Thursday, 16 August 2018

Curry with Martin

I'm calling on my friend, Martin. We're going for a curry. Last time I was in England, he said, we'll have to go for a curry next time you're here. I probably should have written those first lines as Grant Morrison would have written them:

I'm calling on my famous friend, Martin Bowes of Attrition. We're going for a curry.

I know it seems fucking stupid, but that's how it feels.

I stay in Coventry when visiting England because that's where my parents live. I myself lived in Coventry for nine months or so at the end of the nineties, then another eighteen ending in 2011. Both periods of residence were - roughly speaking - just me living somewhere while I sorted myself out in preparation to live somewhere else; so I've never really thought of myself as having lived in Coventry, not properly, much less being from Coventry. I was born and grew up in Warwickshire, but that's another story.

I first knew of Martin back in 1980. His fanzine, Alternative Sounds, had turned up at our local record shop, Discovery in Straftford-upon-Avon. I bought a copy because the Abstracts were featured therein, the Abstracts being a local band for which my friend Graham's brother played bass. Alternative Sounds was quite an eye-opener for me - the first fanzine I ever bought - and a great read even beyond the vague thrill of someone I knew having been mentioned; and sadly, seeing as I'd only just discovered the thing, this was to be its final issue because Martin, the editor, wanted to dedicate more time to his band, Attrition.

Attrition came to wider attention a few years later as part of a wave of experimental musicians championed by Dave Henderson of Sounds music paper, others including Nocturnal Emissions, Konstruktivists, and Test Department. The first tracks I heard by Attrition were Monkey in a Bin and Hang Me, which appeared on a compilation tape called A Sudden Surge of Power. These two were among the best tracks on the tape, so Attrition made a big impression. I bought their records when they started to issue music on vinyl, and Smiling, At the Hypogonder Club, their second album, was pretty much glued to my turntable for the duration of 1985.

So it feels pretty odd when, nearly a quarter century later, I spot Martin Bowes heading up Albany Road in Coventry. I've never met the guy. I never even wrote him a letter asking for a tape, but by this point we seem to have about a million mutual friends, having moved in related circles over the years.

'Oi, Martin!' I shout, aware that it leaves a lot to be desired as an introduction, but I can't think of anything else which would seem natural, and all the while I'm aware that this isn't just some bloke, it's Martin from Attrition and I'm terrified of appearing like some drooling fan.

He's probably used to it, because he doesn't seem particularly puzzled, and even gives the impression of having heard of me somehow. Attrition were on the same bill as Konstruktivists at some event not too long ago, and I used to be in Konstruktivists, plus we both sort of know Alan from Stress and Adventures in Reality; so it all kind of joins up; and Martin is a very personable sort of bloke - reminding me a little of characters written by Alan Bennet - and somehow this isn't like an awkward conversation with a complete stranger.

That was 2011, just before I moved to Texas.

We kept in touch.

At one point I needed someone to rescue material I'd recorded on minidisc, a format for which my computer had apparently lost all respect. Martin was running his own studio by then, and kindly effected the rescue during one of my more recent visits. Just as I left his house, Dill from God's Toys had turned up for a recording session and was eating fish and chips in the front room. God's Toys were another local band who had briefly been on telly when I was a kid, so once again I found myself momentarily starstruck by terms that probably wouldn't make sense to anyone else in the entire universe. Dill seemed like a nice bloke too.

So here I am, back in England, back at the house of Martin from Attrition, knocking on his door to see whether he fancies a curry, which of course he does.

We wander up towards the Foleshill Road, talking about England and America, his work as Attrition and mastering the music of other artists at his studio, notably Coil; we talk about mutual friends and acquaintances, of whom there always seem to be more than I realised - this time adding Carl Howard and David Elliott to the list; and then we arrive at Taste of India and eat the best curry I've had in a number of years.

We talk about goths, Whitby, not particularly liking the Cure, Hawaii, New Zealand, getting old, and fatherhood, or stepfatherhood in my case. Martin's son is a grime artist, one of those details which strikes me as both completely peculiar and yet makes perfect sense.

We finish and make our way back and agree we should go for another one next time I'm over.

These yearly return visits to England can be awkward, even uncomfortable, and sometimes feel as though I'm engaged in a forensic investigation of my own existence, establishing a motive whilst trying to verify all of those memories of living here as actually having happened. At worst, it can feel like a particularly morbid type of time travel, going back to times prior to the death of persons who are yet to die. So much of what I experience in England is now prefixed with this may be the last time…

Curry with Martin feels an even stranger experience on some level, like a sidestep into a reality where I actually lived in Coventry, and I have to remind myself that I did live in Coventry for a while. It's like a reconstruction, something imagined by whoever looks back at my life and decides, yeah, he probably would have known that bloke from Attrition. They would have gone for a curry, and let's face it - that would have been somewhere up the Foleshill Road. I had assumed Coventry would be done with the surprises by this stage.

This is how my brain works, and how it will doubtless continue to work, so there's probably not much point in my apologising for any of it; but the thing that I take from it is that, here in this land which is, for me, mostly memories and things which used to be, new stuff can still happen, for which I am truly thankful.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

My Australian Cousin

My Aunt Lynda moved to Australia in January, 1974. She corresponded with my mother - her older sister - for a little while, but silence eventually fell. I would have been eight-years old when she moved, and although I remember Lynda, it was a long time ago and the details are a bit sketchy. I remember Eddie, her husband, whose name turned out to have been extrapolated from Edwin rather than Edward, which would be at least one reason why more recent Google searches never seemed to come back with anything. I remember the block of flats in Leamington Spa where they lived, possibly because it was the first block of flats I ever entered, what with my being a rural lad and everything. The climb to the eighth floor stuck in my memory, and weirdly I remember it as a peculiarly circular activity in which we went up one flight of steps, then down the next one back to the beginning, over and over as though it were some sort of ritual undertaking designed to unlock the upper floors of the building. 'We're just going up and down again,' I kept trying to tell my parents. Realistically, I'm almost certainly remembering a dream about the ascent, which at least indicates how significant it seemed to me at the time. Big cities full of tower blocks, urban architecture and concrete were places I only ever saw on Doctor Who on the telly, usually subject to invasion by beings from other worlds.

I also remembered Dawn - Eddie and Lynda's daughter, my cousin - who would have been about three by the time they boarded the boat at Southampton; or at least I remembered her in the sense of remembering that she existed.

Decades flapped past and we all began to wonder what had become of this Australian branch of the family, but Google searches came back with nothing. Then in 2017, my wife got on the case, having run out of her own ancestors, or at least hit a wall back in sixteenth century Bermondsey - which was itself an eye opener given my own more recent association with south-east London. Bess, by agency of one of those genealogy websites, discovered that Eddie had been Edwin rather than Edward, that his surname had been Brown - a detail which the rest of us had somehow mislaid - and that, if this was the same guy, the trail led to Lynda and Dawn, both still resident in Australia. So emails were exchanged, and yes - it was them, after all this time. They had similarly been looking for us, on and off, but never found anything.

One year later, and I'm back in England visiting my mother. I'm here for three weeks, and my visit has been timed to coincide with Dawn and her family coming to England. I try to get back to see my folks once a year, and I knew Dawn was planning a trip so it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Dawn's trip lasts two months and seems to involve whizzing around half of northern Europe while they're up this way - even bits of Iceland and Norway. I suppose, if you're going all the way to the other hemisphere, you may as well try to see as much of it as you can.

So we've exchanged emails and we seem to get on fine, but I'm still a little nervous about the meeting, not least that it will take place at my mother's house, because they've hired a car so it's easier for them to drive over to see me from their current hotel, which is somewhere in the Cotswolds. I've met plenty of Australians, and only ever one Australian I didn't like - although he seems to have been the exception which proved the rule - and they probably number in my top ten favourite nationalities, possibly top five; and yet still I have this image of my mother - who generally doesn't do crowds - besieged by gregarious Aussies laughing and chucking tinnies to one another across the couch.

Thankfully and obviously, such ludicrous fears are unfounded. Dawn is with Darren, her husband, and son, Sean. They file into the front room and occupy the sofa as though entering a stately home.

There's a distinct familial resemblance between Dawn and my mother, her aunt; which is, I suppose, consistent with how my mother and Lynda have grown to resemble each other quite closely in recent years, which is surprising given how different they were as children. Dawn seems an outgoing, happy presence, someone whose company warms the room.

We talk about the sort of things you always talk about when you haven't seen someone for forty-five years, and my mother appears quietly delighted by the meeting. This is a relief, because I felt a bit awkward as the intermediary introducing people who may as well be strangers to her home. We talk about the family, and what little we can remember of it, and we talk about England and America and Australia. Darren is a miner, so he's interested in the old mines they've visited in Wales. He works at an open cast mine and I get the impression that it's one of those jobs involving huge, strange looking bits of digging equipment, like the trucking equivalent of the attractions at Jurassic Park. He seems a nice bloke and very much reminds me of my friend Glenn, quiet but with an endless supply of one-liners and with a face accustomed to grinning.

Darren is driving, so we drive to Kenilworth which is a couple of miles down the road. We spend most of the morning plodding around Kenilworth Castle on the grounds of it being there, and that Dawn was almost certainly wheeled around the place in a stroller back in the seventies. They seem to like it, as do I, because it's always good to see a place through the eyes of someone who doesn't know it so well as you do. All the same, given how much the three of them are packing in on this tour of the northern hemisphere, I'm surprised they're not beginning to suffer castle-burn. They've already seen Sudeley Castle, and I suspect it may not have been the first.

After the castle, we drive up to the Mews, as the cul-de-sac is named, to look at the house where our grandparents lived, and where Dawn herself supposedly lived for a couple of months.

'It's that one,' I say, pointing at number thirteen.

We look at the house.

Dawn had been wondering if the memories might come flooding back, which they haven't, but never mind. We drive on, around a couple of corners and end up on Rouncil Lane.

'I think that's where your mother went to school,' I say as we pass Kenilworth Sixth Form, emphasis on I think because this is only a vague impression I have, probably based on the fact of it being a school in Kenilworth. I wouldn't like to claim I'm anything special as a tour guide.

They drop me back off in Coventry and we say goodbye until what we all hope will be a next time. It was short and a bit of a whirlwind, but I'm really glad we managed to work out the dates; and once again I take pleasure from the fact that we're all still alive.

...and thanks to Dawn for the photographs!

Friday, 3 August 2018

An Englishman in Texas in England

Mary grins and chortles, gleefully poking me in the gut like I've just been rumbled. 'Hoo hoo - what's that?' she cackles. 'You take after your dad.'

I have a paunch because I'm middle-aged. I've been middle-aged for a while, and I'm surprised that this is the first time she's noticed how I bulge around the middle, particularly as I'm pretty sure I bulge slightly less than I did when I last visited.

It seems an inane observation.

I'm back in the old country, and it's getting harder each year; although on the positive side I'm still surprised and pleased to have found myself living a life from which I can issue such a sentence, because it means that I escaped, and I would much rather visit this country than still be living here. It gets harder each year because I get older each year, I suppose, and I become more and more acclimated to life in a hot country. I like to see my parents and people I know, but at the same time I dislike disruptions to my routine, and I dislike the process of travelling, twenty hours spent in constant motion from one door to another with all of the waiting around and headaches it will inevitably entail, then the jetlag amounting to a four-day hangover.

Last time I came back was the first since the people had spoken in favour of Brexit, and there was something unpleasant in the air. The country felt meaner in spirit, more insular than ever, more suspicious of anything slightly different. This time, the background noise of ambient xenophobia seems less pronounced, although to be fair it may only ever have been my imagination, a result of my being unable to shut out certain conversations occurring across social media. I've possibly just had more time in which to notice how many people now regard Brexit as a terrible idea. Either they're coming to their senses, or else it simply looks that way from where I'm stood.

In any case, it's strange being back, and I have an irrational fear of being stuck, somehow forced to resume my former mostly miserable existence. I'm presently a tourist in a life I've left behind.

My wife's friend Heather was back in San Antonio at Christmas, staying at her parent's house for the sake of convenience. Heather's father shook my hand and said, 'Well, at least you'll soon be out of the European Union,' as though this was something which would have been playing on my mind. I didn't bother to answer. It had been a peculiar announcement, because I hadn't said anything, let alone anything inviting consolation.

I've been trying to maintain an equivalent silence today, because I'm in the car with my dad and we're driving to some village on the outskirts of Leicester. Mary is sat in the back and we're dropping her off at her sister's house in the aforementioned village.

Typically I speak to my dad on the phone once a month. This time last year it had become something of a chore, with the first minute of conversational formalities usually giving way to his views on immigrants and how they were ruining the country, and how I wouldn't recognise Coventry any more. I usually shut up, hoping he'd run out of foreigners upon which to heap blame. Raising the obvious objections was a waste of time because I had the impression that for him, living a relatively comfortable life unimpeded by either immigration or immigrants in any tangible sense, it was really just like talking about the weather. His casual xenophobia was purely conversational and didn't seem to run very deep because it had no real reason to do so. Then in recent months our phone conversations became less contentious, focussing rather on whatever was going on in our respective gardens. It felt as though my dad might have come to his senses, so that was what I told myself.

I phoned him before I flew, and was thusly informed of his most recent holiday on the Costa Brava. Neither himself nor Mary had enjoyed it, because the Costa Brava has been ruined by foreigners - mostly from eastern Europe, very rude people apparently.

'It's not like it used to be,' he told me sadly.

This was an unambiguous return to the theme of what's wrong with foreigners, but I told myself it was different in at least being born of direct experience rather than some alarmist crap picked up from a tabloid newspaper.

Now we're in the car, heading towards Leicester, and I'm looking out of the window as my dad once again explains how I wouldn't recognise Coventry.

Mary offers a chorus from the back seat, explaining about all those jobs which would have gone to good Coventry lads but for something or other to do with Somalia. 'I'll tell you what the problem is, Lawrence,' she adds thoughtfully, 'some of them, they just don't want to work.'

I'm completely fucking lost by this point. I look at my watch. The case for the prosecution has been running for fifteen minutes.

'Do you think we could change the subject?' I say it loudly and forcefully, although my voice squeaks a bit because I'm trying not to sound as pissy as I feel. 'I hear it all the time and I'm sick of it - all the problems of the world blamed on the poor fuckers who have nothing and are the easiest to blame,' and I go on to give parallels and examples, notably fruit now rotting on Californian trees because migrant workers suddenly feel somehow unwelcome in the United States, and white people won't work for the shitty sub-minimum wages the farmers insist is the best they can do. I talk about the proposed wall and take some pleasure in pointing out that its main function is to appease angry morons who don't understand things, because it's not like it will actually keep anyone out. My speech wails and wavers and is peppered with awkward grammatical conjunctions because I'm improvising, but given the quality of the argument I'm attempting to counter, I probably sound like Carl Sagan.

I finish and take a deep breath and feel a little embarrassed.

Thankfully it seems it hasn't been taken as an outburst, because the conversation resumes normally and naturally; although Mary has just remembered some other things she doesn't like about immigrants.

I may as well have been talking about my favourite cheese.

'That's enough politics now, Mary.' My dad sounds firm, yet somehow not even slightly disgruntled. It really is as though we've been discussing the weather.

They talk about their ruined holiday on the Costa Brava, with reduced emphasis on lack of manners as an inherently east European trait. They talk about a holiday in Amsterdam.

The roads are amazing in Holland, brand spanking new and not a pothole to be seen. My dad explains that these wonderful highways are paid for entirely with British money stolen from us by the European Union, but I suppose that one won't be a problem much longer, so he doesn't dwell on it.

The Dutch will soon have to pay for their own roads.

Having dispensed with the customary scowling at foreigners, the rest of the day is fine, without incident or anything too awkward. Mary mentions the wedding of a grandson, specifically a grandson who has married another man. There's no talk of backs to the wall or which one is the woman or any of the stuff I might have expected five years before. There isn't even any comment deployed in service of demonstrating how progressive we have all become, how we're fine with those people, just so long as they're happy...

It feels as though something is better than it used to be, at least on some level.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Funny Foreign Food

Here's what I ate whilst back in England visiting the folks, nothing I've been unable to live without, but food which I've nevertheless appreciated on some level, and have eaten as something like exotic cuisine, despite having grown up with it.

Pork pie. I think it was from Sainsbury's or somewhere of that general type, and it made for a respectable restorative as I wrestled with a jetlag hangover resulting from the previous eighteen hours spent in more or less constant motion. Having failed to find pork pies in Texas, and being reluctant to pay $70 refrigerated postage for something I would ordinarily eat only twice a year, I have learned how to make my own. The process is a bit long-winded but has resulted in the best pork pies I've eaten by a wide margin. The one I ate in England probably wasn't great by comparison, but timing is everything.

Full English breakfast. This was at the City Arms in Earlsdon, Coventry, which is a Weatherspoons pub - fried egg, baked beans, a sausage, bacon, couple of fried slices and black pudding; of which only the fried egg and bacon can be conveniently reproduced back in Texas with any degree of authenticity. I'm not sure what's different about American sausages, but they are different, possibly due to the influence of the mighty German sausage. American bread is also different for no reason I can really pin down, and English baked beans are sweeter. So far as I'm concerned, most of these serve as a vehicle for black pudding, because it would probably be weird just eating solo black pudding, although that's the one thing I really can't do in Texas. There used to be an Argentinian delicatessen which sold something that was a lot like black pudding, but the establishment converted to an exclusive club accessible only to persons in the catering trade, which was a pain in the ass, so no more stateside black pudding for me. I suppose I could try to make it myself, but the recipe seems laborious and messy and would in any case prove prohibitively indulgent when I can't even pay my own wife to consider black pudding as edible. Anyway, the saga of this specific full English breakfast - such as it is - was that, feeling jetlagged, I realised I couldn't be arsed to walk a couple of miles to Carphone Warehouse to buy one of those cheap disposable phones used by crack dealers, so instead opted to stuff my face at the pub, an enterprise which, like that with the pork pie, proved similarly restorative.

Here it is again.

Meringue. I've tried to make them but my meringues are comical, like something from an overambitious school science project. Texas doesn't seem big on meringues either, so it had been at least a year since I ate one. The first was nice but smaller than I remember them being, which struck me as related to those factors which make it appear as though policemen are getting younger and younger. The second meringue was about the size of a football with a swirly orange pattern giving it the appearance of the planet Jupiter. The swirls were due to it being a passion fruit meringue, although you couldn't really taste anything but meringue, not even the cream. This was because it didn't have cream, although clearly needed some for sake of contrast with everything else. I obtained the Jovian meringue from Warren's Bakery in the precinct in Kenilworth, ten foot from a hole in the ground which had once been the local toy shop when I was a kid, and from which I made purchase of a number of Micronaut figures, vehicles and accessories, notably the Crater Cruncher which was a sort of futuristic digger. Although Warren's meringue needed work, his Cornish pastie was pretty great, and the shop proudly sells pies and cakes from beneath an athletic looking sign reading Forever Fit owing to the presence of a gymnasium on the second floor of the building, which is amusing.

Fish and chips. I've always thought fish and chips were a little overrated, but when the moment is right, they're amazing. The Long John Silver restaurant chain here in Texas does fish and chips which are so close to the real thing without being quite the same as to constitute a decent alternative, at least in the sense of methadone being an alternative to heroin; but actual fish and chips served in a chip shop by a fat bloke with a red face takes some beating. All the same, I'm nevertheless left a little weary by the mythologisation of fish and chips as one of the five things Americans understand about being English*.

Two sausage, egg and chips. This was my proverbial daily bread for at least twenty years, and is difficult to recreate in America mainly due to the sausage thing. Not only are we talking about an English sausage, but a caff sausage which I suspect has been prepared using very specific techniques understood only by those in the biz - possibly fried beforehand, then kept at a specific temperature by heated buffet technology. The first two sausage, egg and chips of my trip was consumed in a caff in Bermondsey, which is significant because two sausage, egg and chips was actually invented in Bermondsey - and you can check that on Wikipedia if you don't believe me. As I ate, an elderly diner at an adjacent table congratulated a small boy on his choice of football team with the words, yor a little Gooner, aincha!, so it was the real thing; and it was beautiful, although I somehow propelled some of my egg from off the side of my plate and onto the floor during the excitement. I ate the dish again, or at least a variation on the dish additionally incorporating baked beans, at the Star Cafe in Coventry, which is part of the coach station. This second serving was okay, but the situation obliging one to petition a caterer for sachets of tomato ketchup in the absence of anything squeezy readily available at the tables, was disconcerting. As a city, Coventry has had a troubled history characterised by Hitler's bombs and whatever scrapping compelled the formation of the racially progressive Two Tone record label, so I assume there's still some concern that hooligans might use ketchup dispensers as weapons were they more freely available. Also, the sausages weren't so good as those eaten in London. I propose that this deficit results from the Star Cafe's distance from the two sausage, egg and chips epicentre and their cuisine can as such be likened to the shadow of two sausage, egg and chips cast upon the wall of Plato's cave.

No ketchup dispenser? Thanks a lot, Hitler!

Co-Op sandwich. My dad and I ate Co-Op sandwiches in the absence of pub food, which the White Bear in Shipston-on-Stour didn't seem to feature. I'm pretty sure the George, twenty yards up the road, still did pub food, but it probably would have been served on square plates and involved jus. Therefore we went across the square to the Co-Op, which had been a post office back in our day - as distinct from the Co-Op which had been Fine Fare back in our day - and which is bewilderingly situated at a mere fifty yards distance as you head for the public bogs in the Telegraph Street car park in what is a very small town - not somewhere you might expect to be served by two supermarkets, and definitely not two branches of the same supermarket virtually next door to each other. We had consumed beer, we had shared hilarious anecdotes of inept local law enforcement, and we were hungry, so sandwiches it was. We both chose bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Following purchase, we walked down to the River Stour, just by the Old Mill, and discussed things we could remember when they were all fields. Those were probably the best sandwiches I ever bought from a supermarket chiller cabinet.

The River Stour which my dad and I were able to remember when it was a field.

Doner kebab. I have been confused by the differences between English and American variants of the mighty doner, particularly with the latter being served in something more closely resembling naan bread and without chilli sauce. I suppose, given that I live in San Antonio, the absence of the seemingly crucial chilli sauce is something to do with how everything else I eat is usually drowning in the stuff. The American doner kebab is nice enough, possibly even more authentic for all I know, but I can't see it being much use at two in the morning after forty pints and a homeward bus trip to the wrong part of town with your trousers worn on your head. Somehow I failed to reacquaint myself with the mighty English doner kebab when I was last over that way, so this time I made a point of getting myself down to that kebab place on the Butts, which is an amusingly named street in Coventry rather than a sequence of arses. A crusty looking bloke with tattoos stopped me to ask for a light before I'd made it into the shop. I whipped out a lighter and he said, 'thanks - a fucking human being, at last,' which seemed to contribute to the experience somehow.

'I'm going to enjoy this,' I told the bloke behind the counter. ' I haven't had one in two years,' which led inevitably to a conversation about the state of American kebabs, and why the bread is so weird, and how Disneyland Florida isn't as great as you might think, and why people voted for Donald Trump.

The kebab was good, but not so good as I remembered, so possibly I was specifically thinking of London kebabs; unless it's just that I wasn't sufficiently pissed.

The man we discussed in the kebab shop.

Chinese takeaway. I once loved Chinese takeaways and would order them as a treat for myself on occasions when it seemed like I deserved it, and always sweet and sour pork balls with egg fried rice. Then one day - I would guess late nineties - some sort of paradigm shift occurred within the world of Chinese takeaway, sweeping away all that had been served in those tidy little foil trays and replacing it with something which seemed broader in culinary scope, but just not as nice. Thankfully this development coincided with the advent of Pizza Pan, who delivered, had an outlet on Barry Road, and who got to know me so well that all I had to do was phone up and ask for the usual please, Kristos. Where Chinese takeaway once crunched, it became a sort of warm slurry dominated by the tang of monosodium glutomate, so I moved on. A conversation about Chinese takeaway with my mother somehow resulted in our ordering from Lucky Star - who had popped a delivery menu through her letterbox at some point - despite the thrust of the conversation having been that I'd gone off Chinese takeaway and she'd never liked it in the first place. Anyway, Lucky Star proved to be lucky mostly for those who like their chicken balls to resemble scotch eggs in terms of volume and structure - bland, chewy chicken embedded in a thick mantel of bland, chewy batter. We didn't eat much of it, then pulled off the alleged batter so as to give the chicken to Geoff, next door's cat, who seemed to enjoy it more than we did. A couple of nights later, we tried again. My mother gave me, a fifty-two-year old man, a tenner and sent me to the Chinese at the end of the road. Unfortunately it was closed so I found one called Peking House up the next road along - surprising myself at the fidelity of a vaguely remembered impression of another Chinese takeaway having been somewhere in the vicinity. The food was a little better, and the inch-thick layer of batter at least had a bit of crunch, but Geoff still had most of it in the end.

Geoff, or possibly Geoff's brother.

Biscuits. It's not that you can't get biscuits in America, but choices are often limited as the market is swamped with cookies, which are soft and doughy and are therefore not biscuits. Cookies came about when a Chicago biscuiteer named Herb Cook decided he didn't have time to finish cooking a batch of biscuits because he needed to play a video game and support his local football team while eating a burger, so the cookies - as they came to be known - came out soft, and achieved popularity with those who don't like the distraction of anything crunchy while playing a video game or supporting their local football team while eating a burger. This is a shame because biscuits are fucking great where cookies are truthfully a bit shit, on the whole. Consequently I ate my way through three or four packets of Fox's ginger custard creams during my stay in England.

*: The others being the Royal family, the Beatles, Keeping Up Appearances, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Friday, 20 July 2018


It often seems as though America has mixed feelings about having gotten rid of its ties to England, and by extension, the monarchy; because for a country founded on essentially pragmatic ideals, we sure loves us some ceremony. One such ceremony is graduation. In England I attended two schools, junior and secondary, and in each case I attended for a set number of years, at the end of which I ceased to attend. I had no graduation ceremony, unless it was something so bland that I've either blanked it from memory or simply remember it as something else.

Here there are typically three stages of schooling, elementary, middle and high. At the age of fourteen, my stepson has just finished middle school. He'll be starting at high school in August, but first he must graduate, which I suppose is as good an excuse for ceremony as any.

The other day as I left the local supermarket, I myself was granted an award for having graduated the store. Everybody cheered. The manager shook my hand. We enjoyed a buffet lunch with a slide show, fond memories of my picking a particular brand of bratwurst only minutes earlier, or calculating the cheapest cat food option, then silently cursing the supermarket's continued failure to restock Newcastle Brown Ale.

Just kidding, as my wife is fond of saying.

Junior seems a little shell-shocked that this stage of his education should have come to an end, and that in a few months he will be at a different, much larger school with other kids. Bess and I feel the same. We're going to miss the place.

We find our seats in the church, where most of the ceremony will occur. The church is part of the school because it's a private religious school. I gather it has cost a bit to send our boy here, but the other side of the family are paying so we haven't had a problem with that aspect. There are seven of us in all, two parents, two grandparents, an aunt, a cousin, and myself. We sit mostly in silence waiting for the show to begin as other parents and relatives slowly drift in.

'No sign of Courtlandt,' I mutter.

'He's busy packing,' Bess tells me. 'He's going to Venezuela.'

She already told me this but I'd forgotten. Courtlandt's brother is here, but not his father; nor his mother for that matter.

The children assemble for a song and then prayers, and there's a lengthy sermon from the priest, finally an address from the school principal. The occasion is sober, so somehow it doesn't get a chance to become boring. We all understand why we're here and that today is significant.

Junior started off at a military school, a place serving as an illustration of how money doesn't always make things right. For the most part he was miserable there, and my wife's email inbox received daily complaints from alleged teaching staff noting how our kid had spent two minutes staring out of a window, or had recently enjoyed an unusually long bathroom break.

Maybe he was taking a shit and the fucker came out sideways, I used to reply. How the fuck should we know? You're the fucking teacher, aren't you?

Obviously I didn't write that, because Bess has always dealt with that side of things, for obvious reasons.

The situation, whatever it was, came to a head when our boy was given a psychiatric evaluation by a committee of twelve people charged with delving into the mystery of why he might occasionally spend two minutes staring out of a window.

Everything changed when we moved him here. Suddenly he had friends, he was clearly happier, his grades were better, and we were no longer subject to daily emails on whether or not it looked like his hair had been combed that morning. It's a small school with just eighteen kids in his year, and we feel a little as though we've got to know a few of them through him; and now it's coming to an end. For once I understand why we're having a ceremony.

I was kind of average at school.

Secondary school came as a shock after junior school. Junior school worked on an unspoken assumption of the teachers being pretty much on your side; and then I turned eleven and entered a larger, colder world in which one would regularly be yelled at for doing nothing at all, just as a reminder of who was in charge. I didn't feel particularly sentimental about the whole experience when I left.

This middle school, on the other hand, seems closer in spirit to my junior school. No-one really seems to have an enemy. The kids enjoy coming here, and the teachers appear to enjoy teaching them; and, as I say, it's all coming to an end.

We all take holy communion, going to the front and dipping our wafers in a goblet of wine, which I had previously assumed was an exclusively Catholic thing. I'm not even religious but it doesn't really matter. Ceremony is the cement by which we keep all the bits of our lives glued together, and as such it has its place.

Individual kids accept awards for achievements of one sort or another, then their graduation medal - or whatever it is - and then there are announcements about who will be going to which high school. Two others are going to Antonian with our boy, but I still get a lump in my throat as certain kids are revealed to be going further afield. Elijah gets a big cheer, which is nice and as it should be.

Elijah is a trans girl, one whose decision to attend school in the gender with which she feels most comfortable caused certain tremors in the parentsphere, because this is a religious school in Texas attended by the children of the conspicuously wealthy, present company excepted. Certain parents withdrew their children upon learning that Elijah would be attending school as a girl, perhaps fearing that the gay radiation would turn their own formerly healthy offspring into heathen faggots, or something of the sort. The Principal wrote to these parents explaining that his Christian values demanded that he show understanding and that he support Elijah's decision, which I personally thought made a nice change to how one might ordinarily have expected such a narrative to play out. In his shoes I simply would have told them to fuck off, which is probably why I'd be a poor choice for his replacement.

The board, or whoever is responsible, has asked that the Principal step down, so the rumour has it. I gather they're none too happy about the fees certain parents are no longer paying, having taken their kids somewhere with a less tolerant interpretation of Christian values.

I try to imagine how it would have been for Elijah at my own school. Her life wouldn't have been worth living.

She walks up to accept her graduation medal - or whatever it is -  and the thoughts one might anticipate arising in such a situation don't apply. It isn't a travesty, or an affront to Himself upstairs, or a man in a fucking dress, or any of the things you may consider in the event of your really, really, really needing to be angry about something.

It's just a young girl at her graduation, and one hell of a brave one, and I'm thankful that the world has at least evolved enough to allow this to take place. There's no good reason for it to be an issue.

After the ceremony we retire to the gymnasium, now converted into a dining room. There is a buffet, and the food is pretty good. We fill plates and watch a slide show of the kids, a memorial of the last four or five years, however long it has been. There are photos of their recent visit to Washington DC, then in class, engaged in science experiments or sports. There are photos of them all goofing around in the sun under blue Texas skies, and we all think about how this combination of young people will never occur again under these circumstances. The Principal does the rounds, so I make a point of shaking his hand, and as I do so, I know I am shaking the hand of a man who has made his small part of the world a better place for the people living therein.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Craft Unfair

Okay, I say to myself in unconscious homage to Henry Rowland, this time for real. It's our second crack at selling stuff from a stall, and we're feeling confident. We're nothing if not prepared.

Two weeks ago my wife and myself did our first craft fair, which was at an old people's home in Boerne. No-one came and we didn't sell much. Now we're at a bimonthly farmers and artisans market on the southside, which seems more promising. It's a regular event, the weather is good, and there are already more people here than were at our previous outing, maybe three times the head count of vendors and mostly the real thing - no thrift store clowns painted dayglo to be seen, at least not yet.

The place is outside, a drive-in cinema during the evening, thus necessitating some sort of canopy beneath which Bess and myself can set up shop. Luckily it turned out that we already had one, bought five or six years before when I found it cheap in the local supermarket. The original idea was that I could set it up and weed the garden in the shade on particularly hot days, but the setting up was more laborious than I'd anticipated, so I put it all together, took it down, then shoved it in the garage and forgot about it. Earlier in the week, I had a look for the thing, then set it up in our garden once more by way of a dry run for today. The canopy is a sheet of something artificial stretched over a lightweight frame of tubular struts. I spent about forty-five minutes failing to assemble the frame. Each time I poked the end of one tube into another, the whole thing shifted and a tube at the other end popped out. There was quite a lot of swearing, until - following my finally bothering to look at the instructions - it dawned on me that one is supposed to construct the roof support, then pull the covering over it so as to hold everything in place before attempting to attach the legs. Armed with this new information, I was able to erect the thing in about fifteen minutes without too much difficulty. One of the tubes now had a kink in it but seemed to hold up okay. The kink came from when I hurled it across the garden whilst shouting bollocks following the millionth occurrence of it having disconnected itself from a neighbour, so the struts are probably made from aluminium foil, or maybe the wrappers of 1970s chocolate bars.

I left the canopy standing overnight. The guy ropes had come out next morning, causing the whole structure to lean. I replaced the original tent pegs - or whatever the fuck you call those things - with gardening staples, which are U-shaped and much tougher, after which the canopy stayed up for another two nights without giving any indication of being about to explode, catch fire, collapse or whatever. I took this all to be a good omen, despite my having invented at least three new swear words during my initial attempt to raise the thing. I also chose to ignore the omen of Grace, one of our cats, peeing on the  sheet of covering material as I was engaged with slotting the tubes together. She backed up, raised her tail, and just let rip. The plastic material yielded quite a lot of noise when hit by this jet of liquid and Grace looked pleased. That's what I think of your shit canopy, she seemed to be saying.

Once again I've made sandwiches, a ton of pasta salad and filled a couple of flasks with iced tea, and here we are. We unload the car and dump it all next to the pitch of a guy selling wares in patriotic red, white and blue, wooden letters spelling out the word mom and so on. It's kind of windy, which you only really notice when trying to assemble what is effectively a massive kite, but we get there, albeit with some swearing; and then come to mooring it all down with garden staples, simultaneous to my gaining new insight into just how hard Texas soil can be after baking under a hot sun month after month. I hurt my fingers trying to push the things into the earth. I may as well be attempting to push nails into concrete, so it necessitates some swearing.

'Fuck this,' I hear myself saying. 'Let's go home.'

'Here.' Our neighbour comes over. He's taken pity on us because I expect it's obvious that we're new to this game. He has a couple of bright red saddle bags and he ties one to each of the guy ropes I've been unable to secure. 'These bags were cheap at the dollar store,' he tells us. 'I fill them with sand. You can get the sand at Lowes.'

I pick up one of the bags then place it back down. It's pretty heavy, so I get to work on my display frames. I've made them myself, and it took a few weeks - wooden beams no longer than four foot so as to fit in the car, holes drilled so I can bolt them all together like Meccano. Usually each would stand seven foot tall, but the canopy won't allow for such height, so instead of one frame upon which I would display twelve canvases, I have two four foot frames holding six canvases each, one set up at either side of our pitch. Each frame has holes in the feet through which I can drive tent pegs so as to keep them from blowing over, except I have the same problem with the guy ropes, and I can't ask our neighbour for more sandbags. In the end, each frame gets two pegs each, one front, one back, and even these I haven't been able to drive all of the way in. The frames rock back and forth in the wind every so often.

Between the frames we have the table upon which Bess sets up her stones and other things she has painted. We also have a couple of folding chairs. At length we're sort of ready and all we have to do is wait for the crowds. Some vendors are still arriving and setting up, so I guess we've done all right.

We sit and wait, watching the shadow of the canopy creep across the grass at the front of our pitch. We realise we're sat in full Texas sun, and that we should have set up facing south. It's going to be a hot fucking day. The wind keeps us sort of cool, and if things are flapping a little in the breeze, we should be okay.

'Did you see the other guy's paintings?' Bess asks. She points down the line, past our helpful neighbour to another pitch selling canvases.

'I'm going to have a look around,' I tell her.

I cross the field to the screen of the drive-in, a peculiar deco construct painted sky blue on the far side. This side is a curved wall with a raised concrete stage at its base. It reminds me of the sound mirrors along the Kentish coast, back in England. Facing the screen is our semicircle of pitches, thirty or forty stalls selling all manner of stuff. There are houseplants and cacti, and the homegrown vegetables - potatoes, squashes, and peppers - look pretty good. Then there's the usual jewellery, the obligatory and puzzling presence of an insurance company, or possibly someone selling double-glazing, and of course wooden toys, some hardware. Two other stalls sell painted canvases. One features mostly views of the Alamo, technically competent but probably reliant upon how much you like the Alamo. One of their pictures is on sale for $200, which makes me feel good because my paintings are cheaper and - I would like to think - more interesting.

The next stall features canvas renderings of Harley Quinn, the Joker, Batman, various superheroes and cartoon characters, and nebulously identified Aztec rulers copied from what were probably illustrated children's books. The colours are bold, but otherwise it's ugly and amateurish, and is as such a further boost to my confidence in the worth of my own work.

Having walked the full circle, I'm back at our pitch.

'How was it?'

'Mostly pretty good,' I say. 'Better than Boerne.'

'I'll have a look around in a bit.'

'You should.'

The punters begin to arrive, hardly a tsunami, but we nevertheless experience more interest during the first thirty minutes than we had for the entire day at the retirement home. This seems encouraging. Bess sells two painted rocks, and everyone seems to like my canvases. One woman additionally notes that, ranging from $60 to $40 based on how much I'd personally be prepared to pay, they seem reasonably priced; although she isn't buying.

We sit. We wait. My pictures sway in the wind.

An old guy with a soft voice and the biggest ears I've ever seen tells us how he himself was once a painter. He likes my work. We both know he's not buying but we don't mind because he seems such a nice guy.

'Did you see those ears?'

'I couldn't really miss them,' Bess says.

'What did he say anyway? I was trying to listen to his story but I kept thinking about his ears. You know that your ears supposedly never stop growing for as long as you live?'

'It was distracting,' she agrees.

'He must have been about three-hundred.'

The wind steps it up a notch. Out tablecloth flaps but is kept in place by the weight of the painted rocks. The sun is really punishing on our backs and the tops of our heads, but the piped music coming from a speaker set up near the stage is mostly old blues records,  some bluegrass and Tejano - an improvement on the autotuned stadium country we had piped all day at the old folks' home.

'This is still preferable to Boerne,' I say, and the wind gets a little stronger. We watch the canopy shift restlessly for another half hour, interspersed by conversations with people who don't buy anything.

Suddenly the canopy is leaning. One of the guy ropes has popped out, the one at my back. Its opposite sags accordingly.

'Fuck's sake.'

I stand and another gust hits my canvases on the frame to the right, twisting them forward and snapping the wooden beam to which they are secured. The whole structure seems suddenly drunk.

'Bloody hell!'

'It'll be okay!' Bess rushes forward in an attempt to set things right, but there's really nothing she can do.

'I think I've just about had enough.'

I loosen the clamps holding my paintings to the broken wood, because I'm going to take these canvases back to the car, having nothing on which to display them. I find I am also stacking up the paintings from the undamaged frame without having consciously decided to do so. I can't sit in the blistering heat wondering whether the wind is going to screw it all up for us, not all afternoon, not for another three hours. A great deal of preparation went into this and it seems as though it has been in vain. This undertaking has felt like one of those dreams in which you're back at school without trousers.

'It's okay,' I tell Bess. 'I'm just packing up my stuff. We don't have to leave.'

She's already wrapping up her rocks and placing them back in the travel bag. I feel awkward, as though I've ruined it.

We're giving up, even though it's only noon.

'This was only forty dollars,' our helpful neighbour tells us as we cast envious glances at his canopy, a sturdier affair than ours, steel bars and springs which collapse down to something that fits in the trunk, and which can be assembled in minutes - as we've seen because everyone else has the same type of canopy.

It turns out that Grace was right.

Next time will be better, we tell ourselves as we drive home to our air conditioning.

Friday, 6 July 2018

More Letters Never Sent

Back in August, 2014, I took to the habit of saying exactly what I felt needed to be said when engaging with others through social media, then not saying it, instead filing my testimony away with others of its kind in a place where it could do no harm. This practice has saved a lot of arguments which probably wouldn't have been worth having, and gets it out of my system. Having already shared a golden cornucopia of these passive-aggressive - and probably a little confusing given the lack of context - treasures, here's another helping in the absence of my having done anything even remotely interesting this week.

You know who else speaks as they see it? Very small children who have yet to develop the intelligence to reason anything through. I realise this will sound harsh, but then truth hurts, as they say; but if anyone remembers being about fifteen and believing you know everything there is to know, then compare that to how fucking ridiculous that same fifteen-year old seems once you're a little older. That's how Katy Hopkins looks to those of us who have tried to keep on learning as we've grown older, and that's why we get called whinning lefties (sic) by people who can't spell the principal language of their own country and who haven't made any effort to understand any argument which isn't their own, as prepackaged from the usual sources - because they're intimidated and feel justifiably inferior.

Sorry if that makes anyone feel sad. It's because you're thick, not because we're the liberal media elite. Please feel free to address this argument when you've learned how to compose a sentence using your own words.


I'm not scared of it in the least. I simply regard it as pointless, at best a soon to be technological appendix on the way to a device which might actually do something that needs doing rather than just saving idiots the effort of walking three feet to the dimmer switch.


Given that my wife's entire point was about semantic riddles rather than a discussion of gender politics, piss off and please try to avoid making assumptions about what potentially bigoted views others may or may not hold based on a joke you either didn't understand or chose to take as a statement for reasons best known to yourself. Ta.


Commiserations. If it's any consolation, my worst ever disaster spiral ended a day of that sort of stuff with myself sat on the toilet suffering from mysterious explosions of such force as to warrant my screaming, how the fucking fuck did it get up there?, having somehow managed to blast some of the substance of which I speak up onto the light fitting in the ceiling. I hope your day gets better.


Not to be sniffed at, I know, but much as I love those Sleaford chaps, Dustbin of Sound was superior to English Tapas in my opinion. I haven't heard any of the rest but I suspect you should be higher in that list.


I have a good friend from way back who belongs to the Countryside Alliance and speaks from actual experience of everything involved with the hunt, and we had quite a long talk about it. His take on it was that yes, the hunt is cruel, but so is nature; that hunting is a necessary evil in that the countryside is an artificial environment resulting from centuries of agriculture and therefore requires artificial maintenance of this sort, and the hunt is statistically less barbaric than a farmer taking potshots at foxes with a rifle, and most likely maiming rather than killing. That was his position, which I could sort of respect in relation to his agreeing that the hunt is nevertheless barbaric and that the chaps in the red coats are mostly overmoneyed arseholes. My take on it is that if it's genuinely so vital that the fox population be controlled, then simply there needs to be a better way of doing it. 


Funnily enough I've been thinking about Oasis of late, partially inspired by stumbling across some interview with Liam Gallagher in which he made me laugh, despite my dislike of the guy.


I can't be bothered to read the above four million comments, but you should probably up your game when it comes to spelling and grammar before criticising others for their own, which I offer only as a helpful suggestion. Also, describing those who dislike Trump as cranky, obsessed or whatever it was you said is somewhat undermined by your following and posting on a facebook page which would seem to be mostly pitched against Trump. Do you see?

Whatever your reasons may be for supporting the man are made redundant by the childish way in which you show that support, which really looks just like a basic reactionary dislike of persons who use long, fancy words.


I only really mentioned the cost in contrast to prices in England, admittedly as of about six or seven years ago. There used to be a few small places where vegetables were reasonably cheap in my bit of London - or at least which I could afford, although I was thankfully a couple of quid above minimum wage at the time. Here it mostly seems to be massive chain stores full of facelifty types, so we seem to be at the extreme towards which England seems to be heading - is what I mean.


It's probably significant that, having moved to the US, I'm no longer exposed to the same bits of music used as soundtrack for trailers for TV sporting events - New Order, Moby, Fatboy Slim, Underworld and so on. I think I'd already heard most of this record just on trailers for tennis alone - but without that...


I watched three series and that seemed like enough for me. There was some good stuff in there, but I was beginning to find it a bit too depressing.


I am, and I'm going to insist on an extra religious one too.


As with all of these guys, he pulls a spooky face and whispers no-one knows in a ghostly voice, and that's really all he has. I've heard similar arguments made regarding structures in Mexico, and it's all bullshit.

These simple but happy jungle bunnies can't possibly have built this without help from someone a bit more advanced, you know - a bit more like us - so therefore it can only have been blah blah blah…

It's explaining things which either don't require an explanation or which already have a better explanation, just a less spooky one. This stuff pisses me off, and it pisses me off that people will read Graham Hancock before they'll read an actual archeological source, which you would think might be the first choice if they're that interested.


I'm never watching another Philip K. Dick adaptation ever again. I don't need any more blue and orange in my life, or another chiselled Keanu crying in the pouring rain about whether he's even real. Twenty times bitten, twenty-one times shy, as they admittedly don't actually say.


I've got to say I have doubts about this one. Pensioners are definitely getting stiffed big time, but I'd fucking love to know how an illegal immigrant goes about claiming that weekly hardship allowance if they're illegal. I'm additionally sceptical that our 2018 illegal immigrant takes home eight-thousand quid per annum more than I did in a full time job back in 2009. Anyone can type a bunch of invented statistics on facebook and get it shared. Typing out illegal muzzie pedos get a special pedo grant of nine million quid a year while our veterans get nuffink doesn't make it true. This sort of thing really doesn't look like it gives a shit about pensioners so much as stirring up the usual white supremacist bullshit.


Some of the opinions expressed in this thread make me so tired I want to fucking punch something. I've already replied three times then deleted the comment. Anyway, I was raised with an inherent distrust of authority due to having grown up reading the Bash Street Kids rather than Superman, so yes - fiction about good little soldiers doing the job the way it should be done is dull, which is why film and television tends to be dull; because as a medium it is at heart conservative and authoritarian, with super episodes of great shows featuring Cumberbatch dished out as a reward for loyal service or consumption of goods. It is at best commodified rebellion like Buffy the Lucrative Franchise, Product Trek, or Doctor Collectible so that we get to feel a little bit dangerous as a sweetener to the drudgery. Losers and fuck ups - as defined by the spectacle - make for a much more interesting story.


Still, on a more positive note, at least whilst the common man has his gun, we know a corrupt authoritarian government full of nest-feathering shitbags will never rise to power in America because constitutional amendment mumble mumble...


Oh Fuck - it's David Tibet was coincidentally also the name of a projected hidden camera comedy game show on Channel 4. Unfortunately I think it stalled at an argument over using the Horst Wessel song as the main theme tune, even though it would have been totally ironic, obviously.


If you're referring to Islam, as was the bloke I quoted, that seems to be suggesting there's such a thing as a thousand-year old culture in which aggression and rape are culturally ingrained as normal behaviour, which is the position taken by far-right racist organisations and which doesn't seem to refer to anything I recognise in the real world. It's the same argument as black people cannot be civilised, so I hope that isn't what you're saying.


I disliked that one with some intensity, plus it probably doesn't help that I've never been that bothered about van Gogh. There are many other painters of that era which I much prefer.


Okay, enough. I'm out of this group. Three days and I've had enough of people screaming about keeping cats inside when, you know, maybe some of us are thinking about the cats rather than ourselves. If you can't stand the thought of a cat living a happy life outside - and yes there are dangers - then maybe a cat isn't the pet for you. Maybe get a goldfish. Yesterday or maybe the day before there was a post by a woman whose cat had a broken leg, greeted with a mix of well-wishers, the understandably concerned, and people screaming either keep cat inside or we need to find out who did this and kill them. Some of you even referred to the female cat as a male, presumably not having bothered to read the thread. Frankly, I felt ashamed. Some of you are clearly wonderful people with great cats, others seem driven to cause drama.


Where was it moving by the way? I saw plenty of big-eyed Mockney manga girls boo-hooing because I wuv woo, Doctor Woctor with deafening sad music blowing both speakers just in case anyone didn't get it, and yes I saw the one about celebrated tea-towel artist Vincent van Gogh (the personified Dire Straits album of modernism) but I didn't see anything moving. I must have missed that one, which additionally casts doubt upon it being unmissable.


By way of example, I once linked some article about the impending extinction of elephants on friendface. One of the first replies came from Tim of Warwick posting in this usual real-life Alan Partridge spirit about what a shame it was because of course, as we all know, elephants are a nuisance and must be culled in certain parts of Africa blah blah blah economic sense blah blah blah lefty cloud cuckoo land blah blah blah - the thing was that, whilst he may have had some point relating to something existing in the real world, banging on about the necessity of shooting elephants in response to something suggesting that there are reasons it might not be such a great idea seemed extraordinarily misjudged to me, and my first thought was simply, oh fuck off, you stupid wanker. That was also my second and third thought, based partially on Tim not actually having much experience of anything beyond the end of his road, then standing as a UKIP candidate in local elections, and yet somehow believing his testimony to have some value despite all of the above.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Craft Fair

I paint a canvas every Sunday afternoon, just something small about the size of an album cover. I'm working with oils. I've been painting with acrylics for decades, but I'm new to oils and the techniques involved are very different so I'm having to relearn a lot of things. I've been at it since the beginning of the year and I now have a stack of canvases which I'm ready to sell.

Bess meanwhile has been painting rocks for a year or more, decorating stones with mandalas and related designs of increasing complexity. She protests that she has no artistic ability, but the evidence of her work suggests otherwise. She's posted pictures of her rocks on facebook and strangers have asked to buy them.

Having both arrived at the same place, we've decided to hit the craft fairs, to try selling our work from a stall. We've looked at a few such events and have settled on a fair held at a retirement community in Boerne as a good place to start. The pitch costs twenty dollars and there are no weird restrictions about bringing our own food. We had a look at the fair held regularly at the Black Swan Inn just down the road, and they were asking fifty dollars a pitch with a ban on anyone inclined towards self-catering, presumably so as to guarantee business for whichever food trucks might be in attendance.

So now it's Saturday morning. We're up early. We've fed the cats and we drive out to Boerne to set up, ready for when the doors open at nine. I've spent the last week making a free standing wooden frame upon which I can display my canvases, seven foot tall, but it all comes apart so that it's no big deal getting it in the car. It's made with beams of poplar bolted together and I'm quietly proud of it. My inner pessimist has already predicted that no-one will give a shit about my paintings, but I will have at least one Hank Hill type conversation about the pleasures of woodworking and craftsmanship.

We arrive at the Kronkosky Senior Center around eight and it takes about half an hour to set up. I bolt my frame together and attach rows of canvases using small G-clamps. Bess spreads a black cloth across the circular table we've been allotted, then unwraps all of her rocks. There seem to be hundreds of them, as well as a few vinyl albums she's repurposed and decorated with similar designs.

The hall is of medium size, most likely a canteen during the week. There are fourteen other pitches, described thus in my diary:

  • Custom hair bows by emo-country goth chick, her Tristan-esque boyfriend*, and their dog.
  • Black lady selling unpleasant kitsch ornaments repainted in clashing dayglo colours.
  • Overcharging artist community of wizened burnouts asking $200 for the one painting I actually liked.
  • Crazy grandma in red, selling items of redwear.
  • First timer selling mason jars as tissue dispensers and personalised Starbucks cups.
  • Cactus lady.
  • Quilts advertising John Deere heavy agricultural machinery.
  • Crochet stuff lady.
  • Hostile jewellery lady who writes books about driving the arrogant British out of Ghana.
  • Gay men selling pots of plants mixed in with gnome housing.
  • Blind artist, formerly a Brigadier in the USAF.
  • Tacky arrowhead art.
  • Soap woman.
  • Creepy custom handbag guy.

Nine o'clock ambles past, and we eventually realise that the doors are indeed open by virtue of three or four very old people seen wandering amongst the stalls. They don't seem to be buying anything, but it's clear that they aren't selling either. The big rush comes about an hour later with numbers up in the sevens and eights, and all very old.

'These are people from the retirement home,' I tell Bess.

'I get the feeling they didn't advertise very well,' she says.

'How far are we from Boerne, like the main strip?'

'About a mile.'

The main strip of Boerne is crammed with stores selling antiques, trinkets, nick-nacks, collectibles, and other junk, and it gets pretty busy, particularly at the weekend and on a warm day such as today. We should hopefully begin to experience some of the run off any minute now. It's still early. No-one goes out before noon.

'I'm bored,' I say, 'I think I'll have a sandwich. Do you want one?'

'Not yet.'

I've made sandwiches, corned beef for myself, ham and mustard for Bess. I've also made pasta salad and filled a couple of flasks with iced tea. I eat one of my sandwiches, reasoning that I'll save the other one for later as something to look forward to.

No-one is looking at my paintings. They are behind us but against the wall at an angle. I wonder if it might not occur to people that they are for sale, that they're just part of the hall, but I'm not sure what else I can do. It's not like they can't be seen. I've been painting simple still life compositions - flowers, cacti, and a couple of deer skulls, because these are things I see in Texas. It occurs to me that paintings of skulls might not be the sort of thing likely to sell well in a retirement home.

'These are nice,' an old woman coos over Bess's rocks. She circles the table picking up various examples for closer inspection, then wanders off to buy a fucking horrible plaster clown painted orange and green from the next table along.

Bess and I sit and stare at the woman's wares, scarcely able to believe anyone would try to sell such abominations. We guess that she goes around thrift stores buying cheap, kitschy ornaments from the sixties and seventies, then brightens them up a bit. Somehow she found a way to make that stuff worse. We should probably be impressed.

'What's with the woman in red?' I ask.

There's a round old lady at the other side of the hall dressed entirely and flamboyantly in red. Even her hat is red. All the clothes for sale at her table - all hand made by the look of it - are red.

'It's some sort of senior thing,' Bess explains.

'Like black power for old people?'

'Kind of.'

'So cute!' Another woman is examining a rock. 'My grandson will love this!'

The rock is one of the three or four that I've painted with silly cartoon characters, just little things which take about five minutes to do because Bess asked me to do them. This one is a banana with a face and a big grin - the sort of thing one used to see in the margins of comic strips by Leo Baxendale.

'Three dollars,' says Bess, and we have our first sale of the day. I'm a bit embarrassed that it's one of mine.

Another hour dribbles past.

Aunt Edi shows up. She has driven all the way out here to lend moral support, but also to buy a painting from me. It's for her friend Becky who is visiting from Phoenix, but who is presently staying in San Antonio. Edi takes photos with her phone, and Becky relays that she is interested in a particular painting of the nopal and agave cacti in our garden.

'How much?' asks Edi.

Going by the shite I've already seen at other craft fairs, I'm underpricing myself, but I've divided my paintings into two groups - those which actually I like, and those which I'm not too sure about, for which I'm asking $60 and $40 respectively. I'm trying to sell paintings, and I'm going by what I myself would pay. I'm not trying to skin anyone.

'That's forty dollars,' I tell Edi.

Becky relays that she is very happy with this and so that's another sale. She also relays that she was looking for something which would remind her of Texas when she heads back to Arizona, and so my painting of cacti apparently ticks all of the right boxes. The strange thing for me is that the painting was my first effort, one I could never quite decide whether I liked it or not. It was the one during which I learned that you can't paint in oils using techniques learned from working with acrylic, so if it came out okay - as Becky clearly believes - then it was in spite of me. I didn't actually anticipate anyone ever wanting to buy it, so that makes me happy.

Edi takes a seat and shoots the breeze with us for another hour, then leaves.

Bess eats a sandwich.

A couple of people buy a few of her painted rocks.

An old guy asks, 'How many records did you ruin making these?' He means the vinyl albums upon which Bess has painted her designs. She picks up job lots of junk albums no-one wants and decorates them, because it's 2018 and no-one sane still cares about Ferrante & Teicher's Bouquet of Hits collection.

'Ha! Ha!' we respond because we can't tell whether the old guy is joking or just being a cunt.

Noon arrives and I do a circuit of the hall to see what other people are trying to sell. I've waited until noon so as to break up the day a bit.

Our fellow first timer seems nice, but the stuff she's selling - and which people are actually buying, it should be noted - seems weird to me. The personalised Starbucks cups are, as described, generic plastic cups from Starbucks to which she has added Mark's Cup, for one example, perfectly lettered and everything. I'm not sure who would want to buy such a thing - someone called Mark, I suppose.

I stop at the other stall trying to sell oil paintings. They seem like old hands at this thing and there's a bunch of people at the table. Their canvases are huge, some vaguely representational, nothing too kitschy, and a few abstracts, but the sort of abstracts which tend to be painted by people who paint abstracts because they otherwise can't actually paint.

'These aren't all by one person?' I ask.

'There are three of us,' the woman explains. 'We're an artists' community.'

Of everyone here today, they seem the most at odds with a consumer demographic which will pay for a unicorn in violet, silver and turquoise.

'How much is that one?' I indicate a small portrait of a woman, something vaguely post-impressionist and quite nice.

One of them picks it up and studies the reverse. 'Two-hundred.'

Fuck me, I don't actually say, but I think it. 'Well - good luck,' I offer as a fellow artist trying to sell to senior citizens, a group notoriously reluctant to part with their money.

I pause at the jewellery stall because there are books. I pick one and study the cover.

'I wrote those,' the woman tells me in a defensive tone.

I read the blurb on the back, something about people of Ghana pitted against the arrogance of the English colonial forces at the turn of the nineteenth century.

'I know all about the arrogance of the English,' I chuckle in an attempt to break the ice, and to convey that I'm impressed by anyone who has published their own novel.

'Have you been there?'

'Well, I'm from there.'

'Where are you from?'

'England, I mean. Not Ghana. Have you lived in Ghana?'

'Yes, I lived in Ghana.'

I guessed this from what is written on the back of the book, and because her accent is an unfamiliar hybrid of something or other.

'I've been to North Africa. Well, Morocco, which I know isn't the same.'

She looks at me.

'I lived in London. I knew a few blokes from Ghana.'

'The novels are ten dollars each.'

'Well, I'll probably look back a bit later.' I smile, unsure how best to remove myself from her strangely frosty presence.

Maybe she just hates the English.

Back at the table, we eat our pasta salad. Bess has sold a few more rocks.

The lady in red is now browsing. 'These are very nice,' she says. 'I'd buy one but I'm trying to get rid of everything before I die.'

The organisers asked to stay until three, but a couple of tables have already given up and gone home, and it's clear that there isn't going to be an early afternoon surge.

Bess goes off in search of soda.

The woman with the horrible clowns picks up a rock as she passes by our stall. 'You did this?'

'My wife painted them.'

'I can't even draw a straight line!'

I smile because I don't know how else to respond.

Bess returns and I relate the exchange for her consideration. We both look at the table of dayglo clowns and Disney characters and wonder how she's managed to sell anything.

'Did you hear what she said to the goth chick?'

'No,' I say.

'They were talking about their dog, and how it's a service dog. She just said, I hate dogs!'

'What a lovely woman!'

We sit and watch as more tables vanish like stars going out during the final heat death of the universe.

'I sure have heard a lot of country music today,' I say.

We've been tuned to a country station since we got here, twanging and whining across the hall, hour after hour. That said, it's probably not so much country music as what we now have instead of country music - which is like country music but with autotune, trap drum machine pinging away, and Jed, Jethro, or Tammy whining about poor cellphone reception in rural areas.

At two we decide to call it a day.

We've made about eighty dollars, all told.

I sold a painting to someone I already knew.

Bess sold a few rocks, but considering how most of them cost just a couple of dollars, and they're beautifully painted, she should have cleaned up; which at least means it wasn't us.

It was them.

*: Resembling Tristan, whom my wife knows at work.