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.