Thursday, 10 August 2017

It's Not Always Good to Talk

I'm very glad that you asked me that question...

I'm being interviewed for a podcast called Raconteur Roundtable. The interview lasts about an hour and is conducted over a Skype connection. Most of it is about my science-fiction novel, Against Nature, which was published by Obverse Books back in 2013. The interview is fun but exhausting, and I make the mistake of attempting to respond to certain questions with answers beyond the range of my ability to articulate them. I write a lot but I'm not very sociable and I don't engage in profoundly intellectual conversation on a daily or even yearly basis, which leaves me ill-equipped to discuss certain aspects of my own work. If I were able to tell you that, I should have said, I wouldn't have needed to write it in the first place.

Skype is a programme which facilitates communication between computers in different parts of the world. It makes use of a webcam so that you can see who you're talking to, and the webcam usually has a microphone built into it. My interview is conducted in audio only, but the webcam is nevertheless plugged in so that I can use the microphone, and thus am I able to watch a video image of myself as I speak. I'm sat in front of the Mexican national flag which I have hung over the back of some shelving. I'm going cross-eyed and duck-faced as I scrabble around in my vocabulary and attempt to form sentences. My hand wheels in the air at the side of my tilted head in illustration of something or other and I realise I've somehow turned into Suzanne from Orange is the New Black, and that I sound demented.

The thing is - well it's sort of, you know—what I'm getting at is that I was always looking for something. I mean I used to be into flying saucers and all that sort of rubbish, but I—well, it was like this. I discovered... I suddenly... I was looking for like a total... You know, I was always interested in ancient Egypt. I don't have the words here - what I mean to say...

As we conclude the interview, I tell them that I'm aware of having been unable to form sentences, or indeed to say anything useful, but they insist that I did fine and that they'll be able to edit it down to just the good stuff. I leave it at that.

I'm woken at three in the morning by my telephone beeping so as to alert me to the fact of the battery having run low and that it requires recharging. I've forgotten to switch the phone off because I barely even use the thing. Most of the time I keep it charged just in case my wife has an emergency and needs to reach me.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I swear and scrabble around in the darkness, struggling to unwrap the phone from my pants in the laundry basket at the side of the bed.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I turn the fucking thing off, then lie wide awake for the next few hours. I have David Bowie's Never Get Old stuck in my head and my thoughts are cycling, over and over - what I should have said, how I shouldn't have agreed to the interview in the first place, and how I wish there were a specific individual responsible for the fact of my stupid fucking phone having an alarm which beeps when the battery needs recharging so that I could track him down and smash his kneecaps and elbows with a ball-peen hammer.

I have to get up at seven, so naturally I lie awake, hot and restless and pissed off until approximately ten to seven.

I sleep briefly.

I get up at seven to feed a million cats, then come straight back to bed as my wife gets up and goes to work. I sleep until about ten and have a dream in which I am menaced by Adrian Meredith, an older boy who didn't seem to like me very much when I was at junior school. He's pushing me around. He needs me to do certain things. He wants me to go into a pawn shop and buy back his girlfriend's gold necklace, the one he pawned to them in the first place.

I get up and have a slow, crap day - headachey with a sore throat, so the oak pollen is probably high and it's something like 98° Fahrenheit outside.

In the evening my wife and I eat at Hung Fong on Broadway because the kid is with his dad tonight, and I've found myself unable to venture out onto the surface of Venus so as to visit the supermarket from which I would ordinarily purchase the ingredients for whatever I would have cooked as our evening meal. After Hung Fong we visit Northstar Mall because my wife needs the battery of her iPhone replaced. It charges, but only just, and she's had it about five years. She tried the AT&T store, but that line of enquiry went about as well as we expected it to, so now we're at the Apple Store in the mall. It's like a dining hall designed by IKEA, pine benches and the kind of stools you would expect to find in a pretentious kitchen. The place is packed, but it's hard to tell whether anything is actually happening. Everyone is stood or sat around, pissing about on MacBooks, chatting to staff without any obvious sense of urgency. The staff can be identified by their all being in their early twenties and skinny with beards, excepting the single female. Some of them also have ear gauges, and I expect there's a hat rack laden with fedoras somewhere at the rear of the store, ready for when they all fuck off home at the end of the working day - if we're going to expand the definition of work to such limits as to incorporate this bunch.

We can't tell what we're supposed to do, who we're supposed to see. Each one of the staff is chatting to someone, busy in his own way. There's no queue nor till nor any obvious point of focus to the store, because that would be like sooo predictable. There's a bench at the far end of the store identified as the genius bar by text printed on the wall alongside a symbol resembling an atom with neutrons and protons in orbit, possibly so as to make a slightly mystifying association with Albert Einstein. I am familiar with the Apple corporation's repurposing of the term genius. I have iTunes on my computer, and the genius feature is something which plays my tracks at random. This seems a very loose application of the term to me, something relating to the fetishisation of the mix tape, now that we've rendered cassettes obsolete and decided that they were called mix tapes, which they never were. It's because simply choosing something is now considered a wildly creative act, so when you're putting together your mix tape and you have Madonna's Material Girl followed by something from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that makes you a genius, yeah?

Even so, I can't tell what they're doing at the genius bar, and it isn't even the sort of bar at which you could buy the beer necessary for some of this arrangement to make sense.

'Maybe we just send out a vibe,' I suggest, 'or maybe if we take our clothes off...'

A young man - I'd guess in his early twenties - with a beard takes my wife's telephone number. It's a little before eight in the evening.

'I'll send you a text when someone is free,' he tells her. 'It shouldn't be much more than three quarters of an hour.'

We leave the store and take the escalator to the upper level, the food court I suppose you would call it. We buy ice cream from Marble Slab - because there's always room for ice cream - and sit and wait for the text summons to come to the iPhone which doesn't always work because of a problem with the battery.

We are summoned as we head back to the store just in case they've sent the message and we failed to receive it on the iPhone which doesn't always work because of a problem with the battery. The time is 8.45PM, and we waste another five minutes back in the store trying to work out who has summoned us. Eventually a young man with a beard identifies himself and shows us to a couple of stools. 'Someone will be with you shortly,' he tells us.

We wait.

I reintroduce the idea of taking our clothes off, but Bess isn't so keen. I move the stool away from the bench so that I can lay on it on my stomach. I stretch my legs out back and spread my arms. 'I'm a plane!' I tell Bess.

This doesn't work either so I try to look like I'm buying something. I take a box from the shelf and pull faces so as to suggest that I'm weighing up the pros and cons of buying a household lighting system which can be controlled from your iPhone. I guess my pantomime isn't very convincing because no-one comes to manage the potential sale. Try as I might, I am unable to impersonate interest in something which no-one sane could ever possibly need in their home.

The store begins to empty. An assistant with an unusually prodigious beard leaves.

'That one must be their king,' I point out, having decided they're like an ant colony. I say it loud in the hope of annoying somebody.

Twenty minutes have passed and a young man finally comes to see what's up with my wife's iPhone. Weirdly, he has no beard and he's kind of chunky.

'It's the battery,' we say.

He takes the iPhone into the back room in order to perform a full diagnostic. 'It's the battery,' he tells us fifteen minutes later.

I think of the phone guy in Earlsdon High Street back in Coventry, England; forever sat there yacking away to his ancient sidekick, always with a fag on the go. It's my phone, you just about manage as he snatches it from your hand, presses a few buttons, pulls a face, rips the back off, replaces something, then chucks it back.

'Call it a tenner, mate.'

We're a long way from Earlsdon High Street, and still some way from a fully operational iPhone. It's booked in, but it will take an hour and a half and my wife will be able to collect it tomorrow around noon.

'An hour and a half?' Bess is sceptical. 'There's a guy on YouTube who does it in twenty minutes.'

'Well there are other jobs we have, cracked screens to be replaced and so on.'

Neither of us can be bothered to point out that these alleged cracked screens are nothing to do with us. We just want to go home.

On the way to the parking lot we pass a Microsoft concession out in the mall. I wonder out loud if they have fights with the Apple colony, like the Bash Street Kids and their rivals in the pages of the Beano.

'Maybe that's where the King went. Maybe someone challenged him to a duel?'

We may never know the answer.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Schnitzel & Giggles


So far as I can remember, my first village fête was in Wimpstone, a row of houses in rural Warwickshire which I'm not even convinced was ever really long enough to be called a village, although it probably seemed like the big city when I was five. The River Stour runs along the back of Wimpstone, past the last house and under the main road, and I imagine the fête must have occupied the triangular patch of land framed by road, river, and the garden of whoever lived in that last house. That's how I remember it, although it was nearly half a century ago so I could be wrong. I recall attractions which didn't even do much for me at the age of five, if that's how old I was; and I remember old crap turfed out from attics and cupboards beneath stairs for sale upon tablecloths laid across the grass. I bought a book about Robin Hood, or at least I cadged pennies off my mother and bought a book about Robin Hood. It was an orange hardback, the kind which would once have been wrapped in a garish technicolour cover, and it was illustrated. It seemed like quite a find and left a bigger impression on me than anything else that day, or from any village fete since.

Just once, I would like to have been as excited about a village fête as Randy is about the Camden County Fair in My Name is Earl*. 

Hey, everybody! I'm Gus, the Camden County Fair bear, runs the commercial while Randy tries hard to keep from exploding with anticipation. Who's ready for some fun? Enjoy food, fun, prizes, an Osama bin Laden shooting gallery; And this year, get your picture taken inside the actual car from Smokey and the Bandit. It's gonna be bear-tastic!

Subsequent commercials additionally promise that the event will be not only bear-riffic, but fully bear-awesome. I know bear-awesome doesn't make any sense, and yet it sort of makes perfect sense; and one day I'll attend a village fête which will be genuinely bear-awesome. Maybe that day has come.

We're out driving. We don't know where we're going because we're having an adventure; or Bess may have some vague idea seeing as she has the wheel because I never learned to drive, but I suspect she's playing it by ear. It's June and we live in Texas, so needless to say it's fucking hot, somewhere up in the vicinity of 100° Fahrenheit; but our lower humidity makes the heat marginally more bearable than it would be in England, and in any case I don't know what that is in old money, so it's just something we deal with, even if it rules out long rural walks at noon.

As we approach Boerne, we see a sign for the Berges Fest, which isn't a village fête because we don't really have villages in Texas; but it sounds like it might be a county fair, and might therefore be bear-awesome. I guess Berges derives from berg, apparently meaning mountain in German; and Boerne is a culturally German town on the edge of the Texas hill country, which I suppose amounts to more sense than my assumption of this being the Berges County Fair, because there is no Berges County. Boerne is in Kendall County.

We park in a suspiciously empty lot, probably a field which has only just been opened up to handle the overspill from the existing lots. We walk amongst giant trucks and make appalling jokes about what we're going to find, because we don't yet know what we're getting into. Thankfully it isn't a Klan rally or an international swingers' expo. It's a fair, if not strictly speaking a county one. It's food, music, heat, and booze. Fest is probably as good a term as any.

First we have cups of corn, something my wife recalls as having been a treat when she was young, but of course a new one on me. We stand next to the fifteen foot inflatable cob and the guy fills polystyrene cups with bright yellow corn. We get plastic spoons and are invited to mix in our own butter - which is in liquid state at this point - mayonnaise, and paprika. Surprisingly, it's delicious.

We approach a covered marquee with open sides, one of two. There's a stage in the middle and an oompah band, all pigtails and lederhosen. The musicians are arranged upon the stage in a half-circle, three rows of them, all seated, because technically they are an oompah orchestra. Sadly there seem to be more people on stage than in the audience, but happily those on stage are having such a great time that they don't really care; and not once am I reminded of that scene in Cabaret.

Finishing our corn, we investigate the other marquee. Within, we find an array of craft stalls, but they seem to be of the kind we see everywhere selling the sort of stuff which fills the stores of Boerne and New Braunfels - pieces of wood embossed with motivational slogans, and the like. There are also stalls selling car insurance and double glazing.

Who the hell goes to the fair and buys double glazing?

There's an ice cream stand run by a likeable old coot with a moustache of the kind my English relatives probably imagine to be more common in Texas than is actually the case. Bess chooses coconut and I decide that I want the eggnog flavour, so our guy works his way around a succession of nine or ten freezers before locating our requested flavours. The ice cream is home made, frozen onto sticks, and delicious.

Beyond the marquee, we find a rodeo in progress, or at least we guess it's a rodeo because there's a rodeo clown stood in front of an audience. An absent minute passes before we see the cattle in a pen on the far side of the bleachers. There's also a distorted commentary coming through the tannoy, but we can't tell what he's commenting upon because nothing seems to be happening, and the commentary is delivered in that accent which sounds like someone playing with a selection of rubber bands. The rodeo clown is just standing there.

Another minute saunters by, and still nothing has happened so we walk in the direction of cheering and excitement. Here is another, smaller crowd, and they too are watching something narrated by a man with a microphone. We shuffle to the front of the crowd and see dachshund races in progress, a couple of little sausage dogs being petted and steadied at one end of a track with their people waiting at the other - doggy people, one of them a woman wearing a t-shirt upon which is written don't ever let go of your wiener in country and western lettering. Suddenly the dogs are off, tails wagging, some panting as they happily trot off in the vague direction of the finish line. They don't seem to be in particularly competitive spirit, but another minute passes and we have a winner. His name is Michael and his owner scoops him up and lavishes him with kisses.

The dachshund is a popular dog in our part of Texas, second only to the chihuahua; but it's hot, and it's difficult to imagine a full afternoon at the dachshund races; and already my wife has been distracted by a food truck, not because she's hungry, but because she's drawn to novelty. The truck has a name, as though it's just a restaurant on wheels. It's called Schnitzel & Giggles, so my wife takes a photograph and posts it on facebook.

It seems like we've had all the fun there is to be had, so we leave. It's been the kind of occasion which might have seemed more significant if we lived in Boerne, which we don't. It's been a great way to spend thirty minutes, but fell sadly short of bear-awesome.

*: Stole Beer from a Golfer, the seventh episode of the first series, in case anyone was wondering.