Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Writers' Group

It's late 2007 and I've been writing short stories. At the beginning of the year I finished my second novel, the second destined to never be published - at least not in its present form - and I've been thinking about this writing thing. I've traditionally grown bored of just about everything else I've ever tried to do before it went anywhere. This is the problem with honesty when applied to one's own endeavours. If you're doing it properly - whatever it may be - you're fated to never be entirely satisfied, which is why most people elect to suspend critical faculties and just churn out drivel with aspirations of nothing greater than adequacy. That'll do, they tell themselves. Besides, who'll know the difference? Fuck It.

I've been writing short stories, really just stupid jokes expanded and embedded into something with beginning, middle and end. It's like playing riffs on a guitar, doing the thing over and over until the fingers learn to get the job done without your having to think about it. I'm trying to get better, but I'm more or less having to teach myself, so I start to look at the noticeboard in the library to see if there are any writers' groups in the area.

Miraculously I find one, and sometime around the beginning of 2008 I am sat in the front room of a house in Woodward Road with four or five others. Woodward Road is where the real money lives, at least in East Dulwich. It's a nice place - cases lined with books, not even paperbacks, and a pine coffee table - so as usual I'm subconsciously waiting for the security guard to escort me from the premises. There are a million bedrooms upstairs, and the staircase has a bannister of the kind children once slid down in plummy tales of the forties. Enid Blyton was born within five hundred yards radius of where I'm now sat with my mug of tea and a biccy. In just over a year I will be delivering mail to this house in my job as a postman, and I will once again encounter my hostess, but of course she won't remember me and will find my greeting confusing, like I'm a fan asking for an autograph.

Today though, we've all been introduced. She reads a story she's had published in some women's magazine - Family Circle or one of those. Against my expectation, it's very good.

Richard reads some of what he's been working on. It resembles science-fiction - which comes as something of a relief to me - and it's well-written, but there is an off-putting subtext relating to Richard's earlier comments made about his correspondence with another more famous Richard, namely Dawkins. He and Joan - a much older member of the group - discuss some ongoing campaign intended to get Dawkins to admit to being a twat for not liking God, or something of the sort. It doesn't sound unreasonable in spirit, but this shared view of themselves as thorns in the side of a person who may or may not have bothered to read their letters scribbled in green crayon seems cranky.

Dan reads a couple of short stories, vignettes I suppose you would call them. He has the common touch, something which sounds like inherent talent and an ear for dialogue. Later he joins me outside the front door for a smoke and we talk about Charles Bukowski, which is nice. He shows me his book, copies of which he has had individually published through a website called Lulu. I'm impressed.

The woman who organised the thing, who runs the group, reads part of a story about junkies, but it doesn't ring true. It's well-written but feels voyeuristic, stuffed with gastronomically enunciated fucks and shits as though revelling in its own filth, like Irvine Welsh sat with his writers circle, each competing to see who has the most outrageous junkie anecdote.

I chanced upon this gentleman who routinely shot up using the vein in his old chap. My, dear fellow, it was utterly ghastly. You can't imagine...

The story about junkies doesn't really work read aloud by Libby Purves on Woman's Hour just before Carla Lane pops in to tell us about her latest unfunny sitcom. I ask the author whether this stuff is autobiographical in any sense, feeling certain that it isn't.

'I work in social services,' she explains with a smile which answers my question. She's an anthropologist.

I think of the junkies I've known - dull and deeply unglamorous, just walk-on parts in the lives of the rest of us, not even interestingly dangerous and definitely nothing worth boasting about when in the sort of company which might find them exotic. Maybe I've just known the wrong junkies.

Finally, Joan reads. She's old with white hair and a sad, weatherbeaten face. She's not quite stately, but she moves slowly as though treading with care upon what path still remains. She isn't here because she's hoping to get published. She just writes.

She reads a story about a young woman on the day of her wedding, and the period detail suggests the thirties or maybe the forties. The groom never arrives. He's been shagging the bride's sister all this time, and the two of them have run away together. Joan's voice is clipped, each word spoken just above a whisper, and with a wrench of profound discomfort I recognise the account as a true story. This happened to her, and she's been trying to claw her way back from it ever since.

She concludes the account and it feels as though a great weight has been lifted, or at least that it has been lifted from the rest of us.

I read a short story called The Sixth Day, chosen because it's supposed to be funny, or is at least reliant on a sense of the absurd, and I hope this will work for my audience of strangers. Because I've been writing science-fiction, it feels as though I've avoided baths, showers and a change of clothes for the last week, and now I'm about to read out a list of the bestest characters from Babylon 5 and Stargate: SG1, followed by thoughts upon who would win in a fight with whom. The Sixth Day is just over seven-thousand words, and as I reach the end of the first page I begin to appreciate that it's far too long to be read in its entirety. We're going to be here all fucking evening unless someone stops me, which of course I hope they won't because I want them to like it; but actually I do because the sound of my own droning voice stumbling over sentences apparently composed by a self-important twelve-year old brings me almost physical pain. Everyone laughs in the right places, but I'm so aware of all that is wrong with what I've written that I just want it to end. There are certain crimes against grammar and composition which will forever elude detection until you've heard them read out in your own voice before a group of people whom you're hoping to impress.

Eventually somehow, it's over.

'There were rather a lot of adjectives,' Richard points out, not unkindly, and there really were.

Five years later, I've applied all that I learned from the writers' group - at least the three meetings I attended. I've been published and I'm now living in San Antonio, Texas, way over the Other Side of the World which, coincidentally, was the title of the second novel destined to never be published, the one rewritten as Against Nature. I'm still teaching myself how to write and I think I'm better at it these days, in so much as that I'm finely attuned to my own screw-ups even if I'm not always immediately sure how to set them right. I look for a local writers' group, although this time it's more of a social thing because my wife is worried that I will wither away if deprived of human company. She doesn't really realise that I'm just not that sociable, but I guess it might be fun so I find something on the internet.

We meet in a coffee house called La Taza, something like twenty of us all sat around a table in an area specially cordoned off for the occasion. Everybody gets five to ten minutes, reading either the homework - usually a thousand words on a subject decided at the previous meeting - or whatever they've been working on if they've been working on anything. We take turns, working anti-clockwise around the table. The meeting is organised by a Vietnam veteran called Gene, an older, immediately likeable guy. He speaks in a soft voice and reads a story about something he saw in Vietnam, something he saw from a helicopter as I recall. He has the gravity and the presence of a man who has been in proximity to events so horrible that they cannot be described. He has nothing to prove to anyone and his reading reduces the room to silence just as did Joan's account of her ruined wedding.

Others read but leave no strong impression until we swing around to my side of the table. At the far end is the one person reading from an open laptop rather than loose sheets of paper or a notebook. He has a beard like Philip K. Dick and as our attention turns to him, he taps at the touchpad, closing a few windows and locating the document upon which he is currently working. It's as though we've interrupted him but he doesn't mind. He smiles and delivers a preamble, science-fiction awards, things he plans to do, things about which he is hopeful, then eventually he reads for ten blandly, competent minutes - meetings in slick futuristic cities.

Nevertheless, he's preferable to the next guy - Roy, or something like that. Roy is balding and bespectacled with large lips which appear permanently moist, maybe early forties but it's hard to tell. He looks as though he's been drawn by Dan Clowes.

'What do you have with you, Roy?' Gene asks. 'Do you have the latest installment for us?'

Roy is apparently a regular, and he's been giving us a chapter at a time. 'I'll need to ask the minors to leave the table for a short while, if that's okay?' he says, and there are a few noises of amusement or maybe anticipation, although probably not so raucous as you might get in England. This is Texas, and at least some of the group are either God-fearing or else not well disposed towards an excess of agricultural language.

A young-looking guy who read earlier stands and goes to buy coffee from the counter at the far end of the shop. He is followed by a bored-looking girl who has been playing with her phone most of the time. I would guess she is about sixteen and couldn't give a shit about the writers' group, but her mother does, and that's why she's here.

Roy watches the two of them depart, and then gives us a recap of the story so far. It's a spy thriller. We rejoin the narrative in a hotel bedroom in some exotic place associated with casinos. Two women have recently enjoyed sexual congress with a dynamic man, and Roy's descriptions focus on straps playfully tugged from shoulders, lingering glances, terse words delivered icily and all of the usual crap you would expect. Worse is that his voice drones and he stutters and seems to have difficulty reading his own writing. Not one sentence escapes his lips without having doubled back upon itself, but eventually - thankfully - he's done.

'The plot thickens,' someone observes, which is the kindest that can be said.

I read an excerpt from Against Nature, which seems to go down well, and both Roy and Philip K. Dick are eager to speak with me once we're done. Roy in particular seems to be engaged in an attempt to tell me about his writing for reasons I don't quite follow. I'd much rather talk to Gene, but never mind.

For the next meeting I tackle the homework with one-thousand or thereabouts words on the subject of gnomes and cannibalism. Roy splutters through the next lurid chapter, which is once again suffixed with somebody observing that the plot thickens.

The problem with all of this is that with such numbers in attendance, we're just taking turns at the equivalent of a microphone. There's no time for feedback, no-one to tell me I'm really hammering those adjectives into the ground, or to tell Roy that spy thrillers might not be his forte. There's no nipping outside for a ciggie and discussion of Charles Bukowski, so I leave it at two meetings.

Eventually I encounter Roy again, beyond the group. I cycle past him each morning on the Tobin Trail. In fact I've been cycling past him every day for about six months and somehow it's taken me this long to work out where I recognise him from. Etiquette demands that those using the trail generally nod, exchange a greeting or acknowledge each other in some way as they pass because that's good manners, and Roy distinguishes himself by doing none of these. Having waved at Roy or said good morning a couple of times, I  eventually gave up. He's always on the trail with two old, slow moving people which I guess must be his parents. I also guess that the elaborate sexual scenarios of his spy thrillers are probably not drawn from experience, aside from that he possibly spends a lot of time thinking about them.

I used to wave or nod my head in greeting, oblivious to our having met, and he'd just glare at me. After a while I dispensed with the acknowledgement, leaving just the glare. It's as though he's daring me to say something, or he somehow resents my presence in this part of his life. It's as though I've seen him blow sailors, a whole boat's worth all lined up and rubbing their hands together in anticipation, one after another, and now I have power over him.

I have no idea what the look could mean.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


Texas is hot at this time of year, and it's difficult to appreciate quite what that means until you've lived in it. As with anything, just visiting is something different. Back in England, I'd fallen into the habit of spending most of October dreading the approach of winter, followed by several months of freezing wet misery and darkness, and most of that time spent working outdoors in close proximity to the freezing wet misery and darkness. Do I really want to move to a country which won't oblige me to spend six months of each year thinking about topping myself whilst shivering and waiting for my socks to dry? was never a question I had to think about at any great length.

I moved, assuming that it would be the end of weather-induced melancholia for me; but instead the calendar simply swapped around, so now it's July and August which are the toughest months. The heat soars to such extremes that I'm obliged to get all outdoor activity done before midday - shopping, gardening, cycling or whatever - then take shelter inside with the AC turned up full in every room. It isn't quite a symmetrical inversion of how much I once dreaded winter, because it doesn't last so long and I'd rather be too hot than too cold, but it can still be an endurance test, a period of time during which you just have to keep on going until it's done and you can breath again; and it is unfortunately during such times that I tend to notice other reasons to be less than cheerful, and as the days get hotter and the soil turns to dust, it becomes more and more difficult to keep going forward.

I am not an inherently happy individual. I experience happiness but it isn't my natural state of being, because that which makes me happy is by definition fleeting and impermanent, and the world is full of depressing shit, and depressing shit tends to be eternal and enduring.

Rather than happiness, I aspire to contentment, which is simply purpose combined with the absence of depressing shit - either because I don't know about the depressing shit, or because I'm ignoring it for the sake of maintaining my sanity. This usually just means I'm ignoring facebook. Most of the time I maintain a general sense of contentment because on the whole I'm exceptionally lucky in terms of my lot; and certain things season my contentment with happiness: my wife and our home, decent food, the wilderness around San Antonio, books and music and cats...

I'm not even sure how many we have these days.

There are seven cats inside, and an indeterminate number of strays which I also feed in the mornings - five at present. They sit in the yard casting a meaningful gaze at the back door when I get up in the morning, each one waiting to be fed. A couple of them have become so tame that it's difficult to keep myself from thinking of them as our cats, as part of our extended family; although the rest are undeniably feral. They seem pleased to see me, but they keep their distance.

It is August. The heat is punishing, shifting up into three figures on some days. The creek has dried, no water anywhere, and facebook idiocy has left me wishing to sever almost all ties with the rest of the human race - which happens with some frequency - and on top of it all, Mr. Kirby has gone missing.

Mr. Kirby is one of the feral cats, almost family, but not quite.

We have a female cat called Kirby who went missing on the same day that Paul Ebbs - celebrated author of children's drama serials - cracked facebook jokes about teaching cats to swim by placing them in sacks with housebricks before throwing them into a body of water. It transpired that people liking all the stuff he doesn't like on social media - specifically people posting pictures of cats - was quite literally destroying his life, so you can see why he would be angry.

I defriended Paul Ebbs and went out to look for Kirby. She was missing for nearly three weeks, and each time my wife and I went looking we thought we'd found her, but it always turned out to be a male cat with similar markings, one of the local strays. We knew he was a male cat due to his massive furry bollocks, and so we provisionally named him Mr. Kirby for the sake of something to call him. The original Kirby eventually came back.

Mr. Kirby took to lounging around in our back yard, hoovering up the food that our own cats couldn't be bothered to finish. Eventually I started buying food for the outside cats too, because if we're to live in a neighbourhood full of strays, as we do, they may as well be well-fed, relatively healthy strays. Of course, as the sage Paul Ebbs has taught us, not everyone likes cats; but thankfully most of our neighbours do, and Stephen from across the road told me how the street used to have a real problem with rats and mice, which the presence of cats seems to have sorted out. Additionally, the local feline population appears to have stabilised, with all the females having been trapped, neutered, and released by city authorities.

I feel I've got to know Mr. Kirby reasonably well. He flinches a little whenever I stroke him, but he seems otherwise glad to see me. He's an odd-looking cat with a distinctive hooting meow, and sometimes I ask him whether he's a cat or a goose - because I talk to the cats, which is probably inevitable. He's long and skinny, grey with black stripes which turn to spots when he rolls over, suggesting that - like Kirby - he has some Bengal somewhere in his ancestry. He also has certain Siamese characteristics, the slim muscular build and that meow. He's built like a lollipop - a long, thin body with a massive head - and the slant of his eyes makes it seem as though he views us with suspicion or even disdain. Sometimes when I see Mr. Kirby, the words come to me: I don't want that boy in the house again, he looks like a sheep-killing dog, which is supposedly what some person's conservative father said of the youthful William S. Burroughs.

It's been three days since I've seen Mr. Kirby. Ordinarily he's outside the back door waiting to be fed with the rest of them every morning. Cats disappear from time to time, then show up again a week later because that's what cats do, and this is particularly true of strays. Well-meaning people take them in, or they get trapped in someone's garage, or maybe they just go wandering. Sometimes it'll be a road accident, but thankfully that doesn't seem to happen so often as you might expect. Even so, Mr. Kirby seems like an old cat, so I can't help but be concerned.

He comes back on the Monday, but something is wrong with him. He's noticably thin - suggesting the aforementioned garage scenario - and he's hungry, but he isn't eating. He puts his face into the bowl of food but that's all, then moves on to the next bowl of food as I dish it up as though this helping of the exact same thing will be more to his liking. He's not eating, he's not drinking, and his muzzle and front paws are all messed up. I can't tell if it's dried blood or just dirt, like he's had to tunnel his way out from somewhere; and he coughs as though trying to sick something up, and his tongue sticks out even with his mouth closed.

Truthfully, Mr. Kirby seems prone to such injuries. Every few months he'll show up with a crippling limp looking as though he's been in a fight, but he always recovers. He's like the cat equivalent of a retired superhero, old and a bit fucked but he could still kick your ass.

This, on the other hand, is something different. He isn't drinking. He isn't cleaning himself. He sits out in the porch as the August heat climbs and climbs. I wonder if he was hit by a car and broke his jaw, or whether he has some sort of bronchial infection, or - as my wife suggests - a cold. She has known cats to catch their equivalent of a cold and to not eat or drink for days as a result. It could be that he was stung in the mouth, given that we have some genuinely terrifying wasps in Texas. My fear is that he's having problems with his teeth, and something has gone bad and has become infected.

It could be any of these or none of them, and each diagnosis seems to bring some other symptom to disprove it. For a couple of days he doesn't eat or drink so far as we can tell, although clearly he wants to, and so my wife makes plans to get him to the vet. It's not an easy choice because the vet is always expensive, and we can't save every single stray in the neighbourhood, and more than anything we're afraid that the vet will take one look at Mr. Kirby and decide that there isn't much point to keeping this sheep-killing dog of a stray cat alive.

My wife has the cat box, so I find Mr. Kirby and pick him up. I'm not convinced he's had food or water for three days, and his face seems to be swelling up on one side, yet somehow he's still stronger than most humans. I've never picked him up before, so I never realised that he was solid muscle. He doesn't want to go in the cat box, and I can't hold him. It's like I'm in a fight with some bloke in a pub car park. He runs, out the porch door and to the fence. We go after him, but he's through into Frasier's garden leaving me just one last reproachful backwards glance.

Why you do this?

The next day is so hot that water catches fire as it comes from the hose. The air is still and it burns my skin and I feel terrible. Mr. Kirby didn't show when I fed the other cats at the usual time, so it's probably the last we've seen of him. Whatever was wrong didn't seem like something which is just going to right itself, so he's probably crawled off to find somewhere to die. I look around but I can't find him, and I can't see him from over the fence. I don't bother going out today because it's far too hot. At one point I lay on the bed and experience a vision, one of those quirks of memory or thought or something where an image flashes momentarily into the mind's eye, clear as day for a fraction of a second.

I see the front room at the basement flat in Lordship Lane, the place I lived for a decade up until about 2007. It's the front room as I knew it in the early afternoon following a customarily exhausting morning at work. I'm be prone on the sofa, aching and barely able to move with the gas fire on, but the room is still so cold that I can see my breath. The winter sun is blinding through the net curtains, although it has barely risen above the roofs of the houses across the street. My entire existence is saturated with the knowledge that life is exhausting, and that I'm barely getting by, and it will only become more exhausting and more difficult as I go on. This is a horrible thing to remember right now.

In the evening I knock on Frasier's door but there's no answer, so I let myself into his back garden on humanitarian grounds. I have the cat box but I'm expecting I'll probably just find a corpse. Frasier's garden is huge, wild, and strewn with junk, and my search comes with its own soundtrack of pitbulls snarling away in the next yard along. I don't find what I'm looking for. I suppose that's a good thing in so much as that we don't know he's dead for sure.

The next day, Mr. Kirby is back.

He still looks a bit fucked, but he's alive and meowing, even though the meow is more of a croak. I dish out the food but it's business as usual. He sniffs but doesn't eat, but we're just glad he's alive, and tonight we'll get him to the vet if it kills us. Then a few minutes later my wife calls me back to the porch to tell me that he's cleaning himself. I move a provisional bowl of food under his nose and slowly he begins to eat. It isn't much, but it's something. He spends the afternoon lounging in the hot sun, and we decide to postpone the visit to the vet, weighing how difficult he is to catch against the possibility that he definitely seems a little better.

The next day, he looks clean, he's hooting away, and he eats three bowls of food seemingly without pausing for breath. I return to my original theory of Mr. Kirby being more or less indestructible. Whatever was wrong with him - bad as it was - he got over it, just like William S. Burroughs - all those years as a heroin addict and the fucker still lives into his eighties. It occurs to me that maybe Mr. Kirby is William S. Burroughs reincarnated as a cat, which would also explain the look he sometimes gives us. I don't believe in reincarnation, but I expect William S. Burroughs did, which may be the deciding factor.

A couple of days later a storm system over Louisiana sends rain our way, and it pours for days. The creeks fill and the temperature falls to a more manageable level.

Life goes on.

The moment has passed.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Telly & Poo

I'm cycling along the Tobin Trail, the stretch between Holbrook Road and the Austin Highway, and there's some bloke stood at the side of the path with a camera and a tripod. He waves me down and introduces himself as a reporter - John Salazar for Time Warner Cable News. It's just him with the camera, but he has one of those huge microphones embellished with a square collar sporting the company logo, the kind of thing you usually see thrust into the faces of murderers or politicians as we try to get to the truth of the facts.

'Do you live along the creek?' he asks me.


'But you use the trail?'

'I ride along this way every day.'

This makes him happy, and he explains that he's doing a feature on improvements the water company are supposed to be making to the sewerage system. The pipes come close to the trail in several places, and the trail follows Salado Creek. San Antonio is one of the most flood-prone cities in the United States, and the flooding usually pops one or two of the pipes every so often, mainly when the weather turns particularly Biblical and prone to dramatic subtropical storms. This means we occasionally get sewage spilling across the trail or into the creek, ominous black water smelling of toilets in Wigan. The worst I've seen affected a section of the creek which widens out into a semi-permanent lake just past Los Patios. I gather a subterranean pipe of some description burst below the lake bed, resulting in a fountain at the centre of the water. It went on for days and days, looking very much as though it were about to bloom into some aquatic horror from a Godzilla film or one of Gerry Anderson's combined spaceship-submarine jobbies.

John asks me if I've seen any evidence of similar problems with the sewer system. We're standing next to a drainage outlet full of smelly black water, and there's a sign stuck into the earth, informing us of the hazard and promising that a clean-up operation is progress.

'Just back there on Holbrook.' I point in the direction from which I've come. 'It was gushing up out of the manhole and across the road, but it wasn't that bad, I suppose. It's been worse.'

'Is it still that way?'

'It was fine just now. They've put up one of those signs.'

This doesn't seem to be the environmental disaster he's looking for. 'Have you seen it that way in other places?'

A few months back there was a big one on the other side of the Austin Highway, I suppose behind Oakwell Farms riding stable where they have all the horses. It stunk worse than I've ever smelled it, so bad that the trail became briefly impassable for about a week and the air was full of mosquitoes; but they got it sorted out in the end. I tell all this to John, adding that so far as I can tell, none of it seems to be chemical waste, which would trouble me a lot more.

John asks what I think of what SAWS are doing to deal with the problem of poo on the trail - SAWS standing for San Antonio Water System. I get a feeling he maybe wants me to say that I'm disgusted, outraged, flabbergasted, mystified, and all that good stuff; but the truth is, I don't know what they're doing beyond that I suppose they must be doing something, so I don't know whether they're doing it well or not. My understanding of San Antonio's sewer system is rudimentary at best, so I have no idea what it would take to make it work better so as to prevent further poo spillage, if that's even possible.

'I'm sure they're doing their best,' I tell him.

He asks where I'm from and how long I've been here. He seems an amiable and friendly guy. He sets up the camera for a shot which will establish my credentials as a cyclist, just in case any viewers don't know what that is, and so I ride back the way I came, then come around the corner - not looking at the camera - and off towards the Austin Highway.

Twenty-four hours later and I've been on the news. The kid has seen it at his grandmother's house so now I'm famous. The clip is on the Time Warner website, using snatches of my speech to construct a narrative, but the recording of my voice came with a certain level of background noise which cuts in and out as I deliver my lines, emphasising the editing process.

'It's not the worst that I've smelt,' I tell the viewers, implying further aromatic secrets I'm keeping to myself. The pick of the crop of my complaints are followed by footage of a SAWS official explaining what they're going to do about all the poo, then cut back to me as though I've just been told the news.

'If they are, that's good,' eventually concluding with a Pinteresque declaration that, 'sometimes it's worse than others.'

I'm introduced as a San Antonio newcomer, and I look like a fat old sack of shite on the screen. These days my face seems to consist entirely of jowls, so that's how I speak - a bubble of noises escaping like farts from big bollocky drapes of flesh swinging back and forth. This is why I don't like to see or hear myself on film, because it reminds me that I'm turning into Richard Nixon. It's not that I suffer from a dearth of self-esteem or anything, but that's mainly because I tend to avoid all evidence of my long having ceased to resemble Johnny Depp because it's not like I need reminding.

Last time anyone I knew made it onto San Antonio news it was Chun, a Chinese woman who worked with my wife. She was involved in a traffic accident so traumatic that she forgot how to speak English and was only able to converse in Chinese, which never happened, and to this day no-one has been able to work out quite how such a detail found its way into the story.

I suppose I shouldn't complain.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Generic Internet Argument

Maybe they do, or maybe they don't, so I respectfully suggest it probably depends on which bears you're talking about. Wikipedia defines woodland as low-density forest forming open habitats with plenty of sunlight and limited shade. Taking the trouble to look on Googlemaps, even a five-year old will be able to see that the nearest ecosystems conforming to Wikipedia's definition of woodland from the Chicago Bears Soldier Field football stadium are either Grant Park to the north, or the southern limits of Ping Tom Memorial Park. Both are about a mile from the stadium, so you're telling me that Jay Cutler - who is currently worth forty-million dollars - is expected to travel up to a mile from the stadium during practice or even a game in order to take a shit, because as you quite clearly imply with your rhetorical question, Jay Cutler, quarterback for the Chicago Bears defecates exclusively in woodland. Your proposition makes no provision for his bowels to be emptied in any place besides woodland, and whilst you may well find the argument upsetting or possibly trivial, I am simply restating what you have written. If you don't like that, it isn't really my problem. Maybe you should think about what you're saying before you hit submit.

An article posted on the CBS Chicago website dated December 30th, 2012 states:

After the renovation in 2003, Soldier Field definitely isn’t lacking when it comes to facilities. It has doubled the number of restrooms and ensured that each facility is compliant to ADA standards by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Every single restroom is fully equipped with baby changing stations and there are fourteen family restrooms throughout the stadium. Solder Field prides itself on being a green facility complete with recycling and energy-conservative initiatives. Restrooms at Soldier Field are equipped with state-of-the-art Dyson Airblade hand dryers which replaced the paper towel system. The result is an abundance of family-friendly restrooms that are clean and efficient for the 63,000 people who visit the stadium for a Chicago home game.

Nevertheless, when Jay Cutler needs to pinch off a loaf, rather than avail himself of any of the available restroom facilities of the stadium which - as I have demonstrated - are extensive, he simply has no option but to travel a distance of just under a mile along South Lake Shore Drive to Grant Park where he takes to the trees, drops his pants, and then produces a stool presumably in full view of anyone else who happens to be making use of the park's facilities at that time? Chicago law has this to say on the subject:

No person shall urinate or defecate on the public way, or on any outdoor public property, or on any outdoor private property.  Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b), any person who violates this section shall be fined not less than $100.00 nor more than $500.00, or shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than five days nor more than ten days or by both such fine and imprisonment.

(b) Any person who violates this section while within 800 feet of a parade route which is not open to traffic shall be fined not less than $500.00 nor more than $1,000.00 or shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than five days nor more than ten days or by both such fine and imprisonment. For purposes of this section, the term “parade” has the meaning ascribed to the term in Section 10-8-330 of this Code.

I've looked for a clause excepting Chicago Bears players but I can't seem to find one. Funny that, because you have quite clearly described their toiletry preferences to me, and those preferences are exclusively limited to outdoor facilities of low-density forest forming open habitats with plenty of sunlight and limited shade.

That's what you're saying? That's what you're telling me?

I'm writing this whilst sat at the computer with a window to my left, and through that window I have a good view of the eastern edge of Gilcrest Park which covers approximately thirty-two acres and is heavily wooded on our side. I have lived in this house and made use of the computer in this room since September, 2002, and do you know how often I've seen Jay Cutler parking up on Lafayette Highway and then vanish into the trees in order to take a shit? I have not seen that happen once, and nor have I seen any other persons playing for or otherwise representing the Chicago Bears engage in this deed which you seem to insist occurs with such frequency. Perhaps it was simply that I was looking away at the time of the defecatory action in question. I mean there are twenty-four hours in a day, and I sleep for at least six or seven, then I am at the computer for no more than ten leaving a massive eight hour window during which Jay Cutler can pop along and just curl one off as he pleases without my noticing, so obviously that must be what's happening because you say it is, and you obviously know everything.

As for the Pope's alleged Catholicism - nice straw man, but I'm not even going to touch that one.

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Award-Winning Author

I knew the award-winning author long before he was an award-winning author. We were at college together and were briefly friends. He bequeathed me a stack of issues of Doctor Who magazine and then moved away. We wrote to each other, but our correspondence was difficult to maintain for some reason.

Three decades later I encounter his first novel in a book shop. 'Fuck,' I exclaim to myself. 'I know that guy!'

We re-establish communications through social media. I've already read his novel, because it would have been rude to get back in touch without having done so. Also, I was initially worried I might not like the book, so I wanted to get that out of the way in the event of my needing to come up with elaborately diplomatic reasons to avoid direct discussion of his having become an award-winning author.

The problem is that I dislike steampunk. At my most unforgiving I would characterise steampunk literature as a conservative genre tailored to those who don't actually enjoy reading books, but who like the idea of themselves as people who read books, and who see the measure of a good book as whether it gets made into a television series or a film, or at the very least whether it can be pictured as such in one's mental cinema screen whilst reading. They are people who like to read about familiar characters having adventures, just like that Sherlock Holmes on the telly; and so steampunk literature strikes me as prioritising style over content - in my possibly limited experience. Like anything which needs to quantify the limitless expanse of its imagination, which promises anything can happen with wide sparkly eyes and the smile of Johnny Depp in yet another shitty Tim Burton film, it is repetitive and characteristically lacks range or variation from a central theme.

The above paragraph represents a view pushed to an extreme, and there are always exceptions to the rule, but my general opinion is to be found somewhere therein; excepting novels by Michael Moorcock - which are generally wonderful - and maybe a few other things, Bryan Talbot's Luther Arkwright and the like. For me, the term steampunk conjures a million self-published eBooks, generic thrills and laboured titles delineating the most fantastical and diverting escapades of two names; because it's always a hero and his sidekick, just like on the telly - Holmes & Watson, Burton & Swinburne, Newbury & Hobbes, Grace & Witherbloom, Arseworth & Tabernacle*: ripping yarns all. C'mon chaps, let's all pull on our jolly old plus-fours and fire up the difference engine, what? The stuff practically writes itself.

Words therefore seem inadequate to express the sense of relief I experience when the award-winning author's effort turns out to be decent and entirely free of the worst clichés of the genre, thus sparing me the ignominy of having to say well, it's not really my sort of thing but I can see that you put in a lot of hard work. Were more steampunk novels of such quality, I might never have formed quite such caustic opinions as those expressed above; and I decide it's not difficult to see why the award-winning author won the award which qualifies him as an award-winning author.

I've written a short series of eBooks, the award-winning author tells me, just something I can stick on Amazon to bring in a bit of money on the side, and I need you to draw the covers. How much do you generally charge?

Fifty quid, I tell him, because that's how much I generally charge. In all honesty, I don't particularly enjoy painting book covers unless I'm fairly directly invested in the novel. Most of my energy goes into writing these days, and my eyes are failing so the production of cover artwork is no longer quite such a pleasant undertaking as was once the case. Fifty quid is, by the way, one sixth of the standard charge for the sort of cover artwork I do.

The award-winning author seems disgruntled, reminding me that he is an award-winning author and that this will be good exposure for my artwork. He requires cover illustrations in the general spirit of a Victorian periodical. I supply preliminary sketches of the two characters - the hero and his sidekick who are to have adventures in this proposed series of eBooks - but the award-winning author doesn't like what I have done. After a few revisions, I give up and go back to working on some novel or other. It doesn't seem worth the trouble and I don't want us to fall out.

In any case, the award-winning author has other fish to fry, notably his website. He's having trouble with how it displays on different devices. My wife offers to help out, it being her field, but leaves him to it after a day or so. He seems to want his website to be able to perform actions which simply don't work in certain browsers, and my wife has the impression he's been getting pissy with her.

Never mind.

She doesn't want to fall out with my friend, the award-winning author either. He posts pictures of his children on facebook and they're cute.

I finish my novel, Against Nature, and it's published by Obverse Books. I send a copy of the eBook version to the award-winning author seeing as how we're both authors - even though only one of us has won awards - and we're both writing variations on science-fiction, and we're buddies from way back.

How critical do you want me to be? he asks.

I'm a little bothered by this. Some sort of feedback would be nice, but I'm not seeking career advice, even though he's an award-winning author. This is 2013, and I presume he never reads it because my novel is never mentioned again.

The award-winning author is writing something new, something which isn't steampunk, because he doesn't wish to be seen as a one-trick pony. He sends me twenty or thirty chapters of the unfinished work and asks that I criticise it as thoroughly and brutally as possible. This is difficult because there's not much wrong with it, and it is by far the best thing he has ever written. During our exchanges he tells me that anyone who does not want their work to be read by as wide an audience as possible cannot call themselves a writer. This is bullshit, so much so that it almost makes me laugh. I'm beginning to realise why we lost touch three decades before.

The greatest writer I know in person is Ted Curtis. His writing shits over the work of most authors I've read, including the award-winning ones, and his novel The Darkening Light is available through Lulu, the print-on-demand publisher by which I publish some of my own stuff. I don't know how many people have read The Darkening Light. It could be hundreds, but it could be about ten, and I don't know how much Ted really cares. Bulletpoint lists defining who is allowed to call themselves a writer therefore mean nothing to me.

In April 2016 my wife and I attend a Night in Old San Antonio, part of our city's annual Fiesta celebrations, an event in which attendees are invited to drink until they can't stand whilst stuffing their faces. I stuff my face with a particularly messy taco and my wife takes a photograph of me as I tilt my head back and feed strips of beef and chilli into my face. She posts it on facebook for a joke, because I look ridiculous and amusingly bereft of dignity. The award-winning author makes a copy of the photograph for a joke and crops it so as to focus upon my fat face tilted back to receive beef, for a joke. He is digging me in the ribs and grinning, figuratively speaking, for a joke.

Okay, I think to myself, not quite sure how I feel about this or the amount of pleasure everyone seems to derive from just how ridiculous I look. Three decades ago I recall the award-winning author as having a particularly cutting sense of humour even before he was an award-winning author. He broke the ice by taking the piss out of me, for a joke, and it was so funny that I couldn't help but appreciate the craft involved, and it seems that he has not changed in this respect.

Human dustbin, exclaims a relative I have met just once, I love it! It's a jocular punch on the arm at the end of a drunken evening, well-intentioned but somehow misjudged coming from someone I don't actually know that well; and I really dislike being referred to as a human dustbin.

The award-winning author sends messages to make sure I realise that any acerbic comments on his part conceal no malice, and that the fact of our being back in touch represents one of the great wonders of the internet. He is really glad to know me and regrets his behaviour at college. I don't actually remember his behaviour at college, whatever it was.

My wife compliments the award-winning author's children again because she responds to anything which is cute. You must bring them to the States, she suggests, so I can mollycoddle them.

My children will never set foot in the United States, the award-winning author informs her as preamble to comments on US gun laws which are why his children will never set foot in the United States.

'I was complimenting his kids,' she later tells me, upset and bewildered. 'What did I do to deserve a lecture on gun laws?'

She unfollows the award-winning author on facebook, meaning that his status messages will no longer appear in her feed.

Finally, I post a photograph of a stray kitten found in our garden. I post the photograph because the kitten is cute. The photograph shows myself holding the kitten, my face down-turned as I look at the tiny creature. It's not a great photograph of me, and I don't consider myself particularly photogenic.

The award-winning author shares this view. I so need to photoshop the cat out of the pics and a caption: The bells! The bells!, he writes, the implication being that I resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I chuckle and roll my eyes because it's true. It's not a great picture of me. I know it.

Unsure as to whether I've quite grasped the full import of his joke, the award-winning author makes a copy of the photograph, for a joke, and alters it using photoshop so that I appear to be cradling a human brain rather than a kitten, for a joke. He tags me so that when posted, the photograph appears on my facebook page with the caption Master, I have the brain!, now implying that I resemble Ygor, the lumpy servant of Victor Frankenstein in the Universal horror movies, for a joke, I suppose just in case I hadn't quite understood the initial Hunchback of Notre Dame reference, for a joke. It pisses me off a little, which is I suppose part of the joke.

The relative who described me as a human dustbin, for a joke chips in with oohh my brain hurts!!, for a joke, and I can't help notice that despite all we might hypothetically seem to have in common and all which we might discuss, he mostly responds to photographs in which I look ridiculous, for a joke.

Let he who remains photogenic past the age of fifty cast the first photoshopped stone, I comment, hoping to communicate that I don't really enjoy having comedy antlers stuck to my head whilst being set to dance upon a heated metal plate. The award-winning author points out that some of us haven't been photogenic since the age of five, which makes it okay because I'm just some grumpy cunt with no sense of humour.

Then people I've never even met, friends of the award-winning author, take to chipping in with contributions of their own. Well done, Ygor, one of them remarks, for a joke, showing us that he gets the reference by more or less just repeating the initial joke, for a joke.

I don't really enjoy people I don't know having a laugh at my expense in this way, and I am so upset that I am unable to sleep at night. It throws me out for the rest of the week.

I unfollow the award-winning author on facebook. I no longer want to think about him or his award-winning novels.

That same week I find one of them in a branch of Half-Price. It's one I haven't read, and I guess one I will probably never read. I've now read four of his, and he never even mentioned the eBook version of Against Nature I sent him back in 2013.

Fuck him.

*: Excepting Sherlock, these are mostly pairings plucked from the internet as representative of a general trend, and their being referenced in this rant should not necessarily be considered reflective of the literary merits of the works in which they feature which, for all I know, may well be fucking amazing.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Drinking Until You Can't Stand Whilst Stuffing Your Face

It is April and Fiesta has come around once again, Fiesta being the week long festival commemorating the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto back in 1836. I've now done most of the significant Fiesta events - the river parade and that weird thing in the theatre with the kids of assorted local billionaires wearing capes made out of diamonds. The only event I am still to attend is called a Night in Old San Antonio, so that's the one we're doing this year.

I like to pace myself, not being a huge fan of crowds and all.

Old San Antonio here sounds like a term of endearment but refers to the old part of San Antonio located at the heart of the city, a village's worth of narrow streets of stone houses on the bank of the San Antonio river, just a short walk from Mission San Antonio de Valero, the building historically known as the Alamo. It's not quite the sort of thing you expect to find in America, or at least it wasn't quite the sort of thing I expected to find in America because it looks too old for something built by people who weren't native; but then I'm forgetting that we used to be Mexico.

A Night in Old San Antonio is actually four nights and mostly seems to be about drinking until you can't stand whilst stuffing your face. This is probably why I've left it until last as I've never really regarded either pursuit as a justifiable end in itself, at least not to the extent which is apparently customary for the festival.

We drive into the centre of town, myself and my wife, pay much more than normal to park, and then queue for admission to a section of the city into which we would simply be able to wander at any other time of year. It's all been corralled off, the old town, turned into a fairground with the majority emphasis on drinking until you can't stand whilst stuffing your face. We queue for about fifteen minutes and then the gates open. We already have tickets so we get wristbands advertising the fact. Most of the old houses are stores and their associated workshops during the day, mostly artisan stuff, people making things for tourists, but generally quite nice things, I suppose. We don't really have any equivalent of the plastic bobby's helmet so far as I'm aware. Most of the old buildings are closed up now because it's early evening, excepting those serving as either eating or drinking places. One road is lined with small scale fairground stuff, stalls in which you throw things in order to win underwhelming prizes, but otherwise it's food and booze.

We enter a Germanic tent, acknowledging the significant Texan presence of settlers from old Deutschland. There is an oompah band, and men in lederhosen and frauleins drinking from biersteins until they can't stand whilst stuffing their faces with bratwurst and schnitzel and all of that good stuff. We have something to eat and sit for a short while, pacing ourselves - basically saving room for tacos.

We rejoin the crowds and shuffle along the narrow streets, eventually finding ourselves in a sort of Gaelic appendix, a few stone steps off the main track leading down to the river where three verdantly attired persons play Irish music, one of them banging a spoon against a bodhran. Everyone wears green and clover-based imagery is in abundance. They're drinking the Guiness, in all in all in all, until they can't stand whilst stuffing their faces with potatoes, so they are. I'm beginning to feel uncomfortable because I know actual Irish people and I feel like I've stumbled into the equivalent of the Black and White Minstrel Show.

We're quite near some Irish-themed pub. I can't remember what the place is called but it's surely only a little way further along the riverwalk. There's a menu outside from which my wife and myself read out the names of self-consciously Irish sounding drinks to each other until the prospect of a refreshing pint of Black & Tan stunned me into silence. I knew the term only as the nickname of the notoriously brutal Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve, which is probably through my having had grandparents of vaguely Northern Irish heritage. I never realised that the Black & Tan was also an unrelated drink, so it initially struck me as kind of stupid and tasteless, like something with which you would wash down that delicious Sinn Féin pizza with a side of H-Block fries; and a top o' the mornin' to you too, pardner.

Having had our fill of the Emerald Isle, we visit one of the few shops which is still open. The place is run by Marisol Deluna, a friend of my wife. Marisol designs textiles, makes clothes, and is apparently quite a big deal in her field. I can see why, because the clothes and the fabrics look classy even to me; but the woman herself is in New York right now so we don't get to see her.

We wander further, and I have a drink to pass the time, which isn't so enjoyable as it should be. Drinking at events such as this tends to be more enjoyable if you're already drunk, in my experience. We watch people drinking until they can't stand whilst stuffing their faces. We have some tacos filled with beef cooked right there before us on massive grills big enough to accommodate several humans should the need arise, although thankfully it doesn't. The air is full of smoke, which is not unusual for San Antonio, and there is a live band playing in a sort of courtyard. They're very energetic, but unfortunately they're playing hits from Grease, Beatles numbers and that sort of thing. The crowd seem to like it, and I suppose the band are good at what they do.

The taco is stuffed with peppers and onions and I have to tip my head backwards to form a chute in order to eat it, which isn't very dignified but I don't suppose it matters. Three little girls are performing Call Me Maybe by Katy Perry at a karaoke booth on the corner of the street lined with all the fairground attractions. We watch them for a minute mainly because they're obviously having serious fun singing the song, and will remember this moment for a long time to come; and it's better than watching persons even older and fatter than I am singing You're the One That I Want. Then Bess throws a few foam balls at wooden boards in which holes have been cut, failing to win any of the prizes on offer; and we go home because we've already covered the ground twice and feel we've had all the fun there is to be had.

A couple of mornings later we watch the Pooch Parade, a less formal Fiesta event held in the suburbs. Everyone with a dog comes along and walks a set route for a couple of hours, and about half of the dogs are dressed as Batman, or Barack Obama, or some other public figure. This is the fourth Pooch Parade we've attended in the same number of years, and it's always fun. My personal favourite is the sausage dog who usuallys comes as the Red Baron in a scarf and occasionally with flying goggles, pulled along in a cart customised so as to resemble a blood red German triplane of the 1920s; but for some reason he's not here this year.

Maybe next time.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Country Club

It will be the kid's thirteenth birthday on Monday, by which point he will be away for a week at some sort of subaquatic summer camp, so he's celebrating now, it being the weekend. We've picked up his friend Tommy, and the two of them will spend the day doing kid stuff, eating pizza, and frequently addressing each other as either dude or bro'. The kid stuff is mostly beyond me, it bearing no resemblance to anything I would have done at that age. It involves iPads, memes, and YouTube celebrities - which are people who post amateur videos of themselves talking about Pokémon cards online. I don't really understand this generation, but it's probably no different to my parents' generation failing to understand mine.

Andrea expressed some concern about the present which Tommy gave our boy for his birthday, hoping it didn't seem too weird or lacking in thought. The present is a stick, one so large you might justifiably refer to it as a staff. Tommy found it on the land at the back of his house, stripped away all the bark, then sanded and treated it with oil; and it will no doubt come in handy should Junior ever encounter a surly giant whilst crossing a mediaeval brook.

We said not to worry. At Christmas the boy asked for a fly swatter and a broom. He asked for a broom presumably because I'd stopped him taking our broom into his room with him on the grounds of it being a broom rather than a toy. I wouldn't have minded had he been using it to sweep some of the crap from his floor, but it was serving as an armature by which to idly hit and swipe at remote objects whilst playing games on his iPad, or possibly just watching complete strangers discuss Pokémon cards. This hitting or rhythmically tapping at things seems to be one of his tics. I put my foot down with the broom when he somehow managed to smash the frosted glass shade of the ceiling light in his room.

'How did it happen?' I asked with near infinite patience.

'I have no clue,' he dutifully reported with typical excess of gravity, apparently having missed the point of that whole story about George Washington and the cherry tree.

I suppose the positive thing to take from all this is that the virtual world of iPads and games and YouTube has left him in a much less fraught relationship with material possessions than most kids of my own generation. I suppose it's a good thing. I have a suspicion that it actually isn't, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

Anyway, it's five in the afternoon, so the Texas heat has slackened off a little and we're taking them swimming. Tommy has a tiny hand-held waterproof camera the size of an asthma inhaler and he is making a short film.

'We're going to the pool,' he announces to his audience from the rear seat of our car.

'We're going to the Country Club,' Junior corrects him, quite unnecessarily seeing as the pool is located at the Country Club and that's why we're going there.

Byron - the boy's father - is a member of the Country Club, and so we are granted access by association. Country Clubs seem to be a relatively common thing over here, generally places in which Americans at the upper end of the economic scale hang out, swim in the pool, play golf, get drunk at the bar, smoke cigars and talk about money. I suspect you probably have to know the right people in order to be nominated for membership, specifically a better class of person - as I've overheard at least one overfinanced plastic surgery addict put it. Accordingly it's mostly us white folks, and I can't quite shake the feeling that any moment I will be rumbled as a Communist and escorted from the premises.

Bess and I find seats in the shade, and the boys dive into the pool. We've signed some book or other, so we have a right to be here, and a waiter asks if we require drinks. We say no, because it will all go on Byron's tab, which somehow doesn't seem entirely fair. Neither of us wish to appear like freeloaders.

We watch the boys and eavesdrop on the conversation of San Antonio's elite, the people from an area unofficially known as the bubble in reference to how little interaction they have with the rest of reality. They talk about money, trucks, and the prestige of certain schools. The funny thing is that these people really do consider themselves an upper echelon, a better class of person; but being from England I have encountered yer actual upper classes, and this bunch are really just regular assholes with far too much money and values based on never having to ask or to apologise for anything. The other funny thing is that they just love me as soon as they hear the accent, presuming we'll have things in common because I grew up in Downton Abbey, and the bubble is really the same kind of deal but with Mexican gardeners. I've also had people asking me if I make my own fish and chips, as though it's some sort of ancestral tradition like the Māoris with their tattoos. So I tend to keep my mouth closed because it's less exhausting.

The boys take it in turns to dive from the diving board, alternating with some other kids, one of whom embellishes each leap with spectacularly ornate somersaults. Our team sticks to diving, swimming, then out of the pool and onto the board again, over and over; until Tommy breaks the pattern to hand Bess his camera.

'Do you think it's okay?'

She casts a dubious look at the tiny slot in which one inserts the SIM card - or whatever that thing is. The cover is open and the camera won't turn off no matter how often the button is depressed. Also it feels quite hot in the hand.

'They're supposed to be waterproof, aren't they?' I ask.


'Why is it so hot?'

I imagine a battery shorting, overheating, leading to an explosion which removes the Country Club from the map of San Antonio, but logically I know this can't happen. If the thing is waterproof, then it really should be fine.

'Leave it with me,' Bess suggests, and the diving resumes. 'Andrea will go crazy if this thing is broken.'

'How much was it?'

'I don't know - couple of hundred dollars?'

We sigh, because there's nothing to be done. The boys switch to table football at the side of the pool, and we listen to and identify a succession of hits of the eighties - Madonna, the Eurythmics, Haircut 100, and others. They're all English records too, which strikes me as particularly weird, and I wonder if this generation will grow up hating these artists as much as I hated Herman's Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers. We briefly discuss what cult religion Madonna is currently subscribed to, because we can't remember.

Another half hour passes and we go to Florio's for pizza, and the boys spend the rest of the evening doing kid stuff, eating the aforementioned pizza, and frequently addressing each other as either dude or bro'.

The camera turns out to be fine, and Tommy uploads a minute long edited clip of himself and Junior swimming to YouTube.

We're going to the Country Club, our boy announces, and my wife shudders at how privileged he sounds. The words slide out of his mouth as though setting some drooling serf right about the correct order in which cutlery is to be laid out on a table - not even superior, just delivering a correction from a position of implicit authority.

I shrug, because that's how he always sounds to me. I guess I've just got used to it, and it's not really his fault.