing for the benefit of female lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously, who just really need to wear something rooted in the old west cowgirl spirit and repurposed with the modern sensibilities of today's active women, and who need to make a statement with the vessel from which they drink their water. This is what happens when you shop too quickly, and when you make assumptions about how a water bottle will probably cost a few quid at most because it's just a fucking water bottle.

Lesson learned, I decided to look for an alternate bike shop to which I could take my custom in future, and so I found Performance Bike at which the staff seemed friendlier and less self-consciously edgy. Additionally, given the weekly punctures I had resolved to learn how to effect repairs myself without screwing up, deciding that surely it couldn't be that hard. Bizarrely, it wasn't, and I even worked out how to change tires. From this I discovered that the tires with which my beloved Schwinn came fitted had probably been crap because suddenly I was no longer getting flats every few days; and I was further inspired to wonder why I'd never got the hang of such a piss easy task before, considering all the time, money, and agricultural language it might have spared me.

So that was 2011, since which I've clocked up some eighteen thousand miles on the Schwinn. It went back to Performance Bike for repairs a couple of times, but never for flat tires. Everything was fine up until the most recent occasion. Something peculiar had happened to the array of gears on the rear wheel, causing them all to spin around independently of each other.

'You really need to take this to a repair shop,' the guy told me.

'I thought this was a repair shop,' I said, peering cautiously past him to his two colleagues who both looked one fuck of a lot like they were engaged in repair work on other bikes.

'Well see, it's not just the cassette. You're going to need a new chain otherwise it ain't gonna be worth repairing anyhow.'

'I need a cassette?'

He picked up a little spindle of cogs of varying sizes to indicate, this being the thing which had gone wonky on my own bike. 'Now if you buy yourself a chain-breaker, then you can get in there - take off that chain, and - let me just see.' He strolled across to a store display, bike chains vacuum sealed onto card. He began reading the sizes.

'Couldn't I just pay you and have you do it?'

'It's gon' be like a month before we can even look at it and tell you just what needs doing.'

'I'm not bothered. I just want it fixed.'

So, having agreed to a wait of at least six weeks without a bike, I at last managed to force the man to take my business.

Six weeks dragged past. I was in the habit of cycling fifteen miles every morning, and being unable to do so was weird and unsettling. I needed regular exercise but didn't want to have to think about it, which is why I like a routine. Recalling that my dad owns a number of bikes, I went to the pawn shop on the corner and bought a mountain bike for fifty dollars. It was a Genesis GS29, a type apparently made for sale in Walmart. Online reviews range from cheap and cheerful, to good for the price, to just don't bother. On the other hand, it seemed okay to me from what I could tell, and it's not like I could afford anything too fancy, particularly not for something which was essentially a back up to be ridden when the other is in the shop for repairs.

The first problem I encountered was that the seat was too low, so I raised it up, then discovered that the handlebars were at a fixed height and therefore could not be raised up in relation to the seat. I made do, and eventually got around this when I found cheap handlebars for a kids bike, just a tube of steel bent into a w-shape. I mounted these where the old handle bars had been, bringing the handgrips up to exactly the right height, although this meant I also had to replace the cable for the front brake with a longer one. Also, because the gear-change thing and brakes could only fit so far onto the handlebars before the curve of the w-shape got in the way, this left the rubber hand grips with only an inch or so of steel tubing inside, leaving a weird floppy overhang. I got around this by replacing them with solid handgrips which clamp on, additionally extending the length of the handlebars. Finally I added a rear-view wing mirror ordered from a scooter supplies store in England, having been unable to find one I liked anywhere local.

I rode the mountain bike for the next six weeks, fifteen or more miles a day, five days a week. It was fine, and even felt kind of sexy, although I noticed some vague problem with the wheels, albeit a problem so vague as to make it difficult to properly identify. It felt as though there was some resistance to the smooth turn of an axle, as though a brake block might be rubbing as I rode along, an impression fostered by a constant high-pitched whine when the bike was in motion. Nevertheless, no brake blocks were rubbing against the rim of the wheel, and both wheels spun fine and freely from what I could see. My father suggested the possibility of wheel nuts being too tight, but it didn't seem to be that either. The most definitive statement I could make was that the mountain bike was somehow not so easy to ride as the Schwinn.

Eventually the Schwinn came back with a new chain and gears so I resumed using it for my daily fifteen miles, now increased to twenty. Reluctant to neglect the mountain bike, I kept it in the garage and made a mental note to take it into Performance Bike for a tune-up at some point before the next occasion of my needing the Schwinn repaired. They would no doubt be able to pinpoint the problem and tell me what was up.

'It's probably those wheels,' the unfamiliar teenager told me, pointing to where the spokes met the axle.

'What's wrong with them?'

'Where did you get it?'

'I bought it from the pawn shop down on the corner. It was about fifty dollars.'

'Yeah, you see it's a department store bike.'

'So I need new wheels then?'

'Well I don't know, but it's about forty dollars a wheel, and then there's the work. You might be better off just saving up for a superior bike.'

'Is it really that bad?'

An older guy came over to see what the problem was, and so once again I described the sensation of riding along with a brake block in contact with the wheel, then adding 'although in all other respects it's a great bike.'

'It's a department store bike. How much did you pay?'

'Fifty dollars, but that was from a pawn shop.'

He got on the bike, rode it around the store in a little circle. 'I can't see anything wrong with it.'

'Well can't you take it in and have a look?'

'You'd be better off saving your money and getting another bike.'

So there was nothing wrong with my mountain bike, but I probably shouldn't have bought it in the first place and needed to think about replacing it. Once again I was the last man on earth metaphorically clinging to his beloved Schrader valves. Here I was trying to give these unhelpful fuckers my business whilst they looked at me as though I'd found a rusty tricycle on some waste ground, and flung it at them giggling fix this, yeah? I had bought the cycling equivalent of an album by Insane Clown Posse into their store, and not even one of the good albums by Insane Clown Posse.

Unable to think of anything else to add, I recalled that I had intended to buy a set of extra tires for the mountain bike. The teenager showed me a pair for twenty-seven dollars per tire.

'You know what,' I said. 'I think I'll leave it.'

He glanced at my tires. 'Those are wearing down, you know. You'll be getting punctures soon.' He said this as though the thought might not have occurred to me, like I might just be trying to buy new tires due to a pathological need to just buy something. Maybe I was buying tires so that the guys in the store would like me.

'All the same...'

I made my exit of the shop with no plans to return ever again.

I will find another repair place, and order my spares online.

I've ridden bikes all of my life, and ridden them great distances, and ridden them so as to get from one place to another. I've never regarded cycling as a hobby, an activity by which to fill some existing void as characterised by money I don't have spent on shit I don't need - luminous body stockings, Dude Girl water bottles, inner tubes fitted with a more prestigious pedigree of valve, or any of those ridiculous designer bikes I see ridden on the Tobin Trail by lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously - two and half wheels, seating effected by a butt plug mounted at the end of a horizontal armature and you pedal with your fucking elbows, you middle-class wanker. As an industry, cycling now seems dominated by the needs of those with too much money who may as well just be doing a jigsaw puzzle, and it is unfair to persons such as myself; but apparently this means I'm not serious about my cycling.

The day after my last ever visit to Performance Bike I take my fifty dollar pawn shop jalopy out on the Tobin Trail and it is, as ever, a pleasure to ride, regardless of the issue described above, whatever it is. Maybe, I think to myself, that's just a thing with mountain bikes given how they aren't really designed for flat surfaces.

Perhaps we will never know.